Daihatsu / Myo-jou, Taganohana, Kaizan, Chyo-Sin

Daihatsu are a Japanese company who, like Nippon Kodo, tend strongly to modern styles of incense with the use of perfume blends. Unlike Nippon Kodo, Daihatsu manage to be fairly successful with the format, creating many incenses in the $5-$10 range that are quite good for the price. I’ve sampled the company’s Tanka range in the past; however, it’s this range of four sandalwood based incenses (scroll to bottom) that are a little closer to home in terms of traditional scents, even if these still could be considered modern in that the woods are married with strongly scented perfumes and/or oils to reach their aromas.

The four incenses in question here increase slightly in price for each title starting at $5-6 for Myo-jou and ending at $10-12 with Chyo-sin. All are boxes of approximately 55 sticks at 5 1/2 inches per stick, and the incenses all come in unusualy hexagonal, cardboard rolls within the boxes, rather nice packaging given the prices. All four incenses are sandalwood based, both in the oils and basic stick; however, most of the aromatic play appears to be in the perfume.

Myo-jou is unusual, at least for my tastes, in that it’s not only the most inexpensive incense of the four but it may be the one I prefer the most. It’s possibly the driest of the four incenses, although the top oil is among the most heavily scented of the four. Overall it’s a sort of sandalwood and spice blend where the spices help to bring out those very qualities in the wood. Along with the wood and spice, I smell hints of nougat, talcum powder and candy floss, although the sweetness of these side hints never overwhelm the odor. Like many incenses with so much in the play oils, the aroma is a bit on the shallow side, but it’s well-priced and certainly the best place to start in the Daihatsu catalog.

Taganohana acts almost as a contrast by being the incense of the four with the least strength in the perfume oil, letting some of the woody base play as part of the aroma. Cinnamon and star anise are added to the ingredients chart for this incense and you can get intimations of both, bolstering the spicier elements into a more richer aroma than the Myo-jou. With less of the oil in the play, this incense comes a bit closer to those in the Shoyeido Daily range. Of these four Daihatsus, Taganohana is probably the least sandalwood oriented. Comparing it to a Baieido spice stick like Koh or the Syukohokoku range demonstrates fairly well how different a perfume-fronted spice stick can be from a more traditional blend.

Kaizan seems to move back to an aromatic area closer to Myo-jou in that it’s another sandalwood and spices blend without a list of specific ingredients. It’s probably the most overtly perfumed of the four sandalwoods here with a more floral/vanilla/musk type of blend, soft, sultry and a bit muted. Of the four incenses here I think this was originally the one I liked second best, but over repeated use I’ve found the oil to be just a tad thin, as if it hints at something it never quites reach. On the other hand such a restrained formula keeps the incense from attaining the sorts of harsh, bitter or soapy notes you tend to find in modern and/or synthetic incenses, which, given how inexpensive these sticks are, is no mean feat.

The range’s high ender, Chyo-Sin, gets its price likely due to the presence of some rose oil with the sandalwood. I’m not particularly fond of rosewood sorts of incenses, but this is quite a bit different in the perfume, capturing elements a more natural stick might have missed. Part of this is the spice middle, which helps to balance the floral rose elements and give the incense some extra richness. Giving this a secondary revisit, I might have switched this box out with the Kaizan when I decided to buy two of the four boxes.

I found it interesting that secondary samples of Taganohana and Chyo-Sin both struck me as being a little less strong in aroma than I previously remembered, which I could chalk up either to a muted sense of smell or possibly a little degeneration, which is something a bit more common when the aromatics are carried by perfume. However, I found that this actually helped to bring the wood bases out a little more and improve my opinion of the range. Because overall if you put together affordability, packaging and perfume art success, these four Daihatus incenses actually do a pretty good job at hitting their marks. Given the price range, these tend to be as successful or more so than other modern incenses at the same range, which should make them well worth checking out for the price conscious.


Dzongsar Incense

Many Tibetan monasteries run out of China by the government are now exiled to India, Bhutan and Nepal; however, Dzongsar Gonpa still appears to be based in China. They’re the creator of one of Tibet’s most arcane and unusual incenses, the eponymous Dzongsar incense.

