Baieido / Kobunboku, Tokusen Kobunboku, Kaden Kobunboku, Bikou Kobunboku, Bikou Kobunboku Smokeless, Byakudan Kobunboku

If you consider both affordability and quality in your incense purchasing, there may be no better series in the US market than Baieido’s Kobunboku line. From top to bottom it’s a virtual triumph of incense crafting, particularly when you consider that none of these use any overt perfumes or oils in them. The Kobunboku line has perhaps one of the longest incense learning curves available, which to some extent makes reviewing them problematic. If you come back and ask me in a year what I think of them, I’d probably be even more positive as with every stick I notice more and more subtleties and unique qualities. These are not incenses for stuffy noses and short attention spans, they reveal themselves more in introspective mode and as such are perfect fits for meditation, and are categorized both as incenses that are traditional and used for meditation.

Kobunboku means “plum blossom” and each incense seems to be geared as an “expression” of the plum tree, an abstract concept more so than an indication of aroma. All of these incenses are woods first, despite the number of spices that work to contour them all to different scents. Both the regular Kobunboku and the Byakudan version are generally sandalwood incenses, while Tokusen, Kaden and the Bikous add different types of aloeswood to the mix. What’s amazing is that despite the expensive ingredients, nearly all of these incenses are affordable, even the larger boxes (such as with Bikou) that go for $20 have enough sticks in them to last you for years. The more common varieties of the Kobunboku line come in various boxes and even some long stick sizes, making matches for different purposes an effortless endeavor. In many ways this line is the base of a solid incense collection and it’s also recommended that one does not make a decision on their quality based on a single stick, but rather one works closely with a formula over time, so that one can learn the sophistication and brilliant art that goes into making these. Many of these scents can also be found in samplers, but I’d recommend even further going for a multi roll sampler so that one can experience the wonderful learning curve on these incenses and appreciate just how good they really are.

The regular Kobunboku may be one of the best deals for incense on the US market. Few incenses whose rolls go for $7 are as sophisticated, complex or eye opening as this combination of sandalwood, borneol, clove, cinnamon and medicinal herbs. Usually it’s high end aloeswoods that cause obsessive burning behavior on my part but my first roll of the regular Kobunboku was almost impossible to stay away from. As with all Baieido incenses the sandalwood used is of a high, uncommon quality level, less about the wood and more about the resins hiding in the woods. It’s always fresh, crystalline and snappy, absolutely the best aspects of Mysore heartwood. As with all Baieido incenses, the added spices are almost unobtrusive, contouring the incense so that the better qualities of the central wood come out. Where the Byakudan version moves closer to a pure sandalwood, the spices used in the the regular version give it an almost elegant and slightly fruity quality that is common to many incenses with a plum blossom theme, but there are none that capture it more perfectly than Kobunboku. This is one of the rare non aloeswood incenses that has an aloeswood level of complexity and sophistication. It’s dry, elegant and extremely pleasant, an essential purchase for either the Japanese incense newcomer or veteran.

The learning curves get more difficult for Tokusen Kobunboku, basically the “excellent” version of the line. Added to this formula is Kalimantan (Indonesian) aloeswood and in many ways this reformulation is an unfolding mystery, an incense whose subtle qualities are nearly impossible to pick up without some experience. Personally it took me maybe a good 15 sticks before I really started to “get” this incense and when I did it was a revelation. Because Tokusen Kobunboku is both a similar and completely different incense to the regular stick, it’s abstractly similar in approach while totally different in execution. Like the difference between the regular Kunmeido Reiryo Koh and the aloeswood version, the latter is quieter in many ways, insular to the point that the brilliance works on a very quiet level. As with all Baieido sticks, this has an obvious wood contour, but clove seems to come out a bit more, reminding me of Baiedo’s classic Kai Un Koh blend. The contour of the wood and quiet nature of the stick hides what’s an emerging complexity as if the various herbs and spices all reveal themselves in a Zen-like fashion, asking the question rather than revealing the answers. It’s beautifully done, a masterwork of incense, an aloeswood that still charts under $10 a roll. Few companies have an incense this sophisticated for the same price.

