Incense burning (香道)

Incense burning is an example of Geido (art), aimed at enjoying incense while meditating in a quiet world away from the pressures of daily life, and to appreciate the fragrance rising from Koboku (fragrant wood) burned ("taku" in Japanese) according to traditional rituals.
It is sometimes called Monko (listening to incense) or Ko-asobi (playing with incense) (the Chinese character of "taku" is 炷 [made up of two parts, "火" on the left and "主" on the right], but it may not be displayed in some Japanese environments; the same applies to the rest of this article)

Incense burning is regarded as a comprehensive art form because instruments decorated at the Ko-seki (incense ceremony) or used during procedures for burning Koboku have many artistic elements (see "Accessories used for incense burning" below), and recording paper used in Kumiko (incense combinations; see "Kumiko" below) have calligraphic elements.

Since the term 'Ko wo Kiku (listening to burning incense)' is officially used and the term 'Ko wo Kagu (smelling incense)' is wrong (not considered elegant) when burning incense, the term 'Kiku' is also used.

Koboku originally used in religion (mainly Buddhism) was introduced to Awaji Island in 595 and was used to appreciate incense by listening to as it burns, and as a result, incense burning developed as unique Japanese Geido. It was systematized as 'Monko (聞香; or 門香 also pronounced as Monko in Japanese; see "Monko" below)' which means listening to and appreciating Koboku incense, and furthermore as Kumiko (see "Kumiko" below) which is a game of distinguishing different types of incense by listening. During the Higashiyama Culture that flourished in the Muromachi period, incense burning rituals were established almost at about the same time Sado (tea ceremony) and Kado (flower arrangement) were established, and it is believed that incense burning had become close to the contemporary style. Around this time, the 'Rikkoku-gomi,' method of categorizing Koboku into various kinds of incense, was also systematized.

Incense burning is often performed without using any instruments or accessories like senko (incense stick), etc. and is lit directly, and in many cases, it is performed through the processes of putting burned Tadon (charcoal briquettes) in the Monko-ro (or Kikiko-ro; incense burner used in Monko), shaping the ash, putting a mica board called Ginyo on top of the ash, and burning Koboku cutting it into thin cubes measuring a few millimeters, and exuding incense. The amount of exuded incense is decided by a degree of heat, so, the heat conducted is adjusted through the process of changing the distance between Ginyo and Tadon by pressing Ginyo on top of the ash. Too much smoke from Koboku resin, etc. due to excessive heat conduction is not preferable because it interferes with listening to incense. It is difficult to adjust Ginyo appropriately without pressing it too much or too little, and experience is required.

Incense burning schools
At present, two schools, 'the Oie-ryu school' and the Shino-ryu school,' are considered mainstream. In addition to the above, 'Yonekawa-ryu school' was active during the Edo period.

Oie-ryu school
The Oie-ryu school was founded by Sanetaka SANJONISHI, and was succeeded to the high court noble Toshokuge (who was allowed to enter the Imperial Palace) as the Sanjonishi family, etc., but, was then later succeeded by officials called Jige (who were not allowed to enter the Imperial Palace). After World War II, Kinosa SANJONISHI was recommended for Soke (grand master) by Rikyo ISSHIKI and Kagetsu YAMAMOTO, and thereafter, the Sanjonishi family succeeded Soke for three generations. Saneyoshi SANJONISHI, father of Kinosa SANJONISHI, was adopted from the Kazahaya family and hence belonged to the Oie-ryu family.

Shino-ryu school
The Shino-ryu school was started by Soshin SHINO (date of birth and death not certain), and succeeded by the present-day Hachiya family, the fourth head family of the school. As of 2009, the 20th head of a school is Sogen Yusai HACHIYA.

Yonekawa-ryu school
The Yonekawa-ryu school is a branch of the Shino-ryu school, and was started by Johaku YONEKAWA who was admired as the founder and is known for giving lessons to Tofukumon-in, and it was supported by many Daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) families, most of which have since become extinct due to abolition of feudal domains during the Meiji Restoration. At present, it exists as the Oie-ryu school, Shigenobu group, Mikawa-Ando clan.

Kazahaya-ryu school
The Kazahaya-ryu School is part of the Oie-ryu school succeeding the form established by Saneeda SANJONISHI. He is connected with Soke by marriage.

