May 23, 2012

Listening to Fragrance - The Book of Incense by Kiyokoi Morita

This slim book, along with In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki, another succinct and poetic book, contain a world of information.  They have changed my life.  They are both about beauty. One is specifically about incense and fragrance appreciation, and the other explains much about the alternative sense of beauty known in Japan for centuries before contact with the West.

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: 
  1. Sharpens the senses
  2. Purifies the mind and body
  3. Removes mental or spiritual "pollutants" (kegare)
  4. Promotes alertness
  5. Heals feelings of loneliness
  6. Creates a feeling of harmony even under stress
  7. Even in abundance, is not overwhelming
  8. Satisfies, even in small quantities
  9. Does not decay even over centuries
  10. Does no harm even if used every day
 Courtiers leading a highly refined aesthetic life created their own incense.  It was aged for a season or two by being buried in a jar in the earth. They might be compositions made of  traditional combinations of aromatic substances, such as sandalwood, cinnamon, nutmeg, and chrysanthemum leaves.  Their  clothing and hair would be perfumed with such incense.  Their form of perfume even for personal ornamentation was as white smoke rather than liquid or solid. 

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


lostpastremembered said...

One of my favorite scent memories is of the great temple at Nara. It it made of wood and has been scented for 800 years. The result is indescribable. The ancient incense has permeated the wood with a million layers of fragrance.... it is haunting and complex. This looks like a great book. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! I know very little about this history and traditions of incense, although I've been using cheapie incense sticks and cones since I was a teenager. This post makes me want to know more.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Hi LostPast, that description is haunting in itself -- how wonderful that experience must be. It is a great book, I hope to get people to see the application to the modern experience of wearing perfume, too.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Dear Tinsel, I also am now thinking of getting serious about incense too, perhaps starting with some Frankincense rocks from Enfleurage and then finding out more about the imported Japanese incense too.

Sharon Freeman said...

Hi Lucy, this post could not be any more timely for me. I have been researching raw materials such as oud, frankincence and sandalwood since viewing thedavido22 "How to" vid on youtube. I have been using incense for many years but not in the purer sense (mainly burning Nag Champa and Spiritual Guide). I will be ordering these books pronto. Thank You.

Lucy Raubertas said...

So glad Sharon. Let me know what you think.

Victoria said...

Lucy, thank you again for recommending this book! I've enjoyed it so much and learned a great deal. I cannot agree more when you say that "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."

It's me, Victoria (BdJ), btw. I couldn't comment with your Wordpress option, since I don't have a account.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Dear Victoria, I knew you would love it, it's all meant for the likes of you. I am getting ready to re-read it again. Thanks for letting me know my comments settings are off, I have gone in and fixed them.