Incense was first introduced to Japan through the spread of Buddhism. After it’s initial arrival, incense culture in Japan quickly flourished. It became especially popular in Kyoto during the Heian Period. Soon, it became commonplace to use incense to perfume one’s clothing and hair, in addition to being used by samurais to cleanse their minds before battle. During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) a set of aesthetic principles around the use of incense became established. This was called Kōdō (香道, "Way of Fragrance"). Kōdō along with kadō for flower arrangement, and chadō for the Japanese Tea Ceremony, are the three classical arts of refinement that many young women were expected to know. However, Kōdō is the least well known due to the expensive nature of the raw materials required for its practice. Kōdō was formalized during Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1443-1490).
When practicing Kōdō there are very specific steps to be followed. Like the Japanese Tea Ceremony Kōdō takes place in either a private home or temple in a full tatami room. One is supposed to sit in the formal seiza position.
When preparing for the ceremony small slivers of incense, usually aloeswood, are cut into rice grain sized chips. Aloeswood is very popular due to its high oil content giving it a deeper scent. A mica plate is placed atop smoldering coals, and the small piece of incense is placed on top of the plate. This makes it so the incense doesn’t actually burn but rather gives off a subtle smell.
It is important to note that Kōdō involves more than just one sense, it is meant to encompass all five senses and completely transport you to another world. It is particularly important to listen (kiku) to the incense, rather than just smell (kagu) it. During the official ceremony the incense is prepared by the Komoto (person who burns the incense). In a traditional game there are three different types of incense prepared. The first cup is passed to the guest seated at the left side of the Komoto (this seat is considered to be held for a person of honor). The cup is picked up by the right hand and then placed in the left hand. Next you cup the smoke and bring the cup close to your face to inhale, listen, and fully absorb the incense. After each breath the participant must exhale to the left and pass the cup. When all three cups have been passed participants write their guesses down on pieces of paper in a geometric code system. After everyone hands in their papers, the Komoto reviews the answers and declares a winner. While Kōdō is a type of game, it is also a traditional Japanese art form and is taken very seriously.
Kōdō is said to have 10 physical and psychological benefits:
- Sharpens the senses
- Purifies the mind and body
- Removes mental or spiritual pollutants
- Promotes alertness
- Heals feelings of loneliness
- Creates feeling of harmony
- Even in abundance, it’s not overwhelming
- Satisfies even in small quantities
- Does not decay
- Does no harm, even if used everyday