SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo, Men-Tsee-Khang, Lhundup

Nippon Kodo were apparently started in New York, or at least I read that on Wikipedia once, so I suppose a grain of salt is in order, but I take such a statement as part of a rationalization that helps me separate the company from the big group of other Japanese incense companies. But to be fair the major separation here is that Nippon Kodo are more of an incense company for the masses, creating many of their lines so that they’re modern in tone and cheap in price, meaning that there are obviously a lot of synthetic perfumes at work in these, a fact we can infer from a couple of their lines being marketed as pure or all-natural. So it has been difficult from my end to really sing the praises of Nippon Kodo’s incenses, although to be sure in some cases they really do succeed.

For one thing, Nippon Kodo, like most Japanese companies have a line of aloeswood incenses that could have the widest range in the world, starting down in the cheaper categories covered here a while back with Kangetsu. Shuin and others and apparently moving all the way to kyara sticks in the 5 digit range, well beyond the standards of all but the truly wealthy. In the US, we’ve seen as high as the $420 box Tokusen Kyara Kayou. More common (and covered by Ross a while back) are the next two in the series, the Tokusen Kyara Taikan and the Gokuhin Kyara Taikan at $146 and $250, both of which are excellent incenses if, perhaps, overpriced compared to what you might find from a different company in the same range. After these scents, the Nippon Kodo aloeswoods drop to the Kyara Taikan and Kyara Kongo, two incenses that seem to mimic a certain type of stylized kyara scent that may be considered too perfumed from a traditional perspective.

And for a long time here is where I stopped, not realizing that when the range drops to Jinkoh Juzan, it has actually come up with a startingly decent and fairly affordable aloeswood incense. Like with the higher ends, it does retain a certain perfumed characteristic that’s common to all Nippon Kodos, however, the Juzan is not nearly as rich as the two Kyaras above it and somehow a distinct woodiness that is common to most aloeswoods is not lost at all, giving the perfume and oil quite the decent balance. That Nippon Kodo could get away with an aloeswood having this resiny a subscent at this range is quite a surprise in my book. However, the crux of the issue is whether I’m enjoying the sample or would go on to like a full box of Juzan without getting tired of it. Honestly I’m more inclined to thinking it would be quite good, as it has a similar balance to the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which I do like quite a bit.

On the other hand Nippon Kodo’s Jinko Seiun is perhaps more what you’d expect from a low end Nippon Kodo incense. Despite the $36 asking price, you’re still getting 170 sticks which sort of belies the idea this is a deluxe aloeswood and implies this probably fits better with the low ends. I’ve not, nor plan to try any of the other Seiuns, so I’m not totally sure what the characteristic is of the line across Amore, Violet and Chrysanthemum incenses, but the Jinkoh is certainly floral enough to where its nature as an aloeswood is somewhat trivial. Certainly this seems to have more of an aloeswood approximation than definition and as such it seems like it’s crossing a modern/traditional divide that’s likely going to appeal more to the modern-inclined.

So now over to the continent to the Men-Tsee-Khang medical center that appears to operate in two different countries (Tibet and India), however from the constituency of the incenses (that is, lacking the sorts of animalistic scents found in incenses from the Tibetan Autonomous Region) I think we can assume these scents follow alongside traditional Nepalese and Indian styles. Men-Tsee-Khang produce two stick incenses and two powders. I’ve not tried the powders, but the sticks certainly seem akin to incenses found at the Dhoop Factory and other Nepalese outfits, with heavy Himalayan woods and herbs at the center. The regular Sorig Incense, like many Nepalese or Indian monastery incenses, has a number of ingredients (listed by Latin name at the above link) that impart herbal and berry-ish tones to the scent, but overall is distinguished by a large amount of woods and binder that give the typical campfire smell associated with these types of incenses. While I only had enough of a sample to touch the surface, it did seem that this seemed to be one of the better in the style, with a bit of complexity and an unsual wild note in the mix. While I probably have enough incenses in this style not to immediately pursue a box, I can imagine I might eventually replace something else similar to this in the future.

The Sorig Healing stick is much thicker and resembles Dhoop Factory’s Agar 31/Medicine Buddha line in a couple of ways. It definitely seems to be akin to the common scents in this style, with a mix of woods, herbs and a very slight agarwood tang to it, but most importantly it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of filler to it and few if any off scents. It’s perhaps a bit hard to get lit, but for such a thick stick it doesn’t put out a lot of smoke and seems to have a gentle calming effect.

