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April 19, 2023

Appreciating Japanese Incense: Ichigo Ichie 一期一会

Tea and incense are indelibly linked in Japan. Born of Zen foundations in the eastern hills of Kyoto during the Higashiyama Culture of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, perfected through the wabi-cha of revered tea master Sen no Rikyū, and taken to unparalleled heights under the reigns of Japan’s three unifiers Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Ieyasu Tokugawa, Chadō (the way of tea) rose to form the preeminent geidō (art of refinement) of Japan. Evolving from its supporting role in the ritual service of tea, Kōdō (the way of incense) grew into its own unique art of refinement. Often taught as one unit of study by many of the earliest schools of tea, Chadō and Kōdō were practiced by both elite and common alike wishing to express their cultural refinement, sophistication, and social standing. Given the close association between tea and incense, it is helpful to look to crossover between tea culture and incense culture when seeking to appreciate Japanese incense more deeply. With its origins in the quiet contemplation of Zen practice embodied in the tea ceremony, the Japanese concept of ichigo ichie is just as at home in incense culture as it is in tea culture.

A popular ichigyomono, a one-line scroll highlighting the works of Zen masters often hung in monasteries used as calligraphic forms of meditation, today ichigyomono featuring the saying ichigo ichie can be found displayed in tea shops and tearooms throughout Japan. Sen no Rikyū, the distinguished 14th century tea master whose teachings forms the basis for the tea ceremony today, highlighted the importance of hanging ichigyomono in the tearoom tokonoma for both their meaning as well as the virtue of the calligraphy itself. Translating directly as “one time, one meeting” and also “in this moment, an opportunity,” ichigo ichie highlights the Zen Buddhist concept that each moment is transient - a once in a lifetime occurrence that can never be repeated and therefore should be treasured.

Originally derived from the saying ichigo ni ichido, meaning “one chance in a lifetime,” Rikyū taught the importance of treating each tea ceremony as though the gathering would occur only once in the lifetime of both guest and host. The first written example of ichigo ichie occurs in 1588 in the notes of Yamonoue Soju, a tea master and student of Rikyū’s. In his notes Yamonoue altered Rikyū’s phrase to ichigo ichie to highlight the nature of time, emphasizing the importance of each moment’s unique, fleeting, and unrepeatable quality. In 1858, the lord of the Hikone Domain (modern day Shinga Prefecture), Ii Naosuke elaborated upon this concept further in his book on the tea ceremony Chanoyu Ichie Shu (茶湯一会集, Collection on the Oneness of Chanoyu): “Even though the host and guests may see each other often socially, one day’s gathering can never be repeated exactly. Viewed this way, the meeting is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.”

What ichigo ichie reminds us is that each experience, each gathering, each encounter from the mundane to the celebrated takes place in a moment that is unique and will never happen again. Viewed through this perspective, ichigo ichie urges us to treasure each moment by giving our full attention to what we are experiencing – be it washing the dishes, celebrating with friends, playing with our children, or relaxing after a long day at work. With so many distractions available at our fingertips today it is easy to be physically one place and mentally somewhere else completely even when surrounded by others at a gathering. Ichigo ichie reminds us that each moment is ethereal and transient, and if we are not mindful, the moment will pass us by and be lost forever.

With incense ichigo ichie takes on special relevance given the rare nature of fragrant woods prized in Japanese culture. Existing at the heart of Kōdō, Aloeswood is an especially good illustration of ichigo ichie’s teaching. A miraculous gift of nature, it is estimated that only seven trees in one hundred will ever produce the fragrant resin that makes Alosewood highly prized. Even should a tree produce resin, it can take up to 100 years to produce enough resin to be considered high-quality fragrant wood. The region, country, geography, micro-climate, and even which side of the mountain slope the tree grew upon will influence the fragrance of the resonated wood produced, making each and every tree a unique work of rare fragrant natural art that can never be duplicated. The use of Aloeswood by the Japanese is cherished, realizing that each and every piece represents this uniqueness of nature and an experience that can never be repeated that will be lost forever once consumed. For example, in Kōdō Aloeswood is heated, not burned, and only a small piece the size of a grain of rice is used at a time.

