Incense Ceremony for Spring Equinox 2018

Spring Koh-Doh

Ceremonies are a combination of the meticulously planned steps and procedures, and the chemistry or effect this process has with the people attending. I believe it's the latter who really sets the tone and brings out the essence or spirit of the ceremony and its intent.

Yesterday I conducted an incense ceremony to celebrate the arrival of spring. Things did not go quite as planned in terms of attendance. So I ended up actually having two ceremonies: A prep one with Miss T, my Sister-in-law, 3 nephews, and baby niece, in which we had lots of laughs trying not to blow off the ashes in which the charcoal is buried.
We started off by "warming up" our noses with a few simple ingredients (patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, ambrette seeds; then we went through all the six ouds I have in my collection and finished off with some special neriko that was gifted to me by incense friends). I spent most of the night before in a sweat lodge and felt it was really important, after all the cleansing and sweating and burning off negativity and challenges - to invite sweetness into the spring.

Here are some brief notes from the ouds we've experienced that afternoon:

Hakusi (spicy/hot incense from Vietnam): Musky, animalic, woody, changes a lot throughout burning. Perhaps can be classified as Manaka.

Ogurayama (sweet incense from Vietnam): Sweet indeed, dreamy and rich. My nephew called out with a big smile: "It's a Garden of Eden for candy".

Kokonoe no Kumo (Indonesian raw aloeswood): Powdery, mild and bittersweet. Reminiscent of marzipan, playdoguh and heliotrope. 

Tsukigase (Vietnamese raw aloeswood): Weak and a little hot/peppery.

Assam Aud (gift from Persephenie): Camphoreous, hot-spicy, yet at the same time dry, yet sweet; or perhaps cool-sweet. Smells a lot like Japanese body incense.

Papua Shimuzu (Gift from Ensar Oud):Desert-dry at first, woody, bitter, acrid and perhaps a little sour to. A little like sandalwood. Perhaps can be classified as Rakoku.

The evening ceremony I actually had to cancel because of too many last minutes cancellations, and still there was someone who did not register at all, and actually was the only one who showed up (!). I forgot those things tend to happen, and feel bad that those who intended to come missed out. We had an impromptu ceremony that was not quite as I planned, but still fantastic. We burned what I felt intuitively was the right materials for her, and we had a pace that was responsive to her experience, in terms of toning down or up the intensity and switching materials when she had an overwhelming reaction to something. We burnt patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood and one type of oud (Papua Shimuzu).

Last but not least, here are the details of what was my intended ceremony. Koh-doh ceremonies are at an interesting cross between oud-binge, poetry reading, calligraphy and olfactory identification games. In that spirit, I planned out an event to celebrate Hanami's anniversary with the poem that inspired it. This poem and the associations I have with it dictated which materials we were going to burn, each symbolizing a particular aspect of the poem:

Metro Station: Vetiver rootlets, for their dusty, cool-woody and somewhat metallic scent

Faces in the Crowd: Costus root, for its oily scalp smell like many people on a train and the forced intimacy that happens in such crowded areas.

Sakura Blossoms: Either a Rose Nerikoh (by Yuko Fukami), cherry blossom incense stick, or ume blossom incense pellets that are shaped as actual flowers (see above photo).

Wet, black bough: Oud of some sort - preferably one with more "watery" or "cool" feel to it, rather than the hot, bitter, sweet ones, etc. For example: Assam agar wood.

Listening to Incense

Koh-Doh Ceremony with Yuko Fukami of Perfume Phyto
And as if walking all around the botanical gardens wasn't amazing enough for one day - there were more to come as the evening unfolded. Yuko Fukami (Parfum Phyto) has invited Lisa Fong (Artemisia Perfume) and me to her home. She has just come back from Japan and wanted to share with us some of the rare woods she brought with her.

It was my first time ever experiencing incense-burning the Koh-Doh style. In this technique, the woods are not burnt, but rather warmed up on a paper-thin mica plate. The plate is placed on top of a heap of ash that is carefully decorated like raked sand in a Zen garden; and conceals a burning ember - a natural coal that was placed in there before hand.

Koh-Doh Ceremony with Yuko Fukami of Perfume Phyto

Lisa had no idea what was awaiting us, as she's never heard of Koh-Doh (the way of incense) and so everything was completely new to her. As for me - even though I have some of the basic koh-doh tolls (the ash bowl, ash and neat square bamboo coals) - nothing in the world could have prepared us to the experience we were about to have.

Yuko spend most of her life in the USA, so there was non of the strict code of silence you'll have to obey in Japan. She explained to us every step and what she's experienced in Kyoto in a traditional incense ritual.

Once the charcoal was warm, and the pattern was formed on top of the rice ash, Yuko began opening each one of the little packets which were placed on the rainbow-shaped wooden tray. Everything in Koh-Doh is wrapped in beautiful handmade Japanese paper (including the tools you see next to the bowl).

