Master of Incense, Eriyo Watanabe: “My Door is Open to People of all Religions”
Meet the international master of incense, Eriyo Watanabe, a multi-talented expert on incense. She creates her own original handmade incense, regularly holding mindful incense workshops in the customer's preferred language (English or Japanese), holds regular classes on incense-making, and gives lectures on incense around the world. While she has a deep understanding of Japanese incense and culture, she adopts a unique and contemporary style of teaching that integrates her experiences of living and traveling in various countries.
In this interview, she talks about not only Japanese incense but also traditional incense from around the world, and what she offers.
Interview with Eriyo Watanabe
Interviewer: I understand you are a multicultural person with experience living in various countries. Could you tell us a little about your background?
Eriyo Watanabe: Sure. I’ve lived in London, Paris, Boston, and Hong Kong for a total of 10 years and have traveled to 51 different countries. I lived in Boston for about 8 years, and there I studied expressive therapy. In expressive arts therapy, we learn to let go of our negative feelings like anger and sadness by expressing ourselves through creative arts like music, poetry, visual arts, or dance. By doing so, we become more aware of what makes us happy, and what we want to do in life. In that respect, I believe that the art of appreciating incense helps us tune into mindfulness and self-awareness too.
Japanese incense ceremony
Interviewer: Could you tell us more about the art of appreciating Japanese incense?
Eriyo Watanabe: That question actually leads me to talk about one of the most important aspects of what I teach my students. We want to keep in mind that what we label as “Japanese” incense is actually a result of international influences. Looking back in history, the concept of burning incense was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, and Japanese culture developed as we imported ideas and ingredients from countries all over the world. Even the ingredients that we use to make Japanese incense today are all imported from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, and Others. Many times people emphasize that the art of appreciating incense is a traditional Japanese form of art, but I take a step back and view art as a mixture of a variety of cultures. That’s probably because I had the privilege of living and traveling abroad for many years. My teachings are therefore more original and contemporary than traditional.
Eriyo's original incense for a celebration of Japan's new Reiwa era
In order to fully enjoy the art of incense, I believe that it all comes down to the quality of the incense. The quality has to be good. It’s just like cooking. Even if you serve food on elegant tableware, and have the best chef cook for you, if the ingredients are low in quality, you cannot serve a great meal. That’s why I make sure I use good ingredients for my incense. All of my collection of agarwood and sandalwood for Japanese incense ceremony are high-quality and original incense that I make contains carefully selected natural ingredients only.
Interviewer: What kind of impact do you think incense has on society?
Eriyo Watanabe: Incense has been used in all kinds of religious ceremonies historically and in the present. In many cases, it has been used for purification to remove evil. At Japanese Buddhist funerals, everyone offers incense to the deceased. The reason why incense is offered is so that the deceased can go to heaven in peace, but most times the incense offered by undertakers is poor in quality. I offer courses where my students learn how to make handmade incense, and I believe that once they’re done with the course, they can offer workshops of making incense for funerals and special occasions to replace the mass-produced ones that are commonly used today. Also, triggering a sense of smell is thought to prevent dementia so they can offer special sessions for elderly people. Real handmade incense can enrich people’s lifestyles. I believe this is a truly meaningful activity since more and more of Japan’s population is aging. That’s just one major aspect.
Poem from Manyoshu
Interviewer: What kind of classes do you offer to people from abroad?
Eriyo Watanabe: It really depends on the customer. For example, when I gave a special lecture and incense ceremony to fragrance teams of major corporations from overseas, I spoke about the history and culture of incense in Japan and the world. I like to offer my foreign customers a chance to learn about incense but I’m flexible. So the other day a couple from a royal family in Saudi Arabia came and I asked them if they were interested in learning about the history of incense and they said no. So instead, I went on to have them experience high-quality fragrances. There is a fragrant wood that I use that actually costs about 500 USD per gram. During the incense ceremony, I read poems from the Man’yo Luster, the English translation of the Manyoshu or the oldest book of classical Japanese poems.
The highest quality of agarwood called kyara
I tell my foreign customers that the Japanese incense ceremony is the most sensitive way of appreciating incense. The agarwood is heated elegantly without smoke so that people can truly focus on the fragrance and the incense. With Washoku or Japanese cooking, the ingredients are not spiced up. It is made so that people can enjoy the rich taste of the ingredient itself. The Japanese incense ceremony is the same in the sense that we simply appreciate the good quality incense.
My aim is not for customers to have a fun and interesting experience, but to inspire them and to offer a truly meaningful experience that becomes a clue to better their life back home. My door is open to people of all religions, cultures, and backgrounds. I will provide an opportunity for anybody who is interested.
Eriyo's original incense to express the world of the Tale of Genji
Interviewer: Just one last question. You look very pretty in that kimono. Do you always wear kimono?
Eriyo Watanabe: I really enjoy wearing kimono by myself. Now I am aware of representing Japan when I speak to foreign guests, I feel that dressing in a kimono is the best way to welcome them.
Eriyo's original incense for daily meditation
Eriyo's unique way to appreciate original incense
Experience Japanese incense ceremony from the very best, Eriyo Watanabe. She’s an incense artist who has stepped out of the traditional box and sees the art from an international perspective, and can talk to you about incense from various angles; be it history, culture, or societal importance. If you are looking to learn about incense from the very best, Eriyo Watanabe is the person to meet.
Visit Eriyo Watanabe’s website for more information.