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Eriyo Watanabe

“The fragrance of the highest quality agarwood is not only calming, but also we call it ‘food for your soul.'”

Eriyo Watanabe is the international master of incense and multi-talented expert on incense. In 2011, the Incense Research Institute (IRI) was established by her with support of Prof. Ryohei Kanzaki of Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, the University of Tokyo and Mr. Kunihiro Nishizawa of Nikkei BP. She is aslo a specially appointed professor at Nihon Pharmaceutical University and the Director of Incense Research Institute (IRI.) In addition, Eriyo has offered Japanese incense ceremonies in English, using the highest quality of agarwood called “kyara” in her original style for mindfulness and self-awareness.  And she is a well-known artist for her original blended incense using carefully selected ingredients. In the past 15 years, she has given lectures on the history and culture of Incense from various places in the world.

She invented fermented incense by using the stamen and pistil of Japanese lotus flowers in 2019. 

In Japan, she has offered incense seminars at the Embassy of Egypt, Embassy of Oman, the International House of Japan, Urasenke Tokyo Dojo, SHISEIDO, Firmenich, Estee Lauder, KIRIN, Unilever, and Hyatt Regency Kyoto. 

Could you share more about your journey of using incense?

Looking back on my childhood, I started Japanese calligraphy lessons when I was 6 years old with my sister at my uncle’s school, and then I took Japanese tea ceremony lessons from my aunt at the traditional tea house. Therefore I was lucky that I was surrounded by relatives who had talent in the field of classical arts and culture. At the age of 20, I began to study a Japanese incense ceremony called Oie school which a court noble had established in the 15th century.

Regarding my academic background, I studied art history at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. I studied Expressive Arts Therapy and received a BA and MA from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Because my American ex-husband and I lived in Boston for 8 years, I had a chance to learn the other Japanese incense ceremony called Shino School which a warrior or samurai established in the 15th century.

In fact, there was a group of American people to study the Japanese incense ceremony, Shino School. And it was the only group outside of Japan at that time. Since I moved back to Tokyo 18 years ago, I have been teaching Japanese incense ceremonies with the essence of Expressive Arts Therapy. And I’m really passionate about creating my original incense, the culmination of my creative work is the fermented lotus incense.

What is incense?

From my point of view, the real authentic incense should contain sandalwood or agarwood or frankincense.  As a matter of fact, in the States, native American people burn sage for smudging. And maybe they call it incense. So there are other ideas.

How is incense harvested?

Like Chinese medical herbs, the best quality of them are wild ones, not harvested. In modern times, they are harvested.

Eriyo Watanabe

Could you share more about combining Japanese incense ceremony with the essence of expressive arts therapy? How do they inform or complement each other?

The goal of Expressive Arts Therapy is to help you get rid of negative emotions through creating arts such as paintings, playing music, dancing, writing a book, or creating a drama. So the purpose is to help you get rid of your negative energies.

I had an amazing experience about 10 years ago. An American lady participated in my Japanese incense ceremony, when she inhaled the fragrance of kyara, which is the most precious incense wood in the world, she started weeping. She explained that she had lost her son about a decade ago and she thought his spirit came close to her and she could release deep sorrow which was inside of her for a long time. After 1 hour or so, she was bright and cheerful in her appearance. I believed that the fragrance of kyara created a sublimation of her negative emotions. That is the goal of Expressive Arts Therapy. From that point, I decided to focus on the Japanese incense ceremony and creating my original incense to help people.

Source: Eriyo Watanabe

How often do you see this release of emotions during the incense ceremony?

Depends on the person. Once you have a chance to experience my incense ceremony you will see, but it’s really difficult to communicate online on this kind of topic.

If you attend a classical or very traditional Japanese incense ceremony, it’s really different. Because of my background in the States and academic background, I offer Japanese incense ceremonies in my original style for not only Japanese but also foreigners. But many teachers may not be interested in doing this kind of thing.

So I’m quite different and unique as a Japanese. Because I use the highest quality agarwood called kyara, which is super expensive, I would like to do my work for the right purpose, to cure or to heal the mind, body & soul.

Agarwood from Japan. Source: Eriyo Watanabe

How do you usually source good quality Agarwood?

Well until about 13 years ago, I could buy the highest quality of agarwood, kyara at a lower price. But now the price is getting extremely high. So people came to Tokyo and Kyoto to buy very expensive kyara, knowing the price would increase and expecting profit as an investment, like buying stocks or real estate. That was unfortunate but it happened. So, now in Japan, you have to pay at least 500 US dollars per gram. It’s super expensive, previously it was 150 US dollars per gram. Since it is really valuable and precious, I use just a tiny bit, rice bean size, it’s enough for one incense ceremony session.

Where is Agarwood usually sourced from?

The highest quality agarwood, kyara is from Vietnam. You can find lower-quality agarwood in other places in Southeast Asia.

Then why were they going to Kyoto to buy?

Because some of the highest quality agarwood is already imported in Japan, however, it is harder to get them because of the pollution and overtaking.

