Nioi Bukuro

I recently received a Japanese nioi bukuro scent bag as a gift. The name, literally “bag of odors”, says it all: it’s a little bag made from cloth containing a variety of herbs.

Nioi bukuro were introduced to Japan – like so many other things – by Buddhist priests some time in the 8th century. At this time, Buddhist rituals began to spread, and the use of incense and other fragrances became popular in the nobility. Soon enough, cloth bags were filled with mixtures of incense and herbs that would emit a pleasant fragrance even at room temperature.

Depending on the herbal mixture, the nioi bukuro were used for different purposes: Small ones were worn around the neck or tucked into a kimono sleeve as sort of personal perfume. Larger ones containing sandalwood and cloves were put into clothing storage to scent the clothing and repel insects. Yet others, called kakeko (literally “hanging aroma”) were hung on walls in rooms, also with the intention of eliminating mosquitos and, according to an old belief, to protect that room from ill fortune.

Nioi bukuro are very easy to make. All you need is a small bag, preferably of silk, and the right number and type of herbs. A typical mix is the following:

  • sandalwood (3-4 tablespoons)
  • cloves (1 tablespoon)
  • star anise (1 tablespoon)
  • cinnamon (1 tablespoon)
  • camphor (1/2 – 1 tablespoon)
  • spikenard (a type of valerian from the Himalayas, 1/3 tablespoon)
  • galangal (a ginger-like plant, 1/3 tablespoon)
  • mint (Japanese perilla, 1/3 tablespoon)

Nioi bukuro made from sea shellsMix the herbs together and fill the bag with the mixture. Tie the bag with a string, and your nioi bukuro is ready for use. The smell will last for about a year.

Most nioi bukuro are simple bags, but they also come shaped like little kimono. To the right is the one I got as a present. It is special, since it consists of cloth-covered sea shells, with the bag of incense inside.

Interestingly, nioi bukuro are still popular today. For example, kabuki actors are wearing the little bags in their kimono, but in a more modern twist, school girls like to put them in their gym bags.