Incense in Popular Culture

Whether it’s a fragrant way to end a day, a ritual before meditation or just a pleasant distraction, incense is all around us. But what is it exactly, and why does this ancient practice endure?

Natural plant-based binders such as mucilage are mixed with fragrant materials and rolled into sticks for indirect burning. Natural binders must not be too wet when mixing or over-compressed during formation.


Incense can be made from a wide variety of plant-based materials including resins, barks, seeds, roots, leaves, flowers and spices. The combustible base is either charcoal powder, wood pulp or a rolled incense stick. These bases are coated with the scent material before shaping and burning.

The Song dynasty saw the rise of incense as a popular cultural pastime and the court even dedicated rooms for this purpose. The practice then made its way to Korea where it was used for purification rites and Japan where samurais perfumed their helmets before battle.

Its use eventually faded during the Cultural Revolution in China and since then the Chinese government has become invested in revitalizing this once widespread activity. The goal is to make it more accessible to the average person and to bring back its therapeutic benefits. The smell of burning incense serves as a gentle time-keeper for meditation, journaling, reading and working. It also provides a sense of calm and a feeling of being grounded.


The burning of incense has become associated with many religious practices and spiritual occasions. It is commonly used in yoga studios, wellness offices and our own homes as a way to practice mindfulness.

The base of most incense is a mixture of fuel and an oxidizer, usually charcoal or wood powder, with fragrant materials kneaded into the mixture or added after. Natural plant-based binders such as mucilaginous binder (Makko, also called Mo Xiang mo xiang incense powder), derived from the bark of the tabu-no-ki tree (Machilus thunbergii), hold the mixture together and allow it to retain an aroma when smoldering, although the odor can be a bit strong for some.

The scent of incense is also important, with certain aromas having specific functions for different times and places. For example, lavender has calming properties that can be helpful for relaxation before sleep. A romantic, sensuous rose scent can be good for setting the mood when entertaining guests.


In ancient religions, the rising smoke was a symbol of prayer. It was hoped that the pious ritual of burning incense would appease angry, harmful gods while bringing good fortune to the worshiper.

Incense is used in numerous religions, from Catholicism to Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s also a staple in yoga studios, wellness offices, and our own homes.

During the Muromachi period, a tea ceremony and the incense game called “kikikoro” developed hand-in-hand with the development of Japanese culture. Samurais even perfumed their helmets with incense before battle.

During religious ceremonies, incense is held in a device known as a thurible with burning charcoals. A server called a thurifer holds the thurible, and as the incense wafts from the burner to the altar, the priest chants or says prayers. It’s important that the natural binder in incense mixture is not over-compressed during mixing, or it will result in uneven air distribution and undesirable density. A properly prepared incense blend will burn slowly and gently, releasing the desired fragrance and a fine white or gray smoke.


Many people enjoy incense simply as a fragrant addition to their lives. Others feel a strong spiritual connection to the aroma of burnt incense sticks. The latter often seek to create a unique blend of scents and adorn their homes with intricately decorated incense holders.

Creating incense is more than just mixing fragrances and a combustible material, as the composition must be balanced with a natural binding powder. The powder, such as makko (Mo Xiang Mo Xiang), contains a mucilaginous compound that binds the incense mixture together and produces an ember-like smoke when burned.

During the Muromachi period, incense culture developed into an art form. Incense wood pieces with rare, beautiful colors and motifs became highly sought-after. They were not just to be enjoyed, but were a means of social status, as it was considered an honor to own such rare and valuable items.