Like tea ceremony and flower arrangement, Koh-do, or "incense ceremony," is an important tradition in Japan. Koh-do is always presented by licensed practitioners who have graduated from "koh" schools ‒ either the Shino or Oie schools ‒ that have been conducting this tradition for over five centuries. Incense ceremony is traditionally carried out in the Koh room, with a Master of Ceremonies and a small group of participants. Most incense ceremonies involve a game, in which the participants attempt to guess which scent is being burned. There are hundreds of variations of these incense games. While the formal Koh-do ceremony is steeped in protocol and tradition, the main idea is to have fun with fragrance and learn to "listen" to incense. You do not have to have a trained, experienced "nose" to enjoy and appreciate incense. Informal gatherings of people can meet to share different kinds of incense and create their own games.


Kumi-koh or incense guessing games, are held to identify the different kinds of wood. The participants can play at a competition known as Genji-koh, named after the classic literary masterpiece, The Tale of Genji. Five packages each of five kinds of wood are prepared. These 25 packages are shuffled and five of them are chosen at random. The participants take it in turn to try to identify the scents, how many different kinds and in what order. It's a complex game that requires them to tell subtly different scents apart after smelling them only once. Special charts composed of five lines are used to indicate which of the five scents are the same. Each of the lines represents a single fragrance. If, for example, the third and fourth are the same, a horizontal line is drawn to connect the third and fourth lines from the right. There are 52 different patterns in the chart, each named for one of the chapters in The Tale of Genji. The participants check which of the chapter names corresponds to the charts they have drawn and they write their answers accordingly. It's an elegant game that uses aromas of the burning incense to draw participants into the earlier time of imperial courtiers. The answers are announced immediately.

The Genji-koh Charts