The Smell Of Zenkō-ji

My mum & I’s escapade in Tokyo was truly amazing. I was so lucky to have a super mum like her and hopefully she enjoyed the time we spent together as much as I did.
There are still so many things I want to write about my trip to Japan. My iPhone & iPod touch are a brimful of photos I took in Nagano & Tokyo. Therefore. you have to suffer my rambling about the time in Japan a little longer even though I’ve been back in London physically.

Anyone who has visited Japanese temples would agree with me that we can sniff out the location of a main hall…


The scent was originated from a giant incense burner placed in the middle of the promenade of Zenkō-ji…


All day long, the brass burner would emit bluish grey smoke laced with unmistakable smell of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense), letting visitors knew that their were in a divine territory of Buddha…


Worshipper would buy a bundle of incense each and throw them into the burner through a slot and sprinkle themselves with the smoke coming out from the opening, believing the gesture would help curing ailments by cleansing their bodies & souls.

The history of incense in Japan started around the 6th century. Aromatic woods were brought to the island by Korean Buddhist monks who also introduced Buddhism to the Japanese society. The aroma was used for purification rites at temples as well as became a source of chic amusement and entertainment amongst nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.
During the 14th century, samurai warriors started to scent their armour and helmets with incense before battle in order to convince themselves of invincibility aided by divine power of Buddha.
However, the use of the incense was exclusive to the noble and ruling class. Therefore, the culture of appreciating incense – 香道 (Kōdō) did not infiltrate to the Japanese middle class until more than 900 years later since the original incense was brought to the shore of Japan.
Nowadays, the use of Koh in modern domestic scenes is not that prevalent. Unless one attends funeral ceremonies in Buddhist style, the smell of Koh is limited to temple compounds.

Some westerners may find it rather incomprehensible when it comes to the Japanese attitude towards religion. For example, they hop between a few different religions, depending on occasions – celebrating Christmas in the style of Christian, getting married in Shinto shrine, giving funeral in Buddhist temple, etc. Yet, it doesn’t mean they are non-believers…


They are 絵馬 (Ema).
Worshippers donate those wooden pieces with their wishes, hoping Buddha will grant it.
Ema means “painted horse”. In the 8th century, there was a custom of donating a horse to shrine or temple when one was making a wish. However, a horse was an expensive gift and the shrine / temple which received the donated steed also found it difficult to keep it. The solution was an Ema, a board with an image of horse painted on.
Nowadays, an Ema comes in all shapes and styles…


As well as in a traditional pentagonal shape, the temple kiosk provides Hello Kitty, Rirakkuma (teddy bear) and a heart shape versions.
A culture of worshipping divine power amongst the Japanese is stronger than ever, especially during a decades long economic recession. The people find comfort and hope by visiting temples and shrines…


These religious establishments, such as Zenkō-ji, maybe the only one of the few who benefitted from the recent setbacks Japan had experienced, I thought when I was walking on their promenade…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

12 thoughts on “The Smell Of Zenkō-ji

  1. A very interesting post. Do you think there is a general separation of ritual from belief? For example a wedding is a public ceremony where it is acceptable to observe ritual even if one doesn’t have a specific belief?

    • I do believe that the Japanese in general genuinely worship gods but they are not limiting themselves to one specific religious group. They do visit temple when they are troubled or have a wish (success in exam or job hunting or romance, etc). The ritual offers them a comfort and that’s all, I imagine. Most of the Japanese are not seriously religious. However, the custom of Buddhism and Shinto is deeply ingrained to the Japanese calendar, therefore, it is impossible to separate what is spiritual and artificial. (^-^)

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