SAMPLER NOTES: Shochikudo, Shorindo, Tahodo

This is a slight summary of some of the more recent modern Japanese incense imports, including one traditional scent and another on the fence. All of these scents are available from Essence of the Ages or Japan Incense.

Like many of the new imports we’re seeing there are quite a few new companies making their entry into the US Market, including an incense from Shochikudo called Kirari or Ocean Breeze. This one has a rather huge list of ingredients given as: rose, lavender, jasmine, ylang ylang, iris, lemon, bergamot, blue cypress, sandalwood, vanilla beans and oak moss. It’s almost like a starter list of essential oils and with a sampler I’d be hard pressed to say that any of these particular ingredients stand out more than any other except for, perhaps, the vanilla bean (I get an impression of some amber as well). This is an incense generally in the vein of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua, a floral mix with a distinct seaside sort of aroma, not quite briny, but a more upbeat and pleasant approximation, like a mix of garden and beach. It’s going to be only for those who really go for a sample as with a box of 200 sticks, it’s one you’ll want to be sure you really like at first. I found it quite pleasant, but my experience with Aqua was the same and I found it quite cloying over time so I’d be hesitant even though I think this is a better incense.

Shorindo has been extremely active on the exportation of front after entering the US market with their Chabana Green Tea mix, in fact since I received the following samples, they’ve added two more incenses in the Chabana line. The first of the four samples here is the most traditional incense in this whole group, a sandalwood and cinnamon scent called Wayko. I love cinnamon so I found this instantly a winner, it’s not a particularly complicated incense, but it differs slightly from the traditional sense in that it seems polished and possibly made partially out of oils or perfumes. But give cinnamon essential oil is quite cheap, it all comes off quite authentic and just a bit stronger than the average Japanese traditional blend that doesn’t use oils like, say, Baieido Koh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of incenses like Shoyeido Horin’s Hori-kawa or  even Kunjudo Karin or its Gyokushodo analog Kojurin in scent, maybe in the middle of this group in terms of a traditional to modern axis.

Shorindo has also brought over three perfume incenses in a line called Kobiana. These are definitely far to the modern style and seem to exist to carry over previously created perfumes, although they seem a little different in that they’re not quite smokeless. I doubt my impressions are going to be particularly useful, so as an addendum I’d like to refer you over to Sprays of Blossoms, Curls of Smoke for a much more informed review before I take a clumsy stab at these.

All three of these sticks, despite the color names, seem to be a dark blue color. The Kobiana Yellow Cute is created to be reminiscent of Etro’s Magot perfume and the notes given are, on the top, bergamot, lemon, jasmine and iris; lavender and cloves in the middle; and patchouli, cedar, vanilla and musk at the base. Like with the Kirari, I have trouble picking these apart although at least I can distinguish this scent from the other two in this series as being distinctly floral and very reminiscent of the types of perfumes you run into being worn in the US. As is the case, I tend to get as much of the alcohol or synthetic scent as I do the florals and completely miss any of the elements supposedly in the base with, perhaps, the iris, lavender and jasmine the most obvious scents to me.

I have a lot of trouble telling the Kobiana Red Elegant and Kobiana Blue Sweet apart, but both strike me as fruit and florals, and like the Kirari above, both are somewhat reminiscent of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua in that they both have an almost watery like scent. The Red is reminiscent of Chanel Chance perfume, the Blue Etro’s Anice. The Red lists pink pepper, lemon and pineapple on top; hyacinth, jasmine and iris at the heart (likely where I’m getting the Aqua similarity from); and amber, patchouli, vetiver and white musk in the base. Strangely enough from this mix I get watermelon, cyclamen and the listed jasmine, but it’s such a light scent that with a sample it’s really hard to break it down. Similarly scented, the Blue lists Brazilian rosewood, anise and bergamot; the middle notes iris, jasmine, anise and garden dill; and the base notes amber, musk and vanilla. I’m not sure if the note similarities between these two incenses account for why I can barely tell them apart, but for some reason I wasn’t getting much anise or rosewood and still felt it was mostly watery, fruity and floral. In the end I had to separate the two and test them at different times just to confirm for myself I hadn’t accidentally gotten the same sample twice and to maybe convince myself I don’t quite have the nose for moderns like these.

Like Shochikudo, Tahodo has currently exported only one incense to the US, although similar to Shorindo Wayko, this is something of a modern/traditional blend. In this case Sekizan Koh is clearly something of a perfumed sandalwood stick and not authentic in terms of a pure sandalwood, but it makes up for it with a nice blend of clove, nutmeg and slight floral and citrus hints. It tends to the slightly sweet and in another life could have easily been added to, say, one of Daihatsu’s modern lines. Like most perfumed incenses I’m not sure how long I’ll last in terms of appreciation, but my initial samples were extremely pleasant and I liked it right away, especially due to the attractive nutmeg subnote.

More in the next installment including pairs from Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsado and Scents of Japan.

