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.

“Among the aristocrats back then, incense was their identity,” Inasaka, whose company has a 400-year history, said. “The selection of incense was proof of their intellect, sensibility and financial power, because incense itself was very very expensive.”

There is also a playful aspect to kodo.

Participants in a kodo ceremony rotate koro, cups containing ash, which is marked with a decorative pattern and topped with a plate of mica. A tiny chip of scented wood such as cinnamon or sandalwood (a square measuring about 5 mm on each side) is placed on the mica plate.

In the first round, called kokoromi-ko, or trial burn, each participant sniffs various cups to memorize their fragrances. Then there is a second round in which participants sniff the koro again, but the cups are circulated in a different order with no one knowing the sequence in which they will come. Each participant must guess the fragrance and write their answers on a sheet of washi (traditional Japanese paper).

The reason that the tradition has remained low-profile to this day is simply because of the cost, said kodo sensei Kumiko Kumasaka, who is the chairman of Tokyo kodo group Oie-ryu Keisetsukai and has practiced kodo for more than half a century.

“All incense woods are natural, and they cannot be found in Japan,” said Kumasaka, who first experienced the art form when she was 16 years old. She points out that most of the precious substances were harvested in Vietnam, India and Cambodia, where they are extremely rare to find. They are usually imported from Hong Kong. “The price of incense wood is up to five times more expensive than gold,” she says.

Yet the art of incense burning, which Kumasaka says is more like incense warming because wood must be heated but not overheated in order to avoid destroying their scents, can be enjoyed by anyone.

“Smells are one of the most beautiful things god has given us,” Kumasaka said.

One veteran apprentice of Kumasaka, Kaori Masubuchi, said that the depth and intricacy of the art meant that even someone with her experience — more than 15 years — still has a lot to learn. Kodo, therefore, is probably not for someone looking for instant gratification, she noted.

“With kodo, you can’t have a gush of feeling, like, ‘I now know exactly what kyara [a fragrance regarded by many as the most elegant and rich, making it also the most expensive] smells like,’ ” Masubuchi said.

In her long career, Kumasaka has taught a variety of people, young and old, ranging from overworked office workers to aromatherapy aficionados, she said.

“Some young people are so busy that they rush into my class right after work,” she said. “I feel sorry for them having to skip meals to attend the class. But they say they are happy, saying they would sleep well on the night of the lesson.”

So convincing is kodo’s mind-soothing effect that it has even piqued the interest of doctors, such as noted psychiatrist Dr. Hisanobu Kaiya. He started learning kodo under Kumasaka’s guidance 15 years ago, hoping to apply his knowledge of the art to medicine.

So far, he said neither he nor any other doctors has yet to prove that kodo enhances health. “Rose extract has been proved in two animal experiments to ease anxiety,” he said, “though such trials are not enough to establish evidence of the health benefits of aromatherapy, let alone kodo.”

But in the 2006 book “Kodo: Bungaku Sampo,” which he helped Kumasaka to write, Kaiya pointed out that the sense of smell, the least consciously exercised of the five senses, might be trained through kodo to prevent depression and Alzheimer’s disease, illnesses known to cause deterioration in nose functions.

Aside from the science behind kodo’s effects on mental and physical health, I was fascinated by the whole experience — sitting in a tatami room, feeling the warmth of an incense cup on the palm of one hand, covering its top with the other hand, breathing in deeply, focusing your mind on the subtle differences in smells wafting from the small space between your fingers, all the while listening to Kumasaka and her students leisurely exchange tidbits on regional new-year rituals.

The room was filled with such a pleasant air that the fact that I had completely failed the elementary game of guessing three scents — matsu (pine tree), take (bamboo) and ume (plum tree) — even drifted out of my mind.


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