“OKŌ” (お香) is a Japanese traditional incense, burning it and enjoying the scent could be called “Japanese aromatherapy”.

It was supposedly transmitted from China together with Buddhism more than 1,000 years ago during HEIAN period of Japanese history.


A wide variety of fragrant woods



The noblemen of this era called “HEIAN Nobles” were making original scent by mixing several branches of fragrant trees to perfume their cloths hung on a “FUSEGO” (a special hanger for KIMONO) or to make the smell permeate Japanese papers called “WASHI” to write a love letter…

What an elegant practice they were doing!

In the oldest Japanese long novel “The Tale of GENJI” too, the scenes of perfuming KIMONO are seen here and there.

During MUROMACHI period (about 600 years ago), it is said a gathering to enjoy OKŌ started, which supposedly led to create the culture called “KŌDŌ” (香道, the way of fragrance) where there are specific rules to burn and smell the scent.
So I can say it is an ultimate style of OKŌ burning practice.

KODOWell well… talking about KŌDŌ, it consists of two main elements: “MON-KŌ” (聞香) and “KUMI-KŌ” (組香).




This is a practice just to enjoy and appreciate together the scent given off by burning the fragrant branches.

This is a practice to tell the name of odors by distinguishing those branches.

Now, let’s discover how to practice the KUMI-KŌ.

The representative way of playing KUMI-KŌ is “GENJI-KŌ” which is, needless to say, related to the Tale of GENJI.

To play the game of GENJI-KŌ,

  1. Prepare 5 kinds of incenses.
  2. Divide each incense into 5 packages, then 25 packaged are prepared.
  3. The game master called “KŌMOTO” shuffles these 25 packages.
  4. The game master picks up 5 packages at random. (other 20 packages are not used in this session)
  5. The guests (players) prepare answering sheets by drawing 5 perpendicular lines on a given piece of paper.
  6. The game master burns the selected 5 packages in turn with incense burners.
  7. First incense burner is passed to a guest and he/she smells out the scent (then passe to the next guest and again next guest…)

    Image 1

    When all 5 incenses are burnt and all the guests finish to smell them all, the guests guess if there were the same smell in those 5 scents.

  9. To answer, each guest draws a horizontal line over the perpendicular lines prepared at the step 5.
    * If you guess the first scent is the same as the 3rd, you connect 1st and 3rd perpendicular lines by a horizontal line. (see the image 1 on the right)
  1. The game master evaluates each answer and tell who is (are) the winner.

That’s the rule of this game.

Now, you may wonder why this game is called GENJI-KŌ?

The reason is in the way of answering by each guest in the sheet.
The answer consists not only of those lines.

Each pattern of those lines has its distinctive name according to a map called “GENJI-KŌ map” so the guest should write down the name of the pattern on the sheet.

Here is the GENJI-KŌ map.


As you can see, each pattern has its name and which is corresponding to each chapter of the Tale of GENJI book.

(The book has 54 chapters but first and last chapters are not used, so there are 52 chapter names allocated to each line pattern)

For example, the image 1 above mentioned corresponds to HANA-UTAGE (花宴) in the map, so you should write down the name of HANA-UTAGE on the answering sheet.

By the way, this GENJI-KŌ map, isn’t it interesting?


(On the right) SHAREMON of “KOCHŌ” pattern of GENJI-KŌ together with two butterflies

In fact, it is often used as a motif for KIMONO or OBI designs.
It is also used for SHARE-MON (check here for SHARE-MON!) for IROMUJI (plain KIMONO) or OMESHI (silk crepe KIMONO).

They are very original and always attract KIMONO funs, in other words, these motifs are unique enough to meet their self-satisfaction!)

Now, talking about today’s OKŌ burning practice, in Japan, there is a number of kinds and dedicated shops.

Incense burner too, there are also many kinds sold in Japan from general ones to very expensive ones which have also artistic values.
I am using quite general ones at home though… 


(Clockwise from the upper-left) Incense sticks made in KYOTO, incense burner in the shape of a cat,  incense burner made of glass for summer, finally very normal one, not very stylish though…

Every day, working under pleased fragrance and welcoming clients, OKŌ is an indispensable item for my daily life and I regard it as one of OMOTENASHI.



And also, sometimes tea leaves are burnt as incense in Japan.

Since it doesn’t interrupt food smells, very useful on a dining table.

The incense burner for tea leaves is called CHA-KŌRO which is like an aroma pot.
Instead of aroma oil, you can put a portion of tea leaves.

CHAKORO2Burning it by a candle, good odor of roasted tea leaves is gradually given off and it is used in a traditional Japanese restaurant as well, as in a traditional OMOTENASHI way, welcoming in a humble manner is appreciated.

When it comes to a manner, when you dress up in KIMONO, using strong perfume is prohibited.

Instead, aromatic bag called KŌ- BUKURO which has an incense inside is put in the sleeve of KIMONO or hung on the OBI.



With such modest scent, the atmosphere never gets disturbed since the occasion you attend to in KIMONO sometimes expect very strict manners.


Well, how did you find the Japanese way of enjoying incense?

Why don’t you too try those practice of OKŌ or CHA-KŌRO?