Kensington isn't exactly the first place you'd associate with Japanese minimalism. But on the 17th of April it was the setting for what may well have been the first kodo incense ceremony in the UK.
Cushions and benches were assembled in a large space at the Conran shop on Fulham Road, the pop music pumping through the speakers was turned off and a small number of inquisitive attendees was treated to an hour of thoughts, anecdotes and, of course, incense burning, from Souhitsu Isshikenn Hachiya, Junior Master at Japan's Shino School.
Dressed in a plain kimono, Hachiya began proceedings in somewhat disarming fashion by announcing that when he was growing up, he wanted to be a footballer. "I played soccer since I was in kindergarten, all the way up to university," he explained through an interpreter. "But I was predestined to become the Shino school's 21st Master of kodo. So I'm very jealous of my brother, who's very free."
Hachiya's family has been in charge of the school since it was founded more than 500 years ago, and he hopes his descendants will continue to run it for many centuries to come. "I only have daughters," he said. "There's no exact rule that the Master absolutely must be a man. But of course, males are preferred for such an occupation. I'm going to have a child next month. And it's a girl." He smiled. "So I'm going to have to try again. In the 21 Masters that we've had, there was one woman: the 17th generation. So perhaps my daughter may become the 22nd generation."
Hachiya stated that although kodo (meaning: 'way of incense') is firmly a part of Japanese culture, it is nowhere near as well known as the tea or flower-arranging ceremonies. Indeed, his school is one of only two in the whole world which provide instructions on how to enjoy this ancient practice.
Kodo grew out of the aristocratic classes' love of sensual pleasures: they took to perfuming themselves with incense whilst writing and reading haiku, in the hope that the one would augment the other. However, sometimes the ritual had a more intimate objective. "Once upon a time, men and women did not use email and Facebook to meet," said Hachiya. "About a thousand years ago, if I was a man and I wanted to go and see this incredible woman, I would write my feelings into a poem and send it to her. Of course, I couldn't do it by myself, so I sent a secretary over. And then I waited. And I put a fragrance onto the letter. So the scent needed to be perfect, otherwise she wouldn't take any interest. And she'd then respond with another poem, and if that was deemed a success, then we'd eventually get to meet.
"But we wouldn't actually see each other yet. Nowadays, when you fall in love, you tend to go straight for the looks. And then you discover what the person is like inside. A thousand years ago in Japan, looks didn't matter at all. You'd go and see the other person at night. The man arrives. They blow out any form of candlelight, any sort of light. It's pitch black. Then you see this vague form of a body. And the scent. And then they spend the evening together. And then what the man has to do is that he has to go home before the sun rises. This is how we fell in love. You wouldn't be seen in public holding hands. You wouldn't dine together. And then, if you feel like seeing her again, you must wait until nightfall, and then go and see her in the same way. Unlike now, it wasn't a particularly monogamous society."
Scenting one's body was eventually appropriated by samurai culture. "Once upon a time, the samurai used the fragrance of these barks to heighten themselves and to concentrate before they went into battle. They never knew whether they would come back alive that night. The Japanese think carefully about the body that's left behind after the soul has left. What I mean is that you don't want your own corpse to smell of blood or sweat. Therefore the samurai ensured they burnt incense in order for them not to smell of blood or sweat if they died. In one sense, that's a form of showing respect to the person you're fighting."
Hachiya had to undergo more than a decade of training before he was qualified to carry out the intricate kodo ceremony. In that time, he had to learn not how to smell the incense, but how to listen to it. "This derives from the Buddhist notion of listening to scent," he said. "When Buddha used to teach, he used to do it with scent rather than with words. His students would learn directly from fragrance as opposed to words. For myself, I take the fragrance and feel with my nose, but it doesn't end there. You listen with your ears and your heart. You use every single sense to have a dialogue with the bark. I don't understand it fully, but this is the closest explanation I can give. This is something that is revealed to you in small portions at a time."
The bark to which Hachiya refers is agar wood, the fabled material from which perfumers have long derived oud oil. Only completely natural varieties of this expensive resource may be used in kodo; trees whose oud production has been artificially induced are considered sub-standard. "You must approach the bark with gratitude because it's a natural resource," Hachiya stated. "You never waste any of it. In our house, we have barks that are between 500 and 1000 years old. These are treated with exceptional care. We must keep them for the generations to come, for the next 500 years.”
"Rather than studying from your Master, the tree is your real teacher," he continued. "I think I can have a dialogue with a tree. A tree, of course, has a life and it has a soul. Everything that has a life has a soul. However, you can't have a dialogue if you consider yourself to be a person and the tree to be a tree. You have to forget that you're human, and forget that you're tree, and place yourself at the same level. Language doesn't matter. You won't be speaking Japanese or English. And that's not something that you can really explain with words."
On an objective level, the smell was unmistakably that of oud: animalic, floral and curiously medicinal. Its extreme subtlety - no doubt an effect of the carefully controlled heat - and the concentration with which it was being smelt prompted several people to respond to it with great intensity: some spoke about almost being moved to tears; others claimed they were plunged back into childhood.
As he put the lid back on the box - and as the guests started descending back to the material reality of London - Hachiya stated that he sees his work as important because "fragrance has the power to make your heart kinder. Kodo has that power." In a global culture which favours speed, superficiality and instant gratification, he believes kodo has the ability to teach people about the value of both longevity and transience. The wood which he uses for his ceremonies may be hundreds of years old, but once unleashed, its smell lasts only for a few minutes. "The bark will end its life when everyone has listened to it," he said with a wistful expression. "And this moment is never going to happen again."
You can see a video of the event below:
About the author
Persolaise is a twice Jasmine Award winning writer and amateur perfumer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.comorby writing to him at persolaise at gmail dot com