[From May Issue 2015]
Kodo “the way of incense” is a traditional art in Japan. Rather than saying “smell” the aromatic wood, we say “listen” to it. Listening to incense means appreciating its fragrance with keen attention. “Japan has four seasons. It’s blessed with the scents of different trees and flowers each season and a moderate level of humidity,” says incense specialist WATANABE Eriyo.
“The climate, too, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, is diverse; the country has 3,000 meters high mountains and a rich ecosystem. This environment has nurtured the delicate sensibilities of the Japanese people, especially our sense of smell and taste. I’m interested not only in Japanese aromas, but also in aromas from other countries, from history and how these relate to each other.”
Watanabe opened her “Setagaya Incense Salon” in Tokyo and from this base, she organizes workshops in which people make nerikoh (blended incense balls made by mixing together the raw materials and honey) based on a 1,000-year-old Japanese recipe and learn, through incense, about Japan’s classical literary works and traditional culture. All kinds of people participate, from foreigners who want to “experience something typically Japanese” to regulars who “look forward to listening to lovely fragrances.”
Watanabe organizes gatherings at which participants simply listen to incense. Many come just for one day. “When a workaholic listens to incense, their expression softens as if a mask has slipped off,” says Watanabe.
“It’s of course wonderful that kodo is such a rich subject, but it can also be a mental challenge because differentiating scents by ‘listening’ to them and comparing them is competitive. I want people to enjoy the calming and relaxing effects of incense, so they don’t compete with each other, they simply fully enjoy the fragrances. Since ancient times, incense has always been referred to as food for the soul. If you concentrate only on the fragrance, you lose your ego, become one with the whole universe and experience a state of bliss,” says Watanabe.
The reputation of Setagaya Incense Salon is spreading by word of mouth. The salon has been mentioned on an Australian travel website as one of the “Top Ten Things to Do Only in Tokyo” and on a German travel website as “a relaxing place.” “The enjoyment of scent has always been a cultural practice that has spanned the globe,” says Watanabe. Burning incense is a sacred act in Christianity, Islam, and in Buddhism. Since antiquity, there has been an international trade in the raw materials used to make incense.”
“As a student of art history in London, I rediscovered Japan when I learned that ‘Japan’ also meant lacquer ware. I later studied expressive arts therapy in Boston and while working in that area, I realized that incense had the same effect as expressive arts therapy. My biggest personal asset is the cross-cultural experience acquired on trips to 48 countries and during the time I lived abroad for ten years.”
Watanabe says enthusiastically, “When I burn incense that I made with a wish or a prayer, it feels as though that wish or prayer reaches heaven. I’d like to create new kinds of incense equipment and market them to the world.”
Text: SAZAKI Ryo／文：砂崎良