Best Incense – October 2009

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

  1. Kunmeido / Asuka – These top 10 lists get harder to do on some months, particularly when I spent a lot of that time in incense note taking or writing mode. At those times I don’t often have favorites or think in terms of best of the month, so for this month this is sort of a ragged list of the scents that really had resonance with me and drew my attention more than most. With Kunmeido Asuka, it was like discovering another level of depth in the incense. This is a very greenish aloeswood stick with a much heavier aloeswood oil in the mix than the comparable Heian Koh, it wasn’t one I noticed until I brought it out recently. I love pungent green incenses that remind me of ancient jungles and prehistoric vistas and this one really does invoke that kind of imagination with me. And this time it started edging into my top 20 all time list.
  2. Dzogchen Monastery / Lotus Ground Incense – This one is resonating with me a lot like Holy Land did with me in the first few months after purchase and this is as red and spicy as the Asuka is green and singing with chlorophyll. This is truly a Tibetan incense on another plane, very different from just about any other comparable incense, with a lot more oil content than you’d normally expect. Definitely a regular for me.
  3. Shoyeido / Premium / Sho-ka-kuI always kind of chuckle when this terribly expensive stick makes the list because in nearly every case I’ve probably burned a stick of it during the month at most, and this month I think it was about half a stick left over from a gathering. Sometimes this incense is just too rich, but there are times when it seems like the oils aren’t as heavy where the base wood comes through and when it does, it’s very difficult to find a better incense as this just comes through ancient, black resinous and full of sweet kyara and licorice-like spice. But undoubtedly it’ll go back in the box for another few months before I get the courage to deplete the stock even further. And to Steve who I haven’t seen here in all too long, cheers!
  4. Yamadamatsu / Hyofu – Like I mentioned in my recent review this one went from the back of the group to the front when reviewing it recently. I think there’s a layer of this that’s almost too reminiscent of aloeswoods not quite up to speed, but once you sit with it a while it almost feels like a facade and then almost like what it’s hiding comes through in a rush. Kinda got a thing for it now and waiting for the Koh-Shi fellows to get their new stock in.
  5. Pure-Incense / Connoisseur / Rose – Just the ultimate in rose incense, a whopping stamp of floral beauty for just about any occasion, I’m just amazed at how something could be so heavy yet so beautiful. What an oil they must use for  this.
  6. Shoyeido / Premium / Misho – This was a fairly early Japanese discovery for me, so I hadn’t out in a while, much to my surprise I’d forgotten what a brilliant aloeswood incense is, about half way down the premium line. It too is nicely green with the wood less the oud-ish oiliness of the higher ends and more a dry sort of feel, which acted as a nice contrast. This is really not a bad place to start to hit the premiums when you’re done with the sampler packs. And this one’s got a bit of the spikenard in it which is as much a strong feature of the best in the Shoyeido premium line as the wood is.
  7. Pure-Incense / Connoisseur / Agarwood – This stick just has crazy complexity to it and is really unlike any of the Japanese woods and not particularly comparable to any of the Indian masalas other than the absolute version which is slightly duller in comparison. In burning this one tends to be drawn to the crystalline and camphor like note somewhere in the middle that just almost acts as a kaleidoscope where all the various notes blend playfully with each other for all sorts of new hints. A classic in a classic line.
  8. Anand Agarbathi / Special Fluxo – A new discovery for me thanks to the trading circle, this is an incense I’ll talk about more in depth when I do a survey of various thick flora incenses in the Sai Flora vein. But it’s big, powerful and terribly beautiful with less of the earthy tones and a more sublime floral mix on top.
  9. Shroff Channabasappa – Akash Ganga – No top 10 list is a top 10 list without the latest Shroff rediscovery, for me it’s this borderline dry to semi-dry take on the desert flower formula. This one will be covered in the next Shroff installment but needless to say this is much more complex than I had originally thought and given that it’s temporarily sold out at Essence probably goes to show it has been taken to quite well.
  10. N. Ranga Rao & Sons / Woods – Thanks to Janet for bringing this up in the Mystic Temple thread and comparing this to their Sacred Woods (at least I think it was that one) blend, as it really is almost identical. This is one big, aromatic durbar with a really pleasant and distinctive oil blend to it that I loved immediately undoubtedly due to the familiarity. The question is whether I cover it in the champas or floras at this point…

Ramakrishnanda / Bhagavan, Krishna, Lalita, Radha, Rasa Lila

Ramakrishnanda Part 1
Ramakrishnanda Part 2
Ramakrishnanda Part 3

Since Ramakrishnanda released their first 15 incense blends a few years ago as well as three different sampler packs, they’ve not stopped there, trickling out a few other new blends that as of yet do not have an associated sampler pack. This review covers the five newest blends as of the current date which include one new premium Agarwood stick that costs about a dollar more than the usual 10 stick packages. The rest of the newer incenses follow in the durbar or flora styles used by the company and continue their experimentation with different ingredient combinations. As always the results are always unusual and intriguing, if not always successful.

Bhagavan is a durbar that combines patchouli and vetivert, given the listed concoction, however this is actually a stick that doesn’t particularly evoke either ingredient so much. In many ways this is an alternative to the types of flora incenses found under the name Golden Champa such as Sai Flora itself, Sai Deep, Sai Leela and several others, although in this case the stick isn’t quite as hefty. Any noticeable patchouli qualities seem to be lost in the mix or at least the oilier aspects of the scent are submerged, what’s left is more reminiscent of the brighter, foresty type of scent one might associate with Shrinivas’ Patchouli Forest blend. The Vetivert is less submerged but still floats more as a background note, and it’s difficult not to wish both aspects were cranked up a bit more. As both scents evoke sort of an earthy type of scent, I was surprised to find the earthiness mostly existed as part of the drier finish. However if one just forgets about trying to match up what their smelling with the ingredients on the package, you’ll still find this a very pleasant incense, particularly if you’re fond of any of the flora types mentioned earlier.