There are a couple grades to Bhutanese creator Lhundup, however I only received a sampler of the top A grade. Naturally this is sort of the typical Bhutanese style stick, roughly similar to Nado Poizokhang’s incenses or World Peace Grade B or Kuenzang Chodtin, with a pinkish hue and a similar berry-like tang to it. The consistency isn’t quite as snappy or plastic-like as some of these other incenses and there’s a bit deeper of a tone to it. Overall there’s a lot of sandalwood, both white and red, spice, cherry, musk and at times a slight unique gentle floral that sets this apart from other Bhutanese sticks. Quite interesting overall, although it’s difficult to tell whether it earns its $18.50 asking price or not.

Next up in the Sampler Notes series, the bad news, a very rough sample of a few Maroma Indian charcoals and perhaps another incense or two as a late addition…

Kaqyudpa Monastery/Drikung Charitable Society – Red Crystal & Dhundup Wangyal – New Red Crystal

In reviewing Blue Sky a few weeks ago, I’d thought it might be Drikung Charitable Society’s only incense, only to realize that they were responsible for the plentiful and abundant Red Crystal incense, something of a mainstay of your local new age or yoga supply store. I’d take it some of this is the price difference, with a big box of Red Crystal costing you about a third a box of Blue Sky. The other element is there’s been some confusing copyright or claims staking surrounding Red Crystal, giving way to a new and completely different incense formulated by one Dhundup Wangyal called New Red Crystal. And of course there’s the Boudha line, all of which are roughly similar in style and use the same graphics boxes and sometimes even text as Red Crystal and kin.

Red Crystal itself is something of a budget classic among Tibetan style incenses. It’s one of those worth growing into, I remember thinking its tobacco and alkaline hints were quite offputting at first, until I’d gone through about half a box and it got under my skin. For one thing, whatever’s red about this incense is more in name, although the sandalwood colored stick does have a very slight tint in that direction. Sandalwood is the operative ingredient here, and not only does the incense smell of a decent quantity but the quality is quite good as well. It’s a very thick stick, nearly a club, and it has a very subtle and slightly dangerous level of spice in it that ranges from the abovementioned tobacco and sage to light hints of cinnamon. It’s a subscent that really starts to impress after a while, the incense’s cooling qualities and fresh sandalwood winning you over after a while. It’s one Tibetan style incense in the lower ends perhaps worth shelling out for in a shop, although one’s nose will take a bit of time adjusting to it.

New Red Crystal (drop down one item on the above link) isn’t nearly as distinctive and the comparison is fairly unflattering given the stick is obviously more in the evergreen/filler wood direction. Fortunately it goes for a Dhoop Factory/Alpine like scent with it, meaning you do get a bit of harsh wood as a backdrop but also the same woods’ better, high altitude freshness and slight resinous qualities as well. Strangely it also smells a bit like Drikung’s above-mentioned Blue Sky with hints of raisins, berries and a dash of cinnamon. I can imagine liking this one more after getting used to it as well, provided one’s own catalog isn’t full of incenses similar to this.

I’ll likely be referring to these later when I tackle the trio of Boudha incenses, which are all in the same regions as these two, using similar packaging but managing to be their own animal(s) too. Red Crystal’s kind of a classic in its own way, well worth a sample at the least. New isn’t always better, as they say, but lovers of woody and fresh high Himalayans might want to give it a whirl as well.

Kaqyudpa Monastery/Drikung Charitable Society – Blue Sky

Blue Sky may be a common name for Tibetan style incenses but in execution incenses can be wildly different. Kaqyudpa Monastery’s version(incense listed second from last on page),  the home of Ayang Rinpoche, for example, is completely different than the Himalayan Herbs Centre version and generally far more deluxe, with a higher content of quality ingredients.

Where HHI’s Blue Sky met the color requirements, Kaqyudpa’s version is colored a more brick red and while it’s certainly a friendly scent, it’s not quite as airy. The stick’s aroma is rather clean and polished, smooth with a strong tilt to a raisin or prune-like fruity scent, one that tends to the earthier side, almost like a vineyard in late summer.  Like most Tibetan incenses there’s at least a hint of spices in the mix, but only as coloring, both the woods and aforementioned fruity, herbal scents are the two strongest elements here. The woods tend to juniper and other evergreens and there also seems to be a decent amount of red sandalwood in the mix, possibly contributing to the overall mellowness of the burn. As a finish there’s something of a metallic or coppery vibe, which adds a bit of intricacy to what is overall a fairly uncomplex stick.

