Incense wood was recorded for the first time in Japan in 595, during the reign of Empress Suiko. Not long before that date, in the mid-sixth century, Buddhism had been introduced into Japan from the continent, and along with Buddhist images and sutras, incense and its implements were also imported. From the end of the Nara period (710–794), courtiers inspired by the use of incense in Buddhist rituals in temple settings also began to burn incense in their homes. The incense they used was kneaded and mixed into balls, which served not only to “perfume” the air of the rooms, but also—as an indicator of refined taste—to perfume clothes and hair. The incense culture referred to in the Heian-period (794–1185) court classic, The Tale of Genji formed the basis of the association of classical literature and incense. There were lacquer utensils and sets for the preparation of the incense. A typical incense set would have included an outer box containing smaller boxes for the storage of raw incense materials, such as aloe, clove, sandalwood, deer musk, amber, and herbs, as well as small spatulas for preparing the mixtures.
By the time of the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate in the twelfth century, a new approach to Buddhism had been introduced from China. It was through the introduction of this new organization, Zen, that a new way of appreciating incense developed among aristocratic warriors. It became popular to hold ceremonies during which guests took turns enjoying ten different pieces of incense. At these gatherings, it was not the earlier kneaded and mixed incense compositions that were used, but the incense woods themselves. Incense games, comparing named incense woods, were also organized.
During the Muromachi period (1392–1573), the etiquette of “the way of incense” developed in tandem with the tea ceremony. Along with the fashion of sponsoring incense games connected with poetry or literary classics such as The Tale of Genji, the collecting of famous named incense wood pieces also flourished. The burning of expensive, rare incense woods on special occasions increased their value, and made them a “once in a lifetime” experience.
Around the beginning of the Edo period (1615–1868), the aristocracy in Kyoto realized that the revival of the traditional “way of the arts” was essential to preserving their cultural identity, counterbalancing the various new rules enforced by the recently established Tokugawa shogunate to restrict the aristocracy’s influence and representative power. Later, the “the way of incense” (kōdō) became a popular pastime of the Tokugawa clan and their cultural circle as well, and incense game sets became part of the wedding trousseau of provincial warrior families (daimyo). By the mid-Edo period, the wealthy merchant class also had access to incense, so incense games became more widespread. The use of incense sticks was popularized along with many other new forms of enjoying incense. With woodblock prints and woodblock printed books fashionable at the time, literary forms such as novels and poetry hitherto confined to social elites became accessible to the urban middle classes (chōnin). Symbolic representations of incense or decorative crests associated with incense games (such as the Genji-mon) appeared on kimonos and screens, or on applied art objects. Incense, or the incense game itself, was depicted on woodblock prints (even on surimono), sometimes in the context of Kabuki theater. Various complex incense-comparing games, many of which were associated with poetry, were created, and the utensils of the games were perfected. Different schools relayed knowledge regarding incense and the practice of its usage. Besides incense game sets, there were several types of utensils, such as the incense burner, the kōro, for perfuming clothes, hair, and rooms, and various kinds of boxes for the storage of incense wood. For the incense games, several utensils were needed; their type and number varied according to the incense school and the game being played.
In a typical game, a small incense-heater (kikikōro) was passed among the guests. The heater could be made of porcelain, in which case it had three legs, or of maki-e decorated lacquer, in which case it had a metal plate inside. Inside the heater, a hot charcoal piece was placed in ash to warm a small piece of incense wood placed on a mica plate so it would release its smell. A lacquer incense burner in the shape of a pumpkin was called an akoda-kōro. A jūkōgō was a small-sized tiered incense box, usually with three tiers to store different kinds of incense. The best-known game is the jusshūkō, or “ten-round incense game.” In this game, different incense were passed around ten times. The necessary utensils were held in a decorative lacquered box, which was often part of a wedding set. Small boxes (kōgō and kōbako) for the storage of incense (incense wood or incense mixture balls) were prepared in a great variety of shapes, materials, and motifs.
With the Meiji reforms (1867–68) and the “Westernization-modernization” of Japanese culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, the practice of incense became passé. Thus, in the second half of the century, incense utensils entered the art market in large numbers, and a substantial portion of them ended up in Western collections. However, from the 1890s, partially due to foreign efforts to revalue Japanese culture, appreciation of “the way of incense” was gradually reborn.