Dzongsar Incense doesn’t come with an ingredients list per se but is clearly a complicated polyherbal blend. It’s almost impossible to compare it to other incenses. The sticks are quite thick and the consistency of the sticks appear to be a bit denser than the normal Tibetan-style format. The ends of the sticks flatten out to make them look a bit like extended bows, something a bit problematic in removing the sticks from the otherwise useful container, my cylinder came with a few broken fragments. However, Dzongsar’s such a powerful and intense incense that even these fragments feel an awful lot like you’d just got done burning a full stick.

Dzongsar’s something of a conundrum, it’s a very difficult incense but it’s also a powerfully intuitive one, like the Tibetan Medical College incenses, Samye Monastery and Highland. This intuitive element is one I highly prize and was responsible for its showing in our Hall of Fame for about a week, until I started to feel that the combination of elements here might not be universally friendly among Western noses. It has similar elements in it to incenses like Essence of the Ages’ White Pigeon and Ayurvedic ropes, that is herbs and spices that are likely to remind one of funk, yeast and cheese at times. Combining these difficult blends with the massive intuitive power may even make these more difficult to swallow for Westerners, as this is a blend that has severe staying power.

Personally I find this sort of difficulty livens up a blend and in Dzongsar’s case there’s a real depth to it. There are hints of both the vegetable and animal here and the sorts of tangy smells that tend to be associated with some Chinese medicinal herbs. Like any incense that seems to have natural musk to it, there’s that staying power that’s similar to what it would be like if skunks had musk glands. An inch or two of this will scent a room for a surprisingly long time, with the difficulty a strong part of this.

Do we call these “expert” incenses? The concept in Japanese incense seems to relate to aloeswood depth, especially aloeswoods that aren’t as sweet and friendly. Dzongsar is one of those rare incenses that (even if aloeswood is here it’s submerged) does indeed bring a similar depth that’s quite resonant with the subconscious. Like all great high end incenses it’s evocative and memory image-retrieving. But it’s also ripe, weird, and perhaps a little dangerous.

Incense at The New York International Gift Fair

This weekend in New York City, August 16 & 17, The New York International Gift Fair will be happening. Scents of Japan, Shoyeido and Baieido will all have booths there. If you are in New York you might consider dropping by to check them out.

Generally speaking some of the companies bring their incense masters ( yes, the people who actually concoct the stuff we love to burn 🙂 ) there. Of course, if you get to talk to them, know now that I will be extremely jealous! But really, how totally cool would it be to meet these people? Very…


Japanese Granulated: Kunmeido / Tenkun, Kokuichi; Daihatsu / Shoin; Shoyeido / Reihai-Koh, Hoetsu

This is a very different style of scent properties then the loose incense’s that I have tried before. This style is some of the oldest and most traditional from the Japanese ( or anyone else for that matter). They basically tend to stay with a certain set of traditional ingredients, up until a point, it seems to me, where something like perfumes or essential oil comes into play. I could be completely wrong here( which happens a lot in my life 🙂 ) about this, it is after all, just my nose.

The overall hit I get from these is that there are many different levels at work in each one of them that, like any incense, will require time to figure out. I have keep the price point at the low end ( except for the Hoetsu) so that one does not have to break the bank to try these out.

You can use coals or a heater, I used both my trusty Shoyeido “wood body” as well as the new one from Mermade Magickal Arts( it rocks by the way) I find the ability to regulate the heat to be very handy.


Kunmeido: Tenkun
A light, pleasant, semi sweet floral scent, with a little bit of sharpness along the way, You might think of this as being what seems to be catorgized as a “classic Japanese floral” scent as opposed to the more perfumed, modern styles. Based on sandalwood and also, without any noticeable additions of Borneol Camphor. The floral scent seems to get used up pretty fast at higher temperatures.
It reminds me of something along the lines of, say, Kunmeido’s Heian Koh. Not as defined or elegant, but similar.

Kunmeido: Kokuichi
Similar venue to Tenkun but with more pronounced flavors or scents. There is also what seems to be a very small addition of Camphor notes coming up in this one. It has an overall sharper scent to it then Tenkue but then again, Camphor tends to boost everything up a notch( which is one of the reasons that it gets added to so many different incenses). Given the slight price increase I would think the quality of the ingredients is somewhat higher. Again, a nice, pleasant experience, something you could use to scent an area without smoke.

