Traditionally Japanese incense is made from a range of natural wood barks, resins and spices. These ingredients are blended with inert woods, normally cedars, that do not really add any fragrance but give the sticks some solidity. A plant resin, Mako, is then added to bind everything together.
In smokeless incenses charcoal / carbon and other natural ingredients are added in the manufacturing process. These ingredients give the incense a more smokeless quality. The charcoal base also gives these incense sticks their black colour.
When burnt these sticks give off very little smoke. Often, the smoke from these sticks is barely visible or looks more like a faint vapour than smoke.
Incenses have been made in Japan since the 14th Century but this method of making smokeless incenses has only been recently developed in Japan in the last few decades. As well as having less smoke the fragrances of these incenses are also much softer and more subtle.
Many Japanese people prefer these more subtle fragrances, perhaps in part because they live in such small houses, and a little incense is enough to fill a small room. But also because there is perhaps a greater appreciation in Japan for the beauty of the small, subtle and the under stated. One sees this in much of Japan’s traditional fine arts such as tea ceremony (Sado) or flower arrangement (ikebana) and also in traditional Japanese architecture.