Mandala Art & Incense / Amitayu Buddha, Avalokistesvara, Green Tara, Manjushree, Namathasoey, Samantabhadra

Mandala Art & Incense have at least three incense ranges, two are identical in names and scents, but are basically stick and powder versions of  the same line. The third is a thick stick line that comes in paper rolls decorated with a bodhileaf and an attached tag describing the incense. There are six incenses in this line and all six have one particular ingredient in common. It could be said that most of these incenses seem to have a base in common with each having a different ingredient riding on top, leaving many of the scents quite similar overall.

The odd thing about all of these incenses is that for how thick the sticks are (about a half inch in diameter), you would think that these would be profuse with smoke (think of the output of, say, Yog Sadhana). But the opposite is true, these in many ways are low smoke incenses with very mild aromas. They are so mellow that they’re fairly difficult to appraise. The aromas are completely natural with a base that tends to the evergreen and a top aroma that is extremely delicate and in some cases fleeting. In many ways there are really no other incenses like them, certainly I can’t remember too many smokeless or low smoke Tibetan incenses I’ve come across (only TDHF’s Ebionite really comes to mind). As a result they actually remind me a little of wood powders on a heater. The names of the incenses appear to come from Buddhist gods and goddesses, acting as the themes for each particular aroma.

Amitayu Buddha is a pine incense, but it’s quite a different pine than, say, the resinous backdrops of many Fred Soll incenses, the aroma being far more about the wood than the pitch. Like all the evergreen incenses in the line, the overall main ingredient seems somewhat submerged in the base, acting more as a note than a dominant theme. Also similar to the rest of the line, there’s a gentle sweetness to the scent that helps to balance out the base a little bit. In essence, it’s probably the mildest pine incense I’ve ever encountered and for the most part I missed the sharp pungency usually found with this evergreen variant.

Avalokistesvara is a eucalyptus incense, but again this is not a eucalyptus incense with a strong oil content by any means and is unlikely to clear your sinuses. Perhaps that’s to its strength as the result is a lot more gentle than you would expect with the characteristics of the tree leaf faint and not overwhelming. It’s actually slightly menthol-like in a way and overall this is one of the better in the line in terms of not having a base that clashes with the overall scent. Of course the result is low smoke and combined with its gentle nature it can be hard to pick up at times. But I found it fairly remarkable how restrained it is, given how eucalyptus can easily overwhelm any blend it’s a part of.

Green Tara is perhaps the line’s most successful incense, it could almost be the low smoke version of the Pilgrim incense that’s part of the same line with Yog Sadhana and Heritage. Green Tara is a sandalwood incense with a nice, fresh, slightly minty and, naturally, green scent. In some ways it’s the odd one out in the line, the least evergreen in nature with a slightly more apparent herbal content than the others. The mint has a very attractive spearmint-like flavor to it which is always fantastic when balanced like this (not as strong as the Mandala Trading Himalayan Herbal Incense, but in that direction). It’s a wonderfully sublime incense and of the six perhaps the smokiest by a slight margin.

Manjushree features vetivert, although it’s a somewhat mild vetivert and certainly not the earthy, herbal scent you’d expect. As such it leaves this incense without much of a personality, one not terribly different from the Amitayu Buddha or Avalokistesvara scents, where the mildness of the top ingredient lets the underlying woodiness through. The stick’s somewhat brick red in color and overall, similar to the pine, it doesn’t hit the notes like I’d expect. Due to the less smoke format it’s kind of tough to really get any herbal notes from the scent and the result is one of the more generic incenses in the line.

Namathosoey features myrrh which is kind of a natural for this format as it’s a large part of the above-mentioned, low smoke Ebionite. Like with the pine, the myrrh isn’t particularly resinous here, mostly what you get are i’s typical top notes without the underlying sweet resinous base. The myrrh in this case is mild enough where the wood competes a little too strongly, even clashing a little bit. But given the lack of smoke it never gets particularly harsh. Like most of the incenses it has a slight fleeting quality to the burn that’s the line’s biggest strength.

Samantahadra features juniper and thus seems the most inexpensive and woodiest of the bunch in terms of the scent. Like most incenses with juniper up top, the scent is campfire like and occasionally harsh, although like the rest of the less smoke line, it’s not an irritant. But perhaps as it’s the sixth incense in the line alphabetically it smelled a bit like the base alone in comparison to the others. What’s kind of impressive overall is the format, which helps to temper the harsher qualities, leaving the scent with a slight mintyness, a characteristic that about half of the line seems to exhibit.

