Incense 101

What is Incense?

The word ‘incense’ derives from the Latin verb ‘incendere’, which means ‘to burn’. Incense can come in many forms, but is simply any plant matter that’s burned for its aromatic and/or spiritual properties. The history of incense traces way back, and has long been connected to spiritual and religious traditions all around the world. In Japan, incense holds a rich and ongoing history that puts its incense culture in its own special place. 

Incense Culture: Japan

Legend has it that incense was found in Japan by way of a piece of driftwood that swept into the shores of Awaji Island during the Asuka Period (around 595 AD). It eventually ended up in the hands of Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku, who instantly familiarized its scent with an incense used in a Buddhist ritual he’d observed in the mainland. Almost immediately after, a route was established to bring a flow of incense into Japan, from China. By the 14th century, the use of incense became common throughout the upper and middle classes. And also, the Samurai class. It became a tradition for samurai to prepare for battle by performing a ceremony involving incense, called kodo. 

The use of Japanese incense spans over centuries and is a part of various subcultures throughout the country. While it maintains these deep roots, they’re more accessible and used now than ever for reasons outside the spiritual and ritualistic.

What Makes Up Incense

The formula for making incense isn’t as complex as one might think. All you need is a base, binder, aromatic, and water. 

  • Base: The key to choosing the right incense for you, is to choose the appropriate base material. Wood powder is the most common type of base material for ensuring smooth, even burning of incense. Sandalwood is perhaps the most traditional base, but pine, fir, cedar, and many other types of fragrant wood can be used. Some people even like to use wood and additional tree foliage. We recommend avoiding incense that is made with synthetic fragrances.

    • The most common Japanese wood bases are: Sandalwood, Koboku, Aloeswood, Kyara, Japanese Cypress, and Tabunoki. You can learn more about these bases in Kikoh’s guide to fragrant wood.

  • Binder: The binder is a form of glue that holds the incense in the desired shape. There are two types of binders: gum and wood binders. Note that gum binders are much more powerful than wood binders!

  • Aromatic: The role of the base and binder is to work together to heat and release the scent of the aromatics. So the ingredient you choose to use for the aromatics is what you actually want to smell. All manner of herbs, resins, and woods have wonderful aromatic properties. For example, a traditional incense we love is one that has sandalwood as a base, and aromatics like frankincense. 

  • Water: Lastly, water — or any liquid that contains mostly water (tea, coffee, juice will do) will be needed to activate your binder. 

Forms of Incense

Most incense is used to burn, and is very practical to use. They come in the following forms:

  • Stick: As the most common type of incense, this stick form burns evenly and thus spreads the fragrance out mildly and consistently.

  • Cone: The Cone form burns faster, and so is most useful for burning intensely in a shorter amount of time. This is commonly used for bigger rooms shared with others. 

  • Coil: Burning for approx. 2 hours, the coil incense is the preferred form for larger spaces, for a longer time.

Benefits of Incense

The use of incense all around the world through generation after generation may be due to tradition, but also due to its benefits. It can increase calm and focus, help with stress and anxiety, aid with sleep (depending on the scent you select), and more. Alternatively, it’s great for setting an atmosphere for yourself, and for others who are in your space. 

Stay Careful

  1. Since burning anything is always a fire hazard, never leave the incense unattended.

  2. Always use the appropriate incense burner/holder with your incense to avoid the risk of fire. You should also be using a ceramic dish or plate to catch the ash produced.

  3. Be mindful of placement. This means your incense should be kept away from children, pets, anywhere where a breeze might blow anything into it, etc.

  4. This may be obvious, but remember that the incense fragrance isn’t the smoke itself. The smoke is a byproduct of the incense that’s never healthy to inhale.

Mogutable x Japanese Incense

Mogutable currently carries three Japanese incense brands: Nippon Kodo, Hibi, and Kousaido. 

More than half of our incense collection comes from Nippon Kodo. The brand’s dedication to producing quality incense goes back 400 years ago back to Juemon Takai, better known as Koju, a skilled artisan who supplied coveted aromas to the Emperor of Japan and his Court. Now, Nippon Kodo’s commitment to superior quality is reflected in their products enjoyed by many around the world. 

Hibi brings pockets of peace with its 10 minute incense sticks, making way for brief but delightful aromatherapy sessions — whenever and wherever you need it. You can learn more about the brand in our blog post

Kousaido is the latest brand to join our incense collection. Based in Karasuma-dori, Kyoto, Japan, Kousaido was created in 1994 with the intention of bringing a bit of peace and healing to the business of people’s lives in busy modern societies. They specialize in floral and contemporary fragrances, only using natural and organic materials. 

We hope that you can enjoy these incense sticks as much as we do.