December 15, 2022

The Origins of Japanese Incense Culture: Part VII

Under the cover of thunderclaps and driving rain, Oda Nobunaga’s troops stealthily worked their way down the rain-soaked slopes of the forested hills surrounding the camp of the Imagawa. The invasion of Owari province in 1560 by Imagawa Yoshimoto was another in a long line of examples of a larger more powerful clan seeking to seize the lands of its smaller neighbor that occurred during the civil war of the Sengoku period. Given that the Imagawa were a larger and far superior force to that of the Oda with the strength of 25,000 soldiers under Yoshimoto to fewer than 2,000 ashigaru and handful samurai under Nobunaga, the eventual outcome was all but assured. After the success of the morning’s initial battle, Yoshimoto pitched camp to ride out the storm, passing the time with a victory feast and kubi-jikken – a viewing ceremony of the severed heads of the vanquished samurai taken by his men in the battle earlier that day.

Yet after over 100 years of civil war, the practice of gekokujo saw the low topple the higher with increasing frequency and ferocity. As the rain poured down and Yoshimoto sat with his commanders viewing the severed heads of his enemies from behind his war fan lest the vengeful spirits of the dead curse him, Oda Nobunaga unleashed his surprise attack. In what would be known as the Battle of Okehazama, Oda Nobunaga’s men cut down Yoshimoto and routed the Imagawa army in a stunning victory, elevating Nobunaga from a minor lord of a small farming province to a major regional daimyo of legendary status.

The stunning defeat of the Imagawa at Okehazama would set in motion the eventual unification of Japan by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The pursuit of one Japan would take place not only on the battlefield however, but also in the tatami mat rooms where the ritual service of tea and appreciation of incense were performed. Utilizing tea and incense as expressions of their own unique political goals, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu would elevate chado and kodo to the highest expressions of art, politics, and power in each man’s march to dominance.


Born in 1534 as the second son of Oda Nobuhide, a minor daimyo of Owari province near present day Nagoya, it was clear to those in the Oda clan that Oda Nobunaga was not his father’s favorite. Regardless of Nobuhide’s preference for his first-born son, due to the boy’s illegitimacy it was Nobunaga who he was required to name as heir to the Oda clan. This tension this created between father and son would develop in Nobunaga a disdain for tradition that was matched only by his contempt for his father. Seen as impetuous, reckless, rude, and disgraceful, Nobunaga cemented his moniker as “The Fool of Owari” at his father’s funeral by acting dishonorably, attending dressed in his daily clothes dirty from travel instead of formal dress with only a simple rope sash and unkempt hair. During the funeral he disrespectfully threw incense at the alter shocking those in attendance. His outlandish actions at his father’s funeral was a significant factor that drove his mentor and senior retainer Hirate Masahide to perform a type of ritual suicide meant to shame Nobunaga into reforming his behavior. But even Masahide’s seppuku would not alter Nobunaga’s unconventional nature.

Nobunaga’s lack of faithful obedience to tradition would influence his rise to dominance and provide him an edge in overcoming his rivals. Like many daimyo of the time Nobunaga was ambitious, but he augmented his ambition with innovation on a scale rarely employed by his contemporaries. He had a keen interest in nanban trade, western ideas, and Portuguese weapons that he would put to novel and unique use in his conquest of Japan. For example, he employed teppogumi ashigaru, foot soldiers armed with Portuguese derived matchlock teppo in ranked “firing squads” three squads deep. As one squad fired, the other two reloaded, resulting in a devasting rate of fire unrivaled not only Japan, but by European armies of the time as well. Applying the devastating effects of Portuguese weapons to those who stood in his way, Nobunaga was also known to wear Portuguese nanban armor capable of stopping arquebus bullets employed in his own tactics. Unconventionally, he surrounded himself with a retinue of junior retainers, some even from the lower classes who proved themselves in his service, encouraging his generals to provide him their honest opinions rather than sycophantic obeisance when seeking their council. He also courted Christianity to his own advantage, believing that the nanban religion taught passivity, non-violence, and obedience to authority; qualities in stark contrast to the militant beliefs of the Ikko-iiki – warrior monks that stood defiantly in his path.

