A few years ago, I was one of only eight Westerners to belong to a traditional Japanese incense school, the only one ever in the United States. We studied under a Shingon Buddhist monk named Daijo. We learned ancient Japanese languages, the history of incense, especially as used by the Buddhists, ancient Japanese incense games, and how to actually make the fine incense based from a secret book of recipes.
The kind of incense we are talking about here is not the stuff that you find at Wicks and Sticks. The “incense” you find there and at other stores here in the United States, is not really incense at all. It’s really just some sawdust on a stick that is soaked in essential oils and attached to the stick with a glue that is very hazardous to breathe when it’s burned. Look for black smoke. Pure incense releases white smoke.
The workers in the factories that make the fake incense have to wear protective suits. The incense that we burned is of very high quality, natural, and rare. A baseball-sized chunk of Kyara, for example, sells for about $35,000. That’s about $125.00 a stick. And it’s worth every penny. You’d agree if you smelled it.
The Japanese take their incense very seriously. A chunk of it has been in the royal family for thousands of years. Kyara takes hundreds of years to produce and is probably one of the rarest of all incenses. First, a certain type of tree has to become infected with a fungus after it dies. Then, after several hundred years, it is ready to be burned as incense. These trees have been controlled by a couple of Japanese families for thousands of years.
Alas. Internal bickering between the leaders of the group caused us to disband after a couple of years. But it still remains one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.
Our sense of smell is one of our earliest senses. It originates in the most primitive parts of our brains, the limbic brain. Because of this, we use scents to celebrate some of our most important holidays. According to the Healthy Planet Magazine:
” Some of the earliest recorded spices were Cinnamon and Cassia, a close cousin to Cinnamon. At the time of some of the earliest records, it is thought hardened gums and resins like Bdellium, Balsam, Myrrh and Frankincense were burned for their pleasant fragrance. Unpleasant odors were thought to be evil, while clean, beautiful scents were associated with purity and goodness.”
Like in ancient Japan, rare incenses and spices were as much a part of life in Europe in the 11th and 12 centuries as it was in Japan. The scents were used in religious ceremonies, to ward off evil spirits, cure and prevent disease, and keep insects away.
You don’t really have to spend a lot of money on incense like we did in the Ryu. Bulk spices from any good spice shop make excellent incense. And if you want sticks, many good ones can be found on the Internet. Just make sure they don’t come ON a wood stick.
So fill your home with the smell of spices and fine incense this season as well as the rest of the year. Remember, your scent memory stores some 10,000 scents, so make sure to keep a variety on hand to suit your mood. The spices, herbs, and incense all have healing qualities as well.