Nu Essence: Part Two from Ross

I reviewed four blends from Nu Essence back in August from what I think of as the planetary series. I tend to think of the next four as the esoteric or magical set ( although that could be said for all the Nu Essence blends.) These are made to be used on charcoals, electric heaters and makko/laha trails. I personally think the electric heater is your best bet. They are made from very high quality herbs, spices, resins and oils. Something I wanted to point out about loose type incense is that unlike a stick or coil (because they are blended together and everything is ignited at once) there is a definite progression to the scent. It is very much like the way that natural perfumes work when applied to ones skin. You get the top notes first and work your way down to the base notes as the others evaporate. So when you are using these blends you will find that what you get at the beginning can be very different then what’s at the end. I find this quite interesting and it can give a lot more depth to the entire experience.
Oh yes, once again I think it is appropriate to point out that these blends are very, very potent. A little goes a long way…I am speaking from personal experience here ūüôā

Frankincense, benzoin, Lignum Aloes (Aloeswood), and rose.
This is about the play between the rose and the frankincense with the rest of the blend in supporting roles. The benzion adds a bit of vanilla sweetness and the lLignum Aloes add some woody notes to the very rich rose and frankincense notes. Very strong and sensual, heady might fit in here also!. This one tends to remind me of high quality bakoors.

benzoin, orange, bay, bitter almond, and amber
Deep, sharp, at times bitter, with the sweetness of the benzion as a canvas for the orange, bay, amber and almond. The (I think) bay gives it an almost camphor like quality, the whole blend uniting into something that is refreshing and cleansing. Really nice but also unlike anything else I have smelled. Goes though many scent changes as it heats up so that all the parts get to play their rolls.

Olive, sandalwood, storax, gum elemi, mastic, camphor, jasmine, and rose.
The jasmine and rose come out to play right at the get go, however they are sort of lifted up by the sandalwood and storax with the camphor playing a very subtle note in the back round. There are many different levels of scents going on here, all at once. I find it a pretty fascinating blend. You think, at first, its all about the rose and jasmine but then all the other ingredients come bounding in so it is constantly changing with no limits. Very much the female goddess principle to me.

Dragons blood, storax, myrrh, opopanax, olibanum, rue, and tobacco.
A sort of revolving pallet of bitter, sweet and smoky hints with some herbal tones intermixed. Pretty complex and the least sweet of these blends. I find it very grounding and calming plus there is so much going on that it is easy to unhook from your world and just let go and relax into the scent. As it heats up this mix also goes through many changes as the different resins evaporate.



Keigado / East Temple, West Temple

There are many categories of incense. There is the synthetic vs. the natural, the floral, woody, spicy, herbal, fruity, and the resinous. There are sticks for daily use and rare woods to be savored only on special occasions. Then there is temple incense, a variety that tends to be longer and thicker with an extended burning time, specifically designed to be used for prayer and meditation. East Temple and West Temple fall into this category, measuring in at 12‚ÄĚ long with a burning time of 90 minutes. Sticks like these are conducive to meditation not only because of their physiological effects, but because they provide a non-linear way to measure time. This permits us to detach ourselves from the material world of schedules and mechanical clocks and slip into a suspended peace measured only by the graceful wafting of the incense smoke.

East Temple and West Temple are both sandalwood blends. Sandalwood is grown primarily in Asia. Mysore (a.k.a. ‚ÄúSandalwood City‚ÄĚ) is the focus of sandalwood production in India. Here you will find thousands of people transforming sandalwood into incense, perfumes, lotions, soaps, candles, medicine, and devotional statues. This plant is so valued in India that the Sultan of Mysore declared it a royal tree in 1792. Even today all sandalwood in India and Nepal is property of the government and no individual may own a single tree, even if it is on private land. Sandalwood is an evergreen with the aromatic oils residing in the hardwood and root system, and it takes at least 40 years for the plant to mature. Since all parts of the wood are valuable, the tree is not cut down when harvest time comes, but rather is pulled up from the roots during the rainy season when the ground is soft. Current market value of the essential oil is $1,500 per kilogram! Sandalwood incense is considered to be the most calming type of incense and is used extensively in ceremonies by people in many religions from all over the world.