At its essence, Ichigo ichie asks two things of us: to treat every moment as unique and special, and to invest fully in each moment as it unfolds. For centuries the Japanese have embraced these two guiding principles of ichigo ichie through incense. Heian courtiers used incense to scent their clothes and homes to elevate the uniqueness of each encounter they had. Samurai used Aloeswood to purify their armor, focusing their mind upon the moment as they prepared for battle and their potential demise. Japanese elite held gatherings to compare famous pieces of Aloeswood brought from the notable collections of the guests, creating highly sought-after events due to the once in a lifetime chance to experience such rare fragrant woods. The memories of ancestors are honored with incense each year in August during Obon at temples and graves, as well as throughout the year at household shrines. By understanding how treating every moment as unique and special and fully investing ourselves in them can enrich our experience, we can use the principles of ichigo ichie to better appreciate Japanese incense


The Japanese expression mono no aware, which translates as “awareness of the passage of time,” highlights the bittersweet emotion resulting from our awareness of the impermanent nature of the moment. One of the most poignant examples of mono no aware treasured by the Japanese is the transient nature of the cherry blossoms of spring. As captured in the following thousand year old verse from the Kokin Wakashu, the sakura blossom has been used by the Japanese for centuries to illustrate the once in a lifetime ephemeral nature of time:

It is just because
they scatter without a trace
that cherry blossoms
delight us so, for in this world
lingering means ugliness.

The first aspect of ichigo ichie reminds us of time's fleeting nature and to treat every moment as unique and special as though it was a once in a lifetime occurrence. Incense is uniquely positioned to do this given the effect of smell upon memory. Our sense of smell is one of our oldest and most mysterious senses. The earliest developed of our senses, the sense of smell is even more dominant than our sense of sight up until approximately age ten. Our noses can recall up to 10,000 different odors, with unique odors triggering memories going back to our early childhood. Studies have shown the use of fragrance can improve the perception of the quality of a product and increase our willingness to pay more for it. When we find something tastes really good, it is because our sense of smell detected qualities we regard positively. People even tend to smell in color, associating smells like citrus with the colors orange and yellow and grassy fragrances with greens and browns for example.

One of the reasons our sense of smell has such a powerful association with memory has to do with the way in which it is stored in our brain. Odors are encoded in the brain directly from the olfactory bulb, a rounded mass of tissue in each nasal cavity filled with nerve cells connected to the bottom of the brain. The signals from the olfactory bulb are sent directly to the limbic system which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions of the brain related to regulating emotion and memory. Because of this anatomy, unique odors can spontaneously trigger specific memories from emotional moments in our lives, positive or negative, later in life. We remember the smell of grandma’s house not only because of the fresh baked chocolate chip cookies she gave us as a child, but also because we felt loved and happy there. We remember vividly getting sick at school not only because of the act of getting sick, but because of the embarrassment of getting sick in front of the whole class. As each individual’s memories are unique, so too are our associations with odors, with the same odor triggering unique memories in each individual.

There is even a name for this: the Proustian moment. In his 1913 novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)the main character of French author Marcel Proust describes the spontaneous flood of emotion from a childhood memory triggered by a the smell of a French Madeleine dipped in tea:“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”

Studies have shown that although memories triggered by unique odors were not necessarily more accurate, they were more emotionally reminiscent, and odors infrequently experienced often proved to be the most discernable. With thousands of unique fragrances and the mutable nature of Aloeswood’s fragrance, Japanese incense is uniquely positioned to trigger Proustian memories from our past or help us encode new ones, elevating the uniqueness of any experience and highlighting its once in a lifetime nature. And since each individual will have different memories associated with unique odors, each individual will form their own unique associations with the fragrance of incense, further elevating an experience’s once in a lifetime nature.


The second aspect of Ichigo ichie asks us to invest fully in each moment as it unfolds. At the heart of ichigo ichie is Zen, and at the heart of Zen is the practice of being entirely in the moment with our full being. Written in 1828, the Zencharoku (Zen Tea Record) explains how even during the tea ceremony, it is investment in the moment that matters most: “The practice of seeking your self-nature through Tea is nothing other than sweeping away all your various thoughts and concentrating the mind one-purposely.” Directing our attention in this way is not just limited to the tea ceremony, however. Zen asks us to be fully present when washing the dishes, driving to work, or lighting incense as well. In doing so we enter a space free of time where infinite possibilities lie.

Referred to as the eternal now, when we focus all our attention upon the action at hand, something special happens. Nothing else remains but the moment. Time as we typically experience it disappears. Our experience of time becomes timeless, infinite, eternally arising instantaneously in the moment. Most often, we view our lives as a series of events that happen sequentially, the past leading to the present, the present leading to the future, with all events occurring as though time was separate from our experience like a river flowing downstream next to us. Zen asks us to hold a non-dualistic view of time, accepting that time can be experienced both sequentially and infinitely simultaneously. In his 13th century masterwork Shōbōgenzō, the founder of Sōtō Zen Dōgen Zengi refers to this as Uji – “being-time” where time and being are not separate, but two sides of the same experience simultaneously. Although Dōgen acknowledges that time can be experienced sequentially, he expresses the non-dualistic view that time isn’t always thus, writing, “The true state of things is not to be found in one direction alone.” For Dōgen, time and being are linked, with each moment capable of expressing all moments simultaneously, past, present, and future existing in each moment.