But the Fool of Owari had a darker side. European missionaries described Nobunaga as short tempered and cruel, rarely showing mercy to his enemies, especially those of his own family. When his brother Noboyuki plotted against him, Nobunaga feigned his own death to lure his brother to his bedside. Once there, Nobunaga sat abruptly upright thus signaling one of his retainers present to assassinate the horrified Nobuyuki right in front of him. In another example, after he convinced his brother-in-law Azai Nagamasa to safely returned his sister to him during the siege of Odani Castle, Nobunaga forced him to commit seppuku, then removed his head from his neck and had it pickled, displaying it in future New Year celebrations as a warning to those who might harbor thoughts about betraying him. His sister had hidden the couple’s infant son to protect him from Nobunaga’s retribution before returning. After regaining his sister’s trust, Nobunaga coaxed the location of the boy from her. He then immediately had the child executed and the child's head displayed on a stake much to the horror of his sister whose trust he betrayed.

Nobunaga’s personal seal from 1567 onward was inscribed with the words “tenka fubu” – rule by military force – which would be brutally illustrated in his march to unify the nation. To the Jesuits he seemed unusually driven to merciless cruelty towards Buddhist monks. He would underscore this reputation in 1574 with his destruction of the Nagashima compound on Mount Hiei held by the militant monks of the Ikko-iiki who had opposed him for years. Unable to take the compound through force of arms, as the Ikko-iiki employed nanban firearms from well-fortified positions, Nobunaga surrounded the compound and on a windy day ordered it set ablaze, incinerating over 10,000 men, women, and children. Any who escaped the flames were shot down by Nobunaga’s teppo ashigaru.


But tea and incense would find their way to the center of Nobunaga’s political strategy. In 1568 Nobunaga entered Kyoto, defeating the Miyoshi clan who were in control of a puppet shogun they had installed through assassination, replacing the Miyoshi puppet with his own, the 15th Ashikaga shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki. Now put in power by Nobunaga, Yoshiaki immediately set about seeking retribution on the Miyoshi, beginning with demanding the head of Matsunaga Hisahide for the assassination of his brother, the 13th Ashikaga shogun who was replaced by the Miyoshi puppet. Seeking to avoid Yoshiaki’s wrath, Hisahide sought Nobunaga’s lenience by not only pledging his armed forces and knowledge of the Miyoshi clan in service to Nobunaga, but by also giving him a unique square-shouldered dark reddish-brown glazed ceramic tea caddy.

Named Hatsuhanaby shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, meaning “first flower of the season,” Hatsuhana was a type of tsukumogami, an object over 100 years old with a superior pedigree and lineage that was believed to be filled with the spirit of those who had possessed it, thus becoming an almost supernatural object. Exquisitely made by exceptional Chinese artisans, Hatsuhana was extremely delicate with construction so accomplished that its sides were a mere two millimeters in thickness - exceptional even by modern standards. One of three highly prized Katasuki (square shouldered) tea caddies considered the “three great tea caddies of the world,” Hatsuhana, Narashiba, and Nitta tea caddies were each meibutsu(famous and highly prized objects) considered more valuable than an entire fiefdom. It was believed that anyone who possessed all three tea caddies would possess enough wealth to rule the whole of Japan. Not only would the gift spare Hisahide’s life, it would light a spark in Nobunaga that would grow into a full passion for tea culture and the collection of exquisite meibutsu.

By the time Nobunaga had taken Kyoto, the trading port of Sakai had become the center of the Chado universe. Although considered the lowest of social classes, the merchants who prospered in Sakai were also one of the wealthiest, affording them considerable influence and access to meibutsu tea implements. Considered parasites under the Confucian world view because they produced nothing yet made their fortunes off the efforts of others, laws were enacted which restricted them from flaunting their wealth. But as meibutsu were often Chinese imports of great value, it was in the trading port of Sakai that meibutsu associated with the tea ceremony were concentrated. Nobunaga coveted not only the meibutsu of the Sakai merchants, but also their wealth and trade connections needed to keep his army supplied with gun powder and military wares.

