Labuleng Zhang Snowfield Chinese Herbal Incense (Discontinued)

Every once in a while you come across an incense where just trying to figure out the name is difficult. Essence of the Ages has this incense marked as Labrang, which might seem to be a drift of spelling, but when you see the microscopic English font that describes the incense it’s easy to see why. The other aspect is the biggest font on the package actually says Snowfield Chinese Herbal Incense. It’s difficult to tell whether Snowfield or Labuleng is the right “company” so to speak and it’s confused even more by the fact there’s also a perfume company involved.

In fact having a perfume company on board, while par for the course for Japanese or Indian incense, is quite unusual for Tibetan style incenses. And in fact it would really be difficult to think of this as a Tibetan style, as the sticks are about half as thin as the normal size. They are, however, very long and given you get three rolls of this for $10.50, this is actually a very inexpensive incense. Usually this isn’t a good sign where perfume is concerned, but as you might expect the way the base and perfumes work together in this incense is entirely unlike anything you’ve probably tried before.

For one thing, Labuleng is a surprisingly mellow incense. The fresh stick isn’t particularly heavy with oil or perfume, but it does give off a scent entirely different from most Tibetan sticks, that tend to be earthy, stable-like or heavily herbal. The incense goes for a much more subtle approach, part-Temple, part modern. It’s fairly basic at heart with what seems like a solid, if somewhat inexpensive sandalwood background. The scent on top is wet, slightly floral (in the jasmine direction) incense that reminds me a little of the Grade 1 Mindroling in that it’s not the kind of incense to leap out and grab you, but seems to be ultimately of good quality.

Perhaps the only downside is that the mellowness doesn’t give it a tremendous personality, but I don’t think that makes it any different than most incenses in its price range. On the contrary, its restrained personality might appeal to those who like less smoke incenses, as it’s always unobtrusive and light hearted.


Shoyeido / Genji / Otome (Maiden), Momiji-Noga (Autumn Colors) (Discontinued), Mio-Tsukushi (Caring)

Shoyeido announced their new Genji series (at least in the United States) in June 2008, incorporating within several incense sets already available, including two of the sets in this review. The Genji series, as mentioned in my previous review in the series, Sakaki, is based around the classic Japanese literary work “Tales of the Genji,” a book whose influence on these incenses is likely to be obscure for the Western incense appreciator. Part of this is that the multi-aroma incense sets often do not provide specific names or scent types for the incense styles, rather they are often based on a concept from the book. This leaves it almost entirely up to our noses in order to appraise some of the Genji series. The three sets here are all labelled as limited editions, although they don’t appear to be selling particularly fast and all seem to be available as of the time of this writing.

The Otome (Maiden) set is a good example of this sort of presentation. Like Sakaki, the four scents seem to roughly line up to the colors assigned to the points of the compass, although in this case they are not presented in this way. The set itself is almost like a fancy picture frame, with a surprisingly solid wooden frame around the set that likely contributes to the terrifically high cost. Within are five triangular pieces each of four different scents, a style sort of like a flattened cone. These triangles burn on top of a flat holder provided with the set and they burn fast at 9 minutes per piece. Even aside from the aromas themselves, this is a very expensive gift set, with much of the cost part of the aesthetic presentation.

The incenses themselves seem to strike some fairly safe ground, with none of the four evincing particularly high ingredient quality. The purple triangle is an aloeswood incense very similar to the Xiang-Do style in terms of the wood quality (as woody and bitter as it is resinous), however it is overlaid with some unusual floral hints that remind me a bit of violet. The spiciness and sweetness give it a pleasant balance, but overall it’s not likely to impress anyone on either side of the aloeswood divide. The red triangle is particularly user friendly and seems to be something of a cherry blossom incense. It’s quite pleasant but muted, attempting to target an audience that likes a combination of floral and fruity scents. The tan triangle returns to a far more woodier arena, although I only started picking up the aloeswood notes in the second and third triangles I burned. There seems to be quite a bit of sandalwood and benzoin in this one, and it has a slight bitterness I found appropriate, giving it an earthy almost gravelly sort of aroma. Just a bit of sweetness prevents it from being too harsh. The green triangle seems fairly typical of Shoyeido sets in that it’s the sort of aroma that evokes both patchouli and green tea. I found this triangle to be the most perfumed of the four, sweet and strong with slight hints of mint. Overall it reminded me of Horin Gen-roku without the aloeswood or the green shapes in the Himenoka pressed set.

