Baieido / Kobunboku, Tokusen Kobunboku (long sticks)

So third in a series of recent Baieido incenses is somewhere between the new review and revisit review of the last two in that I’ve had rolls of both of these incenses before but not the long ones. And I wondered just how much have these incenses changes given they’re both created from all natural ingredients and no perfume oils. The first thing I thought was is this true, but unfortunately we don’t have David Oller around anymore to check in with him. Because my thoughts with both of these was wondering if maybe they were using just a little bit now?

If I was to name one of the great affordable incenses in Japanese incense, I would easily name the great Kobunboku. In many ways this could be the archetypal “plum blossom” incense. Baieido have always included a really wonderful sandalwood to balance the mix but it still has a distinct and gentle plum blossom scent without drifting into anything harsh or cheap smelling. These plum blossom incenses are a hallmark of Japanese incense and many of them also go right up the price range when they’re mixed with aloeswood. Now this long stick version does remind me very much of the old shorter stick bundle (or two) I went through years ago. It often struck me that I enjoyed that incense as much as any of the aloeswood blends in Baieido’s ready for market traditional line. It does seem a bit different to me now, which is to be expected with ingredients drift, but there’s also a feeling that the bouquet is a bit stronger than it used to be. Baieido incenses have always been the sort that smelling the fresh stick without burning means you can’t really smell much and that still seems to be fairly true, so I can’t be certain if the company is using oils now or if perhaps this is just a lot fresher than I remember. But it at least invoked the question for me. Anyway this is described as a mix of sandalwood, aloeswood and herbs, but I would guess the aloeswood note is very faint and used more as coloring in the base. And that’s entirely because this range moves up in price when there’s more in the mix. And while this is technically a “blossom” incense and not a fruit incense, I really like that there is a distinct scent of plums on top in a sort of floral way that doesn’t feel cheap or artificial. Anyway I think this is an incense that you want to check out if you are exploring Japanese incense as it remains a classic at its price point.

Tokusen Kobunboku is a good example of a plum blossom incense that bumps up the aloeswood. In doing this that top fruity-floral plum aroma drops a bit backward into the wood mix without entirely disappearing, but at least to my nose it creates a very big change between its aroma and the regular Kobunboku even if some of the similarities are still there. Now I had a bit of the same feeling that it was stronger when I lit up a stick of the long stick version after purchasing a box, but now that I have sit with this a bit the afternoon I wrote this, it feels very much on par with what I remember. And even if there is some aloeswood tang to it that has moved in front, I still feel this has quite a bit of good sandalwood in the mix. This woodiness also brings out the spices a little more, as if to accentuate that element in the sandalwood.

So it appears both the regular and excellent Kobunboku are still in good health, which is fortunate as Baieido are really well knowing for making price-efficient incenses that still give you plenty to meditate on and enjoy. They’re really good examples of blends actually and while you can discuss the idea of how much aloeswood and sandalwood are in these, there are a lot of spice and herbal notes that make the overall scent that much more fascinating. If you haven’t checked these out, I highly recommend both. And be sure to check out the entire Baieido catalog at Japan Incense as there are some even more price conscious choices available to sample these. Even if you’re paying a little more, to my nose the quality is much higher here for low end incenses than you’d find in Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo catalogs.

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Koyasan Daishido / Shikimi (Japanese Star Anise)

We’re always looking for quality affordable Japanese incense as well as scents that go into less common areas and this pleasant stick from Koyasan Daishido was a really nice find on both accounts. Star Anise, of course, is a spice used in a lot of different applications, but it may be interesting to note that Japanese Star Anise is a toxic cousin to that plant, not edible, and only used in incense. In Koyasan Daishido’s blend, the JSA seems based in a bit of wood and the spice has been well balanced. Anise has always reminded me of licorice, but this isn’t quite that sort of scent, it seems more like there’s a hint of the aroma that has been blended intelligently with other ingredients for a daily scent with a neat little spice kick that you often don’t find anywhere else. In a milieu where so many incenses can be classified as predominantly sandalwood or aloeswood it’s nice to see one a bit lateral to that. The JSA spice is one that is notably different from the sorts of cinnamon and clove mixes you usually see and while it may have some cooking spice associations, I think Shikimi is well blended for aromatic appreciation. It’s got an interesting dry and tangy mix at heart with the spice tweaking it just so. Affordable and different enough to stretch the incense collection, Shikimi also comes in a much bigger size if you end up loving it.

Baieido Premium Assortment Set / revisits of Kokonoe Aloeswood, Ho Ryo Aloeswood, Kun Sho Aloeswood, Koh En Aloeswood, Koh Shi Boku Kyara

Anyone who is an afficianado of aloeswood knows that the stocks of the premium woods have been slowly shrinking over the years. The fact that the best of these stocks came from woods buried underground in deep jungles, allowing the fungus that turns aloeswood into the aromatic treasure that it is, not to mention the wood’s popularity, has essentially made it close to impossible for Japanese companies who deplete their stocks to make the same incenses. The response to this has been either to discontinue the incenses, permanently or temporarily, or use lesser quality woods. It is perhaps somewhat surprising that Baieido, a company well known among aficionados for using the least amount of oils or perfumes in their natural sticks, would choose the latter approach. Simply because it means Baieido, of all the great Japanese companies, has taken the biggest hits in quality in the last decade or so. And some of the evidence comes from the five aloeswood incenses in this assortment set, a set bought last year. ORS reviewed all five incenses in this line by Ross here and here many years ago, and I would only add that around this time I owned full boxes of all five of these and got very familiar with them and largely agree with Ross’ take on these incenses. They were almost entirely great through the line and matched perfectly at their price points.

