Introduction to Japanese Kodo

What is Japanese Kodo?

Kodo (pronounced Koh-do) is a traditional Japanese ceremony which was created around either the 14th or 15th century. It’s very essence draws from the somewhat similar tea ceremonies and incense crafting competitions that took place around this time. Kodo incorporated various cultural traditions and was multi-faced in nature. Appreciation of the fragrance and even incense oriented games were considered aspects of Kodo. As a matter of fact, one of the very first games within the history of Kodo was known as ‘the game of ten’ and is often compared to a similar tea ceremony of the same name.

If you translate Kodo into English, it would mean ‘the way of incense’. In Japanese, Ko means ‘incense’ and do means ‘the way of’. Other names kodo is known by include: koh doh, koh dou, and koh do.

Over time many more games were created and Kodo evolved into the popular tradition it is today. Today, there are hundreds of games which may be played during Kodo ceremonies. The games themselves are referred to as Kumiko and are often themed.

Playing Japanese Kodo Games

A standard kodo ceremony would usually take place in a room with six to fifteen people. The individual who speaks during these games is known as the teishu. There is also a scorekeeper, and an incense presenter which is called the komoto. Players would have a score sheet to record their answers.

To play, the komoto would prepare a cup with rice ash buried under a piece of hot bamboo charcoal. Then a small mica plate would be placed over-top the ash covered charcoal. A piece of aromatic wood, such as agarwood (aloeswood), is then placed on the mica.

After the cup is prepared, the komoto picks up the cup and inhales the scent produced from the wood. The cup is then passed to the left with a traditional bow. Honored guests, or people of high stature would typically sit left of the komoto and be passed the cup first. As the cup is passed throughout the group, while enjoying the scent of the wood, each player is supposed to record any distinct characteristics they notice or perceive. When the cup travels back to the komoto, often a second cup is prepared and passed around as well.

The sheets each individual wrote their perceived characteristics of the wood can then be interpreted in a variety of ways such as stories of travel, poetry readings, or many other games which are played. Depending on the game, the number of cups or pieces of wood may vary.

Types of Aloeswood

Although there are a few different schools of thought concerning kodo, a typical guideline would be as follows:

  1. Kyara: originates from Vietnam, and has bitter aroma
  2. Rakoku: originates from Thailand, with sweet aroma
  3. Manaka: originates from Malaysia with a neutral scent
  4. Manaban: unknown origin, and has a salty smell
  5. Sasora: originates from India with a hot scent
  6. Sumotara: originates from Indonesia with a sour smell

This article was last revised on 02/26/2020.

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