Both Momiji-Noga and Mio-Tsukushi have been in Shoyeido’s catalog since I’ve been paying attention to it. Momiji-Noga in particular comes in a very striking and unique set whose artistic beauty and creative cleverness is apparent just from the presentation. Momiji-Noga (Autumn Colors) is incense shaped as slight arching clouds that, like Otome, sit on a flat burner. The incense itself sits on two bases with the opposite tips available to light. Momiji-Noga could be the toughest incense to light in the Shoyeido stable, the incense seeming to be a little more dense than usual. It’s fortunate that it’s a very pleasant scent, one I found to noticeably improve with each piece I tried. The cloud pieces are mustard yellow flecked with red (reflecting the autumnal motif) and give off a combination of aloeswood, sandalwood and spices that seem insular and hard to parse at first but give way to some very subtle impressions as the burn intensifies in smoke due to the format. The aloeswood isn’t high end as usual, but in this case those top bitter notes are well balanced by the spice. The sandalwood is the much stronger presence, almost poignant here. While overall, you’re still paying quite a bit of money for the presentation, the incense appreciator will likely not be terribly disappointed by the scent, which in a way is almost like a variant of the Daily Haku-Un, with a bit of muskiness in the background. I like this one the more I experience it.

Mio-Tsukushi seems to be the remaining set on Shoyeido that comes in small, flat packages, the incense accessed by opening the flap (there used to be 2 or 3 more sets in this vein). The sticks are even shorter than those in the Horin ranges, with a stylized shape to the stick that’s not entirely cylindrical. The color is a bit greyer in person than it is in the photo in the previous link (probably a matter of lighting). The 15 minutes per stick seems to be an outlier from my experience, I’d say the burn length is a few minutes shorter. The scent isn’t terribly far from Momija-Noga, a little bit closer to Haku-Un in the muskiness but with more spice notes, an earthiness that seems akin to either patchouli or vetivert. Like the brown triangle in the Otome set, it took a couple pieces to start noticing that there is something of an aloeswood note with this one, but of all the incenses in this review with one, this is its faintest presence. The cinnamon and clove notes are probably more noticeable and all of these ingredients make it a fairly busy incense whose combinations imply something a bit more ineffable. It’s the kind of scent that probably needs a bit more burn time to be successful, each stick finishing its burning before I could really detect the subtler notes. I’d be on the fence with this one if it weren’t so pricy.

Genji sets are probably only worth the cost if one considers the aethetic presentations part of the price (Otome retails at a whopping $52.50, Mio-tsukushi at $39.95 [9/28/21 – Both huge increases since this review was written]). While most of these scents still reflect the quality of Shoyeido’s work, it’s clear from the incenses that they’re using lower quality ingredients than you might find buying a box of Shoyeido at a similar price that’s not a gift set. For example, you’d be getting a much better deal for your money buying a box of Kyo-jiman, a far better incense than any of these. With all sets such as this, the danger is falling in love with one of the scents, only to realize it’s an expensive restock. With the massive increase in pricing that follows the trip across the Pacific, these incenses are generally well below what would be their natural price range. But like Encens du Monde’s Prince of Awaji, while one might be deterred by the expense, it’s nearly impossible not to admit you’re still dealing with very good incense, just not cost-effective incense.

Bakhoors (by Nancy)

Brief yet informative page on the use and application of Arabian Bakhoors. Cool photos of traditional burners included!

