Rokok / Sintren Frankincense Cigarettes

Happy Halloween! Since Mike already reviewed some of the ‘Vampires Blood’ incense sticks I figured reviewing a much more dangerous kind of incense – the kind that you inhale to get the ‘aromatherapy’. Let me just preface that I am not a smoker in any real way. When I go to Europe, I will roll my own tobacco-cannabis mixture with rolling papers but I really don’t seek out smoking pleasure.

However, when I encountered the simple idea that someone out there was lacing cigarettes with frankincense, I was intrigued. Digging into it further, I was able to find that there is one village with a bunch of 60+ people who roll these with the hopes that kids somewhere will get interested in the ‘benefits’ of smoking frankincense.

So here I am, having bought a pack of Rokok Sintren Asli Klembek Menjan, and having paid more in shipping by four times, I am getting a chance to scratch my curiosity itch. But I found I was too much of a wimp to just light one up, so I lit one and stuck it in an incense holder and smelled it. The smell was so exciting and relaxing that I decided to take a puff. Three puffs in and I am seeing first hand the psychoactive qualities of frankincense, enhanced by the stimulation of the tobacco.

How does it smell? Well, if you’re familiar with clove cigarettes where you smell clove oil and then the tobacco and the cloves sort of marry together. This is the same, the prime scent is tobacco with a bit of frankincense. The flavor? The paper is slightly sweet like a clove cigarette and the smoke is smoother than I imagined. The cigarette is rolled with a thick end and a thin end and there is no filter, reminding me of the kinds of ‘professional’ joints you’d get at a cannabis dispensary.

If you’re a smoker and you like novelties, give this a try, but if you don’t like smoking, it’s not worth the effort of importing a pack or two just to light it like incense. It’s cheaper to just get some loose-leaf tobacco and frankincense resin and put it on a puck of charcoal or incense burner.

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Yamadamatsu / Shikun, Saiun, Kumoyi, Ouju

So now we turn to the line’s “upper half,” well sort of. The following includes new reviews of both the Shikun and the Saiun. Before I started restocking incense late last year, I had some sticks remaining of each and compared them with both the new stock I just received (and my reviews) and started to wonder why it seemed there were rather large differences between the sticks. I considered that I had switched lids on the old stock years ago, but given that Yamadamatsus can have substantial oil content in their incenses, I thought that maybe they had lost some of their power. So I decided to redo those from scratch, but in the redoing of the reviews, it felt really like I got them right the first time (I rendered and then unrendered the previous reviews obsolete). It was a bit of a lesson on how much these incenses changed with age. Also in that review is the incense, Hyofu. This one, based on the samples I recently tried (not to mention, I believe I was out of old stock by then), seems to be the same incense, and so there didn’t feel a need to do that one again, it has remained remarkably unchanged through the years (it’s also not a favorite of mine, so I didn’t restock it). Kumoyi, on the other hand, is a huge favorite here. Ouju is the top end of the series. Gancho Koh, however, I have moved to a separate review because even though it looks superficially similar to the rest of these incenses, it actually varies a bit in label and box type and is a bit of a side step from these. So look for that one in a later installment on its own.

First of all Shikun is listed as 85 5 1/2 inch sticks at $28 while Saiun is listed as 100 5 1/2 inch sticks at $32, so they’re close enough in price for the difference to be fairly marginal. If the two Suifus were the entry point into the low end aloeswood blend range then these start moving a bit into the mid range, although they are still priced rather inexpensively all things considering. This is the first incense in this line where, although you don’t have the ingredient list, one might extrapolate from some of the old Yamadamatsu ingredient lists that list things like real deer musk and operculum. I’ve said it before that animal ingredients often hide in the pockets of the secret recipes, but Shikun is where I start actually noticing things like deep musk and marine notes in the mix. There seems to be a mix of high level sandalwood as well as quality aloeswood, all of which act as the base for a great deal of perfume work. Of all the Japanese companies, Yamadamatsu may be one of the most unique in terms of how different and unusual their blends are. While this has some base level similarity to the Suifu, there’s a whole lot more going on, with hints of the floral, some saltiness, and a touch of caramel sweetness in the mix. It’s interesting reading the old review though as it actually still seems like it works pretty well. I would guess a lot of the more perfume notes probably float away when the box ages. Also of interest, I get hints of both Hyofu and the Oubu in this as well, as if the incenses share elements and recapitulate them in the same way the Kourindo line does.

One of the things about low- to mid-line aloeswood blends is the rubric is generally to paste aloeswood on the description of them first, it is after all most of what we are looking for. However a lot of these early blends have a lot of sandalwood in them, and Saiun is a very good example of that, in fact I think the sandalwood is a lot more prominent and the aloeswood more a player on the outside of the aroma, a note that often seems both mellow and strong along the burn. It has a bit of a dusky sort of scent to it and some sense of spice, although it’s not a super potent level of it. It doesn’t have the same sort of musk hit the Shikun does, but it is there in the mix and dialed down a bit for subtlety. It’s worth comparing this a bit to my previous review as it strikes me about the same and I’m not sure I would have noticed the apricot without reading it, but it’s definitely there in the mix. Overall it’s an intriguing incense, maybe not as immediately striking as the Shikun is but there’s still quite a bit of complexity and interplay in this to keep one interested.

