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Incense Ingredient

Kai Kou

Kai Kou
Photo by David Oller


There may be more controversey and mystery around the incense ingredient Kaiko, than any other incense ingredient I have researched. Even today, I can not say for certain what species produces kaikou. Some experts say there are two types of Kaiko, and the one most commonly used today is a South African snail which has not been scientifically identified. I do know the "Phylum" is Mollusca, and the "Class" is Gastropoda. There are some things I can say which I feel are very reliable:

Kaiko is the operculum of a Sea Snail. The operculum is a fibrous door (shown above) which seals the opening of the shell when the snail withdraws inside. Ancient Japanese formulas both describe the use of it, and the preparation. The operculum was soaked in alcohol or vinegar and then baked to remove the odor.

It is used as a fixitive, and not an aromatic ingredient. This purpose continues today in Baieido traditional incense such as Kai un Koh.

The most likely species candidate in my opinion is Purpura panama (formerly Thais ruldolphi) which is found from Natal to Mocambique, brown with pale spinal lines, dark brown nodules separated by pale areas, aperture orange/pink.

I believe it would be an error to relate Kaiko to the Hebrew incense "Onycha." This would be merely "curious speculation" based on a possible similar use of operculum. There is even question among some Hebrew experts whether Onycha was a Mollusc operculum. And a general opinion, if it was, it was Strombus tricornis from the Red Sea, which was said to produce a scent resembling castoreum (a type of mammalian musk) when burned. From this mistaken correlation, comes the notion that Kaiko was a fragrant ingredient in Japanese incense, which is not supported by the old Japanese texts discussing it's preparation, or consistent which what is used by Japanese incense companies using the ingredient today.

Furthermore, these arguments always seem to lack hermeneutical structure and exergis. In other words, something needs to be shown which creates a historical link or connection, not mere similarities. Especially when evidence indicates different sources. Onycha is indicated from the Red Sea where kaiko was most likely from the South China sea originally, and later from the coast of South Africa. Perhaps someday someone will produce a credible connecting link between the two, but until then this theory remains wild speculation.

I would like to thank the following people who have helped in the research and information:

Kyozaburo Nakata -- Baieido Corporation
Paul Monfils (Expert on Mollusks)
Dennis Nieweg (Expert on Mollusks)
Dr. Shimada (Japanese expert on incense materials)
Jason Oller, BS (Biologist)
Dr. Teikichi Hiraizumi Ph. D
Rabbi Avraham Sutton

The following recipe is one of the Japanese Classics:

Plum Blossom Blend. (Baika)

Used in the spring.

According to old literature:

Aloeswood 4 ryo (60 grams) ryo 15grams (old unit to weigh for pecious goods)
Cloves 2 ryo (30 grams) bu 0.4 grams
Seashell 2 bu (0.8 grams) shu 0.07 grams
Spikenard 2 shu (0.14 grams)
Musk 3 shu (0.21 grams)

*Recipe is one of three for this incense
**Provided by Kyosaburo Nakata of Baieido Corporation

© David Oller