The aroma of sandalwood is very enjoyable. It is rich, balsamic, and sweet, with a woody undertone. East Temple incense mixes this wood with spices, making for an invigorating blend. This stick is named after the cardinal direction of the rising sun and is intended to be used in the morning as you prepare for the day and get your energy going. It definitely stimulates the mind so I would recommend it for contemplative meditation or study, or just to rev you up as you go about your morning rituals. The predominant note is more like sandalwood essential oil or the resin, and not so much the wood. I also detect in there hints of leather and campfire, and the blend is so masterful that I am having a hard time identifying the included spices individually. Very smooth, like a fine aged wine. West Temple, named for the direction of the setting sun, is for evening use when our energies are naturally declining and we are preparing for sleep. It is definitely the more subtle of the two and is almost smokeless due to its high wood-low oil content. This stick is truer to the wood, sweet and sublime, pure and utterly relaxing. It has a sort of slow, permeating quality about it that will gradually fill even a large space with its subtle effect, gently shifting the energy to peace and relaxation.

These two incenses are certainly enjoyable on their own, but are even better experienced as a pair, burned one in the morning and one in the evening as intended. They definitely have completely different scents, with noticeably different affects on energy levels and the mind. Two interesting takes on a classic wood and a very good deal given the length and duration of each stick. These are some of my all time favorites and I highly recommend them to anyone who loves the aroma of sandalwood and is interested in trying some very pure examples from a skilled and revered incense company.

Baieido’s Jinkoya Sakubei Line

The Jinkoya Sakubei line is a commemorative tribute to the original founder of Baieido. It seems to be made with a very old style of scent where the woods predominate, well in this case, dominate, the mix  characteristics of the blend. The entire line can seem a bit “dry” or “austere” at times, yet, like pretty much everything that I have ever smelled coming from this company there is a huge learning curve that goes on. None of these are your basic “one stick and all is revealed” type of incense. I am telling you this because these three incenses are unlike the Baieidos premium line. There are none of the camphor or resin notes that are in the premiums. When I first lit a stick of Kunsho Koh I did not know what to think. Took about six weeks before I realized that somehow I just kept lighting more sticks and that it had turned into a sort of “I need wood, hold the spice” standby. There do not seem to be any noticeable spices or even resins involved here but there are plenty of those wonderful Baieido woods. The quality of the Aloeswoods and Sandalwoods is top notch and quite distinctive.
Each box has around 150 sticks or so that last about 30 minutes.

Kokonoe koh
Very dry Sandalwood of a medium strength, also very good quality, probably Old Mountain Indian Mysore. I find this one to be quite good for gentle, reflective moments. It is not an overpowering Sandalwood, yet in its own way it can fill a room.

Horyu koh
This tends to be my personal favorite of the group, maybe because it is a little bit sweeter. It’s listed as Vietnamese Aloeswood, but to me, comes across more like the Cambodian woods in the premium Kun Sho sticks. It has a really nice balance of flavors between dry and sweet, an altogether very soothing and approachable blend based on the woods.

Kunsho koh
This is very elegant and almost bitter/ austere in the finest tradition of some of the Vietnamese woods. Maybe the most going on, with many very subtle levels, a big learning curve, which is not a bad thing at all.

I find that all three have kept me intrigued over the course of six months or so and each time I light a stick it’s a lot like setting out on an expedition, going “in country” so to speak. When I run out I will buy more, which pretty much says it all.


Looking ahead to 2009

The Himalayan Herbs Centre will be my last review of the year, so I wanted to wish our¬†readers and¬†my colleagues¬†a happy holiday period¬†and best for the new year as I’ll be scarce until then (I believe you may hear from Ross and Nancy though!) There will be plenty planned for 2009 including an overview of the Gyokushodo line; the Baieido Kobunboku series; several articles covering many of Shroff Channabasappa’s extroardinary masalas; more from Encens du Monde; the entire Mindroling line; two sticks and two powders from the excellent Medicine King stable; some¬†Nippon Kodo basics; two lines from Mandala Incenses & Art, more from Incense from India, Mystic Temple, Ramakrishnanda, and Shrinivas Suganhalaya; and quite a few from Nitiraj and their Atmosphere subline, meaning I’ll be going a ways to addressing the lack of Indian incense reviews on the site. So until then, all the best! – Mike

Himalayan Herbs Centre / Blue Sky, Lumbini, Tashi Dhargey, Lumbini

For what are relatively inexpensive and wood heavy incenses, Himalayan Herbs Centre don’t do too bad a job with their incenses. They don’t have the herbal power most Tibetan sticks do at their price and have wood bases that occasionally come off a bit harsh in the mix, but occasionally what’s added to these bases actually lifts the incense above what normally be the case. They don’t all succeed in this way, and seem to have about a 33% hit rate, at least based on the four of eight incenses I’ve managed to try for the company, but those (maybe 1.5 roughly) that do hit are quite nice. In this same¬†category of hits, the incense is quite a deal with a large number of sticks and a holder all just under $4 and occasionally less during a sale.