Daihatsu: Shoin
Sandalwood, Borneol Camphor, possibly clove and cassia and some other floral type scents, at least one seeming to be a perfume( could be wrong about this part). Usually I do not deal well with perfumes in incense, but whatever is in here works for me. There are many, many levels going on here, especially when you get your nose pretty close the “action”. A lot of bang for the buck, as the saying goes. Have become very partial to this one and its also does not hurt that it is pretty inexpensive. I can tell that I will end up getting the others in the line just to see how they progress up the line. I have high hopes 🙂 .

Shoyeido: Reihai-koh Prayer (4th down)
This is very different then the last three. Right off the bat, it is very heavy on the Borneol Camphor. So much so that it tends to dominate the woods and other spices. I could literally feel my sinuses clear up. Not to mention my focus seemed to become sharper, something I have not noticed this way before. Quite interesting and given the “Prayer” in the name sort of makes sense. A little goes a long way. I could see using this to rapidly effect a change in the energy levels of an environment, or to use it in a room first, before lighting other incense, just to clear the air. There is a great spice note behind the camphor, but it takes awhile to get there.

Shoyeido: Hoetsu (9th down)
Shoyeido lists this as having Agarwood, Other sites say Kyara. I have noticed that Shoyeido is a bit “coy” about ingredients. When I first got this, some 2-3 months ago it seemed so strong in floral/spice that for the life of me I could detect nothing except that. Right now there are a lot more levels becoming apparent. There really do seem to be some very good grades of woods in here as well as cloves and other spices. Some camphor and possibly a very (now)small touch of perfume or spice that really makes it special. Once the floral and spice top notes take flight you are left with the very nice wood notes, there is a very apparent scent progression going on here.
Hoetsu means Rapture, which might be pushing it somewhat. However I am having a revelation about this incense at the moment, which is a pretty good trade.
This particular incense is the most costly of the five reviewed here. I think I would have to tell you to start at the less expensive end and work your way up to see if you like this style.


Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land, Nectar

I’m so used to seeing Tibetan incense packages from $5 to $10 that when I started coming across packages more in the $15-20 range and even higher, I was very curious. Perhaps in the incense world more than anywhere else, the cost of an incense is quite reflective of its (rare, precious) contents and although there are a few exceptions, I’ve rarely been disappointed with high end Japanese incenses, so I wondered if the same theme would carry over with high end Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese incenses.

I’ve noticed that with some of the lower end Tibetan incenses that seem to have a large content of inexpensive wood, the ash is almost a dark, bluish gray. Many of these incenses smell like wood with flavoring in a manner that implies that the percentage of original aromatic ingredients is actually fairly low. While this type of ash isn’t particularly common overall (the Paljor incenses, Sonam and the Drepul Loseling incenses are three brands that do leave this sort of ash), it does seem to indicate what I’m calling a “leavened” incense and if it doesn’t imply a low quality base, it does imply a small portion of quality ingredients.

Moving to high-end Tibetan incenses is as shocking and revelationary as moving to high-end Japanese incenses, although the effects on the pocket book will fortunately be less severe. Even if you’re familiar with Mandala Trading, Dhoop Factory, Himalayan Herbal Company and other excellent and affordable Tibetan incense companies, moving to some of the more independent monastery incenses with price tags well into the $15-$40 range, will be a big surprise. Not only are the contents relatively unleavened, but you’re also dealing with ingredients that are likely to be considered transgressive from a Western green-minded perspective. It’s perhaps fortunate that these ingredients, generally real musk and real nagi/pangolin scales, are left obscure. For example if you list nagi, most Westerners are likely to consider it one of a number of unidentified, transliterated ingredients that are basically unknown. And if you list musk, the reader’s likely going to be trained to assume it’s vegetable musk. In many of these high end Tibetan blends, at the very least your nose is going to be telling you quite a bit more. There’s an unparalleled intensity in incenses from Tibetan Medical College, Highland Monastery, Samye Monastery and others that likely can be both accounted for by these ingredients as well as concentration.

As discussed here, there’s an intuitive aspect to burning incense. As with anything intuitive, approaching the subject with words is somewhat counterproductive as words can really never broach this area with any ease. From a personal perspective, the first time I lit a stick of Tibetan Medical College Nectar, the effect was like electricity, a charge of energy similar to the first time one experiences a quality aloeswood. The aroma penetrates like a knife, a combination of woods, herbs and spices that’s almost difficult to discuss due to the aromatic power and consistency. And like any great intuitive experiences, it was followed by a passionate response, an almost disbelief that a scent like this exists. It was as if the coils of smoke totally arrested me. I’ve since started calling this effect Tibetan or incense juju (a creative license) and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying these incenses have medical efficacy in the way Westerners consider it, there’s no question that these scents have an intuitive power that really sets them apart from 95% of the available imported Tibetan incenses.

