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Incense Through Time

by Mara Fisher

In 1705, Rokubei Moritsune Hata opened the first Shoyeido store in Kyoto, Japan. Twelve generations later, the Hata family continues to create an amazing array of fragrances under the company Shoyeido.

With the introduction of Shoyeido incense to Shaina Mote we explore the history of incense and its role in daily life.
Shaina Mote — Incense Through Time

Incense is comprised of aromatic plant materials burned and used for sensory pleasure, and in therapy, meditation and ceremony.

<i>Incense Box with Design of Pine, Bamboo, and Cherry Blossom</i>, Japan, 19th century




Over 1,400 years ago, a large piece of fragrant driftwood washed ashore on the tiny Japanese island of Awaji. Realizing the uniqueness of the marvelous fragrance emanating from the wood, island locals presented it as a gift to the Empress Suiko. With this gift of precious agarwood began a new era in Japan of refinement of — and appreciation for — the enjoyment of fragrance.

<i>Incense Burner</i>, Coptic, 4th–7th century





Coming from the Latin word meaning "to burn," some of the earliest instances of incense use were by the ancient Egyptians, who burned combustible bouquets to drive away malevolent spirits and appease the gods. The materials used by the Egyptians also held a pragmatic use of freshening a space or obscuring malodorous scents.

<i>Ko-awase-dogu-dana cabinet for incense guessing game</i>, Japan, 18th-19th century



In 2000 BCE the use of incense appeared in China for religious use, with the earliest materials being composed of cassia, cinnamon, styrax and sandalwood.

<i>Fragmentary offering list with mention of unguents and incense</i>, Egypt ca. 2051–2030 B.C.





Incense was brought to Japan in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist monks, who used the aromas in their purification rites. Soon Koh (high quality Japanese incense) found many uses in daily life - from telling time, to a popular Edo-era game of guessing scents, to the simple pasttime of Mon-koh or "listening" to incense. The use of incense and the art of its manufacture was highly specialized in Imperial Japan, with master craftsmen or Kōju working within the Ten Virtues of Ko:

1. Sharpens the senses
2. Purifies the body and the spirit
3. Eliminates pollutants
4. Awakens the spirit
5. Heals loneliness
6. Calms in turbulent times
7. Is not unpleasant, even in abundance
8. Even in small amounts is sufficient
9. Does not break down after a very long time
10. A common use is not harmful

<i>Terracotta lekythos in the form of a flying Eros with incense burner</i>, Greece, 2nd half of the 4th century B.C.







Material evidence of the particular fragrances used in centuries past has led modern researchers to explore the olfactory environments created by people in early civilizations. Using reconstructive archaeology, archaeologists, historians and classicists gathered for a conference in 2017 at the British School at Rome, specifically to study and attempt to recreate the ephemeral smellscapes of the past.

<i>Cup used for holding incense</i>, Italy, Late 16th century


The study of aromatic practices throughout history serves as a lens through which to view the ways that these past lives created sensory interventions with the world around them, accompanying art, architecture and music.


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