Kyukyodo / Daitenko, Hatsuhana, Miyagino, Matsukaze, Gyokuranko, Hikari, Kinbato, Seigetsu

I’ve heard rumors that the US should be seeing more Kyukyodo incenses exported here in the near future, but it’s a rumor I heard more around January and so far it doesn’t seem like anything new has shown up in shops. It’s particularly unfortunate as Kyukyodo has a much bigger profile in Japan than it does here. It’s not that that isn’t true for all the companies, but you would think Kyukyodo ought to have a profile at least on par with Shoyeido or Nippon Kodo here.

What this means is you won’t be able to find any of the incenses in this article in US shops at least yet. Most of them may be locatable at certain European outlets, but given the poor state of the US dollar, importing them yourselves may be cost prohibitive. I will say up front, however, that in certain cases I can see why certain scents have not been imported yet, as a few of these seem to be closely related to (currently imported) Kyukyodo favorites such as Ryunhinko and Asuza. On the other hand there are a couple I only wish were currently imported, as they represent higher end blends that are different enough from Sho-Ran-Ko and the like. I’d like to thank Bernd Sandner, who graciously provided me generous samples of the incenses being reviewed here (as well as comments that influenced my impressions). Thanks also to Kotaro Sugimoto at Japan Incense for translating the unknown, unexported and quite fantastic blend Seigetsu. You can also see some of these incenses at a German supplier here.

I’ll be guessing in terms of ingredients for most of these so my ordering of the incenses in question are assumed to go from the inexpensive, every day blends to the higher end ones. I may very well get some of these wrong (for example I think I’d have moved Gyokuranko up a notch), so comments and impressions are welcomed as always.

The first one up is the very thick stick, every day blend called Daitenko. In many ways this could be considered an every day sandalwood or even less. It’s almost entirely wood and seems to have as much binder presence as sandalwood. It’s possibly one of the thickest sticks I’ve seen come out of Japan and seems tailor made, like coils, for outside and larger spaces. Bernd mentioned to me that the subtler notes come out as you get used to the blend, which is something I think is safe to say about most Kyukyodo incenses. I’d also agree that this has a sort of campfire feel to it, but there are some very subtle notes that I haven’t quite absorbed yet. It’s strength is that it’s not all that reminiscent of generic sandalwood incenses.

Hatsuhana is not far off and seems to be the company’s equivalent to the traditional or “byakudan” green sandalwoods. I think of the Nippon Kodo blend, the style’s most popular form, as the standard here and really Hatsuhana isn’t too far off, a little more natural and woody. For those who are familiar with Ikaruga and Shirohato, you could almost think of Hatsuhana as similar, but missing those overt top oil notes. It’s really no surprise we don’t see this in the US as it’s not a distinctive blend like the aforementioned incenses, but as with Daitenko, I’m holding out that I may have missed something a bit subtler about it.

Miyagino starts to move in the Ikaruga and Shirohato direction by enhancing the typical sandalwood base with oil and spice notes. While it’s not as intense as the currently imported blends, it has a slighter, more evergreen/citrusy sort of note on top that I found to be rather unique. With such a notable spice presence, it’s easier to evince more subtleties in play, and I found with this one that it has a really nice bright energy to it, almost happy and playful. Which means, of course, that it’s one I’d like to see imported here as it would be quite inexpensive and would sit rather prominently in a group of low end spiced sandalwood sticks.

I’ve been working on a review of the Sakaki coils by Shoyeido, which has been interesting because it features unnamed coils that are part of a concept related to The Tale of Genjii. In researching the linked Wikipedia page, I noticed as one of Genjii’s chapters, Matsukaze, which means “Wind in the Pines.” As the name of a Kyukyodo incense, it captures the scent rather nicely. It’s a scent not far off in style from Miyagino, except the top notes are definitely Japanese pine, a scent quite a bit milder and refined than your typical west coast pitch. Even with this sort of mild top note, the pine overwhelms the wood a bit, but to be honest I don’t think I could name a better, more balanced pine incense as with use I see the wood peaking through a little more.