Krishna is a champa type incense that’s something of  a variation on Ramakrishnanda’s own Narasingha Dev. The ingredients given are vetivert, cedarwood and halmadi, but the strongest element seems to be the sweet gum like center, the aspect it has most in common with Narasingha Dev which opens the question whether that incense also has halmadi (which could be implicit in the champa part of its ingredients). It certainly has the strong vanilla aroma halmadi tends to bring with it, but again whatever vetivert is being used here doesn’t seem to overwhelm the incense as if it’s just being used as a note. The cedarwood, as well, isn’t as strong as it tends to be in Indian masalas but likely strengthens the forest like gum scents of the incense’s center. The entirety is a bit of a mix up, not as successful as Narasingha Dev, as if there’s just a bit too much going on and too many contrary scents cancelling each other out.

Lalita is a very pleasant sandalwood and musk incense with an incredibly attractive sandalwood oil at the center of the stick. As this is one of the newer Ramakrishnanda blends, it begs the question if some of the older packages are perhaps losing a bit of steam in terms of oil quality, as the scent here is very powerful and terribly attractive. It’s true one can detect a very nice topping of musk as a faint note with the incense, but it’s only a side note on what is a great sandalwood champa incense with an oil that’s pitched about perfect. Not a complex incense, but a very nice one, if there’s any other side notes it would be a touch of vanilla and maybe a bit of spice that reminds me of Indian masalas with chandan in the title.

Radha‘s ingredients are given as patchouli, cardamom and rose and had I not seen cardamom in the list I might have compared the interesting spice note in this incense to anise. The rose I’m not sure I detected at all, and given the track record with patchouli in this line, I’d say the company is using less of the obvious patchouli oil and perhaps more of the herb, because it never strikes you as overt. I’m left with the impression of a champa with quite a bit of sandalwood and benzoin in it with the vanilla touches not blending terribly well with the cardamom. There even appear to be some bitter or sour notes in the mix which are uncommon to Ramakrishnanda incenses which are usually always at least pleasant. One might chalk this up to an experiment that didn’t work so well, or perhaps by the time a packet was in my hand, the oils had faded considerably.

Which brings me to the last and newest of the Ramakrishnanda line, the powerfully scented agarwood incense Rasa Lila. Again one wonders at the level of oil dissipation (particularly when all of these incenses seem to be packaged very well) as in this case the oil levels are eye-stingingly powerful, although with an increased, premium price (as well as a gold sticker on the front setting it apart) perhaps we’re getting a bit more for the money. It’s a  rather thick durbar style whose primary scent is less the wood than the heavy citrus/orange/lemon that gives the aroma an almost furniture polish-like aroma in all the best senses. The agarwood/oud oil then floats as a background note behind this giving it all a nice three dimensional presence, taking the place that sandalwood tends to hold in most of the line’s incenses. It would be too much if it wasn’t for its resounding natural qualities which help to give this a very fresh and cleansing solar quality to it. It’s not at all like, say the Agarwood incenses found in the Mystic Temple line or the Absolute or Connoisseur versions in the Pure-Incense line, it really does have a unique and interesting quality all of its own. I’d probably chalk this one up as one of Ramakrishnanda’s more successful experiments.

Ramakrishnanda then has a total of 20 different blends to date and no doubt we’ll see more in the future. They also have a series of resin blends that I have not yet decided to spring for that may be of some interest to heater or charcoal burner lovers. Overall they’re a quality company with a lot of interesting scents, perhaps not at the apex of the art, but growing closer in that direction (I’d certainly like to see more in the way of premium scents). Perhaps the major downside is that they only seem to commonly retail 10 stick packages which means if you like any particular aroma you’re almost due for a restock as soon as you open a package. And I don’t doubt you’ll find at least one or two new favorites among the 20 scents they carry.

Daihatsu’s Father’s Love, Eight Scenes Green & Eight Scenes Orange (from Ross)

These are three new sticks that Japan Incense has brought in from Daihatsu.

Father’s Love is a smokeless stick, which I generally stay away from as the smokeless sticks seem to lack punch and, to me,  a lot of the characteristics( woods) that I look for in incense. This one is a different customer, it has a Aloeswood base topped with a sort of cherry/plum top note that is very interesting. It really surprised me, both in the amount of scent as well as the overall complexity within it. There is a resemblance to Kyukyodo’s Shiun in the scent qualities. This would be a great stick for someone who has problems with smoke but would like to experience incense.

Eight Scenes Green is a regular type of incense stick, colored a very dark purple/blue (so I am assuming that the colors of the sticks have no bearing on the names). The scent is a combination of  florals that edge into almost fruit based notes with a very light wood note of Sandalwood under it all. It sort of reminds me of some of the Shunkodoh’s (like Haru no Kaori) without the Aloeswood.

Eight Scenes Orange (which is colored green) is quite interesting, it’s write up says Sandalwood and secret spices. There is a distinct vanilla note at the top with a slight powdery feel to it, underneath that is a spicy note that tends to weave in and out of perception and then finally the Sandalwood. Vanilla is tough to pull off in incenses it scent reminds me of some Indian sticks, but much less intense.