In many ways the six incenses here are all so similar in base that they seem like variations on a theme rather than six separate personalities. Perhaps only the Green Tara bucks this trend, perhaps due to the sandalwood dominating the base, but also because it seems to have some minty spice to it that really bolsters its  case. But the dominant theme here still seems to be a low smoke incense in a thick stick base and because of this style, it’s really impossible to tag any of these as completely unpleasant. A few of them lack a bit of personality overall, but in quiet moments one might be impressed by how quiet and restrained the aromas are, and given so many smokeless incenses rely on charcoal bases and less natural ingredients, it’s kind of impressive to see a line that does the same thing while remaining fairly untempered.

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Baieido / Kokonoe (Koh) (Special)

Kokonoe means “Imperial Palace” and is a common word used by Baieido to describe three incenses, one that is part of their Jinkoya Sakubei series, another than is the first in their line of pawlonia-boxes aloeswoods, and a third that is used to denote the 100th year anniversary of the trademark of the term itself, memorialized as a unique incense and denoted as “special” at the US site. However, its lack of presence in any specific series means you’re likely to find variations of its name at the various dealers. As you can see by the above link, it’s filed under the Jinkoya Sakubei series, at the bottom of the page, but it differs from that series by not being part of larger “loose stick” boxes. Basically you’ll know it by the largely pink-colored, and striking rolls. And you’ll certainly want to find it as it’s among Baieido’s brilliant, affordable, aloeswood heavy incenses.

Kokonoe Special could probably fit fairly easily into the Kobunboku series next to Kaden Kobunboku, it’s mostly fueled by a hot and spicy Vietnamese aloeswood (hakusui). Like Kaden Kobunboku and Kai Un Koh, to a certain extent, it is tangy and filled with spices, particularly cinnamon and clove. Unsurprisingly it’s like a much more complex version of the Baieido Kokonoe aloeswood, although that uses a different aloeswood and is less spicy. The spices on the special are strong enough to have a near-oil like strength and the overall potency to this one is high. In fact this was the first Baieido aloeswood I tried and I’ve noticed its learning curve is extremely long. It had been a while since I pulled it out before this review and I fell for it all over again. Anyone who likes Tokusen Syukohkoku, Kaden Kobunboku and Kai Un Koh will likely find this yet another incredible variation on Baieido’s singular brilliance. I’m not sure if it’s limited edition, but it still seems to be available at Sensia and Essence of the Ages. For $12 a roll it’s really an impossible one to pass up for the spicy aloeswood lover.

Incense Body Powders / Johin, Gokuhin, Tokusen, Zukoh, Scent of Samadhi (by Nancy)

Incense body powders are an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable way to expand the scope of your incense experience. Like high quality Japanese sticks, these powders are deliciously aromatic, relaxing and grounding. Wearing them is like traveling in a delicate mist of fine incense all day long. One of the more interesting qualities of these powders is that their smell is enhanced by perspiration. Just like the heat of cooking releases the flavors of culinary herbs, body heat and moisture amplifies the aroma of the powders. These powders are also a viable option for those who are sensitive to commercial perfumes, 95% of which are derived from synthetic petroleum sources. They contain nothing artificial, consisting only of essential oils and finely ground medicinal-grade herbs.

Incense body powders have their roots in ancient India where they were originally rubbed on the hands and sprinkled on temple floors to prevent the spread of disease. Over time the use of the powders expanded, and applying them became a more symbolic way to attain spiritual purification before ceremonies, meditation, or yoga. By spreading the powder on the palms and then lightly dusting it all over the hair and clothing, one could effectively smudge or cleanse the aura. According to Shoyeido, Buddhists monks would sometimes even put a small amount of these powders directly under their tongue to enhance mental clarity during meditation.

Here is a listing of the ingredients of the 5 incense body powders I am reviewing:
Shoyeido / Johin: Cinnamon, Sandalwood, Clove, Camphor
Shoyeido / Gokuhin: Cinnamon, Patchouli, Camphor
Shoyeido / Tokusen: Cinnamon, Clove, Camphor, Sandalwood
Baieido / Zukoh: Cinnamon, Cassia, Clove, Sandalwood, Camphor, Star Anise
Scent of Samadhi: Clove Oil, Red Sandalwood, Tulsi Oil, Rose Oil, Cardamom Oil

The offerings from Shoyeido and Baieido differ in smell, but only subtly. As you can see, all contain very similar ingredients. The effect of the blends in general is reminiscent of oatmeal cookies, 5 Spice, mulled cider, pumpkin pie, or even chai tea. The camphor note does come out as well, making for a really nice earthy, spicy blend, appropriate for men or women. Shoyeido offers three different grades of their body incense and what distinguishes them the most is the quality of the ingredients used in each one more than the smell. Tokusen is the highest grade and it definitely has more staying power, depth and richness. Baieido’s Zukoh is comparable in quality to Tokusen with the main difference being that it is slightly more woody. If you would like to try the Japanese powders I recommend going straight for Tokusen or Zukoh because their scent is more refined and longer lasting.