In 1569 Nobunaga imposed a military tax levy of 20,000 kan on the wealthy port city that included a thinly veiled threat of consequences for not meeting his demand. This was a significant sum. 20,000 kan was the equivalent of 5,000 koku – enough rice to feed 5,000 people for one year. A feudal lord was considered a daimyo with an annual income of 10,000 koku. Members of Sakai’s town council initially sought an alliance with the Myoshi clan to resist Nobunaga’s demand. But knowing that Sakai stood no chance against Nobunaga’s armies, the wealthy Sakai merchant and tea master Imai Sokyu quickly offered to serve as intermediary between the council and Nobunaga. Sokyu was known as one of the great tea masters of Sakai, having served as an attendant to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki in performance of the tea ceremony. Sokyu was also a wealthy Sakai merchant, having been a supplier of military leather goods which established relationships for him with daimyo of the period, adding another layer of value for Nobunaga’s interest. Acting as intermediary, Sokyu held a tea gathering for Nobunaga and his retinue using the unique and tranquil setting to avoid conflict. The event culminated with Sokyu gifting Nobunaga a rare and valuable meibutsu tea kettle and collection tea implements from Ming China. Deeply impressed by Sokyu’s grace and eloquence in performance of the tea ceremony as well as the value of Sokyu’s meibutsu gift, Nobunaga spared Sakai, award Sokyu a fief with an annual 2,200 koku rice yield, and dedicated himself to employing chanoyu strategically in his march to unify Japan under one sword.


After experiencing Sokyu’s demonstration in Sakai, Nobunaga’s passion for chanoyu began to shape his political strategy. Not only did Nobunaga appreciate the aesthetic value of chanoyu, but he also realized the strategic opportunity presented by tea gatherings. It was at tea gatherings that the social classes could more freely mix, allowing strategic alliances both clandestine and overt to be forged. As fine tea utensils and rare fragrant woods employed at such events required significant wealth to acquire, these gatherings often attracted wealthy merchants and influential individuals who could afford such luxuries. Such individuals often possessed access to lucrative trading networks or strategic assets that could be advantageous to Nobunaga’s military goals. Establishing alliances with these individuals had the additional benefit of diminishing his rivals by cutting off their avenues of supply. In what would come to be known as o-chanoyu-goseido (tea ceremony government), in a strategic masterstroke Nobunaga would bring together renown tea masters, influential merchants, and rare meibutsu,placing chanoyu at the center of a powerful system capable of uniting Japan under his rule.

Both the rare and exquisite tea utensils and the knowledge of how to eloquently and skillfully perform chanoyu where prerequisites of tea gatherings that would attract and impress those most influential. To address utensils, Nobunaga ordered a “hunt” for rare and famous tea paraphernalia, amassing an impressive collection of meibutsu through payment, coercion, and military force. Known as meibutsu-gari, the compulsory collection of meibutsu served multiple purposes in advancing Nobunaga’s rise. First, it illustrated Nobunaga’s wealth and power, as the greater his collection of meibutsu became the greater his wealth and ability to impress and woo influential guests invited to his chanoyu gatherings. Second, Nobunaga’s order of meibutsu-gari increased the demand for rare tea paraphernalia, causing the value of such items to increase dramatically. This in turn increased the value of Nobunaga’s collection, further increasing his wealth, status, and power. Meibutsu displayed in tea gatherings held by Nobunaga became objects of incredible wealth, status, and desire, often achieving values greater than that of entire fiefdoms. Nobunaga in turn would use this opulence to inspire loyalty by gifting retainers, influential merchants, or his generals with priceless meibutsu, further cementing his influence as supreme in all of Japan. Finally, by exhausting the supply of available meibutsu, Nobunaga deprived his rivals of the wealth and power meibutsu offered - power that often went beyond monetary value. The relationships developed through collecting meibutsu from individuals with rich trade networks and strategic advantages limited rival clans access to the same networks needed to supply their armies, while at the same time also depriving them of the ability to reward those in their service for their loyalty with meibutsu of significant value or pedigree.

