incense shapes
CULTURE Travel in Kyoto

The Secret of Japanese Incense – A Visit to SHOYEIDO

December 21, 2018

Let me how my unique experience with Japanese incense has started:

This week I had a very unique experience I wanted to share with you. One of my best friends in Kyoto is working in an incense company and until now she has invited me to come to a guided tour so many times. After seeing her in an event in Sakyo-ku (Sakyo-ku is the “hippier” part of Kyoto, where both of us live), I realized that it had been two and a half years and I still hadn’t visited the incense factory! So I booked a tour with her for the following week.

My partner and I went at our scheduled time to meet her in the factory’s shop, and she led us up the stairs to the factory on the second floor to start the tour. Before I tell you all about the factory, let me give you the brief historical background about incense in Japan we learned during the tour.

the entrance to Shoyeido Kyoto

A little bit of history

Incense was introduced to Japan around the 6th century along with other imports from mainland China. Buddhist monks were using incense in its various forms for purification and sometimes even as a timer for the prayers (that is, the length of an incense stick would determine the length of a prayer).

It was only in the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD) that the Ashikaga shogunate adopted the practice of using incense for leisure, transforming it from an exclusive religious element to the fragrance of the Japanese elite. First, it was used in order to perfume the tearoom, where the tea ceremony (that had developed at that time) was held. Only the noblemen could use incense, since it was extremely expensive. Although ingredients were, like today, imported from all kinds of places, it was not as common to light incense in the past because of how expensive it was.

Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa

Incense Ceremony - O-Koh

Along with the tea ceremony, one more ceremony that had developed at that time was O-koh. Similar to the tea ceremony, in O-koh the host and guests were seated in a tearoom to appreciate the smell of heated agarwood. Agarwood is a natural material made out of aged-resinous wood from forests in Indonesia and Vietnam. The process in which the agarwood is created takes many years of natural transformation from a resinous wood bulk to the final agarwood form. Even today, researchers don’t really know exactly how it forms. It can’t be manufactured artificially, so it’s a very precious material. The current price of agarwood is $500 per gram, which makes it more expensive than gold! No wonder there was a sign that said “no pictures” on the display window for the agarwood we saw on our tour. Agarwood’s leftovers are a common ingredient in Japanese incense, and small blocks of agarwood are also used in some ceremonies in Japan, like marriages and funerals.

Today, incense has many uses in Japan: for temples, ceremonies, as an offering for spirits, or just to make a certain atmosphere: some ryokan light incense in the front yard in order to welcome costumers in. Incense has various smells, and in Japan, the color implies the smell. For example, blue is a more “fresh” kind of smell, whereas red and orange imply “warmer” smells. Funny enough, incense aren’t colored if they are designated for export, since costumers from overseas usually prefer their natural color—interesting, right?

The tour in Shoyeido - a Japanese incense factory

While visiting the factory, we were exposed to different kinds of incense in various shapes, which all have different uses. My friend was very enthusiastic in how she explained to us about the machinery, the workers’ roles, and the different stages through which the incense is manufactured. The company Shoyeido Incense Co. has been operated by the same family for about 300 years (!), and the recipes are top secret and have been passed down from father to son for 12 generations (!!!). If you wish to work as one of their employees making incense, make sure you have two years free in your schedule for the training required before you start working regularly. The employees also make their own tools from bamboo, as done for hundreds of years.

incense in a factory Japan

The incense comes in many forms: powder, cone, little balls, and the familiar stick. If you’ve been to India or have bought incense sticks in India and thought that the Indian incense and the Japanese incense are different, you got it right! Although the materials are pretty much the same, the recipes are different. But it’s not only that: Indian incense usually has a core (a wooden stick) that is usually used to hold the incense on its stand. Japanese incense doesn’t have this wooden core, and the whole stick is made out of fragrance materials, so it’s a little less smoky.

More interesting stuff

After visiting the factory, we were lead downstairs by my friend, where she had shown us a very cool exhibit of some miniatures of from the incense-making-process in the Edo period (1603-1868), as well as an exhibit of the various smells of the incense’s different ingredients. Most of the ingredients come from China and India, although some are imported from the Arabian Peninsula and even Mozambique! A very common material used in both Japanese and non-Japanese incense is sandal wood, which is more available and cheaper than agarwood.

Japanese miniatures
incense ingredients

Little treats for ourselves

And how could we possibly end our tour without feeling like we were part of the incense world? Of course, what I mean is that we also purchased some souvenirs for ourselves 🙂

I was fascinated by an English book called “The Book of Incense” by Kiyoko Morita. I didn’t get the chance to read it yet, but I promise to let you know my impressions as soon as I get to it. One more thing we got is a sachet filled with incense ingredients. You could have the simple one wrapped in paper or the nicer one wrapped in a Japanese fabric bag. It could be used to scent your closet, bag, or kimono sleeve. There are various smells, so you can choose your favorite.

It was one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in Japan so far. If you’re looking for a unique cultural experience in Japan, I highly recommend you go there. The shop and factory in Shoyeido are located not so far from Nijo casle, near the Karasuma-Nijo intersection in an area well-known for Chinese medicine shops (as the ingredients in incense are quite similar to those in Chinese medicine). By the way, apart from Kyoto, there are also Shoyeido shops in Tokyo, Osaka, and Hokkaido. If you are interested in a complimentary tour of the Kyoto factory and want to see the production process, please make sure to make a reservation in advance. If you just want to enjoy the exhibits, you don’t need a reservation.

To Shoyeido Incense CO. official website.

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  • Reply
    February 2, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    That’s such an intetesting article, thank you for sharing! Going to a workshop to learn about Japanese incense in Kyoto soon, your article was a great introduction to know more in English before focusing on difficult subjects in Japanese 😁

    • Reply
      March 21, 2019 at 7:27 pm

      So happy you enjoyed it!
      If you get the chance to read – the book is really recommended (:

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