Are scented candles all burnt out? It seems that incense is finally shedding its hippie image to find favour among ambient fanatics who consider the elegantly curling smoke eminently relaxing. “Compared to candles, incense seeks our active attention in a rather hypnotic way, disappears quickly in front of our eyes. We look as we smell and follow its path,” observes Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, whose experiential Scratch & Sniff soirées aim to access all areas of olfaction.
To this end, Lizzie has joined forces with Fornasetti to host a kodo (“way of incense” in Japanese) ceremony at The Conran Shop in Brompton Cross on Wednesday April 17. At this point, you may be wondering what in the world a modernist Italian design company has to do with a 1,500-year-old ritual that was once enjoyed by samurai and poets, yet is now obscure even in Japan. The answer is that the people behind Fornasetti are purists who prefer their own exquisite incense to be crafted in Japan using traditional methods.
And so to the ceremony itself. An olfactory game with a highly-defined code of etiquette, kodo is designed to stimulate the intellect as well as the senses. Six types of koboku (fragrant woods) are sniffed in turn and their characteristics memorised, before a single chip is burnt and its identity guessed. So far, so simple – yet a single piece of koboku can generate a complex blend of scents, depending on the quantity and quality of the essential oils it contains. And here’s the really intriguing bit: guests are invited to listen to the incense as it burns.
“For kodo, we do not say ‘smell the incense’, but ‘listen to the fragrance’,” states Souhitsu Issikeu Hachiya, who, as one of only a handful of kodo masters in the world, is flying in especially to perform the ceremony at Conran. “Listening to incense brings concentration and calm,” he explains. In the Edo period, samurai listened to incense to practise zazen (transcendental meditation). The perfect incense is considered an offering of a special memory or emotion to those who listen, the master adds.
“How often are we invited to sit down together and focus our mind and energy on fragrance?” Lizzie Ostrom wonders. “While it takes 30 years to become a kodo master, in Japan there is a precedent in hosting home ceremonies. Instead of coming home, lighting a candle and pouring a glass of wine, perhaps those in need of stress relief could get a gathering together and wind down over some incense games.”
For kodo purists however, the ideal incense-burning hour is just before sunrise, when the air is fresh from night and still enough to hear with clarity. In sleet-prone London, where the air remains so chill the blossom has yet to shiver on the bough, an enlightening evening of inhaling and listening may just inspire a haiku moment.