It’s an interesting incense overall, it seems to tend to high quality ingredients like nearly all incenses at its price range, while manifesting a very airy and light aroma, certainly one that’s not as dangerous as most premium Tibetan sticks. Overall it has quite a late summer/early vibe to it and as such it’s quite a bit warmer than most Tibetans with strong evergreen wood content in them. There’s even a pleasant caramel-like touch in the finish.

Tashi Lhunpo / Shing Kham Kun Khyab, Mount Everest, Himalayan Healing – Agar 31, Lha Yak, Local

In early June I made a small post on Tashi Lhunpo monastery, when some friends of ORS sent me a box of Shing Kham Kun Khyab almost simultaneously with the monastery’s incenses coming into Essence of the Ages. Soon after this post, Ross gave us his thoughts on the monastery’s high end Himalayan Healing-Agar 31 blend. In this article, I’ll discuss all five incenses currently exported to the United States. Tashi Lhunpo, an exiled Tibetan monastery now based in South India, creates four very affordable incenses and one agarwood blend that is surprisingly high end for a Tibetan-turned-Indian monastery. What’s particularly interesting about these incenses is, except for the Agar 31, Tashi Lhunpo’s four remaining incenses are all remarkably similar.

After spending a lot of time sampling a number of various Tibetan incenses, various styles and commonalities become clearer. One of the most common styles of Tibetan incenses is what I’m currently referring to as the “red stick.” While not all of these incenses actually have a red color, including one of the Tashi Lhunpos, the red coloring seems to go hand in hand with what I’d consider a very berry-like aroma that’s generally very soft and friendly. I’d probably make the leap to say that this is a quality of the juniper berry, but while juniper does seem to be an ingredient in these blends, the harshness that it often brings with it tends to be missing. Most of these have dozens of ingredients to them, belying what are basically simple and smooth aromas.

Shing Kham Kun Khyab is probably the best of these incenses in the Tashi Lhunpo category. It’s the one incense in the catalog that improves on this generic berry aroma, featuring a much deeper and even damper aroma. Like most “red sticks” there’s a middle that implies an herbal mix that gives the incense some depth and in SKKK’s case the contour of the scent is almost dead perfect. The folks who introduced me to this incense said it reminded them of a morning after a rain and it’s an image impossible to shake when burning this incense, due to the damp aroma that really does have that “after the rain” sort of fresh smell to it. This richness is almost reminiscent of cherry kool-aid powder, although never getting too sweet.

Mount Everest also works thematically around this berry-like aroma, although as with most incenses named after Everest and the Himalayans, there’s a concentration on high-altitude evergreen woods. Mount Everest loses the red color, but not necessary the smell, although it moves well away from the distinctiveness apparent in SKKK. The incense, as a result, loses quite a bit of power to it, while the berry center keeps the evergreens from getting too much of that tire/burnt rubber smell. Overall it’s a bit of a wash and perhaps the roughest incense in the catalog.

Himalayan Healing – Agar 31 is not only unusually priced, but is aromatically a totally different incense from the other four. It’s among the highest priced incenses sourced from India, likely due to a substantial agarwood content. However, unlike Japanese agarwood incenses, there doesn’t appear to be a particularly high quality level of wood here and the effects are quite a bit different. The wood, which does exude something of a resinous quality to it, a true rarity among Tibetan aloeswoods, is quite upfront, but it’s what’s happening in the middle that gives it a slightly distinctive edge over other incenses with healing or agar 31 in the name. There’s a mysterious tangy and even minty note that occasionally gives of hints of anise and combined with the dark woods and black stick give it a mysterious and unique aroma. It’s also relatively low smoke and its subtlety hints at a possibly long learning curve. The saffron also comes through in a similar but slightly different way to Medicine King’s Saffron Medicinal Incense.

