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.