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The lesser-known art of listening to fragrance | AFR

Instruction at the Yamadamatsu Incense-Wood Company from Nae Anri. Stephen Clark
It takes 30 years to master the subtleties of kodo – but taking up the challenge during a visit to Kyoto proves a lesson in itself.”Listening to incense” is the Zen-like challenge I’m undertaking today during a stay in Kyoto. Known as kodo, the pastime was one of the classical arts for Japanese nobles of the late 16th century, along with tea ceremony (chado) and flower arrangement (kado).

Incense, brought to Japan with Buddhism in the 6th century, creates a spiritual connection to the gods and sanctifies a space. Its scent is a sure sign you are near a temple or a shrine.

It’s said to take 30 years to become a kodo master and the trick, it seems, is to sharpen the mind and appreciate the fragrance, not just smell it. But how hard can that be?

In a tatami-mat room at Yamadamatsu Incense Wood company in Kyoto, just west of the Imperial Palace, Nae Anri sets out the tools she will use for my challenge.

Delicate and precise: Nae Anri sets up the challenge, using using three varieties of incense wood. Stephen Clark

There’s a small censer containing a hot coal buried in ash; a fabric pouch tied with a braided bow in the shape of a lotus; and a folder of gold card containing seven metal instruments, scrupulously cleaned.

In a series of delicate and precise moves, Anri shapes the ash into a mound, using a feather to brush dust from the inside of the censer. In the pouch are three tiny chips of wood wrapped in paper: we are going to use these to play a game called Monko, using three varieties of incense wood (more complex games use up to 10).

Incense burning at a temple outside Kyoto.  Alamy

Japanese incense uses resinated woods like agarwood and sandalwood. It’s less smoky than other Asian varieties and has no bamboo stick in its centre. The most treasured material is the rare and expensive kyara from the forests of Vietnam.

Anri takes out a tiny sheet of glass-like mica, a silicate mineral edged with silver, and places a wood chip onto it with tweezers before sitting it on top of the warm ash.

She balances the censer on her left palm, cupping it with her right as she lifts it to just below her nose. She breathes in and out slowly three times before passing it to me. I rotate it clockwise and do the same.
Our game is to decide if these three scents are the same or different, recording them on a slip of paper using a set of symbols. If they are all different, one draws three separate vertical lines (called Ryokuju no hayashi, which translates as “grove of green trees”). I reckon the first and the third are the same, but the second is different, so I link the first and third lines with a horizontal bar (“snow on a lonely peak”).

It turns out I’ve over-thought it: they were all the same (“dew on silver grass”).

The scent of the raw wood is too subtle for me. It’s a lesson in itself, of course: the enigmatic but evocative sense of smell is one that must be cultivated and educated. Those ancient nobles had a lot of free time, it seems.

Yamadamatsu, 64 Kageyukojicho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto. You can also play Monko at other stores.

Source: The lesser-known art of listening to fragrance