If there’s a large gap between how much I love Kumoyi and how long its taken me to review, it might be the largest one in the history of ORS. I first discovered this one way back when from a pre-Japan Incense order direct from Japan and managed to burn through my first box so fast I needed to restock it pretty fast and now I’m on my third one (and I’d add this even seems to have a slightly larger stick count than the previous boxes at 125). This may be the real prize of the whole line, a tribute to not only Yamadamatsu’s originality and creativity, but both in the way they weave oils and other materials together into a greater whole. It’s a very dank scent fronted by an almost hazelnut-caramel sort of top note where below there is a tremendous musk hit, a powerful sense of the marine that I would assume is some level of operculum and of course an aloeswood presence by far for more deluxe and powerful than any incense prior to this one in the line. It’s one of those Japanese incenses with such a perfume hit you can really smell it from the box. It is both confectionary sweet and a little dangerous in all the best ways and it’s about as close to something I’d like as possible. And not only that we’re still under $60 on this one on an incense I enjoy nearly as many that are double or triple the price. So yes this one is a stone classic of incense, well worth checking out, and I’d also add its remained remarkably stable over the years. I should also mention this one reminds me quite a bit of the Shoyo coil as well.

Not only does the price take quite a jump at this point but the stick count goes down by over half with the highest end box in this range, Ouju. This one really jumps into a very powerful, thick and resinous aloeswood scent and as such it feels like the additions back off a little in comparison to the early line. But what is really notable about Ouju is the spice mix with the woods is very different than you usually expect for an aloeswood at this price range. It’s a bit masala- or even food spice-like, with quite a bit of pepper, coriander, celery salt, and other spices in the mix. It still has a bit of the marine note that makes you feel like operculum is still in the mix but the musk is more backed off than in the Kumoyi. But with all this stuff playing around the edges it’s still the wood that is the real highlight, with that sort of peek-a-boo characteristic a lot of wood in this range has where a resin pocket might blast you with that hoary goodness. I would keep in mind that this isn’t an aloeswood that’s really anything like the Shu-Jus or the Firebird, and feel the black color box here kind of reflects this sort of midnight-like aloeswood aroma. It’s a beautiful stick, one that actually needs a bit of space to diffuse into the room in order to unpack the depth of it. It may be a bit different than what you expect, but the potential for listening is extremely high here. It’s unquestionably recommended, especially if you want an aloeswood that really has no analog anywhere else.

Lopen Tandin Dorji Poizo Khang / Tara Puja Incense

I might have this a bit off but in Bhutan a Poizo Khang/Poi Zokhang translates to something like a house of incense. Nado Poizokhang appears to be the largest of these incense houses, but there’s quite a few small ones as well and most seem to include the creators in their name (Mr. Nado is considered the father of Bhutan’s commercial incense industry), in this case one Lopen Tandin Dorji. While you will see what looks like two incenses in the pictures, about the only thing that seems different to me from the two packages is the color. The ingredients listed on both wrappers include red and white sandalwoods, juniper, species of fragrant plant, camphor, the resin of the Sal Tree, saffron, three sweets of sugar, honey and molasses, and three with milk, curd and butter. You may be happy to know there is no meat, alcohol or onion in this incense. Tara incenses relate to the meditation deity Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism and the colors relate to different forms of Tara, so it is assumed the incenses are intended for the specific forms. However, for Western noses, both of these incenses (green and yellow wrapper) seem aromatically identical and if there are any differences in recipe they are beyond my threshold to be able to tell. I lit both sequentially and at the same time to compare.

Tara Puja is actually a very friendly incense overall and the ingredients all seem high quality. I find that it reminds me a little of the long disappeared Lung Ta line which also claimed to list foods like honey or milk in the ingredients and however they formulate these (because imagine burning either on their own), they impart a bit of their own richness to the mix. But outside of these you’re essentially getting something of a woody and spicy blend. They actually seem a bit more akin to Nepalese incenses more than say the red/purple or Jaju styles normally found in Bhutanese incense houses, but there are still some similarities. The sandalwoods, juniper and the saffron seem well up in the mix, and the spice accentuates the sort of high altitude, evergreen feel without leaning into campfire directions. Whichever wrapper you choose, this isn’t a bad choice for an entry point into Bhutanese incense, and if you are stocked up on the traditionals you may still find this to be a different take, not to mention nice and friendly.

Pure Incense / Egyptian Oud, Oud Jakarta, Oud Kathmandu, Oud Noir

Pure Incense expanded their incense lines considerably during the ORS closure (I keep thinking I need to rename this something like “The Retirement Years” or the “Big Gap” or something). I remember their regular, Absolute, and Connoisseur lines from when we reviewed them, but there appeared to be a concerted effort to really expand the Connoisseur line in the last ten years and it is quite frankly where the strength of the company lies. I do highly recommend checking out the reviews we did on most of the early incenses by looking the company up in the Reviews Index because outside of natural variation Adi Guru and Pure Incense have done a fairly remarkable job of staying consistent through the years.

