Nippon Kodo / Mori no Koh (Scents of Forest)

Some of my earliest and most embedded memories of scent come from when I first bought incense as a teenager. I can’t remember the company who released the (Indian) incense I loved back then, but I do remember being particularly fond of piney, foresty scents and certain scents in this direction (most notably for me this would be the Xiang-Do Forest blend) bring up 20 year old memories for me.

While Nippon Kodo’s series of exceptional incenses, like most companies, tend to center around higher end sandalwood and aloeswood blends, all of them packaged in nice looking Pawlonia boxes with ceramic burners, they also released this sampler set of three different forest scents: Fir (blue-green color), Japanese Cypress (green) and Conifer (deep green).

All three of these scents are very accessible and user friendly and I’d be surprised if most wouldn’t enjoy these as they’re very pleasant aromas that will remind one of nature, cool forests, even the winter season due to the evergreens. Both Fir and Conifer are very close in scents, fresh piney and invigorating with the Fir perhaps being the lighter of the two and the Conifer slightly richer. Both are very nice and scratch the evergreen itch. The Japanese Cypress incense here is a little more potent than you tend to find in most hinoki incenses and while I thought after a couple sticks that it was similar enough, I’ve actually come to think of this as my favorite Cypress stick, it just has a little more presence, enough to dominate the binder rather than share time with it.

And the little boxes do make wonderful gifts even if they’re not really the best storage devices. The little hook that holds the “book” together does not always tighten it enough where the incense is safe and I’ve had several sticks break just because I picked up the box and sticks had gotten caught in the gap. Even the styorofoam and paper inserts don’t help this issue. And unlike the rest of the exceptional series, these scents aren’t currently available in any other, longer stick format. I’d be pleased to see any of these in their own packages as they’re among the best incenses of this type, which isn’t something I’d necessarily say for the rest of the line.

Kyukyodo / Ikaruga and Shirohato

Kyukyodo is really one of the premier Japanese companies in existence, their profile seemingly overshadowed by Nippon Kodo and Shoyeido. In hoping to try more of their lines in the future, I can say, for the most part, that just about every incense I’ve tried I’d call a great success. In fact I’ve covered several of their incenses in previous entries, which you can access by the Incense Reviews index page above. At the very least I’d say Sho-Ran-Ko, Azusa and Shiun are all musts for the incense appreciator.

I’ve had far more difficulty with the two incenses in question (third and sixth item on page), not because they aren’t good, but because, to my nose these are two green sandalwood incenses that are so close in scent they’re nearly identical. The style is very common among Japanese incense, from the best selling Nippon Kodo Mainichi-Koh to Eisenko, Kinjo Ko and others; however, I’d say these are among the best this inexpensive type of incense has to offer.

First, it’s probably a good idea to delinate the differences, as they’re even more slight than they appear. Ikaruga rolls are approximately 55 6 1/2 inch sticks for about $5. Shirohato rolls are approximately 80 7 inch sticks for about $10. The math brings Ikaruga to about $0.o139 an inch and Shirohato to $0.017 an inch, so even if you’re paying double the Ikaruga roll for Shirohato, the quality level is quite a bit closer.

The base on both of these incenses is sandalwood, but this note is almost completely subsumed on both lines by the top oil note. The effect on Ikaruga is a very sweet and even slightly fruity/floral oil note with some frankincense for depth. It may be the least woody incense of the type and actually seems to be slightly richer than the Shirohato. I think when Shirohato is being referred to as more refined, it’s a bit of a smoother scent, not quite as rich but definitely cleaner and I don’t detect the fruitier note. I’d probably identify one over the other by the strength of the Ikaruga aroma over Shirohato, but it would a tough call. For a first purchase I’d recommend starting with Ikaruga as the differences would probably be more noticeable than they would be reversed.

