Admin Note and the State of ORS

Starting tomorrow, with Part 2 of the Mother’s Fragrances review, ORS will be switching to reviews every other day and, if all goes well, keeping this schedule until November 18th. At this point I would not say we are completely shutting down for the holiday season (I feel something of a recapitulation/best of the year sort of post that I’d like to get to in this period and Stephen may have some plans too), but I also have plans to take a breather. To say the least we have been writing up a storm this year and it will be good to let the creative energy charge up again.

The rough bottom line is we have caught up a great deal this year and I’m starting to feel like I can see a rough endgame in terms of finally modernizing this site. Not only have we caught up with dozens of reviews, but I’ve managed to get some massive overhauls done on the site and am pretty close to having the Reviews Index current and more easily navigable in a way that should be obvious which reviews here are more current and which ones are older or obsolete. While it’s not entirely possible to modernize every review, simply because if I hadn’t enthused about it before I’m unlikely to buy it again, going through links and old reviews has allowed me to gather more thoughts on where the holes are and what needs doing and of course much thanks to Stephen as well for taking on some of these projects and helping redo and revisit some of what are really classic incense lines that deserved some expansion and research. One of the most fun things about ORS this year for me is experiencing his fine writing and observations on scent.

The other angle is simply that there will be less incenses to review. While Japanese incense is still alive and well, (aside for perennial materials issues), the finest in Tibetan and Bhutanese incense still very available and at least a couple great sources of Indian incense still wide open, it probably can easily be said that the Indian market is still not quite the same as what it used to be and the Nepali incense market almost missing in action at this point. Smaller boutique incense creators still seem really healthy in multiple countries. ORS has managed to cover most of what we know about and some of what we haven’t should be filled by the end of the year. So unless we find larger sources we should be more intermittent going into 2022. And that’s actually fine by me, in fact in many ways that should take us back to the more casual patterning of the original ORS.

Thanks to everyone who has been jumping in and sharing opinions, thanks for the new friends I’ve made since I revived the site, thanks to Stephen for joining the ORS to team and providing a much needed jolt of energy. Coming up in the rest of 2022 will be revisits of some old Baieido and Minorien favorites, a clean up on the Rare Essence Indian incense line, some cool coils from Sanbhodi, an unexpected review of the Kyukyodo Ho-un gift set, the bottom half of the newly imported Kourindo line, a look at the Kikijudo Kouboku Ginmi woods series, all 5 grades of Tanak Thupten Ling’s amazing line of monastery incenses, almost all of the “color” series from Yamadamatsu (in two parts), more Bosen incenses, some random Bhutanese and Tibetan goodies as well as more incenses from Dimension 5. So still a lot of great and important incenses to cover!


Kunjudo / Hogetsu

So in the wake of all of the discussion of the “decay” in the recipes of some Japanese incenses let’s talk about a really dependable one. I have actually sung the praises of this one for many years, most recently in my 14 One of a Kind Japanese Incenses article, which is one of the first things I wrote after being away for so long. I had been away for so long, in fact, that at the time I don’t believe Japan Incense were carrying this fine stick in its original form as Kunjudo Hogetsu. Back then, we knew this as an Encens du Monde import called Guiding Light and it is still much more expensive in this form than it is through Japan Incense. I’m sure this popped up at least once or twice in my top 10s back in the day. So the cool thing is everything I said in all of those articles still completely applies to current stock, it’s just that I had not put down a review of this great box on its own yet.

I’ve seen varying descriptions over the years. You can see the one that says 7 essentials and 8 wood powders at the above-linked Guiding Light review. This site also describes it as “A sophisticated blend including Agarwood, Sandalwood, Clove, Spikenard and Star Anise” (and here you can also see the level of mark up on this incense as it travels the world, it’s at least three times as expensive as the Japan Incense).

So one thing that’s probably worth clearing up right away is when you see a $70 incense with agarwood listed and a $20 incense with agarwood listed you’re going to think different things. This is really not an agarwood incense per se, not in the way we’ve described many this way on ORS. I still think that 7 essentials and 8 wood powders works best as a description mostly because the woodiness is unique in this incense, it has profiles well beyond just agarwood and sandalwood. In fact it’s one of the strongest things going for it because it makes it a stick with a completely different profile than you might be used to. I’ll requote my favorite line from my Guiding Light review, “The aroma is all about spicy wood and I get hints of old wooden chests, brown sugar, clove, high quality sandalwood, and leather.” I think over the years something like this is still close but there are so many ingredients involved that one’s impression evolves. The salty and tangy descripion from my 14 One of a Kind article is definitely on point, that could be about as generalist as I can provide. But it’s also fresh, uniquely woody, and just so sui generis one wonders why no other companies have an analog of it. For $20 it is a stupendously good incense, absolutely unequivocably recommended. And Japan Incense also has a short stick version now too! This is one I love so much I try to keep a back up of. It’s truly one of the best deals in Japanese incense.