Dōgen’s writings on Uji have been studied for centuries because like a Zen koan it is difficult to grasp with our dualistic minds. But Uji asks us, in this moment, to accept the moment as infinite and interconnected with all other moments. For example, as these words are being written in my “now” I am experiencing the moment that Dōgen described the concept of Uji nearly 800 years ago. Dōgen experiences my words being written in my “now” as an outgrowth of the same moment of his writing. As you are reading my words the moment you are experiencing as “now” is both the unique moment of reading these words as well as the moment they were written both in my current “now” and Dōgen’s “now” nearly 800 years ago. And through our shared “now” I am experiencing the moment of my words being read both in my “now” and yours. When we view our lives sequentially, with one event leading to the next, we overlook this interconnectedness each infinite moment represents. When we embrace the moment fully with all our being, we experience the freedom from sequential time and experience the eternal now.

As Dōgen highlights in Uji, the concept of “now” is much more complex than our sequential view of time often allows us to recognize. Einstein in explaining his Theory of Relativity demonstrated just how defining “now” with our sequential view of time is limited: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” What we consider “now” cannot be measured by time as we understand it. As each moment spontaneously arises, it immediately vanishes, moving inextricably to the next. As the moment the feeling of hunger arises as brain activity in our awareness the moment of hunger arising has already passed. If we wish to express feeling hungry in words, the additional time to process this thought and produce speech is even further after the moment hunger spontaneously arose and vanished. In the time we try to define the moment, the moment has passed.

Ichigo ichie asks us to keep the awareness of the eternal now in the forefront of our attention. It reminds us that every moment is infinite and unique, and experiencing the moment directly with all our being is experiencing life itself in a timeless state. Given such a gift, Ichigo ichie advises us to treasure each moment as the once in a lifetime miracle that it is by focusing all our attention, all our thought, all our being on the experience before us. In much the same way as its ability to encode unique memories, incense offers us a proven method to focus our mind upon the moment. Just as bells in Buddhist monasteries are rung to call attention to mindfulness practice, the act of lighting incense forms a ritual in itself that reminds us to focus our attention upon the moment. The fragrance released thereafter then serves as a call to focus our attention fully upon the moment in an act of meditation or to subtly call upon us to return our focus to the moment at hand as we go about our activities. In a talk entitled "Taking full use of the five senses—What is traditional Japanese scent and sound?” during the 13th Symposium of the Japanese Civilization Institute, the 21st successor and head of Shino School of Kodo Mr. Hachiya Isshiken Souhitsu describes it this way: "Through fragrance, people are able to make discourse with samurais, noblemen, and Emperors of the past."


Ichigo ichie provides us with a wonderful model to more deeply appreciate Japanese incense through. The following are some ideas of how to combine the principles of ichigo ichie with Japanese incense to enhance the unique and special nature of each moment and fully invest ourselves in them. As you read through them, allow the moment to spark ways you can apply ichigo ichie to your own unique experience with incense.

Include a specifically chosen incense when celebrating a special event

A promotion, graduation, end of semester, anniversary, etc. are all once in a lifetime moments to be treasured and remembered. By using incense to trigger the brain’s connection between smell and memory, we can enhance these special events to make them more memorable and unique, ensuring memories that are not only distinctive, but also recalled more vividly.

Welcome guests with incense

It is common in the hot springs resorts of Japanese Onsen to use incense to scent a guest’s room before they arrive to create a unique welcoming experience. The same practice can be used in our own gatherings. Place incense in areas guests will be welcomed to increase the uniqueness and memorability of the event, enhancing the gathering’s once in a lifetime nature. Ichigo ichie reminds us that even if host and guest see each other every day, no matter how casual, the event is still unique and can never be repeated. Using incense to welcome friends for a casual dinner celebrates the once in a lifetime nature of the evening just as much as it would for a special birthday party.

Host an incense gathering

A great way to combine ichigo ichie and incense is to host an incense gathering. In feudal Japan, invitations to gatherings where rare and famous piece of named fragrant woods would be listened to were highly prized for the once in a lifetime opportunity they presented. There are many ways such a gathering can be held today even without a Daimyo’s collection of incense. For example, invite friends to a special gathering to listen to a single specially selected incense, highlighting its unique character and fragrant properties. Another variation would be to create a group that meets on the full moon with a different participant bringing a special incense for all to listen to each month. No matter how the gathering is organized, using incense to create a special event that is sure to emphasize the once in a lifetime nature of listening to incense.

