April 16, 2006
The birth of Japanese incense culture
There are three traditional artistic accomplishments in Japan: flower arrangement, tea ceremony and, least well-known in the West, the incense ceremony called kodo. Although the exquisite aromas of incense have wafted through our land for well over 1,400 years, kodo was first established as a refined Japanese art during the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD). Born as a pastime of the upper class, kodo spread widely and then declined in the 19th century when Japan’s feudal system drew to an end, but recently it has enjoyed a popular revival and is spreading overseas. Let me, then, introduce you to the world of Japanese incense culture.
What is Kodo?
Concentrating intently, we enjoy the gently drifting scent of incense in a world of stillness. We appreciate its lovely perfume while observing certain formalized manners.
Generally, we do not light kodo incense directly. We place ash and solid fuel such as charcoal into a small censer bowl, and then rest a little mica plate upon them. Tiny chips of wood from aromatic trees are then heated atop the mica plate, so that when their scent settles over us it is smoke-free. The materials used for this incense can also include plants, shells, spices, and so on, which are usually imported from Asian and African countries.
In kodo there are games called kumikou. In one such game we compete with others to guess what kinds of incenses are included in a blended scent. While this can be challenging, it is more important to enjoy the aroma than to win or lose. Through these games we can also sense the elegance, the customs of other times, and the Japanese flavors redolent of the four seasons. We speak in kodo of “listening” to the incense, not “smelling” it, because we are not just perceiving it with our nose; we should feel the fragrance move our souls as if we were listening to the teachings of Buddhism.
538 Incense was introduced in Japan from China with Buddhism.
Aromatic trees happened to drift ashore in Japan.
Japanese people noticed pleasing scents when they burnt wood from these trees in their ovens, but did not know what they were. They offered the mysterious trees to the Imperial Court.
(Nara period) Incense gradually came to be known among Japanese people. It was used for Buddhist rituals to drive out evil thoughts, or for purification.
(Heian period) Many kinds of incenses were imported, so Japanese were able to make incenses which blended various species. However the incense culture was only for noblemen at this time. They would impregnate a kimono or their hair with perfume by burning incense. This was to signify their existence by its perfume, or to deaden bad odors when they could not bathe. In addition to these, there are many descriptions related to scents in dynastic literature, words and phrases which represent through scents the things of nature and scenes of the four seasons. Thus graceful customs were formed.
(Kamakura period) Incense culture also become popular among samurai. They used aromas before fighting in battles to calm themselves down, and to concentrate.
(Muromachi period) Japan’s own incense culture was established as a refined art. The desire for scents grew more and more strong. Japan succeeded in trading with China, so high-quality varieties of incense were imported.
(Edo period) Incense culture was spread among the commonalty. Games known as kumikou came into fashion.
How to enjoy incense
A wide selection of incenses is offered in shops these days. There are cones, coils, sticks, and powdery incense, as well as small sachet-like bags which are stuffed with aromatic ingredients. Moreover, the varieties of fragrances are abundant. Kyara, a kind of aromatic tree, is premium quality. There are also incenses which are created as images of the four seasons.
Kodo is a classic way to literally inspire scents, but you can also enjoy the natural perfumes of incense in your daily life. Use incense in your home or car to create an atmosphere in which to relax. Infuse your clothes with incense aromas when you store them in a closet. Impregnate writing paper with fragrance when you send a letter to a friend, and add a scent to your calling cards.
10 Virtues of Incense
1. Provides a transcendent sense of the exquisite
2. Purges your heart and body
3. Cleanses the unclean
4. Removes sleepiness
5. Mitigates loneliness
6. Comforts you in a busy time
7. Is never obstructive, even in abundance
8. Ample aroma from tiny quantites
9. Will not decay for a long time
10. Harmless even if used every day
The ancient Japanese used incense in their lives, and greatly enjoying it, they created a unique style that comes down to us as today’s kodo. Translating literally as “the way of incense” it is a path that leads us to a mysterious and pleasant world where we listen to scents. Although incense culture came to Japan from China, we established our own way, which differs from other Asian or European countries. It is elegant, artistic, and aesthetically refined, and now kodo is spreading to the West.
Today, the digitization of sights and sounds is surging ahead all over the world, but fragrances cannot be conveyed by media. I highly recommend that you feel the aromas of incense with your heart here in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan — or wherever you happen to be.