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.

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