Burning Time: Incense Clocks

Twenty years ago, a novel entitled Memoirs of a Geisha came out. At the time, I was a teenager madly curious about Japanese culture – I devoured the novel as soon as I got a copy. I have fond memories of it, albeit rather vague; twenty years is a long time, and I realised I’d forgotten the major plot points —even the main character’s name! There was one tiny detail ingrained in my memory, however: incense sticks to count time.

In the old days () every time a geisha arrived at a party to entertain, the mistress of the teahouse lit a stick of one-hour incensecalled one ohana, or flower. The geishas fees were based on how many sticks of incense had burned by the time she left.

I found it spellbinding. What a truly poetic way of measuring the passing of time?!

Years later, I discovered the novel had gotten a detail wrong: the incense sticks used in geisha houses (okiya) had a burning duration of one half-hour. They were placed in a special “timepiece” often made of sugi wood (Cryptomeria japonica) that had two rows of holes drilled on top for the stick holders, and a drawer where incense supplies were stored.

I also found out that this tradition, which I’d believed to be rather refined, was actually nothing but the tip of the incense-for-timetelling iceberg. There existed other ways in other places, more beautiful and complex than merely burning incense sticks tout court.

You could, for example, set up an incense-clock alarm.

Imagine you were, for example, a Chinese scholar who’d arranged a poetry meeting among friends, in which each must compose a poem within a limited amount of time. You might’ve taken a joss-stick of the right length, and tied a bestringed bell at the right point so that, when the incense had burned all the way to the string, the bell would fall with a clang and announce the participants that their poem-writing time was up.

If, instead of a straight stick marked for time-telling, you had an incense spiral suspended over a brass platter, you could tie small weights at certain points so they’d fall onto the metal surface and wake you up with their fragrant chime—an hour, two hours, three hours after having lit the spiral.

However, the most elaborate kind of incense timepiece was developed in T’ang China, and didn’t use hardened incense paste but powder instead. You can picture it as an uninterrupted trail of incense powder coiled into a labyrinthine design full of twists and turns; its length (ie burning time) had been calibrated to coincide with the amount of time you needed to measure.

They called it incense seal (hsiang yin), because its shape was reminiscent of Chinese characters used on calligraphic seals. It worked like this…

Every time you needed to measure time with your incense seal, you’d prepare a surface with a shallow layer of wood ash, and would lightly rest a metal stencil on top that would act as a template for your snaking incense path. Then, you’d mark the path with the pointy end of a tiny shovel, and would fill the groove with a fine mixture of incense powder. Once you’d smoothed out the trail so it burned at an even rate, you’d lift the metal template and your incense seal would be ready to be lit.

This, of course, could only work if the right incense ingredients were used; if you botched the recipe, you could end up with incense powder that wouldn’t burn correctly. In several treatises we are advised against mixing powders for incense seals containing eg. Pistacia khinjuk (a relative of the pistachio nut) or Acronychia laurifolia (from the rue family), “for they are oily, liquid and bubbly”.

On the other hand, we find recipes with many aromatics that weren’t native to China but that arrived from exotic foreign lands, such as sandalwood (Santalum album), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), the precious agarwood (Aquilaria spp) or even olibanum (frankincense, Boswellia spp). 

All parts of camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) are aromatic. A native of South East Asia, it has become an invasive plant in Australia. 

Although incense was commonly used for time-telling purposes in China, it was especially linked to Buddhist worship, and even more so in Japan, where the role of incense as a time-measuring device was essentially circumscribed to geisha houses and Buddhist temples.

It’s said that in Japanese temples hour markers were added along the incense trail; in most occasions these would have been bamboo pegs, but sometimes they used hard-paste incense tablets instead, mixed according to different recipes. Had you been a monk meditating for hours next to the incense seal, your nose would have probably grown used to the uniform scent of burnt time.

Then, a change in fragrance: as the flameless fire consumes an incense time marker, a waft of aroma lets you know how much time has elapsed. The gentlest reminder ever devised.

Things change, though, as time goes by. Geisha houses ceased using incense sticks in the 1920s, and nobody uses incense coil alarms anymore. The mechanical wonders of cogs and wheels have turned the passage of time into something we see —as spidery hands crawling around the dial in minutes and hours—, or something we hear —as an alarm beep or a bell chime.

We have trained ourselves to sense time with our sight and our hearing, and yet the ephemeral quality of it is much closer to smell and the experience of scent unfolding.

So next time you burn a sandalwood joss stick or throw some olibanum pebbles on an ember-filled censer, consider how our lives can be measured not only in hours and minutes, but in incense sticks and seals made of resin, wood and flower.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.

If the topic of incense as a time-telling device interests you, check Silvio Bedini’s works, The Scent of Time, and The Trail of Time.

The design on the cover corresponds to a special kind of incense seal, “The Hundred Graduations Incense Seal”, that was supposed to last an entire day.