There is a single purpose for everything in Japanese ceremonies. Yuko and I were particularly excited about the feather - a new tool in her collection, which I knew of but had no idea what it's used for. It's sold purpose is to brush the sides of the bowl in order to clear it of any excess ash, after the pattern has formed. This way the bowl looks neat and tidy.

each of the six packets were carefully labeled in Japanese calligraphy. Using tiny tongs, Yuko placed each peace of agarwood shaving (as thin as a mosquito's leg!) over top the warm mica plate. She demonstrated the cupping technique, in which the hands protect the precious smell from escaping and allows it to penetrate one's nostrils and entire being. The cup is passed in a a specific way so the pattern is always facing outwards. It might seem from the outside as if each participant is inhaling the steam of a very fine tea, and savouring it (we will get into the aroma later).

Everything is done in silence and each person in this unique commune would write their impressions later on a piece of paper, or if prompted to discuss it, the ceremony's recorder would write it on a rice paper scroll (which Yuko got to keep from the ceremony she attended in Japan). Each woods is passed several times until its aroma is too faint.

Now that I explained the process, you're probably dying to hear what the smell was like. We smelled only one type of wood: agarwood, or kyara (prounouced "Ka-Rah", with a rolling Japanese "R", of course). Each had its own specific characteristic and country of origin. However, although they were all agarwood, they did not smell the same at all. Some were sweet and flowery, while others more spicy and warm. Others were smoky and animalic. The interesting thing was that there was no real smoke involved - only gentle heating of the wood to release its rare aroma, to redeem its soul and unite with it for a few precious moments. The experience was like no other - neither incense burning, nor experiencing pure agarwood oils; and believe me, I've burnt some amazing incense in my life already, and smelled enough agarwoods to be able to tell that they can be strikingly different from one another...

It felt as if we were not burning incense, but communing with ghosts. There was a real presence and personality to each wood, and although the experience is very different from that of perfume - there seemed to be phases similar to the top/heart/base in Western perfumery, that are innate to the wood itself. As the aroma dissipated different facets revealed itself - what at first smelled minty, would have ended smelling more woody-clean.

Agarwood is such an incredibly powerful plant, that it might feel as if you're completely intoxicated when inhaling its deep aroma. It's very difficult to describe the scents, and even more difficult to recall it over a week later. At some point in our conversation, I realized that describing the different woods is defeating the purpose of Koh-Doh: savouring the aroma, diving into it and allowing it to possess you, and sharing this precious moment it with the other participants. But I could be wrong - as categorizing and describing is a huge part of classic Koh-Doh.

Only one thing was for certain: each wood had its own personality, and we were having way too much fun. The hours just went by and it wasn't till about midnight that we left, not completely sure that our state of mind was safe enough to drive.

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-B: Religious Uses and Cultural Significance of Agarwood

The top consumers globally for agarwood products are the United Arab Emirates, Saudia Arabia, Japan and Taiwan. Singapore and Hong-Kong are the largest re-exporters of agarwood from its countries of origin (i.e.: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.).

Agarwood uses are mainly in incense, for both religious and cultural purposes; and to a lesser extent (because of its dear cost) in medicine and perfumery. The list of commercial perfumes using agarwood is rather short, because agarwood is very expensive and cannot be replicated very well with synthetics. Besides, the scent of agarwood is an acquired taste that has only recently become more trendy in the Western world.

Religious and Cultural Significance
Agarwood is used in religious rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Agarwood culture have reached its height in popularity and sophistication in both Arabia and Japan – even though it is not native to either of these regions, and in both cultures it has become significant for both religious purposes and for pleasure, thus becoming a rich component of these two cultures. Because of its enormously high price, only select few people can enjoy agarwood, and even fewer can enjoy the highest grades of agarwood.
Agarwood is mentioned in the bible only in later books of Psalms and Canticles. Although both books are very holy to the Jews, the context in which agarwood is mentnioned in both books seems to be for lucury and personal use, rather than religious purposes (it is not mentioned in the holy incense or anointing oils of the tabernacle).

References and sources for entire agarwood series:
CITES: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan
CITES: Agarwood Use and Trade & CITES Implementation for A. Malaccensis
The Cropwatch Files 1
The Cropwatch Files 2
Royal Oudh
Bo Jensen

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX-D: Jin-Koh in Japan

Japanese Incense Ceremony, originally uploaded by verhoeven2008.

Agarwood in Japanese is called Jin-koh, meaning “sinking incense” or “sinking fragrance”. It was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism, about 1,500 years ago, in the 6th Century, through the Korean peninsula. At first, it was used primarily as part of religious ceremonies, and gradually become a symbol of status and was incorporated into the rituals and ceremonies of the Imperial court around the Nara period (710-794 AD), and continued that way until the Meiji Restoration (1868), when such rituals have ceased. Most of the jin-koh consumption in Japan today is in fact for religious purposes rather than for the koh-doh ceremonies.

The first recorded history of jin-koh is in 595 AD in the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan):
“…aloeswood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji (near Kobe). It was six feet in circumference. 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”.

