Follow your nose

Nicholas Coldicott puts his nostrils to the test as he explores the noble art of incense.

In Perigord and Piedmont they hunt for truffles. In Botswana and the Congo they dig for diamonds. But in Vietnam, it's carbonised tree trunks that can make a person fabulously wealthy.

"Finding one good tree can set a person up for life," says Yohei Yamada of Yamada Matsu Koboku, a 200-year-old store in Kyoto that buys the trunks, cuts them up and sells the chips at up to ¥30,000 ($400) a gram.

If you're thinking you'd rather have an iPod than a thimble's worth of wood, that's because you don't practise kodo, the Japanese art of incense.

With sado (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arrangement), kodo forms a triumvirate of noble Japanese arts.

But while the first two are still prospering in Japan's higher cultural echelons, kodo lags a very distant third. Yamada estimates that there is just one person learning incense for every 100 studying tea. "It's more common to take up sado these days, because tea is still part of everyday Japanese life," he says. "But incense is an elite pursuit.”

No wonder, when the materials cost 10 times the price of gold. They say it takes a lifetime to become a kodo master; it's not for dilettantes. As a resolute dilettante, I never thought to try kodo until I heard Yamada Matsu was hosting sessions in which anyone could participate.

So I'm sitting in an incense room above the venerable Kyoto store. It looks just like any formal Japanese room, with tatami-mat flooring, calligraphy on the wall and a single flower to express the season. The small, imperceptible difference is that the flower is fake. Kodo practitioners take care not to bring conflicting scents into the room. Perfumed ladies and pungent deodorants are forbidden.

There are four of us at the gathering - three guests and a komoto (host). Since one of those guests is Yamada, the ninth-generation manager of an incense store, and the other is a kodo novice but a wine expert with a well-trained nose, I'm the clear underdog here.

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Yamada explains that it was 14th-century nobles who elevated incense appreciation to an art form. They invented a game that is central to a kodo gathering, this one included. The rules are simple: put your nose to a series of hot woods, then, from memory, guess which ones came from the same trunk. In the extended version, with five woods and 52 possible combinations, not even the kodo masters get it right every time.

Fortunately, we're playing an abbreviated version, with just three woods and eight possible permutations. Furthermore, Yamada says, in the event of a tie, the most eminent guest automatically wins. Though nobody says as much, the seating arrangement appears to hand me that role.

So we bow and begin, then wait for about five minutes as the komoto painstakingly presses, pokes and scores the ash in the censer.

When we have a perfect five-sided mound scored with 50 lines, our host places a screen on top and tweezers on a microchip of wood.

"Shukkou," she says, meaning ''Here comes the aroma'', and passes me the censer. Yamada instructs me to rotate it 180 degrees, then cup my hands over the bowl and ''listen'' to the aroma. In the refined art of kodo, you don't sniff or inhale; you listen with your nose. Yamada says the linguistic quirk has something to do with the Chinese origin of Japan's writing system and the fact it sounds more elegant to listen than to sniff.

We note our answers on a piece of origami. I'm heartened to learn the wine buff gives the same answer as me. Then disheartened to discover we are both wrong. Only Yamada is able to tell that scents two and three are both kyara, that prized specimen from Vietnam.

On my way out, I stop to buy a box of Yamada Matsu incense sticks. The boss makes suggestions about the characteristics of each style but now I know I can't tell one from another, I'm sticking with the cheap stuff.

MORE THAN JUST A CUPPA

After 23 years studying sado (literally, ''the way of tea''), Tomono Iizumi describes her level as ''intermediate''. For a pursuit that appears to be about whisking powdered green tea with hot water, this seems like an awfully gradual learning curve. The drink, though, is just the slurp at the end of an art considered the apogee of Japanese culture.

"It only takes a month or two to learn how to make a great bowl of matcha but mastering the culture surrounding it takes decades," Iizumi says. "I have to study etiquette, calligraphy, ikebana, kimono and respect for the utensils, most of which are one-of-a-kind antiques. Above all, I think sado teaches us about morality and a way of living." It's a far cry from the 13th century when, according to Japan's chronicle of medieval times, the third shogun praised tea as a hangover cure. It wasn't until a warehouse owner's son, Sen no Rikyu, arrived in the 16th century that tea became a hallowed art. Rikyu developed what came to be known as the tea ceremony, infusing the frothy green drink with spiritual and philosophical notions. His teachings were so influential that the emperor of the day bestowed upon him the title ''Tea Master of Japan''.

Rikyu sired three schools of tea, Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushakojisenke, which formalised and popularised the art. Their students now learn how to walk, what to say, where to sit and when to drink, among innumerable other edicts. With a few decades' practice, the ritualised patterns free the mind to enjoy a perfect, simple moment of clarity.

As our lives hurtle ever faster, perhaps it's this respite that accounts for tea's enduring appeal.

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