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.