Holy Land is Tibetan Medical College’s top grade incense and it very well might be the finest Tibetan-style incense available. Having started with the Nectar and moved to this one, I found this to be a step up and I was already over the moon with the Nectar. The central scent to this incense (and very close to the central scent for Nectar) is one of a big bowl of salted pistachio nuts, particularly the ones that used to be more frequently available that were red-dyed. But this is only the beginning. This intensity is mixed through out with a plethora of woods, florals, herbs and spices, not to mention a distinct musk that while not a central aspect to the overall scent, creates a give and take in the aroma that affords it greater complexity. The floral thread is like lily or jasmine, very subtle, but it manifests in the most incredible ways. Outside of aloeswood, I’ve experienced no other incense other than the Highland to continue to invoke scent memories no matter where I am. An experience like no other, this is a hall of fame incense whose relative affordability compared to Japanese sticks makes it an excellent buy.

One session I decided to light a stick of Nectar after the Holy Land and realized I could actually barely smell it. But that’s an observation more on the strength of Holy Land, as Nectar’s as likely to do the same to other Tibetan incenses even if the central pistachio-like center has been leavened with even more floral notes. The reddish color does imply this may be Tibetan Medical College’s “B” grade in some way, with the addition of juniper berries being fairly obvious. But like with the Mindroling Grade B this move doesn’t create a B grade so much as a different incense, with the berries and floral notes imparting rose-like scents to the mix. The ingredients noted in the Holy Land do seem to be here in smaller quantities but that mix was so powerful that it’s still heavily aromatic even here and thus I’d suggest starting here with the College incenses as Holy Land will only seem like another step up in comparison.

Overall these two blends are at the apex of Tibetan incense art. The ingredients are top class, the blends totally original and unlike no other company’s incenses and the intuitive impact, possibly as a result, is heavily subconscious. There be magic here…

Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Agarwood, Forest, Peppermint, Frankincense, Sandalwood, (Fresh) Green Tea (Sencha), Tea, Coffee

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

The eight incenses in question here are part of Shoyeido’s pressed Xiang-Do line, a series of short incenses using a patented technology to create aromas that are much more intensified than one finds in traditional and even most modern or perfumed lines. In this group are what I consider perhaps the best of the line, 16 incenses of which are currently exported to the United States. More details on the line can be found in the first Xiang-Do article which can be accessed by clicking on the above link.

For a company well-known for deep and deluxe aloeswood incenses, the Agarwood version of Xiang-Do actually evinces as much the woody scents of aloeswood as the resin scents and as such this incense reminds me of more inexpensive aloeswood sticks, where the actual bitterness of the wood peaks through. Xiang-Do does manage to balance these aspects of the scent so they’re not as harsh as they would be in a traditional incense, the results of which give this incense a very unusual scent. It’s the least sweetest incense in the line and as such may be slightly unfriendly to the casual user, but appreciators of aloeswood may end up liking this one the most.

I have an extreme fondness for Xiang-Do Forest, possibly due to the way it hits some notes of a pine incense I used to like as a teenager, in fact that might have been one of the first incenses to really grab my attention. Almost every time I burn this it’s somewhat evocative of these years, with an extremely fresh, concentrated, multi-evergreen blend that smells of pine, fir and other conifers. It’s perfectly made for the style, with all these fresh evergreen-like resins working well under such concentrations. I’m on my second if not third box of this aroma and really wish this was one they brough 60/80 stick packages over for. It may be one of my favorite incenses for breaking up a string of traditionals.

I warmed up to Peppermint immediately. It probably should be said that Xiang-Do incenses that are very close to one another in the rainbow of colors are quite close in scent at times, and this subrange of greener Xiang-Dos tends to appeal to me a little more than the others. In fact that the Peppermint is colored greenish gives way to the idea that it’s actually more of a peppermint/spearmint sort of combination, the latter quality being part of its richness with the peppermint notes on top. It’s as cooling as you’d want, with a bit of that green freshness that Forest also has.

