This is the new site for the incense resource part of Mike’s Prattle blog. Thanks to Ross Urrere for the name and the rest of the site’s functionality should be returning in the near future.
Daihatsu are a Japanese company marrying the art of incense with French perfumery. Very few of their incenses currently imported into the US could be considered traditional. The incenses in question here, more so than the line represented by the black boxes, represent a modern vision that while working with some common ingredients, end up creating entirely new bouquets. These are rather unlikely to appeal to traditionalists or ingredient purists, but in most cases Daihatsu manage to create partially synthetic incenses that don’t usually have harsh or offputting notes and could be considered superior to lower quality incenses that do the same thing. The following are notes on this range based on partial sticks.
Young Leaves is an incense with a sweet, autumnal aroma. It has hints of musk, new carpet and mint and is overall a bit on the sharp side. Like most of these aromas the scent is pretty powerful and perfumed. At times it reminded me of the mintier Shoyeido 12 months incenses, except not quite as refined. Overall, quite nice.
Plum Tanka isn’t all that similar to your traditional plum blossom incense, it’s more of a floral bouquet. Due to the perfume the scent is much more up front and distinct, but you actually get more fruit than blossom, with what reminds me of rose on top. I liked the fact the overall scent tended to the dry side rather than sweet.
Violet Tanka is a rather picture perfect inexpensive violet perfume, well rounded, but a bit on the soapy side at times, which I think is more of an indicator of my relationship to floral incenses than anything else. Like the whole range it has an unsual aromatic strength and in many ways it feels like an alternate version of the Plum Tanka.
Daihatsu’s Sandalwood is so close to a traditional sandalwood that it either is or they’ve downplayed the perfumey elements on this one and as such it stands out like a sore thumb in the line. It has a very contoured sandalwood aroma, definitely aiming for the heartwood sort of scent, but with a bit of spice giving it a bit of richness. Perhaps as this is closer to my tastes than the florals, I found it fairly impressive for hitting the right notes, although overall it doesn’t differ that much from most heartwood sandalwoods.
The best of the line, unsurprisingly, is the Tokusen Tanka. We’re definitely flat into perfume ranges here, there’s almost nothing about this incense that will remind you of the traditional, rather it smells like someone’s fantastic, sultry perfume and as such may be a bit too much for an incense. It’s by far the boldest scent in the line, minty, sultry and modern like some of Shoyeido’s LISN line. Roughly it falls into a green tea/patchouli sort of area, without really being too strong on either note.
Lilac Tanka is by far the most synthetic smelling in this range, but that’s an opinion I almost always get with florals such as this, there’s a real soapy feel to this that reminds me of Indian incenses at times. Overall it’s about what you’d expect, lilac perfume, something not really all that attuned to my tastes.
There’s also another four boxes, mentioned above, that Daihatsu create that still work with perfume but end up in much more traditional areas. Of these I liked the Myo-jyou and Kaizan enough to buy boxes, but found over time that the perfumy nature made it so that I wasn’t reaching for them quite so much. I do wonder if I’d take a similar track with any of the Tankas, but I’d take that as a more traditionalist opinion. If you like modern scents, a sampler might be worth a look as I definitely think this line is more superior to, say, similar Nippon Kodo incenses.
Les Encens du Monde / Karin, Swallows in Flight, Royal Nave, Golden Waves, Blissful Mountain, Guiding Light
One month ago, I planned to write an article on a few of these incenses with the fact hanging heavy that at that point one could not buy Encens du Monde incenses in the United States. I’m pleased to say that this has changed and that the first batch of these incenses are now available at Essence of the Ages. We must all thank Beth for her persistence in trying to provide these incenses, several of which are world class, particularly in an era where the dollar isn’t doing so well. You’ll be able to read more reviews of these incenses in the future, but there are a number I want to cover right away as an early introduction to the line.
Les Encens du Monde is a French company who contracts with several Japanese companies to distribute various incense lines. The lion’s share of incenses distributed by this company appear to be made by Kunjudo, at the very least the Karin line is certainly a Kunjudo line, but there are others in their catalog created originally by Shoyeido or Baieido. A few of these duplicate incenses you can already find in the US, which makes any sort of discussion about this company’s incenses a little difficult to be specific about. Several of the line’s incenses also exist in Temple and Ceremony lengths and while I’d normally just consider them long stick versions, I’ve seen some of these incenses referred to as “Temple quality” while also having a significant price attached to them.
