A Whiff of Japan

During my recent visit to Japan I had the good fortune to visit Yamada Matsu in Kyoto, and Tenkundo in Kamakura. At Yamada Matsu Ms. Yuka Kawahara, who speaks English, assembled a beautiful, traditional Kodo cup and generously burned a few different pieces of green kyara for my enjoyment and education. I had expected all of the green kyara pieces to smell the same but there was a lot of variation. In general, what seemed to distinguish green kyara to my untrained nose was that each piece contained a full spectrum of scents that ranged from bitter to sweet (although some amplified one end of the spectrum more than the other). The most interesting piece, because it was the most unexpected, was very acidic- it had a sharp, fizzy and very penetrating smell. All of the green kyara pieces were stronger than the subsequent yellow and white pieces that Ms. Kawahara kindly burned. The white and yellow kyara projected less and smelled somewhat thinner and less complex.

I wish I had more time to pay attention to the many beautiful and interesting pieces of agarwood displayed in Yamada Matsu’s glass cases, as well as the handsome incense burners and sandalwood carvings, and the huge variety of sticks and chips that were available to purchase. I was so transfixed by the uplifting, luminous, sublime and soothing scent of burning kyara that I didn’t realize how quickly time was passing and I had to rush away to a previously scheduled appointment.

At Tenkundo, which I located by following the scent of incense that enticingly drifts into the narrow street, the owner, Mr. Suda, escorted me upstairs to an elegant room that was the epitome of the refined Japanese aesthetic. He generously burned pieces of green, purple and black kyara for me to sample. I felt very relaxed and calm during the session, although I was disturbed to hear Mr. Suda’s confirmation that kyara and agarwood are becoming increasingly scarce. Tenkundo is an offshoot of Nippon Kodo, which has a very strong presence in the Chinese market. Mr. Suda brought out a carefully wrapped piece of agarwood that amazed me- it was longer and thicker than a man’s forearm! A Chinese buyer had just purchased it, for carving, for a very hefty sum. At the end of my visit Mr. Suda showed me a small lacquer container inlaid with mother of pearl that is used to store pieces of agarwood for use during the tea ceremony. If only the exchange rate had been more favorable…

Before I left for Japan I had written to a number of incense stores asking if kyara was available to purchase. Most of my queries were not answered, and the couple of stores that did reply, using Google Translate, said they were out of stock. I would strongly suggest to anyone who plans to visit Japan on an incense quest that, if possible, they engage the help of a translator. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but my inability to speak Japanese prevented me from taking full advantage of the wealth of knowledge I’m sure my hosts would have gladly shared.

Incense sticks are burned in huge burners at some of the temple entrances. It is traditional to light individual sticks or bundles of incense, which are sold along with good luck charms and fortunes at small stalls at the temple entrance, and to place them in the ash-filled burner, after which smoke is waved towards one’s body and/or rubbed into one’s clothes for purification and health purposes. Most of the sticks smelled like a combination of sandalwood and agarwood; at some of the temples the scent was woodier, at others sweeter and at others it had a spicier, more herbal scent. The scent of incense added to the feeling of calmness and tranquility that pervaded the atmosphere regardless of how many worshipers and visitors were present.

Coiled incense (I recognized boxes of Shoyeido’s Tenpyo) was sold at a couple of the temples and very large pieces of agarwood were on display and for sale at Kinokoku-ji, the Golden Pavilion (or maybe that was at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, where there are 2 rooms that were used as incense chambers). Most of the temples sell incense that has the name of the temple printed on the packaging but the temple does not make it.

There are many small stores that specialize in incense and many offer incense appreciation classes on a regular schedule, although I don’t know if any classes are conducted in English. Both Shoyeido and Baiedo offer factory tours, by appointment. Kyukyudo had a large selection of sticks and fragrant woods, however, once again my inability to speak Japanese made it extremely difficult to get information and make purchases.

I wasn’t able to visit as many incense shops as I would have liked, however Ms. Kawahara and Mr. Suda were extremely kind and generous, and experiencing the entrancing scent of kyara with such gracious hosts are experiences I will always treasure.


  1. chamekke said,

    December 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I’m very late to this but wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your post.

    I visited Kyoto back in 2009 and really wanted to have a ‘kodo experience’, so before I went, I contacted Shoyeido who kindly set up an informal kodo-cup demonstration for me and several of my friends who were also in the city. It was a wonderful experience and IIRC they didn’t even charge anything. Mind you, I think we made it worth their while by buying lots of things in the shop afterwards.

    Incidentally I also made an impromptu visit to Yamada Matsu, but unfortunately there were no English-speaking staff on hand and my Japanese was too rudimentary for me to communicate properly. The two clerks in the shop were so agitated about our mutual lack of comprehension that finally I exited the shop out of sheer sympathy. Wish I’d known about Kawahara-san!

