The Cropwatch Files

The agarwood Files



Agarwood Odour descriptions

and use in Incense ritual.


Copyright © Tony Burfield 2005




The Japanese art of appreciation of incense woods adopted the Chinese expression “wenxiang” (listening to incense) which becomes “mon-koh” in Japanese. Koh can be taken to refer to incense materials themselves, and koh-do to the incense ceremony (Morita 1992).

Morita further describes five basic odour classifications of agarwood incense aromas in Japan, which take a lead from the five basic tastes (Gomi):

(1) Sweet (resembling the smell of honey)
(2) Sour (resembling the smell of plums)
(3) Hot (resembling the smell of peppers on a fire). Other interpretations say spicy instead of hot.
(4) Salty (resembling the smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried on a fire )
(5) Bitter (resembling the smell of bitter herbal medicines when mixed or boiled). 

Rikkoku-Gomi is the foundation of classification of incense woods and appreciation of fragrances. The five odour classifications above have been applied to six categories of jinkoh (gaharu): Kyara, Rakoku, Sumatara, Manaban, Sasora & Manaka, the words referring to the places they originated (Kikkoku - 6 countries): Cambodia/Vietnam, Thailand, Sumatra, Malabar Coast, W. India? and Malacca). Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the 16th Century applied the five classifications to the six kinds of jinkoh, with Kyara being particularly favoured by many connoisseurs (Morita 1992). Thus, on a modern incense Koh-do website we have for Kyara: “Gentle quality with bitterness standing out in elegance. Graceful in nature and elegant like nobles in Imperial Court.” 

A hierarchical system of koh-do schools, each vying with each other for superiority and reputation, existed at one time in Japan, and in experiencing the small current revival of koh-do teaching (especially in the US), one could be forgiven for concluding that these times have possibly revisited!    

In western perfumery, use of the wood of Aquilaria crassna was mentioned for the preparation of Chinese joss-sticks and for incense generally (Vide de la Perfumerie Modern 1923, 124 through Parry (1925). The odour of the pure Vietnamese oil has been described (Burfield 1994) being of a rich woody character, having some of the dryness of vetiverol mixed with some sweetness aspects of sandalwood and guaicwood oil. The oil possesses an animalic/leathery character with notes reminiscent of castoreum & labdanum. It is extremely long-lasting. In perfumery the oil can be used to introduce novel effects in men’s fragrances, where a rich leathery character is required. It is particularly interesting in masculine-chypre type accords enhancing the ambery warmth of cistus notes.




Please see Agarwood Bibliography at the end of Agarwood files Database database for references.