And this is why the Kokonoe Aloeswood, at the most inexpensive point in the line, seems like a completely different incense than it used to be. Baieido have long claimed that they essentially present the actual woods with just enough binder material, so the usual oil or perfume trickery to help modify the scent just isn’t here on these incenses. In fact one of my first impressions is this smells more like the binder than the aloeswood. There is really very little in this stick to commend for it and while the 00’s version of this scent wasn’t really my favorite in the series, I seem to remember it having much more personality than it does now (not to mention it used to match up with the actual aloeswood Baieido used to sell as well). And Ross’s review, where he says he burned this one more than the other two featured in that review, really underlines the differences here. Honestly my feeling is that if you were to have me smell this incense in a blind taste test I’d probably tell you it was a low quality aloeswood without a lot of personality. But at a guess what may be happening is that there may still be a small amount of the better Indonesian wood it’s just that there is either other wood and or/more binder in this. I just walked in and out of the room while this was burning and did get some notes that reminded me of the older version. But then when I sat down next to it, not so much. And $48 for an actual roll of this seems well above its worth, but keep in mind it’s hard to get unstuck from the lower prices to better wood ratio of a decade or so ago.

So how does the Thai wood stack up? Honestly, the Ho Ryu seems very similar in that the issue could be a higher binder to aloeswood ratio. Of the sticks from the original boxes that lasted the longest I believe this may be the most recent I had sampled. Fortunately this one seems to have some level of presence left. It’s interesting because if I was to reasonably guess which countries come up in aloeswood discussions, obviously the most prized Vietnamese woods be first and then probably the Indonesian woods. I don’t see Thai aloeswood spoken of quite as often, but I do love how its scent profile tends to differ from the others and you are not missing that display even with the current form of the wood. It made me wonder if this was the wood in the Kai Un Koh for example as it shares some of the more perhaps leathery or “masculine” spiciness in the woods. So honestly if all you’re paying is $2 more for a box than the Kokonoe, you are getting a much more interesting woody stick here and not feeling so much that the price is too high for the resinous content or level of quality. The resin is here, if in slightly less dense thickness than it might be in a more expensive stick. But ultimately Ho Ryu is still a very enjoyable stick. I don’t quite remember how much this differs from the last version, but it’s not striking me as all that different.

So after such a hoary, dense treat as the Ho Ryu, the Cambodian aloeswood Kun Sho seems to dial back the energy a bit, but the resin content and overall high quality presence do take a leap both quality wise and price wise. So certainly, and this was true both a decade ago and now, this is where the aloeswood jumps up to a higher grade and you start to feel a true, deep aloeswood presence. This is also where latent floral qualities and subnotes start to abound aromatically. Now my impression in general is that the Kun Sho of a decade ago was a better wood. I don’t have a lot to prove there as my box of it was yummy enough to burn up a long time ago. But looking at Ross’ review again I am reminded that this was and probably is one of those incenses you really want to spend time with. Any good aloeswood really deserves this kind of meditation because initial smells will throw the scent into your face and your brain needs work to pick out all the sub-elements. Right now I am particularly bowled over by what Ross calls the “exotic fruit” subscent. It is absolutely the hallmark of a great wood to have this sort of note in it. It is what sets one regional wood apart from another. So even when you read my impression that this might have been better, it’s certainly different as I don’t remember the herbal qualities quite as much from my initial box. But I genuinely do feel like this earns the price of $80 a box, especially considering all the shifts in pricing.

From my experience Koh En may be the biggest change in the series. This was actually one of my favorite incenses back in the 00s because the aloeswood really had this wonderful cherry blossom note. There are a lot of incenses in more inexpensive realms where they do a cherry blossom scented aloeswood, but the wood here is much finer than the wood normally used in these types of incenses and in many ways it made it one of a kind. The new version of it seems to have some sort of herbal note in front with maybe a touch of the cherry blossom scent a little farther back. As always, the stick follows the wood and it certainly does here but there’s no question this is a different aromatic bundle. The aloeswood is still quite nice, there’s no lack of resin and there are some interesting camphor and floral notes around the side that really get your attention. Honestly as you go through the stick, it’s so impressive that you actually start to forget that it isn’t the same Koh En as you remember. I was told by a venerable vendor once about a fairly popular incense which was something like when incenses change it’s usually the old hands that have an issue with it, but not so much those who are new to it. Keeping that in mind then I think you’d only have an issue with this one coming from an older version. But then you’re looking at a $140 price tag. Is it worth that? Well it’s definitely an aloeswood with some great notes. It might even be somewhere in the top tier of what you can get from Vietnamese aloeswood now. It’s still a very good incense, complex, multifaceted and deep. But hey that’s where the premium assortment is really helpful.

Finally there is the great kyara incense Koh Shi Boku. For a long time this was a very affordable and yet completely legitimate kyara incense. It had a distinct green kyara note down the middle and even if there was binder or maybe other aloeswood mixed in, it always felt like a classic and truly great kyara incense, in fact only the line’s Kyara Kokoh is a better incense and that’s because Kyara Kokoh may be one of the best incenses anywhere. So the first thing I do when I burn a stick of this is to look for that green, camphorous and complex note. The strange thing, like I discussed with some of the earlier incenses, is this feeling that some of the better notes in these incenses have been dialed down a bit. And without having a stick from 2009 it’s hard to be completely objective about this, but indeed my memory is it was a bit sharper in the 00s. But generally the front facing wood is still a kyara fronted aloeswood with a lot of denseness in the center. There are truly some beautiful notes in this, some floral notes that make me wonder if a little of the wood used in the Koh En is used here. But I do remember when I first pulled this out of the sampler feeling like this was a completely different mix to the one I remembered. But there is no question this is still great incense, there is enough going on here to take many sticks to learn. And even though it showed a sale price at Japan Incenses when I wrote this, this is still the same price it was many years ago so at least there’s been no appreciation on this account.

