Kodo: The Japanese Incense Ceremony

Kodo Ceremony Cup

Incense as a cultural tradition, dates back further then recorded history.

The various regions of the world have each had their own take on incense, including various burning methods, practices, and even ingredients used.

Japan began using incense around the 6th century, after learning it from the Chinese and other surrounding regions.

Their practices took their own road and developed into something unique and special. One such tradition, developed during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), is known as Kodo, or the “Way of Fragrance”.

Kodo is also often referred to as “The Art of Incense”.

The modern version of this ceremony is based upon incense games played during the times of feudal Japan.

Soradaki is the core of kodo, and was considered the basic art of incense in Japan, long before incense sticks were available.

Soradaki: Burning Incense For Pleasure

Soradaki is the art of burning incense, or “burning for pleasure”

While practicing Soradaki, incense was burned upon charcoal, which was buried in ash. The buried charcoal gives off a gentler heat compared to using charcoal directly, allowing the fragrance to slowly bubble out of the wood.

Resinous woods such as agarwood or sandalwood were quite popular, but so were other forms such as Awaseko (kneaded incense).

Kodo: The Way of Fragrance

Kodo is similar to Soradaki, in that incense is burned for pleasure.

However, Kodo is more then that. Kodo has distinctive rules and themes.

Everything from the materials, the tools, and the games are all regulated by historical accords.

When practicing Kodo, it is typical to use a mica plate upon the buried charcoal used in Soradaki. This allows for the material to burn at an even lower temperature, preserving the aromatic nuances of the wood, while also producing a lower quantity of smoke.

Kodo isn’t practiced simply to smell the ingredients. Rather, Kodo is about ‘listening’ to the incense and allowing it’s scent to fill your heart and mind.

It’s known that our sense of smell has a profound effect on our memory, with some scents triggering such a strong emotional response that it almost seems as if we are transported back to where we were when we first smelled the scent.

There are also many games which are played while enjoying kodo. Some of these include aromatic guessing games, using the fragrance as inspiration to tell stories, or even simply documenting and comparing notes based upon personal interpretations of the incense fragrance.

Japan has been practicing this art for centuries now.

Kodo has only been growing in popularity, as modern people are beginning to understand the value of aromatic expression and the happiness it brings along with it.

The History of Kodo

Kodo is based upon incense oriented games which used to be played in the 11th century by Heian court nobles. At the time, they were called “Koh Awase”. The Tale of Gengi, an ancient Japanese novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, mentions these games in detail.

Sometime during the years 1443 and 1490, it is believed that Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga asked his trusted advisor Sanetaka Sanjoshini to lists of games and ingredients used during these practices. Later, he refined those rules and began the Japanese tradition of Kodo.

One of the most famed aromatic materials in Japanese incense culture is agarwood. Agarwood is a deeply aromatic wood from the aquilaria tree. It develops it’s fragrance after being infested with a certain mold known as Phialophora parasitica.

According to lore, there are six different varieties of agarwood, with each one having a slightly different fragrance profile. Collectively, these are known as the Rikkoku Gomi. It is believed to have been invented by Yonekawa Johaku during the Edo period of Japan.

Modern Day Kodo

Today there are only two formal ‘schools of thought’ regarding Kodo.

The two schools are known as the Shino-Ryu and Oiye-Ryu schools.

Shino represents the Soushin Shino tradition, while the Oiye school represents the Sanetaka Sanjoshini tradition.

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