Ranjatai (Shunkohdo) vs. Ranjatai (Kunmeido Onkun Koh long stick)

If you click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll see what is a slightly iconic picture of what may be the most famous chunk of wood on the planet. One can only imagine that being within 20 feet of the scent from this wood would create spontaneous orgasms, heal millions, tear down the Veil of Maya and make kyara smell like swamp gas. Ranjatai, I covet thee.

So it’s not a surprise that this name would find its way to incense and in the US market it’s something you now see on two incenses, one the (apparently) company-less Jinko Ranjatai (scroll down third from bottom) and the other Shunkodo’s top line Ranjatai. And since this contest is stacked from the beginning, it’s easy to say it’s the latter that’s the most impressive. Unless you’re talking about cost, in which case it’s the opposite.

The label I have on the back of the box shows Jinko Ranjatai hailing from the Incense Sampler and since that’s not where I purchased it I’d assume that’s the incense’s US gateway. I’ve seen some “generic” Japanese incenses that have the same exactly boxes as some scents that aren’t exported to the US, so my guess is this is marketed differently depending on the incense’s destination. Jinko Ranjatai is a long stick and unlike you’d expect the aloeswood is really just part of a blend of a number of ingredients, sandalwood and spices, all making up what is a really nice and pleasant, woody, spicy blend with very little in the way of a front note. No, it won’t resurrect the dead or end world hunger like that piece of wood might, but it’s an excellent, affordable (approx $15 a roll) incense that I ought to burn more often.

Shunkodo Ranjatai on the other end is their deluxe exported line and will cost you a pretty penny (it might be worth taking a look at Japan Incense who are selling the long stick version a little cheaper). This incense tends to the aristocratic, bitter, heavily woody side of aloeswood, which initially made me compare it with Minorien’s Aloeswood incense, but Ranjatai is much more complex and is about as deep as the company claims. I’m still, after months of burning this, catching wafts I hadn’t before, some deeply musky, the occasional spice and that sort of wide range really good aloeswood has. Shunkodo Ranjatai may not cure cancer or solve the drug problems in urban areas, but it’ll definitely make you a little happier if this style of incense appeals to you.

The score, like the price: Shunkodo Ranjatai 100 – Jinko Ranjatai 15

Tennendo / Kuukai, Tensei, Shorin and Renzan

Tennendo is one of the several Japanese incense companies that has made new headway into the American markets via the great work being done at Scents of Japan (link to right). For so long, incense over here was dominated by Nippon Kodo, Shoyeido, Baieido, Kyukyodo and a few miscellaneous incenses, but now we’re starting to see just how great some of the other companies’ work is. Tennendo, in particular, is a company that’s likely to appeal greatly to the aloeswood lover and in some ways I’d as soon recommend that you check out one of the samplers provided by Essence of the Ages. While it might be easy to go for the inexpensive, $10.25 sampler of several rolls, I can imagine purchasers will immediately wish they’d gone for the seven roll sampler, almost all of which are very fine incenses that I haven’t been able to stop returning to. The good news, of course, is that rolls of all these incenses are relatively affordable, starting in the $20 range for Kuukai and descending as the quality and cost of ingredients do.

I reviewed the Tennendo Frankincense earlier among the seven rolls, but I’m also leaving off, for now, the Karafune and Kohrokan Sandalwood. The former’s a very nice low end, traditional spice and sandalwood blend, while the Sandalwood is very similar to most “old mountain” sticks and possibly redundant if you already have this kind of stick in stock. I’m thinking more and more that it might be useful to compare these styles across companies at some point to address the subtle and sometimes barely existent differences.

The remaining four rolls are all aloeswood incenses, although the low end Renzan is a bit more of a blend. Kuukai is the highest end aloeswood in this “rolls” sequence (So far Enkuu-Horizon is the highest end Tennendo incense in the US market). I’ve been trying to come up with a descriptor that sets Kuukai apart from Tensei, as Kuukai has an almost sandy or rough feel to it that indicates a number of other possible woods being combined with the aloeswood. The result is a very spicy, rich incense that seems to incorporate the fine aloeswood as part of a blend. Tensei, on the other hand, doesn’t have this sort of spicy “grit” to it, going for a very high quality wood blend that makes me think there must be some expensive oils in the incense as the top note of Tensei is to die for, very smooth, a tad floral and sweet. For me, both incenses are on par in terms of effect, with Tensei, of course, being the more affordable blend.