Blue Sky is one of the line’s best incenses, described as a traditional stick of lemon and herbs. The stick is blue and unlike many incenses the lemon hints actually work quite nicely here as part of a blend. While there are some slight metallic hints in the blend, possibly as a byproduct of the base, the overall sweetness and accessibility of the herbal mix renders it a note, one which I don’t find unpleasant in small quantities (in the same way earthy and funky notes actually add something when they’re not overprevalent). It’s quite a pleasant, inexpensive incense and certainly a good deal for the price.

Lumbini adds sandalwood to the herbs, with the emphasis on the latter. It’s less a woody incense than a musky one with what seem to be hints of amber in the herbal mix. The sandalwood content doesn’t seem to be too high and in this case the cheaper base is a little too revealed, which ends up clashing a bit without totally devolving the scent into the poor category. if anything it leaves the overall scent a bit thin, and the sandalwood doesn’t seem to be at a high enough quality level to really give it some middle.¬† It’s not unpleasant ultimately, just fairly pale in impact. That is, it’s more of a good incense in smell than in aftertaste, so to speak.

Unfortunately with Tashi Dhargey it could almost be the trademark of a poor, cheap Tibetan incense. This is the sort of woodbased scent where the evergreens come out harshly with that overwhelming scent of gravel and tire rubber coming out without an herbal base to balance it. It’s not terribly far from Lumbini, due to the amber, overtly mentioned this time in the ingredients, but where Lumbini had some balance, Tashi Dhargey is just far too woody for an amber incense, and this is coming from someone who likes nearly every amber incense ever created.

Yaan is an herbal musk blend, yet like most of these incenses has a bit too much cheap wood for that to work. The musk is of the sweeter herbal variety and thus lacks the depth of the genuine article, which would probably have drowned out the harsher aspects of the wood here. It’s not that the herbs are particularly absent here and the incense even has some spicier elements, but that crushed rock, gravel and clay like smell coming from the cheap wood is just a bit too poweful to be subsumed. Other than Blue Sky this is probably the mellowest of the lesser incenses, but it would still be difficult to recommend, mostly because one’s available choices in Tibetan incenses are so much larger.

I haven’t really had the urge to explore the line more based on the four here, which is possibly due to having tried the best of these, Blue Sky, first, but at the same time I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are one or two more than manage to overshoot their materials. They’re unquestionable in the lower tier of the style due to the harsh wood bases but do manage to transcend these in at least one and maybe two¬†cases.

The Direct Help Foundation/Meditation (Nag Champa, Ebionite); Magic Works (Myrrlin the Magician, Amberlin the Alchimist); Bim Lama/Green Champa

The Direct Help Foundation are not only an incense making machine, but they’re also a worthwhile charity organization. At Essence of Ages you can find an unprecedented amount of documentation about their organization and their incense making process, including slide shows, for what is a very informative presentation on the art of making Tibetan incenses.

However if there is a difficulty in reviewing the TDHF line, it’s that they release limited edition containers of incense that are actually more than the sum of their parts. For one thing, most of their incense is sold in beautiful hand painted boxes that are some of the most striking and amazing in the industry. These boxes come in single, double and triple sizes and it’s very difficult not to make the purchase based on the art rather than incense, after all they’re quite reusable given each incense bundle also comes wrapped in cellophane and for the most part the natural ingredients don’t bleed into the boxes. If you cherish spiritual art like I do, these will undoubtedly become treasures; despite the fact that the art has to be done fairly quickly to duplicate 100s of boxes, there seem to be very few errors or rough spots. So quite simply no matter what you think of their incense, one will likely feel they got their money’s worth already just based on the box. That’s a very special and unique thing to do.