Why do you feel that people are so attracted to agarwood?

The fragrance of the highest quality agarwood is not only calming, but also we call it “food for your soul.”

From my experience in the past maybe 20 years, I feel that the fragrance of kyara has a miraculous power to eliminate karma. 

Could you share more about this?

It is not easy to explain but it has a special power for healing your soul, not only body or mind but the soul or spirit. So it is supposed to be the best incense on earth and most people don’t know about it, even Japanese people, maybe less than one percent of people know about this, and it’s a priceless quality and it’s beyond words. It’s difficult to explain verbally but if you experience it, you know it, it’s a non-verbal experience.

If people aren’t able to access agarwood. What’s another one that you would suggest that is another good choice for incense?

That would be probably frankincense in English or “luban” in Arabic. Chinese and Japanese call it 乳香 which means “milk incense”. And the best frankincense comes from Oman. Actually I go to Oman to buy this regularly.

And I give a workshop at the Embassy of Oman in Tokyo twice or three times a year. Frankincense is considered a very sacred and powerful incense in Europe and Arab countries.

How was incense used throughout history, and in ancient cultures, have we lost touch with some of this today?

The overview is that the history of incense began when mankind started using fire. Every civilization on earth used incense. So it is a universal culture. I believe that there are three purposes of incense: firstly, purification of space as well as body and mind, secondly, communication with deity or heaven, thirdly, medicine for body, mind, and soul in various ways.

Unfortunately, we lost touch with the wonderful tradition today. My intention is to teach how to use good quality natural incense and adopt the tradition in daily life.

Source: Eriyo Watanabe

Would love to understand some more about the history of incense throughout Japan, China, and Egypt.

It is truly amazing that incense burners of Jomon pottery were excavated during the Jomon period between 14,000 BC to 300 BC in Japan. Some of them were exhibited at the British Museum in London. Well, I imagine that resins from pine and fir trees were burnt. And in the 6th century, when Buddhism was introduced from China to Japan, exotic ingredients such as sandalwood, agarwood, frankincense, amber, musk, camphor, and so on. Then in the 15th century, a Japanese incense ceremony was established. The history of incense in ancient China and Egypt is much older. I teach online lessons on these subjects.

Do you use incense every day?

Yes. You are interested in Egyptian culture as well? So in ancient Egypt, they burn frankincense in the morning, myrrh at noon, and kyphi in the evening. I make evolved version of kyphi called fermented incense. One is made from roses and the others are made from lotus.

How do you burn it?

I use an incense burner, charcoal, and ash.

What do you find is the difference between using stick incense as compared to fermented incense?

Well, I just read an article on the BBC website. They had the travel interview in Bhutan. In the temple, they burn incense sticks, and they said it is fermented.

So, you can search Bhutan’s 350-year-old recipe for wellbeing on BBC on the 1st of April 2021.

In Bhutan, they maintain traditional customs. I believe that it’s medicinal incense. But in Japan or other Asian countries, you are not able to find fermented incense in the market. Most of the pricey incense sticks are made from agarwood, sandalwood, and other ingredients with water and some sticky material which then they make into sticks and dry them. Well, most cheaper ones are made from synthetic ingredients.

I think even in Japan, fermented food, like miso or natto, pickles, and others – It’s getting very popular because it’s good for your health. Housewives in Japan enjoy making their own miso. I think in China they have lots of different kinds of sauces that are also fermented. It’s good for your health. 

In ancient Egypt, I imagine that kyphi at that time was kind of fermented incense.

How long does it usually take to ferment the incense?

Ideally, at least a month, but maybe a few months. And you can keep it for a long time, over 10 years.

Where else have you seen fermented incense?

Many places today use a lot of chemicals, synthetic fragrances. So in most places, we have lost the tradition, but I want to rediscover and try to expand this.

Do you find that more people are becoming interested in incense?

I think so, but unfortunately, most mass-produced products contain synthetic chemicals, I think it’s harmful. If you use it every day, it’s not so good for your lungs.

How can people tell they just read the ingredients list to see if there are any synthetic chemicals or you can’t tell?

There is not much regulation. You know, there is no requirement to write down the details of the ingredients on the package. So it’s really difficult.

So how can you tell? Is it just that you can smell the difference?

It’s like wine. You know, if you’re a connoisseur, you can tell the difference between good wine and bad wine. So you have to have the experience I think. it’s just the fragrance, not knowledge in your brain from reading books or listening to lectures. You have to have experience.

You mentioned medicinal incense, what makes an incense more medicinal?

Well from my point of view, agarwood and frankincense and sandalwood have special qualities as medicine. I create incense using these ingredients that can be medicinal.

What about the Egyptian Kyphi Incense?

In ancient Egypt, they used red wine and honey to make a paste but now I use vodka because you can keep it for a longer time. You know, if you pour red wine or white wine in the glass after one night, one day, it goes bad right? 

Are there any cultures or civilizations that inspire you when it comes to incense?

In the States, native American people burn sage and herbs for smudging. I think in South America, they use different types of resin and herbs.

