Baieido / Ensei / Healing, Gallant, Pure

Baieido started their Ensei series many years ago with five different aromas and looking in the index I see Ross did a review of four of them in 2009 (I’m still kind of amazed any time I’m reminded how long ago some of our reviews are at this point). I tried them in a sampler back then, I think, and don’t remember them being particularly great, they felt more like a way to modernize some of the more traditional scents and in a catalog of wonderful aloeswood and sandalwood incenses, they didn’t strike me as measuring up. Ross said in his review, “These are not super powerful scents, but rather work on more subtle levels, one can use them near others without “blowing them away,”” which I think is a solid statement that also goes for this new trio. I don’t know if any of these particular sticks match up with the old (and still available) Ensei scents, but Healing is a “spicy aloeswood aroma,” Gallant is a “meditation aloeswood,” and Pure a “thick aloeswood aroma.” So some overlap maybe. But anyway, all of these are shorter sticks and come in smaller tubes of 20 sticks. They’re priced about where you would imagine at $15 and the aloeswood is probably what I might describe as low to mid end wood, with the sandalwood being a bit more premium, and Baieido usually do a pretty good job with both (although I might argue with aloeswood depletions the company is not quite what it once was).

And so they burn fast, real fast. Healing is really not terribly unlike one or two of the Kobunboku blends. It’s not heavily spicy and there is some level of aloeswood in the mix but it’s not a dense or resinous blend, it’s definitely pitched a bit lighter. There’s also a bit of like fennel like cooking spice in addition to whatever that cinnamon clove layer has in it. And I would guess there’s some nice sandalwood (it has fresh quasi-heartwood notes) in the middle as that’s part of what reminds me of the Kobunboku series. Overall it’s a bit cooling as well. So yes this one is very Baieido and if you know the company then you would expect to get to know the materials, although in this case 20 short sticks may not be quite enough. On the other hand after four sticks I’m not terribly sure how deep this one goes.

Initially, I found Gallant to be a bit richer of a blend, somewhat tangy, in fact the kind of smell I more usually associate with a spicy aloeswood rather than a sweet one. But there were some comparisons where it actually felt like it wasn’t all that different from Healing, so I figured the spatial configuration of your burning set ups may bring out different notes. I noticed what I thought were some intentional floral elements blended in and then searched for them on a different burn without finding them. Once again it feels like there is some decent quality sandalwood in the middle and once again it’s actually quite nice and beneficial for the overall aroma, but there is no really powerful aloeswood scent here. It feels more or less like the aloeswood exists to contour the overall scent. Like Healing, I was left fairly nonplussed by this one.

Finally, there’s the Pure. I’m assuming thick isn’t meant to reflect modern slang, and after two rather delicate blends I was hoping this one might be dialed up a bit more. And it is, maybe a little. It’s a bit cooking spice like the Healing, a bit more aloeswood-aroma heavy on the front end. But calling it thick seems to not take into account that like the others this is a very mellow aroma, with maybe a bit more tangy of a mix than the other two.

Ultimately these are not unpleasant incenses but they match my memory of feeling like the Enseis were really not all that much to get excited about in a crowded world full of aloeswood mixes, even in the Baieido catalog where most of their sticks are better than this. The format means it’s something where you might want a touch of scent and in a home full of heavy incense use, these are probably too fleeting to make much of a dent. Of course if you’re someone who leans to the Japanese style and even finds some of those too powerful, this might be more to your speed. But it feels like if I get the slightest bit of a distraction, I’ll turn around and the stick will be out.

