Ramakrishna’s Handmade Incense / Special Nag Champa, Special Loban, Special Ramkrishna, Dhuni

In my past few years of exploring Indian-styled incense from multiple different establishments claiming things like ‘all-natural’ and ‘handmade’ and similar, I kept wondering if there was some sort of smallish operation doing things in a more old-fashioned way, using the more traditional ingredients rather than perfumes and synthetic substitutes that are common in 95% of the Indian Incense world.

The problem is that if you read everyone’s marketing copy, they all claim they are “all-natural” using traditional recipes. So in the end, the proof is in the product.

I first was suggested by a friend that I might want to check out this expensive shop on eBay that sold handmade incense. It took me a while to get around to it because it didn’t look all that fancy. Finally, I made my order. I have been excited to try everything they make since making this order. This is really wonderful incense.

If you find yourself interested in purchasing a larger assortment and don’t want to pay eBay prices, the seller, Goa Bay Trading, will also sell to you in rupees on their website and send you a Paypal invoice and add 1000 rupees for shipping/handling. I’ve been finding their service good, though the site seems a bit sketchy since it doesn’t have a proper checkout, they send you a Paypal invoice.

I’m going to start with a few I think are winners. First, they put ‘special’ in front of several sticks and this seems to mean that the sticks are thicker with extra halmaddi, so much so that you have to peel these thick sticks apart from each other.

Special Nag Champa

I am relatively new to appreciating Indian-style incense. I don’t truly know if this is what the old incense was like but this stick was kind of mashed because it is so soft, flattened in places. It is a thick hand-rolled masala dusted with brown finishing powder. As a Nag Champa, this goes in some kind of apple-pie and orange blossom direction with cinnamon, apple, and orange blossoms. I don’t get the typical salty sandalwood/Champa flowers scent of a nag champa but then when I dig down and put my nose in the smoke I start smelling like these thin angel hair threads of nag champa smells mixed in with the other smells. The more I lit these, the more I like them. They have a complicated bouquet dancing around a recognizable core of the “Nag Champa” scent. I’d rate this 9/10.

Special Loban

I have encountered Loban to smell like a wide range of things, despite it actually supposedly translating to benzoin. Note in the picture that this one crumbles and be careful because I had this fall apart as it got exposed to air. This is a natural stick with a very soft masala that crumbles a bit but can be mushed back together, it is finished with a brown powder that marbles into the moisture of the masala. This is unlike any of the Loban sticks Vedic Vaani or other suppliers sell, and is a really strong masala that seems to be made from halmaddi and loban and sandalwood and smells like all three are the highest quality. The smells blend together and create a magic carpet ride of scent that I imagine Mike will say reminds him of something he used to get from Mystic Temple. I really like this one, definitely a 9/10.

Special Ramkrishna

This is a deluxe version of “Ramkrishna” in all dimensions, it is thicker, softer, and easy to mush around, in fact, they kind of stick together and you have to ‘peel’ the sticks apart in the package. They’ve been misshapen by shipping somewhat. Otherwise, this is the regular Ramkrishna turned up to 11, it is sweeter, more expansive, the floral note is both more present and more mysterious, and feels like instead of an attar they went for the real essentials. This is a very charming stick and makes me immediately happy to be smelling it. It’s really just a very familiar smell yet somehow this is like going from a Prius to a Rolls Royce while keeping the whole smell mostly the same, there is none of the ‘cosmetic’ smell I got from the non-special Ramkrishna, just what I take to be geranium and a maybe a drop of rose. 8/10


Like most Ramakrishna’s, this appears like many others, natural stick, soft charcoal masala, and light brown powder finish. This has a sharp musk different than other musks, it has a sweet and vanilla note but otherwise, it’s got a funky BO-but-in-a-good-way kind of scent. Also, urine notes but also in a good way. I realize that adding ‘but in a good way’ to both BO and urine might be suspect but I have a hard time describing this musk other than it has notes from both but neither are the repugnant notes. I really tend to like when incense gets funky and takes me to a barnyard or similar olfactory experience. This is one of the more animal-like musks I’ve encountered and surprisingly more musky than the ‘Musk’ or ‘Kasturi’ sticks from these artists. 9/10


Incense Community Updates

Over on the /r/incense subreddit, /u/WeAreZilla has posted two updates this year that we wanted to share here.

