They are both based on the beauty of tranquility and grace, in contrast to the Western search for a constant intensity of experience.
I see these books as doors that open into an expanded sense of pleasure and beauty, both olfactory and as an attitude towards the conduct of daily life.
The Book of Incense explains how to "listen" to a fragrance, that is to open up to an olfactory experience with the heart and spirit. In our terms, with perfume, it could be applied by staying still and listening to a perfume as it rises from the skin. Hear what the notes are telling you and follow freely where they lead, internally, mentally and emotionally.
Then you might want to explain this in a way that conveys everything in as few words as possible, as in a haiku, distilling it all down to the poetic essence of the olfactory experience.
For centuries, this practice of incense ceremony, called Kodo, was considered to have beneficial effects on the physical body and on the psyche, specifically these ten:
- Sharpens the senses
- Purifies the mind and body
- Removes mental or spiritual "pollutants" (kegare)
- Promotes alertness
- Heals feelings of loneliness
- Creates a feeling of harmony even under stress
- Even in abundance, is not overwhelming
- Satisfies, even in small quantities
- Does not decay even over centuries
- Does no harm even if used every day
The most precious and intense incense fragrance was pure aloeswood, especially if it had been soaked in the ocean for a long time, and found thrown up by the sea onto the shore. It was not burned into smoke but heated to release its fragrance. Aloeswood is also known as agarwood, also known as aoud. These very rare pieces were named as having their own character and personality and have been kept for centuries in the collections of the hereditary aristocracy, among their most prized possessions. Some have been given to cultural institutions such as temples. A small chip would be taken from time to time and burned for incense, or given as a most precious and irreplaceable gift to another prince to aid diplomacy, or to the most discerning and appreciative so they might experience the rare beauty.
Groups of friends, mostly women but sometimes including men, such as the mythical prince Genji, would practice Kodo together, and also and play fragrance games with incense. Sometimes they would be very complex, but never essentially a zero sum game. Rather more the sense of going on a journey together and learning more deeply about the specific fragrance in the process, and the personality and character of each participant.
Tanizaki explains more about the love of dimness, patina and subtlety in ancient Japan. Lights were never too bright indoors, and nothing was shiny or crisp. Softness gentleness simplicity and perfect cleanliness created the most prized environment in which to conduct life.
These books show an alternate way of appreciating fragrance which expands the parameters of what we could perceive and experience through a refined sense of smell. This alternate world of beauty was always there, but these books give a close look at a different culture and history to open up such experiences to everyone. I feel I gained so much from exposure to the ideas of this fragrance aesthetic, and I believe they may be applied to our contemporary world of perfume too, especially those made by hand using fine natural materials.
Both books are under 100 pages and are available for purchase online. The Tanazaki is available as a pdf download for free.
Above image Girl Jumping, Suzuki Harunobu
The 10 Benefits of Kodo from Japan Zone