Kodo – Japanese Way of Incense

31 December 2014 Posted by Alexander

The smoke 

Is now making

The first sky of the year. — Issa

This Haiku poem is a beautiful reminder of another year gone by and of the poetic beauty of incense traditionally burned in temples, shrines and homes across Asia. Physical and social enjoyment, refinement of the senses, contact with the divine are among the attractions of Kodo, the Japanese way of incense. We leave you on this New Year’s Eve with some thoughts on Kodo and an abundance of good wishes for a very happy and healthy 2015.

Midori incense burner

Revered by Buddhist monks, courtiers and Shoguns is the most famous incense of all: jinkoh also known as aloes or agar wood. This is the incense I light every morning in my room as I sit with a cup of tea to (hopefully) open the paths of creativity. It is found as a dense resin that forms within the wood of trees of the Aquilaria and Daphne families that have been damaged. It has a rich woody, warm, musky and strong aroma. Masculine in the best of ways.

Song incense burner

The oldest record of incense appreciation in Japan was of jinkoh and appears in AD 595 in the first chronicles Nihonshoki. “Light-aloes wood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji… The people of the island, being unacquainted with aloeswood, used it with other firewood to burn for cooking; the smoky vapour spread its perfume far and wide. In wonderment, they presented it to the Empress.”

Silver goose incense burner

I once went to Malacca with my wife in search of a Chinese lantern-maker and happened across a man who had given up his life as an engineer to deal in agarwood. He explained that the smoke of most incense rises and dissipates very rapidly, while the smoke of agar is uniquely heavy and lustrous. He demonstrated this by lighting a cone of pure agar wood and placed it against a black velvet backing to allow the smoke to be clearly visible. We fell silent watching the slow, strong lines of incense fold and rise with the gentle flow of air. Time stopped and I felt myself floating with the smoke, aware of the moment in an intense way. It was magical and restful.

Beauty can come from the most unexpected places – from things that may appear damaged or worn out; that have struggled to survive. The rarity of such things gives them great resonance and is an inspiration as I work with rare materials and textures and techniques in the pursuit of my designs. I designed and made this small group of incense burners as both beautiful objects and as vessels for the enjoyment of incense. I love the ‘life’ they have and the relationship with the movement of smoke.

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