All three of these come in very large amounts, you might want to check with Japan Incense, as the samples they kindly sent to me are in smaller tubes. These are everyday style incenses that are reasonably prices and well made.

Yamada Matsu / Saiun, Shikun, Hyofu (Aloeswood blends)

Until recently Yamada Matsu was the most unrepresented major Japanese incense company in the US, in fact outside of Japan Incense you still can’t find their incense at all and would have to make a telephone call to the company to be able to purchase these three incenses and any other Yamada Matsu products current available. And to say they have so much more is a virtual understatement, Yamada Matsu is a company that has some of the most astonishing, complex and arresting aloeswoods on the planet, the three in question here are only the very tip of the iceberg as far as those are concerned. Perhaps only Kyukyodo is close in terms of having so many unrepresented incenses not available here and the reasons for both the presence and absence of these are all part of intricate negotiations invisible to most of us. Again, I highly recommend linking over to Japan Incense, grabbing their telephone number, calling them up and purchasing these blends, the support of incense buyers is invaluable towards the possibility of these and other incenses becoming more widely available.

The thing is, in many ways Yamada Matsu incenses, especially the high end traditionals, are the closest in style you’ll find to Baieido, all three of these incenses seem entirely created from natural products with little and likely no perfume, synthetic or natural, oils. They are so vastly complex, dense and have such a long learning curve that I believe my reviews will do little justice to the art involved in creating them. Every time I burn a new stick I learn just a little bit more about each one and enjoy them that much more, the sort of learning process one would find in the Kobunboku, Syukohkoku and high end aloeswood lines from Baieido. It’s for sure a little victory for Japan Incense to have managed to offer for sale what they have and this is a beautiful little trio all of which are priced in the mid-$50s and lower with a very large stick count for each one. To say the least if you’re a woods lover these are essential. I would also state that there isn’t a real grading to the three of these incenses as all three have different prices and stick counts, however I’ve ordered them so that each successive stick moves into woodier territory.

So, Saiun is the softest and mellowest of the three, an aloeswood blend that seems to have a complex combination of woods, spices and light floral aspects. One of the reasons I call these sticks blends is because along with the obvious aloeswood content, the first two appear to me to have extraordinarily fine sandalwood content in the mix, the type of Old Mountain wood that elevates any incense it’s a part of and in the Saiun that fresh, crystal clear scent is a definitely part of the palate. The aloeswood is not buried by any means, it kind of kicks a little in the back, as an almost secondary level that creates an amazing interplay within the incense, a smooth sheen on top and a wilder streak on the bottom. The spices and slight fruity or floral natural that seems to be mixed in (I actually get a bit of apricot on this one) ties both levels together quite nicely, but it all adds up to an incense so intricate it will take many more sticks than I have already tried to really get a handle on this, and with 110 sticks or more it gives you plenty of room to do so. And that’s really the best thing you can say about a good aloeswood.

Shikun is fairly similar to Saiun, a bit spicier and the aloeswood cuts through quite a bit more on the bottom, with that hoary antique-like scent that hints at quality wood and is a large part of the attraction to these incenses for my tastes. Like Saiun, this also seems to have two levels, with the same sort of Old Mountain sandalwood contour on top, polished to its most effective aroma. It’s overall a very compressed and woody scent, it’s major difference from the Saiun being that it doesn’t have any particularly floral hints to it, if anything there’s perhaps that slightly sweet cherry-like scent that incenses like Kyukyodo Shiun or Tennendo Renzan exhibit, but this is an even more impressive scent. The compression of woods reminds me of how I felt about incenses like Kaden or Tokusen Kobunboku before I had spent a lot of time with them, as if time will unfold the mysteries of the scent. The aloeswood content here is just fantastic, certainly the hook that will catch most appreciators and I personally can’t wait to learn more about it. Of the three rolls here, this has the lowest stick count at 85 or more, but that’s still about twice the average roll.

When I first tried Hyofu (100+ sticks) I found it probably the most inferior of the three incenses but over about 7 or 8 sticks, it’s hard not to see it as the superior of the three, once it really starts opening up. The initial aroma will remind many of the lower end of mid-range Vietnamese aloeswoods right away, but over time I started to find that to be an almost superficial evaluation, below this level there’s a much deeper aloeswood scent at work and this is unquestionably the woodiest of the three incenses. In fact while I detect Old Mountain sandalwood in the Saiun and Shikun bouquets, there’s very little if any in the Hyofu which makes this less of a blend and more of a true aloeswood stick. The effect reminded me of Shunkohdo’s Kyara Seikan where it seemed like the additional spices were only there to contour and perfect the aloeswood scent. I almost hated to review this incense now because it was just popping on my last stick, with hints of previously hidden spice, and touches of lacquer and caramel in the mix. Utterly delightful in every way.

