Agarwood is a fragrant, resin-dense wood which is formed when Aquilaria trees become infected with the Phialophora parasitica mold for extended periods of time. The resin is formed by the trees in an attempt to protect itself from the fungus. The result is a fragrant, musky scent which can have a wide array of fragrance notes, such as forest wood, earth, bitter, salty, dark fruits, cocoa, vanilla, or mint, depending upon the environment the tree grew in. Agarwood is a very popular fragrance throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, and is often used in the production of incense and perfume.
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The Beginning of Incense in Japan
According to the classical Japanese history book, the Nihon Shoki, agarwood was first discovered in Japan when a large specimen washed upon the shores of the Awaji island during the Asuka Period (about 595 AD). The people that found it noticed that the wood produced a strong and pleasant aroma when placed near a campfire. It goes on to say that the wood was eventually brought to the Japanese royalty of the time – Prince Shotoku and Empress Suiko. The book states that the prince knew about burning incense due to observing Buddhism practices in nearby regions.
Whether or not the legend is true could definitely be argued, but soon after, a practice developed in Japan known as sonaekō. In this ritual, fragrant wood, herbs, and other plant materials were burned for religious purposes. From here, the use of incense blossomed and became an important part of court life during the Heian period, where nobles often used agarwood to scent their clothing and other textiles.
The Tale of Genji
In the 11th century, The Tale of Genji, a classic piece of Japanese literature was written.
The book takes you on a journey through the eyes of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor.
The story discusses Genji’s romantic life and aspects of Japanese society during the time period.
Notably, the book also involves an incense game, where the players try to match the scent of five incense samples, without being told what they were, to the plant material, in a sort of guessing game. Each combination had a corresponding symbol, referred to as a genji-mon, which represented a chapter from the book. These games also led to many more incense games being created and played. It was also used as inspiration to to tell stories. Travelers could bring back agarwood, or other fragrant plants, and use the scent to help describe their journeys.
Kodo Incense Practice
In the 14th century, Samurai began to use incense to calm their minds and bodies before battle. This birthed a newfound appreciation of incense, changing the way incense was viewed by society, and giving it new meaning and significance.
Soon after, the practice of kodo (Way of Fragrance) developed, where one uses a small mica plate on top of charcoal to gently heat agarwood, or other aromatic materials, and ultimately release more of the precious fragrance.
Kodo, along with Chado (tea ceremony) and Kado (flower arrangement) later became collectively known as the Three Japanese arts of Refinement.
Around this time, the use of incense also began being adopted more by townsfolk, rather then primarily being an indulgence for the rich and powerful.
The Ten Virtues of Koh
The Ten Virtues of Koh were later developed, providing a written testament to the importance of incense in Japanese history and culture. These virtues are still cited and discussed by scholars in modern times.
感格鬼神 : Sharpens the senses
清浄心身 : Purifies the body and the spirit
能払汚穢 : Eliminates pollutants
能覚睡眠 : Awakens the spirit
静中成友 : Heals loneliness
塵裏愉閑 : Calms in turbulent times
多而不厭 : Is not unpleasant, even in abundance
募而知足 : Even in small amounts is sufficient
久蔵不朽 : Does not break down after a very long time
常用無障 : A common use is not harmful
The State of Agarwood Today
Unfortunately, due to over-harvesting and since resin-dense wild agarwood takes many years and the right conditions to develop, it is no longer as widely available as it once was, and the cost for quality material can be astronomical. Wild Aquilaria trees are now considered a ‘vulnerable species’ and are protected by CITES regulations. However, there are still quite a few Japanese incense sticks on the market which contain wild agarwood.
The market’s answer to this dilemma was to build cultivated agarwood plantations, and inoculate the trees with Phialophora parasitica fungus artificially. Sadly, this process doesn’t seem to produce the same quality of material provided by it’s wild counterpart.