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Exotic Fragrance and Heijo-Kyo: Over 1300 Years of History

Kimiko Kono
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Medicinal incense in Shosoin

This year marks the 1300th anniversary of the transfer of the national capital to Heijo-kyo in Nara, and the regular exhibition of Shosoin, the treasure storehouse built in the eighth century at Todai-ji Temple in Nara, was held at the Nara National Museum until November 11th. This exhibition included actual pieces of medicine still stored in Shosoin such as goshiki-ryushi, daio, and yakatsu, as well as the Shujuyakucho, a list of 60 medicines dedicated by Empress Komyo―who passed away just 1250 years ago―to the Great Buddha statue in Todai-ji 49 days after the death of her husband Emperor Shomu.

Almost all the medicinal incense listed in the Shujuyakucho was imported—native to India, Southeast Asia, China, or other regions overseas. Appearing in front of us after over 1300 years of history, this medicinal incense was highly prized, and brought to the capital of Nara long ago after a long, long journey from distant foreign countries.

Introduction of medicinal incense

So, how was this medicinal incense brought to Japan?

For example, a record entitled Todaiwajo Tousei Den says that Chinese Buddhist priest Ganjin left for Japan in 743 with perfumes on his boat including jako, jinko, koko, kanshoko, ryunoko, sentoko, anoskuko, senko, and reiryoko. Unfortunately, this boat was sunk by a storm immediately after departure. This record about Ganjin, however, makes us imagine that the cargo of other Chinese people coming to Japan and Japanese envoys and priests coming back from China in those days might also have contained medicinal incense unavailable in Japan.

In addition, more than ten perfumes including kunrokuko, seimokko, and choko are listed as traded goods on Bai Shiragi Mononoge, the document regarding the purchase of goods from Silla (now part of Korea), written in 752 and stored in Shosoin. These facts indicate that incense collected from around Asia arrived in Japan through China or the Korean peninsula.

The aroma wafting through the other world

Perfumes brought from overseas often appear in impressive episodes in Japanese ancient literary works. Let us discuss, as an example, the fifth episode in the first volume of Nihon Ryoi-ki, the Japanese oldest extant collection of Buddhist narratives compiled in the early ninth century.

Otomo no Yasunoko was a devout Buddhist who carved a statue of Buddha that would be enshrined in Hisodera Temple in Yoshino near Nara later, bearing up under the violent anti-Buddhism movement led by influential politician Mononobe no Moriya. After having loyally served Emperor Suiko and Prince Shotoku, Yasunoko was on his deathbed. His body smelled of exotic fragrance. Three days later, he was mysteriously resurrected. According to Yasunoko, going down a road where five-color clouds floated and aroma wafted, he reached a golden mountain. Prince Shotoku waited for him there and introduced him to a monk in training on the top of the mountain. After the monk gave him the elixir of life, the Prince prophesied that he would go back to Japan, or recover, soon. Then, the storyteller explains what Yasunoko saw in the other world as follows: Prince Shotoku was reincarnated as Emperor Shomu; the monk in training he had met in the other world was Manjusri―a bodhisattva associated with wisdom―who was reincarnated as eighth-century Japanese saint Gyoki; and the golden mountain was actually Mount Wutai.

Mount Wutai is a sacred site for the Manjusri faith in Shanxi Province, China. While it sounds fantastic to say that the destination of the dead was the Eurasian continent, this might reflect the idea at the time that exotic fragrance and aroma reminded people of Buddhism and foreign countries. Nihon Ryoi-ki often describes people offering incense as well as flowers or lamps when praying to Buddha or Avalokitesvara, as seen in episodes 28 and 34 in the second volume, for example. Aroma seems to play an important role of bridging reality and the world of Buddha, as well as the continental world and Japan.

Keizetsuko, or, cloves

Now, let us consider some specifics. The text of the above narrative in Nihon Ryoi-ki writes of the fragrance wafting in the other world in a sequence of Chinese letters meaning fragrant as if excellent incense is mixed in it. On the other hand, a modern revision interprets this sequence of letters as a name of specific incense called keizetsuko, probably because the reviser suspected that the person who copied the text confused some letters in the incense’s name with something else whose forms looked similar to them.