Incensewise, things get a bit more confusing. The cellophane wrapped incenses not only come in the single boxes, but there are certain incenses that can only be bought in the doubles and triples. Sometimes these scents crossover so you may find Himalayan Jhakri or the Kumary House blends in several different boxes. But this generally doesn’t make them easy to find and if you fall in love with a particular blend, you may find them, at least temporarily, unable to purchase. With the ongoing 30% blowout sale at Essence of the Ages, many of the organization’s incenses, including both of those in the Magic Works set included for review here, appear to be gone for now, which is a shame as they’re among the best in the entire line. The Meditation box is also gone, however, both Ebionite and Nag Champa can be bought separately in single boxes.

Essence of the Ages is one of the few companies that does a Tibetan style Nag Champa incense and if you’ve encountered any of the others, you’ll know they’re nothing at all like their famous Indian counterparts, except for a faint suggestion of aroma. Without halmaddi, Nag Champa loses much of its appeal, leaving behind only the slight floral hints. In fact this might have been a more succesful incense without the connection to the durbar. With so much wood in the base, there is more of a dry quality than a rich one with the sweet floral nature and slight spice adding aromatic qualities that are fairly mild, especially when compared to the impact of the Indian variety. It’s certainly a pleasant and accessible¬†incense, but it’s dragged down by the connection a little, reaching for something the style isn’t really tailor made for.

Ebionite is an incense based on a simple Biblical formula, in this case a combination of aloeswood and myrrh. Like¬† most Tibetan incenses, the aloeswood never has the same sort of character and potency that it does in Japanese sticks and thus the myrrh and binder take the lion’s share of the aroma. Like many Tibetan sticks with a high myrrh content, Ebionite is nearly a low smoke incense, at times it only gives the most faintest of scents. The results are actually fairly musky, similar to amber’s presence in many Tibetans and the overall scent is not far from what myrrh might be like on a heater. As with several other TDHF sticks, the binder aroma isn’t quite perfect here, but as an example of one of the more subtler Tibetan incenses, you really can’t complain too much as¬†the incense is¬†very mellow and mild.

If Nag Champa and Ebionite are relatively one or two note incenses, the two formulas in the Magic Works box are quite a bit more complex and vigorous. The full names of the incenses are basically Myrrlin the Magician and Amberlin the Alchimist, and the motifs are almost a tribute to the Western magic and mystery¬†traditions, with some interesting sigil-like drawings on the cellophane wrapper inserts. Both incenses have in common the strong ingredients of cinnamon and galangal, and although only Myrrlin lists juniper, I would guess there’s a signicant content of it in Amberlin as well. Both of these incenses are powerful, rich, spicy and very pleasant, among the best TDHF has to offer.

As mentioned with the Ebionite, the myrrh content of Myrrlin takes the smoke down a significant notch, although it’s not quite as mellow as Ebionite itself, after all the heavy galangal, cinnamon and juniper do more to balance that out. Also as previously mentioned, the myrrh gives the incense a very musky sort of feel to it. Myrrlin is an incredibly elegant incense for the usually rough and ready Tibetan feel with an uncommon smoothness and some great coutouring with the spices. The galangal gives the overall scent a nip and while I’ve seen the root not be particularly successful in incense, it’s almost picture perfect here.

Amberlin is a bit less musky than Myrrh, with that typical breadth and touch of richness common to most amber incenses and it’s this quality that makes the difference between what are basically two similar incenses. It has a stranger finish than the Myrrlin and is essentially rather earthy with a lot of dampness and hints of clay. One can indeed¬†get the impression of distillations and essences from this incense akin to the alchemists of old, as its finish is quite mysterious and unusual. One would hope that further TDHF editions will return to such an interesting package, as the organization’s exploration of other religious and spiritual tenets makes for some really fun and unique sets. Read the rest of this entry »