Admin Note

Updates continue! The following updates wrap up the Japan section of our Reviews Index. This should bring all of the links and edits about as current as possible, although the only updates we can make are when we actually have new stock of incenses, so it is quite likely there will be future posts to update other things. As always if you think we’ve missed anything or have any questions, please post them below. I also have a challenge for any readers who would like to help out with photography. Notice in the Reviews Index that I have added some photos of overall company collections to this page. If you would like to take a picture of your gigantic collection of a specific company and have it posted at the Index page, please submit your photos by sending a jpg to the information for Mike at the About page. Even if you have a photo more thorough than the ones already posted, I would consider adding them. Thank you! Here are the updates…

  • In this update and previous ones, I’ve been trying to fix very early links in reviews (mostly 2007-2008) that referred back to when ORS used to be part of my previous blog. All of these links would have been broken, but are being updated to where the reviews are at on ORS.
  • The updates to the Shoyeido list at the Reviews Index have been finished. The only additions from yesterday was a revamp of the LISN sampler notes to note that this line of incense still exists in Japan and is just not imported to the US. They do appear to provide overseas orders for this line and there are now links to the website and overseas catalog for all 3 LISN sampler notes articles. I also added a new link for the Encens du Monde/Shoyeido incense Mount Fuji to a UK seller, Vectis Karma. This doesn’t appear to be available at the Zen Minded US store.
  • Created a note on Tennendo Enkuu-Horizon of slight difference in new stock.
  • Noted that Tennendo/Karafune Yuhin-Silver has been discontinued. I also made notes on the Karafune aloeswood review page to compare the Johin (Bronze) and Kahin (Gold) to recently ordered stock. Both of these are really nice still.
  • Completed links, corrections and so forth on all Tennendo incenses (I believe I did Shunkohdo earlier as well).
  • Changed the Kneaded incense in the Yamadamatsu review from Kurogata to Kurobou. See note on review page.
  • Correcting spellings of Yamada-Matsu to Yamadamatsu whenever found for consistency (these are transliteration rather than translation issues). This was mostly in early reviews.
  • Noted that the Yamadamatsu Shigei coil and Shihou Kyara coils have been discontinued.
  • Noted that the old incense called (and previously imported as) “Joyoko Temple Blend” seems to be a long stick variant of Kida Jinseido’s Joyokoh. While I mention in that review that Joyokoh reminded me of the older incense, further research showed that the kanji matched up with an image or two I brought up with a search. It is not uncommon for Japanese incense companies to create incenses like this for temples. So I moved this incense over from “Unknown” to Kida Jinseido. Kinjo Koh still remains unknown.

One Nepali and (mostly) Tibetan updates to the Incense Reviews Index. We do want to note here however that while has kept the flame alive when it comes to Tibetan and Bhutanese incenses, it feels like North America has lost a great deal of its previous Nepali importers. If there are any readers who can correct the record on this, especially with recent experience, we would be grateful. The following updates also wrap up the Tibet Autonomous Region section of the Reviews Index.

  • Found an Ebay seller carrying whatever new formulation exists for Kuenzang Chodtin incense. Buyer beware, as I remember this being brutally bad. I also moved this from Tibet section to the Nepal section as its based in Katmandhu.
  • Combined Labuleng Zhang and Labrang Monastery, both are the same. However noted that the Snowfield Chinese Herbal incense reviewed years ago appears to be discontinued.
  • Noted that the entire Tibetan line Medicine King is discontinued.
  • Noted that the 2008 review for Samye Monastery is obsolete (the 2021 review is not).
  • Noted that the entire Tibetan line Snow Land is discontinued.
  • Moved the Zambala Incense Powder line to Taiwan. It is however discontinued.
  • Noted that the Tun Bo Incense line is discontinued.
  • Noted that the Lung Ta Incense line is discontinued.

Zurkhar Herbal Incense

Zurkhar Herbal Incense includes “37 types of herbal and therapeutic ingredients which include red and white sandalwoods, saffron and nutmeg.” So basically a fairly in the pocket Tibetan for sure. It’s interesting because the most central scent I notice isn’t really any of these things, it’s really the concentration of the other woods in the blend, probably the juniper, cedar and mild evergreen qualities. Around these I notice the sandalwoods a bit more and then outside of this the spices. Strangely the saffron doesn’t seem quite as heavy or noticeable as it usually is in incenses that list it. So although this is the mild and woody incense it’s advertised as, it’s also a little bit on the campfire side, just not harsh enough to make that a pejorative. I will say though that this is different to the salty-tangy Tun-Da blends and the more evergreen Aba Prefecture incenses, it’s much closer to Nepali incenses except the commonly imported Nepalis will not wow you with distinct and quality incense notes like this one will. I find Zurkhar mostly fascinating because it’s a bit of a chameleon and has a few other notes it likes to surprise you with. This one’s a bit of a work of art, I’m not sure it’s herbal in the sense I usually think of it, but it’s certainly quite pleasant. And under $10 it’s nicely priced too.