Kaden Kobunboku is the “Family Secret” version of Kobunboku and the aloeswood changes to Baieido’s Tsukigase, a soft and mellow Vietnamese type. Where the Tokusen was mellow and smooth, Kaden works a bit hotter and on a livelier level, with perhaps a more obvious complexity. The level of spice here approaches essential oil level, with the cinnamon and clove a lot more obvious and even competitive with the woods for attention. It’s an incense with an aroma far more expensive than the $12 a roll asking price and while this does have a decent quantity of sandalwood, it’s still the Kobunboku that is most obviously an aloeswood incense at heart. It’s a very traditional and even hoary scent and perhaps one to work your way up to as it constrasts nicely to the regular and Tokusen versions. And even with a much brasher approach there is no complexity or sophistication lost here.

Bikou Kobunboku moves in a different direction to Tokusen and Kaden and is unsurprisingly defined as a softer and milder version of the formula. I’m a little further behind on the learning curve with this one, while noticing the same pattern of having each stick improve my experience. It has a somewhat similar wood contour to the Tokusen version but without quite so much of an aloeswood impact, that particular wood only acting as a spice or flavoring rather than being particularly dominant. In many ways it has more in common with the sandalwood dominant Byakudan version and at times even the Sawayaka/Koh version with its stronger cinnamon base, yet there’s really nothing strong or powerful about Bikou, it’s perhaps the most meditative of the entire line.

The smokeless Bikou Kobunboku is certainly one of Baieido’s oddest incenses being that it’s format has more in common with its other smokeless incenses such as the Green Tea, Coffee and Honey formulas. I almost see these as appealing to different audiences entirely with the woodier Kobunbokus for traditional users and the charcoal smokeless sticks for the moderners. So this is perhaps the only stick that bridges both traditional and modern and in many ways I would think it could be difficult coming from either side. It does share its non smokeless version’s milder and woody qualities, but with the smokeless base so much of this impact is removed. The change gives it a bit more of a citrusy vibe to it as well as something of a powdery touch (a touch common to nearly every incense in this format) and I’m left with the impression that it’s something of a picture of the real thing. But perhaps it would thrive without comparisons to the rest of the line, on its own.

Finally, there’s the line’s most poignant sandalwood incense, the astonishing Byakudan Kobunboku. Baieido is already responsible for one of the most deluxe sandalwood incenses available, the expensive and stupendous Byakudan Kokoh. In many ways this could be considered the least expensive variant of that incense, still capturing that amazing crystalline Mysore aroma but perhaps at a lower vibration. I find this stick, fresh, and exhilirating, capturing all the best aspects of good heartwood without any off notes whatsoever. In fact for the price, there’s really no better sandalwood incense available, there are no oversaturated sandalwood oils or harsh wood contents in this stick whatsoever. The spices here do nothing more than accentuate these excellent qualities. At 30g for $11 this is yet another mandatory starter buy and may very well put other sandalwood incenses in a totally different perspective. In fact I’d recommend this one before the Kokoh version, the only (nondeleted) sandalwood incense superior to it.

There’s one more Kobunboku I previously covered, the Sawayaka Kobunboku which has also been repackage under the name of Koh. If the Byukadan accentuates the sandalwood in the formula, the Sawayaka does the same for the cinnamon and is also highly recommended (indeed it’s part of our yearly top 20 for 2008).

I can think of no affordable, under $20 line better than the Kobunboku series, it’s a line with aromatic qualities far more expensive in impact to one’s olfactory senses than pocketbook. If you’re new to Japanese incense there really are few better starter incenses than what could be found here, and other than the anomalous smokeless Bikou Kobunboku, every single one of these can be solidly recommended. But do take your time with them, these are not scents to jump to conclusion on, they’re perhaps a little smarter than your own nose at first and patience will repay itself manifold.

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16 Comments

  1. Josh said,

    September 13, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    This Baieido Kobunboku is fantastic, especially for the price!

