A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist US.
The first time I encountered Nippon Kodo incense was at a boutique in downtown Honolulu. The shopkeeper’s handwritten description claimed that it was ‘the world’s best incense’ — and for £16 a box, it sure as hell ought to be. I like incense, and as a full-time travel writer, I often have the need to mask weird smells in my Airbnb rentals. So I decided to give it a try.
When I finally opened the box back in my Bangkok apartment, I felt bamboozled. The sticks were diminutive and frail. Like, no way were they going to hide the funk of a poorly draining toilet or my boyfriend’s cooking adventures with fish sauce. And then I burned one and shut my trap forever.
The scent was delicate but powerful. Not in a nose-singeing, throat-scratching, dorm-room patchouli kind of way, but more like I’d stumbled into a dewy meadow or sun-dappled timberland and inhaled with all my might. Whisper-soft, warm and woodsy, mellow, calming. It’s what I imagine those #forestbathing Instagrams would smell like if they were scratch-and-sniff. More impressively, the scent lingered in the air for hours. I could light a stick at 9 p.m. and still smell it the next morning.
Nippon Kodo is huge in Japan. It was founded 75 years ago, but the Tokyo-based company still hand-makes incense in the 400-year-old tradition of Jyuemon Takai, a.k.a. Koju, an incense guru who crafted scents for the emperor of Japan. His sticks were so popular back in the day, even samurai warriors would burn them in their helmets before running into battle.
Although Nippon Kodo churns out dozens of enticing aromas (wisteria, narcissus, mikan orange, cherry blossom, Japanese cypress, etc.), the one I live for is aloeswood. This is the same tarlike, resinous evergreen wood that oud oil comes from, which is prized among fragrance fanatics for its rarity. Although Nippon Kodo’s sticks are thinner and shorter than your average incense, there are 40 to a box, and each burns for 25 minutes. Also: The packaging is really pretty. A colorful striped sleeve slides over a wooden trough that holds both the sticks and a tiny square burner — no hippie-dippie paper envelopes or throwaway plastic bags. I can’t say with certainty if it’s really the world’s best incense, but it’s up there.
Another Strat-approved Japanese incense
Co-owner of the Smile Carlos Quirarte tipped us off to this handsome Japanese incense that he even takes abroad: ‘A friend of mine who was a sound artist would come over to sell all these different kinds of incense. Of all of them, this one stuck in my head because I realized it’s the same exact one that they use in the R by 45rpm store. I smelled it and said, “Oh my God.” I literally can’t live without this stuff. I travel with it.’
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