The multi-sensory experience of incense burning

Why is it that we have such few words in the dictionary to describe something as crucial and versatile as our sense of smell?

All the aromas and scents in our lives play a vital role, whether we realise it or not. There are so many aspects of olfaction (that’s the fancy word for sniffing stuff, by the way) that impact us on a daily basis. Here are some examples to give you the idea:

  • Certain smells have the power to evoke our childhood memories. Maybe it's the scent of your mother's favourite flowers. Perhaps it's the characteristic smell of the ground after a big rain that can trigger the nostalgic memories of summer nights spent camping in the forest. Whatever it might be, each and every one of us has those specific smells that can bring them back home.
  • Our intricate olfaction process influences many areas of the brain, one of them being amygdala that is responsible for our emotional functioning. To put it short, certain smells can alter our mood. We associate them with either safe or dangerous situations that took place in our past. Therefore we can classify these fragrances as either pleasant or unpleasant.  
  • Believe it or not, our sense of smell is tightly connected to the choices we make in our romantic lives. Research actually shows that from a biological point of view, we are most attracted to a partner that has a different immune system (which we can smell through pheromones). Why is that? The truth is pretty straight forward, and not so charming. The potential offspring we might have with this person would be more disease-resistant thanks to the versatile immune systems of both mother and father's side. "The smells we think are attractive come from the people who are most genetically compatible with us", says psychologist Rachel Hertz.

So, let me ask the question once again: 

Why is it that we have such few words in the dictionary to describe something as crucial and versatile as our sense of smell?


“Fragrances don’t only speak to individual preferences - they reflect entire cultures.” — AMANDA MONTELL

One of the cultures that have given a fantastic deal of mindful attention to the power of scent over centuries is Japan where fragrances have been used in many different ways: to measure time, to communicate with the dead or to distinguish subtle differences in cuisine, just to name a few.

The appreciation of fragrance throughout Japanese history has been mainly expressed through the use of incense, that dates back to the year 595. The materials used in the production process were imported to Japan, mostly from India and China, making incense an extremely expensive luxury good.

Naturally then, it was accessible only to the richest of the rich, court families, who would hand down the secret incense recipes from one generation onto another. Each of those families has a signature scent which they used to fumigate their hair and clothes.


"Their scent was almost as important as the clothes they wore (…) incense revealed not only one's taste but one's personality" - says Brian Moeran in his essay.


Japanese noblemen and noblewomen believed that the signature fragrance they produce is an ultimate expression of their character. Even today, many contemporary incense blenders in Japan, share a belief that scents have a moral aspect. Light and subtle fragrances are perceived as acceptable and desired. At the same time, more potent aromas are considered to be bad or even offensive. 


The value associated with fragrance was also recognised and appreciated in spiritual and artistic practices. Traditionally, the incense was burned in Buddhist temples, before ancestral household shrines and during many rituals like funerals.
The purpose of using the unique scent was to transform the spirit of the dead into an ancestral being. The act of incense burning represented a symbolic bridge between the fragrance and the ritual itself. Hardened incense stick would transform into the fleeting aroma, and eventually, it would all turn into ash. 
The fragrance also found its artistic expression in Japan mainly through the practice of Kōdō, which can be translated into "the way of fragrance". Kōdō incense ceremonies, conducted according to the official etiquette, were often paired with tea ceremonies as well as ikebana (flower arrangements). 


(Read more about the history of Kōdō here)


"Each incense was named after a Japanese poem or other work of literature and recalled a visual scene", according to Yoko Iwasaki. The appreciation of fragrance went way beyond the sense of smell. It was also visual.


Moreover, in Japan, the unique fragrance of incense had its flavour - "taste of the smell". The smell of rising smoke from a heated incense would be classified as either sweet, sour, bitter, spicy or salty. 


What I found to be the most sublime aspect of Kōdō was "monko", which literally means "listening to fragrance". The concept comes from a religious belief stating that Buddha's teachings are communicated through incense. To connect with the teachings and understand them, one must listen to the scent and its essence. 


The concept of using other senses to describe fragrance is one the one hand very original and creative. On the other hand, this blending of senses is known as synesthesia, "a condition in which stimulation of one sense generates a simultaneous sensation in another" according to APA. 


Ideas behind the practice of Kōdō evoke a particular curiosity and freedom of our expression… 

Can our senses mix together and overlap with each other? 

Do our senses influence each other?

Can we actually see a smell, or touch it, or listen to its sound?


Mystically and sublimely, the practice of incense burning can be a multi-sensory experience and a form of a mindful ritual. 

We invite you to take a peaceful moment during the course of your day to burn incense. Try to experience it with all of your senses, as the Japanese court families would do all these centuries ago. Connect with the roots of the practice of incense burning. Dedicate this time to feel the grounding and calming effects of this scent ritual.
  • Can you find the words to describe the beautiful scent?
  • Try to hear the fragrance as the incense stick transforms into the aroma and then ash. 
  • Observe the shapes that rising smoke makes. Do they remind you of anything?
  • Taste its smell, is it bitter? Maybe sweet? Maybe both…
Feel free to share your thoughts and impressions of this sensory experience in the comment section below!

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