So really the moral of the story is that woods change and so do the incenses, but at least in these cases it feels like there was some reformulation or changes needed. Maybe only the Kokonoe here suffers from the changes even if 2 or 3 of the rest are really quite different incenses than they used to be. If you’re coming in fresh the Baieido Premium Assortment Set is a really good way to sample them all. If you’re only familiar with the older versions then it’s still a good way as Japan Incense does not appear to carry smaller samples, but then again all the deep cuts in this lovely box are all worth exploring for many sticks. Keep in mind there are very few other high end aloeswood incenses out there that don’t formulate the blend with oils and perfumes so these are quite special even if you need to nudge up really close to them.

Baieido / Ensei / Healing, Gallant, Pure

Baieido started their Ensei series many years ago with five different aromas and looking in the index I see Ross did a review of four of them in 2009 (I’m still kind of amazed any time I’m reminded how long ago some of our reviews are at this point). I tried them in a sampler back then, I think, and don’t remember them being particularly great, they felt more like a way to modernize some of the more traditional scents and in a catalog of wonderful aloeswood and sandalwood incenses, they didn’t strike me as measuring up. Ross said in his review, “These are not super powerful scents, but rather work on more subtle levels, one can use them near others without “blowing them away,”” which I think is a solid statement that also goes for this new trio. I don’t know if any of these particular sticks match up with the old (and still available) Ensei scents, but Healing is a “spicy aloeswood aroma,” Gallant is a “meditation aloeswood,” and Pure a “thick aloeswood aroma.” So some overlap maybe. But anyway, all of these are shorter sticks and come in smaller tubes of 20 sticks. They’re priced about where you would imagine at $15 and the aloeswood is probably what I might describe as low to mid end wood, with the sandalwood being a bit more premium, and Baieido usually do a pretty good job with both (although I might argue with aloeswood depletions the company is not quite what it once was).

And so they burn fast, real fast. Healing is really not terribly unlike one or two of the Kobunboku blends. It’s not heavily spicy and there is some level of aloeswood in the mix but it’s not a dense or resinous blend, it’s definitely pitched a bit lighter. There’s also a bit of like fennel like cooking spice in addition to whatever that cinnamon clove layer has in it. And I would guess there’s some nice sandalwood (it has fresh quasi-heartwood notes) in the middle as that’s part of what reminds me of the Kobunboku series. Overall it’s a bit cooling as well. So yes this one is very Baieido and if you know the company then you would expect to get to know the materials, although in this case 20 short sticks may not be quite enough. On the other hand after four sticks I’m not terribly sure how deep this one goes.

Initially, I found Gallant to be a bit richer of a blend, somewhat tangy, in fact the kind of smell I more usually associate with a spicy aloeswood rather than a sweet one. But there were some comparisons where it actually felt like it wasn’t all that different from Healing, so I figured the spatial configuration of your burning set ups may bring out different notes. I noticed what I thought were some intentional floral elements blended in and then searched for them on a different burn without finding them. Once again it feels like there is some decent quality sandalwood in the middle and once again it’s actually quite nice and beneficial for the overall aroma, but there is no really powerful aloeswood scent here. It feels more or less like the aloeswood exists to contour the overall scent. Like Healing, I was left fairly nonplussed by this one.

Finally, there’s the Pure. I’m assuming thick isn’t meant to reflect modern slang, and after two rather delicate blends I was hoping this one might be dialed up a bit more. And it is, maybe a little. It’s a bit cooking spice like the Healing, a bit more aloeswood-aroma heavy on the front end. But calling it thick seems to not take into account that like the others this is a very mellow aroma, with maybe a bit more tangy of a mix than the other two.

Ultimately these are not unpleasant incenses but they match my memory of feeling like the Enseis were really not all that much to get excited about in a crowded world full of aloeswood mixes, even in the Baieido catalog where most of their sticks are better than this. The format means it’s something where you might want a touch of scent and in a home full of heavy incense use, these are probably too fleeting to make much of a dent. Of course if you’re someone who leans to the Japanese style and even finds some of those too powerful, this might be more to your speed. But it feels like if I get the slightest bit of a distraction, I’ll turn around and the stick will be out.

Seijudo / Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends, Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends

Seijudo are mostly known in the US for their very expensive aloeswood to kyara line that seems largely made from charcoal and expensive oils/perfumes rather than woods (much older reviews of these are in the Reviews Index link on the left and the few I’ve tried in last year or so were still about the same as I remembered them). The high ends of these incenses were probably comparable with Shoyeido’s now deleted kyara trio, so given that we are losing a lot of these high enders to aloeswood depletion it’s a bit surprising you can still purchase these. So if you were thinking about trying something deluxe now’s the time to do it (for example we just lost the top three Kourindo incenses to shortages). I can’t imagine most of these are going to last forever. However, these two larger box Kotonoha incenses (120 sticks) present both sandalwood and aloeswood incenses in a much more traditional form and accessible price (the remainder of the catalog available in the US seems to be low smoke incenses).

