Cultural Studies Vol.2: Kōdō (Part 1)
It has no form and can’t be seen or touched, but its scent holds a mysterious power: the ability to calm the mind, sharpen the senses and raise the spirits. In Japan, the art of appreciating fragrance has been codified into a tradition known as Kōdō, ‘The Way of Fragrance’.
The enjoyment of fragrance refined into an art form
Natural fragrant woods have long been used in India to mask unpleasant smells caused by the intense heat. These fragrances spread from India to the rest of the world. In the West they became perfumed oils and colognes, while in the East they were made into balls of incense (nerikō) or incense powder (makkō).
“Fragrance is enjoyed in various ways all over the world but it’s only here in Japan that this appreciation has been refined and raised to the level of an art”, says Yoshihiro Inasaka, president of Koju, an incense company established over 400 years ago.
Setting all thoughts aside to listen to the fragrance
One aspect of kōdō is the incense ceremony, which, like sadō (the tea ceremony), has its own set procedures. Two important elements of the incense ceremony are monkō (‘listening’ to the incense) and kumikō, an incense matching game.
Monkō involves calming the mind and ‘listening’ to the fragrance. Whether you ‘listen’ to it or ‘smell’ it, the idea is to clear the mind in order to discern the depth and subtlety of each incense.
According to Inasaka-san, our sense of smell is the least used of our five senses, so it takes a considerable degree of focused attention to tell the difference between similar fragrances.
There are no wasted movements in the tranquil space of kōza (the incense ceremony itself). The gentle manners and calm movements of kōza are believed to be one way of focusing the consciousness on the fragrance of the incense.
Kumikō – a guessing game
After listening to the different incenses, guests try their hands at kumikō, a game that draws on allusions to classical Japanese literature. There are several hundred varieties of kumikō, based on themes from classical poetry, literature or historical stories. The most popular theme of all is Genji-kō, based on the classical 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji.
The kōmoto (host of the ceremony) and the record keeper take the place of honor, both sitting on a scarlet mat at the head of the group while the participants make up the other sides of a rectangle. Five packets each of five different aromatic woods (25 samples in total) are prepared. From this, five packets are randomly chosen for smelling. The censers are passed from one participant to the next, beginning with the kōmoto. Participants inhale the fragrance, ‘listening’ to see which (if any) of the five samples are the same, and which are different.
There are 52 possible match combinations in Genji-kō, each named after a chapter from Murasaki Shikibu’s classic novel. The Tale of Genji actually consists of 54 chapters but the first and last are omitted for this game. After listening to each of the scents, participants draw five vertical lines on a piece of paper, one for each of the samples. They then identify which of the samples they believe are the same as each other by connecting two or more of the vertical lines with horizontal lines at the top to produce a diagram. Beneath this they write the name of the Genji chapter that their combination corresponds to.
Yoshihiro Inasaka heads the Koju Ginza branch, established in the Tenshō Era (1573-1592), around 430 years ago. He gives presentations and lectures to inform the public about Japan’s incense traditions and is referred to the ‘incense evangelist’ by the media. He has authored a number of works, including Kaori to Nihonjin (Incense and the Japanese).
Takashi Sasaki represents the editing office, Studio F. He is a writer and editor whose work includes ‘mook’ series in Japanese such as Scenic Drives (Gakken Plus Publishing) and Motorcycle Tours for Adults (Yaesu Publishing). He has authored several books, including ‘Touring Japan’s Kaidō’ (Gakken Publishing) and ‘Understanding Mongolia in Two Hours’ (Rippu Shobō Publishing).
Kaku Hirashima gradutated from Nihon University College of Art with a degree in photography. After working in magazine production, he became a freelance photographer. He works in various media, mainly specialist motorcycle and automobile magazines. He travels all over Japan capturing images of magnificent scenery, onsen and local food culture.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.