Ko-do - Traditional Japanese Aromatherapy
20th April 2010
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I’ve been back to Japan for the last two weeks, visiting my family and friends, eating authentic Japanese food, feeling the “Japanese spring” under the beautiful cherry blossoms and fine blue sky!

In Kyoto I experienced a very interesting traditional ceremony.
Today I’d like to introduce the classical art of “Ko-do”, which translates as “the way of incense”. Have you heard of this? This is the one of the three traditional artistic accomplishments in Japan. You may know about the other two, Japanese flower arrangement (Ikebana or Ka-do) and tea ceremony (Sa-do), but Ko-do is the least well-known art culture even for us.

Since ancient times people had been enjoying pleasant aromas, leading to the development of the perfume culture in Europe, and of “Ko (incense)” in Japan.
Ko-do involves experiencing the incense of aromatic wood (Koboku) within a formalized structure. A small piece of wood chip is placed onto ashes in a specially designed pot, then heated by lighting charcoal underneath. The resulting scent is smoke-free and very subtle, yet elegant. Incense is not for sniffing but for hearing and enjoying. Thus it inspires the senses, providing tranquillity, purifying the spirit and harmonising the body and mind.

I tried a type of game (Kumi-Ko), which involves differentiating between different (yet similar) aromas. The test I did was to compare only 3 different aromas - however, you really have to focus on “hearing” them with a very subtle use of the sense of smell. Fragrance is divided into 5 different scents – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. In this game we helped to remember each scent by thinking of something reminiscent of these tastes.
This experience is something that’s rarely used in day-to-day life. It made me realise that all our senses are very interlinked, and neglecting the use of one of them can make us out of balance in our sensual appreciation of the world.
The advanced version of the game involves 54 different aromas!
Without years of training it would be virtually impossible to perform this ceremony in any meaningful way!

As an aromatherapist, I sometimes struggle with using woody essential oils such as sandal wood, cider wood etc, as those aromas don’t express the same tranquillity you may feel from fine incense sticks or the refreshing feeling of forests or wooded mountains. So, I have been looking for the best way of using woody aromas. Then I discovered the way of Ko-do.

Ko-do has a different principle from so-called aromatherapy. However, if aromatherapy is defined as a therapy to improve the health by the use of natural fragrances, Ko-do then is also a type of aromatherapy. I have realized that we have lots of different kinds of wood in Japan, and our ancestors had already instinctively discovered the power of their fragrance and developed it as an art. I’m proud of this fact and pay my respects to them as well.

If you are interested in this art, you can try it out when you visit Kyoto in Japan!

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