So where does the Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends fall on the Japanese sandalwood spectrum? I would say at least mid-end. It may not quite capture the sort of crystalline resinous top of the best old mountain woods but it’s rather superb through the rest of the burn and very much avoids the pitfalls of the low end stuff that is usually full of filler wood and often other oil elements. It’s a very friendly sandalwood that really avoids any off notes, and it has a bit of coolness and freshness. To roughly compare, if I was to go up to what might be my current favorite Japanese sandalwood, the Kikijudo Koubouku Ginmi Sandalwood Mysore India, you would be basically paying up to four times more per stick to get that extra note. So I think, assuming you’re willing to pay a bit for bulk, this may be one of the better sandalwood buys out there and I would think at this price there’s a bit of creative magic to make this one work as well as it does.

The Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends is a little harder to pitch because when we look at 2022 vs 2012 what we might tag as low, mid and high end aloeswood has changed drastically. This means the high end stuff is getting incredibly rare to where the mid end may be the high now in many cases. The prices haven’t changed much at all but it is worth keeping this in mind when you shop. So the Kotonoha Aloeswood at just $10 more for the same amount of sticks in the sandalwood box may not be the sort of deluxe aloeswood that you meditate on for deeper more profound notes, but it is a very nice and accessible aroma that sort of hints at the type of stick that has a bit of cherry on the top, except this is equally as herbal and is still resinous enough to be interesting. The comparison of this to the Koubouku Ginmi aloeswoods is not unwarranted either, and while those three are deeper sticks overall and priced accordingly, they still hint at the kind of stick you are getting in this box. Ultimately these are still aloeswood sticks and there is no attempt to make them something more than that.

I am not sure if the creators at Seijudo, like Kikijudo, are essentially trying new works with the sandalwood and aloeswood quality that remains accessible, but if they are I think they’re still doing some fine work as both of these are very pleasant wood incenses. I’ve had them out numerous times since I bought them last year and while they are not intended to be high end pleasures, they are still quite a fine quality for the price, so if you want something you can pull out more frequently and still get a decent incense, I would recommend both of these.

Kunjudo / Kan Ken Koh / Breath, Sleep

Early in 2021 about when I reopened ORS I covered an interesting new incense Japan Incense had gotten in stock called Kan Ken Koh/Healing. This was an interesting charcoal-based mix of oils packaged in these neat little glass test tubes. As it turns out this incense is part of a series from which Japan Incense has turned up two new ones, Sleep and Breath. With a bit more data one can only come to the conclusion that these are really essential oil mixes rather than what you usually see in traditional Japanese sticks, and almost feel like they could have been targeted at a more new age or even co-op sort of audience. As such, they’re quite different than what you’d normally expect.

Breath lists magnolia kobus, eucalyptus oil, artemesia princeps and borneol as ingredients, with the eucalyptus being the focus. You absolutely get that eucalyptus leaf oil scent from this burn, in fact it’s a bit tea-like in a way and I’d assume the artmesia (mugwort) probably helps get it there as well, moving the overall aroma in an herbaceous direction. The borneol content seems rather small in comparison, hanging just onto the edges and the magnolia seems to be used more to ground this in a friendlier direction rather than being a feature on its own. It’s a neat stick overall because of its herbal qualities and quite natural smelling, definitely recommended for those who enjoy eucalyptus. That tree’s sort of slightly bitter and unique scent has really been given justice by this stick.

Sleep lists cedarwood, chamomile, thyme and hops, something of a very unusual mix I would guess; however, the link between chamomile tea and a bit of drowsiness seems fairly common in US herbal tea culture as well. Overall Sleep isn’t terribly different than Breath but where Breath seemed to have some high resolution oils in the mix, Sleep seems a bit more dialed back, perhaps intentionally. Cedarwood would actually not be the kind of aroma I’d imagine would help me sleep and it’s fairly strong here, but the rest of the herbs seem like they’re pulling it all a bit more in the right direction and it feels like that thyme and hops mix gives the edge of the scent a bit of luster it might otherwise be missing. But of the two in the series this feels less individual and realized than the others in the sense that the other two aromas really pop out at you while this one feels a bit more blended.

Kunjudo (Awaji Island) / HA-KO / Paper Incense / No. 1 Spicy Jasmine, No. 2 Agarwood, No. 4 Sandalwood

Japan Incense sent over these three beautifully designed paper incense leaves to review. Honestly as soon as I looked at their delicate construction, I had some hesitance in even wanting to burn them, the art and aesthetics seem so perfect (I love the delicate notches and details on the leaves). Second, I am getting to be of the age that if I’m burning incense and something else happens, like I get a call from work or there’s some sort of minor crisis to resolve at my place, etc., I can immediately forget what I am burning and come back with it depleted. I only had one chance at these really, so I needed to be ready. It’s one thing when you lose a daily stick, no worries, but man when that happens and it’s a kyara or something, it can be highly disappointing to be distracted. So, gulp, I took photos and wrote all of this before even lit a tip. Keep in mind as well that I am not sure if this qualifies as a “sampler notes” but since they all appear to be part of a five leaf set, one does not really have the luxury to try more than one without spending a lot of money. To me this feels like something of an aesthetic or artistic treat but at a bit over $5 a leaf it is obviously luxury priced. And it was paper so I was like how fast are these gonna go up? Also, I believe these usually come with a felt mat to burn them on. I didn’t have one so used a bed of ash. It must be said that you want to keep your eye on these when they burn as even the slightest draft can move the leaf from incense to fire hazard.