There’s a huge stylistic difference as we drop down to Shorin. Immediately clear is the lower level of aloeswood used in the stick, in fact the wood reminds me a lot of lower end, brandless aloeswood sticks or even the cultivated wood sticks at Sacred Mountain where there’s something of a bitter note to the wood. Fortunately with Shorin the bitter note has been balanced enough where it’s not terribly irritating, and besides a bit of bitter is not necessarily a bad thing. This is all wrapped up in a green stick with some of the same tendencies you see in other green sticks, more of a sharp, pungent sort of aroma. I’ve found when I’m in the mood to go through the whole range that this one breaks up the pattern a bit.

Renzan is a sweet, cherry-blossom like aloeswood in the same lineage as Kyukyodo Shiun or Nippon Kodo Zuiun, where the sticks are generally just a little bit thicker and the wood is mostly a note of complexity rather than a dominant feature. Renzan is probably very close to on par with Shuin and much better that Zuiun with an incredible sweet/wood combo that’s never cloying. In fact this style in general is a great, inexpensive blend to check out and something of an iconic style in its own right. It’s also very user friendly.

Overall, I get the impression that there’s a concentration on the quality of the oil note that Tennendo might be better at than anyone else, it’s something you immediately sense on all of these but the Shorin. For the aloeswood lover who really likes to see those big wood contours, most of these will be highly recommended, not to mention the fact that they’re relatively inexpensive for the quality you’re dealing with. And with the above-mentioned samplers, there’s really no reason to give them all a try.

New Nippon Kodo Incense

Best Incense – January 2008

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

  1. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Enkuu-Horizon, if only temporarily, bumps the venerable Sho-Ran-Ko on this list, mostly because almost all month I could not stop thinking about this incense and would have even burned it more had I known I wouldn’t decimate my stock. This is a truly complex, heavy, rich incense with an incredible aloeswood presence. Possibly too much at first, each burn reveals further layers. Tennendo is one incredible incense company and should have a profile as strong as Shoyeido or Baieido.
  2. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – One of the finest incenses available – sultry, playful and astonishing. Those dipping a toe into the high end sticks should start here.
  3. Kunmeido / Heian Koh – I can roughly exchange Kunmeido Asuka and Shunkohdo Yoshino No Haru with this stick. Heian Koh has the thicker, square cut stick and a bit more aroma, while Yoshino No Haru is probably not quite as deluxe as the other two, but all three seem to represent a particular green aloeswood style with a very distinctive oil note that gets more addictive the more it’s burned. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the packaging on the top three incenses here are as nice as the incense itself.
  4. Shoyeido / Floral World / Star / Violet – The short sticks that typify Shoyeido lines like Horin, 12 Month and Floral World get more and more addictive as you burn them due to the concentrated aromas and rich, spicy base. The high end floral violet in the Star collection could possibly be the finest floral I’ve tried with such a concentration of fine oil that it’s like the real flowers intensified. A truly awe inspiring incense that should be better known. The companions in the set are nearly as good.
  5. Shoyeido / Incense Road or Gourmet / Frankincense – Another short stick with intense, spicy, power, this frankincense gets more addictive as my Incense Road set dwindles to zero. This ought to appeal to anyone who likes a high content of spice in their incense, the resin is somewhat sublimated to that end with this stick with its cinnamon and clove content. A good bet for Horin / Hori-kawa fans as well.
  6. Shoyeido / Sakaki / (unknown) – It’s obviously been Shoyeido month at chez prattle and this little boutique item is one of Shoyeido’s pressed incense line. This is a style that has a feel and aroma all of its own and seems to be marketed more as objet d’art than for the incense itself. Sakaki is a set of four coils that I’ll go into more when I get a chance to review the set, but the white or beige coils in this set are particularly incredible. Burning (or heating for that matter) pressed incense makes me think of crystals of aroma releasing intense scented clouds in tiny bursts. It’s shame that the scents in here only come in twos as this could be the last time it makes a list like this.
  7. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-Machi – As I hoped and expected, this second to tops Horin aloeswood incense has improved with use, the combination of wood and intense caramel scent becoming more of a marriage for me as I get used to it. Its slight novelty over the rest of the series makes it come out slightly ahead this month.
  8. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – A perrenial top tenner with its kyara notes and strong, sweet wood presence. It’s also turning out to be even more complex than I had thought. I want coils really bad at this point.
  9. Shoyeido / Premium / Kyo-jiman – I don’t burn Shoyeido premium incenses as much mostly due to their cost, but every so often an old favorite will surprise. This green aloeswood stick has a nice minty note I’d almost forgotten about and I’d rate this just about even with the next scent above it. It’s also more of a low ender so I may break down and get a big box of this so I can burn it more often.
  10. Mandala Trading / Tibetan Monastery Incense (third down) – Still the Tibetan incense to beat for me, it has a complexity and level of spice that always makes it a friendly burn. And I probably use up more of this than almost any other stick per volume.