    I’m not a connoisseur as of yet, and I’ve never had a great sense of smell – so typically with incenses I’ll smell a main note, and then sometimes a note under it – in the case of pure woods or similar to pure woods, the scent is very “complex,” but I can’t pick out the details – it’s just a “complex” smell..

    With this Kobunboku what I love is there is this sort of sweet friendly top note, but under it is this spicy and complex sandalwood aroma – there is a lot going on, and it’s all very pleasant

  2. kimbola said,

    November 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    i love the kobunboku line to, i just dont get bikou less smoke , i realy have to concentrate to get the scent, its there and then its gone again, its so weak,.
    I have to sit right next to the stick to get the scent .
    i will pass on that one next time i get sticks from the kobunboku line.
    my favorit is the regular Kobunboku.

    • glennjf said,

      November 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      Low smoke low scent incenses can be especially perfect for folks who have smoke or scent issues. In Japan houses can be very small indeed, often they are placed very close to each other especially in the cities. A low smoke incense might be a nice compromise for troubled neighbours in such situations.

      I also read that such incenses are often used in Zen Buddhism centers.

      I’ve tried Bikou Kobunboku (smokeless) in the large open plan well ventilated space in which I live but it’s generally too light in the scent department to make any firm impact, yet to burn it in my less ventilated, smaller space bedroom it’s perfect.

      • kimbola said,

        November 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm

        thanks for the advice glenn i will try it in smaller rooms and see how it works.

  3. Haroon said,

    June 4, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Wow. Your posts are making me excited because locally I can only get a hold of junk incense. I had a question for you guys. I know that alswood is super expensive but amazing. I also know that when the quality of alswood is bad it can be pretty rank. If alswood is one of the main ingredients in a baieido incense, and the incense is affordable should I worry?

  4. Uoruta said,

    December 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Kobunboku doesn’t mean “plum blossom”. It is a commercial brand made out of the juxtaposition of several characters (kanji) with the connotations nice/subtle-elegant-wood, the same way Timex and Kleenex are linked with the concepts of “time” and “cleanliness”. The Japanese often create brands with made up words you won’t find in any dictionary by putting side by side several unrelated kanjis.

    Another good example would be Nippon Kodo’s Daigen-koh : great-major/powerful-scent… with the connotation of “majestic incense”. Majestic is derived from the Latin word “magnus” : large; full, complete, utter; great; mighty; distinguished; large, great, big.

    As for Kobunboku’s “plum blossom” references, it is a clever, very elegant sales pitch. For most Japanese, the plum is associated with the start of spring, because plum blossoms are some of the first blossoms to open during the year. Also, closer to incense, the plum has played an important role in Japanese culture for many centuries. It was originally introduced from China. When Baieido says that their incense line is the expression of “plum blossoms”, it suggests their products are profoundly rooted in Japanese culture, with traces of early Chinese influences. Light and subtle like early Spring, while deeply rooted in century old traditions, going back as early as when incenses where introduced in Japan from China. Nothing to do with fruity notes.

    The “Chinese medicinal herbs” could simply be a hint of Chinese cassia (sold in North America as cinnamon) and a good dose of mugwort (see Moxibustion on Wikipedia). The fresh, crystalline, complex notes hard to pin down could be top quality borneol, not just an extract, but the full plant (Artemisia vulgaris known as mugworth). I don’t perceive any clove in the regular Kobunboku.

    • glennjf said,

      December 6, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      I wonder now when it might have been that Kobunboku first made its appearance?

      Kobunboku was the first Baieido I tried. I was smitten with it and I remain so.

      Before experiencing any Japanese incense, my first step of my fairly recently begun Japanese incense journey had been taken after having acupuncture. I had remarked to the acupuncturist how much I enjoyed the smell of the moxa she used in her practice, she replied if that was the so then I’d probably enjoy Japanese incense. I will be forever grateful to her for her suggestion.

      What Mike writes in the first paragraph of the review is spot on for how I’ve found the Baieido incenses I’ve sampled to be. Notably for me, it is infact a year plus one week since I lit that first stick of Kobunboku.

