The Way of Incense in Japan

Mar 26th, 2009 | By | Category: History & Culture

Practitioners of koh-do, the centuries-old Japanese art of enjoying and exploring the fragrances of burned incense, follow traditions established as early the 15th century.  It’s an elegant art that promotes feelings of peace and tranquility and along with the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arranging) is one of the tenets of traditional Japanese culture.

Incense Japan

Incense, or koh, was brought to Japan in the 6th century from China by Buddhist monks who incorporated the distinctive aromas into their purification rites.  Over time the practice of burning koh expanded from the temples to the Imperial Court of Japan.  Many hours of enjoyment came from a game called Takimonoawase which featured competitions amongst the nobility to create the best fragrance from different combinations of flowers, fruit and wood. Later on prominent intellectuals of the day along with affluent merchants and landowners became enamored with koh and the practice of koh-do was formalized and passed down though the generations.

“The opportunity to calmly contemplate one’s thoughts while enjoying the fragrance of incense is valued as a time to recover one’s spiritual freedom and peace.”

The practice of koh-do, the way of koh, can take as long as thirty years to master.  The proper way to prepared the koh, hold the incense cup (kiki-gouro) and even the presentation of the ash (kouro-bai) is defined. In koh-do,  it is said that one listens to aroma of the incense.

The 10 Virtues of Koh (Incense)

  1. Promotes communication with the transcendent
  2. Purifies the mind and body
  3. Has a cleansing effect
  4. Keeps one alert
  5. Is a companion in solitude
  6. Offers a moment of peace in the midst of chaos
  7. When it is plentiful, one never tires of it
  8. When it is scarce, one can still be satisfied
  9. Effective, even when aged
  10. Used daily, it does not harm

Source: Nippon Kodo, Culture of Incense

The aroma of the koh can be classified by origin and essence.  The essence of koh is classified as hot, sweet, sour, bitter or salty and it can originate from one of six ancient East Asian countries that grow the wood to make the koh (Kyara, Rakoku, Manaka, Manaban, Sumotara or Sasora).

While the the aroma of sandalwood in most commonly associated with incense, the variety is only limited by the skill and imagination of the incense maker.  The fragrances of aloeswood, clove, cinnamon and frankincense are just a few of the others appreciated by those who practice koh-do.

Experience koh-do for yourself in Tokyo at the Center for Arts and Well Being.

Image Credit:  Flickr, An Offering

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  1. It is also interesting how incense is used at the household shrine to a deceased relative.

  2. I believe Tokeiji in Kamakura also offers regular sessions of Koh-do on second Sundays of the month at 1:00 pm
    Reservation is required: phone0467-22-1663 fax 0467-22-7815 Fee: 4000 yen
    English page of Tokeiji:
    Japanese event announcement:

  3. I forgot to say I appreciate this post. I have not done this before, but I think its really subtle tradition!

  4. Thanks for the tip Etsuko. I also think it would very interesting to take advantage of one of these koh-do events.

  5. I should get some sand…I have some of that type of incense. Sakura blossom is one of the best…

  6. […] painting, Koma spinning top making, woodblock printing (ukiyoe), incense mixing (part of the art of koh-do), drawing with gold powder, damascene accessories (gold & silver inlay) and shichimi (Japanese […]

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