Kōdō Ceremony: Incense as Ritual of Fragrance

Incense as Ritual

Inside the Ritual of Kōdō (香道), the “way of fragrance”.

Sensei Matsui Yoko
Carly Williams
BC Forestea

Kōdō (香道), meaning the “way of fragrance”, is a ritualized Japanese incense ceremony that deepens spiritual and sensory awareness. 

We had the honor of sitting down with experts in Kōdō from SABI Tea Arts at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s Nitobe Memorial Garden offered a glimpse into the ancient ritual.

At a time of exceptionally rapid change all around us, where many of our lives have become much smaller, we look to turn inward and find mindfulness. Exploring our restricted surroundings, can we find newness in the familiar and consequently, renewed value in what has been taken for granted? 

We present Kōdō as an opportunity to begin this journey into a more mindful life, infused with practises that lead to true appreciation of the senses. 


Kōdō is a classical art of refinement that evolved alongside Chadō (“The Way of Tea”), Kadō (“The Way of Flowers”) and Shodō (“The Way of Calligraphy”).

It takes many years to perfect the Kōdō art and perform the incense ceremony. A refined sense of smell and hearing is necessary to break down the different elements within the fragrances.

Traditionally held in a Japanese-style tatami room, the ceremony is performed in complete silence. The secret of Kōdō is in “listening.”

Monkō and Kumikō

Kōdō consists of two main elements: Monkō and Kumikō

Monkō – let the aroma infuse the body and soul and “listen” to it in a holistic way.

Kumikō – a practice to identify the subtle differences in the delicate fragrances.

The Virtues:

During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), the etiquette of “The Way of Fragrance” evolved together with Chadō, “The Way of Tea”. Since then, Kōdō is said to have ten physical and psychological virtues.

感格鬼神 : Sharpens the senses

清浄心身 : Purifies the body and the spirit

能払汚穢 : Eliminates mental or spiritual pollutants

能覚睡眠 : Awakens the spirit

静中成友 : Heals loneliness

塵裏愉閑 : Calms in turbulent times

多而不厭 : Is not unpleasant, even in abundance

募而知足 : Even in small amounts is sufficient

久蔵不朽 : Does not break down after a very long time

常用無障 : A common use is not harmful


A game often incorporated into the ritual, Genji-ko involves the lighting of several incense, some of which are the same. Participants attempt to identify those that are the same wood and those that are different. 


The rikkoku are six kinds of fragrant wood: kyara, rakoku, manaka, manaban, sumatora, and sasora. The gomi are the aromas of amai (sweet), nigai (bitter), karai (spicy hot), suppai (sour), shio karai (salty). 

It takes many years to develop an understanding of each wood and its coinciding, complex aromas. The journey to increased sensory awareness and spiritual depth is born out of this knowledge.

Continue Learning

Contemplate how we may communicate an invisible sense with the film: The Language of Aroma.
Continue your journey into Japanese rituals, discover Chadō, the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Art, beauty, culture: Discover a wealth of rituals from around the world.

Cherry Blossom