Local and Lha Yak returns to the standard red color and berry aroma and are the line’s two long sticks. Both are so similar it’s difficult to tell them apart. Local may be the most standard of the red sticks with lots of berry and herb, and a slight hint of tobacco or sage as part of the scentscape. Overall it’s a very inexpensive incense and also fairly thin and indistinctive, but certainly pleasant and benefitting from the herbal edge. Lha Yak is like a fusion of the Local stick and Mount Everest, still at heart a berry/red stick but with a much woodier and heartier middle. In particular the cherry/strawberry patch-like smells come out there, possibly due to it having the spiciest presence of the five Tashi Lhunpo incenses. Neither of these two incenses really compete all that well next to the SKKK, which I’d definitely pick as the one to start with in this catalog.

There’s a freshness and quality to the ingredients in the line, best expressed by the Shing Kham Kun Khyab incense. However other than this incense and the Agar 31, the rest of the line lacks quite a bit of distinctiveness. While the incenses are terribly friendly and unlikely to put anyone off, the lack of danger or an edge in most of these also makes them standard and unnecessary if your incense stock already has a red stick or two. Of course, the very low prices on all of them also mean they’re not a bad place to start in the style, although if you’re like me you won’t see any improvements on the SKKK, which is something of a minor classic.

Zongkar Choede / Zongchoe, Kalachakra

In preparing this write up, it hadn’t quite sunk in that often long stick versions of incenses have different ingredient formulations, as we all learned recently with the long stick Holy Land incense. Zongkar Choede Monastery, whose incense is sold via Essence of the Ages, offers “regular” Zongchoe in four different lengths, as well as what looks like a long stick (similarly packaged to Tashi Lhunpo’s Local incense with red cellophane). Both incenses are described as having over 20 ingredients, so the assumption made is that the Zongchoe long is just a longer version of the “regular” incense.

However while this assumption could be incorrect, Zongchoe incense is such a standard Tibetan incense, that it could be a while before I run out of this “style” and want to check out a new variant. Zongchoe is what I’m coming to think of as the Tibetan “berry” style, a deep red stick that combines woods, herbs, probably a large proportion of juniper and a touch of spice to create a very friendly incense with tones of cherry, strawberry, and red florals. Incenses like this are quite prevalent, a quick scan of my data turns up both Drepul Loseling incenses, the high to mid grade Nado Poizokhangs, Mindroling Grade 2, certain Nub Gon and Stupa incenses, and almost the entire Tashi Lhunpo catalog where even the sticks without the red coloring have a similar scent. Zongkar itself is one of the better variants in this style due to the quality ingredients and a bit of bolstering to the herbal middle of the scent. It’s also very affordable, especially compared to the higher end Tibetan sticks, so it’s not a bad place to start to check out this very pleasant incense style, especially with some very affordable small boxes to start out with.

Zongkar Choede’s Kalachakra is quite a bit more special. Unlike the central Zongchoe incenses, Kalachakra is an earthy, tangy incense with a lot of late summer sort of aroma’s from ripened fruit to the soil of a rich harvest. Amidst such density are hints of olives, clay, flowers, hops and raisins, surrounding a central sweetness and a slight cookie spice to it. I noticed some similarities to the Kaqyudpa Monastery Blue Sky in terms of that raisin or even prune like background scent. Like a lot of good Tibetan incenses, Kalachakra has just a touch of an edge to it, hinting at wilder and “less friendly to Western noses” herbs. If it has anything in common with Zongchoe incense, it’s the high quality of ingredients.

Although it’s taking me a while as I survey various Tibetans, I’m finding there to be a difference between various companies in terms of lower end incenses. That is, there are some very standard and affordable Tibetan incenses, most of them heavy with inexpensive woods, that seem to have a drier burn that intimates that some of the ingredients have lost a bit of their aroma and energy. Zongkar Choede incenses are in that other group, still very affordable, but having a bit of punch and vibrancy that bespeaks of high quality control and freshness. It’s not a bad monastery to check out for something affordable and enjoyable.

Menri Monastery / Menri Incense

Like many Tibetan monasteries, Menri is now exiled, its new base in Dolanji, India. They create their one incense from 30 different herbs and while its blue/grey ash and deep red color do evince larger quantities of juniper wood/berries and/or cedarwood, the incense also manages, on the fresh stick to have that musky, earthy, feral, stable-like smell that implies some form of musk.