Most recently, the update that IncenseGuru.com is closed. But earlier this year, Incense On The Way also closed down. Both are due to the death of the person running it.

We wanted to post these updates both to inform the community and to offer our own condolences to the friends and families left behind.

Temple of Incense vs Absolute Bliss

The following chart has been compiled to demonstrate the similarities between incense sold by Temple of Incense vs Absolute Bliss, in the sense that both, mostly, originate from the same Indian incense manufacturer. As Temple of Incense is in the UK and Absolute Bliss is in the USA it may save a purchaser money to go with who is closer. With that said, there are batch variations between the two although we believe the variance to be no greater than 5-10% for these incenses. We’re not interested so much in an incense where the dusting differs or there is some slight variation. For example, Niyama Sutra struck me as fresher than Dancing Sufi, while Extreme Sandalwood is a slightly superior stick to Natural Mysore Sandal. But the point is all of these are so close that it is essentially splitting hairs to speak of the differences. All incenses here were evaluated by both Stephen and I and discussed for some months before finishing this chart. There are two differences though, I have listed two Temple of Incenses that appear to be Madhavadas sourced and I have kept those in the chart out of interest. These are somewhat easily identifiable incenses usually due to their base and are perhaps the most commonly sourced Indian incense, so much that we do keep finding them in newer lines. For reviews of all of these incenses (including purchasing links), please use the Reviews Index on the left (many of these will be found under Happy Hari).

AmberKing of Amber
Bengal BeautyYama Sutra
Benzoin AbsoluteAsana Sutra
Dancing SufiNiyama Sutra
Delhi NightsPranayama Sutra
Dragons BloodRed Blood Dragon
FrankincenseKing Frankincense
Guava GuavaGuava
Jasmine BlossomVintage Jasmine
Kerala FlowerSamadhi Sutra
KrishnaKing of Vrindavan
Lavender SupremeVedic Lavender
Lotus FlowerQueen of Lotus
MyrrhKing Myrrh
Nag Champa GoldNag Champa Gold
OudhOudh Masala
Patchouli WoodsPatchouli Khus
Perky PanditPratyahara Sutra
Purple Rain(Madhavadas)
Rose Absolute(Madhavadas)
Sandalwood Extremesimilar to Natural Mysore Sandal
ShivFloating Lotus Flower

A New Year’s Gift from Padma Store

In our quest to find good incense at ORS, we have been patronizing a little shop in Germany that has a good back catalog of incense from Happy Hari, Shroff and others. Some of the things they carry are not available in North America currently, like Fiore D’Oriente. Ashok, the owner of the store, has offered a 10% ORS discount if you use the code “Shanti”.

I will point out that if you are not in Europe, the shipping can be too expensive to make a small order. If you want your order quickly, the shipping is around 50 euro for DHL. If you don’t mind it taking a longer time, the German post tends to prioritize local mail and international mail can take a long time. You can get away with a much cheaper shipping cost if you’re not in a hurry. Just send a note to Ashok with your order to let him know if you want the expensive shipping or the slow shipping.

In the next few months, I plan on trying to review Fiore D’Oriente and Rasbihari Lal & Sons as well as other manufacturers in the inventory.

Stephen’s 2021 Top 10

The biggest thing to note is I am ranking the 10 favorite incenses I encountered for the first time this year. Many are older than this year but they were tried by me for the first time. This is Indian-style heavy because I spent most of 2021 exploring Indian incense for the first time. Before 2021, I had really only burned a handful of crappy Indian incense and was kind of biased against it until I started getting some incense from Reddit’s /r/IncenseExchange, which turned me onto Absolute Bliss and Happy Hari’s incense as well as Yi-Xin Craft Incense.

