Kunmeido – Asuka vs Heian Koh

Kunmeido have to be lauded for having such a distinctive incense catalog. Their inexpensive and aromatic Reiryo Koh is well known for its unique aroma (you really have to try it, I’m nowhere near being able to describe it) and there’s a note in this incense that follows many of the incenses up the line, from the aloeswood version of Reiryo Koh, on through brilliant and inexpensive blends Onkun Koh and Shoryu Koh, climbing up to what appear to be the two top lines currently available in the US, Heian Koh and Asuka.

Both of these incenses are too close in scent for me to usually be able to tell them apart. Given that Heian Koh is a thicker, square cut stick, it’s not hard to come to the opinion that it’s just a different form of Asuka. Heian Koh might be the cheaper of the two (you certainly can afford small boxes a lot more easily anyway), but it’s also the one I like the most. As a reference, I’ll mention the Shunkodo Yoshino No Haru blend, a green aloeswood stick with a very pungent, green and rich oil note that gets more delightful with every stick. Asuka and Heian Koh are like deluxe versions of this incense and everything I have just described is in play, except that the two Kunmeidos and especially Asuka seem to have a very subtle and sublime, almost spearmint like note that adds complexity to the scent. At times, there is no incense that better hits the spot than either of these two and my little kiri box of Heian Koh is becoming dangerously depleted.

Asuka seems to be the most premium of the two, with the oil note appearing, at times, to be a little more complex, something that will be lost immediately if you’re experiencing aromatic fatigue. Both incenses come in small, large and long stick box, but where you can pick up a small box of Heian Koh for under $30, you’d need to play at least twice that for the most inexpensive box of Asuka. At the same time you could likely approach the style by trying the abovementioned Yoshino No Haru (third to last) as a (very slightly) less premium version. I get the impression this sort of blend is a Japanese classic and the only aloeswood incense that has this intensity in the oil note is probably Jinko Yomei, a completely different scent. There will be at least one of these Kunmeidos on my monthly top ten lists for quite some time.

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27 Comments

  1. greg said,

    October 6, 2010 at 11:26 am

    fyi – benzoin gum comes in different grades. the most expensive is the so–called ‘benzoin or siam almonds’ which are white/orange pieces that when burned without any additives smells a bit like molten plastic. The unrefined lower grades of benzoin with the wood pieces still embedded in the burlap wrapped block, actually has a sweet, vanilla-like character. the gum has a pretty low melting point which makes it an ideal fixative for perfumes and other ingredients. to my nose, i prefer asuka as it tends to be a bit more subtle than heian, though the latter smells a lot like what we used to burn in the temple many years ago (for pennies, i might add). there are also more floral undertones in asuka, making it lighter. since i favor the byzantine style incenses from mt. athos, my nose delights in the floral over wood notes.

  2. September 18, 2010 at 10:24 am

    […] Heian Koh – is one of a couple of green aloeswood offerings from Kunmeido.   It was one of my […]

  3. Mike said,

    October 6, 2008 at 8:15 am

    Looks like a nice order Claire!

  4. Claire said,

    October 5, 2008 at 3:41 am

    Hi Ross,

    I have bought from White Witch in the past (rose petal powder, frankincense powder, red sandalwood powder, tonka bean powder, primrose petal powder, tuberose concrete, charred styrax, dragon’s blood resin, elemi) – Ruth that runs the store is very friendly.

    If you want to drop me an email off-line I can reply to let you know all the places I have purchased from in the UK along with my impressions. I can also send links to other stores I’ve found in the UK that sell potential incense ingredients. (It’s just that I’m aware we are veering a bit away from the purpose of this particular blog with this discussion and I know we aren’t really supposed to discuss vendors on the Incense Exchange either).

  5. clairsight said,

    October 4, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I forgot about the UK part. There is a store ( White Witch, I think) that Nathanal(Exchange) sells through in the UK. They seem to have great stuff at really good prices and Nathaneil is pretty picky about who he uses so I figure they are a good source. When I get back to my “home” machine I’ll send you some other links.

    ross

  6. Claire said,

    October 4, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Ross,

    yes, Psychobeano is my username at the Incense Exchange – the secret is out!