Admin Notes

Updates continue…

  • Reviews for Seijudo’s incenses have been updated with links to Japan Incense and also to note the varying sizes available. I also remembered we haven’t done the Kotonaha duo, so put that on the reviews list. Most of these can be accessed via the Reviews Index.
  • Reviews for Seikado’s incenses have been updated with links, clean up etc. Most of these are 2021 so there wasn’t too much to do, but have maybe identified some areas for potential review.
  • Noted that the Seikundo incenses Meadow/Usubeni, Peach/Momo, and Woods/Jinko have all been discontinued.
  • Noted that the Awaji Koh-Shi Orange Osmanthus (Fragrant Olive) incense has been discontinued.
  • Noted that all previously reviewed Shorindo incenses have been discontinued, except for Chabana Aloeswood which was renamed and repackaged as Wakyo Aloeswood.
  • Made huge changes to the Shoyeido index including noting many discontinued incenses and lines. Keep in mind many of these were discontinued years and years ago, some even before the ORS closure. These include:
    • The 12 Month Series.
    • The Aesthetic Series incenses Kasumi and Oboro. However it looks like there are two less smoke incenses under those names still in the Shoyeido catalog however their descriptions and ingredients don’t match up enough for me to confirm they are replacements for the two Aesthetics incenses.
    • The Angelscents Sampler.
    • Ranka incense.
    • The original Floral World series (there is a new, fairly terrible one, that replaced it.)
    • Genji Series Momiji-Noja (Autumn Colors) set. It is frankly surprising to see how many Genji sets have survived and many of them are even more expensive than they used to be.
    • The Heart Series.
    • Kyoto Moon / Abundance.
    • Shoyeido Premiums Go-Un, Myo-Ho, and Sho-kaku.
  • Also noted that some of the Aesthetics and Premium Daily incenses have been moved under a series called Selects. This includes the resurrected Miyako-Gusa and Shino-Nome, and the two, previous Premium Dailies, Sei-Fu and En-Mei. I have also tried rerranging the index so these sort where they should now.
  • More Shoyeido work to come, but nearing the end. There is a LOT of changes. Have fixed lots of links so they mostly go to Shoyeido (including previous Shoyeido links, all of which were broken). Whew.

The Mother’s India Fragrances / Frankincense (Sweet), Guna Nagchampa, Meera Nagchampa, Neem Nagchampa (Part 1 of 2)

[Please note that in the writing of this it got really long, so I decided to split up the review into two segments and will be using the same top picture for both.]

I got wind of the first five Nag Champa incenses from Mother’s Fragrances probably late 2008 or early 2009. For my nose these were easily some of the best Indian sticks on the market and all five scents were amazing, particularly Ganesh Nagchampa which was something of a revelation. It wasn’t actually until a bit later that I was told they were using halmaddi in their incenses, but I felt Mother’s had really devised an incense recipe of their own with these five that set them apart from everything else in the market at the time. So I wouldn’t have called any one of them a traditional Nag Champa, but they were great nonetheless. Soon after I posted this original review, Mother’s in India got in touch with me when they released their expansion of 14 new Nag Champas, which I review in two parts. They were exceedingly generous, well beyond the usual samples I receive for review, and sent me something like 5 20 stick packages of not only the new 14 aromas but the original five as well. I was just blown away, but after this they also sent a package of aromatics, including a jar of halmaddi to show what they used in their incenses. I was just amazed at the transparency and kindness of the company, moved even. And while not all 14 incenses hit me in the same way as the original five, I still found much to like including my second favorite in the whole series, Om Nagchampa. But overall all 14 seemed well in line with the original 5 and my enthusiasm for this line was at a huge high.

Not very long after this, Essence of the Ages did a restock on their incenses including smaller packages of 12 sticks each. I didn’t buy many but I had mowed through at least my Ganesh and Om stock (I probably gave packages away too) so I restocked a few of each of these in the 12 stick packages. I remember when I first opened them, I thought something had changed. I wasn’t quite sure because the general aroma was still the same but everything felt a bit thinner, like there was less halmaddi or the perfumes were not as complex anymore. Soon after this I was contacted by someone different at Mother’s who wanted to send me the first half of their second expansion. Still very generous, multiple packs, a second mailing of aromatics. I review this group here. My enthusiasm of these was more tempered and I was starting to notice that not all of the oil mixes were working out really well. But, perhaps as a result of the less enthusiastic reviews, I was never sent the second half, nor really motivated to ask if they were coming.

Mere Cie was the US importer on these incenses (although all my contacts up to this point were directly in India) and I believe the owner of the company changed hands somewhere here (indicated by the slight change in name to Mere Cie Deux). But I was always left a bit puzzled by the remaining stock of Ganesh and Om I had left, every time I’d return to them the difference between them and the original stock became more and more obvious. Not only that but over time they both developed mold in a way that the original incenses haven’t. This isn’t an unheard of thing mind you, but I live in Sacramento where its is extremely dry and mold is very unlikely to occur, in fact other than this one and probably the Om, I’ve only seen it happen in uncured resin mixes where it’s a foregone conclusion.