Senzan-goryu school (head of a school: Choro (the eldest) of Sennyu-ji Temple)

Ten virtues of incense burning
The above outlined the lessons and the effects of Ko, and explains that incense is decided by quality, not quantity.

Kankaku-kijin: Kan wa Kijin-ni Itaru. - To make one's senses as sharp as those of an Oni (ogre) or deity
Shojo-shinjin: Shinshin wo Seijo-nisu. - To make both mind and body clean, and purify them
Nojo-oe: Yoku Owai wo Nozoku. - To remove impurities from a mind
Nokaku-suimin: Yoku suimin wo Samasu. - To make alert
Seichu-joyu: Seichu ni Tomo to naru. - To remove feelings of loneliness
Jinri-chukan: Jinri ni Hima wo nusumu. - To make one's mind calm even during a busy time
Taji-fuen: Ookushite Itowazu. - Not be disturbed even by too much smoke from burning incense
Kani-Isoku: Sukunakute Tareri to nasu. - To emit enough incense even in small amounts
Kyuzo-fukyu: Hisashiku takuwaete kuchizu. - To prevent decay even if stored for a long time
Joyo-musho: Tsune ni mochiite sawari nashi. - Not be harmed even by habitual use

Monko' means listening to incense in accordance with a set ritual.

As examples of ritual manners, descriptions about how to handle the Koro (incense burner) are given below. The incense burning of the Shino-ryu school is performed by placing the Koro in the left hand, placing your thumb on the edge, turning the Koro around counterclockwise, directing 'kikisuji' (a thick line made on the ash when shaping the ash; the direction of this line corresponds to the front face of Koro) drawn on the ash, toward the opposite side of the listener, placing your right hand in the shape of a tube on Koro, and listening to the incense by approximating your nose in the tube.

Instruments for incense burning
Koro: Instrument required in order to listen to incense or handle Tadon

Monko-ro (or Kikiko-ro) - Incense burner used to listen to incense

Hidori-koro: Incense burner used to encase and carry Tadon when performing procedures for listening to Ko

Nanatsu-dogu (suite of required equipment): Equipment required for emitting incense by burning Koboku

Ginyo-basami - Specially shaped scissor like tweezers used to handle Ginyo
Since this instrument is also used to hold Ginyo when putting it into Koro, the lower tip is flat-shaped for holding the Ginyo.

Kyoji - Used to handle Koboku

Kosaji - Used when putting Koboku on Ginyo.

Uguisu - Used in Kumiko when Komoto (host of incense ceremony; person performing procedures of handling Koboku) collects Honko-zutsumi (main incense package; Koboku wrapper on which an answer is written down) after putting Koboku in Koro

Haboki - Used to remove ash from the edge of the Koro after cutting the ash (which means shaping the ash in Koro)

Koji - Used to cut ash and handle Tadon

Hai-osae (or Hai-oshi) - Used to shape a mountain from the ash in the Koro

Bon (tray), Hako (box) and related articles: Equipment used to store necessary items used for procedures, and used for various kinds of miscellaneous work

Midare-bako (shallow box to store required instruments)
Shiho-bon (square tray)
Shino-bukuro (Shino-bukuro): Used to encase Ko-zutsumi during procedures
String attached to it are tied in the shape of a seasonal flower.

Naga-bon (rectangular tray)
Ju-kogo (three-drawer box that contains the instruments)
Sozutsumi (package encasing both the main incense package and trial incense package; called Shino-ori especially in the Shino-ryu school)
Jishiki - Paper spread under the instruments when Komoto performs procedures

Koban - Board used to present an answer when submitted by a method called Fuda-kiki
One set consists of 12 boards in total: three boards each with a picture of a plant on the front and a number, one, two, or three, on the reverse side (one board each with a picture of a star or moon at the edge, or no picture), and three boards for a guest.

Nanori-gami - Writing paper used when presenting an answer

Kozutsumi - Paper used to wrap Koboku before burning it

The Chinese character of 'Ji' of Kyoji or Koji is 筯 (which is made up of two parts, "竹" in the upper part and "助" in the lower part), but it may not be displayed in some Japanese environments.

During incense burning, Koshitsu (quality of Ko) of Koboku is likened to flavors, and categorized into the following five kinds: hot, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
These flavors are called 'gomi.'

