If ever there was a newly imported Japanese incense company who’s name ought to have the same profile in the US as Shoyeido, Baieido and Nippon Kodo, it’s the venerable Shunkodo who have introduced about as deep a line from top to bottom as is available in the US. Like Baieido, Shunkodo only sparingly use perfume and essential oils, leaving their incense sticks fairly mild on the stick and also like Baieido, the results are extremely sophisticated, incenses so subtle and amazing that only with experience does one learn how great they are. We’ve covered their high ends, their not so high ends, and some mid to high ends in the past. Like with Baieido, if I was to review some of these today, my experiences would be even more positive.
One thing I’m noticing lately (I’m also working on Baieido’s Kobunboku line) is that although incenses without (a lot of) oils don’t cut through the air as much as the natural ones do, the trade off is the sophistication and sublimity one might notice by repetition of use. For this reason almost every Baieido traditional has an incredible learning curve, one so long that I often don’t believe my nose at first. Shunkodo’s incenses are very similar in this way. However the differences are largely in their bases. Baieido incenses tend to vary around similar aloeswoods and the use of cinnamon, clove, sandalwood and borneol. Shunkodos are less spicy in the latter sense, with a larger use of Chinese traditional ingredients that give them a slightly tangier scent across most of their line. And unlike Baieido, Shunkodo crosses into Kunmeido and Shoyeido territory with their use of green, herbal woods. The three incenses in question here are among the most affordable in Shunkodo’s catalog.
At first appraisal, it snuck into my head that Shunkodo’s Chinsoku-Koh was the line’s most inexpensive incense, something comparable to Tennendo Karafune, so when I went back to research this scent I was surprised to find out that it’s actually more of a mid line scent; it’s just that with a smaller box size, it actually seems to be a little more affordable (in fact this smaller size box actually exists for most of the Shunkodo line, they’re just not exported for sale in the US) than the rest of the boxes. Perhaps it shows the effects of perception on one’s appraisal as, I’ve never highly rated this incense and had long forgotten it contained aloeswood, as it doesn’t seem to give off that sort of smell. For the most part it strikes me as a standard low end incense, as I mentioned before, like the Tennendo Karafune stick, multi spice and quite a bit of sandalwood. It’s reminiscent of some of the Baieido dailys with a high content of cassia/cinnamon, but doesn’t seem to have the depth to it that makes so many Baieido low ends classics. To my nose it’s almost like too many cooks in the kitchen and the overall effect seems to fall below the ingredients and price range, and turns out to really be the only Shunkodo stick that does so.
Shun Koh Sen is cheaper per stick, lacks aloeswood of any appreciable quality but is overall a far superior incense. My first stick instantly reminded me of a different take on Kunmeido’s Reiryo-Koh, with the the abundance of Chinese medicine materials and that tangy and somewhat earthy scent they bring with it. Shun Koh Sen is not as peppery and invigorating as Reiryo Koh itself, but it’s not as muted as the aloeswood version. Of all the Shunkodos this one may have the deepest oil, which really adds a nice bit of complexity to it in the background. The major difference that sets it apart is that this is a green stick, with those typical and often hard to place notes that range between evergreens and patchouli or vetivert. Such a combination with the Reiryo direction makes this a really interesting and pleasant stick, a definite recommendation for those who want to check out a new take on combining unique herbal notes with standard traditional Japanese scents. It’s also testament to the skill of Shunkodo’s creators that a scent this good could still be so affordable.
While most Shunkodo incenses come in boxes with flaps (which while handsome make them a bit problematic storage-wise), Houshou is one of the company’s “roll” brands. It’s basically a sort of low to mid end aloeswood/sandalwood blend that is indeed a side step from the company’s “flap” line. This is sort of a dark, rich, almost chocolate (and occasionally mocha-like) incense whose aloeswood and sandalwood tendencies both blend so that neither is dominant, acting more as a base for the rest of the materials. The typical Shunkodo medicinal herb mix is still part of the incense but fairly subdued. It many ways it reminds me of lower end aloeswoods in the NK line (both Kangetsu and the big daily yellow and very misleading “Kyara deluxe” blend) but where those scent curves die pretty early in the burn, Shunkodo’s definitely rich throughout. It’s not terribly far off from the Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu blend, but this is less about spice and more about earth and musk. The wood powder, however, is the strongest, almost wood shop like at times. I think if one comes across this less in looking for an aloeswood and more for a darker sidestep, it’ll hit a different spot than any other incense.
It’s difficult to go wrong with Shunkodo incense, despite my criticism of Chinsoku Koh. In many ways they may be one of the most affordable for the quality brands available in the US market and are responsible for some of best incenses available, including Ranjatai, Kyara Seikan, Kyara Aioi No Matsu, Yae No Hana and others. It’s hard not to recommend that you check them all out over time, not only the time needed to purchase some of the high enders, but the time it takes to really grow with these scents, as they have a similar learning curve to Baieido, with the most incredible subtleties coming out when you expect them the least.