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Nado Poizokhang / Zhingkham Kunchhab Chhoetrin (#2)

Zhingkham Kunchhab Choetrin #2 (ZKC) is a “purple” stick incense from Bhutan’s largest incense manufacturer. We have documented at least some of this company’s incenses through the years, a chore made a bit harder by some accusations of bootleg Nado incenses roughly a decade ago but all of this has largely settled down under incense-traditions.ca, and Stephen’s most recent review is a good starter guide to the line’s classic Bhutanese scents. Honestly Bhutanese incense, at least to my nose, doesn’t vary in scent all that much, even across companies, they are usually red, purple or tan color incenses that mostly vary depending on how much sandalwood is included. Any general scan of our reviews here are likely to be referential of previous reviews as my initial take is usually something like “that’s kind of like the last one.” ZKC would be little different, it has a very traditional blend, featuring hints of sandalwood, berries, gentle spices and a bit of sweetness, a whole conglomerate of aromas that largely form a traditional Bhutanese scent (it’s listed ingredients are clove, nutmeg, saffron, red and white sandalwood and other medicinal ingredients). These are a bit fuller than most Nepalese brands, not quite as wild or variant as the monastery incenses from Tibet and are generally pretty friendly. ZKC is perhaps a little bit more astringent, there’s a bit of chalkiness in the scent but overall it still largely has that tart red berry topped smell most of the incenses in the style that are not tan colored have. If you’ve never tried a Bhutanese this is good a place to start as any, in may ways it could be the mean scent in that there are probably better and worse incenses of the style. So it’s perhaps a little generic. I also believe I got a sample of the #1 which looks like the same wrapper but white instead of pink, but I am not sure if they are different.

Ramakrishna’s Handmade Incense / Special Nag Champa, Special Loban, Special Ramkrishna, Dhuni

In my past few years of exploring Indian-styled incense from multiple different establishments claiming things like ‘all-natural’ and ‘handmade’ and similar, I kept wondering if there was some sort of smallish operation doing things in a more old-fashioned way, using the more traditional ingredients rather than perfumes and synthetic substitutes that are common in 95% of the Indian Incense world.

The problem is that if you read everyone’s marketing copy, they all claim they are “all-natural” using traditional recipes. So in the end, the proof is in the product.

I first was suggested by a friend that I might want to check out this expensive shop on eBay that sold handmade incense. It took me a while to get around to it because it didn’t look all that fancy. Finally, I made my order. I have been excited to try everything they make since making this order. This is really wonderful incense.

If you find yourself interested in purchasing a larger assortment and don’t want to pay eBay prices, the seller, Goa Bay Trading, will also sell to you in rupees on their website and send you a Paypal invoice and add 1000 rupees for shipping/handling. I’ve been finding their service good, though the site seems a bit sketchy since it doesn’t have a proper checkout, they send you a Paypal invoice.

I’m going to start with a few I think are winners. First, they put ‘special’ in front of several sticks and this seems to mean that the sticks are thicker with extra halmaddi, so much so that you have to peel these thick sticks apart from each other.

Special Nag Champa

I am relatively new to appreciating Indian-style incense. I don’t truly know if this is what the old incense was like but this stick was kind of mashed because it is so soft, flattened in places. It is a thick hand-rolled masala dusted with brown finishing powder. As a Nag Champa, this goes in some kind of apple-pie and orange blossom direction with cinnamon, apple, and orange blossoms. I don’t get the typical salty sandalwood/Champa flowers scent of a nag champa but then when I dig down and put my nose in the smoke I start smelling like these thin angel hair threads of nag champa smells mixed in with the other smells. The more I lit these, the more I like them. They have a complicated bouquet dancing around a recognizable core of the “Nag Champa” scent. I’d rate this 9/10.

Special Loban

I have encountered Loban to smell like a wide range of things, despite it actually supposedly translating to benzoin. Note in the picture that this one crumbles and be careful because I had this fall apart as it got exposed to air. This is a natural stick with a very soft masala that crumbles a bit but can be mushed back together, it is finished with a brown powder that marbles into the moisture of the masala. This is unlike any of the Loban sticks Vedic Vaani or other suppliers sell, and is a really strong masala that seems to be made from halmaddi and loban and sandalwood and smells like all three are the highest quality. The smells blend together and create a magic carpet ride of scent that I imagine Mike will say reminds him of something he used to get from Mystic Temple. I really like this one, definitely a 9/10.

