Things Japanese/Incense Parties
Incense Parties. There is an elaborate ceremonial called kiki-kō, or "incense-sniffing," that has been a favourite ever since A.D. 1500, and still counts its votaries among esthetically minded persons. The gist of it is this:—The host produces, from among a score of different kinds of incense, five kinds, to each of which he affixes at pleasure a new name founded on some literary allusion, and each name receives a number. The various kinds are then burnt in irregular order, sometimes in combinations of two or three kinds, and the guests have to write down the corresponding numbers on slips of paper by means of certain signs symbolical of the chapters in a celebrated classical romance called Genji Mono-gatari. He who guesses best wins a prize. When the nose gets jaded by much smelling, it is restored to normal discrimination by means of vinegar.
All this will sound to the foreign reader like an innocent, not to say insipid, little jeu de société, such as might suggest itself to a party of school-girls. But remember that Old Japan was in its childhood,—its second childhood. The art, the science, the mystery of incense-sniffing was practised by priests, Daimyōs, and other reverend seigniors. The incense-burners and other utensils employed were rare works of art, the meetings were conducted with grave etiquette, serious treatises have been written on the subject, in a word, incense-sniffing, coming next to the tea ceremonies in the estimation of men of taste, was a pastime at once erudite and aristocratic, and one which no Japanese would ever have thought of joking about. Nor need a European joke about it. Have we not rather cause for wonder, perplexity, almost awe, in the spectacle of a nation's intellect going off on such devious tracks as this incense-sniffing and the still more intricate tea ceremonies, and on bouquets arranged philosophically, and gardens representing the cardinal virtues? Such strict rules, such grave faces, such endless terminologies, so much ado about nothing!
This article, read together with the Articles on Esotericism and the Tea Ceremonies and with portions of those on Flowers and Gardens, will afford a glimpse into a singular phase of the Oriental character, its proneness to dwell on subjects simply because they are old and mysterious, its love of elaborately conceived methods of killing time.
Books recommended. Lafcadio Hearn's In Ghostly Japan, Article entitled Incense.—Brinkley's Japan and China, Vol. III. p. 1 et seq.