Scent of Samadhi is a totally different experience all together. Comparing this to the Japanese varieties is very much like comparing Japanese incense to Indian incense overall. The Japanese powders are drier, woodier, and spicier while Scent of Samadhi is moister and more floral. Yes, Scent of Samadhi contains clove, but there the similarity ends. The powder is stickier, obviously heavier with oils when you compare ingredients, and sort of reminds me of the masala-type incenses. Because of its high oil content even less is required for application as compared to the Japanese powders and it’s aroma last the longest of all. I really do like this one for its uniqueness. The blend is dominated by the rose oil, making this one a more feminine experience. It also mixes really well with the Japanese powders, resulting in a delicious blend where the floral and the spice balance each other out quite nicely.

The powders come in small packets, about ½ oz. Because so little is needed for the desired effect this is certainly enough to last for months. Shoyeido also makes a nifty ebony holder (scroll to bottom of page) for the Japanese incense powders that I would recommend picking up. It’s perfect for shaking out just the right amount of powder for application and makes a very convenient, portable container. I really love these powders, especially Tokusen and Zukoh, and would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in expanding their incense repertoire.

New York Gift Show – January 25 – 29, 2009 (Sunday – Thursday)

The New York Gift show starts this coming Sunday and many of our favorite brands will be represented there.

Scents of Japan (Kohshi) in booth 2255

Baieido in booth 2881

Shoyeido in booth 2947

If you are in New York at this time it might be great fun to drop by their booths… can you say samples 🙂

There is a general trend at these shows to bring out new products so they should be interesting.

You can go to  http://www.nyigf.com/info/ for directions and hours.

-Ross

Encens du Monde / Meditation; Short Rolls / Celestial Nave (Ranshuko Temple Blend), Seeds of Transformation; Virgin Snow

Previous Encens du Monde / Meditation reviews

The French distribution company Les Encens du Monde is responsible for bringing over a number of great incenses to the Western world; however, several of them overlap with currently available incenses and there are also subtle differences between overlapping incenses, all of which make them somewhat problematic and difficult to review. As a distribution company, Encens du Monde brings over a number of different incenses which are dominantly from Kunjudo, but also feature scents from Shoyeido, Baieido, Kokando and others.

We can generally guess an overlapping incense by the graphics on the roll, which, while not identical, tend to feature a similar artistic motif, for example the green roll with Koh game symbolism on Kokando Rangetsu and Jade Orchid. The same goes for two of the three incenses here, there’s a definite overlap between the Celestial Nave and Ranshuko Temple Blend (which now appears to be deleted or unavailable from many suppliers) boxes, almost identical in this case. And the motifs of Virgin Snow and Byakudan Shirayuki (also translated as White Snow) are also similar enough to be considered fairly identical. However, there appear to be slight differences among the recipes that could be attributed to either a different batch or an adjustment for a particular market. I’m not sure what these all are, but will account for them given a particular incense.

Celestial Nave was fairly easy to identify, as I mentioned above, as the same incense as Ranshuko Temple Blend, the orange box and graphics making this fairly obvious. However, I’ll be reviewing from the latter box. The ingredients on both appear to be the same: agarwood, sandalwood, kansho (spikenard), cloves, patchouli and camphor. And in this incense’s case you can quite easily pick up just about every single ingredient even though they also blend together nicely. It’s a long, thick, square stick with plenty of burning time, reflecting its value for temples nicely. The sandalwood seems to be of very high quality, the agarwood and camphor notes, the clove particularly strong and spicy, and the kansho and patchouli faint but still noticeable overall. It’s fairly similar in some ways to the Reiryo-Koh blend in that it’s tangy and strong natured, with something of a hoary, earthy vibe to it; in fact other than that incense it’s tough to compare Ranshuko to anything. In most aloeswood/sandalwood blends, the aloeswood tends to dominate but it could be that the reverse is true here. I’d actually had this for a while, so when I pulled it out for this review I was surprised at how much better it was than I remembered, it’s a very memorable scent. But I’d hunt down the Ranshuko version before it disappears, as it’s half the price the Encens du Monde version is and a steal at that price. Even if you can’t, Celestial Nave would be well worth it.

