Olfactory Rescue Service is delighted to bring to you an interview with Anna Pach, who works at Kikuya Seishindo/Kohgen in Japan. The questions in this interview come from myself and several of our readers who left questions in a previous thread. As time goes by, we at ORS have been noticing that the Japanese incense market has been opening up to the west and we figured there could not be a better time to learn more directly from the source. – Mike
Hello Anna, could you introduce yourself to us? (Where you work and what your position is.)
Hello ORS Readers! First of all I would like to thank each one of you for the questions and to Mike who gave us the opportunity to make this interview. I think he had a great idea on building a bridge between Japan and the West to spread knowledge about Japanese incense to all incense lovers! The questions have been answered with the consultation of Mr. Masahiko Kikuya – the owner of Kikuya Seishindo (Kohgen) company.
My name is Anna. I was born in Poland, in the middle of Europe. I got interested in Japanese culture and language when I was a teenager. Since that time I was dreaming about studying Japanese at university and hoped to go to Japan one day. I managed to make my dreams come true and entered Japanese Studies at Jagiellonian University – one of the oldest universities in the world. Then I traveled to Japan several times. During my studies I also practiced Japanese Way of Tea (Urasenke school) for five years. I wanted to find a job close to the traditional Japanese culture, so I was looking for an internship in Japan. I found the Kikuya Seishindo company, which runs Kohgen, a Japanese store which specializes mainly in Japanese incense, but also provides traditional Japanese prayer beads (ojuzu), Kodo (“Way of Incense”) utensils, incense ingredients, hand made Japanese candles, fragrant bags, bath essence and other fragrant goods. The name “Kohgen” (香源) literary means Source of Incense, but I think that the translation Source of Fragrance reflects better the variety of our products available.
Our English site for individual Customers is called Kohgen World (http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/).
How did you come to get a job selling incense in Japan given where you’re from? How many languages do you speak?
After I finished my half-year internship at Kohgen, I received a job offer. I was still a student at that time, so I had to return to Poland to graduate. After that I went back to Japan this year and became a full time worker here at Kohgen. Today I work as a translator and international marketing manager. My mother tongue is Polish, but I speak English and Japanese as well. During my education I also studied French, German and Chinese, but I`m not speaking them on a daily basis, so I cannot say I`m fluent. I just know some basics 🙂
What is a typical day at the job like?
Each day at Kohgen is different and filled with different fragrance! I learn a lot everyday, as we have over 5,000 products! Of course there is also a day schedule, which contains morning meetings, cleaning of our workspaces, one-hour breaks, business meetings etc. Every day I`m answering e-mails, serving our international customers, preparing goods for shipment and of course translating product descriptions and data about the incenses, designing graphics and web-pages, managing our Facebook and Instagram profiles.
What are the challenges like for you in terms of communicating with customers all over the world in different languages?
As you said, our customers are spread all over the world, and I communicate with them mainly in English (sometimes in Japanese, if they speak in Japanese to me, if for example they have Japanese roots). I`m aware that sometimes communicating in English is hard for people whose mother tongue is different, especially when I`m not a native speaker too. Knowing that I try to adjust my words to be easy to understand even by people who are not very fluent in English. Of course, people all over the world have different accents, so sometimes it`s hard to understand well and fast on the phone, but I`m doing my best to provide the best service. Another thing are time zones, but this is another topic.
Does your company just market incense or does it also have its own line of incenses?
Kohgen provides incense of almost all Japanese makers for both individual customers and for wholesale orders. We are not an incense maker, but we have our own original Kohgen line of incense which was created by our owner.
Recently the most popular ones are:
・ Original Kohgen Incense Classical Agarwood (you can find it on our Kohgen World English site here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1559618)
・ Kohgen Incense Sticks, Sumi (Ink) (available here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1559616)
What are the requirements for hiring a Japanese incense maker? Is there a name for the job?
A person who is responsible for creating fragrance and compounding the incense ingredients is called in Japanese chogo-shi or chokoh-shi, which may be translated simply as a perfumer, or to elaborate more: a master of compounding aromatic materials.
A person who is producing incense in terms of creating its shape is called an incense making craftsman.
The requirements for hiring a Japanese incense maker differ depending on a company, so the best way to know them in detail is to contact a particular incense maker.
Are there precedents for non-Japanese incense makers or is the work strictly kept to nationals? Do Westerners ever get hired as incense makers in Japan?
I think that there are no precedents for non-Japanese to work as an incense maker, but to work in Japan you have to clear many documents and procedures, so it`s not easy to get such job. Incense making recipes are the secrets of the companies, so they are not revealed.
