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Incense Ceremony

In the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history, Koh-Do (incense ceremony) spread among aristocrats and high-ranking samurai, sharing popularity with the tea ceremony.

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, known as a period of renaissance in Japan, people in the upper class often held cultural and social events to enjoy performances such as tea ceremony, renga (linked verse) composition and Noh plays. Koh-Do played an important role as one such cultural phenomenon in this period.

As its formalities came to be developed and shaped, Koh-Do started to be acknowledged as one of the "geido", refined arts that are supposed to be performed following certain rules and manners. In this respect, Japanese incense or koh is somewhat different from perfume in western countries. There, people expect nothing more than fragrance from perfume, but this is not the case with koh. No longer an innocent pastime, Koh-Do prevailed beyond the samurai and court class. As intellectual people such as writers, artists, affluent merchants and landowners started to adopt its formalities, incense exerted a great influence on calligraphy, literature and tea ceremony, occupying a precious position as an intangible and spiritual asset of the time.

Koh-Do is said to have been established as a kind of game by the end of the sixteenth century. Founders of Koh-Do include Sanetaka Sanjonishi, a high-ranking court noble, Soushin Shino, a samurai who had studied Jinkoh under the Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga, and highbrows such as Sogi and Shohaku.

Later, Koh-Do branched off into several schools, of which two leading schools survived: the Oie-ryu School and the Shino-ryu School. The former, established by Sanetaka Sanjonishi, shaped the manners and methods of Koh-Do performance, putting more emphasis on literal aspects of incense. Shino-ryu, the latter, is more systematically organized, putting considerable emphasis on manners and formality. Oie-ryu perpetuates incense as a form of game-playing passed down from court nobles in the Heian period. Shino-ryu, on the other hand, spread through the samurai and affluent merchant classes.

Having survived the long passage of time, these two now exist as the leading schools of Koh-Do today.

Now let’s take a look at an actual Koh-Do ceremony.

Otemae in the incense ceremony

In the incense ceremony, participants enjoy the fragrances of kohboku or fragrant wood.

Aloeswood Fragrant woods include cedar, cypress, etc.


In the world of the incense ceremony, fragrant wood refers to kyara, agarwood (jinkoh) and sandalwood (byakudan).

In the incense ceremony, koboku or fragrant wood is divided into six kinds

  • Kyara
  • Rakoku
  • Manaka
  • Mananban
  • Sumotara
  • Sasora

The system of classifying kohboku, which constitutes the basics of appreciating incense, is called Rikkoku-Gomi. This refers to the six ancient East Asian countries where kohboku woods originate, and the five elements used to describe their flavors. The names of countries (Kyara, Rakoku, Manaka, Manaban, Sumotara, Sasora) all represent a qualitative classification of kohboku wood, and five terms (hot, sweet, sour, bitter, salty) are used to describe the different essences.

A piece of kohboku wood can generate more than one fragrance when burned. Kohboku pieces often have a mixture of multiple fragrances, generating an indescribable blend, depending on the proportion and strength of each essence contained in a piece of wood.

The incense ceremony (Koh-Do) consists of two aspects.

1. The aspect of improving mental wellbeing

Koh-do or the incense ceremony, Sa-do or the tea ceremony, Ka-do or flower arrangement... Why do Japanese people tend to dedicate themselves to such classical Japanese arts?

In a quiet room, a participant sniffs fragrances following certain rules of etiquette.

This is a chance to leave the bustle of everyday life behind, quieten the mind and practice introspection.

Improving the art is the same as improving the mentality.

2. The gaming aspect

Hosho = A sheet on which all answers of the participants are placed.

Example of how to get an incense ceremony going

Incense burners of A, B and C are passed around with the names of fragrant wood chips within them made known to the participants. Have the participants memorize the characteristic of each fragrance.

Then one fragrant wood chip is chosen from among the three fragrant wood chips and the incense burner with the chosen chip inside is passed around with its name hidden. Now guess what fragrance it is – A, B or C.

How to prepare incense burners

  • 1. Kindle a charcoal-bal.1. Kindle a charcoal-bal.
  • 2. Put it into the ash2. Put it into the ash
  • 3.Cover it with the ash3.Cover it with the ash
  • 4. Form the ash into a cone shape4. Form the ash into a cone shape
  • 5. Straighten the ash surface of the cone5. Straighten the ash surface of the cone
  • 6. Put a fragrant wood chip on the top plate6. Put a fragrant wood chip on the top plate

Etiquette of sniffing or listening to fragrance

Steady the incense burner on your left palm keeping it horizontal and place your right thumb and little finger along the incense burner.

Bring the incense burner close to your nose with keeping it horizontal.

Listen to the fragrance rising from the space between your right thumb and index finger.