Yamada Matsu / Saiun, Shikun, Hyofu (Aloeswood blends)

Until recently Yamada Matsu was the most unrepresented major Japanese incense company in the US, in fact outside of Japan Incense you still can’t find their incense at all and would have to make a telephone call to the company to be able to purchase these three incenses and any other Yamada Matsu products current available. And to say they have so much more is a virtual understatement, Yamada Matsu is a company that has some of the most astonishing, complex and arresting aloeswoods on the planet, the three in question here are only the very tip of the iceberg as far as those are concerned. Perhaps only Kyukyodo is close in terms of having so many unrepresented incenses not available here and the reasons for both the presence and absence of these are all part of intricate negotiations invisible to most of us. Again, I highly recommend linking over to Japan Incense, grabbing their telephone number, calling them up and purchasing these blends, the support of incense buyers is invaluable towards the possibility of these and other incenses becoming more widely available.

The thing is, in many ways Yamada Matsu incenses, especially the high end traditionals, are the closest in style you’ll find to Baieido, all three of these incenses seem entirely created from natural products with little and likely no perfume, synthetic or natural, oils. They are so vastly complex, dense and have such a long learning curve that I believe my reviews will do little justice to the art involved in creating them. Every time I burn a new stick I learn just a little bit more about each one and enjoy them that much more, the sort of learning process one would find in the Kobunboku, Syukohkoku and high end aloeswood lines from Baieido. It’s for sure a little victory for Japan Incense to have managed to offer for sale what they have and this is a beautiful little trio all of which are priced in the mid-$50s and lower with a very large stick count for each one. To say the least if you’re a woods lover these are essential. I would also state that there isn’t a real grading to the three of these incenses as all three have different prices and stick counts, however I’ve ordered them so that each successive stick moves into woodier territory.

So, Saiun is the softest and mellowest of the three, an aloeswood blend that seems to have a complex combination of woods, spices and light floral aspects. One of the reasons I call these sticks blends is because along with the obvious aloeswood content, the first two appear to me to have extraordinarily fine sandalwood content in the mix, the type of Old Mountain wood that elevates any incense it’s a part of and in the Saiun that fresh, crystal clear scent is a definitely part of the palate. The aloeswood is not buried by any means, it kind of kicks a little in the back, as an almost secondary level that creates an amazing interplay within the incense, a smooth sheen on top and a wilder streak on the bottom. The spices and slight fruity or floral natural that seems to be mixed in (I actually get a bit of apricot on this one) ties both levels together quite nicely, but it all adds up to an incense so intricate it will take many more sticks than I have already tried to really get a handle on this, and with 110 sticks or more it gives you plenty of room to do so. And that’s really the best thing you can say about a good aloeswood.

Shikun is fairly similar to Saiun, a bit spicier and the aloeswood cuts through quite a bit more on the bottom, with that hoary antique-like scent that hints at quality wood and is a large part of the attraction to these incenses for my tastes. Like Saiun, this also seems to have two levels, with the same sort of Old Mountain sandalwood contour on top, polished to its most effective aroma. It’s overall a very compressed and woody scent, it’s major difference from the Saiun being that it doesn’t have any particularly floral hints to it, if anything there’s perhaps that slightly sweet cherry-like scent that incenses like Kyukyodo Shiun or Tennendo Renzan exhibit, but this is an even more impressive scent. The compression of woods reminds me of how I felt about incenses like Kaden or Tokusen Kobunboku before I had spent a lot of time with them, as if time will unfold the mysteries of the scent. The aloeswood content here is just fantastic, certainly the hook that will catch most appreciators and I personally can’t wait to learn more about it. Of the three rolls here, this has the lowest stick count at 85 or more, but that’s still about twice the average roll.

When I first tried Hyofu (100+ sticks) I found it probably the most inferior of the three incenses but over about 7 or 8 sticks, it’s hard not to see it as the superior of the three, once it really starts opening up. The initial aroma will remind many of the lower end of mid-range Vietnamese aloeswoods right away, but over time I started to find that to be an almost superficial evaluation, below this level there’s a much deeper aloeswood scent at work and this is unquestionably the woodiest of the three incenses. In fact while I detect Old Mountain sandalwood in the Saiun and Shikun bouquets, there’s very little if any in the Hyofu which makes this less of a blend and more of a true aloeswood stick. The effect reminded me of Shunkohdo’s Kyara Seikan where it seemed like the additional spices were only there to contour and perfect the aloeswood scent. I almost hated to review this incense now because it was just popping on my last stick, with hints of previously hidden spice, and touches of lacquer and caramel in the mix. Utterly delightful in every way.

Woods fans, particularly those of you who prize Baieido’s vast natural traditionals, the high end Shunkohdos, and sticks like Tennendo Enkuu are probably going to get the most out of these. For sure, if you’re not familiar with the Baieido catalog it may be the most cost-effective way to start “learning” about this type of incense (the Yamada Matsus are very close in price to the expensive side, it’s just that you’re generally paying for more incense up front). There’s a tendency among many Japanese incenses for the subtleties to just go right by Western noses (or at least my own) as if you’re aiming at a target and drifting off, only to retarget again. Personally I’m starting to recognize scents like this under terms like insular and compressed, almost like a flower that has not quite bloomed yet, full of potential and mystery. They’re among the most rewarding incenses out there because one celebrates as one uncovers another facet of the scent and adds that to one’s mnemonic repertoire. And what’s scary is these may not even be the best Yamada Matsu has to offer and it’s my hope this is just the foot in the door for further treasures. Unquestionably recommended, these are worth the phone call to Japan Incense with the added bonus of getting to talk to Kotaro and/or Jay on the other end.