It also seems like EdM have switched around their lines a bit. I ended up buying both Golden Waves and Royal Nave overseas as part of the Karin line, only to realize that EdM have not only changed the Karin line, but the presentation and stick number as well. Both Golden Waves and Royal Nave seem to exist as Temple or Ceremony sticks, but they do not appear to be part of the Karin line anymore. These two aromas are not currently available in the US, but I suspect we will see them eventually. I’d assume Simply Incense may still have Karin versions in limited stock. Nevertheless, all of these details make it a bit difficult to talk about these incenses in terms of lines. This article does cover the four temple/ceremony incenses in question, although all my versions come from the Karin boxes or samples. Both Blissful Mountain and Guiding Light can be found in the Meditation category.
The first incense in question is a bit complicated. Kunjudo’s Karin is already imported into the United States. As already mentioned, Karin also appears to be a line via Encens du Monde. While the boxes of the Karin incenses have changed, the old box of Forest of Flowers appears to have the same presentation, ingredient list and stick color as Kunjudo Karin, so I’d assume this is the same incense. I find Karin to be one of the gems of inexpensive incense, an affordable and fantastic blend of sandalwood, Daphne wood, and cinnamon that hits a number of different buttons. It has hints of amber even without the ingredient listed as well as wood, spice and floral and it manages to spin out different combinations of these elements like an echo of expensive aloeswoods. It’s fresh, vibrant, wonderfully spicy and addictive enough to have been a personal top 10 incense in May and I can imagine wanting deep stock in it.
Swallows in Flight is one of Kunjudo’s masterstrokes. It’s a rich, decadent and almost confectionary-sweet blend that starts with an aloeswood base and adds indulgent aromatics. The minute this one hits the nose I think of things like caramel and nougat, as this has a combination of sweet and musk that reminds me of walking into a candy shop. It definitely has a slight perfume on top with hints of white mocha that cyclically hide the base, only for the agar to remind you it’s still there in the background. It might be an incense that’s too rich at times, but when it’s right it’s a tough one to beat.
As, I mentioned before two Karin incenses are not part of the line anymore. The first of these is the stupendously good Golden Waves. Of all the EdM incenses I’ve tried, this is the one with the most obvious agarwood note. Sometimes I don’t notice this for some reason, but my most recent stick reminded me that this is very much based on the aloeswood, with a rich sweet musk and a note of hazelnut or something similar added to the top. All these elements go to making this one of those aloeswood sticks with mutable qualities, making it a fascinating stick to explore over time. At the Karin price this is a very affordable incense for its quality, which may be part of the reason it’s not in that line anymore. Hopefully we’ll see the long stick versions in the future, as this is no incense to be resigned to obscurity.
The other ex-Karin incense is Royal Nave. This isn’t quite so woody, its bouquet working more as a combination of various spices and woods. Like Guiding Light, it seems that Kunjudo do indeed like working on incenses with a massive number of ingredients and so this one is often like a faceted jewel, looking different from every perspective. The description tips us off to the aniseed, but it’s not that dominant of a characteristic to my nose. I’d say it’s more strongly spicy than strongly woody, but there’s also a perfume oil in the middle that adds to the overall complexity and comes out strongly with little fatigue. It struck me as what a Nippon Kodo Kohden stick might be like with better ingredients and also had hints of gingerbread cookie. Like many incenses in this line there appears to be a tilt to the sweet.
EdM’s Meditation line appears to have many of their high end incenses. The first of these in question is the stupendously good Guiding Light (scroll to bottom). It blends agarwood with 7 essentials and 8 wood powders for a very dense and woody incense. The aroma is all about spicy wood and I get hints of old wooden chests, brown sugar, clove, high quality sandalwood, and leather. There is definitely a high oil content, but its aroma adds a bit of mystery and insularity to the blend. Given the claim of a large quantity of agarwood, I was surprised that it didn’t have that much of a dominant note, so my guess is it’s more mid quality wood, and the blend evens some of the more specific characteristics out. I’d actually like to see this in a shorter stick, a length more appropriate for its strength outside a temple.
