Incense In Japanese Literature

Wishing to talk a little more about incense, I wanted to share a few quotes from books, by authors you may be familiar with. It could hopefully be an introduction for others who have yet to read a novel or work of fiction by an author from Japan. Any additional suggestions are most welcome, as we are now in the Obon season, when a lot of incense is being lit, and there is time to read.

First, from The Tale of Genji, as the shining prince partakes in a peculiar Heian-kyo competition, the ancient art of knowing one's fragrances:

The time had come to review the perfumes. "It should be on a rainy evening," said Genji. "And you shall judge them. Who if not you?" He had censers brought in. A most marvelous display was ranged before the prince, for the ladies were determined that their manufactures be presented to the very best advantage. "I am hardly the one who knows," said the prince. He went over them very carefully, finding this and that delicate flaw, for the finest perfumes are sometimes just a shade too insistent or too bland. Genji sent for the two perfumes of his own compounding. It being in the old court tradition to bury perfumes beside the guardsmen's stream, he had buried them near the stream that flowed between the main hall and the west wing. He dispatched Koremitsu's son, now a councillor, to dig them up. Yu~giri brought them in. "You have assigned me a most difficult task," said the prince. "I fear that my judgment may be a bit smoky." The same tradition had in several fashions made its way down to the several contestants. Each had added ingeniously original touches. The prince was faced with many interesting and delicate problems.

Despite Asagao's self-deprecatory poem, her "dark" winter incense was judged the best, somehow gentler and yet deeper than the others. The prince decided that among the autumn scents, the "chamberlain's perfumes," as they are called, Genji's had an intimacy which however did not insist upon itself. Of Murasaki's three, the plum or spring perfume was especially bright and original, with a tartness that was rather daring. "Nothing goes better with a spring breeze than a plum blossom," said the prince. Observing the competition from her summer quarter, the lady of the orange blossoms was characteristically reticent, as inconspicuous as a wisp of smoke from a censer. She finally submitted a single perfume, a summer lotus-leaf blend with a pungency that was gentle but firm. In the winter quarter the Akashi lady had as little confidence that she could hold her own in such competition. She finally submitted a "hundred pace" sachet from an adaptation of Minamoto Kintada's formula by the earlier Suzaku emperor, of very great delicacy and refinement. The prince announced that each of the perfumes was obviously the result of careful thought and that each had much to recommend it.

And here is Yasunari Kawabata, from a short story called The Master of Funerals:

It is true that since childhood I have attended more funerals than I can count; not only have I met with the deaths of my closest relatives, but I have also often represented my family in the country villages where everyone diligently attends each other’s funerals.

I have reamed the funeral customs of Settsu Province. I am most familiar with funerals of the Pure Land and New Pure Land sects of Buddhism, but I have also attended Zen and Nichiren funerals. I have witnessed the last moments of five or six people that I can remember. I can also recall three or four times when I moistened the lips of the dead with the last water. I have lighted the first incense and have also lighted the last so-called departing incense. I have participated in several ceremonies where ashes were gathered and placed in an urn. And I am well acquainted with the customs of Buddhist rites for the forty-ninth day after death.
He has such a nice way with words, Kawabata does, and his attention to detail makes every page of his prose worth reading.

How about Yukio Mishima, from Act of Worship:

...But wasn't it possible too that, for all his resistance to the living world, he had left behind in the deep green Pure Land of his district something of beauty, something that, albeit anxiously, he was hoping to make his own again?...

Tsuneko was still toying with these thoughts when the car drew up in front of the gateway of the Nachi sanctuary. They got out of the air-conditioned vehicle, shrinking from the blast of heat that struck their faces, and set off down the stone steps leading to the adjacent sub-shrine, where the sunlight pouring through the trees lay copiously like hot snow.

By now the Nachi Falls was directly before them. The single sacred staff of gold erected on a rock shone brilliantly as it caught the distant spray; its gilded form, set bravely in opposition to the waterfall, appeared and disappeared in the smoke from a mass of burning incense sticks.
Dramatically, Mishima, ever the writer who likes to make the worst happen to his characters, lets Tsuneko save the old professor from a nasty fall...

Mishima often returned to the incense theme, from The Sound of Waves:

...and, after striking many matches only to have them blown out by the wind, finally succeeded in lighting the incense.
We will next hear from Kenzaburo Oe's Hiroshima Notes:

It is now six in the morning, August 6. Surviving families of the A-bomb dead are coming to lay flowers before the Memorial Cenotaph. Soon there is a large floral mound; and incense smoke wafts up slowly like a mist. The chanting of a Buddhist memorial service at the A-bomb Memorial Mound is heard, and the crowd of citizens increases gradually.


On my last night in Hiroshima, I go out to watch the Buddhist service of floating lanterns on the river to honor the dead. I attend to honor my friend who committed suicide in Paris from hysterical fear of nuclear war. The red, white, and sometimes blue lanterns, set afloat near the Peace Bridge, flow upstream as high tide comes in. In the postwar years this custom has found a place in the hearts of Hiroshima's citizens as though it had been a folk tradition for centuries. Countless lanterns drift soundlessly, illuminating the rivers of Hiroshima.
The Tale of Genji from Japanese Translation either by Arthur Waley or Edward Seidensticker.
The Master of Funerals from An anthology of visual pleasures, and from google books. Translation by J. Martin Holman
Acts of Worship from google books (many more treasures to be found there, no doubt!). Translation by John Bester.
Hiroshima Notes also from google books. Translation by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa.

(Photo from The Guardian: Nagasaki remembers day of destruction, 60 years on/Tributes to the dead as US is urged to give up nuclear arsenal)


Tom O said…
Not to be sniffed at it must be said.. Tis strange that `to be incensed` has a meaning of rage and anger, at odds with incense itself.
Pandabonium said…
Something for the olfactory from the ol' factory.

Wonderful post. It brings back memories of the floating laterns released into the sea at the Lahaina Maui Jodo Mission each Obon. And of my sensei addressing the temple members and admonishing us to buy the best incense we could find rather than the cheapest (which he knew most people did). He would say, "remember who you are offering it to. Do you really want to show your appreciation with the cheapest you can buy?"

Recently, dear friends gave us a gift of incense. The scent is wonderful and we will use it well, mindful of it's meaning and the meaning of it's offering.
Martin J Frid said…
The best possible... what a wonderful piece of advice. Rather than the cheapest you can buy...

Someone could write a best-selling book based on that premise.

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