Gyokuranko takees us, if not out of the sandalwood category, at least to a scent bordering on that area where slight and (perhaps) low quality aloeswood is used to give depth to higher end sandalwood scents. I’m not sure that’s quite the case here, but Gyokuranko’s similarity to Ryuhinko in terms of its stately dryness makes me wonder a little. I detect more of a sandalwood base to this one, but the dry, oil note on top is very reminiscent of Ryuhinko’s own and considering this one of Kyukyodo’s real strengths, I can’t help but hope to see this one imported. I think we can assume by the incense’s picture in a fine wood box (see above link), that this is likely considered a premium.

Hikari moves the scent into a similar realm with the well-known floral incense Asuza. Hikari is very close in style and as such, it’s somewhat understandable it hasn’t been imported yet. But its similarity to Azusa also accentuates the differences between the two. Where Azusa is quite sweet, Hikari is definitely drier, with some slight and exotic Pacific floral notes (I was thinking tropical, but not fruit). It’s a lovely and gentle blend that furthers my opinion that this is one of the better companies when it comes to florals. I couldn’t say that this has much of an aloeswood presence to it, but I feel the same way about Azusa in that the oil sublimates the wood to a note rather than a background presence.

However, Kinbato definitively takes Kyukyodo into noticeable aloeswood-laced incense blends and while so much could be said about how great Kyukyodo is in working on very affordable, high quality incenses, only Sho-Ran-Ko and Ryuhinko give much of the western world a hint at how great the company is at the high enders. Kinbato has all the Kyukyodo strengths, sublimity, gentleness and dryness. It’s a slightly floral blend with what seems like a play between sandalwood and aloeswood. In a way it’s almost like a minor form of Sho-Ran-Ko as it approaches that complexity without quite moving into that type of mutable brilliance (even as recent as last night, I was impressed how many new impressions I still get from Sho-Ran-ko).

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last, a incense that appears only to be available in Japan and one Kotaro helped Bernd and I translate: Seigetsu (Clear Moon). This seems to be quite the high end aloeswood blend, an extaordinarily incense with a great deal of complexity. It has Ryuhinko’s dryness, a slight floral characteristic and the type of sweet and caramel-like wood play you see in Enkuu or Muro-machi. In fact this is actually one of the more complex incenses available and in no way have I come close to really getting underneath the depth of this one. Like all the best incenses, its complexity will always be stimulating.

Kyukuyodo incense is highly valued among enthusiasts for both its high end and affordable incenses and it can be seen here that there are some other parts of the scent spectrum that are not as widely available but in many cases should be. Like many US incense users, I keep up the hope we’ll see many of these in the near future.

15 Comments

  1. glennjf said,

    January 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    The Kyukyodo website now has a working link to their incense catalogue (pdf download)
    Although it’s Japanese text only the images are good viewing plus all their incenses have allotted to them a catalogue number which is often a help to work out which incense is which.

  2. August 20, 2008 at 11:20 am

    […] 20, 2008 at 11:20 am (Incense, Japan, Kyukyodo) As this review will imply, Kyukyodo are perhaps the most underrepresented Japanese incense company in the US […]

  3. Ross said,

    May 5, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    Does this mean I need to take out a loan to get as many boxes of SHO-RAN-KO as I can before they stop exporting any of it off the island? If I vacume seal it will it last? Am I just getting parinoid here 😮 )??

  4. Mike said,

    May 4, 2008 at 8:43 am

    Hello Roland, thanks for dropping by. It really does seem like the rising costs in wood have had quite an effect on the business of the Japanese home companies. Hopefully when all is said and done that Kyukyodo will change their minds and new opportunities will open up in the future. It seems like a lot of our hopes rest with the cultivated aloeswood market, and hopefully the quality continues to rise so that eventually these incenses and otehrs will be more viable as exports again.

    Mike

  5. roland said,

    May 4, 2008 at 6:35 am

    <>

    Hello, I am that German supplier.

    Thank you for pointing at us, I was surprised when looking at the site-logs.