Special Ramkrishna

This is a deluxe version of “Ramkrishna” in all dimensions, it is thicker, softer, and easy to mush around, in fact, they kind of stick together and you have to ‘peel’ the sticks apart in the package. They’ve been misshapen by shipping somewhat. Otherwise, this is the regular Ramkrishna turned up to 11, it is sweeter, more expansive, the floral note is both more present and more mysterious, and feels like instead of an attar they went for the real essentials. This is a very charming stick and makes me immediately happy to be smelling it. It’s really just a very familiar smell yet somehow this is like going from a Prius to a Rolls Royce while keeping the whole smell mostly the same, there is none of the ‘cosmetic’ smell I got from the non-special Ramkrishna, just what I take to be geranium and a maybe a drop of rose. 8/10

Dhuni

Like most Ramakrishna’s, this appears like many others, natural stick, soft charcoal masala, and light brown powder finish. This has a sharp musk different than other musks, it has a sweet and vanilla note but otherwise, it’s got a funky BO-but-in-a-good-way kind of scent. Also, urine notes but also in a good way. I realize that adding ‘but in a good way’ to both BO and urine might be suspect but I have a hard time describing this musk other than it has notes from both but neither are the repugnant notes. I really tend to like when incense gets funky and takes me to a barnyard or similar olfactory experience. This is one of the more animal-like musks I’ve encountered and surprisingly more musky than the ‘Musk’ or ‘Kasturi’ sticks from these artists. 9/10

Gangri Thökar Nunnery / Snow Mountain Gathers Incense

So I was just talking about the similarity of certain nunnery incenses and how a few of them have an almost amber-ish/balsamic quality to them when one comes up that isn’t quite like that at all. In fact I had to read the fine print at incense-traditions.ca to realize Snow Mountain Gathers Incense was a nunnery-sourced incense, and it sure is a fine one. And hey how wonderful it is to get a rather large ingredients list to look at: black myrobalan, white sandalwood, red sandalwood, clove, nutmeg, saffron, alpiniae katsumadai seed, fructus amomi and herb of tabasheer. I had to look up what half that stuff is, but some of the less seen ingredients seem to impart a number of really interesting new notes for this nose, herbal qualities that mix the fresh and familiar with some neat differences. One of the things I love about these deep Tibetan picks is the aromatic variation and newness, the hope that the monks and nuns are bringing forth some ancient recipe in all of its wonderful, healing glory. And honestly this is one that will keep your sensory apparati busy, it’s rich, full bodied, has both friendly and funkier notes weaving a dance together, and it has that quintessential freshness that is the hallmark of all the best Tibetans. Make no mistake, if the more dangerous Tibetan sticks aren’t to your style, this one may be a bit challenging, but for me it’s just the right amount of balance of sour/dense to high altitude/invigorating and it has a bit of brown sugar spice and sweetness on top that gives you so many places to sense the interactions. Another Hart-curated wonder scent.

Seijudo / Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends, Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends

Seijudo are mostly known in the US for their very expensive aloeswood to kyara line that seems largely made from charcoal and expensive oils/perfumes rather than woods (much older reviews of these are in the Reviews Index link on the left and the few I’ve tried in last year or so were still about the same as I remembered them). The high ends of these incenses were probably comparable with Shoyeido’s now deleted kyara trio, so given that we are losing a lot of these high enders to aloeswood depletion it’s a bit surprising you can still purchase these. So if you were thinking about trying something deluxe now’s the time to do it (for example we just lost the top three Kourindo incenses to shortages). I can’t imagine most of these are going to last forever. However, these two larger box Kotonoha incenses (120 sticks) present both sandalwood and aloeswood incenses in a much more traditional form and accessible price (the remainder of the catalog available in the US seems to be low smoke incenses).

So where does the Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends fall on the Japanese sandalwood spectrum? I would say at least mid-end. It may not quite capture the sort of crystalline resinous top of the best old mountain woods but it’s rather superb through the rest of the burn and very much avoids the pitfalls of the low end stuff that is usually full of filler wood and often other oil elements. It’s a very friendly sandalwood that really avoids any off notes, and it has a bit of coolness and freshness. To roughly compare, if I was to go up to what might be my current favorite Japanese sandalwood, the Kikijudo Koubouku Ginmi Sandalwood Mysore India, you would be basically paying up to four times more per stick to get that extra note. So I think, assuming you’re willing to pay a bit for bulk, this may be one of the better sandalwood buys out there and I would think at this price there’s a bit of creative magic to make this one work as well as it does.

The Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends is a little harder to pitch because when we look at 2022 vs 2012 what we might tag as low, mid and high end aloeswood has changed drastically. This means the high end stuff is getting incredibly rare to where the mid end may be the high now in many cases. The prices haven’t changed much at all but it is worth keeping this in mind when you shop. So the Kotonoha Aloeswood at just $10 more for the same amount of sticks in the sandalwood box may not be the sort of deluxe aloeswood that you meditate on for deeper more profound notes, but it is a very nice and accessible aroma that sort of hints at the type of stick that has a bit of cherry on the top, except this is equally as herbal and is still resinous enough to be interesting. The comparison of this to the Koubouku Ginmi aloeswoods is not unwarranted either, and while those three are deeper sticks overall and priced accordingly, they still hint at the kind of stick you are getting in this box. Ultimately these are still aloeswood sticks and there is no attempt to make them something more than that.

I am not sure if the creators at Seijudo, like Kikijudo, are essentially trying new works with the sandalwood and aloeswood quality that remains accessible, but if they are I think they’re still doing some fine work as both of these are very pleasant wood incenses. I’ve had them out numerous times since I bought them last year and while they are not intended to be high end pleasures, they are still quite a fine quality for the price, so if you want something you can pull out more frequently and still get a decent incense, I would recommend both of these.

Qinghai Jiumei Tibetan Medicine Pharmaceutical Co. / Jiumei Tibetan Incense

So here’s one of those “double roll” packages of Tibetan incense, filed at incense-traditions.ca under their therapeutic and relaxation category. It’s described as “an excellent therapeutic incense containing a lovely blend of fragrant plants such as eaglewood, sandalwood and nutmeg.” First of all, like why don’t we just get rid of agarwood and aloeswood and start calling it eaglewood? Isn’t that a much cooler name? Diversions aside though, finding this wood in relaxing or healing incenses from Tibet seems to be a very common sort of thing. The nutmeg addition, though, seems quite a bit more in front than it usually does and in many ways sort of makes this incense. It doesn’t quite add that same sort of spice note you’d find when cinnamon and clove are more forward in the incense but you can still sense the nutmeg quite clearly as something that tops the mix of the two woods and gives it its own aromatic nudge. And just like most Tibetan incenses the use of a sort of musk on top of the scent is present here as well and somewhat titled to a slightly animalic presence. So yes, this is indeed quite the nice scent and like so many goodies from incense-traditions, you never get the impression that Jiumei Tibetan Incense is anything but a dense and quality scent. And it’s a little bit different in that the eaglewood base doesn’t lean this in an evergreen direction so much, so its addition to your collection will likely expand its diversity.

New Temple of Incense Scents

Temple of Incense has released a few new limited edition scents for the holidays here.

Holy Smoke / Bloom, Cardamom, Dammar, Free Spirit, Nag Champa

Holy Smoke is the name of a domestic incense creator that can be found on both Etsy and its own website. The company states, “All our ingredients are natural and directly from nature. We try to source the best ingredients to produce the finest products. Our incense sticks are hand-rolled using honey, gum resin, botanicals and pure essential oils. Each stick will burn for an hour or more.” This in particular got my attention because even some of the best Indian incenses (and Holy Smoke sticks are Indian-style for sure) out there can be completely charcoal based which has never really been one of my favorite bases for a scent. And one must admit Holy Smoke present their incenses in a very attractive way at their sales sites. So I was very interested in checking out some of their scents.