But if you study a lot and do many trial and errors you can learn how to make a good incense. I have never heard about Western person who is working as an incense maker in Japan.
What do you think the dominant trend is in Japanese incense? Do you see Japanese incense evolving for the time or do you see it adhering more to tradition?
In general, half of the Japanese incense market is Less Smoke Type incense and the second half is ordinary smoke type. At Kohgen stores in Japan, over 90% of incense sold are those which have a clear fragrance or produce smoke. Over 70% incense sold are traditional fragrances.
There are family Buddhist altars at homes in Japan, so incenses are burned regularly. People who lives in Japanese apartments prefer using Less Smoke Type incense, so as not to disturb the neighbors – I think this is a popular trend. Except for that, a lot of people are burning incense as a hobby, so those are trying all kinds and types. Another one is to enjoy the fragrances which refer to the ongoing season.
There are also Less Smoke Type incenses, but with strong, deep and fragrance despite their low smoke – this is also one of the trends in Japan.
Are incense makers given free reign or are they presented with certain parameters (price point, type of incense, use of specific ingredients, etc.) that they are required to follow?
Incense makers can create them freely, which means it’s up to them regarding the parameters you provided. Raw materials used by Japanese incense makers are approved by IFRA (International Fragrance Association), so they are also checked in terms of safety.
What have been the challenges for Japanese incense makers breaking into the international markets? How long have you been selling to American and other customers?
The biggest challenge for Japanese incense makers is language. There are a lot of people who like Japanese incense abroad, but the makers need to make a great effort to introduce their incense to the international market.
In Japan, incense is used to relax, to help focus or for meditation, but of course it can also be used the same way abroad. To export the incense, the suppliers need to deal with many obstacles like, for example, shipping fees.
Kohgen sells worldwide and has provided English support since 2014.
In regard to the North American market, does the company have plans to change its product range, marketing, and customer education? How has the company changed from its experiences selling over here?
We would like to introduce Japanese incense as it is to all people around the world, so we do not change the products range. Regarding marketing and customer education, we are making the product descriptions in English more detailed to introduce and explain various aspects of Japanese culture. For example, there are a lot of traditional Japanese patterns on incense burners. One of them is called sho-chiku-bai (松竹梅). When a Japanese person sees the Japanese characters, he/she knows immediately that the pattern is a combination of pine, bamboo and plum. Not everyone abroad knows that, so I believe that additional explanations are relevant.
Another example is, that when we are adding samples to the parcels, international customers who cannot read Japanese would not be able to know the incense name, brand and fragrance just by looking on the package. Because of that we decided to number the samples packages and attach a sample list, which has incense brands, names and fragrances written according to the numbers on the samples we send. Thanks to that our customers can easily find the incense they received as a sample from us.
To sum up, we are adjusting our services to answer our international customers needs and to make Japanese incense more understandable and approachable for them.
What are some of your best selling incenses in Japan? In the US?
In general, the best selling incense series in Japan is Seiun and Mainichi Koh (Everyday Incense) which are available at many department stores or supermarkets. Kohgen is the incense specialist shop where you can find a wide variety of incense and find your personal, favorite one.
The best selling incense series at Kohgen stores in Japan are: Gyokushodo brand Kojurin series, Kunjudo brand Karin series, Baieido brand Kobunboku series, Nippon Kodo Kyara Taikan series.
In the US the most popular series are: Shoyeido Horikawa and Kinkaku series, Kyukyodo Six Kinds of Fragrant Woods (Rokushu Takimono), Nippon Kodo from Mainichi-koh up to Kyara Taikan series. Kneaded incense (nerikoh) from Shoyeido and Kyukyodo are also popular.
Are modern incenses more popular now?
Modern incenses are popular, but traditional fragrances are popular as well. Incense arrived in Japan about 1500 years ago and has been used since, so traditional fragrances are still popular today.
What is the general price range of good-quality (NOT high-quality agarwood) Japanese incense?
The average price of good-quality incense is 5000 JPY (approx. $49.62) for an economic bulk pack (approx. 400 sticks).
Is all nice japanese incense either sandalwood or agarwood, or are there other types of scents that are considered really nice?
Sandalwood and Agarwood are the fundamental incense ingredients, but there are also another raw aromatic materials. They are used to supplement and reinforce the fragrance. Through mixing the ingredients in different proportions many various blends and fragrances can be created. Incense ingredients used 1500 years ago are still used to this day.