    Thanks for the tip about Scents of the Earth. As it happens, I already have a link to their website saved in my favourites folder as they look to have some good incense ingredients. I’ve never ordered from them though as shipping to the UK is quite expensive ($35 if you only order 1oz of something). Obviously the answer is to order a fair bit of stuff so that the shipping cost works out better value but unfortunately to order a lot of stuff means that the cost of the goods will be high.

    I buy quite a few of my incense herbs / petals etc from an EBay shop called Herbal High Magick – the produce has always been of a high standard, the seller never sends me the dregs from the bottom of her supplies. I was fortunate enough to get some damask rose petals from her earlier this year and they are absolutely top notch!

    Of course, there’s always a risk buying your ingredients on the internet, especially via EBay, as you can’t smell them or see them first to assess their quality. I took a risk a few weeks back and bought some Frankincense from an EBay seller – it’s supposed to be superior grade from the Dafur region in Oman but I won’t really know if it’s the real deal until I try it out. (Though to be honest, I don’t know that my nose is well trained enough YET to know the difference anyway!)

    My other supplier is nature! I often can be found with my head stuck in the hedgerow trying to see if there is anything growing that I could harvest and try as a new ingredient. I even got stopped by the police this summer as they thought I was an escapee from the local mental hospital as they had driven up and down the road a few times and seen this odd woman (me) seemingly staring vacantly into the bushes! It made me laugh all the way home.

  7. clairsight said,

    October 4, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Nice looking order Claire, should be great fun! (Are you psychobeano at the Exchange ??)
    Scents of Earth has very high quality single ingredients for any of you who want to try them ( heaters work best) not cheap, but good!
    Also there is a guy on EBAY who is selling really high greade frankincense from Oman( he sells from there) for a great price, plus shipping but well worth it.
    Sorry but I do not have access to my own computer with all the bookmarks for these places.

    -ross

  8. Claire said,

    October 4, 2008 at 2:49 am

    After much deliberation, I finally settled on ordering the following from Essence of the Ages – I will of course leave reviews on this blog after I’ve tried them out… fun, fun, fun!:

    The Dhoop Factory – Gift Set
    LungTa – Riwo Sang Chhoe
    Baieido – Kobunboku
    Kunmeido – Reiryo Koh

    I’ve also ordered the Tibetan Monastery Incense & Himalayan Herbal (Mandal Trading company) from a UK supplier to minimise postage costs as those 2 really grew on me – each time I’ve burnt them I have picked up different aromatic notes.

    So thank you to both Mike and Steve for introducing me to some great incenses and for all your time spent with recommendations.

  9. Mike said,

    October 3, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Thanks Claire. I do think that benzoin is used to give an incense resinous qualities without them being too distinct like frankincense, myrrh and others might be. I’ve found the Siam Benzoin to be a little too intense in high quantities with almost choking smoke, while the Sumatran is really mellow. I do wonder which one the Japanese use in their incenses though, I would think the Sumatran.

  10. Claire said,

    October 3, 2008 at 1:37 am

    Hi, could I just chip in here with my impressions?

    I once tried an incense from the Incense Exchanges swap that was made almost entirely from spikenard. It had a very strong aroma and I found it very similar to patchouli but without the roughness you sometimes get with patchouli. So basically it was very, very earthy and quite a bit musky too.

    I’ve used benzoin in my own blends but I don’t think it was particularly a high quality one as I couldn’t really tell it was in there. Incenses I’ve tried from the Incense Exchange swaps that have used it have had a vanilla-type note to them (though not as strong as when tolu balsam has been used). I have a spreadsheet on the go where I file all the information I can find about each potential incense ingredient and one of the columns included is what various sources on the internet have said the ingredient smells like. Here’s what I have recorded for benzoin (most of this particular information should be credited to http://www.alchemy-works.com)….