In Buddhism practices, jin-koh was the best offering that can be made by burning it as incense. Incense was used for purification of the prayer space, and while studying the Buddhist sutras. This is not surprising, considering the effect of agarwood in increasing concentration and awareness. It is also used in powdered mixtures of spices and woods as a body incense, in order to purify the hands and body before entering a holy place. Jin-koh today is burnt as incense, on its own or blended with other fragrant woods, spices and resins as incense sticks. The Japanese incense makers usually blend agarwood with sandalwood, spikenard, patchouli, cloves, camphor, benzoin, cassia and galagal. Jin-koh incense is used in temples as well as in home altars for the ancestors and during funerals and by grave sites when commemorating and honouring the dead.

Like in Arabia, the Japanese also used incense to scent their clothing, a practice called soratakimono. This custom emerged around the beginning of the second millennium, and has developed into a game among nobelty, to guess the differences between different materials comprising the incense. Around the 1300’s, this practice led to the burning of individual incense raw materials rather than the blended incense (as was imported from China), which was the beginning of koh-doh.

Jin-koh has become a status of symbol in feudal Japan, when only the wealthy nobles and the warriors could possess it. At first, only men of the imperial and noble families and warriors burnt agarwood and practiced koh-doh. This art of burning incense was enjoyed together with other Japanese high arts such as Ikebana (flower arrangement), Chadoh (tea ceremonies), poetry, calligraphy and Noh drama. Incense burning rituals were referred to as koh o kiku or mon-koh (“listening to incense). It wasn’t until the Edo period that women were allowed into the world of incense. The art of Koh-doh was passed only verbally from koh-doh maters to accomplished students, a tradition that is maintained until now (with the exception of some books that were written recently).

Grading of Agarwood in Japan
Japanese classify agarwood in a system that is called go-mi rikkoku, meaning “six countries, five flavours”.

The five flavours were:
1) Sweet (resembling the smell of honey or concentrated sugar),
2) Sour (resembling the smell of plums or other acidic foods)
3) Hot (resembling the smell of red pepper when put
in a fire)
4) Salty (resembling the smell of a towel after wiping perspiration from the brow, or the lingering
smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried over a fire)
5) Bitter (resembles the smell of herbal medicine
when it is mixed or boiled) (Morita, 1992).

(Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan).

The classifications vary between Koh-doh schools. The following is a classical classification that originated in the 16th century by Koh-doh masters that were appointed by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa:
A name originating from the Sanskrit kara, meaning “black”. The highest quality variety
of agarwood and possessing all five component flavours (as listed below), kyara is prized for its noble and elegant scent – like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness. Sourced from Viet Nam.
A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood and possessing bitter, salty and hot
flavours – reminiscent of a warrior. Sourced from Thailand.
With a great variety of scents and rich in resin ingredients and possessing mostly sweet
flavours – coarse and unrefined, like a peasant. Believed to be sourced from the east (Malabar) coast of India, and perhaps from Indo-Malaysia.
Among the scented woods, this type has a rather shallow scent and is not strongly related
to any of the five flavours – light and changeable like a woman’s feelings. Sourced from Malacca (Malaysia).
A quiet scent with a light and faint flavour, with good quality sasora mistaken for kyara,
especially when it first begins to burn – reminiscent of a monk. Believed to be sourced from western India, but this is uncertain.
Rich in resin ingredients and sour at the beginning and end, sometimes easily mistaken for
kyara – reminiscent of something distasteful and ill-bred, like a servant in his master’s clothing. Sourced in Sumatra (Indonesia). [Source: Kaori no Techo (Scent Handbook) (Shoyeido Corporation, 1991); Morita (1992)]
Source: The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan.

Types of Incense in Japan
Japanese incense comes in several forms:

1) Jin-koh for Koh-doh, which is the raw infected wood, cut into very small pieces, the size of a mosquito-leg. Incense prepared that way is traditionally named by the Koh-doh master preparing them, and kept safe by individual storage in labeled and folded envelopes. These envelopes are a sort of a family heirloom that is passed from generation to generation, some of which are part of the imperial treasure house.

2) Shoh-koh is chipped agarwood mixed with other materials, usually 5, 7 or 10 in total, including sandalwood, cloves, ginger and ambergris. Shoh-koh is burnt on charcoal inside temples.

3) Naru-koh is incense balls, which are blended from as many as 20 different raw materials, ground into fine powder, bound together by honey or plums, rolled into balls and than placed in clay pots and buried underground to age and improve, usually for about 3 years.

4) Sen-koh are incense sticks in various thickness depending on how long they are designed to burn. Some sen-koh contain jin-koh,, and the proportion of it in the formula, as well as the grade used affect the price of Japanese incense sticks. These sticks are burnt for pleasure as well as in home altars and rituals to commemorate the ancestors who passed away.

5) Ensui-koh – incense cones, which are less popular than the sticks, and are essentially the same but made into a different shape.

6) Nioi-bukuro – sachets, which are placed in drawers to scent clothes and stationary, or tucked into kimono sleeves.
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