Kodo - The Way of Fragrance

By Staff Writer
March 17, 2023
Kodo which literally means “way of the fragrance” is a art of appreciating Japanese incense, and can be traced back to the early days of Buddhism in Japan, more than 1,000 years ago. It is one of the major classical arts alongside sado – tea ceremony, and kado or ikebana – flower arrangement, which were performed by the Japanese aristocracy. Nobles in the Imperial Court found poetic inspiration in “listening to the fragrance” of aromatic words. Kodo prevailed beyond this class, as it was also adopted by intellectual people such as writers, artists, affluent merchants and landowners.

Kodo was formalised during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Founders of kodo include Sanetaka Sanjonishi, a high-ranking court noble, and Soushin Shino, a samurai who had studied Jinkoh (aloeswood) under the Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga.
Agarwood fragrant wood used for incense and burning incense
In a kodo ceremony, kodo practitioners gather in a room, in a private house or in a temple with tatami flats, sit in the formal seiza position and take turns trying to guess the fragrance prepared by the komoto, the person who burns the incense. A mica plate is placed on top of smouldering coals and the incense or fragrant wood is placed on the plate. This avoids the wood being burned, instead giving off a subtle fragrance. Practitioners hold the incense burner on one hand, cup the smoke with the other and lift the fragrance to their face. Kodo practitioners dedicate decades of their lives to this art.
A woman in kimono sitting in  a traditional room
The fragrances of kodo are divided into rikkoku gomi, which means six countries, five tastes. The rikkoku are six kinds of fragrant wood: kyara, rakoku, manaka, manaban, sumatora, and sasora. The gomi are the five tastes: amai (sweet), nigai (bitter), karai (spicyhot), suppai (sour), shio karai (salty).

A woman making kumiko
Kodo has two leading schools: the Oie-ryu School and the Shino-ryu School. The first places more emphasis on literal aspects of incense, whilst the latter is more focused on manners and formality.
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