It all began years ago, when I was invited by a friend to attended an opening reception for an exhibition of the famed American potter Warren MacKenzie at Gallery Shun in Hiroo, downtown Tokyo. Owned by the eccentric artist Yoshiyaki Yuki, Shun was an exceptional showcase for contemporary ceramic artists from Japan and all over the world. One thing led to another, and as the reception wound down, I found myself welcomed into the inner sanctum- the gorgeous restaurant attached to the back of the gallery was itself a work of art- each wall meticulously hand-plastered and decorated with stunning artifacts from all corners of the world.
Gathered around the table were venerated artists from all walks of life- a fashion designer, an antiques dealer, a potter from Gifu, and of course Mr. MacKenzie himself. It was a small miracle that I had admired his work from afar for so many years in the US (he is based in Minnesota, neighboring Iowa, where I first studied pottery), and, here in Tokyo of all places, I finally had the honor of making his acquaintance. Now in his early 80’s, he was one of Bernard Leach’s most prominent apprentices, and went on to lead the way in the “Mingei-sota” style that swept through the contemporary US ceramics scene. He had previously exhibited in Shun some years back, and being advanced in years, it was likely to be his last exhibition in Japan.
Although not unaware that I was out of place, I was too thrilled by my company to take much notice- here were such accomplished artists living lives I could only dream about- bridging the gap between Japan and the West, and forging new inroads for the young artists of the future. Fascinating conversations and much sushi and sake were shared, and a little while later we were joined by Amy Katoh of Azabu’s Blue and White. Rare have been the instances in Japan to meet women who inspire an almost instant admiration; who evince a quiet yet powerful magnetism. Perhaps Japanese women still remain mainly inscrutable to me, but Amy was someone I felt like I could look up to and relate to on all levels. Settled in Japan for over 40 decades, fully immersed in the culture, she has carved out a unique niche as a collector, commentator, and advocate of Japanese crafts, and her venerated shop, Blue and White, had been providing the Azabu Juban community with an exceptional selection of hand-made Japanese crafts for decades.
Sadly Shun closed in 2010, but it was the presence of these two exceptional galleries that inspired the idea for the Azabu Art walk tours that I began offering for the Tokyo American Club Women’s Group back in 2011. As most of the best things in life, one thing simply led to another and events just seemed to naturally unfold. Scoping out the neighborhood one September morning, we had found our way to the Kaleidoscope Museum, where the friendly owner suggested that the incense shop Kogado might also be of interest.
Operated by the Yamada family since 1983, Kogado sells a range of high quality Japanese incense, and also promotes incense culture through regular ‘kodo’ or ‘incense ceremony’ classes held in its second floor space. I was delighted to discover that the Yamada family was willing to collaborate with me to create a means of introducing this fascinating aspect of Japanese culture to a non-Japanese audience. Although it is becoming clear and evident that most traditional Japanese arts are doomed to extinction unless they can be opened up to the younger generation and to a foreign audience, it places the practitioners of these arts in a unique dilemma.
As with 茶道 (Sadou) Tea Ceremony and 花道 (Kadou) Ikebana, 香道 (Kodou) Incense Ceremony owes its existence today to the fact that after evolving into a pastime of the cultured elite, it was preserved for centuries through rigid adherence to set rules and forms from which no deviation was allowed. Time and time again I am awed by how this purity of form has survived and been passed down through the generations. Japan’s cultural heritage is undoubtedly a great one. Yet the rate of change in just the past generation or two is alarming. Hence today’s senseis (expert teachers of the traditional arts) are faced with the dilemma of preserving these time-honored traditions in their pure forms on the one hand, and of making their art somehow accessible to a new audience that lacks the deeply cultivated qualities of patience and diligent dedication of bygone generations. We can barely sit seiza for 30 minutes, let alone dedicate 30 years of our lives (about the minimum that is required to become a beginning-rank Kodou sensei) to mastering the subtleties of this art. This topic surely deserves it’s own post (or three!), but to return to my point, I am always deeply grateful when I encounter serious practitioners of any traditional Japanese art who are yet willing to sharing their knowledge with the masses.