    Sad news is, we won’t be able to import any more incense from Kyukyodo. From what I was told, they are just not interested in exporting their incense. Mostly because of the record-keeping of the Aloeswod. This was what the japanese wife of our partner was told last time she was in Tokio. Can’t guarantee the veracity. Might as well be that he (our importer) is concentrating on Nippon Kodo and has lost interest in discussions with other producers.

    Thanks again for your informations, I am afraid there is a lot of reading ahead for me;-))

    roland

  6. Mike said,

    May 1, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Ross – thanks for checking with Shoyeido. I got that whiff of camphor from the Yoshino no Haru last night, except for some reason I couldn’t tag what it was. Agree very much about change.

    Your comment about the meditative and personal part is interesting because I think one of the reasons incense has been used in rituals for centuries is because of this sort of memory effect. I mean I know I’d love to see what it would be like to connect, say, Myo-Ho with my work. Over time meditation or other practice might be really efficacious if something as startling as Myo-Ho could bring you to a certain state immediately, just by the memory effect. Unfortunately that would likely have a more substantial effect on my bank account. 🙂 – Mike

  7. Mike said,

    May 1, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for the link Ibn (nice essay), and considering the recent death of Albert Hofmann, quite timely too.

  8. ibn said,

    May 1, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Mike, not to change the subject but as you mentioned Alan Watts, here’s a nice essay Ralph Metzner wrote in appreciation of him:

    http://www.greenearthfound.org/write/alan_watts.html

  9. Ross said,

    May 1, 2008 at 9:05 am

    The thick stick of Yoshino No Haru is pretty amazing. That what i started with and I am about to have to restock. The florials are very high end, with a tiny bit of camphore swirled though. And of course the size of the stick means big, heavy duty delivery. This is probley the scent that started me thinking that florals really did have potentual.

    About the Top Ten. I, for one, am glad it changes. Thats what life is about and like life and how you view and live it, incense and what you are drawn to change. There is no one “best” company. There may be some things that certain companyies do very well or better then others ..at the moment, but even that will change as the personal(and their sense of smell and art) change. Life would be boring doing the same thing every day, as would only burning a couple of incenses daily. Unless, of course, that is a part of your meditative or personal path.
    Buy the way, I called Shoyeido yesterday after see your reply about the Floral line and they comfired your take on it. Its about the “quality” (always a loaded with so many levels term).

  10. Mike said,

    May 1, 2008 at 7:18 am

    Scents of Kyoto is a lot like Shoyeido’s Kyo-Zakura, it’s a chery blossom sort of thing. But I think I like the Tennendo version better, there’s something about the Daily bases that I’m not as warm to lately and the incense has that really gentle base Tennendo do so well. The other Tennendo in a similar box, I think Yoshino Hills, is basically their every day green sandalwood. After experiencing all these Kyukyodo sandalwoods, YH doesn’t hold up quite as nicely, but it has a bit of floral to it that makes it different. But like with the “old mountain” sandalwood scents you really only need one or two different kinds.

    I burned a stick of Ikaruga last night and it clicked for me a lot more, maybe because I was starting to “get” the base a little more, but I can see a lot of what you’re saying about it. I’m going to add it to the HoF list. I’m also considering Jinko Yomei for that list as well, which is something I’ve become reinterested in since enjoying Myo-ho.

    It’s interesting what you say in the end because in terms of my esoteric interests, silence is a very important thing and you’re right that words and prearranged thoughts can interfere with direct experience. I think you’ve really pinned down where I am with my monthly lists though. Sometimes a random experience can make me pay more attention to an incense which easily could lead to it being part of a monthly list. So much of it is about what is “new to me” as well, with music it’s the same way, I tend to find myself concentrating on something I just got or restocked.

    For instance I’m really growing on Yoshino No Haru from Shunkodo. I’ve mentioned it’s very similar to Kunmeido’s Heian Koh and Asuka, but over time, all of these are diverging for me as I get to know their subtleties better. Yoshino No Haru seems to be a lot like Ranjatai in the way it takes quite a while to get, but there are some aromatic tricks with it that are really impressive. I can imagine it would be brilliant in the thicker stick form.

