On Monday the 3rd of March, as part of their incredible Sensing Spaces exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts held a Japanese incense ceremony (Koh-do or Koudou).
Upon arrival, I was first struck an incredible scent – assuming that some of the incense was already being burned – but turns out I was wrong!
Exploring the exhibition
Off exploring the exhibit, where you’ll find an amazing wooden maze made from mixed woods (the hazel smelled incredible), a huge cathedral made of plastic and straws, which visitors are encouraged to add to, and Kengo Kuma’s two darkened rooms of bamboo structures impregnated with the odour of hinoki (Japanese cypress, which smells somewhat like eucalyptus and incense combined) and tatami (traditional floor mats made from rice straw, an incredibly relaxing warm smell) – responsible for the scent we noticed when we arrived!
After a short while we took our seats, Kuma-san explained the importance of the odours in architecture, and of tatami and hinoki to him, whilst telling us about his work creating tea houses over the years. Shortly afterwards we were passed over to a representative from Daiko – an incense company in Japan – who taught us the history of Koh (incense) before the ceremony began.
Originally, Koh culture was brought to Japan from China in the 6th century with Buddhism, and was mainly used for religious purposes. Incense ceremonies were more formally created in the 1500s in Japan, as a sophisticated and elegant pastime to for nobles. The purpose of the ceremony, conducted by a Koh master, is to attain peace of mind by listening to the Koh and concentrating on the invisible scent, and usually a game is played, in which the participants in the ceremony must listen to three different incenses and then guess if a fourth incense is the same as one of these, or if it is a different incense.
There are 6 different classifications of Koh, 5 of which are from Jinkoh or aloeswood (known in the Middle East and West as Oud) from Kyara, the most expensive and highest quality, Manaban, Manaka, Sumotara, and Rakoku, and also Sasora, made of sandalwood.
The Koh master with the beautiful ornamental pots
Heated ash is placed into a small decorative pot, in a beautifully decorated mound, a thin plate of glass or mica is placed on top of the warm ash, and finally the Koh is placed on top of the plate – heated by the ash and giving off its fragrance.
Me listening to the incense
The method of listening to incense is:
- Place the burner on your left palm, which should be horizontal.
- Create a cup with your hand where the thumb makes a circle, and cover the burner.
- Listen through the whole, breathing in a maximum of 3 times, ensuring you breathe out away from the incense pot.
- Pass the burner to the person on your right.
As the ceremony began, and people started to listen to the incense, an immediate sense of calm took over. Smelling the incense, you’re struck by the warmth around your nose, which felt like being in a sunbaked desert. The four different incenses passed by and we had to decide – did the final incense smell like any of the others? The first reminded me of frankincense, it had a rich, fruity odour and was quite smoky. The second reminded me of sandalwood, with its powdery dry and slightly coconut tones. The third smelled like cherries, charred wood and leather. The fourth smelled like hamster cages, wood smoke and overripe fruits. These were all definitely different to my nose (or maybe ears?).
All was revealed – we had smelled 4 separate incenses! The first was Manaban, followed by Sasora, then Sumotara, and finally, the highest quality: Kyara. The experience was incredibly moving and also left me the most relaxed I've ever been.
Let us know in the comments if you have ever been to an incense ceremony, or if you use incense at home!