This isn’t a huge deal mind you, the packages must have been something like 10 years old and anyone is likely to use them a lot quicker than I did, so I would not take this as an indication of anything but this curiosity I had over this stock and what I had previously received via samples, because none of the even older sticks have developed the same issues. Once ORS reopened I felt like I needed to add caveats to the first three series of reviews, to warn people that these reviews may no longer apply anymore. I take absolutely no pleasure in doing so, but one of the largest difficulties of reopening ORS (in fact it had a lot to do with closing it in 2016) is dealing with these recipe changes, particularly when it comes to incenses we were in support of. This is a huge thing when the lion’s share of a site’s reviews are at least five or six years old and as many as 14. But to me the changes are also unconfirmed yet, because there are other reasons that might be in play like just a batch that didn’t come out right and so forth. The aim is to be objective and not punitive.

I know Tara, Mere Cie Deux’s new owner, had asked to send samples my way and finally I have received a new set of packages from her of seven new-to-me incenses and a small sampler package of three herbal incenses. I want to first thank her for sending them. Again, please understand that I try my best to objectively review the incenses as much as I can, even if I might not like a particular scent I know other people have different tastes and I want to write in a way that people can identify if they might like something that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. The issue over whether something is bad incense is something I mitigate by not reviewing samples of particular styles like most dipped incenses and so forth. I don’t regularly do things like Gonesh or Hem or oil-based hexagonal boxes of Indian incense or WildBerry or stuff like that. There are other forums out there including the Incense group on Facebook that have large groups of fans who like certain dipped styles and so forth and I just make it a habit to stay away and let them be. In fact even Mother’s has lines of charcoal and oil incenses that I think are outside the framework of ORS. However if they are masalas or Nag Champas then they are entirely within our framework.

So I wanted to set this context for when I opened the new sample box. Immediately what I noticed was a very strong and unusual wood or herbal note that permeated absolutely every single incense in the box. I literally began to go through most or all of the incenses to hunt down what it was because it seemed to me to potentially pose an aromatic conflict with some of the incenses. I didn’t know if maybe the herbal samples had contaminated the champas or if the note was part of the new base of incenses or if it was just one of the nag champas. As I initially went through them I found that this note seems to be part of the base of these new incenses. I don’t know if any of the line’s earlier incenses have switched to this new base or of it’s specifically formulated for these incenses, but I also noticed that this note is largely part of the unburned stick and not really part of the actual burn. I’m still not sure what to make of it. Mind you it is not an artificial or unnatural scent, it’s just strangely different and not a note you would imagine would compliment halmaddi.

But it’s important to bring up I think because this batch of incenses is actually very interesting, maybe even experimental in some ways. It’s one reason I wanted to sort of give a precis of my Mother’s journey to date because these are quite a bit different. If you look at pictures at Mere Cie, you can still see the lighter champa base on the older incenses and while I’d still love to rest my thoughts on whether the early lines have changed or not, the seven under review here appear to (mostly) be completely different incenses with a very new and unusual halmaddi-masala mix. There’s the unusual wood or herbal note I mentioned above but the base also can be something more like sweet chocolate, almost confectionary in a way. As you can see from the names of the incenses, we’re covering a lot of ground here that’s very unusual in the world of nag champas, in fact we’re stretching the definition of this way past where Mothers originally took it and into new territory. Don’t get me wrong, as I sort of adjusted to what I was smelling. I found these all to be intriguing incenses and increasingly fascinating as I went forward. You can find these for sale at the Mere Cie Deux website on the champa page.

So first of all there’s the Frankincense (Sweet). While this isn’t labeled as a Nagchampa on the package like the rest of these are, it still roughly fits into the same format and that addition is actually listed in the insert in the package. It’s a bit more akin to the sorts of masalas I used to see in the Triloka, Incense from India and other lines, where it would be brown colored and very sweet. Different from say the Happy Hari/Temple of Incense formula. But the same masala/halmaddi base used in all the rest of these incenses is here as well, and this sets it apart from the usual sweet frankincense masalas. There is some actual level of the resin, like it’s crushed up in the mix some, but it’s not a level of top flavor that really strongly outweighs the base. And this sort of sugary, confectionary, chocolate feel to it is really dominant here in a way some of the other champas in this batch don’t have because of the more divergent top notes. The other ingredients listed for this incense are Indian benzoin (where it supposedly gets its more balsamic tones from), gugal resin, cedar wood oil and a trace of Assamese oudh. In my hunt for that earthy note I mentioned above, I did guess it might be the gugal as its in the same family of myrrh and I’ve noticed this sort of wood-like quality that comes from the actual plant wood itself rather than the resin alone. Anyway overall this is a pretty intriguing incense for sure. It’s unlike most other Indian frankincense sticks, champas or otherwise, and the cedar oil also works nicely with the balsamic and resinous qualities. It’s a very friendly incense that I think most will like.