An example of how great a value was place upon meibutsu occurred in 1577 when Hisahide, who had given Nobunaga Hatsuhana, betrayed him by aligning himself again with the Miyoshi. Seeking to escape Nobunaga’s wrath, Hisahide fled the capitol and barricaded himself within Shigisan Castle to which Nobunaga quickly laid siege. Hisahide, a respected tea master in his own right, had with him the meibutsu iron tea kettle Hiragumo. Meaning “flat spider,” Hiragumo was named because its surface design was said to resemble a spider that appeared to crawl when the kettle was at full boil. Nobunaga had requested Hiragumo from Hisahide on multiple occasions, but now he would offer to trade Hisahide’s life in exchange for the famous kettle. Filling the kettle with gun powder, Hisahide chained the kettle around his neck, took to the ramparts of Shigisanjo and lit the fuse, taking his own life and in the process denying Nobunaga the prized meibutsu.

To address the knowledge required to eloquently and skillfully perform the tea ceremony, Nobunaga sought out the preeminent tea masters of his time, learning how to perform the tea ceremony himself in an effort to persuade them to ally themselves with him. Through his efforts, and no doubt the alure of his unprecedented collection of meibutsu, by 1573 he would employ the three greatest tea masters of Sakai: Imai Sokyu, Tsuda Sogyu and Sen no Rikyu. Nobunaga utilized their knowledge and reputation in performance of chado to attract wealthy and influential individuals to his tea gatherings, impressing them with his display of wealth and power, and enticing them to ally themselves to his cause and cease their support of his rivals.

Of the three, Rikyu would go on to become the most revered tea master in Japan, influencing all aspects of the tea ceremony and shaping chanoyu into what it remains today. Rikyu redefined chanoyu’s aesthetic, returning it to Murata Juko’s embrace of wabi-cha’s deliberate simplicity, appreciation for aged imperfect patinas, and direct ties to nature. Rikyu redesigned the architecture of the tea house, surrounding it with a tea garden filled with a lush and natural landscape through which participants would pass, and shrinking the chashitsu(tea space) to as little as two tatami mats in size entered via a small low door that required participants to bow down or crawl through, humbling all who participated. It was under Rikyu’s direction that a truly Japanese aesthetic developed for chanoyu known later as wabi-sabi, with tea implements taking on a rustic handmade natural simplicity in contrast to the highly refined personality of their Chinese counterparts. Rikyu wrote extensively upon all aspects of environment, etiquette, and technique associated with the tea ceremony, from how the garden path lead to the tea house to how meibutsu was displayed in the tokonoma in the shoin (reception hall) to the spirit of the tea master in preparing tea. These writings still form the basis for the tea ceremony today and continue to be taught in schools of chanoyu.


Incense was indispensable to the tea ceremony, and Rikyu was specific on its use and display. Incense was burned in the shoin for purification and to set a unique tone for the event as guests would arrive. Lit within a koro specifically chosen to emphasize the theme of the event, the incense would be carefully selected by the tea master to specifically highlight the season in which the tea gathering was held, creating a unique experience for each gathering. In the chashitsu tokonoma, a scroll featuring calligraphy or sumi painting of nature emphasizing the event theme was commonly displayed with a seasonal flower arrangement placed to its left and specially chosen kogo (small incense container) to its right.