However, this combination of what seem like inexpensive woods and more expensive herbal additions falls somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. Indeed this is an incense much more pleasant than many that exude this type of leftover ash with the best part of the juniper berry giving it a slightly cherry or fruit-like aroma that you see in, say, Mindroling Grade 2 or Tashi Lhunpo’s Shing Kham Kun Khyab. There’s also quite a bit of spice content, such as cinnamon, that never really dominates the incense but makes it quite a bit more complex than you’d imagine for a dominantly woody incense. While the musky nature of the fresh stick doesn’t ever seem to dominate the burned aroma, the incense’s subtle intricacy makes it just a little more than a basic woody Tibetan. It has a pleasant high altitude earthiness that helps to make this a very fair quality for the price.

Drepung Loseling Monastery / Gold Seal, Zin-Poe

Drepung Loseling is a Tibetan monastery based in Karnataka State, South India, established there after the Chinese government forced many monasteries out of Tibet in 1959. Previously it had existed near Lhasa, where it was established in the 15th Century. Among several small cottage industries that support the students of the monastery is a small incense making project that produces these two exports, Gold Seal and Zin-Poe.

Both incenses are made from similar ingredients, over 40 different substances that include saffron, white and red sandalwood, juniper, cedar, fragrant arborescent and medicinal plants, ground conch and musk. Like many Tibetan incenses, the use of faunal ingredients may clash with Western ecological philosophies, although in the case of the Drepung Loseling incenses, the ingredients do tend to be leavened by the woody bases of the incense, meaning that the overt aromas these elements bring are quite mild. Despite the $16 price on the boxes, both contain enough sticks of incense to last you for a long time – in fact I’d say nearly every corner of each box was full with the reddish tones of the incenses.

Like other Tibetan incenses with grades, one gets the impression that the Gold Seal incense is Drepung Loseling’s A grade. The color of the stick is a darker, burgundy-ish red and the sticks are definitely quite thin. The aroma is more concentrated, tarter, crisper and more on the cherry or berry side. It’s a surprisingly gentle incense for a Tibetan high ender, definitely pleasant but not replete with the types of complex notes high enders often have. It’s even difficult with the ingredients list to call which notes are more in evidence.

On the other hand, Zin-Poe almost seems like a more leavened version of the same incense. It seems clear there’s a greater content of cedar and/or juniper wood along with the rest of the ingredients, not only are the sticks thicker but the color is definitely pinker and not quite as dense. The aroma is definitely quite a bit lighter and not terribly distinctive, although the red berry notes are still the dominant scent. In particular, the black ash left ofter does seem rather typical of incenses that have high quantities of cedar. However there are some interesting notes that comes out, including slight tobacco/herbaceous hints and a little bit of caramel (spikenard?). Overall it seems a bit watered down (I’d suggest starting with the Gold Seal) but it’s quite sweet and pleasant and not at all a difficult incense.

Tibetan incenses do generally become quite impressive when the prices start closing in on the $20 mark, however the price here also seems to reflect the quantity of incense in the box, which is quite considerable. For example Zin-Poe contains 50 10″ sticks, but it’s likely that is the count on the unbroken sticks; you’re as likely to get a number of extra sticks or fragments as well, given how full the boxes are.

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery / Himalayan Healing- Agar 31

It’s been awhile since I have used Tibetan style incense and as I rediscovered it is very different from the Japanese. This one, Himalayan Healing- Agar 31, from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery( third one from top) intrigued me because I saw it or the style (still not quite sure which from the way it was written) in a book I am reading called “Incense and Incense Rituals” by Thomas Kinkele.

He talks about the purity and general healing attributes of this one and I was so curious that when I saw it at Essence of the Ages I decided to find out how it worked for me.

Right off you can smell the Aloeswood/Agarwood as a major base note in the mix. It’s strong enough to make me wonder how they can charge so little for the box. After that I am sad to say I do not recognize too much else. But the ingredients list is huge which means things are going to be in small amounts per stick. The woods stand out, it’s not sweet or flowery, yet has a very clean and open quality to it.

Its interesting given the size of the stick (pretty near to a quarter inch, think club, not stick 🙂 ) that there is not that much smoke put out. However the room becomes rapidly refreshed in scent and “vibe” or how it feels. Given the write up at EoA this is what I was hoping for. I noticed in my own self that I felt calmer and more focused. Its not the kind of stick that would be an every day scent, well actually it might be depending on your lifestyle! It is however, something that I will have around for when needed.

-Ross