The Olfactory Rescue Service 20 Best of 2008

While the Olfactory Rescue Service has provided monthly top 10 lists for the last year and a half or so, we’ve never had an opportunity to¬† provide a best of the year and thus present our first top 20 list. Before the countdown, however, are some disclaimers. First, we consider lists such as these to be anything but definitive. That is, they’re provided for a bit of fun and to perhaps spur some conversation and let us know what pleased our readers (the comments section is also open to YOUR favorites). As a combined top 20 list from the three ORS writers, consensus is rare, not just because we all have different tastes, but also because it’s unlikely all of us have tried each others’ picks given the diversity and quantity of what’s on the market. Thus the list is structured so that the first two picks are indeed a consensus among the three of us, while the next 10 or so are consensus among two of the three of us. The leftovers are provided as special picks from each individual, not only that we can get in a personal favorite, but also to balance out what is a largely Japanese-leaning list, undoubtedly the style of incense that has had the largest impact upon all of us. As an attempt at a group list, there are plenty of individual favorites left off the list, and we’ve also tried to concentrate to a slight extent on incenses fairly new to the market in 2008. As always this is for fun and to give us all a chance to remark on scents already reviewed elsewhere on this site. – Mike, Nancy and Ross

  1. Shoyeido/Horin/Muro-Machi¬†– A remarkable full-on herbal immersion from Shoyeido‚Äės Horin line. High acrid notes and a deep and layered quality of roots, barks, and woods make this incense perfect for contemplative olfaction. Coming in at a diminutive 2.75 inches, this potent stick can easily scent a large room. Truly a masterpiece! Like Jihi below, this is a rare consensus pick for us, earning a top spot on this list. (Nancy)
  2. Awaji-Baikundo/Jihi РAwaji-Baikundo is basically the revelation of 2008, their first year of being exported to the US. Jihi is one of five AB incenses and is a scintillating combination of hydrangea tea, amber and spices. One of our two full consensus picks, Jihi abounds in oils and spices, creating a new and totally distinctive aroma that is friendly, sweet and memorable. (Mike)
  3. Tennendo/Enkuu – Arguably one of the best incenses in the world. A favorite here at ORS. Wonderful high grade aloeswood mixed with spices and herbs. Sharp, dry-ish and oh so elegant. Not to be missed. (Ross)
  4. Shunkohdo/Kyara Seikan – An incredibly potent stick for being so thin, this is kyara that cuts like a¬†razor, every bit of aroma like fragrant euphoria. Sweet, pungent and totally memorable, it’s also one of the most affordable and genuine¬†kyara incenses on the market. An ascendant version of Shunkohdo’s Ranjatai and one of 2008’s finest newcomers to these shores. (Mike)
  5. Baieido/Kun Sho – Any of Baieido’s five distinguished, pawlonia-boxed¬†aloeswood blends could have easily been on a list such as this, but perhaps the middle incense, Kun Sho, could be the best deal for the price. Cambodian aloeswood with a cherry-like sweetness, this is smooth, elegant and startling in every moment of its burn. Definitely the sleeper hit in the whole line and a guaranteed conversation stopper. (Mike)
  6. Awaji-Baikundo/Wabi-Sabi – One of two recent AB exports, Wabi-Sabi is yet another totally distinctive and unusual blend created mostly from the caramel-like sweetness of spikenard and the herbal, tangy notes of reiryo root. What that combination doesn’t tell you is what a dark, aromatic and coffee bean like stick it is, hitting every note of what a coffee incense should be like but often isn’t. Improves consistently with use and familiarity. (Mike)
  7. Shoyeido/Premium/Myo-Ho –¬†The deep purple coloring¬†of this stick kind of sums it up. It seems to have a rather transformational and mysterious quality to it. It’s also a good bit less money then the top of the line Sho-Kaku, but to me every bit as deep and rich in taste. Top notch kyara, quite
    wonderful. (Ross)
