Chocolate and Incense Games

Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s new Sensory Collection gets my vote for being the most seductive luxury gift item of the year. I met Katrina Markoff, the company’s mad scientist chocolatier, at a Kripalu Yoga and Chocolate Retreat last February.

This chocolate tasting and smelling game involves uncapping 42 vials filled with essences such as dried banana, cocoa butter, tobacco, earth, cocoa powder, leather, charcoal, orange blossom, jasmine, asparagus, and burnt sugar and nibbling chocolates from Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, Java, Ghana, Madagascar, Venezuela, Grenada, Bolivia, Tanzania, Peru, Costa Rica, and Santo Domingo.

There’s a little guidebook that chronicles the history of chocolate, the making of chocolate from bean to bar, the science of taste, and recipes. Also included are a color and flavor wheel to help you describe each chocolate, a notebook for your thoughts and inspirations, and a blindfold “for party fun.”

This chocolate parlor game reminds me of the Japanese-inspired incense games that I learned about while researching my book, Incense.

In Japan, the highly ritualized Kodo incense appreciation ceremony is designed to cultivate aesthetic refinement while deepening spiritual awareness. In this context, incense is the muse of both enlightenment and artistic expression. The art of Kodo is the practice of “listening to incense” – smelling with one’s entire being.

As with the formal Japanese tea ceremony, it takes years to master the complexities of the “Way of Incense.” There are specific rules regarding the subtleties of preparing the censer cup, pressing artistic designs into the white rice ash to correspond to the season and occasion, regulating the temperature of charcoal, blending the incense, and so on. An incense master must also draw upon a rich knowledge of poetry, classical literature, history, and natural science in order to fully comprehend and share the mysteries of incense. Gold-lacquered incense boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, exquisite Kodo burners, trays, and other ceremonial utensils can cost thousands of dollars.

The term Kumiko refers to the literary memory games of Kodo in which players must distinguish and identify different incenses by their perfume alone. David Oller, editor of Incense Journal, describes these games as being “aromatic journeys” shared with a group of friends.” He continues: “The true source of competition is to see which one among you is able to enjoy and cause the other participants to enjoy the journey most.”

There are hundreds of different Kumiko games that use various incenses and poetic procedures. These games are usually played with loose incense, such as aloeswood and sandalwood chips, using a Kodo-style censer cup filled with rice ash, charcoal, and a postage-stamp-sized mica plate to heat the slivers of precious incense. The following beginner-level games were suggested by Mark Ambrose of Scents of Earth.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the incense censer and places three or four varieties of aloeswood in individual origami envelopes.

Step Two
Guests sit in a circle and pass each smoldering wood around for every person to experience. On the first pass, the host names each wood, giving it an evocative title like “Hidden Forrest,” “Autumn Wind,” or “Snow on a Lonely Peak,” and then guests try to associate the name with the scent. A designated record keeper writes down the name given to each wood on the inside of the origami envelopes in the order in which the varietis are passed.

Step Three
After reach wood has been named and passed, the envelope are then shuffled, and each wood is passed again, this time without a name. The guests then try to recall the name associated with the aroma and record it on their own beautiful slips of paper.

Step Four
At the end of the game, the host opens each envelope and reads the names in the order in which they woods were initially passed Each guest then discovers how well they associated the names with the fragrances.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.

Step Two
One at the time, three smoldering woods are passed around the circle.

Step Three
The guests try to determine whether all three are different or two or more are the same.


Step One
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.

Step Two
One at a time, four smoldering woods are passed around the circle.

Step Three
When the first incense has been passed, the first guest writes a line of poetry inspired by the experience of “listening” to the fragrance. The next guest adds another line, the next guest adds a third, and so on, until all of the woods have been passed and a single poem has been created. Alternately, participants can individually compose their won poems by writing down a line inspired by each incense, and then reading their four-line poems to one another.

For more information and photos of the Kodo cermony, see Listen’ to Your Nose: Sniff Out a Calming Custom by Tomoko Otake of Japan Times.

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