      Whenever thoughts of lighting a Baieido incense arise I think first of Kobunboku. It’s always a pleasant and welcoming thought. Whenever I light any of the Baieidos that I have I find myself marvelling at complexity of that particular incense.

      The Baieido incenses really are olfactory works of art.

      • Uoruta said,

        December 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm

        I totally agree with you and the review. This line of incense is a real work of art.

        Like most people, my first contact with incense was with low cost Indian brands. I still light a Satya Patchouli Forest in remembrance of those naive years. Nippon Kodo’s Daigen-Koh started me on the journey toward the fantastic universe of Japanese incenses and Kobunboku made me a definitive fanatic. There is no going back now. I am totally sold to the astonishing polymorphisms and balance of Baieido’s creations.

        Thanks to the guidance of this blog, I am discovering other brands.

  5. September 18, 2010 at 10:24 am

    [...] Baieido’s Kaden Kobunboku – the entire Kobunboku lineup is superb and affordable making it tough (and probably unnecessary) [...]

  6. May 31, 2010 at 10:57 am

    [...] ♦ Baieido’s Kobunboku is a wonderful plum flower incense that has been a favorite here for a long time, appearing frequently in Top 10 lists and the Hall of Fame.  I, however, didn’t get to it until recently.  I’m already a big fan and have been burning a lot of it recently.  It’s inexpensive, too, so really hard to beat as a daily incense. [...]

  7. May 13, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    [...] Looks like other people know about it already!  That’s why reviews are great to read before buying. [...]

  8. Bernd Sandner said,

    January 12, 2009 at 2:35 am

    Ross,

    thank’s for your effort and for the info!
    I know this company, and have ordered several times from it.
    They are very reliable and friendly.
    Yes, I think the Jinkou Kobunboku is worth trying!

  9. clairsight said,

    January 10, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Hello Bernd

    I found a site in Germany that has it, plus a lot of other incense and other things. Sounds like it is like Bikou Kobunboku, but without the Aloeswood. I am betting that it’s great in its own way :)

    http://www.klang-stille.de

  10. Bernd Sandner said,

    January 10, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Dear Mike,
    thanks again to you, to Ross, and to Nancy for all the fine articles.
    I did not spend much time at the computer recently, but I try to follow most of your writings. Although there is a delay, I am still there with you:-)

    I can only approve what you write about Kobunboku.
    Baieido deserves to be praised highly.
    This company manages to keep the very high quality standart throughout their complete line, even the “low budget” products.
    Kobunboku (together with Kaden Kobunboku, Shyukohkoku and Tokusen Shyukohkoku)was one of the first incenses to be with me, after my introduction into the world of japanese incense trough the Shoyeido Ohjya Koh.
    The Tokusen Kobunboku i did not try yet, but it is on my list now.

    There is another incense, called Jinkou Kobunboku. The package is similar to the
    Bikou Kobunboku, but blue colour. There is no indication on the box,that it is smokeless, but infact it almost is. You know, it will leave the white ash after burning. The description you gave, of the red box smokeless Bikou Kobunboku reminded me of this incense. It is not typical Baieido style. Only something very far in the background will bring some taste of the Kobunboku style. It is fresh, some moments even with hints of fruit. The stick is almost black, with a purple or blueish glint. Very nice, but not the right thing, when you want the typical wood and herb style of Baieido.

    Best to you! Bernd

    • Mike said,

      January 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

      Hi Bernd, good to hear from you. The Jinkou Kobunboku sounds exactly like the Bikou Kobunboku smokeless, it is indeed very different.

  11. Nancy said,

    January 7, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I completely agree with you. Baieido’s Kobunboku line is an olfactory trip and a fantastic deal. Bayakudan Kobunboku was my first introduction to this line and I burned it almost exclusively for a few months as I attempted to grok its complexity. Now I’ve moved on to Sawayaka Kobunboku as my most recent obsession. Truly amazing. I love Baieido!


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