As I understand it, Pure Incense is one of the western companies that contracts with India’s Madhavadas family to create incenses and import them to the UK. This venerable incense family has been around longer than I have and was behind both the Primo and Ganesha lines before they closed. As most familiar with this company know, they make a very distinct masala base created from charcoal, sandalwood and vanilla powder that can be something of a heavy player in their aromas. It is almost worth trying some of the line’s base scents to see where you sit with that base, maybe before trying some of the high enders; however, when it comes to the higher end Connoissuer and Vintage lines there is really a deluxe range of top oils and perfumes that are extremely impressive. I was sent a few samples of Pure incenses from a reader and was really taken with them and eventually got around to making a nice order of my own, one that amazingly got stuck in US customs for what I am told is the first time in PI history. After some form filling out, they ended up finally arriving. I’ve decided to break the series of boxes and samples up into about four reviews in order to a group a few things, including this series of four oud incenses. Ouds are of course fragrances made from agarwood, but it should be noted that Pure Incense creates both Ouds and agarwood incenses. To my nose the Pure Incense ouds are a bit spicier and more oil based than the regular agarwood incenses. And in fact this is a range of incenses that is very close together so talking about the differences is probably more useful as they are largely the same sort of incense, just with different regional woods being the source for the perfume.

A Pure Incense Oud is generally what I’d call a spicy wood sort of scent. These are similar to the Happy Hari Oud Masala and so forth but they’re also a bit mellower due to a bit more of a masala blend in the base than charcoal alone. The thing to keep in mind is that the Madhavadhas base has a lot of vanilla to it and how much it cuts through into the overall aroma is pivotal to the overall scent. Ouds, including the Egyptian Oud Intense, tend to be strong enough to mute some of the vanilla without completely eliminating it, but the sweetness of the base is not completely submerged. The Egyptian oud oil here is quite friendly, this isn’t one of those oudhs with barnyard/animalistic notes at all, it’s quite cinnamon/clove spicy while having a definitely agarwood sort of scent to it, so it’s a very likeable stick overall. Pure Incense also describes the scent including “tobacco notes and leather and hint of fruit” all of which feels like a decent take on a lot of the more subtler notes. But intense it is and that is what you want in an oud overall, so there is plenty to listen to here.

Pure Incense describes the Oud Jakarta (Indonesia) as having “a real heady wood note and beautiful undertones of peach and green leaves.” The peach note is a surprising thing to note for sure, but it’s absolutely there and in strength as well and it really adds a nice flavor to this oud stick. I’m sure having that bit of vanilla in the background intensifies this note a little, but don’t think that means there isn’t plenty of deep, woody oil notes on this one. The green leaves note is one that kind of reminds me of an incense or two in the Nippon Kodo Yume no Yume line that had something like this (can’t remember the specific one but both Bamboo Leaf and Horse-Tail Plant ring a bell) and it also reminds me of the scent of a green, unripened banana with a bit of tartness. Anyway it’s a very powerful scent, when I tried it the oil seemed strong and recently placed meaning for a while you might want to back up some. But every bit of that agar-woodiness is really here and I’ve smelled a lot of Indonesian aloeswood in Japanese sticks that didn’t really approach this kind of wonderful intensity so it’s quite a marvel. And as a difference I would say this isn’t quite as spicy as the Egyptian and while you’re comparing two oud sticks it just goes to show you how deep, different and complex ouds can be. Really gorgeous stuff and one of my favorites of the whole Pure Incense aloeswood line.

Pure Incense calls the Oud Kathmandu “The best Agarwood incense sticks on earth.” I’ll just say there are some agarwood incenses out there I can’t even afford enough to make that kind of call and leave it at that, mostly because that’s a statement that takes a lot of guts. Even in the Pure Incense line up alone, I’m not sure I can make that call, even in this review alone, but this definitely has a very different aromatic profile to the previous two oud incenses. Quite frankly I can’t remember every trying a Nepali agarwood incense of this sort, maybe a bit of wood in a Tibetan stick, sure. This is the woodiest of the oud sticks so far and it’s quite different from the two I’ve just reviewed and it does indeed have some very unique and different notes to it that are quite arresting in the profile. It appears to have some level of resin depth to it that starts to approach the higher end Japanese sticks in a way, like there’s some particular weight to it and the overall wood profile is probably the loudest in this group. It may be why no other notes are really named in the description, but I pick up the leather here more than in the Egyptian and it shares a bit of the same spice to it as well. There is also some level of lacquer or turpentine as well which one tends to get when an oud is really aromatically dense. While I tend to set Japanese and Indian agarwood sticks apart since they’re somewhat incomparable in style, I would say this is a fine oud indeed and well worth checking out. And of the sticks in this group this is perhaps the one where the base is the most occluded by the top scent.

Oud Noir is described as Pure Incense’s “new Agarwood flagship scent. It has a strong prominent Oud note that is a pure dark wood with a leather note.” Like the Egyptian Oud Incense this is a stick where the base’s vanilla notes cut through, as the overall scent is not as strong as any of the geographic specific ouds above. Also like the Egyptian, this is a bit of a spicy oud, its got a fairly light profile and may be a bit closer to the line’s agarwood-named incenses than the two listed above. It has a bit of an airiness to it, although it does have some of the more denser end that it shares with the Oud Kathmandu, but for a stick called noir, it doesn’t feel as dark or nighttime as the others. There’s some level of floral subnote that I like and it’s a bit more on the prettier end of the range. It also seems to have some strong camphorous notes that the regular Connoissuer Agarwood often has. Honestly if I wasn’t doing these in a rough alphabetical order this might have been the one I opened with as it has a lighter feel than the other three. On the other hand having it be a bit lighter helped to accentuate the differences.