Best Incense – October 2008 (by Nancy)

1.  Awaji-Baikundo / Jihi – Most of us know hydrangea as the common garden bush with enormous flower clusters.  It is sensitive to the pH of soil, blooming pink when alkaline and blue when acidic.  Here it is mixed with the famous substance know simply as amber, an ancient Ayurvedic blend of benzoin resin and vanilla in a beeswax base, that elevates consciousness and opens the heart chakra.  In Japan hydrangea is used in both celebrations and offerings, said to clear the mind of misfortune, relieve tension, and grant one courage and happiness.  This very unusual incense is a blend of the two with a delicate, sweet and exquisite scent with just a hint of camphor to round it out.  The heavy, earthiness of the amber is a perfect foil for the pale, airy nature of the hydrangea, resulting in a mind-blowing combination of cultures and aromas.  The day I received my first box of this incense, I spent about an hour burning stick after stick, lying in savasana, with the burner placed mere inches from my nose so as not to miss a single molecule.  Now it is one of my favorites to light at night; I find it helps me drift off into a most peaceful sleep.  This incense is produced on Awaji, an island located off the coast of Osaka in the Seto Inland Sea, where 70% of Japan’s incense is manufactured.

2.  Shoyeido / Premium Incense / Ohjya-koh (King’s Aroma) – Made by Shoyeido, a 12th generation incense manufacturer founded in 1705.  This company is considered to produce some of the finest, most natural incense in the world.  Burning traditional Japanese herbal incense is an incomparable experience, nothing like burning charcoal dipped in a synthetic perfume.  The roots, barks, resins, oils, leaves, and flowers used have actual medicinal and psychotropic properties that are not replicated by artificial copies.  King’s Aroma is from Shoyeido’s Premium Incense line, a collection with a price range that spans from $15.95 all the way up to $599.00.  King’s Aroma is one of the less expensive options, and one that I find a lot more accessible to my western nose.  The scent is very crisp, combining sandalwood with cloves and patchouli.  It is refreshing and almost minty, but relaxing instead of being  stimulating.  Truly one to savor and best used on special occasions.

3.  Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-machi (City of Culture) – Like their Xiang Do and Incense Road lines, Shoyeido’s Horin line comes in potent 2.75″ sticks.  I truly enjoy this line as much for the clever packaging as for its unusual and unique scents.  Each box contains 20 sticks in a clever paper puzzle box with a biodegradable burner tucked away into a separate compartment.  City of Culture is my favorite of the five from this collection, a very unique blend that is not resinous or floral but decidedly herbal.  There is an additional almost acrid overtone as well making this one of the most unusual incenses I have ever smelled.  I find it complex and entrancing, perfect for meditation, with a deep and layered quality.  Truly a masterpiece!  Also available in coils, the Horin incenses are definitely one of the most remarkable and unique offering from Shoyeido’s extensive catalog.

4.  Keigado / West Temple – Incense burning has a long and ancient history of use in asian cultures as a measure of time.  Before mechanical clocks, incense blends were refined and calibrated as much for scent as for consistency of burn time.  At 12 inches long, this extra thick, slow-burning blend smolders for an amazing 90 minutes!  Designed specifically for meditation and prayer, the burning of this incense delineates the perfect length of a meditation session, allowing you to ignore time for a spell and focus inward.  Delicious and rich, West Temple is an unadulterated stick of the finest sandalwood, with the true scent of the wood coming through.  It is intended to be used in the evening, west being the direction of the setting sun.  It’s perfect compliment is East Temple, also from Keigado, a spicier and more stimulating blend of sandalwood, ideal for morning meditations.

5.  Shoyeido / Xiang Do / Peppermint – Coming in at a diminutive 2.75″ and with a total burning time of only 20 minutes, these short incense sticks are potent enough to fill even a large room.  While most incense is extruded and cut to length, Shoyeido’s Xiang Do series is pressed into shape with an exclusive process.   Each little box of sticks comes with a tiny biodegradable burner made of pressed paper tucked into a secret compartment on the underside of the package.  This makes them perfectly portable for traveling or when going on a hike in the woods with the intent of having a little outdoor nature meditation.  The Xiang Do series has 16 flavors in a rainbow of colors, each sparkling like jewels due to the inclusion of powdered mica in the blends.  Flavors range from woods like Frankincense and Palo Santo, to florals like Rose and Lavender, and a few more cryptic flavors like Mixed Fruits and Marine.  My most favorite of all is the Peppermint.  Such an unusual variety of incense executed beautifully with just the right amount of peppermint coming through in the very last note of each waft.  Peppermint is energetically cooling, used in herbal medicine to tame fevers, heartburn, sore throats, and the like.  As an incense I find it most appropriate for hot summer afternoons.