    Mike

  11. Bernd Sandner said,

    April 30, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Mike.
    I do not know the “Scents of Kyoto”, but I was already interested, since at EoA it is called a “very traditional smelling Japanese incense”. Next time ordering, I will try it.

    The connection of smell and memory is quite a thing. Maybe one day my investigations of this topic will come to something reasonable. At the moment I am happy, just experiencing this connection.
    I feel a little bit like a dog, running from one corner to the other.
    One appealing and nice sounding idea is, that smelling is in direct connection with something most vital.
    That is breathing. No breathing, no life.
    Together with the breathing we smell.
    (By the way, another interesting subject well worth investigating, in conjunction with incense, is greed. At least for me. And, supposedly, for some other lovers of incense, too.)

    It is true, Ikaruga and Shirohato are very close. I love Shirohato also very much. I have got a big stock of both of them.
    But I feel Ikaruga is a little bit more down to earth. To me it seems to be something like a fundamental, or basic incense. The old ground, from which many other incenses have derived.
    It would be interesting to get some information of the history of kyukyodo incenses.
    But, Mike, as we discussed, don’t believe what I say, try to be free from words! Go on as you are, and do not become an expert.
    Knowing too much might stand in the way of direct experience.
    But probably , you are aware of that, and there is no need of telling you.
    You know, what I like about your comments and monthly ratings is, that it is a mixture of subjectiveness, dependency on supplies, and other illogical (maybe even translogical) facts and events.
    I am happy with that.
    Best! Bernd

  12. Mike said,

    April 30, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Bernd – I definitely use the terms higher and lower end almost entirely in relationship to price. Lately I’ve been doing a bit more concentration on more inexpensive incenses and appreciating them quite a bit (the Tennendo Scents of Kyoto is one I’m liking a lot lately).

    I was sitting at my desk earlier and all of a sudden I got this wave of memory aroma of Muro-Machi out of the blue. It seems all sorts of things trigger these experiences but for a moment it was like being with my incense.

    I was talking to a friend about kyara and very resinated aloeswood earlier. It seems to me that when experiencing this, the brain is almost constantly trying to find a memory image to match with a new aromatic sensation and it’s almost as if it goes to great length to link your experience with older memories and things you’d almost forgotten. I can understand that, but when your day to day life starts to invoke its own incense memories it can get quite fascinating. I know lots of perfumes and colognes set off these reactions for me now.

    I was thinking of adding Ikaruga to my hall of fame, mostly because several readers have commented highly on it. But I almost feel Shirohato would have to come with it given they’re so close. Any opinions?

  13. Bernd Sandner said,

    April 30, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for the article, Mike!

    It is true for me also, that I highly value low- and high- end kyukyodo incense.
    In fact for me there is no low-end stick. Maybe we use these words partly because of the price.
    For example Ikaruga. I love it, and I burn it very often. I have read, that this incense is used in the entrance hall of the Kyukyodo School, where they teach ancient arts, like calligraphy. It is said, that the recipe of this incense dates back about 700 years. Maybe it is only imagination, but sometimes I feel, I could smell this age.
    But, on the other hand, it is one of the secrets of incense, that it can lead you into agelessness, by bringing up smells, as old as the world. (Maybe these are only good sounding words. Sorry! But how else to express the uniqueness of something, that has got real quality?)
    Now spring is slowly showing it’s face here in Berlin, and sometimes, walking through the streets, I smell aromas, that you can also find in some simple kyukyodo sticks.
    Here you can see one of the inspirations of incense masters. To create something that is already there, and later, even to go beyond that.
    Best! Bernd

  14. Mike said,

    April 30, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Fascinating:

    http://www.incenseworks.com/AboutIW.html

    Says that philosopher Alan Watts was the original person who negotiated the original distribution of Kyukyodo incense in the US. Very much an “it’s a small world” moment for me!

  15. Ross said,

    April 29, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks Mike, Bernd and Kotaro, what a treat!
    Just last night I had sent a note to Beth at EOA about what was with the huge gap in this line. Then this morning here my answer. Guess I was tuning in. Really hoping some of these make it into the US. Thanks again.

    Ross


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: