Swing by any variety store and you will notice how popular aromatherapy has become. There you will find a wide variety of shiny little bottles containing oil extracts of rose, lavender or sandalwood. Along with foot massage, onsen (hot springs) and the music of Mozart, inhaling aromas has in recent years earned a solid status as an iyashi (healing) activity for stressed-out workers throughout Japan.

Little known is the fact that Japan also has its own deep and rich tradition of enjoying smells, or rather, "listening" to them. For this is how breathing in a variety of incense is described in kodo, the Japanese art. The tradition dates back 1,400 years to when it first entered Japan as a part of the rituals of Buddhism. People then used incense to honor Buddha and to purify their environment and themselves. Then in the Heian Period (794-1185), incense became a room fragrance, bug repellent and kimono perfume, according to Yoshihiro Inasaka, president of Koju, a Tokyo company that holds kodo lessons and is owned by the nation's largest incense manufacturer, Nippon Kodo Co. Rules of etiquette were later formed, and kodo became an elegant pastime, he says.

The tradition as known today was established in the Muromachi Era (1333-1568), like sado (tea ceremony) and kado (art of flower arrangement). But one thing that sets kodo apart from the two better-known art forms is that it is less about formality and more about enjoyment. The atmosphere is more relaxing; while an incense ceremony is being conducted, the teacher briefs students on cultural traditions and literature and poems linked to incense, such as the classic "The Tale of Genji," which features various scenes with incense.