  1. Absolute Bliss/Natural Beauty – This made the top of my list because I asked myself which stick I burned the most this year and this is it, in fact, the top 4 are in order of most burned for the year. 5-10 are more favorites that didn’t get as much ‘air time’ but definitely were worth mentioning. Natural Beauty is a masterpiece of cedar/oud/halmaddi and this scent profile has popped up in incenses that are no longer available.
  2. Temple of Incense/Ganesha – This fat pink stick won over the hearts of everyone in my household. My husband is a devotee of Ganesha and we have statues of the elephant-headed god all over the home. This incense gets burned regularly on the altar and scents the house with a sweet halmaddi scent.
  3. Absolute Bliss/Devansh – When I was looking for a ‘Super Hit’ that wasn’t synthetic and headache-inducing, I came upon Devansh. It is kinda like Super Hit only with a rose note on top of the creme brulee scent. I fell in love and have been burning this on high rotation ever since.
  4. Absolute Bliss/Forbidden Fruit – This fell into my lap and didn’t become an instant love. No, it took several burns before I realized this had almost the same smell as my favorite hand soap – Everyday Shea Spiced Lavender. While I don’t think there is lavender in this smell or the soap smell, it is a wonderful sweet spicy scent that seems to share a common thread in it’s floral/fruitiness with sticks like Queen of Roses and Bengal Jungle Beauty.
  5. Yi-Xin Craft Incense/Into the Agar Woods – While we tend not to review ’15 minute incense drop’ incense producers mainly because they don’t need our help to sell out in 15 minutes and because we want people to visit this site and be able to purchase the things they read about. However, since this is a top 10, I selected one of Ken’s creations that has been on High Rotation on his monthly incense drops(I have seen it in his monthly collection at least 5 times this year). Ken is a student of KyaraZen and his ideas and techniques are next level. Highly recommend subscribing to his newsletter so you get notified of his monthly drops. Since there isn’t a store, link is to the front page of the artists’s website.
  6. Mother’s/Guna Nag Champa – In my vast sampling of 2021, where I think I sampled close to 300 new incenses, this one stuck out as really unique. It is the only coffee incense I’ve tried so far. I know less reputable companies make incense with artificial coffee smells, this one has a sweet and bewitching scent of being in one of those specialty stores like Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans or similar shop where there are coffee roasters mixing in with the smells of the additives for the flavors, which normally smell like sweet, nutty candy to me.
  7. Dr. Incense/Cinnabar – Another 15 minute incense drop producer. This Taiwanese incense artist is doing the research into the ancient techniques. His blog is a treasure trove of legends around incense. Cinnabar caught my attention because of it’s TCM value but also because this is one of the first times I’ve seen a mineral used in incense. Since the store is a once-a-month etsy drop, I am linking to his blog.
  8. Happy Hari/Oudh Masala – This stick actually sent me on a quest into the Oud Oil world. In a podcast, Happy Hari himself claimed that this Oudh Masala came from the Assam region. So I bought several different distillations from that region from different vendors at different price points and quality. I couldn’t find the smell in these sticks until one day I doused my mask with a few drops of an Assam Oud and went out. After a day of wearing it, I put it in the wash. After going through the wash it came out and HAD THE EXACT SMELL OF HAPPY HARI’S OUDH MASALA!! So it just goes to show that the sticks probably have less than a drop of the oil to get the smell profile.
  9. Kin/Pear Chamber – I encountered this when I decided to try out a sampler from Kin Objects, a Chinese incense manufacturer that ships to the US. This is an ancient recipe where a pear is hollowed out and filled with sandalwood and aloeswood and then steamed. The resulting steamed pear is mashed into a dough and turned into incense. This bewitched me on the first stick and I was reaching for more immediately.
  10. Absolute Bliss/Emperor Amber – A 2 hour slow burn of a wonderful interpretation of amber. One of the first Indian ‘fatties’ I’ve tried, these quickly became a favorite in the house to burn after a stick of Ganesha.

Nado Poizokhang / Happiness Incense, Jaju Grade 1, Jaju Grade 2, Cinnamon

I like to think of Nado as something like the Nippon Kodo of Bhutan. They definitely seem to be the largest and most widely exported, but surprisingly, in the West, they are also sold by disreputable sellers who are selling fake Nado. This has led to Nado, to me, being very inconsistent. Sellers like “Incense Guru” sell fakes that come with names like “Bhutanese A” or similar, and when you get them, they have Nado Poizokhang labels with little stickers over ‘made in Bhutan’ and replaced with ‘Made in Nepal’.

