Tuesday, September 28, 2010


This is Ranjatai, the most famous and important piece of kyara in Japan.  The markers show where pieces were taken from it by shoguns and emperors.

I listened to the scent of kyara for the very first time this summer. I'd read about it in Miyao Tomiko's 「伽羅の香り」or "The Scent of Kyara," and had been gifted a small sample of agarwood oil and pieces of jinko from friends, but nothing really prepared me for it.

My mother and I arrived at the venerated incense shop Yamadamatsu just before our appointment at 10:30 on a hot and muggy, typical summer day in Kyoto. We were lead through the store, through a courtyard to a tea room like structure. We entered and was relieved that it was air conditioned. We waited for a few minutes and a young woman with a tray with some incense burners arrived. She gave us a quick and very basic lesson in kodo, and told us that we would be "listening to," not smelling, three different pieces of wood. They might all be the same or different. Two maybe the same or not. The point was to see who gets it right.

She put the tadon (charcoal) into the censer and covered it by making a cone with the ash. She then pressed the ash neatly and brushed the ash on the rim away with a feathered tool. She put her hand on the censer to test the temperature, then she deliberately poked a hole in the top to the tadon, then placed a ginyo (mica plate) on top. Slowly, she scooped up a tiny piece of wood from the elaborate paper wrapping, and placed it on the ginyo.

I felt like a blue wing swooped me into another dimension. The smell was floral and woody, purple and blue with streaks of white. It was like nothing I'd experienced before. In a single word, it was otherworldly.

The young woman passed the censer to my mother to listen to, then my mother passed it to me. I put my right hand on top of the censer covering it, making a reverse C shape with my thumb and fingers where I will be putting my nose, and holding the censer with my left hand in the prescribed manner. Both elbows must be out, creating a triangle with your head as you put the censer to your nose. I inhale once, then turn my head to the side to exhale and contemplate the scent. I inhale again, turn head. Once more, I inhale and turn my head to exhale. To my surprise the scent in my hand is much more demure than the powerful scent that was emitted when the wood was first put on the ginyo. I enjoyed the sweet, jasmine-like floralness of the scent that rested on a foundation of grand woods.

The second wood was lit. This was totally different. No drama. Very shy, soft wood. Almost not there. We listened and passed it around. Then came the third one. My first impression was that it was yet another different wood, but I wanted to smell the first one again so much that I looked for similarities. This one didn't have the voluptuousness of the first and was much more shy and demure, but I manged to find the same sweetness I found in the first one. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I decided to mark it the same as the first.