香道 (Kōdō – Fragrance Way)

Obviously I didn’t take this picture – it’s just too beautiful.  Therefore, let me begin with a shameless blurb of product placement for the people who presumably own it – namely, the folks over at http://www.japan-incense.com/.  Since the Japanese tend to be much less anal than Americans about copyrighted images (e.g., the near promotion of fan art in the anime world), I don’t expect any complaints.  Nor do I feel any guilt.  Well, maybe just enough to have written this paragraph.

OK – done with the legal disclaimers – back to the post.  The wife just got a two-tape VCR care package from the old homeland, care of one of her best friends.  One tape was a rather adorable special about a naturalist in Kamchatka raising a couple of orphaned bear cubs.  Cute, but I got bored after about the third raw trout being eaten alive by the little buggers.  Sorry – I prefer mine with wasabi.  Maybe nori, but definitely not algae.  Nor dirt.  And please – no skin.  If I want fish with skin, I’ll go fishin’ with my redneck buddies.  Like I said, cute, but muddy.  Very muddy.  I decided that compiling Linux packages and debugging wireless issues was preferable.  Some red wine, and those muddy, bitey little bear cubs were just a distant memory.

The next tape got watched today.  Lord help me – not ANOTHER Japanese historical drama.  As you probably know, the Japanese historical drama is as confined and regimented an art form as the American sitcom.  Only sittier.  Way sittier.  The sitcom involves a room full of Americans sitting and/or standing in somebody’s house (or something that substitutes for the house), spouting off one-liners or setting up each other’s humorous statements.  Well, take away the humor and the furniture, and age the culture a thousand years, so that the races of the people are almost but not quite blended, and you get the jhistodrama.  Now, sometimes, these are REALLY good.  Take, for instance, the movie Hidden Blade.  That one is so good, you can’t stop watching it.  Our copy is a rental that we never returned.  No flying chicks.  No gaijin.  Not even a totoro.  Just one hell of a story.  Now, I have to admit that Hidden Blade has some great “moving around” in it, which doesn’t involve guys with swords yelling at each other, so it’s not a jhistodrama in the true sense of the stuff that my wife watches MOST of the time.  But it gives you an idea.  Take only the boring-on-the-surface conversational exposition parts in Hidden Blade, make it more yawnable and less important, and you have the true TV-land jhistodrama.

Well, I was doing something forgettable, and my wife was watching this forgettable thing, when suddenly she said something which was WAY harder to miss than “take out the garbage”.  To quote her exactly:

“It’s perfume.”

Now THAT’S interesting.  Suddenly, I was watching this amazingly beautiful analog of the Japanese tea ceremony, but in which people are sitting around in kimonos smelling perfumes instead of drinking tea.  And, just like the tea ceremony (chadō – 茶道 – the Tea Way), only more mysterious, more high-brow, and more forgotten, this “fragrance ceremony” is an analog to something in Western culture.  At least, that’s how this gehin (low-brow) guy sees it.  To my way of thinking, societies love to ritualize and beautify fun things, and at some point it gets beautifully weird.  The English did it to tea, just like the Japanese.  The Americans are doing it to coffee right now.  And the French?  You got it.  Kōdō is nothing more nor less than a fragrance party at L’Artisan Parfumeur.  Now, admittedly, the Japanese version is unique, just like Japanese green tea is unique.  The fragrances are more like incense, but the core of the game – trying to discern and communicate the sensation of a complex and unknown aroma – is (from my point of view) identical to what goes on when you get several European or American perfumistas/perfumistos into a room with a tray of new scents.

One of my wife’s friends is an instructor in chadō.  Her husband (a gaijin like me) even built her a room in their house for tea ceremony, complete with proper woods and flooring.  Pretty cool.

Anyway, here are some links for those of you interested in kōdō:

Now, at this point, there are probably a few non-perfumisto, redneck types who are saying to themselves:

“What the hell?  Do you mean to tell me that those Japanese actually have some big old thing about pouring a cup of tea, or smelling stuff?  Like you actually have to go study that stuff?  And that the art of smelling stuff is actually harder than the one for pouring a cup of tea?”

Yes.

“Well, tell me how the heck that makes any sense.”

OK.  Have you ever seen The Matrix?

“Yeah.”

And did you ever see that movie called Equilibrium, where it says right on the DVD box that it’s even more Matrix than The Matrix?

“Yeah.”

OK.  Then it’s simple.  There’s shooting guns.  Anybody can do that.  But then there’s The Matrix.

“Oh.  Yeah.  Gotcha.”

It’s like I said.  銃道 (judō – gun way).  Societies love to ritualize and beautify fun things, and at some point it gets beautifully weird.

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