Globally, fragrance is big business. The commercial industry of perfumes, colognes, and other wearable fragrances is worth about 40 billion US dollars, illustrating that aroma is something people value and are willing to pay dearly for. But “scent” isn’t only just a product to consume – it’s also the basis for an entire art form that still has appeal today: kōdō, or “the way of fragrance”.
Many traditional Japanese art forms have elevated simple objects or sensory perceptions to heightened experiences blending mindfulness, philosophy, and aesthetics. Tea, flowers, and even calligraphy, are all the centerpoints of ceremonial artistic practice refined over centuries; scent is no exception. Kōdō refers to a suite of practices of scent appreciation that range from the meditative to the playful, and it remains an inspiration for artists and designers working today in Japan and beyond.
Scent was first used in Japan for religious purposes, and the earliest records are of kōboku, aromatic wood mixed with herbs, being burned in temple rituals (it would also be utilized by samurai to purify themselves before battle). But by the early 11th century, scent in the form of incense had become an aesthetic experience for the noble classes. Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji”, the world’s first novel, depicts aristocrats engaged in incense-making contests as a mode of entertainment and social competition. This type of incense was known as nerikō, blended from up to 20 powdered ingredients and congealed with honey, molasses, or plant nectar in a small ball, whereas the other main form was kōboku, sticks of aromatic wood imported all the way from Southeast Asia (and hence astronomically expensive).
During the late Muromachi period in the 16th century, the same time that the tea ceremony and ikebana style of flower arranging were being codified, the connoisseurship of incense evolved into a formal practice with intellectual and aesthetic components. The expanding merchant class of the Edo period helped popularize it more widely through the “incense-comparing” games such as genjikō which challenges participants to identify various scents that are passed around (the name derives from “The Tale of Genji” itself and features references to lines from the novel). These parlor games drove demand for increasingly ornate cabinets (dōgu-dana) rendered in gold and lacquer to store the incense and its accompanying bowls, tongs, and other utensils. With the coming of the Meiji era (1868-1912), certain traditional arts like kōdō faded into the background as new pastimes imported from abroad became fashionable, and many exquisite dōgu-dana and other kōdō utensils began to circulate among foreign collectors and museums. Ironically, it was the celebration of these objects by foreign audiences that eventually led the revival of kōdō in Japan itself, leading to a new wave of incense specialists and appreciation that continues today.
One distinct feature of traditional kōdō is that the incense is heated, not burned. A tiny piece of material such as aloeswood, sandalwood, cinnamon bark, or other herbs or animal byproducts is set atop a small mica plate that is heated from below, triggering the release of aromatic oils and resin. There is no smoke, just vapors of scent to be appreciated by participants. Another notable element is that in kōdō, one does not “sniff” the scent, but “listen” to it (in Japanese, monkō). Practitioners take their time to carefully cup the air around the heated diffuser and “waft” it toward their face. This indicates the philosophical dimensions of the practice – where the scent is worthy of an elevated attention that could potentially bring wisdom. As in other forms of mindfulness, the very act of focusing on immediate sensory experience, of regularly being in a calm “listening” state, can have lasting benefits for mental and physical health.
Many artists and designers working today are inspired by the history of kōdō, and interpreting the concept of “mindful scent” in diverse ways. Though it’s quite different from the formal traditions of kōdō, individuals who are interested in scent as an artistic medium or contemplative practice can also start to learn to experience scent in new ways at home. Taking the time to sit at one’s kitchen table and slowly, respectfully “listening” to the scent of some natural object, experiencing each molecule of its aroma, and learning to vividly describe it, can be a calming and contemplative experience. It could be a vial of cypress (hinoki) oil, or an orange, or a handful of crushed rosemary, or a cinnamon stick. As the scholars set down in the “Ten Virtues of Ko,” some 600 years ago, one key benefit of kōdō is that it “calms in turbulent times.” It’s never been a better time to mindfully set a fragrance in front of you, and carefully listen.