    Sweet, soft, sensuous, and warm. Biting top note with undertones of warm, sweet, balsamic, vanilla-like aroma with a touch of cinnamon. Thai or Siam benzoin has a highly Venus nature with a wonderful vanilla scent when raw and a very sweet, almost rose-like scent when burned. Sumatra benzoin is dark grey and has much more of a storax scent and therefore more of a Moon nature. Even raw you can smell the storax components.

  11. Steve said,

    October 2, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks Mike – I have Muro-Machi and definitely understand the caramel-like note comparison. I’m still trying to convince myself I need a heater – maybe this is a good excuse to cave in…

  12. Mike said,

    October 2, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Wabi Sabi it is.

    Spikenard tends to be a cross of sweet, herb and musk to me, and tends to be similar to that caramel-like note you find in Shoyeido Muro-Machi or Nan-Kun, although that’s a very refined spikenard. In Tibetan incenses it doesn’t seem to be quite as sweet. A good example of it in this format is the Ribo Sangtseo incense that Mandala Trading do. The Spikenard resin from Holy Transfiguration Monastery was sort of my first go with it and although it’s pretty high in frankincense and possibly benzoin it definitely would help clue someone in on the scent.

    Benzoin’s hard to describe, it’s kind of like a rough resin that often reminds me of wood. And this is the Sumatran Benzoin rather than orange stuff from Siam that’s similar to amber resin. The Ausadha blend from Dhoop Factory is pretty high in benzoin content but generally it’s such a mellow scent that you rarely tend to see it out front in an incense. Some of the rougher copal is reminiscent of benzoin too.

    Another way of getting to know the various scents is buying the ingredients alone and burning them on charcoal or a heater, that’s how I got to know most of them.

  13. Steve said,

    October 2, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Mike – Wabi-Sabi, right? Penciled in on my next order list, along with Jihi. Let us know what you think of the Wabi-Sabi. It definitely gets a point for cool name 😀

    So can you explain what Spikenard smells like? That and Benzoin are descriptors I see often, but don’t have a frame of reference for. Maybe there’s a Hall of Fame incense I likely have that epitomizes each of these scents? You know how menus at Mexican restaurants usually have a section on the bottom that explains the different terms – tamale, enchilada, burrito, relleno – I wish there was such a thing for incense ingredients! I think it was Mark who mentioned a kit with 50 or so “fundamental smells” used by wine fans to train their nose – I guess I need something like that.

    Steve

  14. Mike said,

    October 2, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Steve, I just ordered a new Awaji-Baikundo incense Beth has that’s supposedly a combination of Reiryo Koh and Spikenard. Sounded like my kind of thing. 🙂 Their Jihi is an incredible amber/hydrangea tea blend.

  15. Claire said,

    October 2, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Hi Mike, I appreciate your suggestions to help me try and narrow my choice down to a more affordable amount, so thank you for that! You mentioned the Dhoop Factory sampler box before but I couldn’t see a mixed sampler box on the page so assumed it had been discontinued. I realise now that it is the last one on the page – I just didn’t read it correctly and had got transfixed on the line saying it all contained Gymnadenia orchidis, so had read that as meaning it was all one variety. That will teach me to read more carefully – like when I’m a bit more wide awake! Thanks again.

  16. Steve said,

    October 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    REIRYO-KOH = GOOD 😀

  17. Mike said,

    October 2, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    The Baieido Kobunboku I’d say is a must on your list, it’s just as good as it gets for under $10. That and the Reiryo Koh are stupendous deals for the price. I haven’t tried the particular Stupa, but was quite happy with the few I tried (all the ones above it on that page) so I can imagine it’ll probably be very good for the price.

    FWIW, I love the Ganden as I really love that type of sweetgrass, but a good friend of mine thinks it smells like tire, which is something he points out for a lot of Tibetans that use evergreen woods. I’m not sure I agree but can see what he’s saying. Honestly with the Dhoop Factory that Blue Box sampler is your best bet, it’s still relatively affordable and you get decent amounts of each of several incenses.

