History of Kōdō: Unearthing the Japanese Way of Incense


Burning incense is rooted in ancient rituals of cleansing one’s space or self to evoke positive energy. The earliest trace can be dated to the 5th dynasty in Egypt, where ancient carvings lined temple walls that depicted the ritual of incense burning. Archaeologists discovered it was used in both practical and spiritual ways, for the purification of tombs, and as an offering to higher powers. As the practice of burning incense spread through the world, it naturally took on different meanings and uses throughout cultures. Incense arrived in Japan in 595 from Buddhis


Japanese Kōdo Incense Ceremony

When Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan, incense became far more embedded in the culture. Stemming from practices within temples and ceremonies to dispel negative energy. The scope of its use eventually expanded into an art form. It is a ceremony that became one of three cornerstones in the art of Japanese refinement, referred to as “Kōdō” – meaning “Way of Incense”. It is a refined artform involving all aspects of incense, from the tools involved in making it, to the ceremony itself. They call it “the art of listening” – to listen to the scent and try to understand its depth. It is an art that’s experienced through the senses, of connecting deeply with the object and its essence. There is a game-like approach to the art of deepening one’s understanding of incense and its properties. An example of one game is called, “Sanshu-Koh,” and involves a variety of three types of incense. Participants try to decipher if the aromas are either all different, whether some match, or if they all match. As the game advances, more scents are added to the group. It is a very fine-tuned art, and the ceremony masters undergo intense training and workmanship in order to be able to lead ceremonies. 

How is Japanese incense made? 

Known for its distinct clay-like tree bark when mixed with water, the Tabu tree is the base of Japanese incense. There is a lot of precision and artistry that goes into crafting incense, especially when done in small batches by an artisan. Natural elements such as sandalwood, rose, patchouli, and cedar, are powdered and rolled into sticks.

Benefits of Japanese Incense 

The Proustian moment is known as the sensory trigger we experience when a certain fragrance connects us back to a past memory or feeling. Since incense has such a bodied, aromatic scent, it’s ideal to be used when we want to aid ourselves in concentration, relaxation, or creativity. It is often used in meditation, yoga practice, or simply as a way give ambiance in our domestic lives. I’ve always had an affinity for this – being intentional about the things I offer to my senses, and fragrance is among the most powerful. Incense has always given me a feeling of ascension, as though I’m reaching my higher self.  The ritual of selecting your incense can be an activity in mindfulness, a way to ground yourself in a self-care routine. Selecting your incense stick of the day, placing it in its holder, igniting it and watching the flame billow through the air. These small, sacred items are an act of self-appreciation. How do you use incense in your daily rituals?

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