So every civilization on earth in the past, they used incense for special ceremonies or rituals.

Eriyo Watanabe

In ancient Greek or ancient Rome, they used frankincense, myrrh, and herbs for incense also.

What about China?

If you look at some movies or dramas focused on the Qing dynasty, for example, you see the incense burners. The Emperor or royal people burn incense all the time in the room.

Do they have recipes similar to Egypt, or do they stick to more single ingredients such as just Frankincense or Sandalwood?

In China, I think Agarwood is very popular. Also, they created a special incense called “neri-koh” in Japanese which was introduced from China into Japan.

When it comes to your own incense creations now, do you look to old classical texts for inspiration or do you make things more instinctually?

Well, until 10 years ago, I was reading different books, but not anymore. I just use my instinct or inspiration. So it is a kind of spontaneous creation. I don’t use books or recipes that were created by other people. I just create my original one. My favorite flower is the lotus and I love my fermented lotus incense. Well, lotus has a special magical power. I really enjoy it.

In Japan, where do you usually find the Lotus?

I live in Tokyo, there is one place, but it’s not located in the center of Tokyo. The place is called Koyasu no sato in Saitama prefecture, from my place about 90 minutes drive, and they have beautiful lotus flowers. And I started buying lotus flowers from farmers in Kanagawa prefecture. He grows special lotus plants.

Fermented lotus incense. Source: Eriyo Watanabe

So what do you mean by special Lotus?

In Japanese, “Kodai Hasu”, ancient Lotus.

It’s an interesting story. In the 70s, during the excavation of this underground construction site, they uncovered the seeds of this lotus that were sleeping in the ground for probably 1400-3000 years.

During the rainy season, the lotus seeds just came up from the ground and they just started growing and the flowers suddenly bloomed. It’s a miraculous story. And they said the professor and researchers of the lotus flowers, said it’s maybe from 1400-3000 years ago. Just buried underground for a long time. All of a sudden, the flower came out. And it’s a real story, so we call it “Kodai Hasu.” In some places of Japan, they received seeds from that place and they started growing. It’s really fragrant.

Source: Eriyo Watanabe

What about throughout history, where have you seen the earliest mention of incense?

In the Old Testament, for example, in Exodus incense is mentioned. If you read the Old Testament carefully, there are many sentences that include frankincense and other ingredients. Also the oldest book in Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, it’s also mentioned in the book. 

Where is this?

In the Iraq area. They produced wine also. It’s an interesting civilization.

Let’s discuss a bit more about your fermented lotus creation? Can you use other flowers, and why did you decide to focus on lotus?

Any flowers can be used, and the lotus has some amazing power.

Would love to hear more about the fermented Lotus incense that you have created. What is it about lotus that drew you to create this, to capture this scent?

I have been creating ancient Egyptian incense called “kyphi” and traditional Japanese incense called “neri-koh” for over 15 years.

And from some point in time, I started using fresh flowers such as rose and plum blossoms to make them instead of using only dry material.

From that experiment, I noticed the fermentation and maturation occurred. As a result, the scent of the incense became very fresh and I felt it was alive almost forever!

Eriyo Watanabe

My wish was to provide eternity to lotus flowers since their lives are only four days. After a long time of trial and error, I invented two types of fermented incense and named“熟香 Lotus” as an evolved form of kyphi and “熟香 Mana” as an evolved form of “neri-koh”.

Source: Eriyo Watanabe

In fact, the formula of fermented lotus incense is secret. But I can tell you the ingredients of each one in my lessons. The art of creating fermented lotus incense with the original method is the achievement as a culmination of my work.

I deeply admire the visual beauty and miraculous fragrance of lotus in Japan. It reminds us of the generous qualities of an ideal role model in our lives.

Lotus is supposed to be one of the oldest plants that have inhabited earth from about 100 million years ago. Therefore I believe that they obtain memories of the ancient times of our planet.

Eriyo Watanabe

Every summer, I used to visit lotus gardens and enjoyed the divine beauty as well as sacred fragrance. There is no question that the lotus is one of the holiest flowers in the world. The appearance of the stable and supple stems growing straight toward heaven gives us the courage to be powerful in life.

And lotus leaves are equipped with a function of self-cleaning for purification, called the “lotus effect”. If you pour muddy water on the leaves, they create beautiful crystal clear droplets that pick up small particles of dirt as they roll.

Then a friend of mine introduced me to a farmer who grows lotus plants in Japan! I have been visiting lotus gardens for at least 18 years. It’s not easy to purchase lotus flowers in Japan, I was just fascinated by the fragrance, and in Japan, only June, July, and August, only a few months in the summertime, you can see the lotus flowers. So it’s limited. Unlike roses that you can grow rose plants in winter or any time, lotus is not easy to make flowers bloom. You see them in only summertime in Japan. So I was fascinated by the fragrance for a long time. And then finally two years ago, I was introduced to this farmer and he said, It’s okay. I can buy from him. I was very lucky. My long cherished dream to purchase them and create fermented lotus plants came true finally 2 years ago.