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An incense burner used for an ayameko (菖蒲香) game, a part of kōdō

Kōdō (香道, "Way of Incense") is the Japanese art of appreciating incense, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process, from the tools (香道具 kōdōgu) – which, much like tools of the tea ceremony, are valued as high art – to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香). Kōdō is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement (kadō, or ikebana for flower arrangement, kōdō for incense, and chadō for tea and the tea ceremony), but it is relatively unknown among modern Japanese people.


According to legend, agarwood (aloeswood) first came to Japan when a log of incense wood drifted ashore on Awaji-shima island in the 3rd year of Empress Suiko (595 CE). People who found the incense wood noticed that the wood smelled marvelous when they put it near a fire. Then they presented the wood to local officials. Historically, however, agarwood is known to have come to Japan along with the supplies to build a Buddhist Temple in 538 CE. At first, the incense wood was used for religious purposes (Buddhism) then was burned for appreciation and became one of the most popular traditional Japanese arts.[1] Kodo originated from informal incense games played by the Japanese aristocracy.[2]

The structure and manner of Kōdō was organized similar to the present style in the Muromachi era (approximately the 15th century CE), almost the same time as the tea ceremony and the ikebana style of flower arrangement.

Types of incense[edit]

Name Character From Country Scent
Kyara 伽羅 Vietnam Bitter
Rakoku 羅国 Thailand Sweet
Manaka 真那伽 Malacca, Malaysia No Scent
Manaban 真南蛮 [ Unknown ] Salty
Sasora 佐曾羅 India Hot
Sumotara / Sumontara 寸聞多羅 Indonesia Sour
  • Manaban comes from the word Nanban which means "Southern Barbarian" and was brought to Japan by Portuguese traders with unknown origin.[3]
Genji-mon symbols


Participants sit near one another and take turns smelling incense from a censer as they pass it around the group. Participants comment on and make observations about the incense, and play games to guess the incense material. Genjikō is one such game, in which participants are to determine which of five prepared censers contain different scents, and which contain the same scent. Players' determinations (and the actual answers) are recorded using genji-mon linear patterns, the elements of which allude to chapters in the Tale of Genji.


The word 道 means "way", both literally (street) and metaphorically (a stream of life experience). The suffix -道 generally denotes, in the broadest sense, the totality of a movement as endeavor, tradition, practice and ethos.

In the search for a suitable term, translations of such words into English sometimes focus on a narrower aspect of the original term. One common translation in context is "ceremony" (the process in general, but not a specific instance). In some instances, it functions similarly to the English suffix -ism, and in the case of tea (chadō/sadō 茶道) one sees teaism in works dating from early efforts at illustrating sadō in English, focusing on its philosophy and ethos.

Conversely, the sense of the English phrase the way of X appears to have broadened in response to the need to translate such terms, and to have become more productive with the need to describe with a similar broadness of compass certain things in Western experience.

Supplies and costs[edit]

A tray with basic utensils used for an incense ceremony

Kōdō incense material is readily available at quality incense suppliers. However incense wood is very expensive. For example, lower grade Kyara used for Kōdō costs about 20,000 yen per gram. Top quality Kyara costs over 40,000 yen per gram, or many times the equivalent weight of gold (as of late 2012). Though it can only be warmed and used once for a formal ceremony, it can be stored for hundreds of years. The highest regarded wood, Ranjatai, is said to contain so much resin that it can be used many times over. If the particular piece of incense wood has a history, the price can be even higher.

One of the oldest traditional incense companies in Japan is Sakai-based Baieido (1657 with roots going back to the Muromachi period). Other traditional and still operating companies include Kyukyodo (1663, Kyoto) and Shoyeido (1705, Kyoto).


  1. ^ "Buddhist Incense - Sonae Koh". Japanese-Incense.com. 
  2. ^ "Incense Chapter - In Ghostly Japan -". sacred-texts.com Lafcadio Hearn. 
  3. ^ "Aloeswood". Japanese-Incense.com. 
  • Pybus, David. Kodo: The Way of Incense. Tuttle, 2001. (ISBN 0-8048-3286-2)
  • Morita, Kiyoko. The Book of Incense: Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents. Kodansha International, 2007. (ISBN 4-7700-3050-9)

External links[edit]