Frankincense I like in most incenses, but I found this version to be slightly disappointing, perhaps because sticks from Tennendo, Minorien et al tend to capture some of the high quality resin’s more profound notes. The Xiang-Do version is somewhat muted, icy white and overall a bit on the standard side. I’ve used the white coil in the Sakaki set as a comparison ever since a reader pointed it out, they both have a sweet and candy-like nature to them that capture the center of the resin pretty well. But for such a concentrated series, I actually expected this to be closer to the resin than it was.

Like the Agarwood, the Sandalwood seems a bit closer to standard or lower quality wood without a lot of quality resin notes. It does manage to come off rather woody for the style, without the sort of spicy breadth to it you tend to expect in pressed incenses. Overall it’s a bit airy and powdery, surprisingly light for the style and scent. I’m always amazed at the restraint of these incenses, when stylistically they could be a lot more off. That it actually seems woody still in this sort of base is rather clever.

The last three Xiang-Do incenses here have been marketed in a sampler subtitled “Fresh,” but I believe this may be just a way to promote them in the United States, as like the others in the line all have a number, implying a much larger range to be found in Japan. All three of these follow the wave of popularity of tea and coffee incenses, a passion I only partially share.

The Green Tea (or Sencha) incense is roughly in the Forest and Peppermint vein, and like many Green Teas I’m always struck by their sweet patchouli-sort of aromas. Fortunately the central green tea oil does bring out the leaf quite a bit, I’m always reminded of sage family plants when I smell this, almost as if there’s a slightly psychoactive side to it. It does have the range’s rich base to it and I was actually a little surprised this one didn’t grab me as much as I’d expected, although I’m definitely warming to it with every stick.

It was actually the Tea incense itself that really impressed, a reddish, pungent blend that combined tea with spices in a way that reminds me of Chai without the milk. There’s both jasmine and cinnamon/clove hints that really give this a richness beyond just the leaf itself and I fell for this in a way that puts this on my next Shoyeido shopping trip. Tea, spice and floral all at once, there’s a definitely exotic bent to this that’s as far away from Earl Grey or Darjeeling as you can get.

Readers will know I don’t go for Coffee incenses in general (and I should mention that I do love coffee itself) and while this Xiang-Do moved a little closer to the bullseye for me, due to the way the overall aroma smells more like vats of crushed beans than a café after a long day, it still doesn’t strike me as something I’d particularly want to fragrance a room with. But overall if you are a fan I think this is one you might prefer as it has an intensity that helps to mitigate the funkier aspects found with charcoal coffees.

I noticed by looking at the numbers on the Xiang-Do boxes that there has to be a good four or five dozen more aromas we don’t even see in the United States, similar to the LISN lines. It’s hard to imagine how successful more aromas would be given the short stick and expensive (14.75 for 20 sticks) price. When I think of these incenses, I think of them as game changers, that is a pleasant way to mix up my traditional incenses without the funkier perfumes. One can find samplers of the line in order to check these out on your own, as the style is similar enough in most cases that everyone’s going to find their favorites. For me, the Forest is the huge favorite, although I’m finding Peppermint and Tea to be both on the ascendance in terms of use. And as a great example of a modern style, these are incenses likely to be friendly to the visitor who is casual about these things.

Shoyeido / Floral World / Royal

I wrote about the highest end of the four sets of Shoyeido Floral incenses a while back, a set that contains some of the most beautiful and refined floral incenses available, with oils that are so well defined that the incenses are among the most complex florals available. Moving down from this box is difficult because you have that general idea that the next item down won’t be quite as impressive, but at least in the case of Shoyeido’s Royal box, the drop off is fairly insignificant. The incenses here do lose a part of their definition, but to speak of them as less enjoyable is something of an exercise in splitting hairs.

The comparison between the Star set and the Royal set, however, are somewhat appropriate as both sets share Jasmine and Sandalwood incenses, even if the styles of both are quite different. The Sandalwood incense in both sets is about the same green color, but the Jasmine in the Star is red, while here it’s blue. Rather than Violet, Royal has the line’s highest end Rose incense. And there’s a $20 difference between boxes, with Royal retailing at $39.95. This keeps Royal well within the highest end of all floral incense ranges.

Like with Star, Royal leads off with a Jasmine incense, in this case a dark, powdery blue type of scent, rather than the lilting and subtle aroma of the Star Jasmine. While one immediately notices that the jasmine oil used in the Royal doesn’t have as much complexity (which is not a criticism really, it’s a characteristic common of most florals), it’s still high quality, but it’s not like one can attend to the intricacy like one can with the Star version. While the Royal Jasmine does lose this sense of mirage-like movement and the decorous, delicate nature of the oil, it’s very difference as an almost night-time and mysterious sort of Jasmine, helps to contrast the two as two very different scents, both of them extremely worthy in their own way. That it really doesn’t suffer much in comparison is quite impressive.