    And lastly, I also visited Kyukyodo in Teramachi… easily the most visually appealing of the shops, since it was the oldest! The incense section was amazing, as was their selection of kodo utensils. One shopkeeper proffered a kodo cup containing sandalwood, which was lovely as of course the Shoyeido demo had exclusively featured aloeswood.

    It would be fantastic to go back and explore the world of incense more deeply… but I think I’ll have to master more Japanese first 😉

    • Marian said,

      January 1, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Thank you, chamekke, and I appreciate your taking the time to share your experiences. I hope that you will have other opportunities to visit Kyoto, and that they will be even more rewarding than your first visit!
      Not a day goes by when I don’t think about returning there. There was so much beauty in that country. To have been able to appreciate even the little that I did was an enthralling joy and a privilege. If I am fortunate to be able to travel there again I will hire a translator, even if only for a few days. I missed out on so much!
      I just finished a book- The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, that isn’t about incense but that you might enjoy. Although the story takes place in Malaysia it captures something about the Japanese spirit, or at least I think it does. Perhaps I am mistaken but that was my experience reading it. The language is graceful and the story is spell-binding. I just thought I”d mention it 🙂

  2. John Lytton said,

    July 1, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful trip. I live in Tokyo, and I would be happy to support anyone interested in temple or incense activities here or in Kamakura (Kyoto is not impossible, but expensive). I am not a professional translator, so don’t get your hopes too high! 🙂

    • Marian said,

      July 2, 2012 at 7:29 am

      That’s a very kind offer, John. If I return, and I very much hope I shall, I will definitely contact you. Thank you!
      Have you ever been to a Kodo class? If you have any experiences you’d like to share I would enjoy reading about them.

      • John Lytton said,

        July 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm

        One time I went to a Kodo ‘experience’ maybe is the word I would use. I think they have it once a month at the Shoyeido shop in Aoyama. For ¥1500, you get lots of explanation (in Japanese) and demonstration of the Kodo charcoal-fired heater, with one chip each of sandalwood, agarwood and kyara. So, essentially what you got for free! But it was worth it–the shop is beautiful, and I got to handle some large pieces of agarwood. I accompanied an elderly Japanese woman who knew of such things only indirectly; she was thrilled by the experience. (It was not Kodo in the sense of trying to guess type or origin or anything like that.) By the way, my offer applies to anyone–I think Marian should be able to forward your e-mail address to me, right? Or figure out some other way to get in touch!

        • Marian said,

          July 3, 2012 at 5:36 am

          That must have been fun, John, and how nice for the woman you accompanied 🙂

          I believe that at some shops, such as Yamada Matsu, they have different kinds of workshops that include how to prepare a Kodo cup, participating in Kodo games, and how to make stick, kneaded incense, and incense sachets. As you mentioned, the prices are quite reasonable. Since you have given your approval I would be very happy to forward your email address to anyone who requests it.

          By the way, there is a pleasant incense called “Aoyama” by Astier de Villatte. The notes are listed as patchouli, gaiac, vetiver and cloves, is supposed to evoke the “smell of Aoyama neighborhood” and is made on Awaji Island in Japan.

  3. June 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Love the photos, especially the gentlman with the real wood saws, none of those high dollar antiques for that guy 😮 )
    As usual your writting captures the experience in such a way that one is taken right into the scene, thanks Marian.

    • Marian said,

      June 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      Thanks, Ross 🙂
      I wonder how often he has occasion to use his tools 🙂 I’m pretty sure classes are held in that room on the weekends so the tools might get a pretty frequent workout!

  4. June 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you Marion, Kyoto is such a scented experience, what a good narrative of your trip.

    • Marian said,

      June 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      You’re welcome, Katlyn.
      And thank YOU for your many hypnotic, natural incense blends. Each mix is so unique- they are truly works of olfactory art. I very much look forward to experiencing your future creations.

  5. Lars said,

    June 22, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thank you for your wonderful description of your vacation.
    You always write so romantically.
    Must have been amazing smelling real Kyara in Japan.

    • Marian said,

      June 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      Thank you, Lars.
      You’re right- smelling kyara in Japan was an incredible experience. To have been able to participate in such a revered and ancient tradition was both awesome and humbling.

  6. Epidoc said,

    June 22, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Beautiful pictures, Marian! Thanks for sharing.

    • Marian said,

      June 22, 2012 at 9:20 am

      You’re very welcome, Epidoc, but I assure you that the actual sites are many, many times more wondrous than the photos. I hope every person who loves beauty will have the opportunity to travel there.

  7. AMAR420 said,

    June 22, 2012 at 7:41 am

    This was a very nice read Marian. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip!

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