The Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement

The Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement

Medieval Japan was an interesting time period. The wealthy aristocrats of the prior age were replaced by Shoguns and Samurai. The emperors and religious rulers of the past lost much of their power as the new feudal era began.

During this time, there were also many advancements in Japan, particularly in the fields of Agriculture and trade. At the start of this era, Japan only had about 7 million people, but by 1600, they grew to approximately 25 million.

All of this had a distinct impact upon the development of Japanese culture.

Despite the many negative aspects of feudal Japan, such as it’s profession-based caste system and it’s immense number of civil wars, Japanese art and culture flourished during this time.

Many of the practices which evolved during this time are still practiced today, such as the Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement.

The three classical Japanese arts of refinement include kōdō (The Way of Incense), kadō (Artistic Floral Arrangements) and chadō (The Famous Tea Ceremony). Together these arts serve as a key remembrance of Japan’s old culture.

Kōdō (The Way of Incense)

Kōdō is the Japanese art of appreciating incense. It involves Monkō, or ‘listening’ to the incense. The fragrance of the incense was used not only for simple pleasure, but to tell stories, or even play games.

Incense sticks were not very common in feudal Japan. The traditional way to practice Kōdō is to burn pieces of fragrant wood or other materials in small censers. The censers were then passed around and the fragrance was inhaled.

Examples of Kōdō Games

  • Take 3 or 5 censers, put the same material in 2 or 4 of them, and a different material in the remaining one. As the censers were passed around, players would attempt to guess which one was different. This game is known as Genjikō and is depicted in Murasaki Shikibu’s famous book known as ‘The Tale of Genji’.
  • Fragrant material is put into a censer and passed around. The players then use the fragrance as inspiration to tell a short story or tale.

One of the most revered materials to burn was resinous agarwood, which was typically harvested in Vietnam, Indonesia, and other surrounding areas.


Out of all the fragrant materials burned in feudal Japan, agarwood is probably the most fabled. 

It’s bitter and musky aroma is something of lore now that quality agarwood has become incredibly rare and relatively unaffordable.

It comes from ‘aquilaria’ trees, yet the ordinary wood does not bare the treasured fragrance. 

Interestingly enough, the scent comes years after the wood has been infected with a certain bacteria. It seems to cause a self defense mechanism within the tree, causing it to exude a dark resin in an effort to protect itself from the bacterial infection.

The material used to be in abundance, but since it takes so long for the wood to be produced in nature, the material has been over-harvested and the quality has dropped. There have also been many speculators who ahve invested in agarwood, hoping that it’s value may increase over the years.

The Ten Virtues of Koh

The Ten Virtues of Koh is an ancient document written by Buddhist monks in the 15th century which lists the numerous benefits of koh (incense). The Ten Virtues of Koh give us a glimpse into the sophistication of feudal Japan and shows us that the time period wasn’t all bloodshed and tears.

Kadō (Artistic Floral Arrangements)

Kadō is another one of the Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement. This practice, interestingly enough, did not originate in Japan. This custom developed in China during the 7th century and was borrowed alongside many other traditions, including Buddhism.

Simply put, Kadō is the art floral arrangement. It was not done simply because of it’s beauty, but because it was considered an introspective practice which could help teach one about oneself.

This practice was not forgotten and is still widely practiced today. There are still many, many schools in Japan which you can take Kadō courses at. The most famous one is probably Ikenobō.

Chadō (The Famous Tea Ceremony)

The last of the Three Classical Japanese Arts of Refinement is Chadō.

Chadō translates to ‘The Way of Tea’. An example which most people would probably be familiar with is the matcha tea ceremony. However, Chadō ceremonies are actually much more complex in nature. The instructions are often long, and each step is to be taken with careful consideration and thought, as Chadō ceremonies still means a lot to the Japanese people.

Chadō was invented by Sen no Rikyū, the head of Tea for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a prominent politician from the 15th century. Sadly, Toyotomi, Hideyoshi eventually ordered Rikyū to put himself to rest. However, three distinct Chadō schools developed from these circumstances. 

These schools had a hefty influence on Japan, and spread ‘The Way of Tea’ throughout Japan in honor of their fallen master.

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