I bring this up because, at this time, only Incense-Traditions sells non-counterfeit, authentic Nado incense in the west. All others I have purchased from have unabashedly sold me counterfeits and when I bring it up to them, I either get ignored, ghosted, or have my account deleted from their site.

Starting off with Happiness Incense. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims that it is a product of Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness. I’ve always appreciated that in the 70s and 80s, the leadership of Bhutan was so turned off by crass capitalism that when they showed up to a world summit, other leaders were asking what their GDP was and the king answered, “We don’t measure out output in money, we measure it in the happiness of the citizens”. I am familiar with this and have bought this many times from multiple vendors. Of all the recipe changes, this one surprised me because I had imagined these were ancient family recipes that you only change at your peril. Compared to my notes in my incense journal from 2015, this stick has changed a bit. I find it is less sweet and more on the ashy/bitter end of the spectrum, which feels like a misfire because my 2015 notes say that this is a spicy and sweet stick.

What I’m getting from this is a more muted sweetness, covered under a smell similar to burning slightly dirty charcoal as the base scent and then adding the spices and a touch of sweetness to it. If I had one complaint about Bhutanese incense is that it all tends to smell very similar to each other, so with this change in the recipe, you actually have something that comes across as more unique in the Bhutanese incense because I feel like the bitter/ashy component brings more gravitas and presence to the incense. However, as “Happiness Incense” I feel like this reformulation misses the mark because to me, I feel like the sweetness and spices of the original was more ‘happiness’ than this profile, but that could just be me.

Cinnamon is a really interesting creature. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims it as “Cinnamom” (see top pic for this) which leads me to jokingly call it the “Mother of all Cinnamon Incense”. This incense lists only one ingredient, the bark of a cinnamon tree. This produces a very delightful cinnamon scent that is surprisingly complicated for one ingredient. This makes me feel like other incenses that use it are using only a bit to get a hint but since this is 100% cinnamon, you get all the notes, from sweet to spicy and the interplay keeps it from falling into a boring one-note drone of an incense.

Unlit, the stick smells like a freshly opened bottle of cinnamon sticks. But when you light it, you’re treated to a whole spectrum of cinnamon-based smells, from the candy-smell of the cinnamon oil to the bitterness of the wood, to the overwhelming denseness of the central cinnamon scent, this smell is concentrated up close, but if you get into the next room, it does smell like someone might be baking cinnamon cookies.

Jaju Grade 1 sticks come in a paper wrapper, which is completely green compared to Grade 2 which comes in cellophane. These tan sticks are about 50% thicker than the Grade 2 sticks, making the 2 sticks for daily use and the 1 sticks for special occasions. Lighting one of these up is easy thanks to the nicely ‘fluted’ edges. Immediately, the smoke comes off this with sweetness like opening a box of raisins. My understanding of Bhutanese incense is that all the ingredients are macerated into the wood powder in a special vessel and left to age together in these cold mountain monasteries. At least, the traditional incense came like that, since Nado is a factory, I’m uncertain if this is still produced traditionally like in the videos.

As I dive into this, you get a chance to feel a bit of each of the ingredients here, and I’m going to guess there is milk, honey, wine, along with aloeswood and sandalwood of different grades, as this has notes that shows off a bit of each, but the notes are definitely married together notes and not single notes that define exemplar scents. So no salty sandalwood, just a woody presence that mutes the milk and honey into something less food-like so I’m not thinking about eating while smelling them.

Spending more time with this, I have found that there is a spicier, saltier tail to this scent that gets picked up by me after I’ve spent time with the sweeter part and start looking for something more. I can sense some of the cinnamon, clove and saffron in here now, hiding behind the sweeter front scents. Definitely a good incense for those who love the Bhutanese style.

Jaju Grade 2 sticks are exactly the same length, but thinner than the Grade 1. While they look like they are made from the same dough because they are the same color, lighting this up shows off that they share different formulas. I’d say this comes across more with an opening like a spicy raisin. Like a raisin rolled in li hing mui, sugar and cinnamon. This definitely has a bit of a ‘rough around the edges’ like maybe it has lesser quality ingredients or perhaps they don’t age it as long. However, it does come across a few dollars less per roll and with it being thinner, there are more so this seems to be made for economical daily use.