Considered an important tea implement, the kogo held three pieces of incensed carefully chosen by the tea master. Made of ceramic, wood, bamboo, or lacquer, kogo were created in all manner of styles and motifs that included animals, flowers, figurines, and simple containers to highly ornate patterned lacquerware. Carefully chosen to reflect both the season and event theme, the kogo was considered a highly important symbolic piece presented for the guests to admire. The specific placement of kogo was described in detail by Rikyu, noting in exact measurements for placement in relation to the writing on hanging scroll in the tokonoma. During the ceremonial arrangement of charcoal used to boil water for tea one piece of incense from the kogo was placed in the center of the coals to create an immediate release of fragrance, and a second piece placed on the periphery of the coals to create a gradual long-lasting fragrance as it warmed while the tea was prepared. The third piece of incense remained in the kogo for the possibility of specifically appreciating the incense after the tea ceremony had ended. Alternatively, a specially selected koro would be displayed in the tokonoma for which Rikyu emphasized the need for it to always be filled with burning incense as was its nature, taking the place of incense burned in the coals.

The seasons guided the tea master’s choice of incense, with lighter sweeter floral fragrances used for spring and summer, and heavier woody tones chosen for fall and winter. The type of incense in the kogo would often change with the season as well, with nerikoh (kneaded incense) selected for the warmer months and koboku (fragrant wood), usually Jinko or Kyara, in the cooler months. Incense would be burned either in the coals while preparing water for tea, or in either a kiki-koro (koro meant for listening to incense during Kodo) or more commonly in an ornate koro meant for display set on a tray specifically designed to present the koro, both of which often being meibutsu. One of the most famous meibutsu koro was the Chidori-koro, a kiki-koro passed down to Rikyu from Takeno Joo, a proponent of Juko’s wabi-cha style taught to Rikyu. Featuring three symbolic feet and a low palm rest for more comfortable support during use, the chidori-koro was a celadon glazed ceramic koro with a dark flat lid created in 13th century Song Dynasty China. The lid concealed special monkoh ash and was adorned with a chidori figurine (meaning plover, a type of coastal bird) serving as a handle and from which its name was derived.

The focus on the uniqueness of the moment in which each event occurred was paramount to the tea gathering. In what would later come to be known as ichigo-ichie - a once in a lifetime meeting – emphasizing the unique nature of an event that would never be repeated was of keen importance. The term was first captured by Yamanoue Soji, a student of Rikyu’s, in his quickly written notes on the tea ceremony as “Treat your host as if the meeting were going to occur only once in your life.” Much more than just a simple occasion to drink tea, the uniqueness of the items displayed in the tokonoma, the quality of the tea and incense chosen, the rarer and more exquisite the meibutsu employed, and the eloquence of the tea master’s performance all were intended to elevate the unique nature of these once in a lifetime events. Representing extraordinary occasions that lasted over a period of many hours and sometimes even days, guests invited to a tea gathering worked their way through a choreographed dance between reception hall, tea garden, and chashitsu. Guests enjoyed savoring multi-course meals, imbibing exceptional sake, and were ritually served both thin and thick tea with wagashi - sweets specially prepared to balance the bitterness of the matcha tea. The greater the reputation of the tea master, the rarer the meibutsu on display, the more extravagant the various stages of the event, the higher the quality of tea and incense employed, the greater the significance the event would achieve. Nobunaga viewed these tea gatherings as so important he only granted permission to host such events to a small number of his most trusted subordinates and gaining his permission to host a tea gathering was considered a great honor.

Although chanoyu was at the center of Japan’s three main Geido, the ritual appreciation of incense found in kodo mirrored many of the same aspects of chanoyu tea gatherings. Elements of chado would be directly adapted to kodo, with similar choreography, etiquette, and practices being incorporated into the appreciation of rare and fragrant woods. Tea guessing games where the cultivar and location of the tea consumed by guests were adapted into kumikoh (incense guessing games) utilized in kodo where guests matched the fragrances of incense chosen at random to one another or in pursuit of discerning the highest qualities of incense sampled. Schools that taught chado often taught kodo as a unit as well, leading to greater integration of the two arts of refinement.

