|

Kungyokudo, Japan’s oldest purveyor of incense, upgrades for launch of Tokyo flagship

by Mio Yamada

Contributing writer

The first branch of Kungyokudo, Japan’s oldest incense supplier, opened near Tokyo Station on April 26, and despite how it might appear on paper, it’s a very good fit.

The brightly lit Tokyo flagship is housed in the Kitte building, the former Japan Post sorting office, near Tokyo Station, which was redesigned in 2013 by Kengo Kuma into a hip yet high-end design-oriented shopping complex.

Labels hand letter-pressed in gold add a little extra elegance to Kungyokudo
Labels hand letter-pressed in gold add a little extra elegance to Kungyokudo’s range of senko incense sticks. | MIO YAMADA

The Tokyo store — a far cry from the incense maker’s apothecary origins — offers a harmonious mix of both traditional incense items and contemporary aromatherapy goods, including oils, soaps and candles.

Senko incense sticks in pinks, blues, yellows and greens have been rebranded in colorful boxes topped with labels letter-pressed in gold, while a brand new range of Kungyokudo toiletries has been introduced alongside a smattering of items from other similarly minded brands.

The ingredients to make nioi-bukuro scented pouches, include powdered cinnamon, star anise, borneol and clove.
The ingredients to make nioi-bukuro scented pouches, include powdered cinnamon, star anise, borneol and clove. | MIO YAMADA

Kungyokudo Tokyo also offers special treat at the rear of the store: a workshop where visitors can create traditional perfumed pouches, called nioi-bukuro in Japanese. There you’ll find shiny canisters of cinnamon, clove, star anise and sandalwood — all key aromas of traditional Japanese scents. Blended together with Kungyokudo’s special base mix, they can produce a heady but pleasantly spicy aroma.

Contemporary toiletries, including bath salts, soap and oils can also be found at Kungyokudo Tokyo
Contemporary toiletries, including bath salts, soap and oils can also be found at Kungyokudo Tokyo | MIO YAMADA

But it’s the contents of the other tins of more unusual ingredients that you can scoop into your pouch that prove intriguing: also on offer are rose petals and grassy clumps of chamomile.

“Those are for people who prefer a lighter, more delicate scent,” the instructor says of the dried flowers that are not commonly used fragrance pouches.

The alternative ingredients are just one of several ways that Kungyokudo, which was established in Kyoto in 1594, has recently been attracting a newer, younger clientele.

Kungyokudo Tokyo offers colorful boxes of traditionally made senko incense sticks and other scent-related products.
Kungyokudo Tokyo offers colorful boxes of traditionally made senko incense sticks and other scent-related products. | MIO YAMADA

Despite the makeover, however, the brand has not lost touch with its roots. In addition to unusual traditional goods, such as tiny wooden containers of zukō (powdered perfume), all the Kungyokudo items still hark back to the past. Even the new hand creams, soaps and bath salts, which have light and fresh top notes, such as yuzu citrus and cherry blossom, contain traditional incense-inspired base notes, including star anise and sandalwood. The fragrance oils, too, retain classic notes, with one even being named Heian Era.

Nioi-bukuro workshops allow visitors to choose their own ingredients to create tiny scented pouches.
Nioi-bukuro workshops allow visitors to choose their own ingredients to create tiny scented pouches. | MIO YAMADA

While Kungyokudo Tokyo represents change and the adaption of a classic craft for a contemporary market, it also serves as a re-appreciation of tradition.

Whether you choose to add dried flowers to a nioi-bukuro mix or not, you will learn more about incense in the process. You may even unknowingly buy a traditional product.

Kungyokudo Tokyo: Kitte 4F, 2-7-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sun., holidays till 8 p.m.) Schedules and prices for nioi-bukuro workshops have not been finalized yet. For more information, keep an eye on Kungyokudo’s website and Facebook page.