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O-Ko

O-Ko
Marco Mancini

A whiff of Japanese incense (o-ko) evokes the scented world of the Heian court where men and women mixed their own neriko (sticky incense balls in a base of honey and plum jam) and burned it in exquisite braziers to perfume their kimonos and hair. The result was often so provocative that spontaneous poems were composed in homage to the aroma.

Ko was introduced to Japan by way of China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century. Originally burned in powdered form as part of Buddhist ritual, ko quickly became popular for private use. Enthusiasts blended mixtures into sticky balls, dried cones and joss sticks, carefully guarding their secret recipes.

The atmosphere in Paradise smells so sweet that mortals can only feign to reproduce it on earth. Buddha’s breath is purported to smell like the cinnamon of Assam, Indonesian cloves, the star anise grown in China and Vietnam, camphor from Borneo, an Indian sandalwood grove, and the precious aroma of ancient agar wood found buried in the jungles of Northern India, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. None of these ingredients is indigenous to Japan, but the recipes that combine them to form ko are what makes it uniquely Japanese.

Time in eighth-century Japan smelled like the aromatic breath of Buddha. Incense clocks (koban-dokei)—powdered incense contained in a special vessel—measured the passage of time at temples. The koban-dokei evolved into the joko-ban, a uniquely Japanese invention that consisted of a lacquer box containing clean ash combed into grooves of equal lengths. These were filled with powdered incense that burned at an even rate. More than just a device for measuring time, the perfumed fragrance of the smoke stimulated the intellect, kept evil spirits at bay, and served as a link between man and the transcendent.

The wood of the agar tree is the key ingredient that distinguishes Japanese incense from other kinds. An evergreen tree, it grows as tall as 30m. Not found in Japan, it’s indigenous to Northern India, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. After the tree is felled, two kinds of fungus form a thick, dark resin on its trunk and roots. The longer the tree carcass lies rotting in the jungle, the more aromatic it will be when harvested for incense. The most valuable wood is so dark and permeated by resin that it sinks rather than floats. That is why the Japanese call it jinko, meaning sinking incense.

No two agar trees have an identical aroma, and the scent of the same tree will vary from its branches to its roots. Some pieces of agar cost as much as gold, and like the metal it lasts for generations. Agar wood never loses its scent and can be passed down as an heirloom, enabling the next generation to enjoy the exact aroma as those who bequeathed it to them.

Burned before the graves of loved ones to soothe and please their spirits, incense also repels devils, who naturally detest the breath of gods. To keep evil spirits away from their homes, some people display a large silk bag (kusadama) that contains incense and one nut for each month of the year.

Joss sticks burnt as offerings in giant censers (burners) in front of Buddhist temples create great billowing plumes of aromatic smoke that attract the gods. Supplicants fan the smoke towards themselves or rub it onto areas of their bodies that need healing. Students facing examination hell will burn incense before the gods of scholarship and fan the smoke toward their brains.

The art of concentration through incense is brought to a zenith in the Japanese incense ceremony (ko-do), which along with the tea ceremony and ikebana is one of the three refined arts of Japan.

Actual wood chips rather than blended varieties are used for ko-do. The incense chip is placed on a square of thin, transparent mica warmed by hot charcoal buried under a small mountain of clean rice-straw ash contained in a ceramic container. The aroma it emits is subtle, and the “listener” must hold the cup it close to the nose in order to appreciate it.

Janet Leigh Foster

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