Japan: What Happens at an Incense Ceremony? 2

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I remember reading ‘Memoirs of a Geisha” and being transported in vivid detail into the mysterious world of the Japanese geisha. To the point where I was convinced it was a true story, got to the bit in the book which describes a famous painting gifted to the Geisha by a prominent figure in society, and wanted to find out more about it on Google. Pretty high up in the search results is a forum which asks something like “are you trying to find out about the fictional Uchida Kosaburo painting in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ which doesn’t exist?”

Japanese culture and tradition is a fascinating world.

Incense ceremonies, kōdō in Japanese, are considered to be the most skilled of the three classical Japanese arts, the other two being flower arranging, called ikebana or kadō, and the art of the tea ceremony, chadō. The latter two have usually been heard of by people outside of Japan. An incense ceremony or ‘the way of incense’ is less well known. It takes years, I’ve read around around thirty, to become fully skilled in the art of performing an incense ceremony. Each practitioner is licenced after attending one of the two ancient kōh schools.

I was curious. I didn’t really understand what it was, why it was so revered, and what made it so different from aromatherapy or other popular Western uses of scent. I was also delighted that I’d been invited to one. Often Western tourists don’t get the chance.

I went with a Japanese friend. The whole ceremony was in Japanese so that helped. She wrote a summary in English on a sheet of paper in front of me of what was being said as it was happening.

The words that stick in my mind thinking about the ceremony are slow, precise and graceful. Every movement is deliberate and exact, every single movement. The lady who performed our kōdō was Japanese, between 50 and 60 years old I’d say, and wearing, perfectly, a cream, flowered silk kimono. He hair was tied up, perfectly, and she spoke in a quite voice.

We were in a room, a lift journey up into a business apartment block, with an unrelated shop on the ground floor, in the centre of Tokyo. On stepping out of the lift, my friend and I were greeted by a man in a suit and shown where to put our shoes. I wasn’t sure who to expect as my fellow incense ceremony guests. They turned out to be a mix of males and females, all Japanese, some women wearing traditional kimonos and some men wearing suits. They were aged between around 30 and 70. There were fifteen of us.

We were ushered into the kō room where the incense ceremony was to be performed. It was square, minimal, with a paper sliding screen door at one end. It was sectioned off from the reception area with wooden screens. Tables were arranged into a square and there were stools round three side of the square. A solitary stool was placed along the other side in front of the screen. Sometimes guests sit on bamboo matting on the floor. With my gammy knees I was just glad I had a seat. In front of each place was a folded piece of paper, on which to write our ‘answers’ I discovered, a thick nibbed Japanese pen and a sheet of paper with Japanese writing on it. These were all laid onto a thin bamboo mat.

Kōdō incense game

Our information sheet and answer card.

The woman performing the ceremony came into the room through the sliding paper doors and sat on her stool. Her entry was silent, and each movement as she sat down and laid out various items on the table was carefully considered. The folding of a cloth napkin to use in the ceremony took more than a minute. My brain was still operating at Western speed, and I watched fascinated at the slow, careful folding. Everything is clearly done in exactly the same order, with the same gestures each time. The host directed us to the poem/song in front of us and explained its meaning. My friend quietly wrote an English version beside me. Some people took notes. The song told the story of feeling trapped in a city on a smoggy day in Autumn, wanting to venture out into the fresh air. The person passes through the Autumn wind to a series of gates. Gates are very symbolic in Japan and one of the gates, a big white one, was leading north.

We were to be presented with three scents: three different scented pieces of wood. We were to order the scents correctly according to the story by choosing which scent represented each part of the journey. There are many versions of incense games. Sometimes you are asked to find two “matching” scents, from ten or fifteen possibles, after smelling them some time apart. Sometimes you need to put different scents in the same order as ones which have been previously smelt, by “listening” carefully to each scent. I think our ceremony was a bit like this, with the scents also being attached to elements of a story. If we correctly ordered the scents, we would unlock the gates, and pass through them to our destination.

Part of the task of the performer of the ceremony is to find a suitable poem, story or song, often from the ancient Tales of Genji, which date back to the 11th Century. This song was chosen because it was October and autumnal.

The incense burner was then introduced. There are many implements used in an incense ceremony and each is laid out on a mat in front of the host. Some ancient Kōdō sets take pride of place in museums, and they are often very valuable. They are meticulously cleaned before and after the ceremony. Implements usually include the incense burner, the ash into which charcoal is embedded, metal tongs, chopsticks for handling the tiny cubes of scented wood, and small glass plates, gin-yo, which sit on the ash and onto which the wood is placed.


