Literary Images of Incense in Japan

 Hangonkō (返魂香, magical incense which can conjure up the spirits of the dead) from the Konjaku Hyakki Shūi

She raised her head, a look of exaltation upon her face. Japan had triumphed, and Japan's triumph was her triumph; Japan's victory, her victory.

Her eyes into which a light had come gazed slowly around the room and she saw before her the family shrine. She looked at it a moment, then she crossed the room, quietly, softly, and, kneeling before the shrine, she slowly opened the doors. In it were the family Ihai, the tablets of
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the dead. One had no name upon it. To-morrow the spirit name of her boy would be written upon it by the family priest, and from that day she must speak of him by his new name, by the name which was his in the Land of Shadows. But to-night he was her boy, her Taro, and she could call him by the name she loved.

She placed the vacant Ihai in the center of the altar, and took from within the shrine two candlesticks on which were unlighted candles, and placed them in front of the open doors. Then she placed before the candles the two burners holding little sticks of incense, and in front of them two small cups. She slowly lighted the candles, the incense, and poured rice into one of the cups and water into the other. Then still kneeling before the shrine around which the incense was rising in faint blue curls of smoke, she gazed with all her heart in her eyes at the Ihai in the center of the altar, the Ihai that was now all that remained to her of her son.

But no, it was not all that remained! Behind that Ihai, entwined with the smoke of the incense, she saw Japan rise triumphant. Japan with the sword of victory in the one hand and holding aloft with the other the flag of the Rising Sun.

She stared at the vision beautiful, her face glowing as if from some holy light from within, then she touched her head to the mat once— twice—thrice—and holding out her hands to the Ihai whose gilding gleamed from within the dark interior, she gave a low cry in which the note of exaltation rose clear and strong above the anguish in her voice,

"Sayonara, my Taro San, Sayonara."
The heart of O Sono San
By Elizabeth Cooper

No Japanese ever smells incense: he is merely conscious of it. Incense is full of divine and beautiful suggestion; but the moment you begin to vulgarize it by talking, or even thinking of its smell, all beauty and significance are destroyed.
Japan as seen and described by famous writers
edited by Esther Singleton

Each one of the faithful throws his scented rings into a gigantic bronze incense-burner, whose open-worked cover is ornamented with the signs of the zodiac and terminated by a chimaerical lion. Tiny threads of the blue smoke spring from the holes and mount as they quiver and unfold into diaphanous lilies which soon drop their leaves and make a pale fog high above in the mysterious shadow. This fog of perfumes renders still more confused those singular objects that hang about and scintillate from various heights: there are large round dais with splendid fringes of silk, fantastic beasts embroidered upon banners upon which you perceive shining scales of gold, lanterns of all forms upon which are painted black dragons or large Chinese letters, streamers and waving strips of silk ornamented with braids and tassels, inscriptions and maxims painted or embroidered, and other unfamiliar objects.
Japan as seen and described by famous writers
edited by Esther Singleton

The noble simplicity of its garments and the calm purity of its features are in perfect accord with the sentiment of serenity inspired by its presence. A grove, consisting of some beautiful groups of trees, forms the enclosure of the sacred place, whose silence and solitude are never disturbed. The small cell of the attendant priest can hardly be discerned amongst the foliage. The altar, on which a little incense is burning at the feet of the Divinity, is composed of a small brass table ornamented by two lotus vases of the same metal, and beautifully wrought. The steps of the altar are composed of large slabs forming regular lines. The blue of the sky, the deep shadow of the statue, the sombre colour of the brass, the brilliancy of the flowers, the varied verdure of the hedges and the groves, fill this solemn retreat with the richest effect of light and colour. The idol of the Daiboudhs, with the platform that supports it, is twenty yards high.
Japan as seen and described by famous writers
edited by Esther Singleton

I go in, feeling that soft, cushioned matting beneath my feet with which the floors of all Japanese buildings are covered. I pass the indispensable bell and lacquered reading-desk; and before me I see other screens only, stretching from floor to ceiling. The old man, still coughing, slides back one of these upon the right, and waves me into the dimness of an inner sanctuary, haunted by faint odours of incense. A colossal bronze lamp, with snarling gilded dragons coiled about its columnar stem, is the first object I discern; and, in passing it, my shoulder sets ringing a festoon of little bells suspended from the lotus-shaped summit of it. Then I reach the altar, gropingly, unable yet to distinguish forms clearly. But the priest, sliding back screen after screen, pours in light upon the gilded brasses and the inscriptions; and I look for the image of the Deity, or presiding Spirit between the altar-groups of convoluted candelabra. And I see—only a mirror, a round, pale disk of polished metal and my own face therein, and behind this mockery of me a phantom of the far sea.
Only a mirror! Symbolizing what? Illusion? or that the Universe exists for us solely as the reflection of our own souls? or the old Chinese teaching that we must seek the
Buddha only in our own hearts? Perhaps some day I shall be able to find out all these things.
Japan as seen and described by famous writers
edited by Esther Singleton