Finally, a really interesting, high end sandalwood and oil blend, Blissful Mountain (fourth item down). Like many EdM incenses I can imagine one of the other lines has smaller packages of the same or similar incense under a different name, based on the description of combining sandalwood with lily essential oil. Blissful Mountain is a very thick, green stick that starts with the base aroma of a common every day green sandalwood, and adds a very potent and powerful floral lily oil to it. The combination is quite intense and due to the stick’s thickness, only a fragment of a stick would totally fragrance a room. The oil is very rich, a slight tad to the soapy/floral side, but overall rather excellent, and given very few incenses already sold in the US have this sort of aroma, it’s well worth checking out. My guess the lily essential oil here adds significant to low sandalwood costs.
A browse through Essence’s EdM list will show there are dozens of aromas in the company’s lines, many of which I’m looking forward to trying and writing about down the line. There may be a small bit of risk in exploration, given that there do appear to be some crossovers between currently imported incenses and the EdM versions, but for the most part most of these have not seen our shores until now. Indeed, EdM has now expanded our choices for Japanese incense significantly.
[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]
- Minorien / Fu-in Kyara Ryugen – Jin-koh means incense that sinks in water. That would make the kyara used here seem like an anchor dropped off a ship. There’s a density of scent here with a subconscious level of depth to it. This is an incense that demands one’s attention constantly during the burn. I’m thinking of the way snowflakes are all different, Ryugen constantly spins off different combinations and levels of the aroma, as if it was looking for the right buttons to press on your memory. Like some exotic night blooming flower only found in the most remote areas of the jungle, this is dark, beautiful and mysterious all at once.
- Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – This utterly fantastic scent that is the highest non-kyara incense in the Shoyeido Premium line takes quite a bit longer to adjust to than Sho-kaku, Ga-Ho and Go-un, but the more I burn it the more it’s hard not to see it in the same class. For one thing it’s the head of the Premium Greens, as I call them and in many ways there are similarities among the four, from Ga-Ho down to Matsu-no-tomo. But as good as the rest are, none of them have this hoary and powerful level of resin to it, matched with a latent floral oil and a more refined masala spice than even Misho. It’s like seeing an origami of a tree only to realize with a few folds, the origami turns into the whole forest.
- Shoyeido / Premium / Sho-kaku – It’s a tribute to this masterwork of incense that an inch or two of burning can chart it on my top 10. Few incenses are this startling and powerful, but few incenses are this expensive for the price. Is it worth it? Excruciatingly so. It’s the incense that tied anise and licorice aromas to kyara and led me to believe an incense could come really close to inducing ecstacy. The difference between the #1 and #3 this week is about $13 a stick (maybe $10 adjusting for length). But I bet it’s completely absent from this list next month. But if I was made of money…
- Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – I suspect the high charting on Shoyeido premiums this month has a lot to do with increased use, as I had an incense appreciative friend in town over the weekend and pulled out the big guns. This is like incense electricity to me. I think of it as taking the woody qualities of Sho-kaku, muting them to more of a background and creating a new and decadent oil on the top.
- Les Encens du Monde / Guiding Light (bottom of page) – Agarwood, 7 essential oils and 8 powdered woods go in to making this extraordinary temple/meditation incense, manufactured, I think, by Kunjudo. Like many scents this deluxe, the aromas seem fairly concentrated with as much oil as wood, but between all the aromatics there’s a beautiful spice to it. It does have a somewhat insular quality about it that implies a great deal of depth I’m not used to yet. And the best thing I can say at this point is that you can now buy this in the USA. More to report on this later this week…
- Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Terribly trusty this one. Sometimes when I pull it out I think of a stick created like a mosaic, small three dimensional puzzle pieces that all contribute to such an intricate aroma. So dry and multifaceted and such a favorite I’m starting to stock ahead.
