Kōdō, The Way of Incense… an event organised by The Perfume Society…
One of the perks of being a member of The Perfume Society is the opportunity to take part in the amazing events they organise. The one I attended a couple of weeks ago introduced us to the Japanese Way of Incense.
Kōdō (香道, "Way of Fragrance") is the art of appreciating Japanese incense, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process, from the tools (香道具 kōdōgu), to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香). Kōdō is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kadō for flower arrangement, and chadō for tea and the tea ceremony.
Kōdō is not as well known in the West, but is equally highly appreciated in Japan and “The Shino School of Incense” is only one of the two existing schools. Its history begun in 1478 and continues still with the 21st generations designate, Master Souhitsu Isshiken Hachiya who was our host for the evening.
The event took place at Selfridges and was organised by Fornasetti, as they have worked together with the Master for their Japanese Incense Stick range. After a brief introduction by the lovely Odette Toilette we were immersed in the ritual as Master Souhitsu entered the room and started preparing for the ceremony. He laid his equipment neatly on the table before him and slowly proceeded with the first step which is to place the charcoal in the censer and cover it with the white ash using metal chopsticks and creating a little mountain of ash.
Then with an ash press the little mountain of ash took form and a little hole on the top was made for the charcoal to get enough air and sustain heat. Then he created the ash pattern with one of the chopsticks which consisted of separating the little mountain in five sections with 10 lines each – symbolizing the five elements- and finally the mica plate was placed on top with the metal tongs. Using a feather, the censer was cleaned to perfection and the final step was for the piece of incense to be carefully placed on top of the plate at the right position to maximize its scent. That little piece of incense was safely kept in a folded paper envelope inside a pouch tied with the prettiest knot, a lotus flower that changes shape according to the season.
The procedure took roughly 10-15 minutes, during which we all remained perfectly quiet and almost still and you could feel the tension leaving everyone’s body. When the Master was sure that the incense was perfect he passed around the censer for everyone to smell. He then started talking to us about the procedure, the school, his life and interests and how such an old ritual can find its place in the modern world. Like all masters he considers learning and experiencing a continuous procedure and his father the current Head, is still studying and learning.
While talking to us and answering questions he prepared 2 more censers with 2 more different incenses that we also experienced. In a traditional ceremony we would be listening to poetry, music and discussing about the incense and guessing what they were but the form we followed was more relaxed and “modern” and the topics varied from life in Japan, London, and the time he studied in a Buddhist temple; how his senses heightened away from all distractions. Being faithful to such an old tradition and carrying this heavy weight of continuing the family tradition doesn’t take away everyday pleasures like watching football and going out for a drink with your friends. He is currently teaching a class in Paris for people who want to educate themselves more in Kōdō and is keen on spreading the knowledge; hopefully one day in London as well.
It was a truly amazing experience and I must say that I left a little lighter, my senses enriched and heightened, having enjoyed the three different incenses. The first one to me smelled like a light oud perfume, smoky and dry, the second one had a rosy facet almost like a rosebush on fire and the third one was even drier like oak and pine, a scent you find deep in the forest. The trees the incense comes from belong to the School and the recipes are kept secret and passed only from one Master to the next.
A unique experience, as it cannot be repeated, because humidity, temperature and other factors like the preparation of the incense change the outcome and the scent is never the same a second time even if you try to burn another piece of incense from the same tree.
Even today, there is a strong relationship and holistic approach in kōdō between fragrant scent, the senses, the human spirit, and nature. The spirituality and refined concentration that is central to kōdō places it on the same level as kadō and chadō.
“Guided by the subtle fragrances of incense, one can discover inner truth”