Guna Nagchampa is simply Coffee Nagchampa (or maybe more accurately Mocha Nagchampa), which is something I thought I’d never see myself write. This is a stick that reminds me a lot of Nippon Kodo’s Paris Café Fragrance Memories stick. Now one of my favorite smells in the world is a high quality brewed up coffee, but I tend to think of that aroma without the cream and sugar. When you have this sort of sweet halmaddi base you’re really going for something more like a mocha or latte sort of aroma. And to my nose this is a bit more superior to the NK stick simply because the halmaddi base seems more natural as a sweetener than extra perfumes. Because there are so many Japanese sticks that really only reach an approximation of coffee, I think this one might move into the lead as one of the most attractive coffee aromas outside of coffee itself. It’s a modern for sure and there’s nothing like premium bean about it, but Mother’s often tend so close to traditional ingredients this actually feels pretty authentic. But once again, you’ll be a struck by the interesting chocolate-y base as any of the coffee top notes. It’s funny but I always remember liking Nestle’s Quik for chocolate milk as a kid, but there was always some secondary powder I remember liking a little less that smelled a lot like this incense, but for the life of me I couldn’t dig anything up (maybe Ovaltine?). Anyway yeah this one’s a very interesting take on it, although you really have to think halmaddi rather than champa with this kind of thing as this doesn’t smell anything like a mainline floral Nag Champa. And that’s OK.

After really starting to love the Absolute Bliss Natural Beauty Masala, Meera Nagchampa with its mix of sandalwood and cedar wood top oils is really a pocket sort of aroma for me and maybe my overall favorite in this grouping. This is a champa a bit more akin to the early incenses I reviewed (links above) but for me this is something of a perfect top note with a really great mix of the two wood oils. It’s not a complex incense, it doesn’t get too sweet in the mix which really allows the natural fragrance of these two great incenses to mesh and meld. If you like cedar this is a no brainer for sure. Very nicely done and proof simplicity is often a net positive.

Neem Nagchampa is a very unique mix, with neem leaves from the azadirachta indica tree. Neem leaves are an herbal aromatic that repel insects, and seem to be used for other unconfirmed medicinal reasons as well, but it’s the first time I can remember it being used in an incense. Now I have never smelled these leaves, but they appear to be part of the Indian lilac tree, but if I am getting the note right the leaves are a somewhat pungent, green scent and certainly herbaceous in the way we normally think of it. So in a lot of ways this is the first top note in this series that I think is quite unusual and experimental as a mix for a “nag champa.” But I’ve said it before, exploration and new scents are exactly what you look for in new incenses, so I definitely laud the company for trying some new things out. Overall this isn’t a sweet nag champa like many of the others in the series, the base seems a bit modified to sort of pull the Neem note out on it, and I’d dare say it seems to be successful in presenting this almost as an alternative to a lemograss or citronella sort of scent.

As mentioned above, my writing over the ORS Mother’s journey went on longer than I expected, so I moved the remaining three nagchampas and the Herbal Ambience samplers to a second installment that should be live in a few days.

Admin Notes

Some updates to the site:

  • A note has been added to the Tennendo/Enkuu (Horizon) review to notice slight changes.
  • I have started to italicize incenses and their links in the Reviews Index if they are obsolete reviews or discontinued incenses.
  • The Nippon Kodo submenu of the Reviews Index has been updated in numerous ways. This includes updating all available links to the Nippon Kodo site, fixing prices, various edits, etc. and the following:
    • The East Meets West / Scandinavian Nature Thai Memory incense has been marked as discontinued.
    • The Fragrance Memories incenses Green Oasis, Happy Valley, Paris Cafe, and Santa Fe Breeze have been marked as discontinued (at least in the US).
    • Created a note on the Kayuragi Incense review page that Bitter Orange was replaced with Mikan Orange.
    • Noted that both Nerikoh incenses are discontinued (although, again, this may just be in the US).
    • Noted that two New Morningstar incenses are discontinued (Aqua and Earth). Aqua seems to have been redundant to the Ka-Fuh version. It’s hard to tell if the entire line is discontinued and the rest is remaining stock, but links have been added.
    • A note (this one) that the discontinued incenses in the Yume-No-Yume line were discontinued at the time of the original review. Everything else is still produced.
  • Notes have been added concerning the discontinuation of Saraike Kunbutsudo Mt. Fuji and Shizuka-No-Sato to the Reviews Index and the review. All Japanese indexes in the Review Index have been caught up through Scents of Japan.

Yamadamatsu / Shuju Kyara, Shuju Rakoku, Shuju Manaka, Shuju Manaban, Shuju Sasora, Shuju Sumotara

I know this might seem disrespectful, but I grew up with Italian immigrant grandparents, and every time I see Yamadamatsu, I can’t help but do it in an Italian accent and add a lot of extra syllables and gesture a bunch. “Yamada-damada-maddamadda-matsu.”

With that out of the way, I wanted to start with a chart I put together from different sources about the Rikkoku Aloeswood scents. (More information about history and details of Rikkoku can be found here.) The idea that there was a quick way to identify where aloeswood comes from based on the scent is fairly solid. In fact, in my head, it conjures that sort of troped scene in movies where someone sips a wine and is able to tell the region, vintage and winery off that one sip. And just like wine, I think there are far more than just six categories, but to honor this tradition, we’re working with the six that Yamadamatsu produces.