The host starts by preparing the incense burner. Hot charcoal is embedded in white ash and the ash is shaped to form a smooth cone on top. The glass plate is laid horizontally on top. And then the wood on top of that. It’s always done like this. Exact movements which never vary.

There are several scented woods used in kōdō. They are very expensive, some weight for weight more expensive than gold, and now very rare because it can take decades or centuries for these aromatic trees to start producing the scented resin. Agarwood is one of the world’s rarest and most valuable natural products. It’s believed that Japan was introduced to agarwood when it was shipped to its shores a thousand years ago to construct a Buddhist temple.

Incense was (and still is) used in Buddhism to purify and ward off evil. A couple of hundred years later, in the Heian period (from 794AD), a very showy and ornate time, incense was used in aristocratic circles to infuse kimonos, hair and living quarters. There are stories about Genji, from the Tales of Genji, hosting incense ceremonies and he and Heian courtiers having distinctively scented clothing, being tracked to places they shouldn’t have been by that scent. Ornate incense games began, but it wasn’t until the 14th century, in the Muromachi period, that the complex rules of kōdō became established in the form that they exist today.

Ten physical and psychological benefits of incense were laid down in the Muromachi period. It was declared that incense:

1. Sharpens the senses.
2. Purifies the mind and body.
3. Removes mental and spiritual pollutants.
4. Promotes alertness.
5. Removes feelings of loneliness.
6. Creates a feeling of harmony when stressed.
7. Is not overwhelming even in abundance.
8. Satisfies, even in small quantities.
9. Does not diminish in quality even over centuries.
10. Does no harm even if used every day.

Once the first cube of wood was placed into the burner to heat up and release its scent at our kōdō, the participants started to play an active role. The host explained the process. I was a bit nervous that I’d commit some terrible Japanese faux pas in the very serene atmosphere. The whole thing seemed to involve a lot of coordination.

I was 12th in the circle of 15 so I had a little time to watch and mentally practise. I often have trouble getting the dinner served without dropping lumps of it on the table so this was going to be a challenge. The burner came round to me. I greeted the person to my left, my friend, and picked up the burner with my right hand, from its resting point on the mat to my left. I laid it onto the palm of my left hand, as I had watch 11 times, and gave it a half turn clockwise, making sure the glass plate remained balanced on the tip of the ash cone. My right hand cupped the top of the burner, again as we had been shown, and I smelt it slowly 3 times. We had been told we were not allowed to smell it more than three times. To complete my turn, I lifted the burner with my right hand and laid it to my right on the table beside me, ready for the next person to greet me and pick it up.

We were asked to record in our own words what the smell reminded us of or to describe it in some way with words, for future reference. It’s quite difficult to put some smells into words, especially when there are only subtle differences between them.

We carried out this process 3 times, recording our thoughts each tour of the incense burner.

Then the game began. We had to resmell and order the smells, according to what we had already smelt, probably 20 or so minutes before, and according to the story.

Like most people, scents have invoked vivid memories for me all my life. Fresh grass sports days or holiday perfumes. I really enjoyed the process of putting the them into words, and then using those words to differentiate between the scents that were passing around the table. We were asked to write our name and our answers on the folded card in front of us. The name bit took me a while. It’s strange writing in characters you don’t recognise – little differences in angle or length of line mean nothing to me, but everything to the reader.

The cards were collected in a wicker basket which we passed round the table to the host. She gave us the correct answer. I didn’t get through the gate; I’ll have to go back and try again. I’m not sure how long the whole ceremony took, possibly an hour and a half. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and lose track of time.

It was fascinating to watch the precision of the movements of the host, and to get caught up in something that on the one hand is so simple, yet is on another level so complexly linked to nature, ancient literature, formal rules and spirituality. “Listening” to scents was a memorable way to spend an afternoon in Tokyo away from the neon lights and throngs of people. I walked round the corner afterwards to be jolted back into the cutesy, wacky other world of Japan, and Little Kitty.

Hello Kitty Japan 40 years

The wacky cutesy world of Hello Kitty.

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2 thoughts on “Japan: What Happens at an Incense Ceremony?

    • Profile photo of Taylor
      Taylor Post author

      Thank you Bob. No photos were really appropriate at the time, so I hope you got a feel for it. If you’ve not read Memoirs of a Geisha I’d recommend it – it was so vivid. The ceremony was such a memorable thing to do 🙂

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