The Art Of Uplifting The Spirits In Japanese Culture

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

How Aromatherapy Improves My Concentration and Writing Creativity


One mid-spiring in 2019, I stumbled upon a souvenir shop in Gion district, Kyoto. It wasn’t the gorgeous souvenirs that caught my attention, but a whiff of fragrance that elegantly danced in the air. The kind of smell gives you a sense of calmness and relaxation.

She then told me that the scent was Kitayama Sugi oil, produced locally from the Kitayama mountains in Kyoto. The oil boasts its cedar essence blended with floral and sweet notes. Extraction and steam distillation methods produce essential oil before they end up in a beautiful small bottle sold throughout Japan's aromatherapy shops.


If we have a glance at our ancient times, aromatherapy is practised as a method to get rid of evil spirits--as it was believed by Japanese in the Buddhist ritual to remove the evil thoughts--further to the gleaming beauty of Cleopatra. The history started from many ancient cultures; Egypt, Greece, Rome to China.


The Japanese believe that aromatherapy can uplift the spirits. My adventure to explore creativity and mindfulness through aromatherapy began from the Japanese Art of Kodo. Mari Kondo, with her 'Kon Marie' decluttering movement, admits she applies certain oils to unwind as well as improve concentration. She reveals Kuromoji is her favourite one, a Japanese wood essential oil to give her a sense of calmness.


The Forgotten Vehicle To Writing Creativity

I read many writing advice from the top writing creativity guru, as such calibre as Elizabeth Gilbert, and other top Medium writers. But they seem to focus on productivity, methods of writing and storytelling, the power of believing in being a creative genius in oneself, eliminating your writers' blocks by taking a shower, and so the list is on and on.

But aromatherapy is actually the one that improves my writing creativity--and it works. If your idea of writing is the starting point A and those writing techniques, destination B; the books, blog posts, and articles you write, then how do we there, to the point B of our destination? In other words, If there is a vehicle, I haven’t found those top writers talking about transportation method to get to your destination. Is aromatherapy the forgotten vehicle in achieving your writing creativity, concentration, and mindfulness?


And So Legend Has It

The discovery of fragrant wood starts from an urban legend about a wood log drifted ashore and found on the Awaji island during the third year reign of Empress Suiko in 595 CE. The trunk was later known as agarwood placed near the fire. To the local inhabitants’ surprises, it produced a particular fragrance. Incense came from China via Korea via the silk road that ended in Japan. In the 6th century of the Asuka period, Buddhism began to spread in Japan, and so the trade of fragrant agarwood was blossoming. It was used as the primary material to build a temple, and then later it was developed for the uses of religious purposes. The event is the start of incense burning custom among Japanese royalty.


the Art of Lifting The Spirit

The early form of aromatherapy in Japanese culture comes from incense. Not until the Nara period, the fragrance became so popular that it gave birth to the art of Kodo during the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573).


During the Kamakura period In 1192 AD, incense became popular among Samurai used to calm down nerves and help with their concentration before heading to the battlefield.

Kodo is a method by placing a tiny piece of wood on the mica plate or Gin-Yo. A small portion of charcoal heated the dish. So the wood is not directly burnt but heated through the mica plate so that the wood subtly effuses its fragrance. Many other kinds of wood, such as sandalwood (byakudan) blend with cinnamon bark (keihi), chebulic myrobalan (Kashi), clove, lavender, ginger lily, licorice, star anise and other herbs.


The development of Kodo led to the establishment of Rikkoku Gomi, the systemic characters of fragrance derived from six countries--India to South East Asia--which characterise five different scents; bitter, sweet, no scent, salty, hot, and sour.


Kodo has ten principal benefits of incense. Just like the ten commandments in Christianity, during the Muromachi Era, the ten virtues of Koh have passed down from the fifteenth century. Among those ten, they believe in having the abilities to sharpen the senses, purify the body and spirit, and heal the loneliness (improving mindfulness and concentration), awaken the spirits (stimulating creativity), and calm in turbulent times (relaxation).


