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The art of listening and the art of smelling are interlinked.  In what ways can you smell with your ears?  How do you listen with your nose?  Despite the intangibility of this concept, a skill that seems unattainable to me, my curiosity lead me to a Kodo (incense smelling) ceremony last Friday.  Though much of it was beyond my limited Japanese knowledge, I was fortunate enough to be invited by one of my Aikido friends who treated me to an intriguing as well as playful 2-hour ceremony that intertwined yummy sounds and stimulating fragrances, tasty delights for the eyes as well as mouth.  Although there is still evidence of Buddhist ritual present in the modern Kodo ceremony, over the centuries it has evolved into a kind of guessing game.  Although refined and very dignified, these games most certainly tickled my brain.  I can understand completely why my friend is so intrigued by this ritual.  What a wonderful way to learn how to deepen and interlink our senses.

Like Chanoyu (tea ceremony) and Kado (flower arranging ceremony), Kodo involves a ritual where respect (for the instruments and materials involved as well as the people), silence, meditation, breathing, sharing, textures and flow all together create the essence and form of the ceremony.  Although all three of these ceremonies are considered to be the three most refined of traditional/classical Japanese arts, it is the Kodo that is the least known among most modern Japanese people.  Fortunately for me, another friend from Aikido, Makiko, joined us and together (she and I both first-timers) we had a great time sharing in this new and unusual experience.  Although she was able to explain some details in English to me, I’ve had to look up some facts online (see below) to fill in some details here.  It’s an incredible ceremony that I would definitely be inspired to repeat.

Upon arrival to the Buddhist temple where my friend Suzuki-san attends the Kodo once a month, we quietly discussed the form of the ceremony and the guessing games involved.  Suzuki-san explained that the incense is extremely rare and expensive.  It can cost up to 10,000 to 13,000 yen (well over $100) for only 1 gram!  Once we sat in the tatami room, we listened to the Sensei explain a little about the procedure of the day.  (Usually the ceremony is held in silence, but today was a different, there was talking almost throughout).  First they passed around 2 different incense.  The 1st time a new incense is passed, you always bow to the person before you receive it and after you pass it off.  Hold the incense in your left hand, and cover the top of the cup with your right, creating a little opening between you thumb and first finger.  Gently inhale through this opening and then exhale away.  Do this 3 times.  My only issue was that every time I inhaled I could smell something different.  It was like tasting wine: sometimes in different parts of your mouth you can taste different parts of the wine. This was a similar experience for me.  Later, when they passed seven different incense, and we had to guess which was which, it became very confusing to smell the differences between the ones we had already smelled, and the ones which were new.  I am still perplexed as to how to listen with my nose.  For now, I can only still relate my nose to my taste buds.  Considering this was our first time, both Makiko and I got one guess correct!  Suzuki-san has been attending these ceremonies for 2 years now, and this past Friday was her first time ever guessing everything correctly!  Just goes to show you, persistence pays off.  You really can develop a refined sense of smell, by listening (and perhaps tasting?) with your nose!

After Kodo, a beautiful woman presented another guessing game.  Each time they hold this ceremony there is a seasonal theme involved.  Last Friday the theme was seashells.  This Sensei laid out in a 2-rowed circle, about 30 halves of clams.  The other halves of the clams were placed in an octogonal box next to the Sensei.  In the center of the circle, the Sensei placed one of the clams from the box.  The player must guess which of the 30 in the circle is the correct match.  You can try to guess on your own, or you can call out, “Otasuke!” to invite advice from the others attending.  Once you think you’ve made the proper guess, you fit the 2 halves together. If the clam closes (or locks together), then you can open them.  Inside of each half is a gorgeously intricate hand-painted picture.  You know you have a “whole” clam when the pictures match in some way.  Perhaps they are cherry blossoms, or one half are the leaves of one particular tree, and the other half the flower of that same tree.  Or perhaps one side is of a man and a woman is on the other.  This game and these clams are very important in ancient (maybe still today?) wedding ceremonies.  Although I was lacking a lot of skill/talent for the Kodo I was a little more adept with this game, which required noticing the naturally very subtle patterns of color, shape and designs on the backs of clamshells.

After this ceremony, we all enjoyed some deliciously pretty pink sweets and matcha (green tea).  Between the kimonos, the calligraphy (yes, I had to write my answers in hiragana), the incense, the sitting, the motions, the listening, the tasting, the drinking, the giggling, we all had a great time.

Many thanks go to the Sensei, the other members of this ceremony as well as my generous friends Suzuki Takako and Makiko for making me feel so welcome!

Here’s a nice link to a Kodo site for more information.

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