People have been burning incense as far back as anybody can remember.

In a world of simple pleasures, it is not hard to see how the divine aroma of nature could help bring about a moment of peace or clarity in an otherwise harsh world.

Not only is it burned for it’s inherent aromatics, incense also holds a deep cultural significance to many cultures throughout the world where it is burned for religious and meditative purposes.

The Beginning of Incense in Japan

Japan didn’t begin using incense on their own accord. It was brought over from China along with supplies to build a Buddhist temple in Japan during the 6th century and began being burned during rituals and other practices.

One such ritual was known as the sonaekō. In preparation, Kōboku (fragrant wood) was mixed with aromatic herbs in order to be burned during the ceremony. At the time, agarwood, the iconic Japanese incense wood, had not yet been discovered and much of Japan’s incense-related history had yet to unfold.

The oldest Japanese history book in existence, the Nihon Shoki, mentions that agarwood drifted onto the Awaji Island in 595 A.D. When the island’s inhabitants burned a piece, they realized it had a fragrance which they had not smelled before and it was presented before Empress Suiko (who was the ruler of the region at the time) at the imperial court.

The divine aroma of agarwood is particularly important in Japanese incense culture and the wood has since been given a special status. The most famous piece of agarwood is known as the Ranjatai, an 11 kilo imperial tribute from China.

The Evolution of Kodo

Kodo (Way of Fragrance) began as a set of incense-based games which were played by Heian court nobles during the 11th century. These games were documented in the iconic Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji.

In one such game, the players would take an odd number of censers, typically between 3 and 5, and put a burning fragrant material inside of them. However, one of the censers would have a different fragrant material, often something hard to obtain, or cherished. The censers were then passed around and the players would attempt to guess which one was different, or even what the material was.

Another way was to take notes on the fragrance on paper and then compare your interpretations of the scent afterwards.

A third way to play was to burn a fragrant material from far away and use it’s aroma as inspiration for telling a story. This allowed the teller of the story to almost feel as if they were transported back to the location they were telling the story about.

Despite the many games and rules, it’s important to note that kodo is about more than that. At it’s heart, it’s about monko (listening) to the fragrance.

It is believed that at some point during 1443 and 1940, Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga commanded his advisor Sanetaka Sanjoshini to create a list of incense games and ingredients used at the time. This list formed the foundation of traditional Kodo practice and allowed it to evolve from a simple set of games to something of real cultural significance.

Notably, Sanjoshini created the Rikkoku Gomi, which was a grading system allowing one to speak of the differences between agarwood scent profiles.

Kodo, together with Chado (tea ceremony) and Kado (flower arrangement) are collectively known as the Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement.

The Ten Virtues of Koh

A document of relation to Kodo is the Ten Virtues of Koh.

It was written by Zen Buddhist monks during the late 16th century and describes the inherent qualities of incense as perceived by the Japanese people of the era.

This document continues to inspire kodo practitioners throughout the world and is a remaining legacy of feudal Japan.

感格鬼神: Sharpens the senses
清浄心身: Purifies the body and the spirit
能払汚穢: Eliminates pollutants
能覚睡眠: Awakens the spirit
静中成友: Heals loneliness
塵裏愉閑: Calms in turbulent times
多而不厭: Is not unpleasant, even in abundance
募而知足: Even in small amounts is sufficient
久蔵不朽: Does not break down after a very long time
常用無障: A common use is not harmful

Kodo in Modern Times

There are only two schools of Kodo which have managed to survive Japan’s complex and turbulent history. Collectively, these schools have managed to keep the ancient art of Kodo alive in the modern world.

The Shino-Ryu School

The Shino-Ryu school is the tradition of Soushin Shino, who was a samurai who studied the art of incense under the Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga. This is considered the Samurai Path, so to speak.

The Oie-Ryu School

The Oie-Ryu school is Sanetaka Sanjoshini’s legacy, a famous high-ranking court noble who was mentioned earlier in this article as one of the individuals entrusted by Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga to refine the rules of Kodo.