Nippon Kodo / East Meets West / Scandinavian Nature

The East Meets West incense series by Nippon Kodo includes three different incenses created by a modern French perfumer and inspired by the art of Simo Neri. All three incenses come in both stick and coil form and both versions are created in two different colors, based on Simo Neri’s technique of combining two different images. The packaging is striking and all boxes come with a burner. I was actually very pleased with the coil burner that came with my set, as it’s more useful and sturdy than the ones that come with Shoyeido’s Horin coils.

Unfortunately, at least based on the Scandinavian Nature incense, the incense is not nearly as impressive as the presentation. The fragrance as described by Nippon Kodo is “soft vanilla with cool mint notes” and the key notes are vanilla, mint and musk. So it came as a great surprise to me to find that, during the burn, this incense didn’t remind me of any of those descriptions. Sure, there’s definitely a mint note on the fresh incense, it comes off the package pretty noticeably, but it seemed fairly absent from the incense scent while burning. I was even more surprised to remember that this was supposed to be more of a vanilla-musk scent, but I found both elements to be sublimated by a somewhat fruitier scent, although one I’m not sure I can specifically name. I thought the Yume-no-yume Whooping Crane captured this sort of combination a lot more successfully.

I admire Nippon Kodo’s ambition in creating such a work and, as in the case of the Yume-No-Yume line, their ambition can lead to great success. But I was so disappointed by this scent, particularly in that it seems to be of the “pressed” variety and thus more expensive. I suppose it’s possible that some of the scent had dissipated from the incense before I bought it, but given that this isn’t a very old line, I’m inclined to say that it was more a failed experiment than a brilliant new concept.

Essence of the Ages 12 Days of Christmas sale

I probably should have done this a few days ago, but didn’t have a lot of time through the holiday weekend. Essence of the Ages is currently in the middle of a 12-day sale, with each day being a different one. The fine print is on the home page (link on right), but generally, you can take advantage of all the sale days before you complete your order. The current sale today, which expires at 8 PM CST is a number of new samplers, including lots of things I’ve discussed around here, all good ways of getting introduced to fine Japanese incense without the super high costs of full rolls. This includes Daihatsu and Tennendo roll samplers, as well as multi-stick sampler packs from a lot of high end aloeswood incense. Eight more days to go, so it’s probably worth getting on the mailing list. Hope everyone’s back from Thanksgiving holidays in time for this one…

New Nippon Kodo Incenses

I saw these at the store and thought I’d make a note of it here, but Nippon Kodo has six new incenses in its Morning Star line (Fig, Gardenia, Iris, Lotus, Mimosa and Yuzu) and one new smokeless incense in its Ka-Fuh line (Daphne). I picked up the Fig and the Lotus, although I’ve rarely been all that attracted to the basic Morning Star incenses. But with boxes only $2-3, it’s not much of a risk.

Shrinivas Sugandhalaya – Beauty, Milan and Supreme

There’s really not many incenses harder to review than the plethora of (wet) masalas, durbars and champas that come from India and are all offshoots of a sort of the classic Satya Sai Baba blue box Nag Champa, probably the most famous incense, if not in the world, certainly in head shops and new age stores.

I’ve mentioned in the past, but Satya incense either doesn’t age very well or it’s subject to variation in creation. Months ago I mentioned the difference between two different boxes of Satya Ajaro incense and a similar experience happened to me with one of the incenses in question here, Satya Beauty, about 10 years ago or so. One form of Satya Beauty I’m very fond of, but I’ve found boxes with what seem like totally different incenses. And of course there’s the risk of old incense, dried out and losing potency as it sits in warehouses somewhere.

I’m not sure how long these three incenses have been available but I remember thinking of them as new ten years ago or so. In fact, SS’s latest batch of new incenses (including Midnight, Celestial, Patchouli Forest, Sunrise and Trishaa) may be the first new blends in quite some time. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to review these new blends, but except for the Patchouli Forest and Trishaa, which are quite distinctive, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between these champas.

