The Japanese incense ceremony – kōdō. An experience

Michelin House

Last week I had the privilege of attending a kōdō ceremony in London, probably the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. It was hosted on the premises of the beautiful Conran shop (or the Michelin house, one of the rare Art Nouveau/Art Deco buildings still standing in London) and organized by the lovely Odette Toilette.

Kodo Master Hachiya

Master Souhitsu Issiken Hachiya of the Shino-Ryu school led the procedeeings. Apparently one of the two remaining masters of this beautiful and fascinating ceremony, he is 21st generation to perform the rituals. Unlike the other two arts of Japan, kadō (the art of flower arrangement) and chadō (the tea ceremony), kōdō has fallen off of the cultural sphere of interest. Master Hachiya, while gentle, engaging and full of jokes, expressed his sadness of the lack of interest of the Japanese government in helping this tradition survive into the modern world. The kōdō started more than five hundred years ago in Japan and it was performed by the high society as a method of contemplation and games and used by the samurai to gain concentration. Nowadays master Hachiya works tirelessly teaching people around Japan what the ceremony is all about.

Kodo ceremony kit laid out at the feet of the master

The incense is taken from the bark of agarwood, a tree found in various East Asian countries and it varies in scent, the same tree that gives us oud via infection. A group of people is seated in a circle while the master prepares a censer to be passed around.

Kodo, master preparing the censer

When the incense was passed around, the aristocrats tried to guess the provenience of the incense. We – as noobs – just smelled it and enjoyed it. Master Hachiya prepared two censers and we got the chance to smell two different types of incense.  One held the censer in a particular way , left claw and right hand making a dome on top of the censer with an opening at the front in which one stuck one’s nose in and then exhaled away from the censer. It wasn’t anything that could be analyzed as many in the group noticed – it was more the kind of scent that lingered around like a human presence, like the ghost of life from another plane. It was the kind of smell that triggered memories of events that haven’t happened. And that sort of contemplation is what kōdō is all about.

Kodo items, bark