Friday, November 11, 2011

KODO - The art of Japanese incense

Photo credit: Ikeda Koson

Since I have already discussed by most beloved fragrance notes (iris, patchouli, amber and leather), I am now inclined to overcome my limitations and to expand my horizons, by unfolding the secrets of notes that I have been neglecting for years due to one particular reason - I am not fond of them. Incense fragrances were never my choice of purchase, but I confess that some perfumes that I love do have incense in their accords, and sometimes they are the small touch that makes all the difference; but buying a perfume where incense is the main inspiration, added in large doses is just something I could never bare.
I think the best way to overcome my dislikes is to learn more about them. I feel that once I plunge into something that is not familiar, with an opened mind, things might take another direction. I also believe that life is less stressful, more vibrant and far more positive when we give things a second chance. When we try to learn the origin of things and we look at the world with less critical lens.
With this philosophy in mind, I will start a journey into KODO - the ancient Japanese incense ceremony. 
The history of KODO goes back to the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573) even prior to the Tea Ceremony. Before it became a ceremony, KODO was a social activity, a game by which players learn to "listen" to the fragrances. They are also contests to try to identify varieties of aromas of aloeswood, or RIKKOKU.
KODO is also one of the 03 major classical arts along with sado ( Tea Ceremony) and kado (Ikebana - flower arrangement).


Soradaki is the Japanese word for "burning for pleasure" when incense was burned over charcoal buried in ash. Kneaded incense, called Awaseko, or resinous woods such as sandalwood or aloeswood were heated instead. KODO is a variation of Soradaki, where a plate with mica is placed on top of the ash above a buried charcoal, releasing no smoke because the woods are heat at a low temperature, but giving off their fragrance in a very subtle way.
I found a list of the varieties of Rikkoku (agarwood) for KODO games. They consist in passing the incense around. Players need to "listen" to the fragrance, to appreciate its beauty and than try to guess the materials of the incense, describing the fragrances and classifying their qualities.
It may seem to be all about the sense of smell, but the secret of kodo is in "listening." The participants don't "smell" (the Japanese verb 'kagu') the incense or fragrant wood, but rather "listen" (kiku) to it, opening up not so much their nasal passages as their heart and spirit. 
Rikkoku means "The six countries of agarwood"  and since it is pretty much in fashion these days, I think it is interesting to list them:

Kyara - a gentle smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is described as an aristocrat with elegance and gracefulness.
Rakoku - sharp and pungent smell like sandalwood, reminding an warrior.
Manaka - light, enticing and it changes like the mood of a woman.
Manaban - sweet and peasant.
Sumotara - it is sour but it can be mistaken by Kyara - it is a servant dressed like an aristocrat.
Sasora - cold and sour, can also be mistaken by Kyara and it reminds of a monk.

The qualities to classify the agarwood are:
Sweet (resembles the smell of honey or concentrated sugar), sour (resembles the smell of plums or acid fruits), hot (resembles the smell of hot pepper when heated), salty (lingering smell of the water from the ocean or seaweed being dried on the fire), and bitter (resembles the smell of bitter herbal medicines when heated).

Incense trail with gunpowder
photo credit:

Today in Japan there are only two school (Oiye ryu and Shino -ryu) teaching the art of KODO, which used to be mastered in 30 years  - yes darlings, being a Japanese master of anything takes always ages! Japanese are obsessed with perfectionism!
I found a 12 minutes documentary by Janus Avivison where you will be able to watch an entire ceremony of KODO. It also provides interesting historical backgrounds.

So let's watch it to continue this journey:



Dimi3 said...

Nice post, thank you for great history lesson.

Dimi3 said...

Great post, great history lesson. Arigato.

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

Thank you darling! How are you?

Tara C said...

There is a brand of Japanese incense I have been buying, Lisn - reading this story makes me understand how they chose the name - I never knew that you were supposed to «listen» to what the incense is saying. I love hinoki and aloeswood incense especially.

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

I will check about this brand. I have also found an Italian brand that launched a fragrance called Koh - do - I am trying to get in touch with them to check about the perfume to review. Lovely tip - I will check it and get back to you on this one! :-) XX

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