  8. Tennendo/Tensei – A pungent blend of aloeswood and amber. Sweet and heavy, stimulating and intense. This incense lingers on, sometimes for days, developing into the resinous suggestion of aroma. A penetrating formula that awakens both the senses and the mind. (Nancy)
  9. Baieido/Jinko Kokoh – Dense, sublime and elegant. Baieido Vietnamese aloeswood at its best. Not inexpensive, but worth it, especially if you love aloeswood. This is done in a very classic style and lets the wood speak for itself. It is so very captivating and deserves the attention! (Ross)
  10. Shoyeido/Horin/Ten-Pyo – Yet another herbal¬† masterpiece from Shoyeido‚Äôs Horin line. The name translates as ‚ÄúPeaceful Sky,‚ÄĚ hinting at the ethereal and mind-altering quality of this blend. Quality aloeswood is the base, with a harmonious, almost medicinal blend of herbs. Very smooth and tranquil. (Nancy)
  11. Shoyeido/Premium/Nan-Kun – Somehow the translation of the name (Southern Wind) really comes through in this blend. Never really sweet, but very fresh, like a desert wind through a lush oasis. Of all the non kyaras in the Shoyeido line this one just gets to me the most. There is also a certain similarity to Tennendo’s Enkuu. A side by side comparison is great fun! (Ross)
  12. Sawayaka Kobunboku (also called Koh) – An amazing sandalwood recipe from the masters at Baieido. Straight up
    wood in its truest, most mesmerizing form. So light and yummy, I am quickly becoming addicted to this one. Induces a meditative state like no other sandalwood I know. (Nancy)
  13. Shoyeido/Horin/Gen-Roku РThe whole Horin line from Shoyeido is a good bet at any level. Gen-Roku is in the middle and the starting point where it moves into the woods rather than spices. Big aloeswood and resin presence in this one, quite nice and at a reasonable price. (Ross)
  14. Mermade Magickal Arts/Spirit Temple РMermade uses the best ingredients possible and puts them together in wonderful blends. This one has lots of very high grade Hougary Frankincense plus aloeswood, sandalwood and others. A beautiful, rich and full scent and way under priced compared to Japanese incenses. (Ross)
  15. Tibetan Medical College/Holy Land – The ultimate Tibetan revelation, one of the most potent, electric and transcendent incenses on the planet. Woody, stately and created from unusual extracts and medicinal substances, this is a scent you will not soon forget and will haunt your memory and become an obsession. Tremendous mojo here. (Mike)
  16. Shroff Channabasappa/Red Sandal РPerhaps the best incense from perhaps the best line of Indian masalas, this is a classic in a range of classics. Like many Shroffs, it combines amazing sandalwood oil with natural and classy floral perfumes for a fragrance that is instantly addictive. This line was responsible for a personal Indian incense revival around these parts and  I burned through a third of my starter package in about two weeks. (Mike)
  17. Mother’s India Fragrances/Ganesh Champa – A lavender infused champa that is so delicate, classy and magnificent that it would have likely headed a personal top 10 of December had we not been composing this list. There are durbars and then there are durbars, this is slow burning and ultimately divine. Even those turned off from the usual lavender oils should give this one a sniff, it’s in a class of its own. (Mike)
  18. Kyukyodo/Yumemachi – A new favorite of mine from a company that predates the better known Shoyeido and Baieido. Blending sandalwood with orange peel in a most delightful confection. Yum! Very nice as a daily incense and a bargain at just under $10 per roll. (Nancy)
  19. Nu Essence/Nuit – A smooth, deep and sultry rose/jasmine blend for charcoal or an incense heater. Extremely high quality oils, resins and woods go into this wonderful blend. I find this type of scent to be one of the hardest to do well and Nu Essence makes what might be the “gold” standard. (Ross)
  20. Shoyeido/Premium/Ohjya-Koh РFrom Shoyeido’s Premium Incense line, an affordable offering from a series with a price range that spans from $15.95 all the way up to $599.00. The scent is very crisp, combining sandalwood with cloves and patchouli. It is refreshing and almost minty, with an obvious camphor note, cool and relaxing. (Nancy)

