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Studying the secrets of incense at Kohgen Lounge

kohgen vol 3

Launched in 2011, the Kohgen event stages a wide range of workshops related to traditional Japanese culture and religion, from Noh theatre experiences to classes for calligraphy and zazen meditation. Ahead of its 2016 edition, which will take place at Zojoji and all around the Nihonbashi area during Golden Week, the third volume of the ‘Kohgen Lounge’ series gave us an excellent preview of things to come. Held at our very own Time Out Café & Diner in Ebisu, the event featured incense expert Mamiko Imai and the monks behind Kohgen, who discussed the historical origins, uses and attributes of incense in Japan.

After feasting on some delicious shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian food), we delved deep into the history of incense with Imai and monk Mukai, followed by a demonstration by monk Tomomitsu – a holy man by day and electronic music DJ by night – who re-enacted the rite of cleansing using incense before entering a temple. After the talk, we took part in a DIY workshop to create incense with aromatic materials provided by Imai herself, who then sealed the little take-home bags containing our mixtures.

We were surprised to learn that incense didn't originate in Japan but was imported, along with Buddhism, from China in the 6th century. In fact, the ingredients used for incense are sourced from abroad even today, since the Japanese equivalents supposedly aren’t fragrant enough. Yet, after studying the intricacies of kodo (the art of appreciating Japanese incense) and trying our hand at preparing it the proper way, we’re convinced the Japanese have found a way of making the smelly stuff their own.

Photos by Alex Shapiro