On Christmas I made an online order for traditional Japanese incense ceremony tools. I impatiently waited every day for the mailman to come like a kid having sent off bottle caps or cereal box tops in order to win a free prize. I know kids don't do things like this anymore...but they used to. I remember it.
My Koh-Do tools arrived a few days ago. I worried that I hadn't ordered enough ceremonial ash. I decided that I would eventually want to have more than two cups involved in the ritual which would certainly require more ash. I walked down the street to the expensive natural food store and bought three more bags of ash. I love that I live in a city where you can buy ceremonial Japanese ash down the street at a grocery store.
The ceremony works like this. You place a lit charcoal in a cup full of ash. You cover the charcoal with the ash and form it into a little five-sided mountain. You poke a whole through the mountain allowing heat to rise. You place a mica plate directly over this hole. You place a a tiny chip of a fragrant, precious wood such as agarwood or sandalwood on the mica plate. You hold the cup, cover half of it with your hand and take a sniff. In Japan this is referred to as 'listening to incense'.
I already had some pieces of agarwood (jinkoh, oud, aloeswood...it goes by many names) thanks to Faruk, a generous client at our perfume shop. I purchased some sandalwood chips online. I don't know whether they originally come from India or Australia - the two main sources of sandalwood.
Tonight I practiced the ceremony. I read that the incenses should have names and that collectively, should tell a story. I named the three agarwood specimens after birds: ostrich, swan and sparrow. I named the two types of sandalwood Shoyeido and Yamadamatsu, after the Japanese brands that packaged and sold the chips. I realize that the latter two names don't tell much of a story so I shall have to be a little more creative the next time I repeat the cermony.
Here's a picture of 'Ostrich' being 'listened to'. What did it say? It revealed the early springtime scent of narcissus. 'Sparrow' sounded more like sweet, woody marshmallow - what I typically expect from agarwood incense. 'Swan' said very little to me. I think the chip that I carved was too small. Or perhaps I didn't spend enough time with it to figure out what it was doing.
Listening to precious woods in this way is considerably different to my usual incense appreciation. The cup is warm in your hand, like a small animal. Your face moves into the warmth and the scent is subtle and close. It's similar to smelling someone you love. The scent is elusive. It appears then disappears. Then reappears.
The Shoyeido sandalwood was much more indolic in its scent than I had anticipated. I thought of fine silk unpacked from a box with a suggestion of mothballs. It reminded me of my Korean grandmother wearing a han-bok. I remember how my grandmother was a big fan of mothballs. I was only three when I knew her.
The Yamadamatsu sandalwood had a sweet fruitiness, like tangerine or orange. This was a lovely surprise.
The ceremony took much longer than I had expected. I 'listened' for well over an hour. When I finished I took a very long time cleaning and putting away the tools, materials and implements as though they were all sacred objects.