Seeds of Transformation is one of two incenses in the Meditation line that features a sandalwood stick drenched in the essential oil of the lily. I reviewed the other sandalwood/lily incense, Blissful Mountain, at the top link, which is a thicker stick, however even though the descriptions are virtually the same, the incenses differ in a way that’s quite difficult to capture in writing. Both are terribly gorgeous incenses, two of the best florals available, with no off tones in the perfume, just a rich scent of flowers that really lingers. If I were to guess, I’d say that the oil might be a bit purer with the Blissful Mountain, where there might be a bit of spice bolstering the Seeds of Transformation, but these differences could be between the thick and thin stick versions as well. Like the high end florals in the Shoyeido Floral World series, both incenses have great definition and thus belong with the aloeswoods in the more expensive incense ranges. Really beautiful work here, I can even see why there are two similar incenses in the same line.

Virgin Snow tends to be a bit more complicated. The version I have comes from the shorter rolls, but there are 3 versions of it, including a long stick meditation version. The odd thing to me is, despite the long box being identical to the Byakudan Shirayuki, the version I have isn’t low smoke by any means, fairly normal actually, which makes me wonder if there’s a recipe change for the version distributed via Incense Works. Regardless, the short roll sticks are really nice incenses, green sandalwoods also imbued with quite a bit of oil or perfume. The freshness and slight evergreen nature of the stick does reflect the incense’s name quite well, and it’s also quite sweet and friendly with a slight mintiness and maybe a touch of green patchouli to it. Overall it’s a very accessible stick, like a walk in a snowy forest. In this case, I’d probably recommend trying out an Encens du Monde version first, unless you’re partial to low smoke incenses.

The Meditation line is really one of Encens du Monde’s finest, it’s quite solid across the spectrum, although I found Imperial Family a little hard to get used to at first. They’re all packaged in very attractive boxes, use high quality ingredients even down to the spices, and feature scents you’re unlikely to match outside of the incenses’ obvious, directly exported duplicates. And they’re quite interesting for having some of the most high end, non-aloeswood incenses available as well. It’s not at all difficult to give recommendations for all three of these.

Nippon Kodo acquires Spiritual Sky, Concerto and the Scented Garden incense lines

The Direct Help Foundation / Kumary House 2006, Himalayan Jhakri, The Druid

A previous TDHF review, including an introduction.

While the three incenses in question here may be available in other sets (certainly both the Kumary House 2006 and Himalayan Jhakri are among their most commonly distributed scents), I found them as part of the (now deleted or at least uncommon) Magic Tantra set, one of The Direct Help Foundation’s triple roll boxes with fantastic artwork.

Kumary House 2006 is that year’s version of an incense made by saving the trimmings from the making of other incenses so that no product is wasted. It makes for a scent with probably dozens of different ingredients that in this form are probably dominated by the most common ingredients, usually woods like juniper, sandalwood and the like. That’s something of a guess but it seems to play out in the incense’s aroma, which is indeed very everygreen and campfire/woody, and the description of flowers, woods and resins. However, I’d probably say whatever floral aromas at work here tend to the fruitier side, as is particularly common with Direct Help Foundation’s scents. Here it’s something of an orangey tint and I can imagine that scent comes from some rope trippings, where it is particularly common (you can see my reviews of various Essence of the Ages ropes – created by TDHF – starting here). Like many TDHF incenses, there’s something of a gravelly, woody background that might be a bit harsh for those who don’t already gravitate towards Tibetan scents, and in this case it’s a bit more pronounced with a bit of strong tobacco or sage like hints that speak of some herbal colliding in the mix. In a way it’s like having a very nice incense sitting on a poorer one and it’s strength is that during a burn all sorts of unusual hints come out of it, making it something of a potpourri. Very interesting overall.

Himalayan Jhakri is one of TDHF’s most common scents, there’s a stick, rope and powder forms of it, inclusive of the Essence of the Ages line TDHF is also responsible for. All three are fairly similar in scent with a somewhat citrus-blended sandalwood scent to it that’s fresh, clean and somewhat sawdusty and blended with a slight amberlike tint. It’s not far from a mix of a heavy wood incenses with an orange spice tea bag and if you can overlook the stronger, intense smells of the juniper wood and binder, you’re likely to find this a very pleasant incense. I’d probably prefer it in powder and rope form overall, the sandalwood tends to be a bit more noticeable and that’s particularly a strength with this incense. Overall it seems a genuinely Himalayan incense with a very fresh feel to it.