6.  Baiyeido / Bayakudan Kobunboku – A delicious, light mix of sandalwood and aloeswood.  The perfect blend of two of the most famous incense woods, suitable for daily use.  Sandalwood is so valued for its aroma and healing properties that all of the trees in India and Nepal are officially owned by the government, its sale being heavily regulated by CITES and other trade agreements.  It is used extensively in churches and temples because it induces a meditative state of mind.  Aloeswood, even more rare, is an aged wood formed when injured trees produce an abundance of resin, then fall to rest on the forest floor, sometimes for hundreds of years.  In this incense, neither wood dominates the other, blending together perfectly to form yet another scent, one that strongly imparts a sense of peace and relaxation.  I burn this one 5 sticks at a time, practically smudging my house.  This incense is very woodsy without being heavy, harsh, or too smoky.  A nice blend devoid of distraction or ornamentation, pure and simple and reminiscent of the warm burn of an open campfire.

7.  Baiyeido / Kai un Koh – An unusual square stick of incense with the pronounced aroma of cloves.  Traded heavily since the middle ages, this common spice was once worth its weight in gold.  Actually the bud of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, cloves contain about 15% essential oil, the highest percentage of any plant.  Because of this high oil content cloves are always used sparingly, whether to flavor tobacco, curries, chai, or incense.  Unlike most blends, this one is motivating and energizing, pungent and even slightly bitter, but still with a high note of sweetness.  Cloves are energetically warming with a heavy spiciness, so this incense is best suited for cooler seasons or chilly mornings.  Sharp and aromatic, I find Kai un Koh to be mentally stimulating as well, making it an ideal choice to enjoy during  philosophical conversations.

8.  Keigado / Kaori – Smooth and mellow, burning this incense is like floating on a fluffy cloud.  The honey gives this stick a warmth and sweetness, while the sandalwood adds depth and weight.  This blend reminds me of toasted marshmallows or honey wine aged to perfection.  Along with Awaji-Baikundo’s Jihi, this is one of my favorites to burn when I go to sleep at night.  Far from being cloying and sticky, this honey incense is light and airy.  Like Nag Champa, this incense works well for covering heavy cooking odors, but distinguishes itself from the Indian blend by avoiding an perfumey overtones.  Very clean and natural and beautifully packaged in a colorful  six-sided  box.

9.  Shoyeido / Aesthetics Series / Shino-nome (First Light) – A light blend of sandalwood and cinnamon from Shoyeido’s Aesthetic Series, a line designed to produce less smoke than their traditional blends.  I burn this one at my acupuncture practice and everyone who walks through the door comments that they love it.  Also, it is less smoky so it doesn’t irritate those with sensitive lungs or eyes.  I burn only half a stick at a time and find it enough to clear the air.  (The other half I usually burn in the planter outside for those passing by to enjoy.)  This incense is rich and  uplifting.  It is universally loved and is one of my favorites for gift giving.  For the true addicts, Shoyeido even offers a 10-bundle gift box!

10.  Minorien / Frankincense – Minorien produces only five kinds of incense: Sandalwood, Frankincense, Aloeswood, Kyara, and Kyara Ryugen.  If you appreciate frankincense, this is a great way to experience it in its pure form!  I love this wood, but find most other varieties to either be too strong or combined with too many other ingredients, hiding the pure scent.  Frankincense is very resinous and can be overpowering, so skilled preparation is essential.  The smell is definitely heavy and woody, with a deep aromatic quality like cinnamon or cloves.  First mentioned in the Chinese literature in 500 AD it was then referred to as fan hun my  or “calling back the soul fragrance,” a reference to its use in funerary rites.  It has also been used for prayer, meditation, anointing, and even medicine, both topically and internally for pain.  It is related to myrrh and both species of tree grow primarily Somalia and the southern Arabian peninsula.  Like sugar maples, the trees are tapped for their sap, which is harvested and hardens into “tears” over the course of a few months.  This wood and its resin has been so valuable and important to human civilization that The Frankincense Trail in Oman, which includes ancient trees and the remains of a medieval caravan oasis, has been registered with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2000.