- Kunjudo / Karin (may also be Encens du Monde / Karin / Forest of Flowers) – One of the truly great inexpensive incenses, I’m still fairly surprised I discovered this so late in the game. It’s got everything: wood, amber hints, spice and floral, for a sweet and fairly complex aroma that is as quality as many incenses 2 or 3 times the price. Another similar incense, although maybe with more amber and wood hints would be Gyokushodo’s Kojurin. Karin may go down as one of my favorite inexpensive incenses, although some ingredients lists do have agarwood on it, which might explain something.
- Shoyeido / Premium Daily / Sei-Fu – When I first tried these as part of the Premium Sampler, perhaps my nose was so blunted by all the high enders that I barely noticed this one, which would have seriously been to my detriment. To be honest, while the Premium Daily incenses look like the bridge from the Daily to Premium lines, I’d say they overlap. Sei-Fu I’d probably put above Matsu-no-Tomo and Ohyja-Koh, just barely. While I do wonder if it’s traditional (I’ll elaborate more when I review these), it’s got a distinct aloeswood and spice note that I found addictive right out of the box. Could become a major favorite and its sister incense, En-Mei might have charted #11 or #12 on this list.
- Les Encens du Monde / Kunjudo / Karin / Golden Waves (Vagues Dorees) – I went over and took a look for this over at the EdM home site and couldn’t find it, making me think this and the Royal Nave aromas have either been deleted from the line or moved (there’s also a much more expensive Temple version of this incense). It’s a shame because in many ways this may be the most deluxe aroma in the EdM line other than the Prince of Awajii Kyara. It’s got an almost hazelnut quality overlying the agarwood and spices that gives it a sweet and richly decadent aroma to it. To be honest, having this in one of those small Karin boxes is kind of weird, you’d really expect something this good to be in Pawlonia.
- Baieido / Kobunboku – I’ve gotten in quite a bit of Baieido incense of late. I find many of their incenses to have the steepest learning curves in the business, which while making them a bit vague at first, means they’re likely to be favorites for a long time coming. I was really surprised, revisiting this one, that I actually preferred it to the Tokusen and Kaden versions. There’s something exceedingly fresh about this sandalwood and spice Plum Blossom incense that makes it, possibly, the best of its style and I was going back to this fairly often over the last week or so.
I could have almost done a Top 20 this time around, something probably obvious from the lack of certain perennials in the list.
A very nice new incense has come in at Essence of the Ages. I’ll be reviewing the incense in the near future, but suffice it to say it’s very evergreen, multiplex, affordable and it benefits the nuns at Thrangu Tara Abbey .
Song of India; Incense from India / India Temple; Damascus Cedar, Golden Sandalwood, Shimmer, Russian Rose
Incense from India may very well be the largest line of Indian incenses in the US market. Their website claims to have over 200 different fragrances. I first discovered this line of incenses in the mid 90s and while my tastes have changed quite a bit since then, many of my early favorites came from this line. To name a few that used to be at the top of my list but that I haven’t ordered since I started in on Japanese incense: Enchanted Garden (like Shrinivas Sugandhalaya’s Valley of Roses but much better), Golden Frankincense (resiny and peppery), Honey Dust (like Satya Natural) and Snow Apricot (a slightly fruity durbar). I’ve probably forgotten more scents from this line than I currently remember, but five came in as samplers a while back and I thought I’d log my impressions. But be assured that I don’t consider the incenses in question here among the line’s best by any means.
Incense from India, like just about all Indian incense, is very affordable and most if not all packages are well under $5, although the number of sticks per package may vary. One of the things I remember about the company is they sell bulk and it’s usually in that category where you can tell how deluxe a particular stick is, usually the durbars tend to be the high enders in this category (although, a charcoal dipped in white sandalwood oil, one of the few incenses that vein I’ve liked, was the highest at one point). The five incenses in question seem to all be masalas of a sort except for the first one, which is also a charcoal incense dipped in oil.
And as you can imagine, I don’t care too much for India Temple incense. It appears to be made by Song of India, and my sample came with the statement “Smells just like temples in India” which appears to fit the description. Well I’d like to hold out a bit better hope for how Indian temples smell. Like most charcoals, this is rather unpleasantly smoky, with an overwhelmingly spicy and floral oil that becomes cloying not soon after lighting. It’s difficult to tell what’s the oil and what’s the punk at times, all which mark a very low quality incense.