So the overall issue with this group is they’re all part of a range of one scent really and so it is somewhat arguable whether this is an entire batch you would want to grab at once. But compared to one another they show you why agarwood is so genuinely prized, because distillations of the woods from geographic locations show very different profiles within a sort of general idea of what an oud scent is. The thing to keep in mind with Pure Incense is generally there’s a base that’s as important in the overall profile as the scent of the incenses but its presence often depends on how loud, deep or rich the main oil note is. When the oil notes are intense that base tends to dissipate into the mix, while when they are not I think you get a lot of vanilla in the mix as well as some notes of sandalwood. There’s something of a trade off here as well as I think these elements reduce the amount of charcoal in the mix and at times it makes them easier sticks to process then, say, some of the more oil-based Ouds in the Happy Hari or Temple of Incense group. Finally, this actually doesn’t exhaust all of the ouds and agarwood incenses I received in the new batch, but I have placed some of these others in different arrangements for reasons I will talk about in one of the next installments.

Yamadamatsu / Kayo, Kagetsu, Suifu, Suifu Gokuhin

So today we’re going to start at the low end of the Yamadamatsu “color” box incenses. I call them this because they all come in the same size boxes with similar graphic designs, all sort of implying they’re something like the company’s main range. We have covered a few of these in the past, but two of the reviews at the link will be redone in the following installment. The four incenses here have not been reviewed here as far as I can remember.

Before I continue, I want to note the Japan incense Yamadamatsu sampler. This sampler contains 3 sticks each of all the incenses in the series, so it’s likely to be a good place to start if you want to cut through the chase and try them all. It also includes both the Karaku Sandalwood and the Karaku Aloeswood, as well as what might be considered the first in the color box line, Oubai. When I started restocking my incense last year, I started with this sampler to try everything (again) and even though 3 sticks can often be not quite enough to really understand an incense fully, I felt at the low end, none of the three were really worth upgrading to full boxes on. Oubai in particular I remember being a very low end daily with not much in the way of real sandalwood presence, and I’ve largely forgotten the Karaku duo. However, my experiences with both the Kayo and Kagetsu low end sandalwoods were much more positive, in fact I really enjoy both and think they’re among the better incenses in this category. It should also be mentioned the strange fact that while Kayo is described as having old mountain sandawood and Kagetsu isn’t, they’re essential identical in price, stick count and length.

But I will start with the Kagetsu in the mustard color box first. It’s a bit of a dual mix of herbs and spices along with a still very distinct sandalwood note. It’s definitely a daily, not a sandalwood stick on its own, but it is a remarkably classy incense. The sandalwood note is actually fairly crystalline and resinous in the middle and seems fairly separate from all the other herb and spice additions which allows you to sense and listen to them to both. Japan Incense describes this one as fresh and woody and it’s an excellent description as it really does have a nice freshening effect to it. It really will be a matter of whether you like the herb and spice mix in it, as it cuts through nice and strong with a distinct sense of oil work. It’s just that it has been nearly tailor made to mesh perfectly with the wood. So yes this is a really nice piece of work and at approximately 100 sticks for $14 a good deal for the money. I particularly like that the Japanese incense aesthetics are still in full play here at this end and that it isn’t muddy, diffused or boring like some incenses at this end can be.

Kayo, in the pale orange box, uses old mountain sandalwood, and like I said previously, without moving the needle at all on the price. Where Kagetsu is definitely a mix, Kayo is definitely less a daily and more an actual low end sandalwood incense. Honestly with sandalwood prices appreciating to get a note this nice out for this price range is actually somewhat astonishing. Where Kagetsu has a bit more of an herbal flavor to it, Kayo is really going more with the spices just working around the sandalwood contour. In fact this is actually a really good example of an incense that doesn’t resort to the types of tactics you see in Shoyeido where everything is unnecessarily sweet and given the stick count here it’s probably only a little more expensive that the cost of three 35 stick Shoyeido incense boxes. It’s dry, regal and hits the spot dead on perfectly. While I like both of these sandalwood blends, it’s hard in terms of my personal taste not to lean heavy in favor of this one. But keep in mind that this has something of a strong cinnamon like element too, so be sure to factor that in. Anyway this is a straight up hall of famer for an under $20 roll and would say the same if you were getting as much as a third of the quantity of sticks. Yamadamatsu genius even at this end of the spectrum.

At $20 you’re already in aloeswood territory, although Suifu is certainly more a low end blend with a little. It’s one of those sweet and cherry-like low end blends, similar to something like Tennendo Renzan, Nippon Kodo Zuiun or the old, now-deleted, Kyukyodo Shiun. It’s not even far from something like Baieido’s Kaden Kobunboku in that this seems to be something of a variation on the “plum blossom” incense with a bit of a kick. Honestly at this point I find this such a standard Japanese incense that it is somewhat ubiquitous and would generally recommend that unless you are really drawn to the style that you really only need one of these. However if you did pick one I might go with this one or maybe the Baieido, simply because these companies are as likely as any to really do quality work with the woods. This is a very pleasant and friendly incense for sure and even at its level there is a lot of complexity to listen to for such a traditional recipe.

