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March 04, 2013: The Rules of Incense

March 4, 2013

Incense_ShadowLacadio Hearn2I have found an excellent guide to interpreting Japanese culture in Lafcadio Hearn. Who better than a half Irish-half Greek American writer, who loved Japan so much that he not only moved there, but married a Japanese woman, and even changed his name to a Japanese one, to interpret Japanese culture to me? Hearn’s “outsider looking in” voice I find to be very insightful to my Western sensibilities. It also helps that Hearn was writing to the West in the early 20thC. (a time period that I love in any culture) when Japan was quite unknown. His opinions were very fresh at the time and he was able to capture with his writings, a Japan that sadly exists no more in many respects. Writing to Westerners, Hearn used a very honest and most direct voice. You never question what Hearn thought about a Japanese custom, event, or story. If he thought it was stupid, he said so in his writings. I cringe to think how that directness might have gone over with the Japanese, but we can assume that he was a much better diplomat at the time and the place and left his unbridled opinions for the people of the West.

In Hearn’s’ book: “In Ghostly Japan” he writes about an activity that was popular at the time he lived in Japan that I had never heard about, that of Ko-kwai or “incense-game.” As Hearn writes, in the pre-Meiji era (1898-1912) young women of higher class were required to learn music, embroidery, poetry, and the three accomplishments of flower-arranging (ikébana) the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and the “way of incense” (kodo.) At the time Hearn was writing, the art of incense had been adapted to a more casual, social event of ko-kwai or “incense-parties.”

Japan Kodo CeremonySometimes, I find writers to be like old friends: you disagree with them, but love them anyway…sometimes because of these disagreements! Reading over Hearn’s description of the incense game, I had to suppress a giggle because for what seems so very important to him, seems like trivia to me and vice-versa. I suspected this difference when he describes the cha-no-yu ceremony as “dainty, but somewhat tedious” where I find it a magnificent display of simplicity in form and beauty. Hearn does spend a great deal of energy on the mechanics of the game (to the tune of nine pages of descriptions) which I blieve I can sum up pretty tidily:

1. As host, pick three kinds of incense. Have guests bring another.
2. In a closed, still room, burn each incense while stating its name, and let each player sample.
3. Burn each incense again and have everyone guess which it is. Score each player. Most right guesses=the winner. The winner gets a gift. Open a window.   Sake and rice all around.

This particular game is called Jitchu-ko. Like a card-party, there are a number of different incense-games. Kumi-ko, for instance, involves just one kind of incense and invites discussion on its attributes. Genji-ko, for another, involves five different censers of incense, some of which may be the same. Scores in this game are recorded to refer to certain sections of “The Tales of Genji” by the Lady Murasaka Shikibu, which are then read for entertainment.

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

What I found absolutely fascinating (and which Hearn dismisses with, “…this subject could interest few readers…”) about the whole event of the Ko-kwai were the rules surrounding the conditions of the game. What can I say? I guess Hearn was a bit country and I’m a bit rock and roll!

Incense parties were celebrated about the turn of the 20thC. in American cites that had some Japanese populations. In a June, 1902 New York Evening Post article, the rules of an incense party was laid out for attending New Yorkers:

“For the 24 hours preceding the party each guest must avoid the use of anything which can produce an odor whatsoever. Scented soaps, perfumes, odorous foods and even spices must be avoided. These prevent the user from smelling accurately and also interfere with other members of the party. When you dress be careful to put on no garment that has been kept in the neighborhood of camphor wood, tobacco, bouquets, blossoms or scented face powder. When you reach the house of your host enter as softly as you can and as slowly as possible. This is to prevent making a draught by the movement of your own body. Be equally  leisurely in opening and closing of doors, as a quick movement induces a rush of air”

Here is the online diary of Yoshiko Nakata, Kodo teacher, presenting the fundamentals of incense to Americans in Portland, Or. during Japan Week in 1992. Her observations of Americans (starting May 22nd) I found to be very interesting and sweet for an “insider looking out” perspective.

[A note about research here: I always try to consult at least three different sources for each article I write, particularly when the subject is something like an obscure and dated game like Ko-kwai from another culture. Thanks once more, to the Hudson Public Library for tracking down and obtaining the first (of I hope many) of Lafcadio Hearn’s books. After reading Hearn’s chapter on incense, I wanted to do further research on the Ko-kwai game online. I could find very little, although there was one article online that was very familiar, and was in fact the very Lafcadio Hearn article I had read from “In Ghostly Japan.”

Woman and Incense2So, Hearn’s work can be found online, but here is the “chicken and egg” question: If the HPL hadn’t graciously obtained the book in the first case, how would I ever have known about, let alone to think to look for, this obscure part of Japanese culture online? It is silly to discount any efficient tool at one’s disposal. Libraries are very much a value as a service for information as they ever were, and the knowledge of professionals who very business is to track down information should never be devalued.]

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