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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Meleg

Let's play the "Kōdō Games," Journey into Japan’s Incense Appreciation!

Updated: Feb 7

The sophisticated nature of Kōdō is reflected in the appreciation of the incense's quality

Kōdō, often translated as "The Way of Incense," is more than just the appreciation of scents; it is a refined, elegant, and sophisticated art form deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

It represents quiet, meditative aesthetics and intimate ceremonies, converging the realms of

  1. sensory experience

  2. spiritual introspection

The practice of Kōdō requires dedicated years of study, training, and mindfulness to develop the necessary depth of appreciation.

The ceremonial tradition of Kōdō is divided into two aspects:

  1. Mon-Kō, the act of "listening" to incense, and

  2. The formal game of incense appreciation called Kumikō.

Participants in a Kōdō devote time and attention to mastering these practices.

Above: The monkoro bowl houses a hot coal. The coal is buried below white ash, as an agar wood chip sits atop the silica plate.

The process of "listening" to incense, contrary to its literal interpretation, is a metaphor for mindfully experiencing the fragrance.

An invitation to delve into a deeper level of consciousness.

This practice requires exquisite concentration, akin to meditation, where the practitioner disengages from the external world to dwell solely on the scent.

With time, the practitioner cultivates an acute sense of smell, capable of discerning the intricate characteristics of different types of incense.

Above Kodo tools left to right; feather ash broom, ash pressing tool, metal chopstick, silver tweezers, incense spoon, wooden chopsticks, metal pin.

The second aspect, Kumikō, is a formal game involving identifying various scents.

There are six countries, and seven types of fragrant woods which Kumiko participants try to identify.

Kyara: This is considered the highest quality of Agarwood. It is exceptionally rare and prized for its unique sweet, resinous, and deeply complex aroma. It's said to have an almost mystical quality that induces a state of relaxation and contemplation.

Rakoku: This type of Agarwood comes from Vietnam. It has a drier, more woodsy scent compared to Kyara, with notes of earthiness and spice.

Manaka: Originating from Malaysia, Manaka has a slightly sweet and spicy aroma. It's said to be more warm and inviting compared to the more complex and serious Kyara.

Manaban: This Agarwood from the region of India is recognized by its rich, resinous aroma, with a distinctive sweetness underscored by spicy and woodsy notes.

Sumatora: As the name suggests, this Agarwood comes from the island of Sumatra. It has a more robust and less sweet scent, often described as earthy and deeply resinous.

Sasora: This type of Agarwood is believed to originate from Cambodia. Its aroma is characterized by a balance of sweet and bitter notes, with an underlying earthiness.

Often compared to a poetic contest, Kumikō necessitates not only an acute olfactory sensitivity but also a vast knowledge of incense types, components, and burning techniques.

This game fosters camaraderie and a shared experience among the players, reinforcing the communal aspect of Kōdō.

Above: Sumatran agar wood

Above: vintage Siam agar wood and Indian Manaban agar wood

Above Kyara (highest grade) agar wood and vintage Siam agarwood

Kōdō also engages with other facets of traditional Japanese culture, such as;

Literature, tea, and food, creating a multifaceted cultural experience. Incense, for instance, features prominently in classic Japanese literature as a symbol of nobility and refinement.

Classic works such as "The Tale of Genji" or "The Pillow Book" reflect the integral role of incense in Heian-period court life, influencing modern Kōdō practices.

Kōdō ceremonies often include a Chanoyu (tea ceremony), where the subtle fragrance of incense complements the austere beauty of the tea ritual.

Above: Cover to "Tales of Genji," the worlds oldest novel.

Furthermore, the Kaiseki meal, a traditional multi-course dinner, often precedes the Kōdō ceremony, setting the tone for the ceremony with its focus on seasonality, presentation, and attention to detail.

The deliberate progression of flavors, colors, and textures in the Kaiseki meal mirrors the carefully curated sensory journey in the Kōdō ceremony, exemplifying the harmony between various Japanese art forms.

Above: A kaiseki meal. Often enjoyed with Kodo ceremony.

The sophisticated nature of Kōdō is reflected in the nuanced appreciation of the incense's quality.

Kōdō's aesthetics dictate that the beauty of the scent is derived from the inherent nature of the incense, rather than external additives.

This concept, known as "shizen," signifies the pursuit of naturalness and truth, with no room for artifice or ostentation. This philosophy extends to the appreciation of the incense's age, where a well-aged incense is highly prized for its deep, complex scent profile.

Kōdō represents a microcosm of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy.

Its sophisticated and elegant nature lies in the profound appreciation of subtlety, minimalism, and naturalness.

The nuanced sensitivity needed to appreciate incense's subtle aromas and quality is more than just a product of sensory acuity; it's a cultivated skill that integrates the principles of mindfulness, presence, and aesthetics.

Each scent is regarded as a transient narrative that unravels complex layers of fragrant notes over time, each evolving stage painting a new chapter in this olfactory tale.

This focus on transient beauty is deeply rooted in the Japanese concept of 'mono no aware', a sensitivity to the fleeting nature of things.

Each waft of incense smoke is a poignant reminder of the passing of time and the impermanence of existence, inviting us to savor each fleeting moment.

In essence, the sophistication and elegance of Kōdō reside not in grand gestures but in the quiet, mindful appreciation of the subtle. It is a testament to the beauty of restraint, where simplicity and depth coalesce, and minimalism speaks volumes.

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