Kodo | The art of listening to fragrance

Japanese culture is steeped in graceful rituals and acts of refinement, from tea ceremonies to calligraphy and floral arranging. These practices span centuries and provide meticulous guidance in matters of etiquette, aesthetics and spirituality. Simple daily experiences are elevated and transformed with mindful sensory perception and meaningful gestures.

Clearly fragrance-obsessed here at Southern Wild Co, we are fascinated by the beautiful Japanese ancestral practice known as Kodo, which translates to ‘the way of incense’. As the art of listening to fragrance, this ritual is a true experience of the senses and soul.

Japan’s connection to scent dates back to the 6th century, when Buddhism flourished and incense (koh) was used to sanctify spaces and forge spiritual connections to the gods. Aromatic aloeswood or agarwood mixed with herbs was burnt in temple rituals and used by samurai to purify themselves before battle.

japanese incense

Early forms of Kodo originated in the 11th century and were documented at the time by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki Shikibu in her book, The Tale of Genji, the supposed first novel ever written. The epic historic work depicts the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period. It refers to a popular parlour game involving aristocrats burning incense and challenging each other to guess the scents. This form of entertainment required an array of accoutrement, like lacquered utensils and storage boxes holding raw incense materials, such as wood, clove, sandalwood, deer musk, amber, and herbs.

The Tale of Genji
Chapter 39 – Yūgiri (夕霧,  Evening Mist ). 12th-century Gotoh Museum handscroll.

The tale of Genji: Chapter 15 – Yomogiu (蓬生, "Waste of Weeds"). Scene from the 12th-century illustrated handscroll Genji Monogatari Emaki kept at the Tokugawa Art Museum

Chapter 15 – Yomogiu (蓬生, "Waste of Weeds"). Scene from the 12th-century illustrated handscroll Genji Monogatari Emaki kept at the Tokugawa Art Museum


Kodo ceremonies were formalised hundreds of years later during the Muromachi era (1336–1573), an important period in Japan’s cultural history. Tea ceremonies (Sado) and ikebana (Kado) flowering arranging were also codified, and practices trickled down to the expanding merchant class. The “-do” in each of these words translates to “the way” and represents the process of aesthetic appreciation.
A Kodo ceremony is an exercise in mindfulness structured by distinctive rules, tools and actions. Participants are invited to sit silently and carefully cup the air around the heated incense or woodchips and waft it toward their faces, taking no more than three deep breaths. The goal is to correctly identify the ingredients and source materials by ‘listening’ to the scent’s holistic essence rather than just sniffing the aromas. Appreciating the fragrance requires steadfast concentration and a slow, respectful pace.

Participants write down the scent combination they have just experienced, and the ceremony master reveals the correct answers. A calligrapher compiles these answers on a parchment scroll, which becomes the award for the winning ‘listener.’ It takes over 30 years to become a Kodo ceremony master, but the benefits of deep sensory awareness can be felt without decades of rigorous training!

Find a quiet spot and place incense, essential oils, or a scented candle in front of you. Close your eyes, breathe slowly and focus on the fragrance. As you observe the aromatic nuances, the moment of introspection will provide mental clarity and a soothing feeling of calm. The gentle, contemplative and ancient art of listening to fragrance will surely enhance your mood and well-being.

We thought we’d conclude this brief look at Kodo with The Ten Virtues of Koh, an ode to incense set down by Zen Buddhist scholars in the 15th century.

  1. It brings communication with the transcendent.

  2. It refreshes the mind and body.

  3. It removes impurities.

  4. It brings alertness.

  5. It is a companion in solitude.

  6. In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.

  7. When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.

  8. When there is little, still one is satisfied.

  9. Age does not change its efficacy.

  10. Used every day, it does no harm.

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