So I went in order and started with the No. 1 Spicy Jasmine. My first reaction was both that it burned a little slower than I expected (it still goes pretty fast) and that the aroma was definitely modern. As the leaf widens it gets a bit more smoky as well, unsurprisingly. But overall the paper they used is obviously formulated to not have much in the way of off notes (although after burning all three you can definitely get the “paper note” as well). Now I’m not sure I got much of an actual jasmine note out of this, although it certainly had some mild spiciness around the edges, but it’s still interestingly floral in a sort of wet way, a scent I might associate more with a perfume than an incense. In fact without the binder of a stick, it’s almost a bit purer this way. Overall the scent actually reminded me a bit more of something like peaches, but it did have a few subnotes in the mix which made it interesting. It’s hard to say with one leaf if this is something I would burn a lot more of if I had multiple leaves but it was an interesting experience. And I would think this could appeal to a more modern audience.

The No. 2 Aloeswood is probably a bit more over to my personal tastes and while this obviously isn’t wood burning, the creators have gone some way into making something reminiscent of an aloeswood scent, a perfume that is modern but maybe reminiscent of something like the Xiang Do aloeswood. It is still essentially a perfume on paper. Perhaps in this sense, having a leaf burning with a woodier scent is a bit more on point, almost autumnal in a way. I found this one particularly cooling in a way I wouldn’t have expected. Almost moody in its profile.

The No. 4 Sandalwood is perhaps a bit closer to the scent you know and love than the previous two although it feels like it’s mixed in with some perfume aspects, but in a way I thought was quite complementary with the wood itself. It is almost like the intent was to bring the spicier aspects of the sandalwood to the fore and like the Aloeswood, I found this to be somewhat autumnal. I liked the somewhat fruity aspects mixed in as well, I though these were a lovely touch. it’s almost like there’s a strong touch of apricot in the mix.

So overall one must think of these as an aesthetic experience, with scents derived from quality perfumes rather than the usual incense experience. Obviously these are not incenses you are likely to use every day, but would be something for special occasions or a nice aesthetic touch to plans. It’s like you actually want to watch the pretty leaf burn rather than leaving it alone for the scent. So anyway much thanks to Japan Incense for the opportunity to experience this novel form of incense, I found it quite fascinating and certainly the leaves are beautiful indeed.

Mike’s Top Ten Incenses and Lines of 2021

So this is my first top 10 since ORS restarted and rather than doing a straight ten incenses, which would have been difficult in such a busy review year, I wanted this to be a mix of lines, companies and incenses that truly enchanted me in the last year and gave me the aromatic experiences I was hoping for. As such it isn’t really possible to throw in a photo with everything on this list (some of these companies and lines would fill a screen on their own), so all of the links will go to either reviews that will have specific photos or to the company categories which will be sorted for multiple reviews (with photos). If you’re interested in purchasing any of these either follow the links to the reviews/category searches or use the Reviews Index to find more specific lists from each particular outfit where you will also be able to find links to the sources. Oh and I should mention that Stephen will also be posting a top 10 soon as well! Please feel free to use the comments section here to post your own favorites for the year. Thank you to everyone I have talked to and collaborated with in 2021 and recently, new friends, people who pitched in samples from their own generosity, all who contributed incenses for reviews, everyone who took the time to provide their own reviews and comments of incenses this year, etc etc. Special thanks to new ORS staff writer and good friend Stephen as well! All of this goes to helping ORS become a better resource for the incense fan and you are all very much appreciated.

