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.