Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horse Hair and Mosquito's Leg

Fragrant woods, namely agarwood or aloeswood, that are used for kodo in Japan are getting very scarce. The price of kyara and jinko seem to rise yearly. I read somewhere that only ten years ago, top grade kyara could be had for 2500 yen a gram, about 1/8th of what it is today!

Scarcity of wood didn't start recently. When Japan was under feudal rule during the Edo Period, the country was closed to most foreign countries. If I remember correctly, Japan traded only on a limited scale with Holland, Portugal and China. (I might be wrong about Portugal...) Since all fragrant materials including aloeswood had to be brought in from abroad, the supply was very limited. Also it was during the Edo Period that kodo became very popular among the princesses and came to be considered a part of proper upbringing. Since supply of wood was very limited, only a small amount could be burnt at a time. The word that is used to describe the amount of of the precious wood used in kodo is "babi-bunsoku," meaning literally, as thin as horse's hair and small as a mosquito's leg.

This kind of expression and sensitivity to material seems very Japanese to me. Since Japan never had much natural resources of its own, its citizens had to always rely on imports and also be very thrifty about materials. Words like "mottainai" meaning "precious, not wasting, holding off" all at the same time are unknown in English as far as I know. In that sense babi-bunsoku could have only been born in Japan, and kodo is a thoroughly Japanese pass time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Kyara II

My first impression of the third piece of wood was that it was yet another type, but because I had such a strong reaction to the first one, I wanted the third to be the same as the first, and I managed to find a similarity, a sweetness way in the back of the scent.

I marked my paper with the appropriate symbol, connecting the first and the third vertical lines with a horizontal line on top, meaning they were the same. 

Then came the answer. They were all different. My mother, a cooking teacher with a very keen nose had gotten it right. The young woman told us that the first one was kyara, second one was sumotara and the last one manaban. We were told that manaban is mistaken for kyara often. I should have stuck with my first instinct.

In Kodo (pronounced like kohdoh with long o's) the woods are classified into six categories (rikkoku) that represent six countries, kyara (伽羅) - Vietnam, rakoku (羅国) - Thailand, manaban (真南蛮) - Southwest India's Malabar area, manaka (真那伽) - Southwest Malaysia Malacca, sasora (佐曽羅) - unknown, and sumotara (寸門多羅) - Sumatra. While these names represent real places for the most part, the names are representations of types of wood. Hence it doesn't mean that all the jinko from Sumatra are sumotara or that all sumotara are from Sumatra. 

The scent of jinko is described using five characteristics called gomi (literal translation "five tastes".) They are hot 辛(karai) as in spicy hot like a clove, amai 甘(sweet) like honey, suppai 酸(sour) like pickled plums, nigai 苦(bitter) like herbal medicine, and shiokarai 鹹(salty) like the ocean and sweat.

Having been brought back to the real world, we walked through the garden and back into the shop. The shop was filled with wonderful treasures. I really had to restrain myself. I found a basket of sandalwood that were left over from making wooden beads. I smelled all the pieces and tried to pick one that smelled the best. Then I found another much smaller basket with jinko pieces left from making jinko beads. I started to smell these, too, but they were harder to smell. Jinko's scent is released with heat. I decided to choose one that was darkest. They also had some kodo utensils and cups, but I decided to pass on these as they would break the bank. I also thought I could substitute something for the time being, but you couldn't substitute the wood. I saw some kyara powder in small bags. They were being sold for ¥15,000 for a gram bag. At the exchange rate of ¥80 to the dollar that would be close to $190! 

Meanwhile the woman that had guided us through the kodo experience was serving us glasses of jinko tea. At the other end of the counter, I noticed another customer looking at some pieces of wood and incense. I summoned the nerve to ask the woman about the kyara we had listened to. She opened one of hundreds of drawers and pulled out a small plastic bag full of small pieces of wood. I chose one of the smallest piece and gave it to her. She weighed it; the scale flickered between 0.2 grams and 0.3 grams. She punched in some numbers into her calculator and came up with a price for the tiny piece of wood: ¥3,750. Roughly $48. It is now one of my dearest treasures.

I found this on YouTube that is a pretty accurate impression of the store Yamadamatsu.