Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, September 05, 2008

Joss the Facts, Ma'am...

Anyone who knows me well should know that I have always had a certain fondness for things that make my environment smell good. In my college days I started developing an interest in things like incense and scented candles. After coming to Japan and getting a real life (so to speak) I wasted no time in amassing a sizable collection, first of scented candles, then of essential oils, and then, to a lesser extent, of cone incense.

What's ironic is that I never really paid much attention to stick incense, or "joss sticks", even though they've been a part of Japanese tradition since they were brought over from China back in the 6th century. You see, lighting joss sticks and placing them in front of temples, household altars, or graves is as much a part of traditional Japanese life as chopsticks. In that respect, I probably did like most people and take them for granted, seeing them as just "something everyone does" rather than something to give any attention or interest. Now, however, with my MIL's recent death, we're practically awash in joss sticks, being that we are obligated to place them in front of her grave and the memorial altar in the house every day. Maybe I just got a bit fed up with the "same old, same old" joss sticks every time, so I started looking around a bit more to see what else there was. Actually, there's a lot. In fact, there's a seriously major lot. I can't talk about it all, obviously, so I'll just give a few, brief glimpses.

There are four main occasions during the year (New Year, Spring Equinox, Obon, Autumnal Equinox) when almost everyone goes to tend the family graves, which includes placing joss sticks in front of them. When those occasions roll around, all of the supermarkets, interior goods stores, convenience stores, etc. immediately stock up on these:


(I'm sorry...I didn't realize I'd photographed them upside-down until later...)

I believe the brand name is read "Sansuikō", and it means "scent of mountain water". (The smaller writing reads "for graveyard use".) It is probably the most popular line of incense in this part of Japan if not all of Japan simply because it is so cheap. A twin pack like this only costs a couple hundred yen. Like I said, when one of those grave-tending events roll around they are everywhere. Moreover, with the high joss stick consumption required by a death in the family, we have been rolling in the stuff because people keep giving it to us. It's not bad, but I will say that one definitely gets what one pays for, and joss sticks are no exception. My biggest complaint against this type has always been that it's so skinny and fragile. Lighting the joss sticks has long been my job at any grave-tending event (including the recent daily ritual), and when I try to light up one of these packs it's all I can do to keep from crunching half of them in the process. And if that weren't bad enough, trying to stick them into the soil-filled incense trays in front of the graves without them snapping is tricky business.

Well, I finally got a bit fed up with it, so I decided to try something else. I went for another popular supermarket brand in this area, but one that's a bit higher grade:


The brand name is "Seiun", which literally means "BLUE cloud" (probably another reason I bought it, though in Japanese culture it is a symbol of a bright future). Anyway, as I said, you can find boxes of Seiun in most supermarkets, but it's somewhat pricier than Sansuikō. In other words, it's what tends to be bought by people wanting to be a cut above the others. Ironically, it's a relatively low-grade product put out by one of Japan's most famous incense companies, Nippon Kodo. Compared with Sansuikō, the sticks are thicker and firmer to boot. That means far less breakage and much better penetrability. As far as the scent is concerned, however, I'd say I haven't really noticed that much difference...though the Seiun definitely leaves me less smelly afterward.


(Here's a detail showing Seiun joss sticks partly removed from the package.)

There's another brand of joss sticks in the supermarkets that's similar in price to Seiun but comes in a variety of floral and wood scents and has...well...kind of gaudy, cheap-looking labels. I'm not sure what the brand name is, or who makes it, but I bought a box of lavender-scented ones out of curiosity. (I didn't get a pic though...sorry.) They're not bad, but I found the scent a bit on the soapy side.

Anyway, these supermarket varieties really only scratch the surface as far as stick incense is concerned. As an important tradition with a long history, joss sticks are taken very seriously by some people. Many of the more historically significant temples have their own types. Go to any souvenir shop in Kyoto, Nara, or any other major center of culture and history, and you're bound to find plenty of joss sticks in classic scents, many of them hand-made by craftsmen. There are also shops like the one I stumbled on last weekend when I took my kids on a spontaneous outing to the Tsukuba Expo Center (our only trip this summer. Sorry, no pics). We popped over to a nearby shopping complex (because my son wanted to play arcade games...*sigh*), and I found a joss stick specialty store.

