“LISTENING” TO INCENSE – KOH-DO  

The Koh-do is an important incense ceremonial tradition held in Japan. Koh-do branched out into two schools which are the Oie-ryu and Shino-ryu schools. The Oie-ryu school was established by Sanetaka Sanjonishi, and this school emphasizes on the literal aspects of Koh-do such as its methods and game playing while the Shino-ryu school is more organized and places its focus on manners and formality such as during the samurai and merchant classes’ era. Professional licensed practitioners who have graduated from Shino-ryu or Oie-ryu schools are only allowed to present this traditional ceremony which has been observed for more than five centuries.

The Koh-do incense ceremony is generally carried out in the Koh room together with the Master of ceremonies and a small group of participants. It’s not uncommon for a game to be played in most incense ceremonies. The game is for participants to guess the scent of the incense which is being burned. There are hundreds of different versions of this game. Although the formal Koh-do ceremony is extremely traditional, the main idea is for the participants to have fun and learn to discern the scents of incense.

The most common way of playing the game is by passing on incense burners filled with different kinds of fragrant wood chips which will be made known to the participants. The participants will then memorise the characteristics of the fragrance. Meanwhile, the correct etiquette to “listen” to fragrance is to steady the incense burner on the left palm and keep it horizontal while placing the right thumb and little finger along the incense burner. Next is to bring it close to the nose while keeping it horizontal and “listen” to the fragrance from the space between the left

Another similar type of “listening” to incense game is called Kumi-koh. It is to learn about various kinds of wood, participants would participate in a competition called Genji-koh, which is named after The Tale of Genji, a classic masterpiece. To play this game, five packages each with five types of wood are prepared. The total 25 packages are shuffled and five of them are randomly chosen. The participants will take turns to select the packets and identify the scents and determine the different kinds of wood and its order.

The fragrant woods (koboku) used are mostly cedar or cypress. Meanwhile, in Japanese’s incense ceremony, the fragrant woods are divided into six kinds which are the Kyara, Rakoku, Manaka, Sumotara, Mananban and Sasora. The woods represent five terms which are hot, sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

Koh-do comprises of two aspects which firstly is to improve one’s mental wellbeing, as sniffing fragrances requires certain rules of etiquette and is a good chance to leave behind the business of city life and free the mind of worries and stress and secondly, is the gaming aspect. The answers of Kumi-koh will be written on a Hosho, a sheet where the answers are written on.

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