And if Baieido has a Tokusen Kobunboku then Yamadamatsu also has the Suifu Gokuhin. Where Tokusen is usually excellent, Gokuhin often signifies something of an extra fine quality to it so we can really just assume this is a bit of a Suifu upgrade overall. It moves the scent into somewhat richer territory, with a bit more of a tangy and spicy herbal content in the mix, one that’s somewhat similar to the profile found in the Kagetsu. The woods are definitely a bit better here and the aloeswood feels like it’s a step up in quality, like it’s not just one element in the mix but a more prominent one. Honestly given this is only a $2 increase in price it seems like it would be a no brainer to go for this one, but keep in mind that the Suifu itself is a bit more of a traditional recipe and has that sort of sweet fruitiness of the style that really changes with the Gokuhin into something different. While the Gokuhin still has the overall plum tree or plum blossom profile, it’s a different take on it and even though they’re variations on a theme they feel like largely different incenses. But still for $22 a box you’re talking yet again about another really fairly priced and extraordinary incense. One always keeps wondering with incenses that have really legit aloeswood profiles when the bottom is going to drop out, even on something this budget.

Part 2 of this series will be live in by the end of the week and move quite a ways up the gourmet aloeswood range.

Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

Any time I see a new (more accurately, new to me or ORS) monastery or incense company with grades on their incenses, it’s unlikely that I’m going to like all of them. First of all you have to take a look at the pricing, while not forgetting that sometimes stick length and even thickness can play a part in cost. Honestly for the most part, price decreases down grades tend to be fairly gradual. Mindroling is a good example of a graduated sort of scale and Nado Poizokhang used to have something like 6 grades that were available, although that seems no longer the case. Grades don’t always mean an indication of decreasing quality as the numbers rise, but they often do. So you tend to expect a #1 is just simply going to be a better incense than #5, not to mention more pricey.

None of this is really the case in this wonderful line of Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery incenses, or at least as the grades go down you’re not left thinking the lower incenses are worth skipping. Where I often dip into a sampler and then only buy a roll or two that I like, I went with the #1 and #3 first and then over time decided to get the rest. It doesn’t hurt that four of the five come in really beautifully designed cardboard rolls. Once again we must tip a hat to the great incense-traditions.ca for continuing to expose us to the many fine treasures of Tibet.

These are all wonderful, classy, complex and unique incenses that you come to expect from the area. The ingredients list in all of them are white sandalwood, wormwood, saffron, nutmeg, cloves and cypress;, although, you should note right away that the incenses vary a lot more than just what this list is telling you. Grade 1 is unquestionably the line’s treasure. Where later sticks get longer, Grade 1 is a modest sized stick popping with aromatic complexity. It’s literally beautiful and arresting from the first light and immediately popped up into my top 10 Tibetan incenses, it’s just that good. Repetitive burning has not changed my mind on this. Every ingredient in that list can be found here, popping with high resolution and sitting right next to each other, it’s got fine woods, great tanginess, that sense of herbal wildness you get from the wormwood and so much more. It has an aromatic intensity that even a lot of other monastery incenses don’t have. Just now I noticed some almost like spice rack sort of side note, peppery and piquant, which I hadn’t even noticed in the first five or six sticks. I love to use the word kaleidoscope when it comes to incenses like this that are so resolute and intricate, you still notice new things about them as you go. Incredible incense, extremely highly recommended.

Grade 2 changes quite dramatically and it’s funny of the five grades here this is the one I’ve found hardest to get used to. It brings out the more dangerous qualities of the wormwood a bit more so that it runs close to, say, some of the Dzongsar monastery incenses. It goes for a much drier profile than the Grade 1 and seems to not be quite as complex, although if you concentrate on it a bit you do still notice that the ingredient resolution is still pretty high. It feels like a lot of the spice content is a lot more dialed back so that the overall profile ends up being a lot more herbal, in fact there’s something of a grassiness or hay-like scent in that would seem a lot more barnyard if it wasn’t just completely missing any musk. Had I just experienced this incense as a sample on its own, I might have foregone a roll, but in the grade scheme of the entire Tanak Thupten Ling line, it’s actually kind of fascinating the way it fits in and contrasts with the other grades. And as you get used to it you realize that the overall dryness and herbal content hides a bit of the depth that experience will bring out with use. This is not what I call a Western friendly incense overall, but nor is it cheap or low quality. Perhaps its defining strength is that like with the Grade 1 it has a definite wood contour in the middle. But make no mistake this one has a learning curve.

Grade 3 is an incense that actually reminds me a little of my extreme favorite monastery incense Wara. I’m actually starting to feel like I go through an entire package of Wara between every mention of it and the desire to sing its praises threatens to take over sometimes, even from this review. Part of the similarity is there is some crossover with Wara with whatever makes up this sort of almost tarry blackened resin-like element in both incenses. Grade 3 veers away from some of the deeper, more complex and almost undefinable characteristics in Wara but increases some similar, more woody and evergreen elements that serve more as side notes in the Wara. The wormwood is much more subsumed in this incense, much more of a side note, and the cypress and spices are more obvious than they were in the Grade 2. So despite the same ingredients list, you’re talking about a third, completely different incense in this range. Naturally I liked this a lot and notice that it’s the one TTL incense that’s out of stock as I write this. Anyway some other notes in this are a bit of clay, peat, and juniper and in the end has some level of a fresher forest-y note somewhere in the middle that gives it some character. It’s wonderful stuff and the second one here I would recommend unequivocally. Not sure there are a lot of Grade 3s this good and there’s a bonus in that from this grade on, the sticks get a bit longer.