  1. Wara Monastery Incense. My number one incense of 2021 was literally a runaway. Honestly if I was to do an all-time incense list it would still be hard pressed to beat. I discovered this incense at incensetraditions.ca in 2021 and I am something like 4 sticks away from my fifth roll of this utterly mystifying and unique blend. I burn it nearly every night and it’s almost like an addiction now, I go up to the bedroom to read a bit before I settle down and nearly always light a stick. I am one of those people who are somewhat skeptical about the effects of incenses beyond smelling good, but this one is so vastly under my skin that I do indeed wonder if there’s some sort of secret Tibetan drug in the mix that screams “buuuurn me!!! BUUUUURN MEEEE” every time I sit down. I have been able to listen to it roll after roll and see each one changes slightly, I remember on my third roll wondering if it might have taken a bit of a dive only for the next one to come roaring back. What can I say about it? It’s just Wara really, I don’t even know if it has a subclass except that it has a resinous quality that is somewhat analogous to aloeswoods along with a mix of a million other things that created a wonderful tanginess and spiciness that I find endless fascinating and yes soothing as well. It is a bit of dangerous blend and it may not be to everyone’s tastes but there may be something in the impossibility of classifying it that makes me come back to it constantly.
  2. The Kourindo line. Japan Incense is still the marvelous and extraordinary #1 importer of Japanese incense into the US and one of their latest “gets” is this 11-flavor line of Kourindo’s incenses. In my opinion this line is gorgeous from top to bottom and as of a couple of days ago I finally gave myself the holiday treat of the KourindaiKyara, which may be the finest of kyara incenses along with Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh and not including the Nippon Kodos that noone can afford. I have been having this ongoing conversation with Josh Matthews on this particular line because where in other companies and lines one might immediately find out which ones you like the best, this is a very difficult line to choose from simply because they’re all fantastic. I might start with either of the two middle-high incenses, the Kodaikourin and Jinkourin, because they are startlingly complex in a way that stays at about the same level until you hit the kyara. But then there’s the Jyakourin Musk which is really like no other incense in any other line and one might also want to travel into the rather impressive low end before bouncing back to the near top and going for the spicy, square cut of the Saikourin. They’re all a bit thicker than the normal Japanese style, which seems to give them a little more power, which is always a good thing in my book. In the end, like me, you may want them all.
  3. Absolute Bliss/White Lotus Oudh Saffron. Corey of Absolute Bliss whipped out this variant of their Oudh Saffron incense when I least expected it and I was utterly bewitched by whatever is making up the floral component of it. It started this train in my mind of what happens when you “floralize” a woody stick. There’s something about the mix of this that adds a lot of complementary subnotes, no less this sort of minty vibe that threads its way through the middle like its sewing everything together. It is probably one of the most deluxe Indian sticks currently available at the time and it might be one of the best charcoal-based incenses I’ve ever sampled. As I implied with Wara, my main reasoning for inclusion on this chart is simply just how much I reach for a stick because I need this scent right now.
  4. Absolute Bliss/Natural Beauty. My brother Stephen spoke very highly of this one for quite a while before I got to try it, but in Corey’s first batch back the supplies of this were highly limited, so it wasn’t until his second that I got to stock up fully on this utterly wonderful scent. For one thing, I think this second batch might have used a bit more halmaddi than the first because it struck me as a bit softer. But even with that sweet middle what you come to this one for is the mix of woods that front an almost perfect cedarwood note. It is literally one of the best incenses on the market now, and if you like cedarwood in any way I strongly urge you to check it out. Like everything I discuss here it’s a “reach for it” classic. At any time it could move up a spot or two on this list.
  5. Temple of Incense/Absolute Sandalwood and so many others. While the British importer Temple of Incense opened their doors during ORS’s hibernation, we were not aware of their presence until reader Peter Bartlett alerted us. This sent ORS staff into a buying frenzy over culminating months to try everything in this gigantic stable of incenses (well over 50 I believe), which, in some ways feels like an expansion of the Happy Hari and Absolute Bliss imports. First of all, the Absolute Sandalwood absolutely took my breath away, being markedly the most accurate-to-scent sandalwood incense on the market at the moment, bringing back memories of the old days when it was not an endangered wood, meaning it was either duplicated rather well or someone came across old stores. But it wasn’t just this, but the three super thick stick glories of Shiv, Ganesha, and Shakti; the weird glories of the blue Electric Musk, and the gorgeous beauty of Tulsi among so many others that have made this company one of the best Indian incense importers in the world. And it doesn’t hurt that the service and great energy of the Aydee family make one feel very comfortable supporting such a fine outfit.
  6. Mermade Magickal Arts/Sweet Medicine and so many others. When ORS was in hibernation I often wonder what treasures I must have missed from Katlyn Breene and Mermade when my attention wasn’t turned their way. In a field where so many incense companies and creators come and go, vanishing into the mists of time, I can honestly say that I have been experiencing Mermade creations since some time in the late 90s and have experienced an overwhelming and bewildering array of incredible incenses with something like a 95%+ hit rate. Katlyn has never showed any signs of slowing down, not to mention continuously and steadily improving her sense of craft and prowess. She is now a mentor to so many other nascent incense creators and I am often just amazed at what her creative genius will dream up next. This year she not only found a cool shortcut to being able to increase and vary her kyphi incenses but she has also dipped into South American, Tibetan and other styles of incense, all bearing her creative stamp in all the best ways. Perhaps my favorite of the year and worth listing here because it has become one of her revolving staples, is the propolis and sweetgrass based Sweet Medicine, which is so lovely you might be able to replace candy with it.
  7. Espirit de la Nature/Mother’s – Ancient Winters Remembrance. Another wonderfully skilled magician of scent hails from Canada and often collaborates with Katlyn, selling some of her incenses through Mermade and many others through her own imprint Espirit de la Nature. It is one thing to find incense creators out there who create their own blends, another to find someone with as distinctive a creative stamp as the work of Bonnie (Be) Kerr. Incense from EdlN is not merely an experience of combinations but a presentation of the voices of botanics and fungi, with a quiet resolution encouraged by careful crafting and a number of ingredients that are not often common in incenses. I was first introduced a year or two back to Bonnie’s skill with larch resin, in an incense that had all the depth impact of a great agarwood stick, but this was only the first in a long series of amazing and bewitching scents that I eagerly grab when I have the opportunity (I will only add that at Mermade these fly off the shelves, so you need to get in early). I have two new ones sitting here that I haven’t even had the time to heat up yet but in the previous batch was the astonishing Mother’s incense which was an evergreen incense with a different slant to those you often find from Katlyn’s, all of which show Bonnie’s art as ever improving, becoming more impressive with further new creations. Oh and there was the incense cones, showing another wonderful innovation. I would guess like with Katlyn, Espirit de la Nature would be likely to be on every ORS top 10 from me going forward, she’s that good! Be sure to visit her own site and check in as she has all sorts of incenses I haven’t even been able to try yet, undoubtedly a veritable cornucopia of brilliance.
  8. Drigung Monastery / Drigung Fragrant Incense. – So if I was to have a potential follow up to my obsession with Wara Monastery incense it would probably be Drigung Fragrant Incense. This isn’t to say I haven’t tried and reviewed a cavalcade of great Tibetan incenses this year thanks to the wonderful incensetraditions.ca, but this is another in the “reach for it” category that I have tried restocking and storing as well. However, I am not sure of the viability of this stick moving forward, simply in that the sticks have apparently gotten a bit more fragile over the year and are not reaching North America in mostly one piece. So in terms of the availability of this I would definitely get in touch with Hart over at the store. But scent wise I think this a good example of the sort of vegetable imitating animal scent that seems to be the puzzle we often have over some Tibetans these days in that they have musk or civet sorts of tones while purportely not harming and of the animals in the production. I like this one’s overall sort of musk hit, it’s kind of like a tweak on Mindroling grade A incense in a direction I like more.
  9. Dimension 5 Line. I was pleased to watch Josh Matthews high end craft sticks start to reach a market this year. Josh has a creative urgency that combined with a deep aesthetic and understanding of fine woods and oils have begun several lines of incenses that actually DO use fine woods, ouds and other ingredients (rather than including these ingredients in descriptions and leaving us to guess over the provenance). While this undoubtedly puts a higher cost on the sticks, it is commensurate with the prices also put on the ingredients and so in some ways if it’s not something of a first, at least it is a first in terms of having them generally available (rather than being part of an operation that tends to be something of a rush to place an order in a small time frame like a few other really good small companies use as a model). I also have to say that I have learned an incredible amount about fine materials from Josh, which I’m sure will be trickling into my own reviewing as time goes on, and I have enjoyed our ongoing conversations. But I do think Josh and Dimension 5 are well worth keeping an eye on as time moves forward because as with Katlyn and Bonnie, he already has a fine sense of aesthetics that is only likely to keep improving with experience. If you want to try something that is remiscent of Japanese incenses but often just as high end or more, be sure to check his work out. Right now it’s hard to even pitch one as they’re all at the same consistent level and each new one I try is a marvel.
  10. Kida Jinseido/Ikuhokoh. The problem with doing a top 10 of a year is sometimes the front end gets away from you and I was actually confusing Kida Jinseido when trying to find a Kikijudo incense to put on here when I realized I had missed a biggie on my list that I haven’t burned in a little while simply since it’s out of rotation but nearly went through a large roll of it early in the year. This is something of an analog to Shunkohdo’s great Ranjatai a sort of mid to high end aloeswood blend with a lot of fine materials. If I had done this list halfway through the year it could have been a lot higher up the list.