Overall, the two scents are close to each other, and doing them back-to-back has helped me spot a few of the differences. I think because this one is a bit smokier in its undercurrent(I notice my clothes smelled like smoke after sitting next to it for a bit) that this one definitely has the cheaper ingredients.

Tibetan Medicine Company of Traditional Tibet College (Tibetan Medical College) / Holy Land, Holy Land Grade 2

The Tibetan Medical College and the Holy Land incense are some of the first Tibetans I tried that were actually from Tibet. Up until this point, the “Tibetan” incense I bought at places like Whole Foods or similar were not from Tibet, but from the Tibetans who fled Tibet during the illegal Chinese Annexation (which happened around the same time as the illegal annexation of Hawaii, which I always found amusing when I saw well-meaning white people with their “Free Tibet” bumper stickers not realizing Hawaii is the same thing, a kingdom where a bigger power deposed the leader and annexed the nation. But enough about the politics of that region, just putting a bit out there for people who still hold a candle for “Free Tibet” can actually bring that sentiment home since we have our own annexed and exploited kingdom.)

As my first foray into real Tibetans, around seven years ago, the only place to get them was Essence of the Ages (now out of business), where reviews from ORS were posted gushing about how awesome these are.

Well, as someone who has kept this in stock constantly and moved from Essence of the Ages to Incense-Traditions back in 2015, I have tracked the quality of this and Tibetan Medical College seems to be fairly stable. I have heard from other reviews of these that people complain about changes to the recipe, but I haven’t actually sensed this. I still had a couple sticks from a 2015 Holy Land purchase that I could compare these to, and other than the older stick being a little softer and muted due to age (and little specks of white that I imagine are mold), it is the same incense.

Starting with Holy Land, this comes in a small little yellow and green box covered in Tibetan script with only the contact information in Roman characters. This is where it started for me, these bamboo-free reddish-brown sticks are thinner than average for Tibetans, and when lit, produce a wonderful medicinal funk. I have heard “barnyard” used to describe the salty, musky scent coming off it but this is not an average barnyard because, to me, the smell of animal waste isn’t a part of this scent. As someone who has spent plenty of time in a “barnyard” setting, I do not detect any of those scents. I think the “barnyard” term comes from people who have never been to a farm because what I get here is more of an animal musk muted and diluted down to “a comfortable animal smell” sort of like how your cat’s bed smells after a few weeks of the cat laying in it, or a dog house after a dog has been in it for a day. With all the talk of animal lets not forget there are some great herbs and woods in here that balance out the musk and turn it into this bewitching scent, of which it is hard to pick out the individual smells because my guess is one of the steps in making this is to macerate the ingredients for a year or two so they all blend.

Additionally, I think that Holy Land has always been very “present” for me, in that whenever I put this scent on in my office, it’s easier for me to stay present and in the moment as if the very scent grounds me into the present. For the 6-7 years I have been burning this, this has been one of my favorites, as long as I keep it in stock it is in high rotation and tends to get busted out in the mornings and evenings as it has that type of ‘framing the day’ vibe to it.

Holy Land Grade 2 is a big surprise. First, I generally tend to think that if something is listed as ‘2’ it is not as good as ‘1’, but in this case, we are given a much longer, thicker stick. These longer sticks are actually muskier and stronger and basically smell like the same recipe just with more intensity because the stick is thicker and longer.

Doing a close side by side, I feel like my initial take on Holy Land 2 was simplistic, there are some differences and if I had to guess, this is made for temple burning for a specific ritual that takes the time it takes for this to burn because it does seem like this tries to fill a lot more space with smell than the grade 1 and the length seems quite specific. I feel like this has a bit more of a salty presence that might mean that there is more sandalwood or similar ingredients, but otherwise, this is really like an extended remix of Holy Land grade 1.

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.

Sanbodhi / Incense Coils: Cold-Dissipation, Heat-Dispelling, Mind Soothing, Spirit Stimulation, Yoga

I have been trying to find other providers of this incense other than Amazon but Amazon seems to be the one bringing this Chinese/Tibetan company to the West. I have known of Sanbodhi for several years, as I keep trying to find more quality Chinese incense makers to showcase and discuss. Initially, I only had access to the Cold-Dispelling coils, which are among some of my favorite Tibetan Style smells. Currently, only a handful of these are left on Amazon but they tend to restock all five flavors so if you don’t see one, definitely check back. If I find a better source that keeps them in stock, I’ll edit this post. Also, as I find more information or even a website for them, I’ll update this post, but for now, Amazon lists them as operating out of China.