Japanese Incense article in Sniffapalooza

You’ll have to scroll down a bit and the link may not last forever, but as of today there’s a very nice article on Japanese Incense at sniffapalooza.com.

Surya / Five Darbari

I don’t see Surya incense very often but Surya Trading is another company that specializes in both masala and darbari/durbar style incense. I rarely ever touch dry masalas and my interest in durbar or champa style incense has waned considerably since I started delving into japanese incense, so it’s worth keeping that in mind in terms of my opinions.

Second, my running theory is that it’s possible for American companies to link up with Indian companies to have incense made for them, to be packaged over here and in these cases you tend to find lots of crossovers and similar scents. I will say, however, that the base formula for the five Surya incenses is a little different than I normally expect, a little gummier and sweeter and it does set a couple of the aromas apart from those with similar names.

Undoubtely the best of the five durbaris in question is Surya’s Forest Champa. I’m reminded not only by name of various “forest” resin blends that have a certain sweetness to them. The gums are very nice and spicy and the resulting blend feels rich, although like most champa incenses I notice more and more some occasional smoky, off notes minimal though they are on this one.

Royal Champa may evoke Satya Royal by name and scent in that it’s a very busy, overwhelming sort of blend. Perhaps overperfumed to extent, there are some musky notes to this one that are perhaps way too much. Again, I think japanese incense tends to attune you to a far less volume of smoke, so I found this blend to be a bit cloying.

Like most Indian incense ranges, Surya has a Nag Champa and like most blends of this style, it’s close to indistinguishable from others. Maybe a little on the muted style, like the whole range, the base of the incense is a little sweeter compared to other companies. I find nag champa to be generally a bit dull these days so this one didn’t really register much.

Maharaja is another very common Indian blend that tends to be a more of a spicier and robust champa blend. I fell in love with the Mystic Temple version when I first tried it only to find that subsequent purchases never lived up to the initial experience and now the blend doesn’t strike me as special as it once did. Surya’s version has the green stick like every version I’ve seen, but this is case where the sweet base doesn’t compliment the spice so well, leaving it a bit of a mess.

Jasmine is probably the only other incense in this range other than Forest Champa that I’d recommend. Jasmine added to a champa blend is nearly always pretty distinctive and while this has that obvious note, there’s a bit of spice to this blend that gives it a little more kick. Of course, like the whole range it’s a bit too smoky and overwhelming, but I can imagine champa lovers going for it.

Overall I’d probably recommend the new champa sampler to try out the original Satya Nag Champa or the more high quality Ramakrishnanda or Mystic Temple blends before trying Surya product, but if you’re familiar with the style and looking for more, I’d suggest giving the Forest Champa a try. Besides, this is very inexpensive incense and at the link above, you can order two packages (including a sampler that includes all five of these blends) for $5 and get free shipping, making purchase a very low risk.

Incense during flu season

I’ve had an icky bug since about Saturday, which has put something of a damper on burning incense thanks to the coughing and sinus irritation. For me the flu puts a pretty ugly lens over everything and incense is no different. Everything that aromatic fatigue knocks out is gone with a cold, leaving often the most astringent qualities of the incense and not much of the subtlety, which means it’s impossible to evaluate anything fairly. So although I’ve got an article or two ready to write up when I am, it’ll be slow going in this area for another week or so.

So I figured it might be a good idea during the pause to say that if any readers have any particular incenses they’d like to hear about, to feel free to let me know here and I’ll see what I can do once the flu goes byebye.