It is difficult to determine text is the original. In any case, keizetuko, or cloves, is also one of the treasures stored in Shosoin. It is certain that this incense had already been introduced to Japan in the Nara period in the eighth century.

During the Han Dynasty in ancient China in the third century B.C., the State Affairs Department officials in charge of delivering official documents to the Emperor to receive his opinion kept cloves in their mouths to prevent bad breath. Let me introduce a story related to cloves ―.

Kohon Setsuwa-shu, a collection of stories compiled at the end of the Heian period or at the beginning of the Kamakura period in the twelfth century, contains a story of a man named Heichu. He would visit his lover with water in a bottle that he used for pretending to cry and cloves wrapped in a piece of thin paper. Having known about this, his wife one day poured ink into the bottle and wrapped mouse droppings in the paper secretly. Heichu fell for her trick nicely, ending up in a disaster ―.

Cloves were a precious import native to the Molucca islands. This means that putting cloves in one’s mouth as etiquette when meeting a person was a sophisticated practice only available to upper-class people who could afford imported incense. So the counterattack by Heichu’s wife leveraging this privilege must have been a tough blow to him.

Fragrances are invisible and it is precisely for this reason that fragrances may be associated with certain spaces or things in people’s minds to be deeply embedded in their memory. Episodes about fragrances in ancient literature are very interesting as expressions of the senses or experiences deeply rooted in people’s minds in ancient times. Mysterious and rich fragrances brought from distant foreign countries―perfumes still kept in Shosoin—should be genuine evidence and indispensable treasures bridging the ancient world to modern times.


Kentaro Yamada, Incense: Fragrances of Japan [Koryo: Nippon no Nioi] (Hosei University Press, 1978); Shoji Shiba and Imperial Household Agency Office of the Shosoin Treasure House, eds., Visual Explanation of the Shosoin Medicinals [Zusetsu Shosoin Yakubutsu] (Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2000); and Haruyuki Tono, “Studies on Documents Pasted on the Back of Torige-Ritsujo-no-Byobu Screen [Torige-Ritsujo-no-Byobu Shitabari Bunsho no Kenkyu],” in Studies on Shosoin Documents and Wood Strips [Shosoin Bunsho to Mokkan no Kenkyu] (Hanawashobo, 1977).

Kimiko Kono
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kono graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University. She received her doctoral degree in Literature through the Doctoral Course at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. She specializes in Japanese ancient literature especially in the Heian period, comparative studies of Japanese and Chinese literature, and Japanese and Chinese classics.

Professor Kono’s major publications include Nihon Ryoi-ki and Folklore in China [Nihon Ryoi-ki to Chugoku no Densho] (Benseisha, 1996); “Quotations from Chinese Literature in Commentaries on Buddhist Scriptures Collected by Zenju: A Discussion on Jo-Yuishikiron Jukki Joshaku [Zenju Senjutsu Butten Chushakusho ni okeru Kanseki no In-yo: Jo-Yuishikiron Jukki Joshaku wo meguru Ichi-kosatsu],” Chuko Bungaku 71 (May 2003); “Keiten Shakumon and Kou Shu Eki Soronka Giki Stored in Kofukuji Temple [Kofukuji-zou Keiten Shakumon oyobi Kou Shu Eki Soronka Giki ni tsuite],” Kyuko 52 (December 2007); “Bai Juyi and Poetry of Shimada no Tadaomi and Sugawara no Michizane: Based on Poems Exchanged with Balhae Envoys [Shimada no Tadaomi, Sugawara no Michizane no Shi to Hakkyoi: Bokkaishi tono Zoutou-shi wo toshite],” in Hisao Takamatsu and Sen Setsuen, eds., Japanese Ancient Literature and Bai Juyi: Emergence of Court Literature and Cultural Exchange in East Asia [Nippon Kodai Bungaku to Hakkyoi: Ocho Bungaku no Seisei to Higashi Ajia Bunka Koryu] (Bensey Publishing, March 2010); and “Acceptance of Zhou Yi in Ancient Japan [Kodai Nippon ni okeru Shu Eki no Juyo],” Kokubungaku Kenkyu 161 (June 2010).