The Druid could be TDHF’s finest stick, described as a mix of moss, roots and resins, a combo fairly unusual for the line. Perhaps it’s a lower content of woods that helps to remove what’s kind of a harsh background scent to many of these incenses, but the combination works really well here. Even though it’s different from many other TDHF scents, it’s actually a bit more classically Tibetan, strange for a Celtic themed incense. It has that sort of tangy saltiness common to some of the better Tibetans, but with a cool floral herbal mix or perfume on top that gives it quite a bit of depth. I’ve always had this impression of Celtic incenses being like those fruity, green resin blends, but this is quite a bit different. The resin in the middle seems amber-like in the way amber tends to somewhat musty in this line and it gives the incense some heft to it, helping the overall tangy, savory nature. I found this one extremely pleasant and it’s somewhat unfortunately it’s only found in a couple boxes.

As always quite a bit of the draw with TDHF is their beautiful presentation, but in this case the incenses are pretty strong as well, if fairly uncompromising to the Western nose. While I’m sure we’ll see various versions of the Kumary House and Jhakri again, which should be easily found, I’d much more hope for a return of The Druid, which shows this company’s work at its best.

Best Incense – January 2009 (Mike)

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. The Mother’s India Fragrances / Shanti Nagchampa – It’s been a few months since I did a personal top 10 and in those months, a lot of my sniffing has gone in the Indian direction, after all it’s the country most needing and least representative of reviews at ORS. Perhaps the most impressive discoveries have been the pentad of Nagchampas from MIF, old school durbars using a resin called mattipal at base. For most of us, the adulteration of ingredients in many mainstream champa incenses has been gradual, so it takes something richer to remind us of what we’ve lost across the board. The MIF champas are extraordinary, including this fabulous blend, one that may remind you of the Blue Pearl Spice Champa of yore that seems to have disappeared from the lists. As with all quality champas the aroma is heavenly, deep, expansive, complex and multiplex and this weaves new combinations like a kaleidoscope turning. All five are incredible, but I’m choosing my favorite two so as not to take up half this list, something I might easily do.
  2. The Mother’s India Fragrances / Ganesh Nagchampa – This might be the best of the MIF durbars, due to its most incredible lavender-infused bouquet, in fact this could be the most successful incense to use that delicate ingredient. The combination is startling in so many ways, giving the stick such a huge panoply of subscents, during my first three sticks I must have had my attention arrested numerous times. There are few durbars this incredible among a multitude of really interesting scents from a number of companies. If Shroff Channabasappa restored my faith in dry masalas, MIF has done it with durbars. One of the most incredible incenses ever created, a perfect base and a perfect perfume, it must be sampled to be believed.
  3. R-Expo/Bam Champa – Perhaps the best “unflavored” Nag Champa on the market at the moment, this fairly rare scent seems to have a healthy halmaddi component, reminding one of the old school Shrinivas blue box, but perhaps even more complex. I had a stick burning yesterday evening and was marvelling at how it spun out the old scent, vanilla hints, sandalwood and all of them at really high quality levels. Bummed you can’t find champas like you used to? Try this one. It doesn’t have any of the off notes in at least a half dozen champas I can think of.
  4. Shoyeido/Horin/Muro-machi (coils) – When I reviewed the Horins ages ago, I’d only tried coils on the low three. So it’s only dawned on me over time that the coils and sticks actually do differ slightly in scent. It may be the formats that do this, but the coils on all accounts seem to be slightly woodier and thus, in my opinion, superior to the sticks. Muro-machi, already a brilliant incense (in fact our group #1 pick for last year), just shines in coil form, giving out a fabulous woody element that has a slightly more submerged spikenard content than the sticks. But this has been something of an internal debate at ORS, the slight differences in scent across the Shoyeido spectrum. Which brings me to a very similar incense…
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – Nan-Kun and Ga-Ho are among my favorite incenses in any format to the extent where I wanted to spend some time not worrying about depleting my stock, leading me to purchases of the 135 stick boxes. What surprised me on both accounts was how different the incenses in these boxes smelled from the ones in the 35 silk starter boxes. In Nan-Kun’s case, very similar to the difference in coils and sticks in Muro-Machi, the 135 stick box’s incense had a much woodier aroma to it and, in fact, a bit muskier too, all of which improved my opinion of it yet again. Now this could be for several reasons. One, the top perfume oils in the 135s box had dissipated some. However that did not really explain why the incense’s performance had not waned. The other reason could be that there was an ingredients change from woods to oils and that the much slower selling bigger boxes hadn’t crossed the change divide yet. Needless to say it has spurred on quite a bit of guessing on my part. Except that while I love both incenses, I’d give the hair to the big box scent, it seems less perfumed and overall more natural. I’m continuing to wonder why.
  6. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The changes in Ga-Ho could be even more startling than in Nan-Kun. I’ve always wondered why the spikenard element in the list wasn’t so prevalent here like it is in the other few premiums containing it. When I lit the first “big box” Ga-Ho it was there like it had never been gone, sweet and caramel-like. not only that but the almost blackened tarry aloeswood smell in the 35 stick box wasn’t there, instead it was like real wood. The “big box” Ga-Ho, as a result, seems a lot more complex, although I must say I love that tarry element in the silk box. So here it’s like two variations on my favorite theme and I’m very happy with both.
  7. Fred Soll / Patchouli Champa – I used to buy Fred Soll’s incenses a lot more frequently in the past and figured it had been way too long since I’d checked the line out, noticing the number of incenses had nearly doubled since I’d last bought a stick (unfortunately the price went up quite a bit too, these are fairly deluxe sticks). I was pleased that out of the eight scents I tried now, with many more to come I hope, almost all of them were brilliant, with only the Honey Amber being different than I remembered. The patchouli in Patchouli Champa is just how I like it, a quality well above the oils found amongst Deadheads and the like, but still definitely earthy. Like many Fred Solls this one is so aromatic you don’t even really need to light it if you’re close. Not like any champa you’ve ever tried and as different in its own way as a Tibetan variant, in this case it still leads to a brilliant incense. But man these are sticky and hard to get out of the package (although it has NOTHING on the copal as far as that’s concerned)!
  8. Medicine King / Mandala Special Medicinal – Talk about a long learning curve, these Tibetan sticks are basically in the same class (and, often, price range) of the very best incenses: Tibetan Medical College, Highland and Samye Monastery. Made with the finest ingredients I’ve gone from thinking they were average to virtually deluxe with this one in the lead a hair in front of the Saffron Medicinal. You see, it took me almost ten sticks to notice these were as musky as Holy Land, Highland and Mindroling Grade 3, and when it clicked it was like getting a new incense. Spicy, deep, and wonderful, I’ll speak more on this one when I do a review. Great box artwork too.
  9. Nandi / Divine Flora – Nandi seem to concentrate on floral aromas so that means a number of charcoal based perfume sticks (which are all of uncommonly good quality) and a few durbars as well. Divine Flora might be the best of them and appears to be their best selling incense. It’s a wonderful Indian durbar that’s fairly difficult to describe, certainly floral like it says on the box, but spicy and rich as well. I’m not sure it’s a halmaddi champa per se but it’s distinct enough in its own right to be well worth checking out, it bowled me over on first light.
  10. Mystic Temple / Precious Forest – Mystic Temple do a number of very good durbars (I’m not nearly as fond of their masalas or charcoals) and Precious Forest could be their woodiest, with a really deadly beautiful perfume oil I find very addicting. As they’re very thick sticks, you only get a few sticks in a regular package, but it’s one aroma I may have to grab a 100g package of. The runners up here in the strongly sandalwood category of champas: Sacred Woods and Zen Meditation. All relatively new sticks that should cheer up the lapsing durbar fan. But as always, one wonders what they’d be like with the halmaddi increased.