Shoyeido / Floral World / Star

Ever tried to figure out the Shoyeido catalog when it comes to their Floral World line? There are a few things one ascertains immediately, that the series has various grades, ranging from the low end “Gold,” through “Echo” and “Royal” to the high end “Star.” Each 60 stick (or 36 cone) package comes with three aromas, while there’s also single aroma cone packages (Gold/Violet, Echo/Sandalwood, Royal/Rose, Star/Jasmine)that we can only assume represent one aroma from the combo packages. We can also assume due to the fact that certain aromas have different color sticks depending on how deluxe the box is that what is Violet in the Gold set differs in quality from the Violet in the Star set.

As someone more drawn to woody and spicy incenses, I was initially hesitant to try out the line, which is why I started with the deluxe Star rather than working my way up the line. And it’s a good thing I did because these are three of the finest floral incenses I’ve ever encountered, light years away from most Japanese floral incense, let alone the many bitter and offputting Indian rose and jasmine masalas. They’d likely make a convert out of anyone.

All the 60 stick/36 cone combos are packaged like the Incense Road sampler and resemble the Horin line in size and very slightly in base. I’m definitely an enthusiast of this style of incense which often strikes me as midway between traditional and the modern “pressed” varieties of incense. That is, the aromas are very rich and often seem concentrated.

The two “obviously” floral incenses in the box are both the finest I’ve ever experienced in either the jasmine or violet categories. The Star jasmine combines that Horin richness with very high quality jasmine oil for a rich and slightly spicy experience that leaves most jasmine sticks far behind. The violet is beyond belief, the oil creating the aroma is so finely detailed that one can imagine being buried in a mountain of violet flowers, almost like one is smelling a pure essential oil except with that same rich base. While the other two incenses in the box took me a couple to get used to them, the violet knocked me out right the start.

The final incense, the sandalwood, as you might guess isn’t really anything like most sandalwoods. It’s a slightly different shade of green from the sandalwood found in the Incense Road line, and far different in aroma being something like a floral bouquet with only the barest hint of wood.

I’m now willing to check out the Royal box next time, especially since it includes the most deluxe rose incense in the line. Having not met a rose incense I’ve liked, I’m now hoping to become a convert there too.

Shoyeido / LISN (early comments)

Where I enthused yesterday about Shoyeido’s fabulous 12 months series (aka Karuno Na Haori), I’m going to have to take a bit of an opposite tactic with another one of their lines, LISN (basically “listen”). It is true that this does happen to be one aimed more at modern consumers and it’s not always easy to realize that LISN is connected to Shoyeido (without the fine print).

My experience in the incense world in terms of looking at opinion is that most feel natural=good and synthetic=bad and as a general rule of thumb it’s not a bad one. However, the more recent collaborations between French perfume companies and Japanese incense companies as well as the inspiration such a merging has in creating new scents is not even usually a bad thing, after all what we don’t want is headaches from poor materials. With these sorts of Japanese incenses, despite the fact we don’t usually ever know for sure what’s natural and what’s not unless a company comes out and claims so, you don’t have to worry about poor materials and wherever LISN stands in this range, the scents are clean, although a bit too much on the perfumey side for my tastes, just about through the whole range (I’m not including the subrange of LISN Visible here).

My favorites of the 15 varieties were probably Morning Breeze (a nice musky one), Hit My Soul and Crystal Winter (perfectly captured). While the sticks seem to be roughly in the same sort of mold as Horin, 12 Months etc, they’re a little skinnier and actually have the name of the incense printed on the stick, something you rarely see. On the flip side, the perfumy floral nature of blends like Showering Spring, Saving Your Heart and Sound on a Wave all turned me off quite a bit, while at the same time thinking they’re the sort of scents that a totally different set of tastes might appreciate nonetheless.

I’ve got one stick of each left from the sampler, but unfortunately they probably won’t inspire me to go on and buy boxes of individual scents, so it’s unlikely I’ll be getting back to a full analysis on these any time soon. I finished with Mystic Nolstagia, the one I was most looking forward to because of its spicy evergreen and camphor description, but it ended up being disappointing due to the weird floral notes involved.

Shoyeido / 12 months (quick comments)

I’m surprised this incense series doesn’t show up in every incense supplier’s catalog, as I’m very impressed with what I’ve sampled so far – surely this makes a fine companion to the Horin line. I’m up through July and liked every single one, although May and July were my favorites. At the very least these are rather high end sandalwood blends with unique and complex notes, all attempting to capture the nuance of a calendar month. For example January is icy cool, where May is musky and starting to swelter. Can’t wait to get used to some of these.

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