First of all I was a bit disappointed in that the incenses I received did not have the bright colors that the presentations on line hinted at. This is of course not a deal breaker for a scent, but it IS part of what had me scrambling for a purchase. The incenses do vary a bit in color but one must come to the impression that the lighting may be bringing out what you see a bit more than the reality and in fact if you look at my own pictures in this review, the flash is definitely helping some on that account. In my experience a lot of Indian sticks that use colors may not impart any scent variations through the colors themselves but there is often something psychological about using them and I once raided the Vedic Vaani catalog trying to find the brightly colored ones and this often led to some of their better incenses. So be sure to temper one’s expectations from the pictures.

So that lovely purple color on the Bloom picture at the Holy Smoke website I don’t really see at all in the actual incense, it turned out to be much redder. This is described as a mix of rose, musk and patchouli, but what you immediately notice is just the overall blast of scent coming from the stick, it’s literally drenched in perfume oils. In fact I did not mind at all letting these sit for a while hoping to temper the power of them a little and even in doing so they still strike me as strong and powerful, perhaps even too much. So it’s probably worth setting one’s expectations that a stick like this at an hour burn and this powerful is likely something you don’t want as close to your space. The other issue, which not all of the sticks have, is that the combination of the oils being used often reminds me of air freshener type scents rather than any of the specific ingredients. As we know getting a legitimate rose oil from an essential is virtually impossible at this price range, but the overall floral scent does seem to be largely drowning out whatever is being used as the musk and patchouli. You can certainly sense both in the mix at some level but the combination still adds up in a way that reminds me if your levels on your CD are too high.

The Cardamom is very different to the Bloom. It was actually nice to see this rarely represented spice in an incense and the overall levels turned down a bit. Cardamom is a fairly unique spice but tends to appear as drier in incense which matches a bit better with the honey and resin base. But it does appear that there is more in play than the just the spice (as well as the question of how much of the spice is the actual spice and how much is in the oil). I wondered a bit about some of the natural resin in the midst of it coming through as it seemed somewhat basic quality, perhaps a touch gravelly, but it wasn’t ultimately problematic with the top note. There is some level of a floral feel to this as well as if the base or additional ingredients contribute quite a bit to the overall aroma. It’s an interesting and fairly unique aroma overall, very different to the others I sampled from the catalog. But once again, the sheer strength of the overall stick feels like it gets a bit overwhelming during the burn, something that might be mitigated by burning half sticks.

Part of the issue with incenses whose essential oil mixes are this loud is they tend to resemble household products and that’s the main issue with Dammar, an incense with a resin whose lemon-like tendencies push the overall aroma into furniture polish territory. The thing is, where in the Cardamom I could detect some level of actual resin burning here, the lemon characteristics supposedly coming from this resin all seem to be on the oil level. The issue is that it feels a bit chemical on some level in the sense where fruitiness in an air freshener or cleaning product ends up being too cloying. This also runs into having a bit of a bitter edge to it. Unfortunately, it has probably been a while since I tried the actual resin to see how close it is but it seems like here there’s much more going on than just the resin. I don’t mean to doubt the creators claim that these are all natural but sometimes the mixes can still perhaps not work quite as well.

Free Spirit is a blend of Nag Champa, Lotus, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. One thing that originally struck me about this mix and the plain Nag Champa (below) is that it seems like the company may use a Satya-sourced Nag Champa oil or something very similar as it has an extremely familiar scent to it. The difference in base, then, is made more obvious by contrasting it with this oil which does make you notice the honey and resins a bit more. This is a bit of a drier mix but it still feels a bit crowded with florals and one starts to come to the conclusion that not unlike Madhavadas sourced incenses, the base of these tends to be aromatic enough to be part of every aroma in a way that makes them all somewhat similar. There’s a fruity sort of scent that seems common to all of these incenses that tends to mute all of the specific named notes. And so the mix ends up being quite a bit different from any one scent and in a largely generic sort of way.

Nag Champa on its own is a lot more familiar, and maybe here you can mostly sense what this base is all about as it’s easier to mentally isolate that one note. What it probably does the most is show what this sort of oil smells like outside of the usual halmaddi and sandalwood mix, that is, it’s quite a bit different without those notes and with what is the unique Holy Smoke honey and resin mix. But like the Cardamom, not having the extra oils is a bit more pleasant to my nose. But overall this doesn’t really smell all that much like a traditional Nag Champa so much as the use of that scent in this format.