On the altars are draped, standing figures of Buddha with glories round their heads, in gorgeous shrines, looking like Madonnas, and below them the altar-pieces previously mentioned, fresh flowers in the vases, and the curling smoke of incense diffusing a dreamy fragrance.
Antique lamps, burning low and never extinguished, hang in front of the shrine. The fumes of incense, the tinkling of small bells, lighted candles on the high altar, the shaven crowns and flowing vestments of the priests, the prostrations and processions, the chanting of litanies in an unknown tongue, the "chancel rail," the dim light, and
many other resemblances, both slight and important, recall the gorgeousness of the Roman ritual. From whence came the patterns of all these shrines, lamps, candlesticks, and brazen vessels, which Buddhist, Ritualist, Greek, and Romanist alike use, the tongues of flame in the temples, the holy water, the garments of the officiating priests, the candles and flowers on the altar, the white robes of the pilgrims, and all the other coincident affinities which daily startle one? Even the shops of the shrine-makers look like "ecclesiastical decoration" shops in Oxford Street.
Unbeaten tracks in Japan: an account of travels in the interior ..., Volume 1
By Isabella Lucy Bird

The details fade from my memory daily as I leave the shrines, and in their place are picturesque masses of black and red lacquer and gold, gilded doors opening without noise, halls laid with matting so soft that not a footfall sounds, across whose twilight the sunbeams fall aslant on richly arabesqued walls and panels carved with birds and flowers, and on ceilings panelled and wrought with elaborate art, of inner shrines of gold, and golden lilies six feet high, and curtains of gold brocade, and incense fumes, and colossal bells and golden ridge poles; of the mythical fauna, kirin, dragon, and howo, of elephants, apes, and tigers, strangely mingled with flowers and trees, and golden tracery, and diaper work on a gold ground, and lacquer screens, and pagodas, and groves of bronze lanterns, and shaven priests in gold brocade, and Shinto attendants in black lacquer caps, and gleams of sunlit gold here and there, and simple monumental urns, and a mountain-side covered with a cryptomeria-forest, with rose azaleas lighting up its solemn shade.
Unbeaten tracks in Japan: an account of travels in the interior ..., Volume 1
By Isabella Lucy Bird

The "incense-shop" is one of the choicest and most truly Japanese of curio-shops. It looks, from the street, an every-day affair; but after propitiating the attendants by a purchase of perfume, the inner wealth is revealed in rooms filled with the choicest old wares. The salesmen tempt the visitor with rare koros, or incense-burners, and, in an elementary way, the master plays the daimio's old game of the Twenty Perfumes. He sprinkles on the hibachi's glowing coals some little black morsels in the shape of leaves, blossoms', or characters; scattering green particles, brown particles, and grayish ones, and showing the ignorant alien how to catch the ascending column of pale-blue smoke in the bent hand, close the fingers upon it, and convey it to the nose. You cannot tell which odor you prefer, nor remember which dried particle gave forth a particular fragrance. The nose is bewildered by the commingled wreaths and mixed cathedral odors, and the master chuckles delightedly.
Jinrikisha days in Japan
By Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

Touched with a peculiar tenderness and pathos is the Festival of the Dead, observed from the thirteenth to the fifteenth of July. In every house new mats of rice straw are laid before the little shrines, and a tiny meal is set out for the spirits of the departed. When evening comes, the streets are brilliant with flaming torches, and lanterns are hung in every doorway. Those whose friends have only lately left them make this night a true memorial to their dead, going out to the cemeteries, where they offer prayers, burn incense, light lanterns and fill bamboo vases with the flowers they have brought. On the evening of the third day the Ghosts of the Circle of Penance are fed, and those who have no friends living to remember them. Then on every streamlet, every river, lake and bay of Japan — except in the largest seaports, where it is now forbidden — appear fleets of tiny boats, bearing gifts of food and loving farewells. The light of a miniature lantern at its bow and blue wreaths of smoke from burning incense mark the course of each little vessel. In these fairy craft the spirits take their departure for the land of the hereafter.
The spell of Japan
By Isabel Anderson

The temple of Buddha, with its unpainted exterior, its bare pillars in their naked simplicity, its glint of gold, its magnificent carvings, the delicate fragrance of burning incense, its candles, its wealth of symbolism — all this is a fading memory; yet its fascination lingers. We wonder how much of the temple of Buddha we really saw, how much we felt the presence of that power which is so intimately linked with the spirit of the East and with the genius of the Oriental peoples. We felt the reverence —
unexpressed in word or outward act — with which our hosts, the priests, drew our attention to the inscription above the altar, painted in golden Japanese characters by the hand of the late Emperor, which, being interpreted, means, " See Truth."
The spell of Japan
By Isabel Anderson

And what with all these things, and a glimpse of a torii and a shrine, and the musical sound of scraping wooden clogs upon the pavement and the faint pervasive fragrance, suggesting blended odours of new pine wood, incense, and spice—which is to me the smell of Japan; though hostile critics will be quick to remind me of the odour of paddy fields —what with all these sights and sounds and smells, so alluring and antipodal, I began to think we must be motoring through a celestial suburb, toward the gates of Paradise itself.
Mysterious Japan
By Julian Street