Snow Land / Purification, Peace (Discontinued Line)

Snow Land is a Tibetan monastery that produces well above-average incense, although pricewise only the Purification incense (scroll to bottom) would rate as a high ender. Snow Land’s Peace (also scroll to bottom), while costing $10 a package, contains two rolls of long stick incense, making it a very good bargain for the price. Like most of the monasteries creating high quality and/or high end incense, Snow Land produces rather distinctive aromas that sets itself apart from other monasteries. However in both cases they don’t go for extract or musk-heavy scents nor settle for inexpensive aromas with high contents of cheap wood.

Snow Land Purification incense, while seeming to consist of high quality ingredients, actually has a very subtle, smooth and sophisticated aroma to it and isn’t quite as arresting as most of the incenses in its price range. The comparisons (thanks Beth!) to a single malt scotch or cognac are quite interesting, possibly due to the way the herbs manage to resemble some of the peatier and heather-like elements of a good whisky, while managing to give off a very polished and smooth smell. In many ways this is the yin to the yang of the Peace incense, as it’s not a multiplex aroma peppered through with various subscents to capture your imagination. Rather it seems to go for the sublime quality, creating a very pleasant base (a lot of sandalwood, particularly red) with some coppery hints, but giving way to a slight sublime edge that I could imagine would be very effective for meditation. It’s quite possible this has a long learning curve to it as it keeps giving me ineffable impressions throughout the light.

Snow Land Peace is packaged in a neat box with Tibetan motifs that are almost psychedelic or at least visionary art. It’s a substantially long stick created from what seems like a menagerie of ingredients. It’s quite similar to the Medicine King sticks in that the central aroma of the incense tends to grains and spices, giving the scent hints of corn, barbeque chips, wheat, tobasco sauce, ketchup and lots of pepper. It seems a vastly complex incense as even though these hints give the impression it smells like cooking, the woodiness and spice content add a bit of sweetness and depth to the overall scent often giving me the impression it’s like two incenses fused into one, one a more traditional Temple or meditation incense, the other something much more savory and edgy. It’s quite organic overall with a slight musk background similar to Mindroling Grade 1 and over time I’m finding this more and more akin to a high end incense, possibly due to the stick’s cutting power.

Incenses like this remind you of just how wide ranging scents can be even within one particular style or country. They’re likely to appear to the adventurous who will marvel over how different both of these incenses are in completely different ways.

Zongkar Choede / Zongchoe, Kalachakra

In preparing this write up, it hadn’t quite sunk in that often long stick versions of incenses have different ingredient formulations, as we all learned recently with the long stick Holy Land incense. Zongkar Choede Monastery offers “regular” Zongchoe in four different lengths, as well as what looks like a long stick (similarly packaged to Tashi Lhunpo’s Local incense with red cellophane). Both incenses are described as having over 20 ingredients, so the assumption made is that the Zongchoe long is just a longer version of the “regular” incense.

However while this assumption could be incorrect, Zongchoe incense is such a standard Tibetan incense, that it could be a while before I run out of this “style” and want to check out a new variant. Zongchoe is what I’m coming to think of as the Tibetan “berry” style, a deep red stick that combines woods, herbs, probably a large proportion of juniper and a touch of spice to create a very friendly incense with tones of cherry, strawberry, and red florals. Incenses like this are quite prevalent, a quick scan of my data turns up both Drepul Loseling incenses, the high to mid grade Nado Poizokhangs, Mindroling Grade 2, certain Nub Gon and Stupa incenses, and almost the entire Tashi Lhunpo catalog where even the sticks without the red coloring have a similar scent. Zongkar itself is one of the better variants in this style due to the quality ingredients and a bit of bolstering to the herbal middle of the scent. It’s also very affordable, especially compared to the higher end Tibetan sticks, so it’s not a bad place to start to check out this very pleasant incense style, especially with some very affordable small boxes to start out with.