Wow. I never expected to see so many varieties...or such a wide price range. I wasn't about to leave without getting something, but I couldn't decide, so I wound up grabbing an intriguing-looking sampler.


Here are a couple of higher-grade sampler packs I have in my possession. The one up above is one I bought at a souvenir shop in Kyoto last time I was there (two years ago) and have only recently opened. It contains five different varieties which are all said to be location-specific, classic scents. I know I really like the ones I've tried; they certainly conjure up memories of strolling through the "Open Halls" of ancient temples and castles. The rather greenish one at the bottom is the one I just bought in Tsukuba. It's a collection of forest scents including spruce, hinoki, and fir. I have yet to light one, but they sure smell nice as is! I can't help but notice, however; the higher-grade joss sticks tend to be thinner than even Sansuikō and are considerably shorter. I realize that no one would stick a bunch of these in the dirt in front of a grave unless he were really rich and/or frightfully stupid, but's kind of like paying ten bucks for a tiny, Italian-style espresso (what's called a "short black" in Australia) when you can get a relatively decent, grande-size mocha latte for less than half that.

But you still probably get what you pay for.


  • I love these posts of yours that give me a glimpse into life in Japan. The joss sticks are very elegant looking.

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 12:09 AM  

  • Great packaging on those. I am not a big incense fan and I am quite picky about scented candles as Ladybug will attest.

    I think most of ours are beeswax-based (cleaner burning) and the scents are all very accurate floral, fruit, or spice smells. When they are going, it smells like something is cooking in the house.

    The tree scents might be something I could handle...

    Thanks for an enlightening and interesting post.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:28 AM  

  • I like incense, though don't burn it too much, probbaly because I haven't lived in my own house for so long.

    So if I do burn any it's usually a neat cone because the ashes from the sticks can go rogue. I had some wonderful cones from Muji a couple of yrs ago.

    If anyone gives me sticks I usually put them in underwear drawers, since unburned incense smells rather sweet like potpourri, lacking that harsh smell it acquires on burning.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 12:48 PM  

  • Nice post.

    I'm averse to most scented things - perfume, soaps, scented candles, etc. and make a big fuss when K uses any of the above. I think I have dog's nose. Incense doesn't bother me for some reason.

    In the Buddhist tradition I followed in Hawaii, they didn't use sticks except to start, then just added a granulated type - osenko - which members offered by adding a pinch to the incense bowl. Don't know how that tradition evolved.

    I remember the ministers used to admonish everyone to buy the best incense as it reflected one's appreciation for the Buddha's teaching. Of course, most everyone went ahead and used the cheapest they could find.

    Those sample packs look very nice.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:53 PM  

  • Nikki
    I used to do more posts like this in the past...back when things were still relatively new. I guess I'm suffering from both a lack of time and a lack of new topics these days.

    Oh, I love those clear-burning scented candles like Yankee, etc.. I'm always happy when I find them here.

    Those forest scents are pretty nice even without burning (which is one of the reasons I got them).

    Using joss sticks like a drawer potpourri (or whatever you call those things)...interesting idea!

    Actually, the smell of burning incense depends a LOT on the brand. One difference I have come to notice between Sansuiko and Seiun, even though they have a similar scent, is that the Sansuiko has a far more acrid edge when it's burning. Seiun is definitely better for indoor use.

    The sprinkled granular incense is used at funerals and other temple rituals here. Joss sticks are generally used in the home altars, at the gravesites, or in the giant incense holders out in front of particularly important temples (in which you're supposed to place one of the temple's own joss sticks and then waft the smoke about yourself to purify you before entering the temple).

    Speaking of using high-quality incense, I just found out that that (kind of soapy-smelling but not bad) lavender-scented incense I tried recently is sold by a company called Maruesu (Circle-S) which deals in candles and Buddhist altar goods. It's actually one of their cheapest products, probably no more expensive than Sansuiko when you consider how much you get per box, which also explains why it's available in supermarkets. They advertise it as being a "gentle" scent, which I can attest to. It isn't anywhere near as acrid as incense can tend to be. It does help to like the smell of lavender-scented dishwashing liquid, however...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:27 PM  

  • Moody, thank you for joss the facts. And more. Your blog is always a pleasure. I haven't been around much lately. My excuses: Summer is our busy season at the gallery. We've had a series of houseguests to boot. Blogspot blogs have stopped loading on my gallery computer. Just those. Everything else on the WWW will load. What is the Universe trying to tell me?