With Beauty, Milan and Supreme, you’re dealing with incense obviously catering to the modern user, with the designer boxes. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that the three of them were based on perfumes, as the oils on all three are very rich, at least if the incense is fresh. And, naturally, all three are fairly similar so it may be of some use to concentrate on the differences. Both Supreme and Milan have sticks similar to the classic Nag Champa. Beauty is a much paler color on stick and in some ways is closer to Satya Natural or Satya Nektar, although more pungent than the former and less than the latter. Supreme reminds me of SS’s Satya Royal blend and of the three may be the highest in resin content (it also reminded me fleetingly of Ramakrishnanda’s Narasingha Dev, although not quite as good). It’s heavy on smoke and possibly a bit too rich. Milan is the least distinctive of the three and fades into the background of various other undistinguished durbars. Like Beauty it has a rather perfumy top note and like most SS incenses it’s difficult to detect any specific ingredient and, in fact the perfume note tends to be pretty level with the base durbar, the oils, woods and muskier ingredients found in Nag Champa.

I’ve got a soft spot for Beauty, which I pull out occasionally, but it’s unlikely I’ll miss Supreme or Milan when they’re gone. These incenses are perhaps just a little too overwhelming, too fragranced to have or give notice to any sort of subtlety. I haven’t linked to any of these three incenses as they tend to be all over the place in catalogs, but it’s unlikely you’ll have trouble finding them at the usual places.

Keigado / Purple Magnolia

From what I can tell with English information, Keigado mostly do three styles of incense: floral blends including smokeless scents, two different meditation long sticks and a standard called Full Moon. Undoubtedly their Japanese catalog is deeper.

In question seems to be one of the only non-smokeless floral incenses, Purple Magnolia. Given 370 3 inch sticks for $16.00-18.00, this is a very inexpensive blend, one that blends a floral and somewhat earthy scent with a backing of slight spice. Purple when it comes to incense invokes for me both violet and spice, and I’m reminded of unusual spice masalas that have an almost Crayola-like note. While Purple Magnolia doesn’t have the same note, the slight spice hints make this a little more alluring than it would be if this was just your average wood-and-flower.

I’m not sure how much this actually smells like purple magnolias or any magnolias for that matter, but it’s very user friendly with just a slight exotic tinge that gives it a bit of character. Ask your supplier for a sampler, as although they don’t seem to retail, it’s how I came across this.

Best Incense – November 2007

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above]

  1. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – Sho-Ran-Ko gets the number one spot this month, although I haven’t been burning it quite as frequently as I did in October. There still feels like a level of ingredient use I’ve never seen surpassed and nearly every time I light a stick I’m stunned by the quality of scent, as if it continues to improvise. As the name Laughing Orchid implies it seems to combine a very exotic scene that almost swelters in the heat. World class.
  2. Bo Rim (Dan) Sticks (bottom of page) – I’ve nearly rocketed through a half a roll of this in a month’s time and it won’t be long before I have to restock. I love this stick for how different its scent is to the rest of this list, meaning it’s always a good one for a break in style. Tangy and rich, it’s a definite favorite.
  3. Minorien / Aloeswood (third down) – Heard from a friend this morning who appears to be enjoying this stick as much as I am. When I think of quality aloeswood, I think of an intense, resinous presence that makes your average sap or resin pale in comparison. Even the stick itself, with the light black flecks evinces a very high quality wood. In fact, this ruined nearly every pure aloeswood stick I owned due to its quality. It’s comparable to Shunkodo’s Ranjatai, below, except you don’t have to spend quite as much money for stock.
  4. Mandala Trading / Tibetan Monastery Incense (third down) – My Tibetan of choice, this long red stick has really given my Dhoop Factory favorites serious competition. It’s just so spicy, rich and complex with a combo of herbs that ranges from almost offputting to divine giving the overall scent so much play room. A great value for money, I tend to break the long sticks into 2 and sometimes 3 pieces.
  5. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – Candy kyara incense, these little Horin sticks are really hard to keep your hands off. Let’s put it this way, I’ve never checked out a kyara-present incense that wasn’t terrific just by the nature of that ingredient. It’s the best of a fabulous line.
  6. Shunkodo / Zuika (8th item down) – A very recent favorite that has me burning sometimes two sticks in a row or several in a night. Just so alluring and mysterious a blend with the type of subtlely a much smokier stick is missing. Checking out more Shunkodo incenses is about the highest priority for me at the moment.
  7. Shunkodo / Ranjatai (second to last on page) –Another extraordinary, high class, reisinous aloeswood stick and perhaps a little more refined than the Minorien aloeswood above. Pure class and expensive but well worth it.
  8. Tennendo / Frankincense (third and fourth items on page) –The best Frankincense resin aroma I’ve ever encountered in a stick. Compares to the pure resin, with only a hint of the binder. Hits the frank spot every time.
  9. Jinko Yomei (fifth down) – A very floral and unique aloeswood incense that improves with use. A rich and slightly resinous aroma that smells at least as good on the stick. I’ve never encountered a similar incense to this, it’s truly distinctive.
  10. Shoyeido / Horin / Gen-roku – I could have almost had this tied with Shoyeido / Premium / Misho as both are very similar, green aloeswoods that I’m growing very familiar with. Both incenses strike me as being excellent blends of wood with spice, penetrating and cleansing. However, like most of Shoyeido’s lines they’re comparatively more expensive to incense in the same quality range, meaning that, such as with Misho and I, you burn less as your stock dwindles to zero.