Woods fans, particularly those of you who prize Baieido’s vast natural traditionals, the high end Shunkohdos, and sticks like Tennendo Enkuu are probably going to get the most out of these. For sure, if you’re not familiar with the Baieido catalog it may be the most cost-effective way to start “learning” about this type of incense (the Yamada Matsus are very close in price to the expensive side, it’s just that you’re generally paying for more incense up front). There’s a tendency among many Japanese incenses for the subtleties to just go right by Western noses (or at least my own) as if you’re aiming at a target and drifting off, only to retarget again. Personally I’m starting to recognize scents like this under terms like insular and compressed, almost like a flower that has not quite bloomed yet, full of potential and mystery. They’re among the most rewarding incenses out there because one celebrates as one uncovers another facet of the scent and adds that to one’s mnemonic repertoire. And what’s scary is these may not even be the best Yamada Matsu has to offer and it’s my hope this is just the foot in the door for further treasures. Unquestionably recommended, these are worth the phone call to Japan Incense with the added bonus of getting to talk to Kotaro and/or Jay on the other end.

Primo / Extra Special Connoisseur / Amber (+ Original), Cedar, Frankincense, Champa, Jasmine (+ Original), (Nepal) Musk (+ Original)

Primo Incense has been around as long as I can remember buying incense, indeed when I think of standard Indian masalas I may be subconsciously thinking about Primo sticks. In fact over the years this company’s scents have remained largely the same recipes, give or take a scent or two (one in particular that seems to be missing is one called Herbal Essence). The company is unusually transparent about how they create their incense with an informative description on their site, although I’d add that like many Indian masala companies, there are some sticks closer to pure charcoals and some that are more in the masala style.

Primo, however, appear to not work in the wet masala or durbar style, making a comparison to a company like Pure Incense somewhat relevant. In quality I’d rank them close to that company’s Absolute range or perhaps just under it in some cases. One comparison is that Primo also uses two different lines with some scents that cross over to both. They have an Original line which appears to be just under their Extra Special Connoisseur (ESC) line in quality, although both don’t tend to vary much from each other in price, in most cases Primo is fairly inexpensive. This particular write up covers perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of the line incenses and at least two more installments are forthcoming.

In both the Original and ESC lines, Primo’s Amber is the classic pink colored masala that most will be familiar with from companies like Triloka, Mystic Temple, Incense from India and Blue Pearl. In all incense cases Primo do, however, have their own distinctive tilt to the style which becomes more apparent on trying their incenses. In the case of both ambers, they’re missing the better sweeter qualities of Triloka’s version, although those who prefer drier ambers might prefer either Primo for that very reason. The Original is slightly more dry and less concentrated than the ESC version, but the differences are really barely more than a hair. Ambers of this sort are rarely unpleasant in any way and even the differences from company to company aren’t severe, but if I was new to the style, I’d probably go with the Triloka or Mystic Temple (Amber Essence if my memory serves me right and recipes haven’t changed) as a starter.

However when it comes to comparing another common masala scent, Primo’s Cedar, I think Primo probably marginally win the stakes on this one even if this same scent can be found in all the above mentioned companies lines. This is really an excellent and perfectly balanced cedar and compared to the other lines, by a hair, the actual qualities of the wood are a bit more pronounced in this one and the typical vanilla and cocoa side scents a bit more submerged than they are in, say, the Triloka version. Perhaps the reason this one stands out is there’s a lot of strength to the oils or perfumes here making the cedar scent stand out in a more evergreen or crystalline sort of fashion. I’ve always liked this type of masala in general and would recommend this version as a starter (although I say this with Pure Incense Absolute samples still on the drawing board so I could change my mind).

Primo’s Champa (this one also used to be called Champa Flower) is largely charcoal based and could be compared to Triloka’s Lotus Champa to some extent in that the aroma almost implies part of its creation comes from jasmine oil and there’s a sense of vanilla that probably comes from part of the  base. I don’t generally think charcoal champas work as the magnolia-like scent of the champa flower often seems to have to fight through the as-strong charcoal and vanilla base and thus seems adulterated in the end. And like many incenses with this constituency, it starts out fairly pleasant but wears on you by the end of the stick.

I don’t think I have a particular favorite Indian Frankincense masala, most of them are so close from company to company that it’s tough to make a call, and certainly Primo’s is a good version. The criticism as always on this type of stick is that in the end it doesn’t transmit the scent of frankincense resin down in any sort of purity, with subscents of sandalwood, cedarwood, vanilla and something sugary sweet coming through in just as much strength. That’s not to say it’s not a beautiful stick, like with the Cedarwood I’ve always found the masala to be quite nice, it’s just that frankincense is mixed in almost like an equal and it tends to show up as a more perfumed equivalent than the better resiny citrus notes that show up in good resin or even some Japanese sticks.

The next two incenses vary quite a bit in their Original and ESC versions and are definitely distinctly different incenses. The Original Jasmine is a light green-colored masala while the ESC version is a charcoal and very similar to other companies’ charcoal jasmines, even down to the same sparkly fixative. The jasmine perfume in the Original is particularly sublimated to the woods and bases creating a rather dull, slightly sour and indistinct incense. The ESC will likely be very familiar to jasmine lovers and it’s quite a well done charcoal jasmine with the oil at a strength to be dominant to the base (undoubtedly fading with age). It does have some similarities to the previously mentioned Champa, but is far more successful. Of course this makes it virtually identical to, say, the Triloka jasmine or any other you might run across created by different companies.

