I was invited to try out Kodo (‘The Way of Incense’) at a local Buddhist temple in Fukushima City.
You may have heard of Japanese tea ceremony, and maybe even ikebana, but Kodo, the most obscure of the ‘big three’ classical Japanese arts, is less well-known in the West.
Kodo (which can roughly be translated as ‘The Way of Incense’) is the practice of appreciating and becoming knowledgeable about a range of incense fragrances, as well as learning how to prepare incense.
It is said that it was first practiced in the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), and became popular in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Supposedly it is the only classical art form focused on scents in the world!
One important part of practicing Kodo is Genji-ko, a game which involves the head of the group preparing a number of different incense samples, which the participants must smell, and try and differentiate between. To win the game, you must accurately identify which scents are the same, and which are different.
The game is usually led by the head of the group.
Although I didn’t know it prior to my visit to the temple, there are only 6 types of trees from which incense can be made, which are produced in just 6 countries – Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. Whether sweet, bitter or sour, the scent of the incense made in each country is unique, leading to the 6 types of incense used in Kodo being referred to as Rokko (Six Countries).
When practicing Kodo, it is unbecoming to use the word ‘smell’ to refer to the act of breathing in the different incense flavours. The word ‘listen’ is instead in its place, in order to emphasise the conscious act of concentrating and being completely aware of the subtle differences between the various scents which is necessary to this art form.
After a run through of the rules, we started a game of Genji-ko. For Genji-ko, participants typically gather in a private home or temple, and set up in a tatami room. Usually you’d do this game sat kneeling down in the seiza position for the entire time, but luckily we had little stools to sit on.
The head of the group passed around an incense burner, and we took it in turn to ‘listen’ to the scent. To really listen to the scent, you have to lift the burner close to your face, take a deep breath, and then turn your head to the side so that you can breathe in new air. Turning your head is crucial to being able to distinguish the subtleties of the fragrances. After you have ‘listened’ a few times, the burner is passed on to the next person.
As with any classical Japanese art form, the game has a slow pace, and the movements involved in passing the burners and ‘listening’ to the incense are careful and precise. We passed around 4 incense holders before writing on a piece of paper our best guesses about which of the 4 scents had in fact been the same incense.
On the little tables in front of us was laid a napkin with little geometric symbols on it. These are known as Genji-mon. After listening to the 4 different scents, and deciding which ones were identical, we were asked to draw 4 vertical lines, and then a couple of horizontal lines that would connect and identify the identical scents.
I misheard the instructions and didn’t pick up on one important aspect – you read the lines right to left, as you would a traditional Japanese manuscript. Therefore, the line on the left would signify the incense that was passed around the very last.
The winner of the game was presented with a certificate with her name written on it in beautiful calligraphy, along with the date and details of the meeting.
Needless to say, I did not win the game! However, I did enjoy the experience very much. The ladies who let me participate in their Kodo group were so kind and open to explaining the history of the tradition to me. I wasn’t very good at picking up the different scents, but I would definitely give it another try at another time!