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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2001


'Kodo': the way of the fragrant tree trunk

You've heard of "chado" (the way of tea) and "kado" (ikebana), but have you heard of "kodo" -- the way of smelling?

I experienced my first "aroma ceremony" when I was up at the temple talking to Mr. Norimi, the Buddhist priest on our island.

Mr. Norimi had asked that question that all foreigners fear someone, someday will ask them: "What exactly is potpourri?"

"No one really knows," I told him. "My guess is rose and spices mixed with lint and Raisin Bran. You sprinkle some kind of aromatic oil into it."

Mr. Norimi thought for a moment, then bolted up out of his chair and disappeared into the adjoining room. I could hear him rummaging around until finally he came back into the room holding something. "Like this?" he asked.

"Not exactly," I said, looking at the round wooden ball with holes in it.

"You pour oil into the hole on top of the ball and it emits a fragrance. You can have it."

"Thank you," I said gratefully accepting the gift.

Still trying to imagine potpourri, Mr. Norimi bolted out of his seat again and rummaged through the adjoining room. This time he brought out a small round box with the words "dragon drool" written on it in Chinese characters. "Is potpourri like this?" He opened the lid for me to smell.

"No," I said. "But that's the best dragon drool I've ever smelled!"

I tried to explain potpourri again. "It's a mixture of rose petals, rose hips and elbows. When you heat the mixture, it becomes fragrant."

Suddenly, he seemed to understand. He bolted out of his chair and went into the adjoining room. He rummaged a long, long time.

"Like this?" he asked, producing a tree trunk almost a meter long.

"Hmm." This was really stretching the boundaries of potpourri.

"It's called 'jinko,' " he said. "This tree trunk cost me 20,000 yen over 30 years ago. The wood has been buried in the ground a long time."

"What do you use it for?"

He plugged in a potpourri-type pot, then took off the lid. Inside was a burner.

"It's called 'koboku' -- incense from wood. You take a sliver of the wood and place it on the burner and it gives off a fragrance."

Mr. Norimi handed me small bags of different kinds of wood shavings so I could smell the fragrance of each.

"This ceremony was originally for the nobility," said Mrs. Norimi, who had now joined us and was sitting on the floor demonstrating the proper way to smell the wood. She pinched wood shavings from special incense containers. She cupped the pieces in both hands, held them up to her nostrils, took a deep breath, then turned her head toward her shoulder like a duck burying his beak in his feathers.

With her eyes closed she said, "In this position, you assess the fragrance and guess which kind of wood it is."

By now, the trunk had started "fragrating." "Can you smell it?" asked Mr. Norimi.

"Yes, it smells like an old house," I said.

He agreed and took off the top of the pot.

As I observed the charred remains of the sliver of wood, it struck me that this would be a good way for people to destroy old houses. Rather than tearing the houses down and trucking away the debris, you could have an elaborate aroma ceremony and burn your old house a piece a day.

I've got Mr. Norimi's wooden ball filled with aromatic oil in my bathroom. Since I don't have a flush toilet, my bathroom needs a lot of help to smell fragrant. No worries though. Who needs fragrant oils or potpourri when you've got a whole house to burn?

Contact Amy Chavez by e-mail at amychavez@excite.com. To subscribe to "Japan Lite" for free, go to www.amychavez.com .

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