As to the two different musks, in this case the Original is just called Musk while the ESC is called Nepal Musk. These too are very different incenses, however they’re actually successful in both cases. In fact, the Original is quite a surpise, not necessarily because it succeeds as a musk per se, but because it turns out to be a very nice and somewhat nostalgic incense (for me it brings up slight memories of the masalas of my youth, scents I rarely seem to come across these days). It’s an evergreen sort of color and even sidescent and dry in a very pleasant way with only the slightest hint of a musk perfume. It’s not tremendously deep, but manages to strike quite a chord with me. The Nepal Musk, on the other hand, is a very different but yet analagous masala to that found in the Pure Incense line. It’s not actually comparable to either Absolute or Connoissuer in that line, but it still uses a similar base with a potent musk perfume on top, just one very different and not nearly as deluxe or fabulous as Pure Incense’s.  But had you not tried those, the comparison wouldn’t create as much of a negative association as this too is quite a nice incense. Perhaps if one was to marry the earthier, clay-like aspects of the general patchouli masala style to a Pure Incense stick you might come up with something like this, although like lesser patchouli’s there’s a slight bitterness and legume/pea pod like snappiness to it that takes it down a hair. But ultimately if one likes herbal musks, green incenses or patchouli it’s probably worth a try in a sampler.

Many more Primos coming up in the near future. The attempt as in this write up will be to tackle every scent, comparing two line versions when they exist. In most cases the existence of Primo as a standard Indian masala/charcoal company will make comparisons to other company’s incenses somewhat necessary so it wouldn’t hurt to check back through the archives for articles on Triloka, Pure Incense, Mystic Temple, Incense from India and others if one is shopping for certain standard styles, something I’d indeed recommend as in these cases the tried and true really are worth checking out.

SAMPLER NOTES: Keigado, Seikado, Kunmeido

I’ve long had the internal debate on reviewing incenses where I only have small samples, in many cases I often just hang onto the ones I’m going to buy anyway and do a review proper on them. But I’m getting to the point where I’m kind of backing up with them and in a lot of cases they’re new and it’s probably time to get the word out, particularly as we’ve been seeing a lot of new modern styled imports coming in in the last six months. So periodically and probably through the end of the year I hope to get some comments out on these in batches of (approx.) 5 or 6.

The three Keigados in this batch, however, have been around for a couple years. The Blue Berry was even discussed in some comments a while back, and I can see why, it’s a pleasant smokeless stick that does what it says on the box, exude a pleasant smell of blueberries that’s pitched just about right. However I’m at the point where I wouldn’t even be sure what I’d do with 370 sticks of this, I could easily even imagine getting tired of it. But it’s light, airy and friendly, I can’t imagine the person who would find it unpleasant.

Keigado’s Pink Magnolia is one of their three magnolias and I believe I covered the Purple Magnolia some time ago. Like the purple, the pink isn’t smokeless, the main difference is this stick evokes typical pink-like smells, perhaps rose or carnation in parts, as much as it does magnolia. In fact I was reminded a little of the Shunkohdo Shuhou I reviewed yesterday in terms of tone. The Pink Magnolia, however, has a slight bit of cinnamon spice in the mix which made me like it a little more than the purple, but overall this is the kind of low end, inexpensive floral that will appeal more to the modern than traditional incense fan.

Sennichiko, however, is definitely more in the traditional vein and strikes me as, perhaps, a slightly more inexpensive version of Keigado’s Full Moon, the amber scents are not quite as strong in this version, although it’s strong enough that this doesn’t just come off like another low end green sandalwood. But like most of those, it has a mild perfume oil on top that’s hard to describe, except that it seems to have a touch of patchouli or cinnamon in the mix. And certainly at $3 a roll, it’s kind of a steal.

Moving over to Seikado is another entry in the company’s Hitori-Shizuka line, the Fancy Floral. That’s not particularly the kind of description that really appeals to my sensibilities so much and my opinion wasn’t far off the same one I had for the Floral Elegant in the same line. Like many an NK floral (or even Daihatsu or Kunjudo), it’s part of the modern trend of perfumed incense sticks, and like a couple I’ll talk about later in the Shorindo Koibana line or the NK Free Pure Spirit line, I get watermelon more than I do floral, sort of a gentle and subtle feminine perfume that isn’t likely to do more than lightly perfume an area. Like the whole line, the base is sandalwood but in this incense more than the others it’s perhaps the most sublimated.

Seikado’s Kyoyama is also modern, but in this case they’ve put together a distinctive and special incense not quite like any other, although again I’m fairly put off by the sheer number of sticks (200+) in the box more than I am by the price; that’s probably way more incense than I can crunch at this point. Anyway this incense is unique in that it largely exudes the aroma of Sumi ink. Not having any conscious memory of Sumi ink specifically, I can say that it does remind me of the better examples of calligraphic ink I can remember and married to camphor it makes for a distinct almost oceanic incense, very water elemental. It’s smokeless, so never gets too potent, a bit spicy and overall this one just about anyone will need a sample of first to check out as it has virtually no comparison at least among imports.

Finally, another oldie from the Kunmeido stable, the Hosen is one I feel amiss at not having discovered earlier as although it’s a distinct modern floral, it’s really no less brilliant than most of the line’s traditionals and one of the best multi-floral air freshener type incenses I can think of. While it’s definitely a bouquet scent, I’d say the violet’s out front on this one but what’s great about it from my perspective is it’s almost as spicy as it is floral and the complexity the combined styles exude make for a fascinating burn. Some similar incenses might be Baieido’s Kokonoe Floral and Izumi and less so Shorindo’s Chabana Green Tea, all mentioned mostly due to their similarities as freshener types. A 200 stick box, again, could be stretching it for me, but in this case I might be on the purchase side of the fence as I can see this mixing into a day perfectly.

