It’s something of a convenience, but I tend to think of Korean incense as a hybrid of the Japanese style with Tibetan-like aromas. But ultimately they’re really a unique style with threads of similarity that run through almost 80% or more of what’s available. Korean incense tends to use ingredients both familiar and unfamilar to those found in other incenses. In particular, red sandalwood tends to show up quite frequently, and to a lesser extent elecampane, pine, along with the more familiar elements of frankincense, sandalwood, clove, and cinnamon.
Overall the description I could use for most of Korea’s incenses would be tangy. This in itself can be reminiscent of some of Japan’s less sweet aloeswoods and can approach similar elements in Kunmeido and Shunkohdo incenses. While the four incenses in review here are basically Korea’s finest and highest end incenses, lower end Korean sticks become a bit coarser with this tangy sort of aroma, and include what I’d almost describe as a mesquite/lime tinge. These qualities make it fairly difficult to differentiate the lower end sticks from one another, and it’s a pattern that follows Korean incenses from the most to least expensive. That is, while the style of incense is quite distinctive compared to incenses from other countries, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between similar Korean aromas. This is even the case with the two top line Korean incenses, Bo Rim and Ja-Kum.
Bo Rim means “treasure woods” in Korean and is the gem of Korean incense, a stick fine enough to compare to similarly priced Japanese aloeswood incenses. Described as a combination of pine and red sandalwood, other ingredient lists have Bo Rim containing aloeswood and while it’s not the particularly expensive, mind-expanding class of wood, it complements the rest of the ingredients nicely. The previously mentioned tanginess is almost perfect here, while in the less expensive sticks it can occasionally become cloying. Part of this is the high quality of wood used which imparts a smoothness that helps to bolster the more intense herbal content. The ingredients really help in making this a refined, world-class incense, one apparently enjoyed by the Dalai Lama himself. But be warned, if you start here you do run the risk of many other incenses from the country not being able to compete.
Ja-Kum (or Ja-Keum depending on transliteration, I’m using the spelling on the wooden tube) is an incense very close to Bo-Rim. The ingredients list is likely to be unfamiliar to most, including teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos. With all these new and unfamiliar ingredients, I found it to be surprising that it’s not particularly unlike Bo Rim, but with the herbal content starting to win out over the background woods. The tanginess is more pronounced and a little less balanced, but not so much as it is in the lower end sticks where it can be a little overbearing. Other than the Il-gakumun, this is one of the incenses that can be considered a high end version of many of the more inexpensive Koreans. Ja-Kum still has a slight alkaline edge, but it’s only a slight note here.
Given how similar so many of these Korean incenses can be, Seok-Hyang actually sticks out like a sore thumb, being very different to the tangier varieties of Korean incense. It’s basically a rather high quality sandalwood incense that can be reminiscent of Tibetan sandalwoods due to the occasionaly unusual spice involved. The stick itself is colored slightly pinkish intimating that there’s probably as much red as there is white sandalwood involved and the stick is also a bit thicker than most Koreans. Overall it’s similar to old mountain sandalwoods with a little kick added, one that can really hit the spot at times. Overall it’s a bit coarser than most Japanese sandalwoods and not quite as refined, but it’s unquestionably of good quality. It’s also reminiscent of the Essence of the Ages rope incense Nava Durga.
Il-gakmun‘s probably the least of these four (click to page 2 and scroll down to find it), the crossover incense into the multitude of lower end Korean incenses. In a way it does represent a step sideways from Ja-Kum. The main ingredients appear to be aloeswood, Japanese cedar and gardenia seeds, but there’s a large unknown herbal content that tends to dominate the wood. The tangy, mesquite qualities mentioned earlier are the most prevalent of the four in Il-gakmun, with a spice content that always reminds me of the oregano found in pizza sauce. It’s a difficult incense overall, with so many unfamiliar and possibly clashing elements that I’ve never been able to get comfortable with it, despite the quality of ingredients involved.
Coming up in a moment, a small series of notes on seven other Korean incenses that I wrote down so long ago I’ve almost forgotten, but might as well share while there’s a sale on.