In the Kodo ritual, the Japanese enjoy the scent of incense in the world of stillness by ‘listening’ to ‘the sound’ of fragrance, so one does not only breathe it in through the nose but feel the scent stimulate one’s soul as if listening to the podcast teaching of Buddhism. But how does it contribute as a vehicle to concentration and the writing creativity?


The Japanese Modern Aromatherapy

The modern Japanese aromatherapy later applied the Western method of aromatherapy. Japanese have their inherent capabilities in adopting Western techniques--with their creative authenticity--into their own by utilising their traditions. Its uniqueness lies in the belief in Shintoism that in every being dwells a soul. This belief earns their respects for other spiritual beings and dimension. It is a way to cultivate our heart from the unseen world that reverberates with the physical realms. The notion gave birth to the aromatherapy.


In our modern times, psychologist and therapists acknowledge that smells can lead someone to specific memories; from childhood, the saddest moments of life to the happiest times. So it is a personal experience as well as determined by one's cultural background. The smell of frangipani and lemongrass, for me, will always remind me of Ubud, an agricultural village in Central Bali. The smell always brings me back of the slopy terrace rice fields and breezes lingering through my ears in the green rice fields. It gives me a sense of peacefulness. It stimulates my brain. This kind of fragrance for others may give different stimulant or nothing at all. So experimenting on what the right fragrance and aromatherapy method for you is the key essential.


The Seven of The Essential

There are at least seven types of essential oil commonly found in any aromatherapy shops in Japan. Before you can smell and listen to the fragrance, you might find specific memories--to uplift the spirits--from the following seven types of essential oil:

1. Hakka (Mentha Arvensis). They are known as Japanese peppermint. It is a little mentholated than characteristic peppermint.

2. Hiba (Thujopsis Dolabrata) It is the most popular through Japan known first used to build temples. The fragrance helps with stress and relaxation.

3. Hinoki (Chamaecyparis Obtuse) Sometimes referred to as Japanese cypress essential has the quality of calming the nerves and antidepressant.

4. Hokkaido Momi (Abies Sachalinensis) Found in Northern Hokkaido is known used for respiratory conditions, but in the aromatherapy world, it is used for stress, anxiety and relieve mental fatigue.

5. Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) Known as the national tree of Japan, both wood and leaf essential oil is for emotional and respiratory difficulties.

6. Tosa Konatsu (Citrus Tamurana) Tosa Konatsu is the lovechild of Yuzu, citrus, and polemo (Chinese grapefruit). The Japanese know the aroma like the smell of summer. Though they believe the oil promotes blood circulation, can uplift the mind and fight mental and physical fatigue.

7. Yuzu (Citrus Juno) It is extracted from the peel, known for its benefits as antiviral, antibacterial and stimulate the immune system. Its fragrance is used in the aromatherapy to calm mind and relaxation.


Though there are systemic charts of fragrance as your guide to explore their qualities and benefits, in the end, the experience, I believe, is rather personal. So selecting the right scent for you with the guidance of your local aromatherapist is mostly required.

In modern Japan, with the influence of Western Aromatherapy, Kodo is no longer about incense burning on the mica plate that involves a series of ritual. Kodo has developed into many types of the Japanese fragrance way, such as fragrance sticks and oil, essential oil, scented candles, aroma diffuser, and aroma stones. Most of the seven types of essential oil are also available in many other forms, such as scented candles, and fragrance sticks.


I don’t only choose which fragrance is the right one for me but also to select the aromatherapy product based on its safety, functionality and practicality. It means it involves the friendly-user method, as well as ensure the product is never animal tested. All I need to do before writing is to light the scented candle, dim the light to the certain brightness level (an adequate amount of light also improves mood and energy levels), and sit straight up on my desk.


And let the art of uplifting the spirits be the vehicle to lead you to your concentration and writing creativity.

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