Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Mastering the art of incense takes longer than you think

My friend Ajit recently showed me around his town of Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture, home to ancient tombs as well as “fog character” Kiriko-chan (yes, even fog can be anthropomorphized into cuteness). Kiriko-chan lives in the Miyoshi unkai, or sea of fog, which can be seen at sunrise in the autumn from atop Mount Takatani.

Miyoshi is a picturesque town, the junction of three rivers (thus the fog), and has done a commendable job of attracting tourists. There’s an intriguing doll museum that also includes Japanese monsters and a replica of Higabon’s foot. The other attraction is Miyoshi Fudoki Park, an outdoor museum on top of a hill where you can walk among clusters of tombs from the Kofun Period (250-538). The park has an indoor History and Folklore Museum on its grounds as well.

Innocently, we walked into the Hiroshima Prefecture History and Folklore Museum expecting, you know, history and folklore. By the time we walked out, however, we were in awe. At the doors we were greeted with a flurry of activity, as someone must have spied the foreigners driving up the hill from the city of Miyoshi. By the time we arrived, the Champagne had been poured, the red carpet was out and the museum attendant was frantically running around looking for the curator, yelling “They’re heeere!”

They very apologetically asked us to wait, and after some time we found ourselves being greeted by the charming curator of the museum, Kentaro Ishibashi, who spoke excellent English and offered us an impromptu guided tour. In addition to the permanent exhibition on “history and folklore,” he insisted on accompanying us to a special part of the museum, all the while shoving gorgeous brochures into our hands that introduced the current special exhibit: kōdō, or Japanese incense.

I was astounded. I knew about kōdō and had experienced it once with the temple priest on Shiraishi Island, but it remains one of the lesser known Japanese arts. Normally, one would have to scour the back streets of Kyoto to find information on this Heian Era ceremony, yet here in Miyoshi, land of cute fog icons, there was an entire kōdō exhibit! How unusual.

Since the special exhibit was only on display until the end of November, I took copious notes, and a photo, so that I could share the experience with you. No need to scour the back streets of Kyoto now — this is kōdō:

Incense accompanied Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century, but it wasn’t until the Heian Period (794-1185) that incense fragrances became popular outside of temples and gained favor among the nobility, at the same time as Japanese flower arrangement and tea ceremony did. Later, at the end of the 16th century, incense appreciation gained ceremony status and became known as kōdō.

Our guide, dressed in casual jacket and slacks, enthusiastically explained to us that Buddhism used five different kinds of incense for ceremonies and meditation. These were on display in dishes so we could see, fondle and smell them: sandalwood, cloves, turmeric, incense wood and camphor. Most of the ingredients came to Japan from other parts of Asia via the Silk Road.

First, Mr. Ishibashi introduced us to the special tools: incense burners, elaborate storage pots, and boxes made with urushi lacquer sporting intricate designs in gold powder. These were accompanied by an array of finely crafted tools and accouterments. If you’d been a noble, here is a look at what your fragrant life may have been like:

In the idle hours — as there seemed to be many in Heian times — if you weren’t already occupied with writing and reciting poetry, watching the moon and drinking tea, you might have played one of more than 300 incense games. The game would most likely have been named after a scene in nature, such as “autumn leaves” or “good mountain view.” You may have even played a game in the presence of Murasaki Shikibu, a court lady who referred to the art of incense in “The Tale of Genji.” Or you may have preferred to test your skills and see if you could distinguish between the different fragrances and correctly identify them by name.

If you were female, you might have laid your head on a censer shaped like a small pillow so that you could perfume your hair with the sweet, smoky fragrance.

Herbs and spices aren’t the only things used in the incense burning mixture. Wood that has aged underground for a very, very long time is used because this process gives the wood a sweeter fragrance when it burns. The best wood is called kyara. “This wood, per gram, is more expensive than gold,” whispered Mr. Ishibashi, gesturing towards the next exhibit.

Like curious little goats, we followed him and found ourselves standing agape in front of a large photo of a piece of wood. But, oh, how could I be so crass! This was no regular piece of wood: The 1.8-meter slab dates back to the Nara Period (710-794) and is a National Treasure! But why only a photo? Couldn’t the log have made the journey to the exhibition?

Most certainly not. “It’s too sacred for the public to see,” Mr. Ishibashi informed us. Thus it is kept in a special vault in Nara and we must suffice with a photo. Of course.

If you find all this as intriguing as I did and are ready to sign up to become a master in the Way of Fragrance, then I suggest you start right away, if not 20 years ago. This is because it takes 30 years to become a kōdō master, the longest for any of the Japanese arts. I imagine this would include pre-qualifying nasal exams, learning to hum and waft with incense, and telling people’s fortunes, personality traits and propensity for success according to their preferred fragrance. Or perhaps it’s the museum Champagne going to my head.

Maybe it’s not too late to just ask for some incense from Santa Claus.

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