When I first started on this journey, this chart was daunting and hard. I would light a piece of incense and try to place it in this chart. I gave up after a few tries and just let this sit for six years while I continued sniffing and reviewing both raw chunks of wood and incense made from single source. Several artists like Kyarazen and similar were helpful on this journey with their making ‘exemplar’ sticks like Manaban Malik.

In the chart below, I found the scents on the Baiedo site from a few versions ago, and can’t find it currently. The poems I lifted from a site that no longer exists but I found this site, that mentions the name of the poet – Kōdō Master Yonekawa Johaku.

In the poems, the countries are personified as an Aristocrat (Kyara), Warrior (Rakoku), Woman (Manaka), Peasant (Manaban), Monk (Sasora), Ninja (Sumotara). I realize the poem doesn’t say ninja, but really, why else would a peasant disguise themselves as a noble other than for a ninja mission (also noting a peasant couldn’t afford any trappings of a noble, but a ninja clan would)?

NameScent (from Baiedo)OriginLabelPoem
KyaraBitterVietnam伽羅“A gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness.”
RakokuSweetThailand羅国“A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood. Its smell is generally bitter, and reminds one of a warrior.”
ManakaSoftMalaysia真那伽“Smells light and enticing, changing like the mood of a woman with bitter feelings.”
ManabanSaltyCambodia真南蛮“Mostly sweet, the presence of sticky oil on a mica plate is often present after smoldering Manaban. The smell is coarse and unrefined, just like that of a peasant.”
SasoraHotIndia佐曾羅“Cool and sour. Good-quality sasora is mistaken for kyara, especially at the beginning. It reminds one of a monk. Sometimes very light and disappearing.”
SumotaraSourIndonesia寸聞多羅“Sour at the beginning and end. Sometimes mistaken for Kyara, but with something distasteful and ill bred about it, like a peasant disguised as a noble.”

I didn’t write that chart in any real order and started with my favorite at the top, so I’m going to drop the reviews in the same order. Starting with Kyara (not pictured as the box has not been available for a while) I was not sure if I was going to be able to talk about this because my initial reaction years ago was just ‘bitter ash and burned wood’, but now I know what to sniff for in between those smells and I get a rich resinous experience. This is what the kyara sticks of other companies are trying to reproduce, this sort of thin layer between the ashy, salty smoke and the resinous wood, where there is tobacco, rum, caramel, raisins, and then it goes right back to the salty wood. This is worth the price, as one of the more expensive kyara sticks because it (as far as I know) is just kyara and not adulterated with many other things, which, while pleasant, can get in the way of appreciating the raw power of kyara. I’m going to note that like kyara, this stick is very strong and could either be broken into parts and heated on a heater for more economic enjoyment or simply burned a few times to give the needed scent. Such a treat, worth the price.

Rakoku is supposed to remind one of a warrior. I am starting to wonder how awesome ancient warriors must have smelled if this is what one is reminded of? To be sure, when I read the poem and lit the stick the first time, I imagined that I was going to smell some heady sort of body odor that would be coming off a soldier after a week of forced marching through tropical climates. This comes across as a typical Thai, to me, after having experienced the raw wood. There is a sweet front that immediately shifts gears into the bitter of the poem. I still wish I could travel in time and experience both the sandalwood and the warrior that the poet compares this to, because this is nothing like sandalwood. None of that ‘woodshop’ or ‘salty’ or even ‘buttery’ scents I associate with the santalum is present here. I have to imagine that perhaps this warrior starts off sweet when you smell the leather armor and the oiled sword, but when he takes off his armor the smell is a bit more bitter and pungent. But overall, I love this for how great it smells as an aloeswood.

The poem for Manaka seems to lose something in the translation, but this is the feminine scent according to the poet. The scent is supposed to be soft, while the poem says “light and enticing” and “bitter feelings”. Manaka for me tends to have a salty, wet earth type of smell that maybe could be wet with the bitter tears of someone crying? Overall, this comes up as the sort that when you really listen you get softer things like fruit, ash and moss, as well as a note that reminds me of saltpeter and similar after lighting a firecracker, and that note overall is one of the favorite notes of Manaka for me. Firecracker.

Classism haunts this poem for Manaban, and if you would believe the way the poet talks about this, this should be the one that is farthest from Kyara. However, this is probably one of my favorites in terms of the one that is almost gone of the five boxes. This comes across as salty, hot, and bitter and those three things come together to make something really deep. I have come to associate this kind of smell with Cambodian aloeswood and surrounding regions, but this is also the profile that I think gets propped up in other Japanese incense with clove and cinnamon to be able to sweeten it and I guess, refine it and make it less coarse. The thing that I think also makes this worth noting is that I feel like the ‘course and unrefined’ could also be phrased ‘strong and brash’ because we live in an age where aristocrats outdo each other in tastelessness, ‘course and unrefined’ defines quite a few “noblemen” of our day. Strong and Brash also defines how this aloeswood comes across to me. This captures a lot of the notes you used to get from wild Cambodian.

For our monk, Sasora comes from India, and while India can produce many different aloeswood localities, I think this is going for the Assam, but can’t be 100% sure because I haven’t sniffed every Indian region of aloeswood yet. The Baiedo description of ‘Hot’ is counter to the poem that says ‘Cool and sour’. I have to agree with both. Here’s why. There is a hot sort of feeling when inhaling this, like you’re on a dry and dusty road. But when you start to listen to the smells, there is indeed a sour and cool component right behind that hot dustiness. The poem also suggests that if you get good enough Sasora, you’re sniffing something like kyara. My take is that this is a wonderful stick that has interplay between the varied components that if you sit with it long enough, some of them start to marry into a complex fragrance that playfully shifts between sour, hot, cool, dry and sometimes a hint of salt or sweet just to mix it up.

To finish our journey through the six countries, we arrive in Sumotara, and this is what I like to call the ninja smell, since it’s a peasant disguised as a noble according to the poem. This definitely hits the sour note, and had I not done this kind of differentiation, I would have called this sour note bitter. But it is not the kind of biting that bitter has but rather a more frowning sour. Once you get behind that, there is this deep wooden smell that gets complicated, like a precious wooden box that once stored opium, tobacco, a leather pouch of money, and a flint and steel. That complicated box of smells is where I think this can get mistaken for kyara as the poem suggests.

Overall, my best recommendation on these kinds of sets is to educate your nose. But for me, what this did was give me a reference so that I could start categorizing my other aloeswood incenses into the six countries. Of course, not all the premium blends would support this as I would have a hard time placing the likes of Shokaku or Kyara Tenpyo on this list because they don’t fit the kyara entry so well. As aloeswood disappears from the wild and we are left with farmed localities of varying quality and complexity, some of these smells represented here may no longer exist in the future so I like to suggest these kinds of luxury incenses might be on the endangered species list. That alone is why I like keeping my collection stocked with top shelf because the likes of Shoyeido stopping production on their top tier kyara incenses is only going to keep happening.

Tun-Da Village / N-M Jewel of Ancient Incense

I previously covered Tun-Da Village’s Master Incense, so we can assume the N-M Jewel of Ancient Incense is essentially their #2 blend. At $7 a roll, it’s almost impossible to knock a Tibetan incense of even, what, standard quality, but this may be a touch better than that. On the gift box page, we’re given clove and spices as the only ingredients, although they’re probably used in a moderate amount and not over the top like say the Kathok Monastery’s King of Incense. Anyway there’s no question this is a pleasant blend and maybe not a bad idea as a Tibetan starter incense as it’s super friendly, super affordable and not inclusive of any of the more dangerous notes you might find in some other Tibetan incenses. It’s got a bit of the mild corn chip sort of scent mixed in with the spices and a bit of tanginess and herbal quality too. There’s even some intriguing mild floral in the mix in there somewhere. It has surprisingly good definition for its price and a touch of woodiness to wrap it all up. Most of all it’s more art in balance than wowing you with any particular aspect of its profile. Monastery incenses is often the first link I go to at, but honestly the village incenses are solid across the board. And the next Tibetan installment will include the last one on that page!

Prabhuji’s Gifts / Chakra Series / Muladhara, Svadhisthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddha, Ajna, Sahasrara

The Western tendency to create correspondences with Eastern spiritual systems seems largely a side effect of systems like the Golden Dawn where everything from colors to astrology signs to elements to Hebrew letters to tarot cards were lined up with one another to link things up and create one sort of universal spiritual system. This has long permeated new age culture and you can see it here in this seven incense chakra line where all the packages have different colors and so forth and the scents have been created to match up with each chakra, as if working with chakras was a simple as burning incenses and holding the right crystal. But hey, marketing right? (There’s a new Facebook ad equating using their groups as a method for transcendence that is currently annoying me, but I digress.) For sure the packages are quite nice on these, and if we can reference the many gems of the Ramakrishnanda incense line (scroll a bit down after this review), then I was hoping there would be treasures to be found in these as well, as Prabhuji’s Gifts has created a lot of memorable and inexpensive incenses that have become favorites of mine. They have such a wide variety of scents and lines now that there should nearly be something for everyone. So anyway let’s start from the root chakra and bring the energy up, or at least see if these smell good.

The Muladhara Chakra incense lists sandalwood, khus, patchouli and clove. This looks to be of Bangalore pedigree with a heavily dusted, somewhat hybridized masala with charcoal, very similar to what you’ll find with Satya incenses. However, like most of the Prabhuji Gifts line the perfumes tend to be better. I think the idea here is that earthier herbs like patchouli and khus are meant to be grounding, but the mix of all four of these ingredients really tends to blend those types of earthier elements out. You end up with a sort of budget quality woodiness from the sandalwood with a bit of a cooling vibe, not at all what I’d expect from the “cover.” As the incense burns you realize it’s going for a sort of mild stabilizing effect and that you do get the clove and patchouli as milder notes in the background and so overall this is pleasant if not quite exciting. But that may very well be the point.

Svadhisthana Chakra is all about the sacral (aka tummy) chakra. It has a similar style to the Muladhara, but is perhaps a bit softer. The list here is vanilla, rose and vetiver. I’m always a bit skeptical of incenses with rose notes at this sort of inexpensive price range and the one here seems a bit odd in the mix. The company also tags this chakra with the water element where something like jasmine seems a better fit and it’s kind of odd to see something like vetivert here as well. So it’s a bit of an odd duck. Like most of these incenses there’s also an inherent woodiness to it that isn’t listed and you can certainly smell the vanilla, although it leans a bit to the less sweet. I can’t really identify anything too unpleasant or odd about the notes, but the mix of them doesn’t sit particularly comfortably for me. It ends up being close to a lot of incenses you find at this range where the perfumes didn’t quite make it.

So, up to the solar plexus level with the Manipura Chakra, this time with a more simple blend of lavender and sandalwood. The consistency here brings it back more in line with the Muladhara. The simplicity makes this a much more satisfying incense. It’s interesting after sampling the lavenders in the Happy Hari/Temple of Incense axis to sample this as the sandalwood presence gives this a much different feel that those, perhaps less obviously lavender but still soft and pleasant enough to not be offputting like in the Lavender Fields variant. It’s more that it just sort of moves the sandalwood over into a more pleasantly general floral range. So it ends up being probably the best incense in this line. But again I find this interesting on a correspondence level because lavender more often tends to be thought of as air element here and because of that it doesn’t feel like it matches with the fire correspondence listed in the back. For fire you’d likely want something spicier like cinnamon in the mix.

Anahata Chakra at least keeps the rose (and maybe geranium) associations of the heart chakra in place, although it does so with patchouli as the first note listed. It reminds me a little of the Temple of Incense Om Masala, although perhaps not quite as deluxe. For listing a couple of big floral notes, it feels like they’re dialed back in comparison to the earthy and spicy notes and there’s some level of halmaddi to it as well. But the price difference between this and the Om Masala is probably a bit telling in that this has less definition, especially in the perfume area, it is pleasant but in a somewhat muddier way. It’s the kind of incense that would have had a bit more presence in the “halmaddi era” but without the full recipe, it leaves it feeling pleasant but a bit generic.

The “oriental woods and amber” of Vishuddha Chakra create an incense not terribly different from the other sandalwood prominent incenses in this series. It’s quite dry with very little in the way of sweetness and doesn’t have as strong of an amber note as you’d like. Without any real definition of what woods are included, it actually matches the profile fairly well and doesn’t seem as sandalwood-heavy as the others, but this pushes it into a somewhat generic and somewhat personality-less area. I like that it’s a bit different and the cooling feel of it does seem to fit the color scheme here but again, this falls a bit more into the way Satya incenses can be kind of hazy in terms of what scent they’re trying to reach. It’s perhaps that feeling that this is reaching for levels of expense it couldn’t possibly reach at its price.

It’s hard to get enthusiastic about the jasmine and tulasi that matches up with the Ajna Chakra. Ideally when you’re moving up into rarified spheres you’d like the quality to bump up quite a bit, but after the Absolute Bliss/Temple of Incense Vintage Jasmine/Jasmine Blossom, this one falls quite flat. Whatever is going into this mix frankly isn’t cutting it and the perfume is off in a way that’s distinctly unpleasant. It could be that this is old stock and it has faded some but I’m not sure I’d risk another go with what’s left. This stick is more like something you’d expect out of Satya, either factory. And honestly I’ve tried one of Satya’s jasmines (I think it was the Bangalore “Jasmine”) that’s actually more defined than this one, so maybe part of the issue is the Tulasi? Hard to tell for sure, but simply nope.

And finally we get to the crown chakra with the Sahasrara Chakra and the lotus blossom that often signifies the mandala here. But just like with the previous incense, I’ve had Queen of Lotus/Lotus Flower, Floating Lotus Flower/Shiv and of course the devastating White Lotus Oudh Saffron out frequently of late, so I perhaps was not in the economy section when I sat down to review this. Fortunately it’s a bit nicer on its own than the Ajna, and there’s at least some level of attempt to get the floral notes right, but it’s not the same class, not by a long shot. It does have a bit of sweetness as a masala hybrid that helps it a bit, but it also verges a bit sour sometimes. Overall it’s really worth paying a few more bucks for something closer to the real deal, this is something I’d say is nearly always true when it comes to florals.

Now keep in mind as I close this that there are a few incenses in the Ramakrishnanda line I still like a lot, although one of their finest seemed to have been discontinued for a different recipe. But these days I’m fairly sensitive when I pick up a new line that doesn’t seem to be quite as up to the standard I remembered in terms of wondering if the original catalog might have shifted as well. While I might have put the Ramakrishnanda line ahead of say the Designs By Deekay line by a hair with some overlap, I’d put most of the chakra line a bit lower and maybe a step ahead of the Satays in most cases. We’re talking about the same sort of masala-charcoal hybrid style in the Satya family here, but for sure I’d stick to the Ramakrishnandas first. However, it’s worth checking out some of the enthusiastic reviews of these incenses at the specific incense’s web page, to get some different perspectives. After all at $3.38 a package there’s not a lot of risk here.

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