A History of the Kōdō Ceremony and Traditional Japanese Incense

Traditional Japanese incense is regarded as one of the finest incenses in the world. It’s made from a fusion of aromatic plant material (usually kohbuko, or fragrant wood) and essential oils. It is ideal for meditation and aromatherapy or to create a calm relaxing environment around the home. But what is involved in the traditional Japanese incense (kodo) ceremony? And, are there other benefits of burning incense? We answer all of these burning questions in this post.

What Is A Traditional Japanese Incense Ceremony?

Japanese incense has an important place within Japanese culture, so much so that it has its own special customs and a ceremony. A Japanese incense ceremony is known as a Kōdō. As with other aspects of Japanese culture, the Kōdō ceremony is full of tradition and specific ways of doing things. The etiquette for properly smelling incense is very specific. You need to steady the incense burner on your left hand and keep it horizontal, placing your right thumb and little finger on the incense burner. You then bring the burner up to your nose, still keeping it horizontal, and take in the fragrance through the space between your right thumb and forefinger.

The History of Incense in Japan and the Kōdō Ceremony

Incense in Japan The Kōdō Ceremony Kōdō, literally translated as ‘way of incense’, is the Japanese ceremony of appreciating incense. Beginning in the Sengoku Period (the warring states period, when there was a lot of social upheaval and conflict), the Kōdō ceremony was a popular event among the samurai and aristocracy and held a similar kind of popularity to the tea ceremony (chadō). Following on from this, in the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the upper class held cultural events and performances such as the tea ceremony, renga composition (composing linked verses), and Noh plays. Kōdō fit in alongside these traditions and was a popular social event. As time moved on and formalities began to develop within the ceremony, the Kōdō ceremony began to be recognised as one of the refined arts, or geidō. Geidō refers to arts and ceremonies that should be performed to specific rules and manners. One of the distinct differences between incense in Japan and fragrances in the west is that, in the west, people expect nothing other than a scent from fragrance. The Kōdō ceremony began to spread from the samurai and aristocracy to writers, artists, merchants and landowners. Incense began to have a growing influence on literature and calligraphy and became an important spiritual asset for the time period.

Founders of the Kōdō Ceremony

Kōdō is thought to have been turned into a form of game towards the end of the 16th century by a high-ranking court official named Sanetaka Sanjonish and a samurai named Soushin Shino. Kōdō branched off into several schools, of which two main schools survived the Oie-ryu School founded by Sanetaka Sanjonish has shaped the manners of performing Kōdō. In contrast, Shino-ryu puts more emphasis on formality and manners.

Benefits of Burning Incense: The Ten Virtues of Kō

The ten virtues were composed in the Tenshō period of the late 16th century and list ten benefits of burning incense, so long as it is properly used and of good quality. They state that incense:
  1. Sharpens the senses
  2. Purifies the body and mind
  3. Cleanses and removes dirt
  4. Rouses the spirit from sleep
  5. Heals loneliness
  6. Provides a moment of rest during busy times
  7. Can be used often and cause no harm
  8. Can be used little and still do good
  9. Remains fresh if well stored
  10. Can be used every day

What Does Kōdō Involve?

There are two main aspects to Kōdō:
  • Improving Mental Well-Being – along with tea ceremonies and flower arrangement, a Kōdō ceremony is special as it involves a quiet room and special etiquette for inhaling fragrances. One of the benefits of burning incense is that it takes you away from the stresses of modern life and allows for introspection and calm. By improving your knowledge of the art, you improve the benefit you take from Kōdō.
  • The Gaming Aspect of Kōdō – this is a way to hone the sense and understanding of different fragrances. A fragrant woodchip is chosen from a group and then placed into an incense burner. It is unlabelled and passed around, and participants have to guess what fragrance it is.
Traditional Japanese incense and the Kōdō ceremony form an important pillar of Japanese geidō, along with the tea ceremony and flower arranging. If you would like to learn more about them, please take a look at our traditional tea sets and informative book on Japanese flower arranging; they make perfect gifts for anyone with interest in Japanese culture and history.
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