Last autumn during a brief stopover in Dubai, I was walking around the back alleys of the Perfume Souk and was greeted by a waft of smoke from a small shop as I turned the corner into another nondescript sidestreet. Intrigued I walked in and bought that local “Bakhoor” incense (agarwood mixed with other perfumes to make a ball or disk-like block of incense) and then an incense burner from a friend of his further down in the Souk. On my way back home I saw a bigger incense burner and another floral-style Bakhoor box, that I thought might be fun to try out when back in Tokyo and compare. When I got back to Tokyo, within a few days the first Bakhoor that I bought ended up smelling too acrid and the small incense burner wouldn’t light the charcoal properly needed to burn the incense. In the end, the larger spare incense burner and the floral Bakhoor were the only thing I had left to show for my smoky room fragrance journey and both sat collected dust in the corner. And that could have been the end of that journey.
Over Xmas while reading short stories to the kids on Christianity, I decided to find out more about what fragrances would be popular in the region at that time. The story of the Three Mages was a good starting place, where three wise men (or representatives?) bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newly-born baby Jesus. A completely random late night viewing of the Kingdom of Heaven film – where the protagonist enters his father’s mansion in Jerusalem with smoking incense burners conspicuously dotted around the house – further piqued my interest and I went ahead starting with these ingredients. Myrrh from Ethiopia and Royal Hojari frankincense from Oman. Remembering a sandalwood gift from a colleague in India, I started looking for raw sandalwood squares, a key element in ancient Japanese incense that I have always loved. Unfortunately in Japan, incense is usually burned in sticks which is quite convenient but usually blended with multiple ingredients while I wanted to know the raw element of sandalwood smoke to burn on my charcoal disks.
Over the winter months after a few hours of late night online research, I ended up buying raw sandalwood squares from Shoyeido, an old Japanese incense supplier with over 300 years of history based out of Kyoto, and a series of single-ingredient incense sticks from Minori-en, an incense supplier out of Shiga prefecture in Western Japan. The single-ingredient incense sticks were especially interesting, with three packs of each pure sandalwood, pure agarwood and pure “kyara” (a higher grade of agarwood from Vietnam? Blend of? don’t quote me on it!)… Now I had prepared my ingredients and it was time to experiment – my next post!