Agarwood in Japanese is called Jin-koh, meaning “sinking incense” or “sinking fragrance”. It was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, about 1,500 years ago, in the 6th Century, through the Korean peninsula. At first, it was used primarily as part of religious ceremonies, and gradually become a symbol of status and was incorporated into the rituals and ceremonies of the Imperial court around the Nara period (710-794 AD), and continued that way until the Meiji Restoration (1868), when such rituals have ceased. Most of the jin-koh consumption in Japan today is in fact for religious purposes rather than for the koh-doh ceremonies.
The first recorded history of jin-koh is in 595 AD in the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan):
“…aloeswood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji (near Kobe). It was six feet in circumference. The people of the island, being unacquainted with aloeswood, used it with other firewood to burn for cooking; the smoky vapour spread its perfume far and wide. In wonderment, they presented it to the Empress”.
In Buddhism practices, jin-koh was the best offering that can be made by burning it as incense. Incense was used for purification of the prayer space, and while studying the Buddhist sutras. This is not surprising, considering the effect of agarwood in increasing concentration and awareness. It is also used in powdered mixtures of spices and woods as a body incense, in order to purify the hands and body before entering a holy place. Jin-koh today is burnt as incense, on its own or blended with other fragrant woods, spices and resins as incense sticks. The Japanese incense makers usually blend agarwood with sandalwood, spikenard, patchouli, cloves, camphor, benzoin, cassia and galagal. Jin-koh incense is used in temples as well as in home altars for the ancestors and during funerals and by grave sites when commemorating and honouring the dead.
Like in Arabia, the Japanese also used incense to scent their clothing, a practice called soratakimono. This custom emerged around the beginning of the second millennium, and has developed into a game among nobelty, to guess the differences between different materials comprising the incense. Around the 1300’s, this practice led to the burning of individual incense raw materials rather than the blended incense (as was imported from China), which was the beginning of koh-doh.
Jin-koh has become a status of symbol in feudal Japan, when only the wealthy nobles and the warriors could possess it. At first, only men of the imperial and noble families and warriors burnt agarwood and practiced koh-doh. This art of burning incense was enjoyed together with other Japanese high arts such as Ikebana (flower arrangement), Chadoh (tea ceremonies), poetry, calligraphy and Noh drama. Incense burning rituals were referred to as koh o kiku or mon-koh (“listening to incense). It wasn’t until the Edo period that women were allowed into the world of incense. The art of Koh-doh was passed only verbally from koh-doh maters to accomplished students, a tradition that is maintained until now (with the exception of some books that were written recently).
Grading of Agarwood in Japan
Japanese classify agarwood in a system that is called go-mi rikkoku, meaning “six countries, five flavours”.
The five flavours were:
1) Sweet (resembling the smell of honey or concentrated sugar), 2) Sour (resembling the smell of plums or other acidic foods)
3) Hot (resembling the smell of red pepper when put in a fire)
4) Salty (resembling the smell of a towel after wiping perspiration from the brow, or the lingering smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried over a fire)
5) Bitter (resembles the smell of herbal medicine when it is mixed or boiled) (Morita, 1992).
(Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan).
The classifications vary between Koh-doh schools. The following is a classical classification that originated in the 16th century by Koh-doh masters that were appointed by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa:
A name originating from the Sanskrit kara, meaning “black”. The highest quality variety of agarwood and possessing all five component flavours (as listed below), kyara is prized for its noble and elegant scent – like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness. Sourced from Viet Nam.
A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood and possessing bitter, salty and hot flavours – reminiscent of a warrior. Sourced from Thailand.
With a great variety of scents and rich in resin ingredients and possessing mostly sweet flavours – coarse and unrefined, like a peasant. Believed to be sourced from the east (Malabar) coast of India, and perhaps from Indo-Malaysia.
Among the scented woods, this type has a rather shallow scent and is not strongly related to any of the five flavours – light and changeable like a woman’s feelings. Sourced from Malacca (Malaysia).
A quiet scent with a light and faint flavour, with good quality sasora mistaken for kyara, especially when it first begins to burn – reminiscent of a monk. Believed to be sourced from western India, but this is uncertain.
Rich in resin ingredients and sour at the beginning and end, sometimes easily mistaken for kyara – reminiscent of something distasteful and ill-bred, like a servant in his master’s clothing. Sourced in Sumatra (Indonesia). [Source: Kaori no Techo (Scent Handbook) (Shoyeido Corporation, 1991); Morita (1992)]
Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan.
Types of Incense in Japan
Japanese incense comes in several forms:
1) Jin-koh for Koh-doh, which is the raw infected wood, cut into very small pieces, the size of a mosquito-leg. Incense prepared that way is traditionally named by the Koh-doh master preparing them, and kept safe by individual storage in labeled and folded envelopes. These envelopes are a sort of a family heirloom that is passed from generation to generation, some of which are part of the imperial treasure house.
2) Shoh-koh is chipped agarwood mixed with other materials, usually 5, 7 or 10 in total, including sandalwood, cloves, ginger and ambergris. Shoh-koh is burnt on charcoal inside temples.
3) Naru-koh is incense balls, which are blended from as many as 20 different raw materials, ground into fine powder, bound together by honey or plums, rolled into balls and than placed in clay pots and buried underground to age and improve, usually for about 3 years.
4) Sen-koh are incense sticks in various thickness depending on how long they are designed to burn. Some sen-koh contain jin-koh,, and the proportion of it in the formula, as well as the grade used affect the price of Japanese incense sticks. These sticks are burnt for pleasure as well as in home altars and rituals to commemorate the ancestors who passed away.
5) Ensui-koh – incense cones, which are less popular than the sticks, and are essentially the same but made into a different shape.
6) Nioi-bukuro – sachets, which are placed in drawers to scent clothes and stationary, or tucked into kimono sleeves.