Here at Zusetsu we are offering ready furoshiki gift-wrapped boxes of scented candles as a limited edition present for Mother’s Day! Our fragrant candles are hand-poured in the Cotswolds, and the scents are delicious! It made us think about the deep connection to fragrance in our beloved city of Kyoto, and in this blog we'd like to share what we've discovered!
A Culture of Incense
Heian-era writers describe a culture of incense that flourished in the city of Kyoto over a thousand years ago. Court nobles perfected the skills to create their own individual fragrances with which to scent their robes. Fragrance-blending skills were regarded as highly as the ability to write brilliant poetry in beautiful calligraphic brushwork. A refinement of taste was key to an individual's status, romantic prospects, and their career advancement within the Heian court.
A robe draped over a Heian standing frame with an incense burner inside.
A standing frame was used for perfuming clothes with the beautiful fragrances. The frame was placed over an incense burner, and robes were draped over the frame so that they could absorb the scent.
In fact, there is an old store in Kyoto called Kyukyodo that continues to make incense according to the same recipes that were used by those Heian nobles all those years ago.
The Way of Kodo
There are three classical arts in Japan: tea ceremony (sado), flower arranging (kado), and the incense ceremony known as kodo.
The incense ceremony usually involves playing a game (kumiko), where the host challenges guests to discover the incense that is being burned. Small chips of aromatic wood are placed on a mica plate on top of a small mound of pressed ash within a censer. The gentle heat from a small piece of charcoal within the burner creates the correct temperature to vivify the scent. Each guest in turn lifts the censer up and cups their right hand over its rim, inhaling deeply, before exhaling to the side. This is repeated three times. The aim is to ‘listen’ to the scent – to really concentrate every sense into divining the fragrance. In this way, this absorption in the task in hand delivers you from everyday cares.
The symbol in the top right corner represents the Genji chapter called The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms!
There are many different kinds of kumiko games, but the one that has particularly fascinated me is Genjiko. Genjiko derives its name from the wonderful novel written by Murasaki Shikibu a thousand years ago, called The Tale of Genji.
In this game, guests ‘listen’ to five types of incense aiming to identify which scents are the same. They know that the answer will relate to one of the 54 chapters in the novel.
Let’s take a look at the Genjiko chart. You’ll see that each symbol is composed of 5 vertical lines.
Remember we’re reading them in the Japanese way, from right to left. If you believe that two scents are the same, you would connect the two corresponding lines together at the top. Therefore, in the game where fragrances 1 and 3 are the same, the symbol that would be made out of the 5 vertical lines would correspond to the symbol for the chapter called The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms : Hana no En, which you can see in the illustration above.
These symbols are well-loved in Japan and have been incorporated into kimono and obi sash textiles, as well as family crests and elegant sweets.
The Genjiko symbols travelled full circle and were used to identify the chapter titles of illustrations for the
novel. The beautiful series from The Tale of Genji that I’ve used throughout this blog are by Masao Ebina.
Fragrance in The Tale of Genji
Genji and Incense
The Plum Tree Branch (Umegae), chapter 32 of The Tale of Genji opens with Genji at home in Rokujo blending fragrances. He receives a messenger with a letter attached to a plum branch from which most of the flowers were gone. The messenger reported that it was from the former Kamo Priestess.
'…In an aloeswood box she had placed two glass jars filled with generously large incense balls. The gift knots on the dark blue one represented five-needled pine and those on the white one plum blossoms, and she had made even the cords that tied them charmingly pretty. “What lovely things!” His Highness said. Then he noticed a poem in faint ink:
‘The scent of flowers lingers not upon the bough whence they have scattered,
but may this deeply perfume the sleeves it will soon infuse.’
This is a description of kneaded incense or awaseko. The blue incense ball probably contains ingredients associated with winter, such as aloeswood and musk, while the white one probably contains ingredients associated with spring, such as cloves and plum blossoms.
Niou escapes with Ukifune: A Boat Upon the Waters
Kaoru and Niou
In the last ten chapters of Genji, two characters take over from Genji the Shining Prince as the main male protagonists of the story. These two young men, Kaoru and Niou each have one defining feature. Kaoru was born with a beautiful fragrance, and in an attempt to match it, Prince Niou devotes himself to perfuming.
Chapter 42 is called The Perfumed Prince (Niou Miya), and here we find Kaoru:
‘..Nonetheless, his fragrance added an ineffable touch to the scents slumbering in his clothing chests, until even the flowering plum trees in his garden mingled their perfume with his when brushed by his sleeves, yielding scented spring raindrops that left many enchanted..’
You can see the Genjiko symbol corresponding to The Last Warbler chapter in gold, here on the fan!
I was given this small sensu in Kyoto, and was told the symbol had something to do with The Tale of Genji, and it's made me curious ever since! Thank you for coming with me on my journey of discovery of what this symbol means and the wealth of Japanese tradition and history that it represents. We hope that you have enjoyed reading about our discovery of fragrance in Kyoto!
There's nothing nicer than a good book, a bowl of matcha, and a scented candle for a bit of 'me time'!
If this has put you in the mood for some delicious fragrance, you can find our
And if you like this article, why not take a look at our other articles, such as this one about our discovery of the world of Japanese tea here!
Thank you for reading,
Cathy and Yukki
Incense chart: Shoyeido Incense Company
Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani (trans.), The Ink Dark Moon, (Vintage, 1990).
Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Books, 2003).
NHK, Core Kyoto: The Culture of Incense: The Wafting Scents of an Ageless Pleasure
Wasada EdX Online Course: Invitation to The Tale of Genji: The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture