June Top 10 (Mike)

[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. Please also check the Reviews Index for reviews of some of these incenses]

Yamadamatsu Kumoi Koh – There are still lots of fabulous Yamadamatsu incenses that are likely on their way over the Pacific at some point and I think we’re practically bursting to talk about some of these, but of the ones that have made it, Kumoi Koh is probably my favorite, in fact it would be in the running for the top spot of the year. While we’ve discussed some of the company’s incenses in the past, this is really one of the first that gives an idea of what these creators can accomplish. It’s really hard to explain because while this does have a wood presence, there’s a spicy/musky oil on this one that is addictive and stupendous, in fact the first time I had a box of this, I spent maybe a day or two just burning stick after stick of this. It has a deep redolence that partakes of a wide palette of incense materials. This company is truly a marvel.

Tibetan Medical College Holy Land – This one may take a back seat for a few weeks but as soon as I get back into the box I tend to burn several sticks. I still think this has a depth and complexity that few Tibetan incenses really exhibit and I constantly marvel at what I might call its salty qualities. I think perhaps I have some childhood memories that this scent triggers, because I just find it endlessly fascinating.

Myrrh – Thanks to my cohort Anne, I’m in possession of some really quality myrrh. This is a resin that can vary so wildly in quality that I’ve smelled some really nasty stuff in the past, but this gorgeous pinkish/orange premium stuff is so fantastic you can actually smell it off the resin. I think in one of the Baieido ingredient pages it mentions that the really good stuff breaks up really sticky rather than crystalline, and this is indeed really sticky. I spent a few days after getting it heating little pieces. Now I’ve got to grind some of this and Mermade’s hougary together and see how that works out.

Mother’s India Fragrances/Agni Nagchampa – I’m picking just one of the dozen or so newest Mothers that could easily make this list, because really in the end what makes them so good is their bases, the top fragrances really just end up reacting off these in many different ways. And I’ve gotten my notes written up for this one. Perhaps in the spirit of Ross’s recent posts, this is the musk version of the series and it’s got that sweet, rich and decadent French musk sitting right on top of the usual spicy base. Anyway I couldn’t be more glad Mother’s decided to expand their original five because essentially this is now by far the best champa line on the market.

Gyokushodo/Saishuko – Like many of the Gyokushodo scents that can blow you away just with a sniff of the fresh box, the most premium in the latest line is perhaps the only one of them that has much of a fresh smell, you get the distinct impression these are definitely more in the raw materials area. Still this does have a lot of similarity with Saimei Koh, with that sort of orange spicy mix, although it’s now at a level where it’s more of a hint and mixed in with a real fresh scented aloeswood goodness.

Gyokushodo/Shunsui is the next step down and could be the most fascinating of all of them as it mixes in whelk operculum with the wood base. Perhaps by association or perhaps not, I was definitely reminded of the seaside with this one, although it also seems to have some muskier hints as well. Overall while it’s still fairly new to me and I’ve had to pass up on it for a week or so due to reviews stuff, it hints at a really impressive complexity that I’m looking forward to getting back to.

Mentsi Khang/Mih Bhutanese – Superficially this incense seems to have a lot in common with most of the Bhutanese makers, but the creators have seemed to make this with a bit of fire in the mix and for some reason it always stands out when I reach for the box. Very woody and although I’m not sure I could really explain the constituents it stands out intuitively to me as if it has some sort of mild psychoactive element to it, or I guess that would be my way of saying that it’s quite evocative in its own way.

Baieido Hakusui (or Ogurayama) Aloeswood – Either of these could almost be considered a top 10 incense experience perenially. Not only are chips of this astounding on a heater, but there’s a definitely aesthetic pleasure in both the packaging and the slices of wood.

Highland Incense (Sticks) – The close number 2 to Holy Land, there’s just a really wild and feral musky scent to this Tibetan classic that’s hard not to love.

Pure Incense / Absolute Kevda – In working on the next batch of PI reviews, this one stuck out pretty strong. It’s sort of a mix of woodies qualities and patchouli greenness, all merging together with a touch of floral. In the end I was thinking I’d probably dig more than a sample of it.

As always, feel free to share your own favorites of the last month in the comments section…


Musk Scented Incenses-Japan (Ross)

In keeping with the musk theme for the Natural Perfumers Guild “Mystery of Musk” project( and ORS being an incense review site) I was thinking of bring out an all inclusive list of incense with a musk scent in them. Then Mike mentioned “Ross, you might find it an easier to job to list the incenses WITHOUT musk of
some sort in them. 🙂 “ after doing a quick search at Essence of the Ages I realized that he was totally right. So instead I will break this down into at least two, maybe 3 parts.

We are starting our aromatic and musky journey with the Japanese side of things and I am listing incenses that I personally know have a musk scent in them. They are also available in the US. Some might use the real deal, while others have opted to use botanical sources for the musk scent, or possibly an “aroma chemical”.

In the history of Japanese incense it seems to me from what I have read that musk has played a very large role as both a primary scent and also as a scent fixative, much like in perfumes. Musk has a tremendous amount of staying power and can help to anchor other scents as well. In Chinese Medicine it also has many therapeutic properties so it has been popular for ages. I have seen very old receipts for kneaded incense balls where it became obvious that it was more a question of how much musk rather then if it was in there or not. Some companies still make this style (not available in the US through) and the price reflects the scarcity of the ingredients. The use of Kyara, high quality Aloeswoods and musk can really put a dent in ones bank account 🙂 I can only imagine the scent, but given the sophistication and esthetics of those times I am sure it is amazing. Shoyeido does make the kneaded style, but I have not had a chance to try them. I have tried some from Yamada Matsu (Kurogata & Genmyo) and these do have a musky scent to them, mixed in with the woods and spices, quite nice and perfect for those who cannot deal with smoke.

In the world of incense sticks from Japan I am going to talk about the ones I know and think are in the “best of class” category as far as musk scented.

Shoyeido’s Kyara blends (Sho-Kaku, Myo-ho and Go-un) all have that quality to them, besides the great wood notes, it is one of the major aspects that makes them so good. The musk helps round out and sort of lifts the scent up.

Shunkodoh’s Ranjatai and Kyara Seikan are both two of my all time favorites. They are somewhat similar but the addition of the Kyara wood in the Seikan produces a smoother scent. Personally I think Ranjatai is one of the best deals in incense, the initial outlay for a bundle is not cheap but you get a very large amount of incense and if you do like musk scents, it’s here in spades.

Kohshi’s Japanese Musk, which is actually made by Daihatsu is inexpensive yet has a tremendous amount of smooth musk scent. Leaving the box out in the room will fragrance the room all by itself.

Seijudo’s collection of Kyara’s (Kyara Horen, Kyara Seiran and Kyara Enju all have a musk scent bonded with the Kyara aspect, they are all quite good and considered some of the very best in Japan.

Tennendo’s Shingon apparently uses a botanical musk as its scent, it’s nice, not in the same class as Ranjatai, but it also only costs around $6.00

You can check out the reviews in the side bar on the left, every one of these is in there, there is also a list of stores that we have had good experiences with that tend to carry at least some of these.

Many of the more expensive one’s are available in sampler packs. If you have some favorits be sure and write about them. Enjoy –Ross

Gyokushodo / Seidai Koh, Buntoku

You can see the first two sections about this entire grouping here and here.

Seidai Koh: this is listed as using Vietnam Aloeswood. It is  somewhat spicy, yet with some sweet, almost musky undertones. I am thinking that this maybe caused by the Reiryo koh (also listed as an ingredient) and perhaps some benzoin resin. Nice woody notes in this one, not super strong but nicely done. Much more distinct then the Buntoku. [NOTE 7/5/21: This incense was later reformulated and the description here may no longer apply.]

Buntoku:  An Aloeswood blend with some Sandalwood and also with Spikenard listed in the ingredients. There is a bit of sweetness mixed in with the woods, faint, but there. The scent seems to sort of balance on that knife edge between the Aloeswoods and Sandalwoods, neither quite making a solid appearance nor playing a leading role  I find this one to be the least satisfying of the line. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not a standout like most of their other products tend to be.

Keiunko is also listed in this grouping, it has also be around longer then the others and you can see Mikes review of it here.

All in all, these incense from Gyokushodo are quite good, some of them are truly outstanding and reflect a very well established and knowledgeable company with a lot of expertise in incense. My own feelings as to what to get would probably be that the prices tell the story, or, you get what you pay for. Given the prices and availability of materials that the incense makers are dealing with right now this makes sense.

Mystery of Musk Part 1

There are some great sources of information about musk from many of the blogs of people involved in this project that is being put on by the Natural Perfumers Guild. One of the main people orchestrating this is Elena at Perfume Shrine. Besides having a tremendous amount or articles about musk she has also written much about Aloeswood and Oud and is, in general, just a tremendous storehouse of information about perfumes and scents, all of which are well written and oh so well researched.

Be sure to check out the blogs of the various perfumers(at the Perfume Shrine link above), many who have writings on their journeys with the use of musks.  Ambrosia Jones come to mind. If you have not read  Avery Gilbert’s blog, or better yet, read his book “What the Nose Knows” you are missing a great resource on scents written from the science side. Very real, with tongue firmly in cheek, lots of humor and backed up with real world knowledge. Something of a rare combination in this very PR driven field of perfumes and scents in general. Anya McCoy ‘s blog has tons of information and much about the behind the scenes fight to save the use of the basic building blocks of perfume from way too many assorted government agency’s. She is also the guiding light of the Guild and has a tremendous amount of information on natural perfumes.

