Kôdô, the art of appreciating perfumes

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japanese artAt once subtle and spiritual, it is truly fascinating. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the code (incense road) dwells on the pinnacle of refinement along Ikebana (flower path) and Chado (Tea ceremony).

Kodo is a traditional Japanese art that consists of appreciating aromatic woods according to a highly codified ancestral ritual. First used in a religious context, frankincense has conquered the noses of aristocrats.

The extremely difficult rules of Kodo require many years of experience to master. Therefore, the art of incense, which mixes literary culture and olfactory experience, remains rare and precious.

? An ancient traditional art

« It is 香 means “perfume” or “incense” and ” do 道 “the way”. Thus ” Code 香道 can be translated as “The way of smells”. In Japan, frankincense has been used for over a thousand years. The aromatic wood first aroused the interest of nobles and samurai before spreading to the middle classes.

? The history of incense in Japan

Frankincense appeared more than 6,000 years ago in the Middle East with the first great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, however, it only landed in the archipelago in 6e century. Scented woods did not exist in Japan and came mainly from India. Imported from China, at the same time as Buddhism, the incense will be used for religious ceremonies before being appreciated for its heady scent and its virtues.

? The legend of Japanese incense


the nihonshoki (an ancient writing in the history of Japan) recounts the use of aromatic wood burned in 595, at the time of the Empress Suiko. A legend says that a strain of agarwood It was reportedly found on the beaches of Awaji, an island near Osaka Bay. Once the wood was consumed by the fire, the perfume was so delicious that the islanders decided to offer it to the imperial house. A little shinto shrine Then it was built in honor of the fragrant wood.

?‍♂ The role of Buddhism

The end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh century were marked by the rise of Buddhism in Japan under the leadership of Prince Shotoku. Like The tea ceremony et Ikebana, religion has played an important role in traditional Kodo art. The incense then served as an offering to the deities and also had a purifying role in the buddhist rituals. Precious woods were imported from China to make incense, giving rise to local crafts in the archipelago.

? Scented Woods at Court

During the Heian period (794 to 1185), frankincense was very popular at court and people organized smell contest to guess the essences. The aromatic resins were used to entertain, but also to perfume clothes.

↗ The rise of incense in the Muromachi Period:

Later, in the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), incense ceased to be the prerogative of the Court and spread to the upper and middle classes of Japanese society. The combustion of aromatic woods represents a mark of distinction et its use becomes regular. In addition, the samurai used to impregnate their helmets and armor with incense in cleansing ritualso they felt stronger in battle.

During this same period, the precious fragrant woods are classified at the request of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The rules of the game are set to give birth to the art of kodo. The utensils used in the ceremony (Kodogu) were then embellished with gilding and raised to the height of refinement. There are two schools that have perpetuated the teaching of Kodo for centuries: Oie-ryu Founded by Sanetaka Sanjonishia Japanese aristocrat of the Muromachi period and the school Shino-ryu created by teacher shinoshoshin. The former is more focused on art and poetry while the latter is much more formal.

? Awaji, the island of perfumes

incense production

Incense production on the island of Awaji. Credit: awaji-encens.jp

Awaji Island has been developing the artisan manufacture of incense sticks since 1850 and today represents 70% of Japanese production. The aromatic woods made on the island are particularly recognized for its quality and you can find a wide variety of fragrances. Japanese incense is made from powdered wood (sandalwood, aloe, etc.), plants, spices, and herbs. The kho-shi (masters of perfumes) perpetuate an ancestral know-how that goes from the composition of the paste to the finishing of the bars, passing through the drying of the resins. Please note that the strong winds on Awaji Island allow for ideal drying of the incense.

? Japanese incense today

During the Edo period and the Meiji period, incense lost popularity. However, one hundred years ago, the great teacher kito yujirou was able to relaunch his success. After a period of isolation, Japan is opening up to the world. Inspired by western perfume culture, the master perfumer will achieve a touch of genius by creating the mainichi koh (daily incense). This day, japanese incense with floral, spicy or woody notes it is very famous all over the world.

japan incense

?‍♂️ The path of incense or the art of listening to smells

In Kodo art, we listen to the smells. You have read correctly… the Japanese do not smell, but rather “listen”, because the practice of Kodo requires using all the senses to capture the delicacy of the fragrances.

The course of the perfume ceremony.

Very solemn, the artistic practice of Kodo requires a lot of concentration. The ritual takes place in a tatami and in a golden silence. The incense master moves slowly and sits down. Then he will delicately take out all the necessary material for the ceremony. All his gestures are performed in a precise order and with a extreme rigor. Lacquerware, coals, toothpicks, ash presses, etc. They are treated with great respect and delicacy. Then the master will place a very small piece of incense wood on a mini mica support. The censer contains patterned ashes and charcoal as fuel (or a bamboo ember). Therefore, the incense is heated and does not burn directly during do not modify the aromas.

kodo ceremony

Burning incense has been practiced in Japan for centuries… Credit: Sam Peet/Culture Trip

in close state meditation, the participants, seated in a square, pass the incense burner from hand to hand. They will take turns breathing in the forest smoke presented by the kodo master. With a precise gesture, they “listen” to the smells emanating from the burning wood and try to memorize their notes. Once all the incense-witnesses have been presented, the teacher distributes other woods that the participants must identify.

? The game of essences: can you recognize them?

The set of five incenses is called Genjiko while the one with three woods is called sanshuko. There are 6 types of wood o rickkoku corresponding to 6 different countries (Kyara, Rakoku, Manaka, Minaban, Sasora and Sumotara). Similarly there are 5 flavors o gomi (bitter, sweet, salty, spicy, acid). It takes years of experience to be able to perfectly recognize the complexities.

?️ The philosophy of the Code

Spiritual path through incense

Spiritual path through incense. Source: tourismdesigners.rezgo.com

Kodo is not just a game of guessing scents and developing your sense of smell. The celebration of perfumes is an authentic spiritual experience imprint of poetry, which awakens the senses, relaxes body and mind.

? The 10 virtues

According to beliefs, the practice of Kodo brings benefits such as better concentrationY feeling of harmonyof serenity or even of fullness. Here are the 10 virtues attributed to perfume ceremony.

  1. stimulates the senses
  2. Purifies body and mind
  3. Cleanse the contaminants from the mind
  4. revive the spirit
  5. fight against loneliness
  6. Calm the stress
  7. It’s nice even in abundance.
  8. It works even in small quantities.
  9. holds up well
  10. often used

The Kodo is still a rare and privileged traditional art since precious woods are very expensive. Also, it takes a lot of experience to master this art. However, this does not prevent Japanese incense from being appreciated throughout the world for its remarkable delicacy.

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