Zongkar Choede’s Kalachakra is quite a bit more special. Unlike the central Zongchoe incenses, Kalachakra is an earthy, tangy incense with a lot of late summer sort of aroma’s from ripened fruit to the soil of a rich harvest. Amidst such density are hints of olives, clay, flowers, hops and raisins, surrounding a central sweetness and a slight cookie spice to it. I noticed some similarities to the Kaqyudpa Monastery Blue Sky in terms of that raisin or even prune like background scent. Like a lot of good Tibetan incenses, Kalachakra has just a touch of an edge to it, hinting at wilder and “less friendly to Western noses” herbs. If it has anything in common with Zongchoe incense, it’s the high quality of ingredients.

Although it’s taking me a while as I survey various Tibetans, I’m finding there to be a difference between various companies in terms of lower end incenses. That is, there are some very standard and affordable Tibetan incenses, most of them heavy with inexpensive woods, that seem to have a drier burn that intimates that some of the ingredients have lost a bit of their aroma and energy. Zongkar Choede incenses are in that other group, still very affordable, but having a bit of punch and vibrancy that bespeaks of high quality control and freshness. It’s not a bad monastery to check out for something affordable and enjoyable.

Three Spice Blends (Daihatsu / Bodaiju, Keigado / Kaori (Discontinued), Awaji-Baikundo / Shoujou)

These are all gathered within the “spice” category of incense blends. They are all different and also different enough from other company’s offerings to be worth a look.  They won’t break the bank and would make great gifts to beginning as well as experienced users.

Daihatsu Bodaiju
This is listed as pure sandalwood and cinnamon. I can taste the Sandalwood, but must admit that the cinnamon is unlike any I have smelled before. However I am basing that on my experiences with the various Baieido blends that use cinnamon or cassia. It has a very nice spice brisk almost peppery quality to it and along those lines is really a winner. I believe there are some pretty high quality E.O’s at work in here also. There are none of the harsh or off scents that signify synthetics to me, so the overall feeling is one of a fresh, clean and lively blend. I think the green color of the stick sort of sums’ it up nicely. It comes in a rather elegant black and gold box and would make a great gift

Keigado Kaori
This is a green Sandalwood stick with honey overtones riding over it all. The honey plays within the middle and top notes while the base is a great herb and sharp spice blend. It is a very interesting mix because the scents keep moving back and forth as to which is calling out the most from moment to moment. Warm overall tone, with lots of Essential Oils playing their part, this stick smells wonderful even unlit. Nice way to set the vibe of a room with a warm, cozy and clean atmosphere. Again, a nicely done box and a great gift item.

Awaji-Baikundo Shoujou
This is part of Awaji-Baikundo’s Hydrangea Tea series, which I find myself really drawn to. The tea seems to provide a whole extra level of ( for lack of a better term ) goodness. There are a lot of different spices and oils at work here, you can tell as soon as you open the box. It is spicy, sweetish and almost floral yet never cloying or “soapy” as sometimes happens in these kinds of blends. At times I seem to pick up an almost tobacco note with the overall impression being a mix that is very grounding and very clean. I think the addition of the hydrangea tea tends to push the scent towards a brighter note. Their products all seem to make statements based on the different blends healing qualities. Great stuff from what is becoming one of my favorite companies. [9/15/21: Going to confirm Ross’s review here with more recent stock; however, I keep feeling like this is a bit differently configured from when it was first imported. But none of what Ross wrote here I’d disagree with. – Mike]

White Lotus Incense at Mermade

Just a quick heads up here. White Lotus, who is one of the very best E.O. importers you can find and has a rock solid reputation for quality control , for a short time had their own incenses made under their guidance and supervision and using their oils. It seems they no longer want to do this and Mermade Magikal Arts is selling off the stock.

I rarely use this type of incense but all that I tried  smelled very good, no synthetics, very strong and clean. The Blue Lotus was very fun and since Lotus E.O. is pretty pricey, a real treat. The Agar Masala has a definite Agarwood/Oud scent riding on top of the Masala base.