What was your best of 2008? Let us know in the comments, whether it’s one incense or several. Thanks to all of you for reading Olfactory Rescue Service and have a great holiday!

Triloka / Bulk / Jamaican Coconut, Lemongrass, Mystic Ambrosia, Nepali Musk, Tropical Garden, Vanilla, Vanilla Rose, Vanilla Sandalwood (Discontinued)

[This line has been discontinued – Mike 1/22/09]

As long as I can remember, Triloka has been around distributing a large number of incenses and incense styles. In fact one of my most prevalent memories of the company’s incense is that it seemed to change almost every time I would shop for it, making it difficult if not problematic to restock something you liked. So it was no surprise in finishing up this article that most of the incenses here, which I bought less than three years ago, if not sooner, aren’t all that easy to find, being part of their “bulk” incense line, and thus not carried by many of the suppliers who offer Triloka incense, including Sensia and Incense Warehouse.  Based on the scents here, the choice not to stock these aromas is somewhat justified.

While I haven’t tried any of Triloka’s durbar styles in quite some time, my memory of many of them is good, although I wouldn’t put them on quite the same pedestal as those from Shroff Channabasappa, Ramakrishnanda, Mystic Temple, etc. They were always a little drier, implying a relative lack of halmaddi in the center, but this is probably the same trend that’s affected Shrinivas and other suppliers given the rising costs of halmaddi itself. These bulk incenses, however, are a step down and in the realms of the generic masala, incenses that, while not unpleasant, are unnecessary given the number of quality masalas and durbars that can be found these days. It will generally be impossible for me to recommend any of these, as not only are they attuned to modern rather than traditional tastes, but they don’t really hit the bullseye on any particular scent. Almost all of these incenses also share a very similar base, one slightly sweet and gummy but lacking character.

Jamaican Coconut, for example, isn’t an incense that really hits the smell people will usually associate with the coconut. It’s much more of a floral in many ways, with a green, and slightly spicy patchouli base that moves the coconut in certain directions one might find in suntan lotions. The coconut aroma is thus relatively mild and like most of the incenses in this list, somewhat halfhearted and thin. In my opinion an incense must commit to its direction and this one fails to do so.

Lemongrass is a difficult aroma to mess up due to the high strength and pungency of its oil, a favorite in Vietnamese cooking. However in this case it clashes with its base to some extent, the sweetness of the gums not contrasting particularly well with the lemongrass scent. It’s as if the stick has some durbarish qualities without going the whole way. In fact it’s somewhat fortunate that the oil isn’t all that heavy in the incense. Overall, though, it wouldn’t be a bad stick for someone who finds the average lemongrass incenses a little too powerful as it is not unpleasant, perhaps one of the few aromas in this batch that benefits from its halfhearted attempt at merging a strong oil with sweeter gums.

Mystic Ambrosia is basically the one true durbar in the group, or it would be if it wasn’t so dry, with an obviously different base from the usual style. But it strikes that sweet gum sort of champa smell that’s similar, if inferior, to, say, Surya’s Forest Champa. That is, there’s a thinness in the scent you won’t tend to find in most durbars. It has some resin (most likely inexpensive frankincense) and sandalwood mixed with a somewhat generic floral oil to give it presence, and the results are a little on the harsh side in the final burn. However with so many quality durbars to choose from, this is something of a wash.

Appreciators of some of the true Tibetan musk incenses will likely chuckle seeing a masala incense named Nepali Musk, like I did, despite the credit to Triloka for keeping it herbal. This is a good example of why this is a difficult scent to nail without the real thing, and like with the Lemongrass, the typically sweet gum base of these Trilokas doesn’t assist all that much in getting the aroma right. Like many herbal musks this is less musky and more dusky or dark with a somewhat harsh finish. Like many incenses that don’t hit the right target, one wonders if you’d enjoy it under a different name; personally I find it difficult to even consider this a true musk even for a masala.

Continuing the generic formula of this line, Tropical Garden also seems to suffer from having an identity crisis due to the base. Like most cheap floral incenses, the perfume here is quite harsh while not being distinct in any way, nor particularly tropical in the sense I think of it (orchids, mango, pineapple etc). Fortunately for the incense’s harshness, the stick is still relatively generic meaning the “aftertaste” is more blunt than unpleasant. That is, unlike most rose incenses in this format, things never get too bitter, also probably a byproduct of having a gum and wood base. It’s like a long sum adding up to zero.

Vanilla and Vanilla Sandalwood are similar enough to be nearly redundant and thus worth comparing and contrasting rather than treating separately. Both are very woody at heart, with the typical gum content seemingly reduced as a result. Strangely enough it’s the Vanilla Sandalwood that hits the true vanilla notes, possibly due to the wood being a little better quality. The Vanilla itself seems lighter and drier without the buttery sandalwood as a base and the vanilla itself isn’t quite as rich on its own, so to speak. As a contrast, the Vanilla Sandalwood isn’t bad at all and is perhaps the best stick among the eight in this review, thin yes, but at least reasonably balanced and successful in its mix.

Vanilla Rose is almost like crossing the Vanilla and Tropical Garden scents. It’s surprisingly delicate overall and seems to have quite a bit of benzoin in the mix, which might be responsible for the light vanilla scent. There’s also some slight spice and cinnamon here, reminding me that this isn’t much of a group for spicier scents. The vanilla and gum base does help to mitigate any of the more bitter rose qualities found in masalas of this type, but like with Tropical Garden it seems like this incense is trying to do too much with out the requisite ingredients.