Additionally, Koboku is categorized into the following 6 types in accordance with their quality and quantity, and these 6 types are called Rikkoku.

The above are collectively called Rikkoku-gomi.

Furthermore, Shin-kyara is sometimes added to Rikkoku-gomi, but is not seen in the older materials.

Kumiko is one of the ways to enjoy incense in accordance with a certain rituals. Kumiko is performed by each guest answering as to whether the incense is same or different, in accordance with rules decided after collecting information on a wide range of fields from literal to general culture, and provides a strong feeling of playing a game. Kumiko is performed in the relevant season (Ayame-ko, etc.). However, the essence is to listen to the incense, in order to escape to a world outside the bustle of daily activities, and to enjoy its style in silence, and there is no importance placed upon competition or about whether the answer is excellent one, or is correct or not.

The answer given by each guest is written down on a paper by a recorder (Shippitsu), and the guest who gets the highest score (if one or more guests gets the highest score, the guest closest to the main guest can apply to receive the paper) can obtain the paper. The paper contains descriptions of Kumiko by name, Ko-mei (names of Koboku and Takimono (incense)), answer, achievement, date, etc., and its appearance is a kind of art.

The following are examples of Kumiko.

Spring Kumiko

Summer Kumiko
Ayame-ko is part of Kumiko performed in summer.

Shoka (waka poem quoted as evidence of naming Koboku) is 'the water around Makomo (Manchurian wild rice) in a pond is increased by early-summer rain. Therefore, it is hard to tell which one is Ayame (iris)' (believed to be composed by MINAMOTO no Yorimasa). This is collected from Dakan Dai-Juroku (Volume 16) of Gempei Josuiki (or Gempei Seisuiki; military epic). It follows.

One of the court ladies to Toba-in, whose name was Ayame-no-mae, was very beautiful, and Yorimasa fell in love with her at first sight. Yorimasa often sent letters to Ayame-no-mae, but, could not receive any reply from her. While all of this was going on, three years had passed, this affair became known to Toba-in. Toba-in asked Ayame-no-mae about the situation, but she just turned red with embarrassment, and did not give any clear answer. Then, Toba-in asked Yorimasa to come over, and offered to test whether Yorimasa only longed for Ayame-no-mae just because she was very beautiful, or because he really loved her.

Then, Toba-in ordered two ladies who closely resembled Ayame-no-mae in age and appearance to wear the same kimono, and to walk out together and asked Yorimasa to distinguish which lady was Ayame-no-mae. Yorimasa was confused because he could not make up his mind to confess that he loved a woman in favor with Toba-in, and did not have the confidence to tell her from other ladies because he saw her face only briefly. When he was confused and hesitated by anticipating that, if he made a mistake, something untoward might occur, and not only he but also generations to come would be disgraced, Toba-in ordered him again, so, Yorimasa presented to Toba-in a poem saying that 'the water overflows the stone fence of the pond due to early-summer rain. Therefore, it is hard to tell which one is Ayame (iris)'.

Toba-in was impressed with this poem, and handed Ayame-no-mae over to Yorimasa.

The reason why there are five types of Ko is because a poem consists of five lines, and the whole of Kumiko expresses the meaning of the poem.

Prepare five kinds of Ko (one package of each incense without including trial incense to be numbered 1, 2, 3 and 5, respectively, and two packages of incense including one package of trial incense to be numbered 4).

Burn 'No. 4,' and remember the smell and sound of it's incense. The reason why trial incense is included in 'No. 4' is because Yorimasa glanced covertly at Ayame.

Shuffle all packages numbered 1 to 5, and burn them. In order to find 'No. 4,' listen to all Ko and have each guest deduct Ko which are judged to be Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5. Incense numbered 1, 2, 3 and 5 indicates court ladies standing with Ayame-no-mae (No. 4) in front of Yorimasa.

Each guest writes down No. 1, 2, 3, or 5 in order of deduction by listening (because the order of listening to incense is unknown since the incense numbered 1, 2, 3 and 5 are not trial incense), and then insert the folded paper when No. 4 incense is recognized, and the guest writes 'Ayame' in the upper right to clearly show the existence of Ayame.

Autumn Kumiko
Kikuawase-ko is part of Kumiko performed in autumn.