I just noticed the Monsoon Rose is gone( really amazing), since I ordered about a week ago so I believe amounts are limeted.

Enjoy  -Ross

Nag Champa info

I did a search on halmaddi and came up with this page from what looks like the Incense Guru forum (I have yet to check if it’s an active one). Fantastic information on Nag Champa, how it has changed through the years and why.

Kunmeido / Reiryo-Koh, Reiryo Koh Aloeswood, Shoryu-Koh

I tend to get a little more inspired writing about high end incenses for the obvious reason that there’s usually more to talk about in terms of complexity and depth. Kunmeido’s one of those rare companies that manages to produce amazing incense at all budget levels, including what is generally considered one of the finest inexpensive incenses, the venerable Reiryo-Koh. It’s one of those scents I’d consider as a building block of a new incense collection as you only have to pay about $7 a roll and it has a complexity and depth that most incenses at the same price range are missing.

Reiryo Koh‘s popularity can generally be seen by the number of different sizes its available in, from small boxes to long sticks. It’s also burned at Eiheiji, one of Soto Zen’s two head temples in Japan. It also appears to be popular at American Zen centers. In a way it’s fame in the US is surprising as it’s a very traditional and potent incense, initially not particularly friendly due to the strength of scent and its highly peppery and spicy intensity. The main ingredients are sandalwood, clove, foenun graecum (reiryo-koh), patchouli, tarmelic/turmetic and borneol camphor, a line up not terribly far from many Korean incenses. It has a lot of herbal qualities such as dill, fennel, cumin and oregano, all of which seem to be byproducts of the reiryo root and the tarmelic. The intensity has a sort of cleansing sort of feel to it at first until the constellation of scents starts to fade and the complexity of the incense starts to become obvious. Behind all the spice is a sublime, occluded sweetness, a quality that comes out more so in the aloeswood variations.

In fact the Reiryo Koh Aloeswood incense is so different that it’s hard to believe the difference came from switching the base wood. Where the regular/sandalwood version is intense and spicy, the aloeswood version is mellow and subtle. It’s basically the most inexpensive incense in Kunmeido’s line up that introduces an aromatic quality that follows the line all the way up to Asuka (perhaps the only one missing it is Onkun Koh aka Jinko Ranjatai). It’s a sweet, spicy and tangy aroma that is not only pleasant at first but starts to become addictive after a while due to its increasing refinement up the scale (the note becomes intensely incredible in Asuka). This concentration on the quiet and subtle compared to the loud intensity of the original is an interesting yin/yang comparison, as initially it doesn’t seem the aloeswood version has a similar depth. But it doesn’t lose its poignancy, implying the incense’s depths are more interactive between incense and appreciator.

At least in the US, Shoryu-Koh, which moves the price range well into the 20s, seems to be sort of the middle ground incense, implying the heights of Heian Koh and Asuka, without the pungent green herbal qualities those bring with them. In fact Shoryu-Koh could easily be seen as the higher reflection of the Reiryo Koh aloeswood, with a lot of similar qualities and a greater degree of refinement. The sweet, herbal and grassy oil or top note on this incense becomes increasingly pleasant with experience, reaching for a very sublime place with a dark and sultry atmosphere. There’s quite a bit of spice in this one as well, hints of cinnamon and clove help to bolster the scent’s essential tanginess. If ever there was a sleeper hit coming out of incense, it could be this one. I’ve had a box for about a year now and it always surprises me. Perhaps it trades a visceral impact for more ineffable and deeper qualities, which makes it less obvious right out of the box.

Any incense appreciator who finds an affinity with Japanese traditional scents is encouraged to take a look at the whole Kunmeido line, which evinces a very powerful lineage of incense making. That their most inexpensive incenses would have qualities that make them competitive with scents 10 times their cost is a real tribute to the skill involve here. It might not be long until all three of these take their place in our hall of fame; certainly one’s exploration is incomplete without checking out the classic Reiryo-Koh.

« Older entries