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The History of Kōdō



The history of kōdō began in 595 during the Asuka period (飛鳥時代: 592-710) when a log of aromatic wood washed up on the beach of Awaji island [1-4]. The locals burned the wood, and it immediately released a scent no one had ever smelled before. So they decided to present it to Empress Suiko 推古天皇. At that time, although the Japanese had started communicating with their continental neighbors, the presence of this wood remained mysterious. However, Shōtoku-Taishi (聖徳太子), the regent, immediately recognized the fragrant wood used in Buddhist ceremonies, which had arrived in Japan some years earlier (in 538) [1-4].


The recipe for this incense blend arrived in 752 during the Nara period (奈良時代: 710-794), thanks to the Chinese monk Jianzhen (鑑真和上) (688-763) [1-4], who crossed the sea in order to teach the precepts of Buddhism. He thus passed on knowledge of medicinal plants and the recipe for the incense blend (neriko (練香)). Incense had very strong ties to Buddhism [3].


During the following era, the Heian period (the capital was in Kyoto), 平安時代: 749-1192, the nobility developed a very sophisticated culture. The nobles began to produce neriko to perfume themselves [1-4]. To make neriko there were proportions and selection of ingredients to follow that varied with the seasons. [1]. Each noble tweaked these proportions a bit to differentiate his fragrance from others [1,2]. Making neriko required quite a bit of money and effort. The nobles gave this incense they had made themselves to loved ones along with a poem. [2].


The following era, the Kamakura period (鎌倉時代: 1192-1333), was marked by the domination of the samurai class. The soldiers developed a more austere and spare culture. Far from the former capital, an art favoring simplicity and realism emerged under the influence of Zen Buddhism.


During the Nanboku-chō (南北朝時代: 1333-1392) and Muromachi (室町時代: 1338-1573) periods the capital reverted to Kyoto. The mood of the era was marked by the desire to “overcome one's superiors” or the strongest, called “gekokujō” (下克上). Kōdō was born during this unstable era, after the Ōnin War (1467-1477), during which people deeply felt the fragility of life and the ephemeral nature of situations. Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga (足利義政), who relinquished his political power in favor of his son, surrounded himself with men from all kinds of backgrounds: nobles, monks, city dwellers, soldiers, and artists. This fostered the development of a typically Japanese culture and the development of arts that still exist in Japan (tea, flowers, renga poetry [連歌], garden design, and Honkyoku music [音曲]), including kōdō (香道) [2]. After having lived through a difficult and sad era, people created arts designed to celebrate the experience and appreciation of the present moment




People gathered in the Higashiyama district (in the east of Kyoto) in a small room of four and a half tatami mats to practice these arts [2] The four-and-a-half mat room can also be called “hôjyô no ma” (方丈の間), a synonym for the place to practice Zen Buddhism. Yoshimasa named his room “Dojinsai” (同仁斎). This name comes from a Buddhist and Confucian expression “isshi-dojin” (一視同仁), which means that each thing is of equal value. By using this name, Yoshimasa suggests that we must abandon our egos and all our ties to the external world when we enter inside the “hôjyô no ma” [1]. On the road of art, we are all equals. 


Amongst Yoshimasa's circle we find Murata Shukō (村田珠光, 1422-1502), who was an expert on poetry and tea, Sanjōnishi Sanetaka (三条西 実隆, 1455-1537), the founder of the Oie school of kōdō, and Shino Soshin (志野宗信1441-1522), founder of the Shino school of kōdō [1,2,4]. Sanetaka was one of the great intellectuals of the era [1,2,4]. He was adept at calligraphy and literature, and was in charge of “kō” (incense in Japanese) at the imperial courts [2]. Soshin learned about “ kō” from Sanetaka [2].


Soshin was given the task of categorizing the aromatic wood collected by the Ashikaga shogun family. This entailed developing classification systems [1,2]. The two complementary classification methods are the “Rikkoku” (六国, meaning 6 countries) and the “Gomi” (五味, meaning 5 tastes).


The method of appreciating incense wood was invented during this period [2,4]. It consists of placing a tiny piece of precious wood on a mica slab, which is heated on a small pile of ashes containing a piece of burning charcoal. This way you can concentrate in a quiet ambiance in order to appreciate the light scent emanating from the wood and distinguish the different nuances [2,4]. 


Incense games then developed, inspired by the tea games that existed before [2,4]. In 1478 Yoshimasa performed a ceremony with 6 types of neriko, as well as another ceremony with 6 types of aromatic wood in 1479. In 1502 a ceremony with 10 pieces of incense wood was held at Soshin's residence, attended by the intellectuals and literature (poetry) connoisseurs of the time [2,4].


This type of ceremony with several types of aromatic wood later became the kumikō (組香) [4]: an incense game using several types of aromatic wood whose fragrances are often associated with a poem. In literature, we find a report of a kumikō gathering during the Momoyama period (1573-1603) [4]. Kumikō became a game that allowed players to express feelings using a poem and kō. 


From the Edo period (江戸時代: 1603-1868) to today, only the kumikō and the itchû-kô (一炷香), which consists of smelling a single type of incense wood, are practiced [4].





[1] Kiyoshi Oota, 香と茶 (translation: Kō and Tea), Tankosya, Kyoto, 2001.

[2] Masataka Hata, 香三才- 香と日本人のものがたり- (translation: The World of Kō  - History of Kō  and the Japanese), Tokyo Shyoseki, Tokyo, 2004.

[3] Shoyeido dir., 日本の香り (translation: Odors of Japan) , Corona books ed., Heibonsya, Tokyo, 2008.

[4] Hiroyuki JINBO, 香りと香道の歴史 (translation: History of Perfume and Kō) in Tanko-Muck, 香道入門 (translation: Introduction to the Way of the Kō, in French), Tankosya, Kyoto, 2010.