The Three Japanese Classical Arts of Refinement

Japan is a bustling country with a deep and diverse culture. Whether it’s martial arts, incense, tea, or something else, Japan has something to offer everybody. Today I am going to discuss the three Japanese classical arts of refinement. These three arts, together, are considered one of the high-points of Japanese culture and are still appreciated by many people today.

Japanese Zen Monastary

Kōdō (Way of Fragrance)

Kodo is a somewhat diverse topic which can encompass quite a few things, but at it’s core, it’s the art of appreciating incense.

Back in rural Japan, rather then burning incense sticks, it was more common to burn and smolder aromatic pieces of wood. The most well-known aromatic woods used were sandalwood and agarwood, although other plants were used as well.

The scent of the aromatic woods was then used to tell stories and play games, as well as for the practice of Monkō.

It’s quite amazing what a beautiful fragrance can inspire and if you are a storyteller, then I implore you to give the practice of Kodo a try. The olfactory sense is known to reignite past-time memories which can be drawn upon as a basis or plot.


To practice Monko, one would take three or more censers, each filled with some sort of aromatic material, and take turns passing them around among a group of people.

Monko translates to ‘listening to incense’. It is a somewhat meditative sort of practice where the practitioner focuses upon the scent of the incense and allows it to overwhelm them, in a sense. To play or practice Monko, you would pass the censers around while the players make notes and comments about the fragrance. An example of one of the games played would be Genjiko, a game named after Murasaki Shikibu’s ancient novel ‘The Tale of Genji’.


To play Genjiko, the players would take 5 censers and fill them with aromatic material. Four of these censers would have different materials inside of them, but two of them would have the same material. The players then try to guess what the scents are, as well as try to decipher which censer has the same material inside of it. The answers are typically recorded using symbols.

The Ten Virtues of Koh

Of similar cultural significance, another flower to blossom from the practice of Kodo was The Ten Virtues of Koh. It was comprised of a list of benefits attributed to the use of incense by 15th century Japanese Zen monks. Today, this document serves as a remembrance of a bygone era. It is still appreciated by many users of incense today.

Kadō (Way of Flowers)

Kado is a practice which dates back to the 7th century in ancient China. It traveled over to Japan alongside many other traditions and customs, including Buddhism. At it’s core it simply involves crafting floral arrangements, however the practice is thought to be introspective in nature. Plants played an integral role in the indigenous Japanese religion, so it was rather natural for the Japanese to take up such an art.

Today there are over 1,000 separate schools of Kado, with the oldest and most well-known being Ikenobō.

Chado (Way of Tea)

Chado is probably the most famous of the Japanese Classical Arts of Refinement. I believe most people have heard of Chado through the matcha tea ceremony, but Chado is much more then that. The tea ceremonies and rules involved in Chado are typically quite complex and are not something to be taken lightly. Everything from the tea, the utensils, the atmosphere, to the composure and gestures and everything else between may be different depending on what school the practitioner takes part in.

The Way of Tea is credited to Sen no Rikyū, who was a head tea-master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a 15th century Japanese politician. Supposedly he is the one who began this tradition. Around this time, tea began to became firmly associated with Japanese politics and Toyotomi eventually ordered Rikyū to commit suicide. Three distinct schools of Chado sprouted up from the ashes of his death. Inevitably, The Way of Tea then spread from the courts, to samurais, and inevitably to ordinary laypeople.


Well, that’s my article on the Three Japanese Classical Arts of Refinement.

I hope you enjoyed learning about these ancient arts.

Tune in next time!