Much like meibutsu, rare and exquisite pieces of Aloeswood were often given names combining literary references with their fragrant qualities and were highly prized in their own right both for their fragrance as well as their exceptional value. Named pieces of Aloeswood were highly sought-after collectables, and often some of the most prized spoils taken in battle from defeated rivals. Holding an incense gathering in which one of these rare pieces of Aloeswood or Kyara might be listened to during a kodo ceremony was considered an impressive once in a lifetime event that was highly anticipated, presenting a coveted opportunity to significantly elevate the status of the host who held such an event.


No greater, more prestigious, or rare was there a named piece of Aloeswood than Ranjatai, the legendary piece of Aloeswood that drifted ashore on Awaji Island in 595 and was presented as a gift to Empress Suiko. Nearly one thousand years later, Ranjatai remained safely under imperial seal locked within the Shosoin Imperial treasure repository as Nobunaga’s relationship with his puppet shogun deteriorated significantly. As he was not descended from the Minamoto, a prerequisite for being named Shogun by the emperor, Nobunaga had planned to rule from behind the scenes of Yoshiaki’s bakufu government. But before long Yoshiaki chafed at the arrangement, and sought to free himself from Nobunaga’s control, repeatedly plotting rebellion against him with rival daimyo and the Ikko-ikki. After a series of betrayals, in 1573 Nobunaga removed Yoshiaki from the office of Shogun, exiling him from the capital where he would eventually die in obscurity. By effectively ending the 237-year Ashikaga shogunate Nobunaga had seized the power of the shogunate even without being able to assume the title. He would seek to have this power acknowledged by making a shocking request of Emperor Ogimachi. Nobunaga demanded the doors of the Shosoin Imperial treasure repository be unsealed to allow him to enter and personally cut for himself a piece from the legendary Ranjatai, thereby forcing the emperor to acknowledge his status as supreme in Japan with or without the title of Shogun.

The request is said to have angered Emperor Ogimachi significantly. Ranjatai was an imperial treasure under the direct purview of the emperor. Only once, one hundred years previous, had such a gift been given when Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado presented Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa a piece of Ranjatai in 1465. Since then, no emperor had broken the Shosoin’s Imperial seal. But Ogimachi’s Imperial court had benefitted from the implied support of Nobunaga, reversing the court’s failing fortunes, as Ogimachi was seen as having Nobunaga’s favor. But by 1573, as his military grip upon Japan deepened, Nobunaga began to call for Ogimachi’s abdication and their relationship had become more antagonistic. Unable to risk a confrontation with Nobunaga’s military might, Ogimachi reluctantly consented to his request. In March of 1574 the doors of the Shosoin Imperial treasure repository were opened, and Nobunaga personally cut a small piece of approximately five centimeters in length from the renown Ranjatai.

Symbolically this was a coup for Nobunaga as it forced the emperor to acknowledge that he was Shogun in all but name only and demonstrated to all that his power was so absolute that even the emperor himself could not resist him. He would keep only a small amount for himself, however. Shortly after collecting the prized Aloeswood, Nobunaga held a tea gathering at Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto to show off this new crown jewel in his collection. During the extravagant event, from atop his fan he presented Tsuda Sogyu, who had first introduced him to chado, and Sen no Rikyu, his preeminent tea master, with priceless pieces of Ranjatai for their loyal service, astonishing the two men with such a gift. Regardless of how much wealth or status they achieved as Sakai merchants or tea masters, for two men from the lowest social class to receive a piece of Ranjatai from the Shosoin Imperial treasure repository was unthinkable. But Nobunaga had again demonstrated to all present with his priceless gift of incense that he alone was the supreme authority in Japan and allying oneself with him had significant benefits that none could equal.

In our next part in our series Nobunaga reaches his end, a golden tea house leads to an end of a tea master, and patience ultimately wins control of Japan as chado and kodo rise to their ultimate zenith.


This page is part of Kikoh's Fragrant Path: An Introduction to Japanese Incense series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...