If you consider both affordability and quality in your incense purchasing, there may be no better series in the US market than Baieido’s Kobunboku line. From top to bottom it’s a virtual triumph of incense crafting, particularly when you consider that none of these use any overt perfumes or oils in them. The Kobunboku line has perhaps one of the longest incense learning curves available, which to some extent makes reviewing them problematic. If you come back and ask me in a year what I think of them, I’d probably be even more positive as with every stick I notice more and more subtleties and unique qualities. These are not incenses for stuffy noses and short attention spans, they reveal themselves more in introspective mode and as such are perfect fits for meditation, and are categorized both as incenses that are traditional and used for meditation.
Kobunboku means “plum blossom” and each incense seems to be geared as an “expression” of the plum tree, an abstract concept more so than an indication of aroma. All of these incenses are woods first, despite the number of spices that work to contour them all to different scents. Both the regular Kobunboku and the Byakudan version are generally sandalwood incenses, while Tokusen, Kaden and the Bikous add different types of aloeswood to the mix. What’s amazing is that despite the expensive ingredients, nearly all of these incenses are affordable, even the larger boxes (such as with Bikou) that go for $20 have enough sticks in them to last you for years. The more common varieties of the Kobunboku line come in various boxes and even some long stick sizes, making matches for different purposes an effortless endeavor. In many ways this line is the base of a solid incense collection and it’s also recommended that one does not make a decision on their quality based on a single stick, but rather one works closely with a formula over time, so that one can learn the sophistication and brilliant art that goes into making these. Many of these scents can also be found in samplers, but I’d recommend even further going for a multi roll sampler so that one can experience the wonderful learning curve on these incenses and appreciate just how good they really are.
The regular Kobunboku may be one of the best deals for incense on the US market. Few incenses whose rolls go for $7 are as sophisticated, complex or eye opening as this combination of sandalwood, borneol, clove, cinnamon and medicinal herbs. Usually it’s high end aloeswoods that cause obsessive burning behavior on my part but my first roll of the regular Kobunboku was almost impossible to stay away from. As with all Baieido incenses the sandalwood used is of a high, uncommon quality level, less about the wood and more about the resins hiding in the woods. It’s always fresh, crystalline and snappy, absolutely the best aspects of Mysore heartwood. As with all Baieido incenses, the added spices are almost unobtrusive, contouring the incense so that the better qualities of the central wood come out. Where the Byakudan version moves closer to a pure sandalwood, the spices used in the the regular version give it an almost elegant and slightly fruity quality that is common to many incenses with a plum blossom theme, but there are none that capture it more perfectly than Kobunboku. This is one of the rare non aloeswood incenses that has an aloeswood level of complexity and sophistication. It’s dry, elegant and extremely pleasant, an essential purchase for either the Japanese incense newcomer or veteran.
The learning curves get more difficult for Tokusen Kobunboku, basically the “excellent” version of the line. Added to this formula is Kalimantan (Indonesian) aloeswood and in many ways this reformulation is an unfolding mystery, an incense whose subtle qualities are nearly impossible to pick up without some experience. Personally it took me maybe a good 15 sticks before I really started to “get” this incense and when I did it was a revelation. Because Tokusen Kobunboku is both a similar and completely different incense to the regular stick, it’s abstractly similar in approach while totally different in execution. Like the difference between the regular Kunmeido Reiryo Koh and the aloeswood version, the latter is quieter in many ways, insular to the point that the brilliance works on a very quiet level. As with all Baieido sticks, this has an obvious wood contour, but clove seems to come out a bit more, reminding me of Baiedo’s classic Kai Un Koh blend. The contour of the wood and quiet nature of the stick hides what’s an emerging complexity as if the various herbs and spices all reveal themselves in a Zen-like fashion, asking the question rather than revealing the answers. It’s beautifully done, a masterwork of incense, an aloeswood that still charts under $10 a roll. Few companies have an incense this sophisticated for the same price.
Kaden Kobunboku is the “Family Secret” version of Kobunboku and the aloeswood changes to Baieido’s Tsukigase, a soft and mellow Vietnamese type. Where the Tokusen was mellow and smooth, Kaden works a bit hotter and on a livelier level, with perhaps a more obvious complexity. The level of spice here approaches essential oil level, with the cinnamon and clove a lot more obvious and even competitive with the woods for attention. It’s an incense with an aroma far more expensive than the $12 a roll asking price and while this does have a decent quantity of sandalwood, it’s still the Kobunboku that is most obviously an aloeswood incense at heart. It’s a very traditional and even hoary scent and perhaps one to work your way up to as it constrasts nicely to the regular and Tokusen versions. And even with a much brasher approach there is no complexity or sophistication lost here.
Bikou Kobunboku moves in a different direction to Tokusen and Kaden and is unsurprisingly defined as a softer and milder version of the formula. I’m a little further behind on the learning curve with this one, while noticing the same pattern of having each stick improve my experience. It has a somewhat similar wood contour to the Tokusen version but without quite so much of an aloeswood impact, that particular wood only acting as a spice or flavoring rather than being particularly dominant. In many ways it has more in common with the sandalwood dominant Byakudan version and at times even the Sawayaka/Koh version with its stronger cinnamon base, yet there’s really nothing strong or powerful about Bikou, it’s perhaps the most meditative of the entire line.
The smokeless Bikou Kobunboku is certainly one of Baieido’s oddest incenses being that it’s format has more in common with its other smokeless incenses such as the Green Tea, Coffee and Honey formulas. I almost see these as appealing to different audiences entirely with the woodier Kobunbokus for traditional users and the charcoal smokeless sticks for the moderners. So this is perhaps the only stick that bridges both traditional and modern and in many ways I would think it could be difficult coming from either side. It does share its non smokeless version’s milder and woody qualities, but with the smokeless base so much of this impact is removed. The change gives it a bit more of a citrusy vibe to it as well as something of a powdery touch (a touch common to nearly every incense in this format) and I’m left with the impression that it’s something of a picture of the real thing. But perhaps it would thrive without comparisons to the rest of the line, on its own.
Finally, there’s the line’s most poignant sandalwood incense, the astonishing Byakudan Kobunboku. Baieido is already responsible for one of the most deluxe sandalwood incenses available, the expensive and stupendous Byakudan Kokoh. In many ways this could be considered the least expensive variant of that incense, still capturing that amazing crystalline Mysore aroma but perhaps at a lower vibration. I find this stick, fresh, and exhilirating, capturing all the best aspects of good heartwood without any off notes whatsoever. In fact for the price, there’s really no better sandalwood incense available, there are no oversaturated sandalwood oils or harsh wood contents in this stick whatsoever. The spices here do nothing more than accentuate these excellent qualities. At 30g for $11 this is yet another mandatory starter buy and may very well put other sandalwood incenses in a totally different perspective. In fact I’d recommend this one before the Kokoh version, the only (nondeleted) sandalwood incense superior to it.
There’s one more Kobunboku I previously covered, the Sawayaka Kobunboku which has also been repackage under the name of Koh. If the Byukadan accentuates the sandalwood in the formula, the Sawayaka does the same for the cinnamon and is also highly recommended (indeed it’s part of our yearly top 20 for 2008).
I can think of no affordable, under $20 line better than the Kobunboku series, it’s a line with aromatic qualities far more expensive in impact to one’s olfactory senses than pocketbook. If you’re new to Japanese incense there really are few better starter incenses than what could be found here, and other than the anomalous smokeless Bikou Kobunboku, every single one of these can be solidly recommended. But do take your time with them, these are not scents to jump to conclusion on, they’re perhaps a little smarter than your own nose at first and patience will repay itself manifold.