Celebrate the change of seasons with incense

The Japanese have a profound appreciation for the many subtle changes that occur year-round, letting the seasonal changes drive their selection of incense. Auspicious rare woods such as Kyara are burned in January to set positive intentions for the year. February highlights plum blossoms (ume) of late winter followed by peach blossoms (momo) in February. The star of hanami (flower viewing) in April is the cherry blossom (sakura) revered nationwide for its potent illustration of mono no aware. Summer season begins in May with the harvests of green tea (matcha), the blooms of Hydrangea in June, fields of lavender in July, and rose in August. As the weather cools, the lotus blooms are celebrated in September, and symbolizing long life and vitality, cypress (hinoki) in highlighted October. The emblem of the imperial family and one of Japan’s oldest festival traditions, chrysanthemum (kiku) are celebrated in November. To end the year, the fragrance of Aloeswood (jinko) is highlighted in December to convey gratitude for the year’s many blessings. Whatever fragrance you chose, try celebrating the seasons with incense meaningful to your experience.

Use incense in your mindfulness practice

Japanese incense has its roots in Buddhist practice. Used for centuries as offerings or for purification during Buddhist ceremonies and enhancing focus during meditation, incense is deeply rooted in the practice of mindfulness. The simple act of lighting incense before sitting in meditation creates a ritual that focuses the mind upon our daily practice. Although not directly related to posture or focus on the breath, incense provides a sense of ritual that highlights ichigo ichie’s focus on the moment.

Focus on a single fragrance

In Kōdō, the highest form of ritual appreciation of incense, all distractions are removed from the listening environment and participant’s complete attention is focused upon listening to fragrant wood. There are many ways to apply the same focus on incense in ways that are not as rigid as those required for Kōdō however. One of the easiest ways is to focus on just a single fragrance at a time over an extended period. Often, especially when new to Japanese incense, many different incense brands and fragrances are tried in rapid succession. One or two sticks of a fragrance are rapidly followed by a totally different fragrance in an effort to experience many different Japanese incenses all at once. This is a completely natural desire, especially when the excitement of discovering new fragrances is kindled. But ichigo ichie translated into incense reminds us to invest ourselves fully in each fragrance, treasuring it deeply, as though it will be the last we will ever experience. With this in mind, especially when listening to new fragrances, focus on a single fragrance. Listen deeply and repeatedly over a period of days or weeks before moving on to another fragrance. This practice allows the incense to open to us, sharing fragrant notes and nuances that might have been overlooked or blurred if listened to in rapid succession with multiple fragrances. Zen teaches us to chop wood and carry water with all our being. Focusing on a single fragrance allows us to transcend fragrance and truly listen to what this miracle of nature has to share with us.

Just sit with an incense and see what happens

In our modern lives we often multi-task to “get through” the things we wish to accomplish in a day. Ichigo ichie asks the opposite of us. Highlighted in the humorous Zen saying, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” ichigo ichie highlights our need to just be. Applied to incense appreciation, this means listening to incense just to listen to incense and nothing else. Often, we light incense to enhance something about our experience or to seek to dissect its different fragrant notes, short circuiting our ability to just be with the incense in front of us. Instead, the next time you light incense, try to just be with it with no other purpose. Just as with focusing on a single fragrance, just being with incense allows it to open to us and creates an experience that transcends fragrance.

Strengthen the sense of smell with incense

A common concern expressed by those new to Japanese incense is the ability to perceive the subtleties of a particular fragrance. Indeed, we tend to not develop our sense of smell to the same extent as our other senses and as we age our sense of smell diminishes. But just like working out at the gym strengthens our muscles, focusing our attention on our sense of smell can strengthen our ability to discern different fragrant notes no matter our age. Japanese incense, with its centuries of refinement and high-quality aromatic ingredients, is perfectly situated for use in developing our sense of smell. But unlike a workout at the gym, strengthening our sense of smell only requires that we be mindful of it. By focusing our attention upon the fragrance incense produces we improve our ability to “hear” different fragrant notes and subtle nuances of fragrance, and over time strengthen our sense of smell.

Incorporate incense into our daily routines

It is easy to go through the start of our day on autopilot, barely awake or aware as we drift through our morning routine. The same can often be true of our evening routines, as the work a day nature of events leads us to miss the unique once in a lifetime moments that occur each evening like tucking our children into bed or being completely present with our partner. Adding incense to our daily routines is an easy way to remind ourselves of the inherent ichigo ichie in even the most routine moments of our lives and to make those moments more memorable.