The can for Cold-Dissipation (no link due to out of stock) changes color as the first one was blue and the second was red. The incense inside has been the same. This is a formula I’ve encountered in different incense producers, and it often shows up as ‘Medicine Buddha’ or ‘Healing Incense’. It has a salty, woody front that reminds me a bit of a cheap aloeswood or a lower resin content aloeswood. There is a bitter-sweet follow-up of something medicinal, a smell that I recognize from multiple Tibetans, and I have always associated this scent with the ‘Medicine Nectars’ that Bosen lists in their ingredients. The marketing copy suggests that his is good for winter time, reducing the amount of dampness that cold causes (runny noses and phlegm). However that works out, I have always found this a nice cool temperature incense in that it tends to smell better when the temperature is cooler and more ashy and smoky when it’s warmer. As a result, I haven’t burned this as much in Hawaii but I used to burn it year-round in SF.

Heat-Dispelling seems very similar in scent to the Cold-Dissipation coil, but it seems saltier, less sweet with a slight juniper note. This claims to be good for dissipating the heat from summer, for preventing heat stroke and similar overheating types of conditions. As such, I imagined it was better to burn this when it was hot in the middle of the afternoon rather than a cool evening or morning. While I can’t speak much to the medicinal aspect, the smoke does seem ‘cooling’ in the same way mint or menthol can give off that cooling/refreshing feeling. This doesn’t have the same bitter-sweet center and instead it is more woody, reminding me of cedar/juniper blends.

I decided to hold off on reviewing Mind Soothing (no link due to out of stock) because I wanted to try it when things were getting rough. Well, it’s Monday afternoon and this was a particularly rough day with a lot of things breaking. So here I am lighting up the Mind Soothing coil and noting it’s a lot milder than the first two. It has a much more bitter presence, like more of the evergreen/juniper than the previous two and less of whatever the sweeter cedar wood used for the first two. I will say that it is kind of calming, just listening to the coil. I’m not sure if this is a cure-all for the worst day of your life but definitely more like a beer after work. As the wood scent builds up after it is about 20% into it, there is a note that wasn’t there at the start, and it is sort of like a breakfast cereal note. This is more like the smell of the inside of a box of breakfast cereal after you’ve removed the packaging. It’s part cardboard, part something sweet. It isn’t unpleasant, it’s just the closest parallel I could draw to what I’m getting off this note. While this isn’t going to be a strong room-scenting coil, it is definitely a relaxing companion and makes my recommendation list.

I decided to try Spirit Stimulation as a “first cup of the day”, before I have my normal tea. I wanted to see if it indeed stimulated me and got me going. I’m normally a morning person so perhaps this isn’t the best test but I do feel alert and focused. How does it smell? Well, I would say this scent is even milder than the Mind Soothing, so mild that I kept having to leave the room and come back in to really notice the difference because it’s subtle enough to just sort of ‘creep up on you’ and you don’t notice the smell as much because you’re in it. It is less salty and has more of a subtle wooden note with a few herbs. Almost like someone took a piece of pine and set a few aromatics on top of the pine and then it got set next to a old-fashioned steam radiator and the aromatics and wood smell subtly increase. Now I say pine but it is a kind of generic ‘warm wood’ smell as it smells like a sheet of plywood that is sitting in the sun, it doesn’t smell like combusting wood even though it is burning.

Yoga starts out with a much less mild and more spicy scent. I’m reviewing this almost immediately after Spirit Stimulation so compared to the previous, this has far more going for it. There is something like a hint of frankincense like you’d get with a good Lotus Ground. The salty woods are here but they take a back seat to the medicinal-frankincense type note that is in the foreground. The marketing copy on the side of the can says “This incense is prepared according to the Tibetan ancient incense formula to help the concentration in yoga practice. It is also used to relieve fatigue.” I feel like I agree with this statement and that while subtle, it is doing what it is supposed to all while smelling great.

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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