Deeply contemplative, a tea ceremony is both a social interaction and exercise in self-improvement. But perhaps lesser known is the role of incense in the ritual – often associated with religious practices only.

A tea ceremony, or chadō (the way of tea), is an experience intended to stimulate all five senses and incorporates kōdō (the way of fragrance), as well as kadō (the way of flowers). These arts were reserved solely for samurais as an exercise in self-discipline and spiritual development before being adopted by the nobility, and finally the wider population. Although incense was originally introduced to Japan from Buddhism as far back as the 5th century, it only developed into a full art form, along with chadō and kadō, in the Muromachi period (1335-1573).

Simply called “o-kō” or scent, incense is placed in a small alcove by a tea ceremony host, along with a hanging scroll and flower arrangement. The scent is selected based on a theme and lit before guests arrive to purify the space and set the atmosphere. Upon arrival, it is customary for guests to admire the items on display and contemplate the theme, sometimes attempting to guess the scent.

As is integral with Japanese traditions, everything is aligned with the seasons, including the type of incense, along with the box shape and material. In summertime (May to September), a wooden box and wood incense chips “kōboku” are used, while in wintertime (November to April), the box is made of pottery and the incense is a soft round blend of fragrances, or “nerikō”.

Although only kōboku and nerikō are used in tea ceremonies, Japanese incense comes in many forms, such as sticks “senkō” or powder “zukō”. The kōboku wood chips are derived from agarwood and sandal, the most prized of which is the highest grade of agarwood resin called kyara, currently more highly valued by weight than gold. However, the scarcity of this resource has paved the way for local and more economic options.