Up over the next few weeks new incense from Shorindo (including the excellent Wayko), a handful from the new Ancient Forest line, scents from Scents of Japan, Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsudo, Tahodo and I believe Ross will have some words on a few new Daihatsus.

Shunkohdo / Matsuba Pine, Sarasoju, Shuhou

This write up covers the last three Shunkohdo scents we haven’t covered to date and that are currently available in the United States. All three are wood-based, the Matsuba Pine described as mixing pine scent with spices, the Sarasoju a traditional sandalwood incense and the Shuhou a mix of cedar and sandalwood with a touch of lilac.

The Matsuba Pine could roughly be compared to one or two incenses in the Nippon Kodo Scents of Forest box set, although the Matsuba is a traditional incense in terms of stick thinness and size. While it shares the light pine scent found in the Scents of Forest Conifer stick, it likely has a fair share of cedar and/or sandalwood in the base, as there’s a certain similarity in the base of this incense to the Shuhou. Like the few Japanese pines out there, the scent concentrates more on the wood or tree than the more pungent resin and is lightly rendered here with a very nice and sublime top note that could easily get lost with aromatic fatigue. It also shares some slight similarities to the lower end woody incenses found in the Encens du Monde range and made by Kokando.

The Sarasoju is quite simply a terrific sandalwood and one I’ve found a little difficult to describe as I went from seeing it as standard to truly appreciating its finer more “Old Mountain” like tendencies over several sticks. At first I noticed what seemed like an almost sawdust like sandalwood scent, but the more crystalline resin “interior” is quite present, just not as obvious as it tends to be in the better Baieido incenses and the pure wood on a heater. When you consider you get 70 sticks of this for around $10 bill, it’s a tremendously good deal and one I’d recommend taking advantage of given that some of the sandalwood products coming from Japan are taking gigantic leaps in price. In fact only Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku is comparable and that’s not quite as pure a sandalwood as this one. And it acts as a nice contrast to some of the heavily oiled while still superb sandalwood incenses being exported from India.

Shuhou could very well be the only floral incense currently exported by Shunkohdo, with the pink color of the stick more than pointing at this incense’s direction. While the scent is quite overtly floral, the description of the light touch of lilac is probably only found in the incense’s top note where it takes a place quite similar to the overt pine scent found in the Matsuba. But even with that light note, the cedarwood and sandalwood seem close to being balanced out by the scent’s floral nature and due to this the scent moves closer to a more modern direction, especially for Shunkohdo. It’s an interesting scent, but I’d assume this will appeal far more to floral lovers than those eyeing the woods in the description.

More Shunkohdo reviews can be found by clicking the company name on the left and it’s worth a reminder here that this is by far one of the finest incense companies whose work is being imported to the US, not only are the wide range of scents excellent but in most cases you’re getting as good a deal for the money as you can find in Japanese incense.

Shrinivas Sugandhalaya / Kanhaiya, Natraj, Neelkant, Shri Krishna, Super Sandal

There’s no particular rhyme or reason for this batch of Shrinivas incenses, in fact they’re sort of close to the bottom of my personal barrel in that they’re the second to last group to review of the ones I currently own. Of all the incense companies out there Shrinivas have changed the most by far since they started changing their recipes. At one point their Blue Box Nag Champa was the virtual standard for the style, nowadays that it could be the very worst of the style will be the anchor for a survey of champas I plan on getting to in the near future.

In fact Shrinivas have been quite busy of late, releasing a stream of new incenses (and lines), but they’re really not the same company they used to be and with the wave of great incenses reaching these shores of late, I’m not in any hurry to survey them. The next group of reviews I’ll eventually cobble together (and I’m not at all in a hurry to do so) are a number of incenses that are basically perfumed masalas, likely synthetic, that seem like a concerted effort to move away from the company’s almost patented champa style, which has really taken a hit over the years. To say the least, the popularity of the company’s incense undoubtedly rests more on reputation than on quality at this point.

Shrinivas Sugandhalaya have a line of incenses that are mostly available in 100g packages. Sporting names that will be likely unfamiliar to the Western consumer, they’re very difficult to get a grip on scentwise and I’ve seen very little information on these at all. And the reason for this, I believe, is because many of these are what I’d describe as slight tweaks to their popular champa formulas such as the blue box Nag Champa, Satya Royal, Satya Natural, Super Hit and others. In fact they’re so slight as to defy description for the most part. The first four incenses in this group come from the 100g batches, the masala Super Sandal I’ve thrown at the end on a whim.

Kanhaiya is easily the best of this quartet if at the very least it has the most overt distinction, being a highly fragrant combination of floral and resin notes, all mixed in a durbar style. There are perhaps too hints of frangipani or lavender in the mix, although it’s difficult to tell whether these scents come from the oils or the collison thereof. In fact I’ve often wondered just how old this sample is as it seems to have a bit of overt halmaddi in the mix, yet the incense is at a strength that implies it would have faded much more than it has over a decade. Overall it mixes the qualities of Satya Royal, Super Hit and Beauty and is quite pleasant, although I can’t imagine being able to pick it out in a blind Shrinivas scent test.

