Cultural Studies Vol.2: Kōdō (Part 2)
It cannot 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’.
Samurai Warriors and the World of Fragrance
According one of Japan’s oldest historical records, the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan), incense first arrived in Japan in 595, almost one and a half millennia ago. It is generally accepted that incense was first used for religious purposes, based on evidence that pieces of precious fragrant wood were included among the many scriptures and religious objects that Buddhist monks visiting Japan or returning from abroad brought with them. And in fact, the tradition of burning incense at funerals and Buddhist memorial services has continued unchanged for over 1,400 years.
Sometime after the introduction of incense to Japan, sora-takimono (incense) was used by Heian period (794-1185) aristocracy to fragrance their hair, clothes and rooms. Members of the Heian court entertained themselves with takimono-awase, competing with one another to create the best incense blends. Incense features frequently in Murasaki Shikibu’s classic novel, The Tale of Genji, which dates from this period.
By the 13th century, appreciating the scents of the incense woods themselves, rather than incense blends, had become a popular form of entertainment. Before long, the kumikō guessing games described in Part 1 of this article were developed.
Kōdō became established as an art form in the 15th century during the latter part of the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573) when Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa appointed two experts to formalise this popular entertainment. Sanjōnishi Sanetaka created the Oie School of kōdō, while Shino Sōshin created the Shino School, both of which have continued in an unbroken tradition to this day.
Once a rarefied form of entertainment for the aristocracy, kōdō spread with the establishment of the samurai military government at the end of the Heian Period and became one of the samurai arts. It may surprise many to learn that, starting with Oda Nobunaga, the samurai of the Sengoku (Warring States) period practiced not only the tea ceremony, but also the ‘Way of Incense’.
Yoshihiro Inasaka, head of the Koju incense company, believes that the reason kōdō was adopted by the samurai class was because it helps sharpen all five senses. Inasaka-san explains that the practice of stilling the mind and focusing ones consciousness in order to discern subtle fragrances stimulates and hones all the senses. This is something that the samurai, who put their lives on the line during battle, would have instinctively understood.
Rikkoku-gomi: classifying fragrant woods and their scents.
None of the precious fragrant woods used in kōdō come from Japan originally; they are all imported and are all extremely rare. The scent of jinkō (agarwood), for example, results naturally when the resinous trunks of fallen Aquilaria trees lie under the ground for hundreds of years. The fragrance gradually results from a reaction to microorganisms that attempt to break down the wood. At some point in the distant past, this phenomenon was discovered and the logs sought out and unearthed. Eventually some of this precious wood made its way to Japan, the final stop on the Silk Road.
Each of the six types of wood is named for its country of origin, and is further classified by its ‘flavour’. Rikkoku-gomi, the term used to classify fragrant woods, literally means ‘six countries, five flavours’. The names of the incense woods are kyara (Vietnam), rakoku (Thailand), manban (origin unknown), manaka (Malaysia), soraya (India) and sumotara. The five ‘flavours’ are sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty.
While it is often said that a gram of precious fragrant wood costs several times more than a gram of gold, the value of kyara, the very finest quality agarwood, is in fact several dozen times the price of gold.
This precious incense wood is indeed valuable, but in the world of kōdō, its fragrance is not something that people spend hours wastefully indulging in and it would never be used to scent an entire room. Participants in the incense ceremony have only three breaths to ‘listen’ to the incense. That’s about ten seconds to hear the voice of this ancient scented wood and interpret what it is saying.
Kōdō is a peculiarly Japanese discipline derived from the combination of an incense culture that was brought to Japan over a thousand years ago with a uniquely Japanese spirit and aesthetic.
Getting started with kōdō.
Koju-an in Ginza, Tokyo, provides incense experiences for visitors from abroad. Phone 03-3541-3441 for more information.
In addition, Oie-style kōdō classes (in Japanese) are held every month on a regular basis. For the regular classes, if wearing Western-style clothing (kimono is not necessary), please ensure that you bring a pair of clean white socks that cover the ankle, to put on when you enter the room. At the time of writing (October 2018) the joining fee is 3,000 yen and membership fees start at 16,500 yen for three classes (one per month).
For those who want to find out if kōdō is for them before signing up for regular classes, trial lessons are available at 5,000 yen (no joining fee).
“Learning kōdō isn’t like learning calligraphy,” laughs instructor, Gyōsetsu Maruyama. “You don’t have to prepare, and there isn’t any homework!” All it takes, according to Maruyama-sensei, is the desire to enjoy the fragrance.
Ginza Kōjū – ‘Koju-an’
3F Kodo Building, Ginza 4-9-1, Tokyo.
03-3574-6135 (in 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.