Shunkodo / Zuika

Some incenses are like puzzle boxes to me. The first sample stick is lit and a mystery is presented. This is more true when an incense doesn’t have any sort of enhancement to its strength and the blend relies fully on the ingredients. Shunkodo’s Zuika koh is a good example of this sort of mystery stick. It took me maybe ten sticks to realize what a work of art this is.

Zuika (8th item down) is described as an “… elegant scent that comes from a careful blending of Vietname Aloeswood and Chinese medicinal herbs.” It’s an incense that will not stand up to aroma fatigue and is thus best burnt before anything else (and even better near ventilation). Most of the time it’s quite difficult to ascertain the complexity from the mix as it’s such a mellow blend. I rarely notice the slight floral nature that acts as an element of depth to the blend, but when I do it’s very impressive. Maybe a hint of spice and a very subdued aloeswood base makes up its presence. In some ways I find this very “air element,” perfect for mental activity, and it’s becoming a big favorite around here. Like most higher end Shunkodo blends, one must put down a chunk of change for a roll, but it’s well worth it, the more I burn the company’s incense the more I’m glad I have a lot of stock.

Shunkodo is clearly a Japanese incense company with many recommended lines, so it’s nice to see them become more available in the US.

Gyokushodo / Jinko Yomei

One characteristic of incense that I find fairly important when purchasing is that of distinctiveness. “Something readily distinguishable from all others” my dictionary states. In incense, what I mean is a type of incense that is virtually unique in that there aren’t any other manufacturers who create an incense that is similar.

Jinko Yomei (fifth item down) is a good example of an incense I’d consider very distinctive, both when the incense is fresh and when burning. I discovered the incense while looking for premium aloeswood sticks, and while Yomei is certainly a higher end aloeswood stick, it does not give off an aroma I’d consider woody at all, in fact most of the “play” of this incense is in the oil that seems to be the top note. This is a scent that seems far more apparent on the fresh stick than when burning, a scent that marks a middle between the sweet and spicy.

The color of the packaging blends black and midnight blue and it’s similar to the color of the stick, a black stick that at times strikes me as having hints of color. While the wood is certainly at base, it’s more an extra note for the spice, which comes on with slight hints of anise and fennel and a distinctive, exotic floral to it that’s somewhat reminiscent of lotus, passion flower or something even rarer.

Jinko Yomei didn’t impress me right off the bat, but it has improved with time, especially in comparison to other, less distinctive aloeswood/floral blends. In fact it has a similar sultry note to it that Kyukyodo’s Sho Ran Ko shares, although both incenses are very different. Yomei is likely to run one between $35 and $40 a roll, but it’s a rather packed roll, meaning one is likely to last you a long while.

[Edited on 5/7/08 to reflect company name]

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