I’ve mentioned often enough as a disclaimer that I’m not much for Rose incenses. Prior to the Royal version I might have picked Shoyeido’s Xiang-Do Rose as my favorite due to its concentration and base, but this version is definitely a step up. For one thing its rose aroma seems quite authentic and of the three incenses in this set it definitely has the most oil definition. Where in many other rose incenses I could point out bitter, astringent or even sour qualities around the edges, the creators have managed to balance those out nicely here. But above all the main reason why this succeeds for me is that it also reflects the rose as an esoteric symbol, its aroma continually unfolding, sweet, uplifting and multidimensional.

Royal’s Sandalwood strikes me both as very similar and quite a bit different to the Star Sandalwood, probably because they’re both sandalwood florals that have quite a bit of complexity to them. Both of these sandalwoods aren’t sandalwoods in the most common sense in that neither are particularly woody, it’s more that the aspects of sandalwood that most closely conform to floral highlights are accentuated in these incenses. In this Royal version the incense is fresh and spicy as well as floral. It strikes me as similar to a hybrid between a 12 Month and a LISN incense with its perfume, the rich base of the former style with the sultry perfumes of the latter. Here the scents bring out cinnamon, pear, spearmint, green tea and sweet patchouli.

I’ve actually made this set the centerpiece for a floral starter kit, because it covers three important elements, an excellent jasmine, an excellent rose and an excellent floral sandalwood, all of which free up the rest of the set to concentrate on other floral aromas. Even with the Star hanging overhead with promise, this set is indeed Royal and well worth the price for its fine representations of these perfumes.

Baieido / Syukohkoku

Late last year I wrote about Baieido’s Tokusen Syukohkoku, a premier incense if there ever was one and one I would almost see as more comfortable in the Baieido aloeswood ranges. Included in this same general category at the Baieido website is Kai Un Koh. Syukohkoku completes this fine trio, one that could be considered aloeswood spice blends, except that in this case Baieido’s Ogurayama aloeswood is being used.

Given that Syukohkoku is the lower priced incense compared to the Tokusen (excellent) version, the biggest surprise might be just how high quality the blend is and how close it really is to the Tokusen version. In fact while it’s difficult to say anything definitive about Baieido aloeswood incenses due to their wonderfully long learning curves, the regular Syukohkoku really does smell like the same incense with a sweeter aloeswood. I would guess that there have been some adjustments in the spice to compliment, but like in some Tibetan monastery blends it’s not difficult to see these two as A and B blends. Someone might prefer the sweet aloeswood (Ogurayama) over the spicy (Hakusui) and thus choose one of the two to preference. Where the Tokusen has some slightly wild notes due to the Hakusui aloeswood, the regular Syukohkoku seems a tad more restrained, but overall both are very high quality and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised going from the Tokusen to the vanilla. Syukohkoku still has quite the spice content and the richness of any good aloeswood incense.

And of course the thread running through this august company’s fine incense line is just how quality these blends are and how much the natural ingredients truly do the talking. While Baieido incense may seem reserved and contemplative at first in compared to louder and more oil-based incenses, regular users still continue to find more and more aspects of the scents, subtle, ineffable as if one has to wait for each new mnemonic revelation.

Notes on a few other Korean incenses

I wrote these notes down long enough ago that I won’t be able to add much from memory to the reviews, but hopefully these could be considered of assistance in those interested in the Essence Korean incense sale.

Chung-Shim – pizza spice, sandalwood, wood slightly tart/sweet, slight Tibetan

Dabo – wood and tang, mellow, slightly spicy

Baeknan – undistinguished, small amount of high quality sandalwood mixed with cheaper wood

Dahyang – like mesquite/lime, woody/citrus

Danshim – like White Pigeon tibetan, slight mesquite/lime

Geumnan – like a stiff drink, almost saturated alcohol-like aroma with mesquite/lime

Shin Geumnan – Similar to Geumnan but more refined and a bit closer to the premium Koreans, slight tang

Sam-Sung / Bo Rim, Ja-Kum, Seok-Hyang, Il-gakmun

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.

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