The Giant Panda Happy Train is empty, save for one elderly gent who looks like he’s been riding on it for 100 years. “Can we get to Sakai City on this?” He nods. A clutch of three-year-old boys bounce on board, the driver appears out of nowhere and off we go, everyone grinning like idiots.
The tracks cut through backstreets, almost through gardens, then jump on to the street, before diving into the hidden backyards once more, a hidden line that weaves through Osaka’s outer limits. It’s strangely reminiscent of the train in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
We bid it a sad farewell at Sakai City and sniff the air. It seems aromatic. The closer we get to a smart modern building, the more intense the scent becomes. We enter. Now the scent is all-pervading. Giant pieces of dark, twisted wood lie on the floor. “Welcome to Baieido,” says a man, proffering his business card, which declares him to be Nobuhiro Nakata, president of this, Japan’s oldest incense house.
Why incense? We live in a sensory world. Our lives are fragranced and given meaning by the efforts of a collection of olfactory experts: our tea and coffee, our perfume, our cigars, our whiskies and our incense. When we discuss whisky we enter this world, therefore it seems logical to explore the similarities in approach, language and philosophy between the different aromatic disciplines. Looking at incense also gave me an opportunity to try and tease out one of the mysteries of mizunara whose aroma has been described as being “like a temple” or more specifically as being like an incense-permeated temple buildings. Where better to go than an incense expert, and where better than Baieido – after all, Nakata-san’s family has been making it on this spot since 1657.
Incense is inextricably bound up with our cultural history. Man has been burning aromatic woods (the root of ‘perfume’ is Latin per fumum ‘through smoke’) for millennia, for ritualistic or religious reasons, for meditation, for healing, for pleasure.
As far as Japan is concerned, the use of incense starts with the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century (AD538), while its special aroma first scented the air a few decades later when a trunk of jinko was washed ashore on the island of Awaji in AD595. Thinking it no more than driftwood the locals began to burn it and were amazed by the scented smoke it produced. According to the story they promptly sent the precious trunk to the empress.
Soon Japan’s incense was based on a blend of jinko, sandalwood, clove, cinnamon, camphor plus many other ingredients. Each Buddhist sect, however, had its own variation of this blend, Baieido’s Kaiunkoh blend is marketed (in the west) as being for Zen meditation.
By the Heian period, as witnessed in Tale of Genji, incense had left the temples and spread into the wider, everyday world: used for scenting clothes (something which is still practised in Arabic countries) and perfuming houses, though its high point came at the start of the Edo period when, like tea, its appreciation was elevated to an art form with the creation of the Ko-do ceremony, a blind tasting (or in incense’s case ‘listening’) of different types.
The firm which was to become Baieido was already trading by this point. It was in the Muromachi period that Kakuuemon Yamatoya, a trader in medicinal herbs expanded into the production of incense. “In those days, Sakai was a major port and on the main transport route,” Nakata-san explains. “This was where the ingredients for incense arrived in Japan. As a result most of the country’s incense houses sprang up here.” By 1657 Yamatoya was calling himself Jinkoya (jinko-trader) Sakubei. 16 generations later, the firm (whose name changed in the Meiji era), is still located on the same spot.
The factory is close by, two blocks away from the main road, the only giveaway to its presence an overpowering, head-spinning muskiness. As we enter, a slow, heavy thudding seems to be coming from a cupboard. Nakata-san opens it. Inside, a thick metal pole is steadily pulverising pieces of bark in a pit. He switches it off and rubs the fragmenting wood between his finger. “This is jinko,” he says. “It will take up to three days for this to be powdered.” He looks, anticipating the next question. “Yes, it is old-fashioned. You can get machines which can do it more quickly, but you lose the aroma.” Taking the speedier option makes little sense when, as he explains, kyara, the highest grade of jinko costs 20,000 a gramme. “This is the core of the traditional aroma,” he says.
“This, along with sandalwood, is what gives that ‘temple smell’ you mentioned. In the old days, this would be the same price as gold, now it is getting harder to find and it’s six times more expensive.”
The factory itself is a highly-scented mix between a noodle house, a whisky lab and a cigar factory. The powdered ingredients are all held in large, chunky wooden boxes: patchouli, clove, spikenard, cinnamon, camphor, sandalwood and jinko. “We use about 20 different ingredients,” says Nakata-san, “but each style and grade will have its own blend. If you want a stronger aroma then more clove might be added, more woody/resinous notes involve more jinko and of course the grade of jinko will also give different aromas.” There’s clearly no chance of him giving away anything more specific. The air seems filled with a penetrating, clean sinus-clearing aroma. “That’s Borneo camphor,” Nakata-san says. “It’s one of the aromas which defines Baieido.”
The language he uses to describe incense is both different to yet has eyebrow-raising similarities to whisky. Nakata-san talks of incense being sweet like honey; sour like unripe plums; hot, like spices; salty, like salt-water-soaked seaweed on a fire; and bitter, like a herbal medicine.
The blend made, the powders are filtered and then mixed with water in a large vat where it is mashed into a paste. The paste is then fed through what looks a like a noodle-making machine, extruded onto a conveyor belt and, looking like a length of brown corduroy, cut into lengths. The size of the gauge on the noodle machine determines how thick the joss-stick will be. The length is also important as in this world, length equals time. It is claimed that a Chinese explorer in the 15th century worked out the passing of time on board his ship by burning joss sticks. A small stick will last for half an hour “the length of meditation,” as Nakata says. “Temples will get ones which can last for four hours.”