Natraj on the other hand is what I referred to earlier as a small tweak on the Nag Champa scent. It’s easy to get the vanilla and sandalwood aromas as it is in nearly any durbar style, but other than that it’s very difficult to say much about, except that it’s perhaps slightly musky. In many ways it’s a posterchild for how difficult it is to say anything about so many of the 100g scents.

Neelkant is perhaps a little more distinctive than the Natraj but not by much. It’s extremely sweet and powdery with some similarities to Satya Nectar (although it misses that incense’s power by a long way) and also seems to have a little more sandalwood scent, but the differences are so minor I’ve often thought it would be just as easy to imagine the differences as note real ones. One wonders how quickly the oils or perfumes have faded from the stick.

My Shri Krishna sample was noticeably more potent than the previous three and I believe it’s quite a bit newer, but the freshness doesn’t help at all to distinguish it from the usual vanilla, sandalwood, sweet and musk mix typical to this line. Like the Neelkant the sandalwood might be bit more intense, but whether that’s age or intent is difficult to gauge.  At this point it’s difficult not to long for scents that mark themselves out by their obvious notes or distinction from other incenses.

Super Sandal is a great deal different from the previous four, of course, but as a sandalwood masala in an age where we’re provided with fantastic sandalwood masalas from Shroff, Pure Incense, and Purelands, it comes up quite flat. The sandalwood scent seems to come almost entirely from an oil that doesn’t seem authentic as much as it does a substitute or inferior perfume. The stick is extremely smoky, more so than all of the previously mentioned sandalwoods more than inferring its origin, and the scent only holds a dimension or two, including an orangey subnote that tends to be absent in better versions. Honestly it’s easier to get purer sandalwood hits out of many of the company’s champas than this masala.

Overall, it’s hard to recommend any of these incenses, perhaps only marginally the Kanhaiya, but be sure to check out a sample first rather than going for 100g, I can imagine being very disappointed in getting a large stock in something you know you won’t burn much. The rest of these just wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, particularly at a time where you can get much better incense without necessarily paying more money. Shrinivas themselves actually have much more interesting incenses than these anyway, with none of these being truly central to their more popular items.

Nikhil / Coconut Champa, Musk Champa, Patchouli Champa

Apple Champa, Banana Champa, Cherry Champa

This is the second segment of three, covering Nikhil’s dipped Nag Champas, all of which are only available in large 100g batches, which cost approximately $7 each. While we’re not given much information at all on the ingredients involved in these incenses, I’d easily guess that the company takes their general Nag Champa incense and dips them liberally in oil, and probably synthetic oils in most cases.

The reasoning for this is that in some of the cases across the line, there are no natural oils for the particular scent, meaning they had to be created in some way, and while this can be done by mixing natural oils, there are some, two in this installment, that have the hallmarks of synthetic oils such as a lack of depth and only an approximation of the scent. Now I wouldn’t take that to mean they’re unpleasant, as they also lack one of the prime indicators of synthetic oils, they don’t seem to be, at least in normal use, headache inducing. The champa base also seems to be reasonably good, although having tried some of this line about eight years ago, I would add that they’re definitely not as good as they used to be, probably due to the usual halmaddi shortages.

Nikhil’s Coconut Champa is the first of the two that probably used a synthetic or approximate oil for the dipping. For one thing, the smell of fresh coconut has an appealing dryness that is often lost when used in lotions and oils, which seem to accentuate the scent’s closeness to vanilla. Using an oil and a champa strengthens this association twofold, the former resembling vanilla extract and the latter a common part of the base. The combination of the two evinces perhaps too strong an oil content in that later in the burn one notices oily and even citrus like aspects to the scent that while not terribly unpleasant unveil the incense as not being as authentic as one might like. The thing is, of course, there’s really no perfect version of such an incense to compare it too and quite frankly I’ve rarely seen coconut work in any incense and can’t think of one better than this. But I can’t wait for the day I try one that gets the scent of shredded coconut right.

The Musk Champa ends up with some similarities to the Coconut in that it has the same issues with the oil, it seems a little too strong overall with the same, possibly synthetic, extract or citrus-like issues later in the burn. Of course with anything musk related there is no particular standard of scent and indeed with this one, it’s the almost typical dusky, slightly spicy and sweet herbal musk tones that show up rather than anything powerful or memorable. Indeed I remember this one being much more successful in times past and I’d wager that part of the issue is the champa base doesn’t give it the depth it used to have. Blue Pearl’s version of the same scent is a much better example of how it can be done.

Patchouli Champa is the most successful incense of the three which is not particularly surprising when you add up the costs of natural patchouli oil, inexpensive with no real need to use synthetic oils. And sure enough the extract-like issues with the Coconut and Musk are totally absent here leaving a much drier and pleasant incense. Unfortunately, however, it also fails via comparison in that Patchouli durbars found in lines like Mystic Temple or Incense from India are far more successful, with the earthier and leafy tones giving the scent some definition. Here there’s only the lightest touch of the oil, more or less what you might pick up at a local Phish show, and it implies that if the oil isn’t synthetic it’s definitely not a premium oil like, say, Fred Soll uses. But at least it’s an affordable bulk incense.

Eventually up, the final trio which includes Pineapple, Strawberry and Vanilla..

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