Bosen Incense Chin-Zhou Aloes -from Ross

I find myself on a pretty frequent basis searching out new sources of incense via the ever deepening world of the Internet. Some months ago I discovered Bosen Incense on Amazon.com. They are based in Taiwan.
Compared to many of the Japanese companies Bosen has a pretty tight line up of two major groupings of Aloewoods and a line of Tibetan style sticks , coils and powders.
They were kind enough to send me samples for review of what’s available on their Amazon.com pages. Since I have yet to figure out the intricacies of Tibetan incense I sent those on to Mike. I did notice that they used quite a lot of Aloewood in those blends, more so then I have seen listed from other companies.
As for the Aloewoods, there are two subgroups, Chin-Zhou (Indian) and Hoi-An (Vietnamese)..
These are pure wood sticks, by which I mean there are no additions in the way of spices or herbs. Most of what we are used to burning are blends composed of some percentage of woods, spices, resins, herbs and perfumes. The Aloe sticks are a variety of different grades of Aloes with a very small touch of binder. The closest thing to this might be the incense from Scented Mountain, but they are using cultivated woods while Bosen are apparently using wild harvested.
Bosen also defines their line up by the quality ( which seems to be a composite of the amount of resin as well as the quality of the scent) of the wood. Sometimes this seems to get a little complicated.
So, this part of the review will be dealing with the Chin-Zhou sticks and powders.

