Kodo [the way of incense] was traditionally the recherché pastime of aristocrats and its roots are accordingly ancient, dating from the time of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490). The incense ceremony reached its peak of popularity in the 18th century. Perhaps no Japanese game is more esoteric, not to say exotic. A complete incense ceremony set with matching gold lacquer utensils was a part of every aristocratic lady's wedding trousseau. Being made of mulberry wood, this set was probably used by a Court Noble.
In the incense-guessing game, guests attempt to identify various incenses heated in succession to release their fragrance. The incense woods were imported at great expense and effort from Southeast Asia in the Muromachi period (1392-1573), when Japanese connoisseurs first began to enjoy the fragrance of a heated piece of incense wood according to set rules and principles, a pastime known as 'listening' to incense. As described by Andrew Pekarik:
Selected fragrant jungle trees were cut down and buried until the outside layers of wood rotted and only the resin-impregnated heart of the wood remained, a process that took many years. A tiny chip from a precious log was placed on a silver-rimmed fragment of mica set on top of a hot coal in a bed of ash inside a small incense burner. The participant would hold this incense burner up to his nose in the left hand, cupping his right hand over the top to direct the delicate fragrance. Each tiny chip had a distinct fragrance depending upon the log from which it was cut. In the 16th and 17th centuries each of these fragrances had been given poetic names. There were hundreds of them, and the serious student of incense knew them all1
An incense set contains a writing-box with which the host records the identification given by each guest and a variety of specialized utensils. The incense burner is prepared by burying a glowing charcoal in soft ash shaped to resemble Mount Fuji. Tools for shaping the ash stand in the silver utensil holder. A silver ash press or spatula is used to shape the ash. A pair of metal chopsticks is used to place the coal, to make decorative lines in the ash, and to make an air hole reaching the charcoal. A little feather is used to clean stray ash from the sides and rim of the censer. Using silver tweezers, a mica plate rimmed in silver is placed on top of the mound of ash, covering the air hole. The incense fragments are handled with special decorative incense chopsticks. An incense spoon is used to place a small incense wood chip on the centre of the mica plate. Thus positioned, the incense is heated by the warm coal and gives off a subtle fragrance.
This set could accommodate as many as ten participants. As the game began, each guest made use of a small box with wood tallies or tags. In this set there is a box containing ten little boxes each with twelve tallies with a design of a plant or animal on one side and the number 1,2,3 or the syllable u on the other. Each guest used a tag to identify the fragrance as the incense burner was passed around. This set has a cylindrical box with a slot in the top for gathering guesses. After the incenses were sampled, a written record was made of the identification given by each guest. According to Kiyoko Morita, author of The Book of Incense, a silver needle, commonly known as uguisu (nightingale), is used by the master of ceremonies when the utensils are set out for formal display on the tatami mat. The uguisu is used to hold the small incense wrapper in place by tacking it down to the tatami mat. In old sets there is often a separate floral-shaped silver disc that fits over the tip of the needle. This implement, a hiaji [literally 'fire flavour'], is no longer in use in modern incense ceremonies and its exact function is now unclear. Professor Morita speculates that it was used to measure the depth of the hole to the coal and to press gently down on the cone-shaped ash to prepare a flat surface for the square of mica, leaving a flower-shaped impression. Ornate implements such as this were favored by the Yonegawa school during the Edo period.
For further examples of Edo-period incense sets and explanations of their use, see Joe Earle (ed.), The Toshiba Gallery: Japanese Art and Design [in the Victoria and Albert Museum] (London, 1986), cat. no. 35; Donatella Fialli, Lacche Orientali del Museo Chiossone (Rome, 1996), pp. 148-151; Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan [The Museum of Kyoto], Kinsei kogei no hana: konrei no iro to katachi [The Splendor of Craftworks of the Early Modern Era: The Colours and Forms of Marriage] (Kyoto, 1997), cat. no. 68; Kiyoko Morita, The Book of Incense: Enjoying the Traditional Art of Japanese Scents (Tokyo and New York, 1992); Tokugawa Bijutsukan [Tokugawa Art Museum], Hatsune no chodo [Hatsune Maki-e Lacquer Furnishings] (Nagoya, 1985), cat. nos. 28-9; William Watson (ed.), The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of the Edo Period (London, 1981), cat. nos. 166-8.
1. Andrew J. Pekarik, Japanese Lacquer, 1600-1900: Selections from the Charles A. Greenfield Collection (New York, 1980), pp. 37-39.