Grade 4 is maybe the first one in the line that starts to feel like there’s some level of ingredient shift as well as some level of similarity to one of the higher incense grades, but it’s still a remarkably strong incense. It’s fairly akin to the Grade 3 in that sort of dark, somewhat resin-heavy feel, but there feels to me less wood and a bit more heavy an emphasis on the spices. There’s a net tangy sort of thing that often shows up somewhere in the clove, nutmeg and cinnamon territory and it’s a level of spice that you really don’t get in the first three grades. In fact, if you step away and come back you can feel the wormwood a bit more, although not as crackly and herbal on top like it is in a higher resolution, more just like a bit of the Tibetan funk. I like the way this blend tends to merge with Grade 3’s darker profile. I will say that my expectations on this had me thinking I’d get tired of it, but the stick did the absolute opposite and continued to surprise me with reuse. Honestly at about $15 it’s quite decently priced and really doesn’t have the same sort of quality drops that, say, Mindroling does when it reaches its Grade 4.

The price of Grade 5 drops quite a bit to $12. But imagine simply if you did not know this was a grade 5 and was just evaluating it as a new Tibetan incense at this price. I think you would find it remarkably good. What is interesting about it is unlike the previous four grades, this incense seems to be more of that salty sort of blend you find in Holy Land and numerous other Tibetan classics except the herbal quality of the wormwood weaves its way in that blend which makes it a little unique. I think a lot of the more heavier wood aspects you find in the previous two grades are dialed back for this blend. And it actually feels like the muskier qualities are more active than in the previous four as well. So I would definitely just completely throw out the grading system at this point because this is really as good as any of the previous incenses or better, except the Grade 1, which is in a class of its own. Honestly in a lot of ways its like getting a slight variation on a big long stick roll of the Holy Land grade 2 except with a valid alteration in personality. One thing I really liked about this one on reuse was just how complex it is, how arresting the burn is. There’s no feeling at all along the TTL line that cheap wood filler is being used to replace quality at all. Its the capstone to an absolutely terrific, fascinating monastery line – a bravo to incense-traditions.ca for finding more new and interesting scents for us to try.

Temple of Incense Tulsi in stock

Believe it or not but I have been checking every so often to see when this fresh and vibrant incense would be available after getting a sample earlier this year. Stephen reviewed it here, but I just want to underline that I very much agree with the review. This is a very good stick indeed, a little different than the usual, almost like a side take on the line’s Green Garden.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, Moon

There’s a virtual history of Mermade kyphis being reviewed at ORS going back to 2011 (and a much longer tradition of Mermade making them) if you take a look at our Reviews Index. The Egyptian Temple incenses known as Kyphi are not only some of the world’s most famous historical blends but they are some of the most involved, complex and fascinating as well. One of the things I find most fascinating about them is that in the right hands a kyphi incense can be both simple and complex, creating a composite aroma out of a large ingredients list. The amount of preparation that goes into one of these incenses can be daunting and based on Katlyn’s words at the incense link, she has devised a new way of blending Kyphis to save both time and energy, which will allow the incense to be made more available. Anyone who has tried a Mermade kyphi knows this is a very good thing indeed.

Reviewing a kyphi may not be as difficult as making one, but it’s a scent that is kind of hard to pin down. I’ve always used something like a fine wine or whiskey because the overall bouquet of a kyphi can be so rich and multi-faceted, usually with a distinct sense of age. It rarely feels like something you can just pick the elements out of, it’s more like the elements come together into something new. There are definitely similarities from one kyphi to another (usually for me it’s whatever the raisins and honey do, if they’re in there). However, I think this vintage, Goddess Temple – Katlyn’s Kyphi #2, is a bit different than previous years. It feels like this is more resin heavy overall. The ingredients listed are frankincense (Hougary, Black Sacra, and Honey), Yemeni myrrh, Pinon pine, labdanum, Chios mastic, Saigon cinnamon, Turkish galbanum, and styrax liquidambar, all dusted with agarwood powder. It’s interesting because this feels more like a modern reformulation of a kyphi, one I wouldn’t be quite as sure of if we weren’t in safe hands with a creator who has spun out years of brilliant kyphi vintages, not a one I didn’t love. While it does feel somewhat different from previous Mermade kyphis, and I’m assuming the #2 is marking the occasion, the feeling that this is still in the style with a lot of depth and creativity is still in place. The notes tend to loom larger than the listed mix with quite a bit of interesting floral activity and heavy spice content that becomes even more noticeable as the incense melts on a heater. I’m not sure if there are raisins or anything like that in the incense, but that sort of defining kyphi note is still in the mix somehow, it’s a scent that reminds me of anything from plums to prunes to raisins. I very much like the idea that this is now an “all year around” kyphi as if you’re a fan of loose incenses kyphi is really one of the first incense types I would recommend. So it is a very cool thing indeed that the availability of this has widened. It is still complex, releases all sorts of subnotes along the timeline of the heat, sings with really quality ingredients, and still has that lovely feeling of fine spirits about it.