Superior Chin-Zhou Aloeswood: Very smooth surface with a very dense feel to it, about an eighth to inch thick. Very long burning. The scent is a combination of dry woods with a touch of refined sweetness and, at time, a sort of peppery top note with possibly light chocolate like tones underneath.. Overall, this is a nice scent with a lot of different levels going on within the burn without the addition of spices, resins or E O’s that we are normally presented with. Bosen mentioned that there are no “pure incenses” in the world, everything is a blend of some kind, theirs being a blend of different grades of aloeswoods with different levels of resin content as opposed to woods and spices. I think this is a pretty good deal and a good place to start with these incenses.
Top Grade Chin-Zhou: Similar looking stick, a bit thinner in width. The scent is similar to the Superior Chin-Zhou, as you would expect, but there is a noticeably more spicy, peppery feel to it with the chocolate tones more underneath the spicy top notes. There are also some other scent groups at work here but as of yet I can’t really describe them other then they are pleasant. Again, there are a large number of levels going on here, a learning curve!
Given the large difference in price I think Superior is a pretty good deal and a good place to start with these incenses.

Chin_Zhou (Jinko) Powder: In this case Jinko means “water sinking” or resin heavy. This is a very finely ground powder with a clean Aloeswood scent, somewhere between the Superior and Top Grade above. It seems to work best on a makko trail. It would also work really well as a wood base for making your own incense at a relatively affordable price. This is not super strong, but it is a pretty good deal for the price.
Chin-Zhou Aloeswood Powder: This is their lowest level of wood however it still has a distinct Aloeswood scent to it when burned. Less then the Jinko but still there. Again, great as a base for building your own blends.
If you are looking for deep, heavy resin scents neither of these powders are it, nor do their prices reflect what those deep, heavy resin scented woods go for now days, which of course was what I was hoping for  : )

If you are interested in trying out Aloeswood sticks that are really built around the woods and not layered with all the extras you should consider these. Bosen has mentioned that they are putting together some samplers, which would make things much less of a gamble. Next week I will be presenting the Hoi-An (Vietnamese) series.

Gyokushodo / Hanabishi, Eisenko, Tokiwa, Koin, Kojurin, Jinko Kojurin, Keiunko, Jinko Hoen + Jinko Yomei revisit

Perhaps the original distributor of the Gyokushodo line in the United States thought the company name might be a bit of a mouthful for the English speaking audience, as, until recently, it was largely unknown in the US which company created these incenses. Thanks goes to Kotaro Sugimoto over at Japan Incense for providing us with this information. This means that at most incense dealers, you’re likely to find most of these in the various or miscellaneous sections, without a company name. They seem to have been part of a distribution deal from Japan that came over with the Kyukyodo line and others miscellaneous incenses, a deal that seems to have unfortunately kept a great deal of information fairly obscure and a number of others incenses from these companies (Kyukyodo in particular) from coming to these shores.

Gyokushodo’s incenses may be somewhat obscure, but once you know where they’re from, a certain consonance appears and like Shoyeido, Baieido, Kyukyodo and many others, you start to get a feel for the personality of these incenses. Like Shoyeido, Nippon Kodo and Tennendo, Gyokushodo creates incenses with a strong oil on top, particularly with Tokiwa and Jinko Yomei whose top oils are quite memorable. As of today, nine Gyokushodo incenses are exported to the US, one of these I covered a while back. Two of these incenses are in the green “every day” sandalwood style, three are slightly more deluxe sandalwood blends and four are aloeswood incenses.

Like Kyukyodo, Gyokushodo appears to have a number of “green” sandalwood blends. These are basically incenses with a small or inexpensive sandalwood content blended with other woods and usually containing a mild top oil of some kind. Hanabishi is one of two very inexpensive incenses in this style, both of which come in rolls sold separately or in bulk in larger boxes. Hanabishi is fairly standard, with a citrus-like oil on top that reminds me of some of Kyukyodo’s unimported low end blends, but not really as smooth or considered. It’s a rough and ready incense with some off notes typical of cheaper woods and a bit of spice, all mild aspects that clash slightly with the oil.

Eisenko gets the balance a bit better, a somewhat sweet green sandalwood not unlike Nippon Kodo’s Mainichi Koh. The presence of oil is fairly muted and there’s a bit more spice at work leaving the results fairly standard. This is a very inexpensive incense, although one you can probably pass on if you’re already well stocked in this style. On the other hand it’s not a bad place to start if you’re not.

