At an early stage of writing The Tale of Murasaki, I had the heroine of the story light a stick of incense. I could tell even as I imagined it that something was not right. In fact, it turns out that the stick form of incense so familiar to all of us was not used in Japan until the fifteenth century.
The customs surrounding incense in the eleventh century were elaborate. Kô, or
takimono, was the basis of an artistic cult, participated in by both men and women, devoted to the creation of nuanced blends of fragrance. The form of the incense was similar to the pellets called neriko "kneaded incense" that are placed in the charcoal for the tea ceremony today.
Originally, incense came to the Japanese court in the sixth century as part of Buddhist devotional ritual, but it soon came to be used outside of a religious context for purely aesthetic enjoyment. By Murasaki's day, the blending of combinations of ingredients into personal expressions of discrimination and taste was high art. We know that Murasaki Shikibu herself knew a great deal about blending incense from the description of a scent competition (kô awase) in the chapter called "A Branch of Plum" in her Tale of Genji. (The blends and judgments described in that chapter are reflected in an incense competition described in The Tale of Murasaki
in my chapter "The Maidenflower in Bloom.") In that chapter I give several recipes for classic blends from the categories of The Six Scents that were codified in the late eighth century by Prince Kaya and one of Murasaki's ancestors, Fujiwara Fuyutsugu. These scent categories were correlated with the seasons:
Spring = Plum Blossom (baika)
Summer = Lotus Leaf (kayô)
Autumn = Royal Steward (jijû)
Autumn-to-winter = Chrysanthemum Flower (kika)
Autumn-to-winter =Fallen Leaves (rakuyô)
Winter = Blackness (kurobô)
(It is interesting that the autumn to winter "season" is given heavy emphasis. The same thing occurs in the categories of women's clothing, where the number of named outfits for this same period of the year is also highly elaborated.)
In the same way that "chocolate cake" may be a category, but Aunt Martha's chocolate cake will be distinctive, each type of scent had a basic repertoire of ingredients that gave it a particular character, but recipes were given individual variation when they were created.
The main ingredients used were: Fragrant tropical woods such as jinkō, and kyara, both types of aloeswood. (Jinkō literally means "sinking" because the condensed resin of the dead wood is heavy.) Also, sandalwood (byakudan.) Spices such as clove, star anise, cinnamon bark; condensed resins like amber, camphor, and benzoin; pine needles, lily flowers, bivalve shells; and some animal substances like deer musk and ambergris.
Combinations of these elements, many of which were imported and hence very costly, were macerated together with a moist substance such as plum meat, honey, or arrowroot paste, and the resulting mixture was set to ripen in ceramic jars, often buried near running water. When the jars were opened, the incense was to be used immediately, before it had a chance to dry out and lose potency.
To say "burning" incense for the way the fragrance was released calls forth the wrong image. The verb used in Japanese is taku, which is more like "cooking" than burning. First, hardwood was burned to make charcoal, then this was buried while warm in the ashes of the censer. More burning charcoal was placed on top of the ashes to burn down, and then another piece of hot charcoal added. The idea was to produce a heap of very warm ashes. At the proper point, the upper charcoal would be removed and replaced with the incense that would then slowly release its fragrance. One had to be very careful that the incense was heated but never actually burned, because that would scorch the scent. After a short period, it was extinguished, and, if done properly, the scent would linger in its full savor for days. Incense could be "cooked" like this in small, hibachi-like holders (hi-tori), hanging censers with gyroscopically balanced inner workings (tsuri kōro), pictured above, or under basket-like wooden contraptions (fusego), that allowed robes to be draped over them to absorb the scent. In a society in which women were not permitted to show their faces freely, a signature scent was one way to make one's presence known. And not only women—Murasaki Shikibu's hero, the Radiant Genji, was known for his mysterious, almost supernatural, fragrance that accompanied him everywhere.
fusego for enfuming scent into clothing