In the battle between sight and smell, sight usually comes out on top as the more valued sense. But while our visual sense supplies us with copious and precise information about the world around us and allows us to appreciate images of beauty, our olfactory sense often has a firmer grasp on our moods, memories and mental associations.

The power of smell to conjure up nostalgic states and delicate yearnings is something that has long been recognized in Japanese culture, where the appreciation of fragrances was developed into kodo (the way of fragrance), an art that was distinct from, but related to, other forms of cultural expressions such as sado (the way of tea) and ikebana.

“Fragrance — The Aroma of Masterpieces,” an exhibition at the University Art Museum Tokyo explores this rich seam of Japanese culture with a show that aims at synesthetic synergy between the different senses and their expression in art and culture.

To do this, it presents a wide range of perfumery utensils alongside artworks, including ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and scroll paintings by Suzuki Harunobu, Uemura Shoen and Hayami Goshu, among others. These images, such as “Beauty Burning Incense in Mosquito Net” by an anonymous Edo Period artist, either reveal how some of the items were used or, in the case of Omoda Seiju’s delightful “Early Summer Rain” (1926), serve to put in our minds scenes that seem to come with their own mental scratch-and-sniff patch.

As with past exhibitions at the University Art Museum, such as the excellent Amamonzeki show of Buddhist nun related art and culture held there in 2009, this exhibition is well researched and rather painstakingly presented with a feeling of all the stops having been pulled out. In addition to the diverse but well-matched array of items, there are several nice touches, including a large, fragrant log of sandalwood and some lidded “fragrance boxes” that give visitors a chance to experience with their nose as well as their eyes.

“There are three boxes,” exhibition curator Hiroko Yokomizo explains. “The fragrance changed from plum to orchid this Monday, but the kyara (aloeswood) and takimono (a particular mixed incense) are the same throughout the exhibition.”

Like so many things that later became thoroughly assimilated into Japanese culture, the story begins with foreign imports, namely Buddhism and tropical woods that release a rich aroma when burned. Particular reference is made to a piece of aloeswood that was washed up on Awajishima Island in 595 and seems to have caused something of a sensation. Buddhism, which became established around the same time, later encouraged the import and burning of such fragrant tropical woods in its memorial rituals.

In this exhibition, the best representation of this aspect of Japan’s fragrance culture is a wooden statue of Shotoku Taishi (574-622) made during the Kamakura Period (1185-1133). Showing the early patron of Buddhism delicately holding a ladle-like incense-burner in his fingers, it is appropriately covered with a smoky patina from centuries of burning incense.

The culture of fragrance really came into its own when it was taken up by Japan’s leisured classes and developed into various games and activities designed to charm away the hours and heighten the senses. Games such as Genji-ko, which matched various aromas to Murasaki Shikibu’s “Genji Monogatari,” were designed to test and develop the participants’ abilities to correctly identify fragrances. The game employed 54 genjimon emblems, rectilinear designs that were associated with each one of the 54 chapters of the classic story. These later became common motifs in many artworks and fabric designs. For instance, they can be seen decorating the noren curtains in “Osata,” an Edo Period ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Toyokuni III.

Yokomizo also mentions that just as the development of perfume in France is associated with an aristocracy who were not particularly fond of washing, this seems to have been the case in Japan. According to some accounts, the Heian nobility were filthy, with the women keeping their extremely long hair oiled and covering their skin with powder—but seldom bathing. In its many chapters, “Genji Monogatari” makes no mention of bathing.

While bathing later became more common, the elaborate hairdos favored by Japanese ladies throughout the ages often made washing hair difficult, resulting in some ingenuous devices such as a headrest from the Edo Period on display at the exhibition. Beautifully decorated with a pattern of chrysanthemum sprays, this curved, box-like headrest was designed to support the head without disturbing the hair, but it also had genjimon-shaped slits and a small drawer in which burning incense could be placed so as to fumigate and perfume the lady’s hair while she rested.

In such cases, the user might possibly hear the slow smoldering of the incense within her rigid pillow. In kodo, the smelling of incense was typically referred to as “listening to incense.” This imaginative interchanging of the senses of smell and hearing seems natural because both aromas and sounds can be unclear and ambiguous. The exhibition’s attempt to replace this correlation with one that pairs smell and vision is ambitious. Whether it works depends not so much on the various artists’ abilities to “see” the aromas they depict, as on your ability to “smell” the images.

“Fragrance—the Aroma of Masterpieces” at the University Art Museum Tokyo runs till May 29; admission ¥1,300; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat, till 6 p.m.). For more information, visit www.geidai.ac.jp

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