Japan is not a range State for any agarwood-producing species, and has therefore always relied upon sources in Southeast (and possibly South) Asia for its supply. Historically, Indochina (primarily Viet Nam) and Indonesia (primarily the island of Borneo, which includes Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia) have been the two most important sources of supply to Japan.
The roles of Hong Kong, and in more recent times, Singapore, as merchant entrepots servicing the Japanese demand for agarwood sourced from Indonesia and Japan should not be underestimated. Neither should the long-standing relationships and trust between Japanese buyers and their Chinese merchant ‘middlemen’ in these entrepots be discounted – and even today, many Japanese trading houses conduct business in Chinese when sourcing their agarwood. However, the gradings in Singapore or Hong Kong often need to be reclassified to meet the more exacting Japanese qualitative standards. History has played an important role in the changing dynamics of Japan’s agarwood supply and demand – including the opening and closing, and then re-opening, of Japan’s trade with the Western world, and the contacts with China, Korea and wider Southeast Asia (including the Japanese seafarers and merchants who conducted business out of the central Vietnamese port of Hoi An for hundreds of years.
One specialty incense store in Osaka Prefecture was originally an apothecary in the Muromachi Period, when Japan’s trade boomed with China, Europe and Southeast Asia. Later the name of this store was changed to Jinkoh-ya (literally, “Agarwood Store”) because of its specialization in the import of scented woods to Sakai City, an important trading port that grew prosperous through trade with European merchants, and enjoyed patronage from the head temples of various Buddhist sects. The business has continued under the same management for 350 years, and today remains one of the highest quality purveyors of agarwood products.
The following is a list of natural plant materials commonly used today in the manufacture of incense in Japan.
- agarwood (jin-koh), sandalwood, cassia/cinnamon, benzoin, camphor, cloves, frankincense, galangal, myrrh, patchouli, spikenard or jatamansi (Nardostachys sp.).
In koh-doh, the fragrance of agarwood is classified by the terminology go-mi rikkoku (literally “six countries, five flavours”), which was systematized during the Muromachi Period. This system classified scents into one PC15 Inf. 6 – p. 10 of six categories according to its place of production or export, and then further distinguished them according to five “flavours” or “tastes”. The six geographic sources were Kyara, Rakoku, Manaban, Manaka, Sasora and Sumatora; while the five flavours were sweet (resembling the smell of honey or concentrated sugar), sour (resembling the smell of plums or other acidic foods), hot (resembling the smell of red pepper when put in a fire), salty (resembling the smell of a towel after wiping perspiration from the brow, or the lingering smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried over a fire) and bitter (resembles the smell of herbal medicine when it is mixed or boiled) (Morita, 1992). Human characteristics were also often ascribed to the various classifications. Detailed rikkoku classifications differ between different koh-doh schools, some of which include all types of agarwood, sandalwood, and other natural aromatic ingredients.
The following is an outline of the classical go-mi rikkoku classification system, developed by literati and connoisseurs appointed by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the 16th Century:
• Kyara A name originating from the Sanskrit kara, meaning “black”. The highest quality variety of agarwood and possessing all five component flavours (as listed below), kyara is prized for its noble and elegant scent – like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness. Sourced from Viet Nam.
• Rakoku A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood and possessing bitter, salty and hot flavours – reminiscent of a warrior. Sourced from Thailand.
• Manaban With a great variety of scents and rich in resin ingredients and possessing mostly sweet flavours – coarse and unrefined, like a peasant. Believed to be sourced from the east (Malabar) coast of India, and perhaps from Indo-Malaysia.
• Manaka Among the scented woods, this type has a rather shallow scent and is not strongly related to any of the five flavours – light and changeable like a woman’s feelings. Sourced from Malacca (Malaysia).
• Sasora A quiet scent with a light and faint flavour, with good quality sasora mistaken for kyara, especially when it first begins to burn – reminiscent of a monk. Believed to be sourced from western India, but this is uncertain.
• Sumatora Rich in resin ingredients and sour at the beginning and end, sometimes easily mistaken for kyara – reminiscent of something distasteful and ill-bred, like a servant in his master’s clothing. Sourced in Sumatra (Indonesia).
[Source: Kaori no Techo (Scent Handbook) (Shoyeido Corporation, 1991); Morita (1992)]
All six types were considered to be good quality, but kyara was held in particularly high esteem by jin-koh connoisseurs down the centuries. One of these, General Sasaki Douyo (1306-73) was recognized as an archetypal military aristocrat whose love of extravagance and luxury included his prized collection of aromatic wood. Stories surrounding his legendary exploits include great gatherings at the Shoji Temple outside Kyoto, where he is said to have burnt large pieces of agarwood to demonstrate his richness and power to his guests (Hata, pers.comm. to TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, 2004).
Because of its high esteem in the agarwood world, the kyara classification was broadened to describe something of supreme quality or beauty, including in the admiration of women. This desirability (and monetary value) of kyara is predicated on its rareness in nature, something which modern levels of harvesting have ensured has continued to increase. Japanese industry participants agree that there have been no significant stocks of kyara grade available since the mid-1990s, and while merchants have accumulated stockpiles of kyara that are believed to be significant enough to supply the Japanese high-end demand for 10 years, actual volumes are ‘trade secrets’.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Ouddict community.