TRANSLATION: spirit calling incense
APPEARANCE: Hangonkō is a legendary incense from ancient China which has the power to bring forth the spirits of the dead before those who burn it. Those who burn the incense will see the spirits of the dead within the smoke.
ORIGIN: Hangonkō is made from the hangonjū, a magical tree with leaves and flowers that resemble those of a maple or Japanese oak. Its smell can be picked up from over 100 ri away. To make hangonkō, you steam the hangonjū’s roots until the sap comes out. Then you knead the sap to make the incense. Even a small piece of this resin is strong enough to recall the spirits of those who died from sickness or disease. There is a catch, however. Hangonkō only returns the spirit for a short time, and they only exist within the smoke of the burning incense.
LEGENDS: The incense was famously used by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in China. After his beloved concubine Li Furen passed away, the emperor fell into deep depression. A Taoist sorcerer, in an attempt to ease the emperor’s grief, provided him with a bit of hangonkō so that he might see Lady Li one more time.
Hangonkō was a popular subject in Japanese literature as well. It appears in a number of Edo period works, from ghost story books to theater, kabuki, rakugo, and bunraku. The Japanese versions star different characters connected to famous Japanese figures; for example in one story a man is overcome with grief at the death of his beloved prostitute, and a hōkan—a male geisha—recommends he try summon her using a secret incense handed down by the onmyōji Abe no Seimei.
All of the variations of the story share the same moral: after the person uses the incense to meet their lover’s spirit, it only leaves them sadder and more grieved than they were before. Hangonkō doesn’t alleviate their loneliness, it makes it worse. This story is an allegory. Smoke can be a symbol of delusion, such as attachment to the material world, or the inability to let go of a loved one after death. In Buddhism, this delusion is the ultimate cause of all suffering. The smoke of this incense prevents people from properly letting go of their loved ones and moving on. They’re stuck in the past, in a delusion, and will be forever miserable unless they learn to let go.