Awaji, the Birthplace of Incense

29.12.2019

WordsSolenn Cordroc'h

Located in the inland sea of Seto, the island of Awaji is the birthplace of the tradition of incense and continues today to preserve this ancestral art.

The heart of Japanese fragrance, Awaji is the leading producer of Japanese incense, dominating over 70% of the market. The island is the historical home of scent for good reason, thanks to its local climate and westerly winds, making for optimal drying conditions for the precious resin. Scented wood was discovered there in the 6th century. At the start of the reign of the Empress Suiko in 595, a small piece of jimi agar wood washed up on one of its beaches. When consumed, the wood revealed its intoxicating scent piquing the interest of local inhabitants. They decided to offer the wood to the empress as a gift. Since then, a small Shinto shrine dedicated to the fragrant wood has been nestled on a hill on the island and once a year, in July, Awaji residents celebrate the incense during a ritual.

Entitled kodo, the incense ritual is both refined and codified, and aims to elevate the spirit, in order to achieve spiritual serenity thanks to the scent of burning incense. Also used for its purifying qualities, incense is an integral part of Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies. Samurais also used incense to perfume their armour and to summon courage and invincibility in combat.

Since the development of the production of incense on the island in 1850, Koh Shi, meaning literally those who master fragrance, have become the inheritors of the legend of Awaji incense and continue to develop age-old artisanal practices. These incense masters are able to perfectly execute every step of the production process, adding scent and decorating, honouring historical practice. Achieving the title of Koh Shi is subject to a number of rules and regulations, meaning that each object has to be entirely created on the island of Awaji, guaranteeing the highest quality standards.

The company HAKO, founded in 1893 is the perfect example. Its incense paper burns evenly and gives off a subtle aroma, lasting up to three months. Elegant and modern, these sheets of paper smelling of lemon, agar wood, and cinnamon are handmade one by one by the master Kunjundo and his team of loyal Koh Shi, who are ensuring the tradition never dies out on Awaji.