There is a very interesting incense called Wakaba (Daihatsu is the maker). This is the incense which is available on Japanese market for a very long time. It was created from Rozan Sandalwood from Mysore and French perfumes to make an impression of Young Leaves – this is how you can translate this incense name. The incense was very popular among previous generation of Japanese people, so it is a very nostalgic fragrance for today’s generation. I think that this nostalgic for Japanese incense may be a very nice discover for people abroad.
What else is out there that is very different from the traditional agarwood and sandalwood based incenses?
There are a lot of fragrances very different from traditional agarwood- and sandalwood-based incense. For example various flowers scents, perfumed scents or even drink fragrances (like coffee, green tea, black tea etc.). New fragrances are moving along with the times and people’s needs.
What are your personal favorite incenses? What would be your favorite incenses if you had unlimited money?
High price does not mean the best incense. Of course, for example the incenses made by Nippon Kodo worth about 2 thousands USD are great without fail, but each maker has its highest quality incense and all of them are wonderful. There are many great ones like Kyara Enju (Seijudo maker), Kyara Kokoh (Baieido maker), En no Sho (Gyokushodo maker).
Whether incense is good or bad depends on the ingredients quality, blending technique, but the most important is ones personal taste. The same way we like some dishes and foods us the same way we like fragrances. We may even come across our favorite incense by complete accident and fell in love with it. Because of that I would like to encourage you to try as many as possible and find your own favorite one.
Can you recommend a few good books on the history of incense in Japan?
In Japanese there are many books, but if you are learning Japanese and looking for something good, then I can recommend the book called 『よく分かるお香とお線香の教科書』(“Easy to understand Japanese Incense Handbook”). It is great for two reasons: one is that it was written by top famous Japanese incense companies and second, it is in a form of dialogue, so it is easy to read and understand.
If you don`t know Japanese, then I would recommend “The Book of Incense” written by Kiyoko Morita with the cooperation of Shoyeido. It is complex, easy to understand and written by Japanese of profound knowledge about Japanese incense and its history.
Both titles include information on the history of incense in Japan.
What five incenses could you recommend to a newcomer?
It is extremely hard to recommend only five as you cannot try many fragrances within this number. Instead of that I would like to introduce you the way to find your favorite fragrance by trying many incense without wasting your money and time:
Try Kohgen Original Trial Kit – it contains 20 different incenses, 2 sticks per each. There are 10 Japanese style and 10 European style fragrances. English explanations are included in the kit, thanks to which you can easily understand the incenses names and brands.
You can find Kohgen Original Trial Kit here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1628476
After you know to some extend which fragrances you like, then try the trial size packages and assortment packages of your favorites brands.
When you know your best choices, then you can use economical bulk packs. If you want you can also change the fragrance and start over.
Can you comment on the future of agarwood content and quality, and how are old companies dealing with formula changes and demands?
Throughout the years people learned more about agarwood. It is possible to cultivate it now to some extent, although it takes time to get a high quality wood. The more time passes the better quality it becomes, that is why it’s very expensive and it needs to be saved. There is still an issue with Kyara, the highest quality agarwood, of which it is not yet known how to cultivate. Incense makers are keeping those precious ingredients stored and use them with a great care and consideration. They are adjusting the ingredients compounding according to current times and customers’ needs by producing new incense or stopping to produce some items.
Are there similar issues with sandalwood or other ingredients?
Sandalwood is crucial for incense making, so it is also secured and used with a great care. There are similar issues with other very rare incense ingredients which cannot be easily obtained.
How is Japan adapting to international laws protecting endangered species and how has that changed the incense market?
International laws prohibit the export of raw Agarwood outside Japan, but incense sticks including Agarwood as an ingredient can be shipped. I think this is the way how Japan has adapted to the international laws and this is the factor which changes the market.
Any last words?
Incense has been used in Japan from long ago, but it is not yet widely spread abroad. Kohgen would like to introduce the goodness of Japanese incense for as many people as possible and also spread the knowledge about them. Our company motto is: “To spread the culture of Japanese incense to all people and to the future.” We would like to put it through and reach as many incense lovers and future fans as possible.
Thank you very much for reading this interview and your interest in Japanese incense! I hope that you had a chance to learn something new. If you are interested and would like to stay updated, feel free to join us on:
・Facebook (Kikuya Seishindo) https://www.facebook.com/KikuyaSeishindo/
・Instagram (kohgen_world) https://www.instagram.com/kohgen_world/
You can also visit our English site here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/