Book: In Ghostly Japan
Author: Lafcadio Hearn

In Ghostly Japan By Lafcadio Hearn

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 111
Publication Date: 1899

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A collection of ghostly stories from Lafcadio Hearn. Images of ghosts and goblins, touches of folklore and superstition, salted with traditions of the nation. While some of these stories contain ghosts and monsters, others are not ghostly or ghastly at all. 'Bits of Poetry' offers an engaging study on verse, and 'Japanese Buddhist Proverbs' explains the meaning of several aphorisms based on Japanese cultural references.

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I SEE, rising out of darkness, a lotos in a vase. Most of the vase is invisible; but I know that it is of bronze, and that its glimpsing handles are bodies of dragons. Only the lotos is fully illuminated: three pure white flowers, and five great leaves of gold and green,--gold above, green on the upcurling under-surface,--an artificial lotos. It is bathed by a slanting stream of sunshine;--the darkness beneath and beyond is the dusk of a temple-chamber. I do not see the opening through which the radiance pours; but I am aware that it is a small window shaped in the outline-form of a temple-bell.

The reason that I see the lotos--one memory of my first visit to a Buddhist sanctuary--is that there has come to me an odor of incense. Often when I smell incense, this vision defines; and usually thereafter other sensations of my first day in Japan revive in swift succession with almost painful acuteness.

It is almost ubiquitous,--this perfume of incense. It makes one element of the faint but complex and never-to-be-forgotten odor of the Far East. It haunts the dwelling-house not less than the temple,--the home of the peasant not less than the yashiki of the prince. Shintô shrines, indeed, are free from it;--incense being an abomination to the elder gods. But wherever Buddhism lives there is incense. In every house containing a Buddhist shrine or Buddhist tablets, incense is burned at certain times; and in even the rudest country solitudes you will find incense smouldering before wayside images,--little stone figures of Fudô, Jizô, or Kwannon. Many experiences of travel,--strange impressions of sound as well as of sight,--remain associated in my own memory with that fragrance:--vast silent shadowed avenues leading to weird old shrines;--mossed flights of worn steps ascending to temples that moulder above the clouds;--joyous tumult of festival nights;--sheeted funeral-trains gliding by in glimmer of lanterns;--murmur of household prayer in fishermen's huts on far wild coasts;--and visions of desolate little graves marked only by threads of blue smoke ascending,--graves of pet animals or birds remembered by simple hearts in the hour of prayer to Amida, the Lord of Immeasurable Light.

But the odor of which I speak is that of cheap incense only,--the incense in general use. There are many other kinds of incense; and the range of quality is amazing. A bundle of common incense-rods--(they are about as thick as an ordinary pencil-lead, and somewhat longer)--can be bought for a few sen; while a bundle of better quality, presenting to inexperienced eyes only some difference in color, may cost several yen, and be cheap at the price. Still costlier sorts of incense,--veritable luxuries,--take the form of lozenges, wafers, pastilles; and a small envelope of such material may be worth four or five pounds-sterling. But the commercial and industrial questions relating to Japanese incense represent the least interesting part of a remarkably curious subject.


Curious indeed, but enormous by reason of its infinity of tradition and detail. I am afraid even to think of the size of the volume that would be needed to cover it. . . . Such a work would properly begin with some brief account of the earliest knowledge and use of aromatics in Japan. it would next treat of the records and legends of the first introduction of Buddhist incense from Korea,--when King Shômyô of Kudara, in 551 A. D., sent to the island-empire a collection of sutras, an image of the Buddha, and one complete set of furniture for a temple. Then something would have to be said about those classifications of incense which were made during the tenth century, in the periods of Engi and of Tenryaku,--and about the report of the ancient state-councillor, Kimitaka-Sangi, who visited China in the latter part of the thirteenth century, and transmitted to the Emperor Yômei the wisdom of the Chinese concerning incense. Then mention should be made of the ancient incenses still preserved in various Japanese temples, and of the famous fragments of ranjatai (publicly exhibited at Nara in the tenth year of Meiji) which furnished supplies to the three great captains, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Iyeyasu.

After this should follow an outline of the history of mixed incenses made in Japan,--with notes on the classifications devised by the luxurious Takauji, and on the nomenclature established later by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who collected one hundred and thirty varieties of incense, and invented for the more precious of them names recognized even to this day,--such as "Blossom-Showering," "Smoke-of-Fuji," and "Flower-of-the-Pure-Law." Examples ought to be given likewise of traditions attaching to historical incenses preserved in several princely families; together with specimens of those hereditary recipes for incense-making which have been transmitted from generation to generation through hundreds of years, and are still called after their august inventors,--as "the Method of Hina-Dainagon," "the Method of Sentô-In," etc. Recipes also should be given of those strange incenses made "to imitate the perfume of the lotos, the smell of the summer breeze, and the odor of the autumn wind." Some legends of the great period of incense-luxury should be cited,--such as the story of Sué Owari-no-Kami, who built for himself a palace of incense-woods, and set fire to it on the night of his revolt, when the smoke of its burning perfumed the land to a distance of twelve miles.