The trays of still moist joss-sticks are then carried upstairs to the attic where they are dried. “It’s all temperature-controlled,” he says. “We just open or shut the window! We can also spray if necessary.” In three or four days the sticks are dried, ready to be packed.
The cigar factory similarities continue in the sorting room where nimble-fingered staff pick up, weigh (incense is sold by the gramme), sort, band and pack the joss-sticks. Then, the boxes are left for up to six months to mature and stabilise. The similarities with whisky are startling: different aromas assessed by nose, blended into a consistent, individual product whose use dictates its aroma, that’s then aged and married.
It’s a forgotten, fascinating world, this dim, small-roomed squeeze of a place in the back streets where the scented dust of ages covers every surface. It’s in the back streets of our minds as well, the scents of fragranced woods and resins tap into a shared subconscious. Maybe incense making is the first of the high olfactory arts, that it was with this that man began to understand not just the practicalities of blending but the aesthetics as well.
Its use has changed. “Business these days is 70 per cent private and only 30 per cent from temples,” Nakata-san says. “We still make traditional incense, but it is a smell of the past, we have to innovate,” he says, smiling but somewhat wistful. “The young these days want smokeless incense, they want light aromas: coffee, or green tea and not their grandmother’s house.”
Again, can I see a similarity with whisky, or is today’s malt whisky drinker moving in another direction, towards something more akin to their grandmothers’ houses? We bid Nakata-san farewell and with clothes and bodies perfumed head back to wait for the Happy Panda Train.
The fungus-affected wood of Aquilaria allagochea (and other species of aquilaria) is one of the most highly prized scents of all and central to the aroma of traditional Japanese incense. Described by perfume scientist Roman Kaiser as “the wood of the gods and... the mother of all scents” it has been used by many civilisations for more than 3,000 years. It is mentioned in the Song of Solomon; as “oudh” is both perfume and scenting agent for clothing in Arabic countries; is a base note in many perfumes (try Tom Ford’s Oud Wood as a starter) as well as being the aroma which Japanese distillers says is one of the main aromatics of mizunara. A piece of jinko known as ‘Ranjatai’ was presented by Emperor Komyo to the Todaiji temple in Nara in 756 AD. It is displayed in public every 10 or 15 years.
The aroma is caused by a fungus which attacks the heartwood of mature aquilaria. The tree’s immune response is to produce a dark resin and it is this, rather than the wood, which is used in incense. Because jinko is so highly prized and there is no outward sign of infection, trees have tended to be indiscriminately felled. Today they are protected and a fungus-seeding programme is underway in Vietnam and Bhutan.
The Japanese divide jinko into six grades: Kyara is the top and is described as being gentle and dignified with touch of bitterness; Rakoku is sharp and pungent akin to sandalwood; Manaka: is balanced and attractive but has a fleeting aroma; Manaban is sweet but is considered to lack refinement; Sumotara: has sour notes at the start and finish and while balanced is thought to be a little coarser than kyara. Finally, Sasora is cool and sour.
All grades however are in possession of a complex, haunting, sense-invading aroma. “The most minute sliver ... will release a pervasive, mysterious, wonderful scent, bringing to mind the perfumes of all imaginable precious woods, balsams and resins as well as those of amber (fragrant resin), musk and castoreum,” Kaiser writes. Jinko’s complexities, which also include a creamy vanilla undertone, a floral character and tobacco are, Kaiser argues, seen at their best when burned when the floral, sweet balsamic notes at the start slowly deepen into amber, woods before ending with an animalic note of castoreum. It’s this last note which might give a clue as to jinko’s link to mizunara. Castoreum is best described as having dried fruit and leather notes and shares chemical links with oak-matured red wines... and whisky.
Incense houses can draw on a huge range of ingredients. The following are the most commonly used. We’ve given an idea of the aromatic properties of the less well-known as well as their source.
Benzoaine (dusty, warm, sweet and resinous with a chocolate note) SE Asia
Camphor (clean, spicy and medicinal) Indonesia
Frankincense (spicy, balsamic, coniferous, resinous) Ethiopia, Middle East
Myrrh (spicy, delicate, aromatic) Middle East
Sandarac (sweet, turpentine) Northwest Africa
Storax (floral, balsamic) Asia, Iran
Cedar China, North America, North Africa
Jinko (see below) SE Asia
Patchouli (intense, sweet, woody/spicy, herbaceous, hippies) China, Indonesia, India
Cassia China, SE Asia
Clove East Africa, Indonesia
Nutmeg Indonesia, Caribbean
Star Anise China, Japan
Calamus (earthy, heavy, similar to patchouli) Widespread
Galbanum (green, balsamic, piney) Iran
Spikenard (earthy, animalic, heady) Himalayas, Japan
Ambergris (musky, balsamic, sensual, rich, marine)
Labdanum (woody, smoky, leathery, animalic) Mediterranean
Mussel shell (used as fixative) Sea of Japan
Roman Kaiser, Meaningful Scents around the World, Wiley, 2006
Kiyoko Morita, The Book of Incense, Kondasha International, 1992
David Pybus, Kodo, The Way of Incense, Tuttle, 2001