Damascus Cedar appears to be charcoal based on description, which would account for its off notes, but it appeared more like a masala to my eyes color wise. It struck a fairly decent balance between the superior Himalayan cedar trees and the ones that smell like pencil shavings. It’s fairly rich and dry, but like most charcoals and masalas the smoke makes it overwhelming at times, although at least in this case there’s no true bitter notes to exacerbate the aroma. From memory, I believe the line has better cedar incenses.
I do remember IfI’s Golden Sandalwood, after all it’s a slight variation on a classic masala blend (I seem to remember Blue Pearl having one similar, at least). While I tend to prefer oil heavy sandalwood durbars, it would be impossible to say Golden Sandalwood is unpleasant, rather it almost strikes me as the typical average Indian sandalwood, with many poorer and better on either side. Many of IfI’s incenses starting with Golden are often their best, but this wouldn’t be one of those. At least it has the buttery and spicy sandalwood smell, accentuated over the pure wood by other aromatics.
I don’t see Shimmer in the catalog anymore, maybe it was discontinued or perhaps it was pulled for its low quality. This is the sort of harsh and somewhat cheap or synthetic masala blend that while aiming for a sort of old school temple blend in style, ends up being something of a mess. I thought it was quite soapy and bitter overall, it’s hard to believe someone would burn this for pleasure.
Russian Rose is a masala and I have to come out in front saying I generally really dislike Indian rose masalas, in fact it wasn’t until I just tried Shoyeido/Royal/Rose that I actually found a rose I enjoyed, so I’m already fairly biased against this scent. Like most floral masalas the base tends to compromise the top notes and in this case that top note is a somewhat pungent rose oil that’s almost abrasive in its intensity. The overall aroma comes off like many commecial spray deoderizers, but at least it’s not as inferior as some I’ve tried.
Overall, the existence of this article is to note these in passing. While I’d love to enthuse over the better incenses in the Incense for India catalog, given that I’m finding most of my old Indian incenses sitting more in drawers than in holders, it’s hard to imagine when that would be. But I did want to make a point of this so that people aren’t necessarily turned off of the whole catalog by this unrepresentative handful.
Tennendo incenses are among the best price for the quality, perhaps throughout the line. For instance one can buy a roll of Renzan, an aloeswood blend, for about $6, perhaps one of the best deals in Japanese incense. Even the highest end stick in the same line, Kuukai, goes for just over $20 a roll, and it must be said that even at over $100, Tennendo’s magnificent Enkuu is a bargain for its quality. So it’s no particular surprise that the company’s lower end incenses are also rather good for their prices. The four incenses in question here include the two in the same range as Renzan and Kuukai that I hadn’t covered and two other lower end incenses that come in boxes, Scent of Kyoto and Yoshino Hills. It could be said that all four of these incenses represent Tennendo’s versions of four traditional scents. Scent of Kyoto is basically a cherry blossom incense. Yoshino Hills an every day sandalwood. Kohrokan Sandalwood aims for a more high end, old mountain level of quality pure sandalwood. And Karafune goes for a spice blend. All can be easily purchased for under $10.
Scent of Kyoto is actually a rather excellent cherry blossom incense, featuring Tennendo’s usual hallmarks of grace, freshness and gentility. The obvious comparison is to Shoyeido’s Kyo-Zakura, what could be considered the standard for this sort of incense, however there’s something even smoother about Tennendo’s version, something that resonates with the rest of the line. While a box of this, due to the increased number of sticks, is likely to cost you more than one unit of Renzan, it seems to be a good buy. While the Shoyeido Daily bases aren’t always perfect for me, I really like the base of Scent of Kyoto. It speaks to the silence surrounding an orchard of these trees on a beautiful spring day.
Yoshino Hills is Tennendo’s analog to Nippon Kodo’s big yellow box of sandalwood incense, the prevalent “every day” style that nearly every Japanese company has a version of. While I really do like NK’s version and prefer, overall, Kyukyodo’s many variations on this theme, there’s something a bit bitter at the edges of this one. Over time it’s possible I may come to see this as a plus, but at the moment, I tend to like the sweeter aftertastes with this style – the bitterness seems like it might be more of a binder issue.