Katlyn has done a lot of what I would call lunar blends as well (Temple of the Moon, Mermade Moon, Moon Goddess, and Luna all come to mind). These have what I would call western magical correspondences about them, which means they tend to have some up front jasmine notes. Mermade has done a lot of fine work with jasmine and you may not be surprised that Moon is another solid entry of the type. For this blend she has used Tamil heartwood sandalwood and Jasmine Grandiflorum in a base of Yemeni myrrh, kua, black frankincense, and rare okoume resin, with some Chios mastic drops mixed in. The sandal and jasmine mix is really what is out in front on this one, although it’s perhaps not quite as overtly floral as previous lunar Mermades, and I would guess the okoume resin is giving the entire scent an intriguing subnote, a little bit of a slight gravel that I might liken to some copals and that helps the scent not to get too safe. So overall it’s a bit of a different direction for a lunar, a bit more fruity floral overall with some intriguing wood and resin subnotes to top it off. But I think in the end you will want to visit it for the sandalwood and jasmine mix.

Oh and before I close, there’s great news on the “restock” front in that Sweet Medicine is back in stock. I know I’m incredibly happy to see this beautiful honey and sweetgrass scent become a mainstay, it is one of my favorites in a great line up of goodies, so be absolutely sure to pop off and grab some.

Kourindo / Byakudankourin Sandalwood, Zenkourin Aloeswood, Senkourin Aloeswood, Tsukasakourin Aloeswood, Takarakourin Aloeswood

With the gloriously decadent half of the recently imported Kourindo line behind us, it’s time to take a look at the five you could buy all at once without coming quite up to the price of a box of Saikourin Aloeswood. All of these are essentially low to midlines incenses. It is perhaps not surprising that Kourindo do a fine job on this end as well. You really get the impression with the aloeswoods that they’re all increasing grades of a sort with modifications to bring out the best in them. But like with that group, this one starts with something a little different.

Anyway I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the Byakudankourin Sandalwood page at Japan Incense seems to list musk as the main ingredient (in fact every single incense in this review does). I’d wonder if it’s a mix up since it’s also a green box like the Jyakourin Musk is, but in lighting it you are not really getting a pure sandalwood scent here so much as a bit of a high end daily if there is such a thing. Seeing the musk actually reminded me of Tennendo’s Shingon which it does resemble (well not really in price so much), so describing this as a sandalwood/musk isn’t really far off the truth. It’s interesting as well because I seemed to notice the sandalwood a lot more from the sampler where maybe not having it in proximity with other sticks made it easier for the top oils to dissipate and let the woods bleed through. Here there’s no question that this is more than just a wood stick and something a bit more artfully perfumed, which is strange when most of the aloeswoods don’t leave you with that impression. Anyway it still has the Kourindo magic overall, almost like there’s some sort of toffee-like sweetness to it, maybe some trace spikenard or a touch of floral in the mix. I would not approach this as something to scratch a sandalwood itch however. When I bought this I had also gotten a nice box of the Kida Jinseido Kinbouku India Sandalwood in which mostly demonstrated how far apart the two scents are. It’s also interesting considering that this is priced at $20 which is a little farther up the cost chain than many a line’s basic daily. You might have to see for yourself if it justifies that cost, but I will say this definitely seems to have some level of premium ingredient that sets it apart, even from the Shingon. And finally it’s worth paying attention to this level of caramel-ish sweetness as it’s a theme taken up most of the ladder.

Zenkourin Aloeswood is the first of a very long aloeswood ladder. You would first want to look at this incense as being more of a blend with a little aloeswood mixed in. It doesn’t have the heavy contours of the higher end woods discussed in my previous review, but what it does have is a lot of the same fine crafting in it. It’s sweet, has the sort of candy-caramel like profile so many of the sticks have, quite a bit of nice sandalwood in the mix, and, in fact, one might consider this a slightly aloeswood-laced version of the previous sandalwood. I am actually struck by just how gorgeous of a stick this is and how it’s almost worth completely ignoring that it’s part of a ladder and just enjoying it for what it is. It takes a bit for the aloeswood to come out, it kind of plays in a spicy sort of way at the edges. Honestly this could be one of my absolute favorites when it comes to a more low end aloeswood because it’s just a very pretty incense with so much going on that if I had tried it not knowing it was part of this ladder, I would have been deeply impressed at the way this sort of fills a void you didn’t even know existed. It’s really elegant and restrained, has a slight sense of perfume or floral that moves it away from the sort of heavily woody area you’d usually expect and moves a bit of fine spiciness around, a bit like cinnamon toast. I’m sure this is one I can easily recommend as a hall of famer for its price range. I would only add that it could be an incense to test your psionics skill to see if you can break them just by thinking about it; I was kind of shocked how fragile these were given the thickness.

