The Secret Scent of Japan

My fools for senses,


Last week we read a Review of Activate, by Nathalie Feisthauer for Hersip. This perfume, created under the guidance of a young Japanese stylist somewhat came as a surprise to the critic : far from cosmic, aquatic and crystal-clear accords so dear to the Japanese, Hersip’s collection stupefy. They are the alliance of the typical Feisthauer gentleness –befitting the calm Japanese temperament- and the dazzling personality of a young creator longing for liberty, honesty and authenticity. Activate, its bed of white musks, its salt-and-pepper spices and its wooden background is, still, our favourite from this newly-born collection.


More than exploring women’s freedom, Hersip wants to question the relationship between the Japanese and perfume itself. In this little piece of Far-East, far from unwanted eyes, far from the sage burnt by the Hopis, far from the palo santo scented ruins of the Incas, far from the fragrant fumes of olibanum and myrrh, of musk and amber – silence is grown through purity.


It is precisely this relationship to smell and the silencing of smell that we wanted to delve into. Our research took us from the heights of Tibet to the depths of Mandchuria. Through countless texts, legends and liturgical prayers we managed to discern the secret relationship Japan has had with perfumes and incense. Together, my fools for senses, let us discover the Secret Perfume of Japan.


Our story begins around the 6th century AD. Legend has it that a piece of agarwood floated adrift and washed up on Japanese shores. The fishermen discovered that once burnt, it emitted a deeply scented fragrance and sent it to the Empress Suiko. Although most probably false –incense arrived with the first Buddhist monks- it says something very real : incense is foreign. And it is adamant that we understand this in order to comprehend its symbolical meaning in the Japanese society.


Another essential thing one must understand are the origins of Shinto. More than a mere religion, it is the vast array of traditions which existed in Japan before the arrival of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Shinto built itself by asserting its singularity all the while absorbing some notions from the aforesaid religions.


The way of Shinto, to put it simply, thinks very highly of others. One is free to do what one wishes as long as it doesn’t disturb others and one can easily understand how perfume would become somewhat of a problem in that case. Since they are somehow an extension of oneself, of one’s aura, perfumes are most quickly seen as intrusive and invasive –however better scented they are than bodily smells.


 This could explain the Japanese taste for ethereal and aquatic smells – perfumes are no longer imposed on someone but rather faintly suggested. They’ve become diaphanous, like the immaculate summit of Fuji-san. The perfume exists without quite being present.


We could have then studied the relationship Japanese have with their bodies in general but such is not the subject of this short study. We could have also ended on this simple statement but then we would have missed the essential. As we said, Shinto has infused the Japanese culture and sense of being. These traditions, even unspoken, are at least alive and carried through the familial and collective heritage of the nation. And that is where we must seek the symbolical charge of incense and perfumes in Japan.


For as much as it respects anything that lives, Shinto hates impurity –be it of body or soul. The unclean and the sinner cannot properly honour and serve the kami –the deities- thus the Misogiharae rites of purification are most essential in the daily practice and belief of any shintoist. This cult of purity and cleanliness probably is the source of such a peculiar relation with perfumes. For if the kami hate impurity, there is naught more impure than a corpse.


Therein lies the secret. Let us go back to the 6th century. At this time, the shintoist priests didn’t quite know how to dispose of dead bodies. As they didn’t believe in an afterlife either, they would simply salt the bodies and have someone dispose of them. Until Buddhists arrived. Lo ! A new world comes forth : a world after The World, a life after death. Buddhist priests brought their own rites as long as their religion and they swiftly took upon the charge of holding funeral rites for the dead – using lots and lots of incense.


Hence, it is not surprising to learn that incense in Japan became synonymous to death. Far from being the sensible expression of super-sensible reality, it acted as a reminder of a reality from which none could escape, a sign of time as it runs out and unrolls like a bobbin of wool.


 Time flying. Such is yet another aspect so important to the Japanese : the slow passing of time. One only needs see how the seasons’ change and the seasons themselves are celebrated. A paradox ? Not quite. Where the cycle and rhythm of seasons’ change is reassuring, for time flies but always comes back, incense forces us to confront the reality of human finitude : once it is consumed, there is nothing left. To a Shinto devoid of eternity, it reminds the finity of existence – which is why all Japanese opt for Buddhist funerals.


In Buddhism, incense is a sort of gate between two worlds. As it burns over the dead body, the priest sings so that the soul of the departed may follow the trail of incense and ascend from Earth to Sky. The incense smoke acts as a path as much as it is a mist, hiding the body and soul of the departed so they may be shielded from any demon assault.


There we must yet again explore classical Japanese literature to understand this idea. Japan in the Middle-Ages, believed that far from keeping demons away, incense actually attracted them. We read tales of the Jiko-ko-ki, spirits of unscrupulous incense merchants who, for the sake of gain, sold bad incense and were thus cursed to err in the netherworlds, feeding on incense fumes.


We also recall the legend of Emperor Wu who, after the passing of his wife, had someone fetch a piece of hangon-ko, an incense that could « summon the souls ». Legend says that when he saw his dead wife take shape in the cloud of blue smoke, he rushed to embrace her. The phantom immediately vanished and died and left the Emperor alone with his grief.


Contemplating the place of incense in Japan means apprehending the paradox of a whole nation, of a people and its religions – of a Shinto which knows no afterlife and the shintoists who received Buddhist funerals. Contemplating incense means looking at the close link between life, time and death in a country which never stopped looking forward. 

Through Japan and its 72 microseasons, through the comforting peace of its zen gardens, through the purity of its artistic expressions ; through the bareness which shinto calls for, we discover another vision of what it means to live and to believe. Where the Eastern-Christians teach us that incense gives us to see and feel the world Above, through its exteme ascestism, Shinto yearns to forsake all superfluity so as to experience the true nature and essence of being and of all things in this life which is burning like an incense stick and which end is already written in the Book of Life. 


In the end, more than being a mere bridge towards the Realm of the Dead, incense is the most subtle and sensible way, not to experience time, but rather the present of existence. This is best lived in the ancient art of Kodo, the Way of the Incense. There does the Japanese become aware of the richness of the world surrounding him. This ritual has no other purpose than to habituate whomever practices it to the fragrances of this archipelago bursting with kamis all the while enabling him, through fast and silence, to realise his own smallness.


In its own way, incense in Japan became the sign of a world Above very much present in the world Below. As the country itself, it encompasses a paradox : to make death visible ; to make the being sensible. More than a link between two spheres hermetic to one another, through incense, Shinto tells us that the World-Above is already present in every being and soul and plant. It asserts, it heralds and makes this Paschal hymn its own : « God is with us ».



Afear’d of death,

Celebrates life.