Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit (All Discontinued)

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.



  1. Claire said,

    January 31, 2009 at 4:38 am

    I agree with Mike, the names of the variants in the Free Pure Spirit range are hard to decipher from the packaging and I wouldn’t have known which was which had it not been for Mike’s post. I presume there was a “Free” variant but I didn’t have that one to test.

    Spirit (Green tea, lemon & peppermint Incense Sticks – Nippon Kodo, Free Pure Spirit:

    I’m not sure what green tea incense normally smells like, so I’m unable to say whether that particular aroma is coming through. I can’t smell the peppermint at all. There is a sort of citrus aroma but I wouldn’t specifically say it was lemon.

    At close quarters there is a presence of harsh wood and a weak perfume.

    At a distance of approx. 50-150 cm there is a pleasant enough aroma although a little synthetic for my tastes and I didn’t want to burn a whole stick.

    The aroma is un-noticeable at distances further than approx. 150 cm.

    Pure (red berry, grapefruit & pine needle) Incense Sticks – Nippon Kodo, Free Pure Spirit:

    This smelled nicer in the box than the Spirit (green tea, lemon and peppermint) variant. It was like a cross between forest fruits and a wood spice based aftershave with maybe even a hint of mint (which isn’t supposed to be in this one). It was a bit soap-like though.

    The aroma when burning it was totally different to the aroma in the box. Would it make any sense if I said that I noticed a “dry grapefruit” smell? It was neither sweet nor sour. There was also an underlying mustiness to it, perhaps like a woodland floor (but not a pine forest floor). The 2 aromas aren’t a combination I would have thought of myself and I’m in 2 minds as to whether they really work together. I couldn’t detect the red berry at all unless I stuck my nose almost on top of it.

    At close quarters the aroma was faint (mainly the grapefruit).

    At a distance of approx. 50-100cm it was, as described above, unusual. I’m not sure if it would grow on me (in small doses).

    The aroma was un-noticeable at distances of more than approx. 100 cm.

  2. Mike said,

    August 5, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Thanks Terry and Zhara. I think with NK if we were to see more of their traditional scents it might be easier to say more good things about them. I’m finding I don’t particularly care for most of these multi-ingredient, perfumery blends. There’s even something ever so slightly different with the Kyara Kongo and Taikan blends too, a lack of depth in the wood element. And we don’t tend to see their higher end kyaras very often at all, so it’s difficult to say how good they are with that sort of art.

  3. Zhara said,

    August 2, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Quite right about the fruity incense – as much as I adore fruit fragrances in perfumes, soaps, and laundry products, it’s a concept that fails completely with incense.

    I’ll still have to say that a couple of the NK fancy incense (in the Fragrance Memories Line, which was previously named “NK Style”) are among a short list of favorites: Paris Cafe, with it’s coffee and cinnamon is quirky, but highly pleasant, and Silk Road Dream is a rich set of sweetened spice notes, and quite, quite nice. Arabian Nights, with a straightforward offering of carnation, rose and amber does not disappoint, either.

    Others in that line, especially the ones featuring fruit, are EXACTLY as you describe the NK Pure – chemical, harsh, unpleasant. Santa Fe Breeze, Tequilla Sunrise…. the notes listed sound ever so tasty, which led this unsuspecting shopper to snap them up when they appeared on sale. Sadly, green chili’s, lime, and cranberries should stay in salsa and cocktails, not incense: Those two NK’s were acrid, artificial, and not worth repeating at any cost.

    Not ready to write off good ole’ NK Morning Star Basic, though. Some things are just classic.

  4. Terry said,

    August 1, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Hi folks,
    This has been a trend with Nippon-Kodo, In my opinion, for what it’s worth, only the top four or five selections from them are worth using. They used to make excellent incense back in the day. But they have sure dropped the ball in my court. On the other hand, you’re right about Baieido, they consistently make superb incense even at the lowest price range, and it only gets better the higher up you go.

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