  18. Claire said,

    October 2, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks Mike,

    If I go for one of these I’ll take your advice and start with the plain one. I’m so indecisive! I’ve spent the best part of the day um-ing and ah-ing over which incenses to order as my recent sampling of those Tibetan incenses has really whet my appetite to test out more but that old war-horse “the purse-strings” is constraining me! Of those you recommended I think I’d like to try:

    The Dhoop Factory – Ganden
    Stupa – Sandalwood Dhoop
    TDHF – Lotus and Amber

    But I also like the sound of:

    LungTa – Riwo Sang Chhoe
    Baieido – Kobunboku
    Kunmeido – Reiryo Koh
    Korean – Shin Geumnan

    which already exceeds my budget and every time I look I seem to find more – I’m so spoilt for choice! You’ll notice a few Japanese and a Korean have already sneeked their way onto my list.

  19. Mike said,

    October 2, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Claire, the one in my Hall of Fame is actually the plain version which is really a classic. However, now that there seems to be a smaller box of the Aloeswood version available under $10 I’ll probably be adding that to the HoF as it’s a great incense, one of those scents that always flies under your radar and then impresses you when you least expect it. I would recommend starting with the non-Aloeswood version, which is extremely distinctive. The aloeswood version isn’t terribly far off from Kunmeido’s Horyu-Koh.

  20. Claire said,

    October 2, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Hi Mike,

    you mention REIRYO KOH in your Incense Hall of Fame. Is this the plain version or the Aloeswood version? Is the plain one a lot better than the aloeswood one as I noticed that the latter is newly in stock at Essence of the Ages as of today and for what looks like a comparable (reasonable) price?

    Thanks, Claire

  21. Mike said,

    April 4, 2008 at 7:40 am

    It’s a good question. This blog, or at least the incense dominant direction it took is something of an answer to the lack of reviews on the net. When I started looking around for information there was very little outside of what the vendors have and even with that information there is some translation issues that make the info somewhat obscure.

    I’ve had some probing in terms of your last statement and would certainly consider other offers. I’m also happy to evaluate quality incense that is sent to me (and there will be more of this in the future). At the same time, having worked on group projects in the music field, there’s something quite free about being independent and in some ways it’s more a service to the reader to remain so.

  22. Steve said,

    April 3, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Oh – and a question: Why is your blog the only forum I’ve found online that celebrates Japanese incense? I’m sure this isn’t the most common hobby around, but surely there’s more life out there! I wonder if Essence of the Ages or Japan Incense could successfully encourage and sponser a forum. Imagine their sites if each product listing also included user ratings and reviews (think Amazon.com) – I for one would love to see your comments, and others, on the spot to help guide me. Hmmmmm – you could be their resident critic and reviewer, paid in incense and supplies, with monthly “Mike’s Picks” and… sorry, got carried away 🙂

    Steve

  23. Steve said,

    April 3, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Appreciate your thoughts and comments, Mike – insightful as always. Another difference I’m seeing between the Indian and Japanese incense is that the expense of the latter makes me more deliberate, attentive and selective when I burn. With Indian incense at pennies a stick, I was in the habit of burning it any time, even when I wasn’t really paying attention or even in the room. This lends a slightly more formal, reflective aspect to burning Japanese incense to me which I really appreciate. I admire the attentiveness of the tea ceremony, the nuances of serving a guest sake in your home and the fine details of enjoying sushi. The appreciation of Japanese incense (kodo, right?) falls right in line with those other rituals. It’s more of an event and each lighting is special.

    I agree with your music comparison. To carry it further, I think finding that amazing scent out of thousands is a similar sense of personal discovery as finding an obscure band to enjoy. It becomes a personal experience of ownership and identity that goes a bit beyond the surface appreciation.

