A Portal of Incense

The door was locked, but the vision behind the glass was too pretty not to try it. A rack of silk kimono hung tantalizingly just out of reach, while ancient wooden furniture and a ceiling-high sculpture of bears rose in the background. A sign indicated to “Please Ring Bell” for admittance, and though there is an unsaid understanding that in doing so you are making some sort of commitment that goes beyond that of mere casual visitor, the call of beauty was too great to resist.

A woman graciously opened the door, then silently disappeared into the sweetly-scented air. Somewhere deeper in the store, sticks of Japanese incense were burning. In the still and quiet atmosphere, the smoke hung like an abstract mountain range, rising wisps outlining temporary topographical features. Instantly, I was enveloped in another world, another continent, another century. The wind that had been raging outside was suddenly silent. The roving clouds dissipated. Light streamed in through the smoky air, illuminating the beautiful artifacts on display.

A stone pagoda stood above a stream of stones. A fountain of bright green foliage threw stunning contrast against dry wood that had seen a century of time. The garish Tanuki figures carried various creatures on their shoulders – squid, fish, and other odd accoutrements. Doll faces and doll parts, disembodied heads and limbs, and other disturbing collections filled trays and bags. Whether they were meant to scare or protect, I could not tell, but there is beauty in the grotesque too, and broadening the notion of what’s pretty is often a welcome challenge.

Paintbrushes and parchment fanned out in pretty arrays, while fans and woodblocks stood erect and rigid. The cumulative effect was one of perfect harmony, and it was almost as if the incense was intoxicating with its own seductive sense of peace.

Complex scenes of beauty sometimes rely upon strange and occasionally off-kilter elements to add accents and tension, altering a linear narrative into something much more interesting and challenging.

Here, I felt jarringly at peace. There’s that tension again, the way that something could be peaceful in a jarring way.

Life is about balance. The trick is in finding that. Amid the smoky air, I teeter on the cusp of the beautiful and the grotesque. I cross a stone stream and a mountain of incense crumbles in my wake. Stationary eyes dart about me, motionless and still. We watch one another.

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