Triloka does much better incense than what can be found in their bulk line, a line that just really can’t compete with so many fine masalas and durbars to choose from, all of which will be so close in price as to render any differences irrelevant. At the same time, for extremely inexpensive incense (per stick), none of these are particularly offensive and avoid the harsher qualities found in charcoal sticks and cheap masalas, which, while still damning with faint praise, is somewhat impressive. But overall they all fall under my threshold for keeping in stock.

Koh-Shi has opened!

Scents of Japan’s new retail store, Koh-Shi,¬† has opened in San Francisco’s Japan Town area.

1737 Post Street, Suite 335
San Francisco, CA  94115
TEL 415-931-2002
FAx 415-931-2004

 If you are in the S. F. Bay Area you owe it to yourself to drop by, it is a great experience and there is no better way to get incense then by sampling it in person, plus Jay and Kotaro are very kind and great fun.


Awaji-Baikundo / Nyuwa, Byakudan, Wabi-Sabi

This esteemed company was founded in 1885. It is located on Awaji, an island in the Seto Inland Sea near Osaka, where about 70% of Japan‚Äės incense is currently manufactured. Here you will find burial mounds thousands of years old, and this may be the first island to have been settled in the Japanese archipelago. Legend identifies it as the landing place of the first pieces of aloeswood, arriving via ocean currents from Southeast Asia around 595 AD. As the story goes, the locals burned this driftwood and, realizing its amazing aromatic properties, immediately extinguished the chunk of wood and presented it to the Empress.

Awaji-Baikundo’s incense is unique because the base of their blends is not the typical sandalwood or aloeswood, but hydrangea flowers. This is a very important and historically symbolic plant in Japanese culture, used in celebrations and offerings, to clear the mind of misfortune, relieve tension, and grant one courage and happiness. This base lends Awaji-Baikundo’s incenses an overall light and uplifting quality, with a noticeable mood-enhancing effect. They currently have only five incenses available in the US with a much larger catalog available in Japan. Ross has reviewed Jihi here and Shoujou here. Every one of these incenses is unique, amazing, and well worth sampling. It is rare to find an incense company with a product so consistently high in quality. I have tried all five of their US offerings and enjoyed each one immensely.

Nyuwa is a hydrangea-fruit incense. Fruits are an unusual category and one I find myself really getting into these days! It is rare to find a predominantly fruit blend, especially one that avoids the use of synthetic aromas, so this is a treat for sure. At first I was going to say that this was like a peach, but no, on further contemplation I would say it is more like an apricot. Being a fruit incense it is very peaceful and, unlike some of the wood-heavy blends, achieves this without being too sedating. Fruits in general are energetically lighter than woods and this characteristic certainly comes through, with the apricot lending this incense a pleasant sunny disposition.

Byakudan is a blend of sandalwood and hydrangea. There is a lemony note in there and just a touch of amber. The play of the ingredients is balanced just so; no one ingredient dominates the other and each inhalation give a new angle on the complexity. If you like sandalwood incenses you should definitely try this one. What an unusual take on this traditional wood! Just beautiful! I am forever amazed at the adaptability of sandalwood, and here is yet another example. It is capable of blending flawlessly with an astounding range of aromas, from herbs and spices to resins and flowers. This is absolutely one of the most unusual and elegant sandalwood incenses I have ever tried. {NOTE: 7/2/21: This blend has been discontinued.]

Wabi-Sabi was a tough one for me to figure out at first. It was so strange and unusual, unlike any incense I had ever tried before. After burning quite a few sticks, however, I finally got it – coffee! There are other Japanese companies that make coffee incense, including Shoyeido and Baieido, a testament to the popularity of this style. As someone who does not drink this beverage, however, this incense was initially difficult to interpret. Still, I have always loved the rich and roasty smell of this bean. It is intensely aromatic, with a high quantity of volatile oils, making it the perfect ingredient for incense. It is the predominate note in this blend, rounded out with some sort of delicious caramel note and just a hint of herbs and wood. Just like the beverage, I find this blend to be subtly stimulating and a natural choice for social gatherings and casual conversation. Recommended!

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