"Ten Virtues of Kō",
a traditional listing from the Muromachi era in the fifteenth century,
describes the benefits derived from the proper and correct use of quality incense:

It sharpens the senses.
It purifies mind and body.
It removes impurity.
It awakens the spirit.
It is a companion in solitude.
It brings a moment of peace in turbulent times.
When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
When there is little, still one is satisfied.
Age does not change its efficacy.
Used everyday, it does no harm.

The fresh incense paste made of finely grounded aromatic woods, resins, and essences are slowly pressed through fine linear molds to be transferred to be transformed into delicate lines of raw incense. Photo: Juttoku

What is the philosophy, role, and significance of incense in the Japanese culture? Could you also elaborate on its ceremonial, spiritual or religious role?

At its origin, shortly after Buddhism was introduced in Japan, selected aromatic woods were burnt as offerings to the gods, transporting the precious scents through its smoke. Not too long after, the Heian nobles cultivated a specific type of "cultural scent development" as a way to indulge in scents without religious connections. This later led to "Kodo", now known as the traditional incense ceremony where one learns to "listen" to the scent of different aromatic woods in order to compare and to cultivate the senses.

Nowadays, it is still very common to use incense as an offering in temples, shrines, and family altars, so the gesture remains alive in current Japanese culture. However, the function of incense has less of a connection to its original religious or spiritual role. We were interested in the ceremonial aspect of incense burning—in the form of a daily practice that is connected to an intimate olfactory encounter—and the possibility of transferring this ancient gesture into a more contemporary ritual.

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Bamboo stick trims the lines of raw incense into even length. Photo: Juttoku

Trimmed lines of raw incense on a single wood plate/tray. Photo: Juttoku

Each bundle from the single tray is aligned, one next to another, on the surface of the long wooden table top so that they can be further trimmed into an ideal length. Photo: Juttoku

Could you describe the fascinating process of incense making in Japan's Awaji Island, especially the role and state of mind of the artisans?

The role of the artisans is very distinctive and entrancing. Their experienced hands never seem to apply any force to the material itself. Instead, they work with the natural development of material, to guide and to facilitate the process of production. Respect for the material becomes the guiding principle in the incense making process.

After selecting aromatic woods and resins, the artisans grind them into incredibly fine grains and then combine them with tabuko (タブ粉), a natural binding agent made from the powdered bark of Machilus thunbergii and selected fragrant essences, before they add pure water in order to form a thick paste of incense base. Once this paste has rested, it gets slowly pressed into fine linear molds where it metamorphoses into delicate lines of raw incense.

You can witness the most awe-inspiring and rigorous skills during the natural drying phase, which takes about four weeks depending on the season or weather. Every day, the artisan checks the plate of aligned incenses on the drying rack to see how each line reacts to the air and wind with time. During this process, some lines start to show a bend or a tilt due to the drying effect. The artisan's virtuosity and nimbleness brings the shapes back to perfect straight lines, without ever needing to touch them directly. Using a precise maneuver on the plate, he provides just enough impact to change the position of those single incense sticks.

Because the artisans are deeply involved in each step of the manufacturing process, we could almost say the respect and the intimacy that exists between the artisans and the natural materials they work with is almost spiritual.

Crisp and elegant. The motion of experienced hands and body relocating the raw incense. Photo: Juttoku

Traditionally, how was incense made on Awaji Island, and what differentiates its process from that of other cultures? Is the traditional method still practiced or has it evolved?

The traditional method of incense making on Awaji Island is the representation of precious skills and knowledge that have profound connections to nature and time. Awaji Island became the main place of incense production because of its unique west wind, which makes the island ideal for reposing and drying incense naturally.

In these modern days, however, it is obviously a challenge to work according to ancestral methods. So many places have adapted larger-scale productions with efficiency-focused manufacturing methods. The extensive natural drying process, for example, has now been replaced by a hot dryer to speed up the process. Unfortunately, the heat deprives the materials from retaining the natural aromas that come from the quality of aromatic woods and the purity of the blending — an element that has been indispensable to authentic incense making. So many manufacturers, who no longer need to rely solely on authentic materials, work with materials of inferior quality and combine synthetic fragrances to add or boost the scent outcome.

Neatly aligned and trimmed incense. Photo: Juttoku

Each tray of trimmed incense is placed onto the drying rack, left to air dry with the west wind coming from the ocean in front of the workshop. Depending on the season, it takes over four weeks to complete the drying process. Photo: Juttoku

The experienced craftsman's artisanal handling technique to achieve the perfect straight line. Photo: Juttoku

Separating completed incense into small batches. Photo: Juttoku

What inspired you to explore incense?

After 15 years of developing scents, we started to work together as AOIRO in 2012 to discover and to cultivate different ways of using scent. The general idea has always been to explore the possibilities of using scent to create an olfactory ritual in daily life. When you experience how scent can suspend the time flow or immediately change the personal perception of an atmosphere in a space, it makes you think of a contemporary ritual that is connected to the olfactory sense.

When we first created the concept of Hakudo, we decided to challenge the more common concept of pleasing ambient scent in space with a more ritualistic way of using scent. We started with the idea of combining the scent with a textured cube diffuser made out of ceramic and charcoal and created a small ritual by placing several drops of essence onto the surface.

In retrospect, this act of activating the scent was actually very similar to the gesture of lighting incense. After this experience, it was a very natural step to come back to the most ritualistic way of using scent in the shape of pure incense.

Photo: AOIRO

Photo: AOIRO

You mention that your Hakudo scents are "inspired by the invisible layers of the mountain ground." Could you expand on this evocative expression?

It was important for us to have the scent be experienced and explored in a more intimate manner. In the context of an olfactory ritual, our intention with the concept of Hakudo was to capture the timeless characteristics of nature through a composition that evokes raw sensations. While the meaning of Hakudo literally translates to "white clay" for its purifying scent function, the scent itself is rather raw and organic, evoking a range of highly tactile textures from nature that are uneven, rugged, or coarse. Its scent impression also evokes many layers, which are deeper and more complex. At the same time, the scent is meant to provoke pure sensations of being in unspoiled nature, offering a spiritual moment that transcends time and creates personal olfactory memories.

In your point of view, what are the powers or effects of smell or scent on our moods, emotions, body, and memory?

Besides the functional effects that botanical essences have on the body and mind, "olfactory memory" is very synesthetic. A fragrance, when it is first perceived, stores itself with the "emotional atmosphere" of that specific moment, which include the images, sounds, and all the other sensory impressions that surrounded you at that special moment of time. This happens on a very subconscious level, which is not as rational and reflective as the impressions of other senses.

Photo: Paul Aidan Perry

AOIRO is a studio of olfactory design, founded by the Japanese-Austrian duo Shizuko Yoshikuni and Manuel Kuschnig. Their expertise lies in the olfactory interpretation of concepts, transforming these into individually tailored signature scents and olfactory identities for both fragrance products and airdesign in space. They collaborate with visual, interior or sound designers to integrate scent as an element to connect, support and amplify other senses within a holistic spatial or scenographic concept. For their own creations, AOIRO focuses on the more ritualistic aspect of using scent. Their products come with a simple ritual to incorporate into everyday life so that one can explore a new olfactory experience and take a moment to listen to the scent.