Here are a number of runners up, all of these were mostly new incenses I discovered and really enjoyed or old favorites that are still part of a heavier rotation. Please use the above-linked Reviews Index if you need to find any of these if and until when I find the time to link em up: Kikijudo/Kouboku Ginmi/Sandalwood India; Absolute Bliss – Floating Lotus Flower, Forbidden Fruit, Bholenath, Bengali Jungle Flora; Happy Hari – Oud Masala, Niyama Sutra; Pure Incense – Connoisseur Opium, Connoisseur Blue Lotus & Musk; Baieido – Kyara Kokoh; Kunmeido – Asuka; Kyukyodo – Fuyu No Yoru; Nippon Kodo – Kyara Heian; Seikado – Kyara Koh Hien; Shunkohdo – Kyara Houzan; Tennendo – Propolis; Yamadamatsu – Shuju series, Hojo “Kyara Firebird” line, Kumoyi, Ouju; Aba Prefecture – Agarwood Heart of Shambhala, Gang-Zi Nunnery Incense.

Kyukyodo / Murasakino

As a quick recap, we have not only recently covered some of the high end Kyukyodos with reviews of Musashino and Sho Ran Koh, but with the incenses in the Hōun Gift Set we have covered just about all of the higher end imported Kyukyodo incenses except Kyukyodo’s Murasakino (there is one more even deluxe gift set but this is not imported to the US currently). Murasakino is actually probably the top of the aloeswood line other than the line’s Musashino kyara and like Sho Ran Koh it comes in two sizes, a small box that is somewhat analagous to the Musashino with a small container inside a larger, and the large box (in picture) that is similar to the Haru no Yama and Akikaze boxes, including a beautiful silk roll nested within a very large pawlonia box (I would wager that these are about as long as pawlonias get in Japanese incenses and they take up a lot of space in a drawer). Keep in mind when you look at the price on the large box, something that is obviously in a kyara range, that you’re getting a 90 stick, 10 1/2 inch bundle, which is a mighty amount of incense no matter how you look at it. So you’re paying a bit for quantity as well if you go large.

In fact when I was starting to think about reopening ORS earlier this year, I had the remaining stock of all three large pawlonias left in the collection, but had eliminated both the Haru no Yama and Akikaze by the time I had started to review again. I had more Murasakino left, but my box (as you can tell in the picture) is actually quite old, and probably dates to the mid to late 00s. Once again I have to thank reader JC who inspired and assisted me in the review of the Hōun Gift Set for stepping in and sending me some fresh sticks in order to be able to review this from more recent stock. I will also compare it a bit to what I have left in order to see if it is instructive.

Murasakino is very much the bridge it appears to be from the kyara Musashino and into the Haru no Yama and Akikaze. It is a green color stick like the Musashino (and unlike the next two) but even though it still keeps some of the musk notes from the Musashino that bright and more evergreen touch of kyara has been replaced with what must be Kyukyodo’s next highest grade of aloeswood, the one that tends to permeate the next two incenses down. As discussed often in reviews here, Kyukyodo has a sort of creator stamp you find in most if not all of their incenses and this is perhaps the most impressive version of all of their incenses in that this has both a strong aloeswood note without getting at all into the more bitter or less adjusted features of the wood. Murasakino appears to be Japanese/kanji for “purple” and that actually makes a lot of sense when you start in on this incense. Purple sticks and purple cloud and similar ideas can be fairly common in the upper ranges of Japanese incense. You can actually think of this in some ways as a higher range Sho Ran Koh in style, but with the musk much more turned up and the mid level spices adjusted in a different direction. In fact one of the things I am noticing again burning new stock is just how much some of this middle has faded with age. The woods have largely survived but there’s a whole element of perfume in the center that really compliments them. It is an extremely beautiful incense, classy and noble.