The wood comes out to play more in the very similarly named Senkourin Aloeswood, taking the place of some of the sweeter ingredients and giving the incense a much woodier background. It doesn’t, of course, have the level up aloeswood of the later grades, but it still manages to retain that pleasant caramel scent most of the line exhibits in some way. Like the Zenkourin this has a pretty broad spice palette, I’d guess a lot of cinnamon and clove as well, which isn’t a huge surprise and a touch of something like citrus in there too. Do you need both this and the Zenkourin? Well they’re different enough, but at $4 apart this might be one you’d want to start with and decide later if you need both. On the other hand, the one without as much of the woodiness might be more interesting sheerly from the fact that what make up the rest of it gives it a slight sense of uniqueness in the overall scheme of mid to low end aloeswoods. But don’t take that to mean the Senkourin is better or worse, just kind of a different take. You would notice in the three kanji characters that only the one at the top is different so there may well be some intentional thematic similarity here (and to be fair the one on the bottom is the same for most of line). But within that similarity there are some interesting variations indeed and even at this end of the Kourindo stable there is a lot to study.

Tsukusakourin Aloeswood is one of the few in the line that seem to sidestep the caramel/sweet note and go for something a lot more intensely dry. So in this case if you have been skipping some of the line that might be more similar, this is unlikely to be one of them. This moves a little bit more into woodier areas while not quite getting too resinous and there’s only an appropriate touch of aloeswood bitterness to go with the dry qualities. There’s still some level of cinnamon spice that’s in play for all the low-end Kourindos, and if there’s any sweetness left it’s the mix with that. It does have a bit of a tang to it as well, but it’s fairly well restrained overall. Once again what you note if you’re looking at all of the incenses is the way every incense shifts up a bit in wood quality and then what Kourindo does to balance that out and supplement the wood’s aromatics. It’s very much a variation on a theme and in that sense there feels like some aloeswood similarities with the Senkourin, but with the notch dialed up just a bit. The thing I notice that seems to set it apart is the contour of the way the wood burns, it’s a little on the polished side with a mite of acridity. Very cool stuff.

And finally, well for this write up, Takarakourin Aloeswood takes a similar level of wood as Tsukusakourin and pivots back to a similar profile to the Senkourin. For me this is the first major step up of the entire line, a really gorgeous, well-round incense that balances a lot of the aspects of the entire Kourindo line, the caramel sweetness, the nice aloeswood, the cinnamon toast, and perhaps here you can start to get a bit of the musk that will be turned up a lot more in the Jyakourin Musk, the next incense in the series. Wondering which one you might want to start with outside of the one stick sampler? Well if you want one incense that really encapsulates the whole Kourindo line and balances it like a fulcrum, this one might very well be it. Obviously the Jyakourin is somewhat sui generis, the kyara a price issue, and there’s only one sandalwood, but Takarakourin may do a bit of everything outside of the kyara. There’s even a bit of a brown sugar that shows up from the mix of elements and I believe it’s the first of several in this line where it feels like the woods kind of hide regally beneath a curtain before slowly revealing their presence. Nearly all of the Kourindos are complex in some way but this one might be complex AND have a lot of different notes to suss out.

So anyway if you’re reading this first then you can hop over to the second half now. I just want to reiiterate that if you’re an aloeswood lover and a fan of woody or spicy incenses, this is the line for you. They are quality from A to Z and if there’s really any criticism at all to be given it’s that the incenses are somewhat similar and maybe more so until you really dig into them and get some listening done. Since the KorindaiKyara is essentially an issue of budget (and if you have it, it’s one of the very best kyaras out there – the wood is legit), then I might start with Zenkourin if you can afford a box in the 20s, Takarakourin if you want something right in the middle, Jyakourin Musk for an incense very different than not only the line but much of what is available, and either the Kodaijourin or Jinkourin depending on your budget as a representation of the highend, The KorindaiKyara aside, I think the quality increases for the next two down probably do not justify the bigger leaps in expense, but they are still extraordinary if you can afford them. The worst incenses here are still very good and close to half of them are extraordinary to classic, so don’t miss.

Baigu Temple / Medicine Buddha Backflow Cones

The Baigu Temple Medicine Buddha Backflow Cones come in a nice little stylish pouch. Unlike the last two cones I covered (Ba’er Qude and Ganden), these are not red but a tan color and have a very different profile. The cones have the same listed ingredients as the stick incense: lavender, wormwood and sandalwood. So I think one can assume that the idea is to have two formats of the same incense, the biggest difference is that these make the waterfalls in the neat little backflow burners. However to my nose the cone format does change things around a bit. The wormwood isn’t really as present in this format and the sandalwood is a lot more intense, which may say something about how the base of the incense has been altered to support the cone format. I wrote that the Baigu stick has a bit of a funky note, but you really don’t find it in the cone. I’m not sure how much the whole backflow cone trend is really a western thing because when I search for these types of cones on, say, Amazon, they flare up a bunch of warning signs for me. But if it is and the monasteries are just reacting to this trend then making a friendlier blend for the cone seems like it’s probably a smart idea. It’s a bit of a simpler incense, has some level of spice to it that I don’t remember so much from the stick, and if you mix all that in with the sandalwood (and other wood) base with light herbal touches from the wormwood and lavender, you’ve got yourself a pleasant cone here. You might even want to start with this one before the stick at least if you’re trying to get your toes wet, although normally I still find this format to be generally weaker than a stick. They burn quick and they’re rough towards the end, where a stick would still be lit for another 20-30 minutes.

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