Kohrokan Sandalwood appears to be the company’s pure/high quality sandalwood entry. Think Kyukyodo Yumemachi, Baieidio Byakudan Kobunboku, or Shunkodo Sarasoju as incenses with similar concentration on top quality sandalwood. Like most of these incenses there’s a tiny bit of spice here, not enough to resemble Minorien’s sandalwood, but a little in that direction. Like the Yoshino Hills this too has a bit of sharpness to it that makes me think it’s an intentional note I haven’t gotten quite used to.
Karafune is probably the most low end incense Tennendo exports here, a spicy blend that combines sandalwood, clove, cinnamon and fennel. It’s actually fairly similar to some of the lower end Baieido blends like Syukohkoku or the Kobunboko series in that it’s all about wood and spice. The closest analog is probably Shunkodo’s Chinsoku Koh, except that the ingredients that make up the mosaic that are these sticks are more consonant as a unity in Karafune. In fact where getting used to low end incenses often means one gets a bit bored with them, I’ve found with Karafune that it improves with use, particularly as one gets used to it as an overall scent. It’s definitely less a sandalwood blend than a spice blend and it’s got a nice light smoothness to it that speaks of restraint and taste. One could imagine such a scent browsing Zanzibar spice markets, in fact clove might be the top note here, if there is one.
Again, if you already have incenses that are similar to the various styles on display here there would really be no need to duplicate by adding a box of something various similar. Yet on the other hand, the Yoshino Hill and Karafune in particular would make excellent new entries into the style, although I must say that with the green everyday sandalwood, the NK version makes a good base for comparison, and with the old mountain style I’d say it’s almost about even among brands.
It’s been mentioned a lot here and I generally agree that really high quality aloeswood incense has a steep learning curve. This idea was brought a little closer in comparing the three sticks in the subject line. All three of these incenses use very high quality wood, although if the latter two do not have kyara level wood, they certainly have the next best thing. Sticks like Minorien’s aloeswood, not to mention the various qualities in Shoyeido’s aloeswood chips bring home just how obviously resinated a wood can be. Whether you’d describe it as tarry or turpentine like, it seems to me all the glory of a wood can be found in this element, this conglomeration of aged aromatics.
Yet it’s not always that obvious and in particular I picked out three sticks by three different companies I’ve been using lately that actually have the same sort of element. In none of these did I recognize just how quality the wood was right away. With Ga-Ho I first noticed the dill or cumin notes that bring out the dryness. Second I noticed the floral perfume that balances it. Only after a third or fourth stick did the powerful resin of the wood really make itself known, but when it did this stick opened up like a lotus flower and my impression of it went up.
This is even more obscure with Baieido’s Koh En. Like most of their premium aloeswoods, the sticks are thin and the aroma is mellow and if these sticks use any spices or extra ingredients other than binder, I can imagine the purpose is to bring out the wood alone. But such a stick also fooled me into ignoring the resin quality at first. I think there’s a pretty big difference between Baieido and Shoyeido aloeswood, the latter seems robust and intense, while the former seems to capture the sublimity better, but it’s a quality so fleeting and faint it can be hard to pick up. Because with higher level Baieido aloeswood like Hakusui, the general nature of the resin, while just as conglomerated and fierce as any other good wood, actually seems more floral and/or spicy in quality and less resinous in a tarry sense. And with Koh En you get those qualities more up front. At first it’s hard to differentiate it from the lower ends in the same line, but the more I thought about what makes Koh En different, the more I realized it was the same level of resin. It speaks to a very long learning curve.
Kyara Ryugen, of course, really does up the resin element and at levels like this the whole glory of what makes aloeswood special comes out. Both Koh En and Ga-Ho are great at evoking old memories, but it’s a different level with Ryugen. Koh En definitely has complexity in terms of listening to the wood and Ga-Ho is complex among all its facets, but the quality of Ryugen is high enough to do what Koh En does while making it seem like it’s as multi-faceted as Ga-Ho, without much need for anything but the wood. Ryugen can start, woody, dry and brash like the rest of the Minorien line, but almost instantly the wood’s resin starts to emit spirals of inherent floral behavior, but on a level that is so intense that the incense continually reminds you this character comes from the kyara, at least in part. And like Koh En, the resin feel never quite gets tarry, on the contrary Ryugen has an almost powdery sweet like quality that is almost tropically exotic, so exotic that it resonates with watery, emotional qualities and continually drives one to passionate responses.