Mr. Yamada, the head of Kogado, is an 8th generation incense sensei, originally from Kyoto. His son Yusuke, and his daughter-in-law Mariko (both in their 20’s), are playing a vital role in helping to bring this refined art to a younger audience.
Their excellent website is full of information and they also keep a regular blog. Mariko speaks fluent English, and has been the main coordinator of our collaborative efforts, including excellent translations of Mr. Yamada’s presentations to our group on the history, methods and components of Japanese incense.
For a deeper examination of Japanese incense, I would recommend starting with Lafcadio Hearn – the original Japanophile’s- chapter on incense from “Ghostly Japan”. Published in 1899, it lucidly conveys how the sense of smell can so intensely evoke memory:“The reason that I see the lotus — one memory of my first visit to a Buddhist sanctuary–is that there has come to me an odor of incense. Often when I smell incense, this vision defines; and usually thereafter other sensations of my first day in Japan revive in swift succession with almost painful acuteness.”
A smell can transport us with sometimes startling clarity, to the most distant nooks and crannies of our memory. I’ve touched in my previous posts on how the study of traditional Japanese arts leads one towards a spiritual goal through material means, ie through the use of the body and the senses, and Kodou is no exception. Fragrance seems to me one of the most abstract forms of art- defying capture by words or image, yet powerful enough to conjure up lost worlds and memories.
It is fascinating then that in Japan incense and the world of literature and poetry are deeply interwoven. The 11th century classic, Tale of Genji, richly details how the artistocratic society of the Heian era would compete to create their own original blends of Awaseko-incense powder kneaded with honey:“Despite Asagao’s self-deprecatory poem, her “dark” winter incense was judged the best, somehow gentler and yet deeper than the others. The prince decided that among the autumn scents, the “chamberlain’s per- fumes,” as they are called, Genji’s had an intimacy which however did not insist upon itself. Of Murasaki’s three, the plum or spring perfume was especially bright and original, with a tartness that was rather daring. “Nothing goes better with a spring breeze than a plum blossom,” said the prince. Observing the competition from her summer quarter, the lady of the orange blossoms was characteristically reticent, as inconspicuous as a wisp of smoke from a censer. She finally submitted a single perfume, a summer lotus-leaf blend with a pungency that was gentle but firm.”
The refinement of fragrance blending popularised by the Heian-era aristocrats evolved over following centuries into a recreational form that makes up the incense ceremony as it is still practiced today. As a kind of guessing game, it involves testing the accuracy of one’s sense of smell.
Several fragrances are selected, distinguished by names derived from literary allusions, and after an initial smelling, the order is mixed up, and one must identify each accordingly. From experience I can say that there is a depth and mystery to these fragrances that defies easy classification, and to a nose as untrained as my own, it is much more challenging than it sounds. After having participated in a couple ceremonies so far, I’ll admit that my accuracy rate is probably less than 20%!
But the kind and gentle sensei reminds us that the goal is not so much accuracy, but rather the ability to fully immerse oneself in the richness of the moment- the mosaic of emotions the fragrance evokes in each of our own unique physiologies, the beauty and stillness that surrounds us- the way the light falls on the tatami, the fold of a kimono, the way the koro (incense burner) rests in the hand; the intangible bond that is created amongst all assembled together sharing this fleeting moment in time and space.
In today’s world of cheap fragrances where our hand-soap and even our toilet paper are likely to be artificially scented, it is difficult to imagine the kind of olfactory refinement possessed by Genji and her contemporaries. Yet if you step into Kogado, explore the variety of incenses on offer all made from pure natural ingredients, and particularly if you try for yourself the Japanese incense ceremony, you just may catch a whiff of a magical scent that transports you to a long-forgotten time and place.
Post-script, July 9th, 2013:
On July 3rd on the NHK World TV show Tokyo Eye, we had a chance to introduce Kogado and the Japanese incense ceremony to a global audience. Thank you to Kogado and the crew at NHK for enabling this wonderful experience!