Koudou: The Japanese tradition you’ve never heard of

Image courtesy of 薬師寺日記

As I mentioned before, I’m doing a homestay here in Kyoto. I have a fairly insane class/homework schedule, but I usually talk to my host parents every morning at breakfast (8 am) and every evening at dinner (7 pm). Yesterday, my host mother showed me a TV program that she’d recorded a couple of years ago about Japanese culture and parallels in French culture. Anyway, during the course of this program, I learned about kōdō (香道).

So, what is kōdō? It’s actually one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement. You’re probably familiar with kadō (ikebana, or flower arrangement) and chadō (tea ceremony), but kōdō is much more obscure–it’s even relatively unknown among modern Japanese people. (My host parents, for example, had never heard of it.) More concretely, kōdō translates to something like “the way of incense” or “the scent road”–essentially, it is all about appreciating scent, specifically the scent of incense. Like tea ceremony, the practice comes with a host of associated tools and customs. This picture shows an example of some of these tools. Practitioners will put a tiny amount of incense on top of the cups (censers) that look like they’re filled with (patterned) sand:

Image courtesy of 東京セミナーBE

Afterward, they will bring the cup to their noses, protecting the area with their free hand (as demonstrated by the monk above). There are various parlor games (kumikō) associated with kōdō that originated in the practices of the Japanese aristocracy. For example, participants might 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 try 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. Judgements are marked using genji-mon, linear patterns which designate chapters in the Tale of Genji. The picture below shows all 54 of the Genji-mon geometrical design patterns which originally symbolized the combinations of the fragrances in the game:

Image courtesy of Made With Japan

Anyway, in the television program, they explained the history of the practice in detail (in Japanese, of course) and showed various French people trying to play Genjikō. It was very interesting. You learn something new every day–particularly when you’re studying abroad.