    My condolences to you and your wife and children--do you have more than one?--I remember a lovely girl sitting behind an eccentric birthday cake--- on the loss of your mother-in-law. I didn't know, since I've been so scarce around here. I do remember you had said you couldn't quite believe your MIL's doctor who said she was fine, since it's Japanese medical custom to say such things.

    I just turned 55 and put up a birthday playlist. I dedicated songs to people, including you. When you have a chance, please come over. One of the songs was dedicated to those who've lost dear ones in the past year. I didn't include you on that one. I should have, man.

    Your dedications are very silly. Forgive me. And many warm feelings are headed over the ocean from the Land of Enchantment (and tumbleweeds) to your family...

    By Blogger San, at 11:18 PM  

  • 香薰療法以前是貴族,富裕之人的玩意. 現在已催普遍. 長期用會對身體有影響嗎?

    提到插香火, 中國人除了經商的客户要每天上香, 一般家庭都在農曆每月初一, 十五才於家中點香.


    By Anonymous Spirit, at 5:35 PM  

  • San
    Long time no see here! I figured you were probably busy. Don't worry about the news gap. Things happen as they do, and we just have to stay on the path as we are able (while being sure to mourn when appropriate and smell the flowers when we're able).

    I commented on your site, but I'll say here, too, that I appreciated the song dedications. They were most appropriate...and that whole playlist is definitely something to enjoy! Thanks again!

    Japanese incense traditions originated in China 1600 years ago but have naturally diverged a bit over the ages. I'm not sure how good the translation I read was. I understood what you said about the New Year and monthly traditions, but you may want to help me out a little more.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:17 PM  

  • Smells and bells! We were in a household that had never heard of incense, but if you ever go to Suva wander into an Indian shop and you will be confronted with strong smells of incense. Makes me sneeze. Not my scene. Somehow the smells in a tropical city seem to intensify - the good and the bad. I remember some of my secondary students (years ago) having a flower on their desks which they would occasionally sniff at.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 12:55 PM  

  • Okay...let me help you a bit, Moody:
    I meant:
    Aromatherapy used to use by noble or wealthy people long time ago, but it becomes very general in nowadays. Will it have any affect to the body if people use it in Long-term?

    Speaking of using incense, normally traditional Chinese Businessmen incense incenses everyday for praying their business in a lucky way. Other ordinary families do that only on the first day or the fifteenth monthly in the lunar year.

    I like to the aroma from Sandal wood.

    my word verification is tlhim:

    (Tell him: (Barhhhh..translation is a hard work from me)! :-{ )

    By Anonymous Spirit, at 10:41 PM  

  • Wendy
    Noses, like tastes, vary from person to person.

    Your comment about smells seeming to be more intense in a tropical environment is something I've heard before from different people. I wonder if it has something to do with the saturation point of the air based on its temperature (not to mention the current humidity).

    I know smells get stronger here during the those outdated sewer systems that still exist in some of the more rural areas...

    I appreciate it. My translation was mostly accurate, but the bit about businessmen using joss sticks at work got a bit chopped up, so I didn't quite get it. Thanks for clearing that up! :)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:30 AM  

  • MM, we have been rolling in the stuff because people keep giving it to us.

    Interesting that in Japan, people give joss sticks. For Chinese, it is taboo to give joss sticks. It is also taboo to place joss sticks among clothes. This is considered disrespectful to something as sacred as joss sticks which are being used at altars.

    Over here, we burn joss sticks at family and diety altars three times a day - morning, around 1pm and dusk. Three sticks are offered at each alter each time.

    Joss sticks here are pretty standard in size for those offered daily. However, on the first and fifteenth day of the month, the joss sticks used are bigger - thicker and taller. On these two days, candles are also burned as well as joss paper, the latter is money, gold and silver in the afterlife.

    The first and fifteenth day of each month are sacred days and some people go vegetarian on these two days of the month.

    I learned something today from your post. Thank you for sharing. Japanese joss sticks look more refined than the ones we have here.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 1:09 AM  

  • Can you smoke 'em? Mmmm, blue cloud high!!

    By Blogger DewKid, at 5:58 AM  

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