“Gyokushodo” incense store advertising postcard, Shitaya, Tokyo, c. 1920.

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“Gyokushodo” incense store advertising postcard, Shitaya, Tokyo, c. 1920. Gyokushodo dates its founding to 1804 in Osaka. The company has been influential in the blending and production of Japanese incense for over 200 years.

“It is almost ubiquitous – this perfume of incense. It makes one element of the faint but complex and never-to-be-forgotten odor of the Far East.

“It haunts the dwelling-house not less than the temple, the home of the peasant not less than the yashiki of the prince. Shinto shrines, indeed, are free from it; incense being an abomination to the elder gods. But wherever Buddhism lives there is incense.

“In every house containing a Buddhist shrine or Buddhist tablets, incense is burned at certain times; and in even the rudest country solitudes you will find incense smouldering before wayside images – little stone figures of Fudō, Jizō, or Kwannon.

“… [T]he odor of which I speak is that of cheap incense only, the incense in general use.

“There are many other kinds of incense, and the range of quality is amazing. A bundle of common incense-rods (they are about as thick as an ordinary pencil-lead, and somewhat longer) can be bought for a few sen; while a bundle of better quality, presenting to inexperienced eyes only some difference in color, may cost several yen, and be cheap at the price.

“Still costlier sorts of incense, veritable luxuries, take the form of lozenges, wafers, pastilles; and a small envelope of such material may be worth four or five pounds-sterling. But the commercial and industrial questions relating to Japanese incense represent the least interesting part of a remarkably curious subject … I am afraid even to think of the size of the volume that would be needed to cover it.

“Such a work would properly begin with some brief account of the earliest knowledge and use of aromatics in Japan . It would next treat of the records and legends of the first introduction of Buddhist incense from Korea, when King Shōmyō of Kudara, in 551 A. D., sent to the island-empire a collection of sutras, an image of the Buddha, and one complete set of furniture for a temple.

“Then something would have to be said about those classifications of incense which were made during the tenth century, in the periods of Engi and of Tenryaku, and about the report of the ancient state-councillor, Kimitaka-Sangi, who visited China in the latter part of the thirteenth century, and transmitted to the Emperor Yōmei the wisdom of the Chinese concerning incense.

“Then mention should be made of the ancient incenses still preserved in various Japanese temples, and of the famous fragments of ranjatai (publicly exhibited at Nara in the tenth year of Meiji) which furnished supplies to the three great captains, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Iyeyasu.

“After this should follow an outline of the history of mixed incenses made in Japan, with notes on the classifications devised by the luxurious Takauji, and on the nomenclature established later by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who collected one hundred and thirty varieties of incense, and invented for the more precious of them names recognized even to this day: ‘Blossom-Showering’, ‘Smoke of Fuji’ , ‘Flower-of-the-Pure-Law’.”

In Ghostly Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn, 1899

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