Kodo: Japanese Art of Incense

Kodo: Japanese Art of Incense

Kodo, which means “the way of fragrance,” is a Japanese incense ceremony. Japanese incense is made of aromatic plants and essential oils. It can be used for meditation, aromatherapy, or to create a calm and relaxing environment. Different from western perfumes, Kodo works more on a spiritual level rather than on the sense of smell. Throughout history, incense has had a great influence on Japanese calligraphy, literature, and the tea ceremony.

What is Kodo?


The fragrance of Kodo is divided into rikkoku gomi, which means six countries and five scents. Six countries refer to fragrant wood from six countries, which are kyara, rakoku, manaka, manaban, sumatora, and sasora, and the five scents are amai (sweet), nigai (bitter), karai (spicy), suppai (sour), and shio karai (salty). Japanese incense is usually a blend of multiple scents, depending on the proportion of each fragrant wood. It requires years of training and a sensitive sense of smell to distinguish these scents.

The Kodo is usually performed in a traditional Washitsu (Japanese-style room), which is a solemn and quiet occasion. The host will place the incense wood on top of the burner and heat it from below with a piece of charcoal. The host will hold the burner in the palm of his/her left hand and breath through a small hole between her index finger and thumb. Then, the burner will be passed from one participant to the other. Once the first piece of incense has been emitted, another one will be burned. Participants are asked to just listen and watch quietly because the purpose of Kodo is to infuse the scent into one's body and soul and “listen” to the essence of the incense. Participation in Kodo is considered good for health. Konojutoku lists ten virtues of Kodo, including:

  1. Sharpens one's senses.
  2. Purifies one's body and spirit.
  3. Eliminates pollutants.
  4. Awakens one's spirit.
  5. Heals loneliness.
  6. Calms a person, even in turbulent times.
  7. Is not unpleasant, even in abundance.
  8. Even in small amounts is sufficient.
  9. Does not break down until after a very long time.
  10. Regular use is not harmful.

History of Kodo


Incense has first been used in Buddhist rituals during the Nara period (710-794) because of its power of purification. Then, incense became prevalent among nobility. Incense played a crucial role in court life during the Heian period (794-1185): robes and even fans were need to be scented.

Kodo was formalized during the Warring States period (1467-1600 CE). Kodo was very popular among samurai. They would use incense to purify their bodies and minds in preparation for battle. The classification system of rikkoku gomi was invented in that age by Sanjose, the father of Kodo. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603 CE), known as the Japanese Renaissance, cultural and social events were frequently held by people of high society. At the events, many games and contests about incense appeared, such as matching the scent with the name of incense and reciting poetry about a specific incense. Incense games spread from nobilities to citizens and became a daily recreation.

Materials of Kodo


Kodo is a delicate art form that requires a series of kodogu (Incense utensils). Here are some basic components:

Jukobako: A three-tiered container used to store incense and mica plate.

Nagabon: Aong tray to put kōdōgu.

Koro: A censer.

Gin-yo: Mica plates (gin-yo) placed between incense wood and the ash.

Honkōban: Incense holder board.

Trapa Japonica : White ash.

Shinoori: A folded-paper packet used to keep incense wood chips.

Ginyo-Bako: A silver box to contain the mica plates.

Tandon: A special charcoal without odor and charcoal briquette.

Koji-tate: A small vase to store fire utensils.

Ginyo-basami: Metal tweezers or tongs used to handle the square mica plates

Kousukui kyouji kousaji: A scoop for transferring incense wood onto the mica plate

Koji: Metal fire chopsticks.

Ha i-oshi: A tamper used to tamp and smooth the ashes.

Ko-hane: Feather brush used to clean ashes.

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