    Steve

  24. Mike said,

    April 3, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    I’m completely in agreement with your post! As I mentioned recently, I didn’t start exploring Japanese incense until last year (with a couple exceptions) but I’ve been burning Indian incense since I was in high school (about 20 or so years now). Over the years I’d developed tastes for the durbar/champa style particularly from The Incense Sampler, Shrinivas Sugandhalaya, Mystic Temple and others. Most of these were my favorite incenses and while I still like them (SS’s Patchouli Forest is still one I like to burn for example), Japanese incense tends to work at a much more subtle level of smoke and after a while I’ve found that champas tend to be too brash and in your face. But I’m glad I spent my time exploring them before starting on the aloeswood journey, because once you get the taste for it there’s really no substitute. Aloeswood takes those deja vu qualities of incense and cranks them up to 11. Your point about Kyara Kokoh, though, is well taken. Of course, I’m the same way with incense as I am with music, I tend to think the things you have to work hardest with often pay back the most.

    And the question about Indian premium incense is excellent. I think the main issue is just the aloeswood though, it’s such a costly ingredient compared to even rarer woods like sandalwood that my guess is India would probably have difficulty importing the higher quality wood in the quantities needed from East Asia. But honestly, I can only imagine what one might be able to do with aloeswood and durbar styles, however I wonder if the louder more perfumy elements in these sorts of blends would drown out the subtlety of aloeswood, most of the best qualities of which speak very quietly and certainly merit the cost.

    In fact one thing I’ve noticed in moving from Indian to Japanese incense is that even many casual people who wouldn’t normally bother with incense are impressed with Japanese scents, while Indian incense tends to turn off the casual person 9 times out of 10 in my experience, even the best of it.

  25. Steve said,

    April 3, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    It’s good most of us stumble into new interests at the ground level – grabbing a ubiquitous nag champa at a record store versus Shoyeido Translucent Path. Somehow I wonder, if the first car you own is a Maserati, would you even fully appreciate the engineering having no prior (crappy) experience to compare to? Having tried dozens and dozens of Indian sticks – some quite enjoyable masalas, some mere chemical-dipped charcoal punks – I think my “nasal palate” is a little more prepared to experience and differentiate quality and complexity nuance. If Kyara Kokoh were my 1st Japanese incense, I wonder if it would fully register…

    Why is there no (in my experience) “premium” Indian incense? I absolutely have some favorites I enjoy on a daily basis, but looking at cost and probably overall complexity, they seem on a completely different (lower) level than the Japanese incense. Kinda like going from the mass appeal of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels to small-batch, custom blended bourbons and the corresponding jump in artisanship (and price). I don’t mean to offend anyone with an “Indian vs Japanese” thing – again, I have at least 80 varieties of Indian incense in front of me that I enjoy throughout each and every day. But it just amazes me that I can buy any Indian incense on the American market for under $10. We all know this is almost opposite the case with the Japanese offerings – yet I think the experience merits the cost. Thoughts?

    If you have any interest in sake, those 2 I mentioned are very, very nice. But it definitely helps to have the “bad stuff” first to get a base for comparison!

    Steve

  26. Mike said,

    April 3, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Steve, thanks again for the compliments, they’re really inspiring. 🙂 But ya know, I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to describe that oil note that is such a feature of these green stick aloeswood blends. I do notice that some of these blends come with descriptions that seem to reference Kyoto and cherry blossoms, so that has to be that sort of direction they go in. But parsing whatever it is, well about all I can say is it’s truly amazing. At some point I think you’ll enjoy the Asuka as well, although I’m sure you’d probably want to sample a lot of other scents before getting another that would be close to Heian Koh.

    The saki sounds great as well! Having done a bit of single malt tasting, I can only imagine how nice some of the premium sakis must be.

    Mike

  27. Steve said,

    April 3, 2008 at 9:04 am

    I’ve always enjoyed the inexpensive sake at the neighborhood Japanese steak house – kept hot to mask a weak character in a sticky white carafe. Then I discovered craftsmanship in the likes of Takasago’s Divine Droplets or Nanbu Bijin’s Southern Beauty. Revolutionary. I can’t begin to describe the aromatic components in Heian Koh (that’s what we rely on you for, Mike!) but I recognize this is one of those eye-opening experiences where you begin to realize what complexity and artisanship is out there to discover. And this isn’t even considered a premium or luxury incense. Wow! I understand why it’s in your Hall of Fame, Mike. I sure do appreciate your taste in things and sharing your findings with us – a real service.

    Steve


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