Overall, with all of these incenses getting some idea of whether you like their base is going to be key where you fall with any of their aromas. But even if you like the base, the predominance of certain oil mixes is very likely to overwhelm if you are not careful. So I might recommend checking one of their samplers first, if available.

Kunjudo / Kan Ken Koh / Breath, Sleep

Early in 2021 about when I reopened ORS I covered an interesting new incense Japan Incense had gotten in stock called Kan Ken Koh/Healing. This was an interesting charcoal-based mix of oils packaged in these neat little glass test tubes. As it turns out this incense is part of a series from which Japan Incense has turned up two new ones, Sleep and Breath. With a bit more data one can only come to the conclusion that these are really essential oil mixes rather than what you usually see in traditional Japanese sticks, and almost feel like they could have been targeted at a more new age or even co-op sort of audience. As such, they’re quite different than what you’d normally expect.

Breath lists magnolia kobus, eucalyptus oil, artemesia princeps and borneol as ingredients, with the eucalyptus being the focus. You absolutely get that eucalyptus leaf oil scent from this burn, in fact it’s a bit tea-like in a way and I’d assume the artmesia (mugwort) probably helps get it there as well, moving the overall aroma in an herbaceous direction. The borneol content seems rather small in comparison, hanging just onto the edges and the magnolia seems to be used more to ground this in a friendlier direction rather than being a feature on its own. It’s a neat stick overall because of its herbal qualities and quite natural smelling, definitely recommended for those who enjoy eucalyptus. That tree’s sort of slightly bitter and unique scent has really been given justice by this stick.

Sleep lists cedarwood, chamomile, thyme and hops, something of a very unusual mix I would guess; however, the link between chamomile tea and a bit of drowsiness seems fairly common in US herbal tea culture as well. Overall Sleep isn’t terribly different than Breath but where Breath seemed to have some high resolution oils in the mix, Sleep seems a bit more dialed back, perhaps intentionally. Cedarwood would actually not be the kind of aroma I’d imagine would help me sleep and it’s fairly strong here, but the rest of the herbs seem like they’re pulling it all a bit more in the right direction and it feels like that thyme and hops mix gives the edge of the scent a bit of luster it might otherwise be missing. But of the two in the series this feels less individual and realized than the others in the sense that the other two aromas really pop out at you while this one feels a bit more blended.

Sangdanli Temple Nunnery Incense

We talk a lot about monastery incenses at ORS, but there aren’t quite as many nunnery incenses so to speak, but the ratio of really good nunnery incenses tends to be a lot higher simply because nearly all the ones I’ve had the pleasure of trying are usually quite rich and really good, even if I can probably count them all on one hand. Sangdanli Temple Nunnery Incense is one of incense-traditions most recent new finds (or well it was when I originally bought it, but it took me a lot longer to bring it up for review) and it’s a really nice blend, well worth picking up for lovers of deep Tibetan picks.

This is a very dank and intense blend that lands somewhere between the older Samye Monastery blend, before it got a bit lighter and more evergreen, and the smaller Gang-zi Mani Nunnery Incense sticks. This is something I think internally of as red and likely shares some aspects in common with other more brick reddish Tibetan sticks. The ingredients description includes “a blend of white and red sandalwood, clove and 10 other ingredients.” There is no small musk hit on these sticks, but they also have that sort of amber-ish, clay-like middle that I really find enjoyable in Tibetan incenses, there’s no feeling that this is based on filler wood. This base gives it a certain balsamic aroma to it that tends to subsume the woodiest of notes. So that it is supposed to have white and red sandalwood in it is something you might have to be told, as the blend seems to cover up most of the notes associated with those woods, except, perhaps, the element of the aroma specific to the red wood where it’s a bit sweeter in a different way. It has a lovely polish to it overall and the more you burn it, the more you will notice the varying notes of its constituency. A definite keeper (and it was out of stock when I finished writing this and am hoping a restock is coming soon!) and undoubtedly a classic of the nunnery style.

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