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15 Comments

  1. Josh said,

    September 13, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Can anyone recommend other types similar in style to the Shikun?

    I absolutely love this – it smells to me like rich, luxurious wood..

    I like types like Tennendo’s “Kuukai,” “Tensei,” and Shoyeido “Nan-Kun” and “Ten-Pyo” also, but those smell to me very sweet and perfumey – I can really tell they use a heavy oil blend.. In fact, I can’t tell if that sweet top note is the smell of aloeswood or something else..

    I want more incenses that have a dark, rich, pungent, and even bitter woody smell.. I like the Baieido Byakudan (sandalwood) but I’m looking for incense like this one that is a darker heavier wood smell than the Byakudan, which is a more “spicy” or “smokey” type smell to my nose..

    • greggking said,

      September 22, 2014 at 2:35 am

      Yamadamatsu’s Shu-ju Sumotara should fit the bill if you are looking for a slightly bitter stick with an aroma of true wood from Aceh. In fact, it is impossible to tell the difference between heating a piece of the wood and burning a stick! I don’t believe that there is anything in the stick but the wood and binder, very nice to see that some companies haven’t exhausted their supplies yet, and there are now some plantations in the region producing, how good the wood is remains to be seen.

      • Josh said,

        September 23, 2014 at 8:24 am

        Thanks Greg! I have added that one to my wish list – this habit has become addictive!

        I received the Minorien “aloeswood” and the Shunhkodo “Rantajai” yesterday as I read they are both toward the moreso bitter end of the spectrum – the wiffs I got smell very good, unfortunately I came down with a sinus infection/allergy type thing yesterday morning and can barely smell anything :( That is a bad situation – getting a plentiful package from Japan Incense the same day as a sinus infection hits.. That’s a 1st-world problem though, I have it pretty good all-in-all :)

        In terms of the straight chips of aloeswood, do you know which types smell more deep and bitter? I can’t find descriptions online that make sense..

  2. Geoffrey_Penalty said,

    June 13, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve only just begun my foray into Yamada Matsu incense with these three, but wow, what a trio. This company is clearly a master of wood blends, as you not only get a distinct taste of the individual woods but ultimately a product that is well more than the sum of its parts. Thanks for the excellent reviews!

    I’ve begun thinking of the uppermost notes in these incenses – tart cherry in Shikun, tangerine (or apricot!) in Saiun, and a light floral in Hyofu – as overtones. In music, an overtone is a pitch created not by an instrument but by the sound waves of lower notes that are being played by instruments, by virtue of their precise tuning and exact interval interact in the performance space. Because in each case they’re so pristine and so intimately appropriate with the woods used, it almost seems to me like these wonderful high notes are created in the same way, as a result of the interval between the woods themselves (or wood and frankincense, in Hyofu’s case!). Such delightful layering!

  3. ted said,

    April 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Sorry, in the previous post I meant the melon quality of the Tennendo frankincense, not minorien

  4. ted said,

    April 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    The Hyofu seems to have this melon(?) like background that I find so attractive. Outside of the Minorien frankincense, where else can I find this quality? I’m going through my Hyofu sampler rather quickly and guess I’m going to have to buy a box of it. I’m looking for spring/summer scents this time around. Any help’s appreciated.

  5. Robin said,

    February 6, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    I got a sample of Hyofu Aloeswood with a purchase from Japan Incense, or Kohshi their brick and mortar store in San Francisco and fell in love at first whiff. I too thought I smelled a hint of kyara, as did Pinjie. With sample vial in hand I came here to read your review. Of course it is deeply satisfying to hear from the experts that indeed this is a fine incense. I recently bought a box of this and am writing just to say how much I love this incense. (I would have missed it completely if I had not been given a sample.) I look forward to trying some of their other incenses. Thanks again for providing such a great service to this community.

    • Pinjie said,

      February 6, 2010 at 9:20 pm

      Hi, Robin,

      I’m glad you love it as much as I do. It’s too good to be missed!

      • Mike said,

        February 9, 2010 at 10:38 am

        You get a chance to try either of the Phoenix or Phoenix Selects yet? Those pack a mighty wallop, they’re almost like smelling some sort of expensive lacquer.

        • Pinjie said,

          February 9, 2010 at 10:58 am

          Yes, I’ve tried both of them. They are really amazing! Are you doing a review on them sometime soon?

          Pinjie

          • Mike said,

            February 9, 2010 at 12:41 pm

            I’m sure they’ll be reviewed at some point yeah, in fact for some reason I thought Ross had already done them. But I’m crazy behind at this point anyway, I’m just hoping to get something, anything up by next week!

  6. November 29, 2009 at 1:10 am

    [...] Saiun from Yamada Matsu: When I use this I am reminded of the scent of leather and pipe tobacco in a very classy library at [...]

  7. Ross Urrere said,

    October 20, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Every thing i have gotten to try from this company is a real work of art and I can only hope that more makes it into the US. They seem to go all out in using the best woods and other ingredients possible and combine them in really interesting styles that are well thought out. Great stuff and not to be missed, especially if you like aloewoods.

  8. Mike said,

    October 20, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks Pinjie. The Seijudo Shiragaku was like that too, you could almost swear there was kyara in it. Perhaps some of these craftsman are getting better at approximating it.

  9. Pinjie said,

    October 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for the review, Mike! It’s always a pleasure to read them.

    You know when I first smelled Hyofu I thought I smelled kyara, and was surprised to see no kyara on the list of ingredients. Although I love all three of them, Hyofu is definitely my favorite!


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