The Incense Game

Have you ever heard of Japan’s incense game? The game dates as far back as the Heian period and is still practiced, albeit rarely, in Japan today. The object of the game is to guess the scents.

Today I went with my class to Shoyeido’s incense shop in Kyoto. We were to participate in an incense game, a game that dates as far back as the Heian period, though incense itself dates as far back as 538, allegedly discovered in Awaji when a fragrant piece of driftwood washed ashore. This piece of wood was discovered by locals and gifted to Empress Suiko (recall my Nara post). Shoyeido’s company has been in business in Kyoto for over 300 years- if you would like to try their unique and very high quality incenses, please visit their English site here.

My class was led upstairs by a woman in kimono to a small tea room laid with tatami mats. The week prior we had drawn names for the game’s participants (9 out of 38 people) and I was lucky enough to be one of the winners. We were told to sit on a red mat, and to take off all of our accessories before entering the room. After sitting down, we were each given an ink stone and piece of paper to write our names on.

After we finished preparing, our host explained to us the rules of the game. There would be seven bowls of incense that would be passed around, and each bowl could only be one of three flavors. Rather than give the proper name, like sandalwood or cedar, however, the names were symbolic of items in a famous poem. Our options were Ship, Wave or Cloud. Cloud and Ship only would appear once in the game, while Wave would occur all remaining times.

I loved this game so much. I got all but two right in the game, but it didn’t matter, simply because the smell was so nice. The way she prepared the incense was very interesting as well. Rather than burn a stick of incense, they had a small porcelain urn in which a mound of ash was raked before a small plate of glass was placed on top. On top of that glass, she would put a mere pea-sized amount of incense- that was all that we could work off of.

After the game, we were each given a bowl of matcha and a mochi. While we drank, the host gave a small lecture on the bowls we were drinking from. Of course, many were from China and Japan, but there was even one from Portugal! It really was great fun, and I would like to go there again some day and simply browse their store. Unfortunately, it was closed when the game was finally over.