Shoka is 'Akikaze-no Fukiage-ni-tateru Shiragiku-wa Hana-ka-aranuka Nami-no-yosuruka' (from Kokinwakashu (Collection of Ancient and Modern poetry); composed by SUGAWARA no Michizane), and a scene is incorporated in Kumiko containing a poem that reads Shiragiku (white chrysanthemum) standing at Fukiage beach in the autumn breeze is so white that I mistake it for a lapping wave.

Prepare two kinds of Ko (four packages of Akikaze (autumn breeze) including one package of trial incense, and three packages of Shiragiku without including the trial incense).

Burn Akikaze, and remember its incense.

Shuffle three packages each of Akikaze and Shiragiku, pick out two packages and burn the remaining four. Through these processes, the remaining incense can be emitted in the combination of one package of Akikaze, three packages of Shiragiku, two packages each of Akikaze and Shiragiku, or three packages of Akikaze and one package of Shiragiku, and this clarifies that the waka poem is incorporated so each guest can enjoy judging which, a flower or a wave, applies to the incense, by collecting information from the phrase; 'mistake it for a lapping wave' as shown in the waka poem, and to feel the sentiment.

Each guest writes down which incense, Akikaze or Shiragiku, is emitted, on the recording paper, and submits it.

In line with the answer given by each guest, Shippitsu writes down 'Chrysanthemum (菊)' if more guests answer chrysanthemum, 'Flower (花)' if the numbers of guests answering chrysanthemum and wind are the same, or 'Wave (波)' if more guests answer wind, under the answer written down by each guest on the recording paper. This also implies the meaning of poem as a chrysanthemum if many guests answer flower, or a wave if many guests answer wind.

Winter Kumiko


Genji-jo is one way of enjoying incense burning. Genji-ko is believed to have been established in the Kyoho period, and is part of Kumiko using the Tale of Genji.

In 'Genji-ko,' prepare five packages each of five kinds of Koboku (25 packages in total).

Komoto shuffles these 25 packages, picks up five packages arbitrarily from these 25 packages, burns one package out of five packages, and passes Koro to guests in sequence, and then, guests listen to the incense. Repeat the above processes five times.

After Koro is passed to all guests five times, and all guests finish listening to the incense, each guest writes down whether the five kinds of incense are the same or different. This way of writing characterizes Genji-ko. First, draw five vertical lines, then draw a horizontal line so as to connect all vertical lines applicable to the incense judged to be the same (for example, 'Miotsukushi (name of the 14th roll of the Tale of Genji)' in the third column from the right on the second line on the right chart shows that the incense listened to first, second, and fourth time are the same, and the incense listened to third and fifth are independent, respectively). 52 patterns are made through combination of these five lines, and each of these 52 patterns in this chart correspond to each name of the 1st to 52nd rolls, excluding two rolls named Kiritsubo and Yume no Ukihashi, out of 54 rolls of the Tale of Genji.
A chart showing this corresponding relationship is 'Ko-no-zu (incense chart).'
Each guest verifies their own chart while looking at this 'Genji-ko-no-zu,' and answers the applicable roll name of the Tale of Genji.

When a guest gives all the correct answers, the letter Ball (玉) is written down on his/her paper.

Kurabeuma (horse racing)-ko
Kurabeuma-ko is one of the ways to enjoy incense burning, and provides a very strong feeling of playing a game.

First, divide guests into two teams.

Prepare four packages each of four kinds of Koboku (16 packages in total), burn one package each of four kinds of Koboku, and remember each incense.

Remove two packages from the remaining 12, leaving 10 packages and then burn them at random, and guess which Kokoromi-ko (try incense) emits the same incense. The total number of correct answers given by each guest is a score for his/her team. Two pairs of horse-shaped and jockey-shaped pieces are put on the special board, and one score is required to allow the jockey to ride a horse, then the jockey on horseback can move forward 4 blocks whenever the team scores one point. If the team does not score, its jockey will be judged as falling off his horse, and if a horse of either team is ahead of another horse by 5 or more blocks, its jockey is judged as falling from his horse. One score is required to ride the horse again after falling.

The team whose horse crosses the Shobugi (finish line) first, wins.

Classics of incense burning
The following classical books about incense burning, Kodo-hidensho (book of secrets of incense burning) by Ryusho TATEBE, and Kodo-kihan (model of incense burning) by Sogo HACHIYA are in existence, and both were compiled in the Tensho period.