Incense, or koh, was introduced into Japan during the sixth century by Buddhist monks who used it for their rituals.
The story tells that in 595 a piece of aloe wood ("jinkoh" in Japanese) was washed up on the beach of the island of Awaji. The people of the island used this wreckage as firewood to burn, and they remained surprised by the marvellous aromatic odour that was emitted from it and took a piece of it to the emperor. The prince Shotoku, who was a great supporter of Buddhism, recognized it as the fragrance that the monks used in their purification rituals.
During the era of Heian, 200 years later, incense was present at the imperial court "in the games of incense" as source of fun and diversion.
At the end of the period of Kamakura (1185-1333), people used a mix of incense ("nerikoh" in Japanese), during the era of Muromachi (XV and XVI century) the elegant art of appreciating incense is turned into an everyday practice. Three schools were founded for handing down this art: Shino-ryu, Oie-ryu and in the XVIII century Kanin-ryu. Hokushodo Fukui X, of the tenth generation of a direct spiritual descent, is the great actual master of the school of Kanin-ryu.
Among many creations in the art of the incense, the Japanese invented the cone form, so popular today, and which was introduced at the Universal Trade Fair in Chicago towards the end of 1800.
Already from 1300 incense was burned for pure pleasure: during the centuries it has been elevated to a form of art represented in splendid way in Koh-doh or Path of incense. It is similar to the famous flower and tea ceremonies and can be summarised as a kind of game called "listening to incense": it is believed that appreciating a fragrance is similar to listening to a piece of music, with all the relative different instruments and voices. It is interesting that today perfumers describe and classify their fragrances terms of notes.
Three principal ingredients are used for the koh: Byakudan (sandalwood), Jinkoh (aloe wood) and Kyara, estimated to be more expensive than gold. There is incense that can be burned every day and incense of high quality for special occasions and a range of supports elegant created in the traditional style.
What is the Koh-doh?
Koh-give is a Japanese ceremony centred around incense, initiated in the XIV or XV century: it is a theatrical representation, a social reunion, a game and the celebration of one of the most appreciated aromatic plants in the world.
Notably influenced by the tea ceremony, the first game of Koh-doh was called "the ten game", and it is almost identical to the tea ceremony. Koh-doh is translated as "the sense of incense" or "appreciation of incense" or also "the path of incense".
In Japan there are hundreds of different games that can be played during the ceremonies of Koh-doh. These games are called Kumiko they are often thematic, on poetry, or the seasons.
Typically, the ceremony takes place in a room with a number of six to fifteen people sitting in a kind of square, with the teishu (orator), the scorer and the komoto (presenter of the incense) at the front. Every participant has a sheet of paper to record their impressions or observations regarding the various incenses that are introduced. The komoto prepares a cup filled with rice ash, in which a piece of coal and warm bamboo firewood are buried. A small plate is placed above the firewood and a very small piece of aromatic wood is crumbled upon it. The fragrance of the wood is set free without burning it; Koh-doh is less "smoky" than burning and frees the purest aroma of the incense.
When the cup is ready the komoto inhales it twice and passes it to his left. The most important guest is sat to the left of the komoto and is the first to receive the cup of Koh-doh. The cup is passed around the room, every person who inhales the aroma of the wood makes a note of all its distinctive characteristics and impressions on the sheet of paper. In this way the cup returns to the komoto, who has in the meantime prepared a second for comparison. The sheets of paper record every observation of the participants concerning the wood and the results can be interpreted in various ways, as a story or as a poetry reading. The number of cups (and therefore woods) tried depends on the particular game of kumiko that is being played.
Koh-doh is an activity which lasts a lifetime, every time the game is played something new is learned. In Japan a person trains and studies for over 30 years the art of the Koh-doh and even then, if you ask someone, they would very probably tell you that they are still in a training phase.