Many thanks to Ross Urrere for sharing this excellent write up of last weekend’s incense demonstration at the Buddhist Churches of America.
This Saturday, the gentlemen from Japan Incense, Kotaro Sugimoto and Jay Cowan, gave an incense demonstration and talk at the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) Bookstore, located in Berkeley, California. A very appropriate venue as the Buddhist Church there uses quite a lot of incense in their daily devotions. It was a somewhat small crowd but a very enthusiastic one. For those who were there it was quite a treat. Japan Incense has some very deep connections with the Awaji Island Koh-shi (meaning Incense Master or Meister) group. Awaij Island is responsible for about 70% of the incense production in Japan. The group has about 14 or so companies within it. You could think of it as the Silicon Valley of the incense world.
Of course there was incense burning within the lecture area and many different styles and types were burned for the group to sample. A wonderful floral style based on the Osmanthus flower from China followed by Fu-in Kyara (a very rare and wonderful scent) and then on to a sampling of a piece of pure Sandalwood roasted over a burning bamboo coal were just some of scents on hand.
While all this was going on Jay and Kotaro gave a slide presentation of the actual process of incense making in Japan. These had been taken during their many visits to Japan. This was not your average sightseeing excursion or show and tell that tourists would see. This is where the deep connections became really apparent. We got to see three different eras of incense making techniques from how it was done about 60-80 years ago up to the latest computer controlled factories. It is incredibly rare to get to see this kind of thing, very few people outside the actual employees of the companies are ever allowed into the factories. There are people in these factories that have been in incense production for over 50 years. Jay mentioned that part of one plant had been set up so this one particular person (in his late 70s I believe) could continue to be a part of the process. He could actually outpace the 20 year old helper he had next to him. At the same time another factory is run by a man who is in his early 30s. Plus all the different companies tend to look out for and help each other. What a great attitude and set of ethics. Even better when you consider that they are making something that is very healing and centering by its nature.
Some of the images that stood out for me were of the bag of gold flecks used in a special incense to celebrate the New Year, the huge climate controlled garden where various plants could be grown as possible new scents for future incenses, and the huge list of ingredients that can go into an incense formula (not that we got to see the formulas, those are a closely guarded secret of each company). The cleanliness of the factories themselves, some of them were almost surgically clean. Having been a glassblower at one point and remembering just how messy the production floor could get, I was really blown away by this. One thing that really stood out was the attention to even the smallest details within the process, be it equipment, environmental control, raw materials and handling or honoring the employees and their contributions to the company.
One of the things about incense that was pointed out was that it is now used for more then just religious or spiritual practices. That burning incense just for the sheer enjoyment of the scent and the ambiance it creates has become a part of the culture both within Japan and the world. Kotaro, who is something of a gourmet, mentioned that sandalwoods go well with white wines, aloeswoods with reds and the floral scents go well with dessert. I personally find it is wonderful to come home after work and burn some favorite incenses to help unwind from the day. In other words, you can use incense to increase your enjoyment of many different areas of your life.
After seeing this presentation I went home and looked at a box of incense with a whole new level of awareness. The vast resources necessary in time, energy and knowledge to make just one stick of incense is quite large. Especially considering that the raw ingredients are constantly changing, necessitating changes in the formulas and even techniques of production as well as supply chains. As is the balancing act of bringing all of these companies into the US market.
I would like to thank Japan Incense as well as the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) Bookstore for making this presentation happen. The Bookstore has a large assortment of many different companies’ incenses in stock in a very beautiful setting.
If you should have the chance in the future to attend one of these lectures do not miss the opportunity. Rarely is this quality and indepth information presented outside of Japan. From the beginning incense user to the long term aficionado, there is quite a lot to see and take in and both Jay and Kotaro are excellent speakers who love the subject and have much to share.
Ross Urrere for Mike’s Prattle