Oct 16, 2008

Elusive scents, the way of Koh

I had an opportunity earlier this week to attend a lecture and demonstration on Kodo, the way of incense. Kodo is a traditional Japanese art, a ritual that is meditative in nature, but unlike chado, it is also playful. Kodo has deep roots in Japanese culture, dating back to the Heian period (794-1192). It is mentioned in the Tale of Genji and evokes images of the beauty and wonder of ancient Japan.

Mr. Kihachiro Nishura from Tokyo is a Kodo master, and he prepared for 60 people an abbreviated version of Genjiko, an incense ceremony where guests were given 3 different scents and had to distinguish if they were alike or different.

The incense used was wood incense called jinko (meaning sinking wood). It is rare and primarily found in Vietnam and Laos. How it is formed is mysterious and natural. A resinous tree is eaten by bugs and the tree exudes resin to protect itself. When the tree dies, it falls to the ground and over many years it decays and changes into jinko.

There are a few rules before starting an incense ceremony:

  1. Don’t eat anything spicy or wear perfume
  2. Wear clean socks
  3. No accessories (rings, watches and bracelets can damage the porcelain incense burners)
  4. No flowers or plants in the room
  5. Don’t talk too much – the answers should come from your own perceptions

The incense burners (koro) are prepared by placing a live charcoal in a bed of ash, covering it up and pressing an intricate pattern on top with special utensils. A chimney hole is poked down through the ash to the coal so heat escapes. Over the chimney hole is placed a special mica plate surrounded by silver. The tiny, tiny bit of incense wood about the size of the letter o here is placed on the mica plate. This gentle heat releases the fragrance from the resin. The guests hold the koro in the left palm and cover the top with the right hand, leaving a small hole formed by the thumb and first finger. By putting your nose up to this hole, inhale gently and smell the fragrance. Exhale by turning to the left and down

This is often described as “Listening to the incense.” Mr. Nishiura likened the enjoyment of incense to listening to music – there are top notes and low notes and it changes over time. There is an immersion into the experience. Because our sense of smell is one of the most primitive senses, it is connected closely to our memories and smells evoke emotions and feeling connected to those memories.

So the Genjiko game we played was 3 different kinds of incense woods each packaged in 3 times in small wrappers for a total of nine packages. Of these, three are chosen at random and prepared in different koro.

Comparing these, there are five possible configurations to the set:
  1. If each one of the three are different it is scored like this: | | | three vertical lines
  2. If each one is the same it is scored with three vertical lines all connected at the top (sorry I can’t do it on the keyboard).
  3. If the first and last are the same it is scored with three vertical lines with only the first and last connected at the top and the middle line a little shorter.
  4. If the first two are alike then the first two vertical lines are connected.
  5. And finally if the last two are alike then the last two vertical lines are connected.
To give more interest, kodo master can give poetic names to the combinations such as:
  1. Three vertical lines (all different): Evergreen trees
  2. Three vertical lines all connected (all the same): Dew on pampas grass
  3. First and third connected: Snow on a lonely peak
  4. First two connected: Sound of the koto
  5. Last two connected: Plum blossoms form the neighbor’s house.
It was a challenge not only in distinguishing the fragrances (you only get one inhalation), but also in memory – did this one have as sharp a note as the last one, or did it gently fade away at the end?

In the game, the guests write their answers on small folded pieces of paper. The recorder collects them all, scores them and writes a record (in calligraphy) of all the participants’ scores. Many rounds are played and the one with the highest score gets to take the record home.

Knowledge of literature and poetry, calligraphy, as well as memory and discernment all play a role in the enjoyment of kodo.

If you'd like to try kodo, I have some supplies at sweetpersimmon.com

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