I am hoping to get together a listing of musk scented incense early next week (of which there are many) that range in price from the very reasonable to the not at all reasonable. One thing about musk in incense that I have found is that it really depends as to what else it is mixed with as to how it’s going to affect the overall scent of the incense. Pretty much all the classic kneaded styles from ancient Japan  used musk as an ingredient, but given the different proportions in each formula that might not be obvious. Also many of the high end sticks of today imitate (to a degree) those older scents. So the musk can act as a fixative or base to anchor all the other scents or it might be used in such a way as to take center stage. I am not at all sure how it works in the Tibetan style incenses, but I do know it’s in some and hopefully Mike and Steve will chime in. Oh yes, real musk, and pretty much anything that has that quality of scent is expensive. So it can add a lot to the price of incense. This means that while, yes indeed, you are paying for that oh so nice Kyara/Aloeswood scent in the mix, you are also paying for the addition of musk or perhaps ambergris and a few other olfactory  gems. All of which are getting harder to source as old stocks run out. Price goes up.

OK, back to sitting in the sun at the ORS High Altitude Mobile Research Station here in Lake Tahoe. Now, if I could just remember where I left the BBQ sauce….Ross

Incense Trading Wiki

For those who have wanted to trade incense with others, Kristin of Sprays of Blossoms, Curls of Smoke has set up a very nice site. Here’s the announcement (please read first).

African Aromatics (Ross)

This is a blog about resins and such used in African incenses and perfumes. I have had a chance to sample some of these and can say that they are quite good. Somewhat along the lines of frankincense and myrrh , but also different. I have a feeling after reading this blog that you can expect to see them showing up soon as notes in some higher end perfumes. The search for new scents is never ending and right now there is a big push on for the use of more natural ingredients by a lot of perfumer companies. New things are always sought after. It would be nice if the people of these tribes benefited from all this.    Enjoy -Ross

Gyokushodo / Saishu Koh & Shunsui

Gyokushodo is a very old incense company who has only recently come to light in the US. They have actually had some of their offerings available here for some years but never seemed to have their name mentioned.

They have a number of lines, each of which are pretty tightly grouped as to a style. Their woods and oils lie have been here the longest and you can see our reviews on them here. The new group to come in seems to be centered on the use of traditional woods and herbs/spices without the addition of oils, at least to my nose. The first two to come in were Saimei koh and Umeshoin. I personally find them to be very well done as well as very traditional style scents. They are not particularly strong and are much more geared to setting quietly nearby rather then doing up a large space(unless, of course, like some of us; you burn a bunch at one shot 🙂  ) .

Saishu Koh uses a good grade of Aloeswood mixed with what is labeled as Lysimachiae herba (Reiryo-koh). So given that, I was expecting something along the lines of one of the incenses from Kunmeido. This is not the case. Instead I find an almost musky scent, with some additional sweet notes as well an occasional hint of clove and/or cinnamon. Way in the background there seems to be a slight green note. Again this is all pretty subtle, refined and elegant but not something that would be considered overpowering or overwhelming. It would be equally at home during meditation or even during a meal.

Shunsui also uses a good grade of Aloeswood as well as a part of a marine mollusk. I am sure there are other spices at work here also. It has a sort of bitter sweet scent to it that is stronger in delivery then the Saishuko mentioned above. Again this has a seemingly very traditional scent to it, yet it is also not a very common scent in the incenses that have come into this country (so far). As a side note the mollusk used as a main ingredient here is usually used as a fixative (something to prevent the other scents from going away too fast) This is a pretty unusual use of it and it works out well.

One thing about all of these is that they pretty much need to be first on the nights “burn list”.  So trying to taste a bunch at one sitting can be pretty difficult. Also, they all seem to have a pretty deep learning curve with many layers residing within each stick Oh yes, all of this line seem to come in a rather heavy plastic wrapper as well as in their own box. This means that they are going to hold onto their aromatics for quite a while, nice touch.

Right this moment the only place I know of where you can get these in this country is at Japan Incense. I would assume this will change but who knows.

I will be reviewing another three of these within a day or two.    -Ross

Upcoming from Ross

Lots of new scents to sample over at Japan Incense when I went over there this last weekend. A review of 5 new scents from Gyokushodo by this weekend (these guys are the master of the subtle, multi-layered approach). Plus at some point some new floral/spice sticks (about 6-7 different ones) from a smallish maker(who shall remain nameless at the moment).

The first week in July I will be part of a 10 blog and 12 perfumers event called the “The Mystery of Musk” which is being organized by the Natural Perfumers Guild. You can read more about it at the above link. It should be great fun and provide some real insight into what is one of the most sought after scents in both perfume and incense. The list of perfumers and bloggers is pretty amazing. I invite you to check out the differnt blogs as these people have a lot of experience and know how in the olfactory arts.

I/we will be doing a post on incenses that feature the scent of musk in June as a sort of companion piece. Actually I just now thought of this so we will be headed to the secret Lab to figure it out 🙂