Incense sticks were brought in Japan by herbal and medicinal suppliers, and their health benefits are recorded as far back as the earliest recorded pharmacopeia, (book on preparing compound medicines) – “Hsin hsiu pen ts’ao” (659 A.D.) It appears that incense was used to alleviate nervous tension, upset stomach, and as a general Panacea. The incense stick was a simple form developed to enjoy the smell more easily. Modern studies are indicating emotional and health benefits from the use of various aromatics.
The source of their benefits can be traced back to the plant materials they are extracted from, as many of these materials are considered quite valuable. The essential oils extracted from the same plants make up another compound of the fabrication process of incense sticks.
The plant materials used for making incense include woods and barks (aloeswood, cedar, sandalwood, cypress, juniper, cassia, cinnamon), seeds and fruits (coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise, vanilla), resins and gums (amber, bdellium, benzoin, copal, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, camphor, sandarac, opoponax, tolu balsam), leaves (patchouli, sage, bay, tea, balsam), roots and rhizomes (vetiver, orris, calamus, spikenard, galangal, costus) and flowers and buds (clove, lavender, saffron, rose). Animal-derived materials include ambergris, civet, musk, and operculum.
Although the range of available fragrances out there is quite vast, I have compiled a collection of the ones I found most delightful in certain situations, fitting certain moods and enriching certain special moments.
The three main categories that I talk about are Earthy Scents, Floral/Herbal Scents, and Sweet Scents. Depending on their base materials, incense sticks usually fall in one of these three categories, which can also be associated with certain occasions or certain moods.
Earthy scents are the ones that are more reminiscent of religious ceremonials and bring a sense of silence and contemplation. Floral and herbal scents are most suited as air fresheners and for bringing an uplifting feeling of playful energy and joy. Sweet scents have the ability to enrich any room and instill feelings of peace and creativity.
I have also taken into consideration the general preference towards certain fragrances that are most popular or that have had a significant role in the collective perception, because of their most special nature. You can find more detailed information on Frankincense, Sandalwood, Nag Champa, and Patchouli on the pages dedicated to them specifically.
As you take an incense stick out of the package, place it in the incense holder, and carefully light it, you may contemplate on the 10 virtues of incense, as mentioned in the Kodo (“Way of Incense”, one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with Ikebana and Tea Ceremony):
It brings communication with the transcendent
It refreshes mind and body
It is a great relaxation
It removes impurity
It brings alertness
It is a companion in solitude
In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace
When it is plentiful, one never tires of it
When there is little, still one is satisfied
Age does not change its efficacy
Used every day, it does no harm
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