Tokiwa is the most deluxe of the three green sandalwoods with a far more intense and notable oil on top. It’s also quite a bit more expensive, the cost of the roll charting well into the teens. It’s somewhat similar to the Shunkohdo Haru no Kaori blend (although without the aloeswood content) in that it’s decadently sweet and spicy. The difference is that the oil has something of a limelike citrus note to it, as well as a touch of pine and like many more deluxe, green incenses a somewhat herbal note like sweet patchouli. It’s a very aromatic stick at the top of the sandalwood heap and well worth checking out. Of all the sandalwood blends in the Gyokushodo stable, it’s the most perfumed.

Koin moves to a blend style with a flatter box. It’s something of a hybrid, traditional due to its use of herbs and spices (although fairly light on both), but modern given a somewhat perfumed, floral aroma in the mix, a certain jasmine-like tinge that makes the scent somewhat reminiscent of Nippon Kodo work. Perhaps its closest analog would be the Encens du Monde/Karin blend Moonlit Night. Overall something of an unusual stick and not particularly impressive given that it seems to try to do too much at once.

Kojurin comes in a similar size box and also has an Encens du Monde/Karin analog, in this case the Forest of Flowers stick aka the one sold as Karin in the US. That is, it has a very pink, almost amber-like scent to it that will be considered quite friendly by most, except in this case there’s more of a sandalwood base (it seems unlikely it would have daphne wood like Forest of Flowers). Overall Kojurin is also slightly more floral and drier than Karin/Forest of Flowers, but it’s overall somewhat duplicative, so it’s recommended to start with one or the other. And given the choice I’d probably go with Karin by a hair.

Jinko Kojurin takes the Gyokushodo line into the aloeswood range, and isn’t anything like its sandalwood namesake. My immediate first impression was that it was very similar to the Shoyeido Haku-Un blend (which reminds me of a Buddhist Temple granulated Matchless gifts used to and may still offer), with a cloudy, musky under scents combining aloeswood, sandalwood and a nice heaping of benzoin. In the case of Jinko Kojurin, the aloeswood and muskiness are quite a bit more prominent, which only enhances the type of scent here. Overall it’s very sultry and mysterious with a nice, quality wood center and a light bit of cinnamon spice to liven things up. And it’s quite a bit different from the rest of the Gyokushodo line in its own right by not having an overt oil or perfume mix on top.

Keiunko is a pale green stick with a color I’ve never really encountered before and is one of the mildest aloeswood blends on the US market. It has slight green minty tones across an even lighter aloeswood (and likely sandalwood) blend. Like  a lot of green sticks, comparisons with patchouli or green tea are inevitable but even though the work of this incense is done with oils, they’re quite faint. A stick of this level of mellowness isn’t likely to offend anyone but at the same time it’s just as unlikely to impress.

Jinko Hoen could be the woodiest of Gyokushodo’s aloeswoods, at least in the classic sense and shares some characteristics with the company’s US top line, Jinko Yomei. Those familiar with Yomei will recognize some of the same unique oils on the top, but where with Yomei they’re highly perfumed and quite strong, with Hoen they fade into the woods rather perfectly. Hoen’s a difficult stick to get at first, coming across somewhat mild, but with time one will notice all sorts of notes, like burnt toffee, turpentine, cinnamon and clove. There’s also quite a bit of muskiness in the middle, although in a different manner to Jinko Kojurin. A previous reader also mentioned its similarity in parts to the way books smell, a sort of library like paper aroma, to which I’d agree fully. A great stick overall, with a Baieido-like learning curve.

I reported on Jinko Yomei well over a year ago here and it’s certainly improved even more with use. It has a very distinct oil at the strength that you’ll find in some of Shoyeido’s high end blends, in fact I’d even propose that it acts as a sort of lower level analog to Myo-Ho or Sho-kaku. It’s not nearly as high quality or woody as either of those classics but the perfume is really nice on this one, tangy, decadent and distinctive against anything outside of the Gyokushodo line (only Hoen is remotely similar). The only warning I’d give is for what is advertised as a high end aloeswood, it’s not woody, acrid or hoary like you’d expect with a fine quality of wood, but fortunately the price reflects this difference. For a roll in the mid-30s you get a really good deal for the price. In fact it’s a great enough incense to have it on the Hall of Fame for its cost range. Those looking for totally unique incenses will find one here.

One wonders if Gyokushodo’s other treasures are wrapped up via contract like the Kyokushodos as the aloeswood>kyara levels found in most companies seem to be absent here. Overall the company does some fine work and compared to several other companies nearly all of these incenses are very affordable for what they do. Sandalwood fans are advised to give Tokiwa (and if you haven’t tried Karin, Kojurin) a try, aloeswood fans will likely find success with all of the blends, perhaps other than Keiunko (which is quite pleasant in its own right).

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