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Introduction To Kodo

The Japanese Incense Ceremony

Kodo (koh do) is in practice a number of things; a social gathering, a game, a sharpening of the senses, theatre, art, mindfulness practice, and a celebration of, and inquiry into, one of the world’s most treasured aromatics; agarwood (aloeswood).

Kodo is a Japanese incense ceremony created around the 14th or 15th Century C.E. It was greatly influenced by the tea ceremony and incense making contests of the time.

In fact, one of the first games of Kodo was called “the game of ten” and is nearly identical to the tea ceremony of the same name.

Kodo is translated into English as “the way of incense” or “incense appreciation.” Ko means incense and do means “the way of” or “appreciation of.” It is also written as koh doh, koh dou or koh do.

In Japan, they have created hundreds of different games which can be played during a Kodo ceremony. These games are called Kumiko and are often based on seasonal themes, poetry, and travel.

Typically the ceremony takes place in a room where six to fifteen people may gather comfortably, sitting in a sort of square, with the teishu (talker), scorekeeper, and komoto (incense presenter) at the front. Each participant has a score sheet to record his or her impressions or observations of the woods to come.

The komoto prepares a cup of rice ash in which is buried a piece of hot bamboo charcoal. A small mica plate is placed over the ash covered charcoal and a tiny piece of aromatic wood is laid on the mica.

The wood’s fragrance is released without combustion; that is, Kodo is a smokeless manner of heating incense to release its purest aroma.

When the cup is properly prepared the komoto enjoys a couple of inhalations of the heated aromatic wood and passes it to the left with a bow.

Any honored guest sits to the left of the komoto and is the first recipient of the Kodo cup.

The cup makes its way around the room, each person enjoying the wood’s aroma and noting any distinctive characteristics on their score sheets. Thus the cup comes back to the komoto, who has prepared a second cup and wood for comparison.

Scoring sheets record each person’s identification of the woods and the results can be interpreted in a story of travel, reading of poetry, or any number of ways. The number of cups/woods sampled depends on the particular kumiko game being played.

incense games - listening to incense

What does Kodo offer contemporary Westerners?

Kodo offers westerners the same things it does in Japan: the enjoyment of playing a game with others in a social setting, a peaceful retreat from busy life, opportunity for mindfulness practice, a soothing time to wash away the thoughts of the day, and the discovery of the many pleasures of one of the world’s most treasured aromatics; agarwood/aloeswood.

What’s your advice to get started?

Anyone can begin to learn more about Kodo with easily obtained books from your local bookstore or library. Two we recommend are:

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The Book of Incense: Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents – by Kiyoko Morita

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Kodo : The Way of Incense – by David Pybus

How long does it take to become proficient?

Kodo is immediately enjoyable to anyone who participates in a ceremony or plays its games.

Proficiency can be looked at in two ways.

The first has to do with training the nose or olfactory system in the brain to recognize and identify the scents of the different aloeswoods.

Some people are immediately very good at this and for many others Kodo is an excellent way to reawaken your olfactory system to perceive and recognize aromas.

Secondly, there is the proficiency for hosting a ceremony. One can usually begin hosting an informal Kodo ceremony with friends and family shortly after reading the books suggested above and obtaining a few basic items.

To learn more details of the presentation and the various host positions involved, simply participate in more Kodo events, and watch as the ceremonies unfold.

Kodo is a lifelong endeavor in which one continuously learns more and more each time a game is played.

In Japan, a person trains and studies for over 30 years before they become a master of Kodo. And even then if you ask one, he or she would most likely tell you they are still in training and will be for life.

Kodo with David Oller and Mark Ambrose

Is Kodo expensive?

Are there ways to defray the expenses or improvise?

Kodo can be as frugal or luxurious as you want it to be. An elegant form of art, or a simple game to enjoy with friends and family.

You can start with very minimal tools such as a cup, ash, charcoal, a mica plate, and some aloeswood.

All of the utensils used in Kodo can be substituted with common household utensils like tweezers, a butter knife, etc.

The books on Kodo are reasonably priced and may be available at your local library or through an inter-library loan.

As with all things in the refined arts, if one wishes to take the Kodo ceremony very seriously there is no ceiling on what one can spend on the wide variety of very beautiful and elegantly crafted Kodo equipment.

You can create a specialized Kodo room in your home, or even travel to Japan and study with a Kodo master…

Note the legend of the Jiki-ko-ki, or “incense-eating-goblins.” They are the ghosts of those who for the sake of profit, made or sold bad incense and by that karmic action now find themselves as hunger-suffering spirits and compelled to seek their only food in the smoke of incense.