But it’s interesting as the old sticks feel like almost a completely different incense now and I’m not sure I can completely chalk it up to age. There is some difference in the wood stock for sure, although I’m not sure I would make a judgement call that the wood was better or worse, just maybe somewhat different. It feels like a much drier incense in a sense that I’m not sure the loss of the perfume notes can completely account for. Sure a lot of the musk has obviously faded, but so have a lot of the spicier elements I sense more in the new stick. I’m not sure if that means the recipe has shifted in a way to make up for more than that, but there doesn’t feel like there’s even the faintest residue of some of this left. But overall it is very interesting to compare the same incense that I would guess is at least a dozen years apart in provenance. One thing you do notice is no matter what has faded there is still left a quite excellent incense nonetheless. Overall Murasakino has survived stock changes at this point and is well worth seeking out as one of the finest of high end aloeswoods.

Kikujudo / Kouboku Ginmi / Sandalwood India, Aloeswood Vietnam + Notes on Sandalwood Indonesia, Aloeswood Kalimantan, Aloeswood Indonesia

The Kikujudo Kouboku Ginmi series appears to be relatively recently imported into the Japan Incense catalog, coming in at about the same time as the Kourindo line. Kikujudo is a company we haven’t seen a lot of incenses for, and certainly not any at all for traditional wood scents, so this is an interesting line up indeed and shows the company has great skill even with a much smaller line up. Kouboku Ginmi is essentially a series of sticks made from regionally sourced woods and they don’t appear to be embellished with much in the way of anything else, allowing you to experience each particular wood in as close to a pure state as you can get in a stick. The incenses are presented in utterly gorgeous, but perhaps oversized boxes, although they are also offered without boxes, which strikes me as a cool idea because if you essentially like anything enough to buy again you can keep the old box and just get a new roll. On the other hand, this has two of those hard to fit plastic slips, one that goes over the box and another that goes over the roll. The latter seems to go right on since it has no edges but the one for the box can be a bit frustrating. Anyway Kikijudo also offer a sampler of all five sticks in this series, which is a good place to start. It is where I started and eventually made the decision to purchase the two boxes that I did, and not, if only for now, the other three. So I will start with the ones I really like and know well and then move to the sampler to discuss the others.

I’m asked every once in a while about sandalwood incenses, in fact often enough that we hope to eventually put something together that compares a lot of the existing sandalwoods to better highlight what’s out there, it will just take a bit of work. Where aloeswood can vary pretty widely in scent, sandalwoods are a lot closer together and even small variations can set one I like apart from one I’m not as fond of. But I really wanted to truly praise and highlight the Kouboku Ginmi Sandalwood India stick. This to my nose is next to dead perfect in what I’m looking for in a Japanese sandalwood stick. It smells like straight up high quality Mysore old mountain sandalwood in all its fresh and deep glory. It has strong resin, the slight buttery side, it’s freshly sawn and has a cooling middle like few others. These days you hear about how this wood is disappearing and it is, but if you don’t mind skipping the pawlonia box then you can get a nice roll of this for $36 and whatever you might think of the price this truly earns it. It’s one of the few Japanese sandalwoods in a while, like I do with a good aloeswood, that I often want to pull it out and burn a stick because the memory of it is so beguiling. Wonderful stuff and I do hope both the Kikujudo and Japan Incense stock of this one runs deep.

The line’s most expensive incense, the Aloeswood Vietnam, is also similarly excellent. While perhaps this level of aloeswood does not have the more aromatically distinct and special notes that say the Vietnamese aloeswood Baieido calls Ogurayama or Hakusui has, it is still a very fine level of wood. It strikes me as somewhat similar to some of the higher grade Shoyeido aloeswood chips, but also like the Baieido aloeswood used in more of their mid to low end lines. I would suspect there must be some slight modifications to make the burn present in this sort of way, but unlike the other two lower grades of aloeswood, any of the more bitter and lower grade notes are gone with this stick. In fact I might even recommend this as a sort of baseline aloeswood scent to compare others to because it almost typifies the sort of descriptions I’d give to good aloeswood. It’s polished, refined, elegant and stately. Keep in mind however, if you buy it with the box you are actually coming fairly close in price to some of the lower end kyara blends which might in themselves be a bit more impressive as incenses, so if you are still sort of out there sampling a number of different Japanese incenses I might wait to grab this one until you’re sure you truly love aloeswood on its own. But you can also save a little money by getting it without the box.

Moving back to the sandalwoods, as well as the sampler pack (pictured) we have the lower grade Sandalwood Indonesia. I will go on record as saying that outside of sandalwood use in blends with many other ingredients in it, if you are going for a mostly pure sandalwood it is difficult to avoid tedium unless there is some level of old mountain Mysore sourced sandalwood in it. It is this deep level of wood where I think most of the really fine points of the wood come out and a stick like the Sandalwood Indonesia is missing a lot of these subtleties. Without the finer resinous notes, it’s hard not to feel it’s a bit generic and certainly hard to justify at a $26 price, when you can find lower price point blends that even if they are not pure sandalwood still pitch at remotely the same space. Don’t get me wrong, this is a sandalwood and it does not deviate from the overall scent, but the edges of the wood are a bit harsher, the overall profile not as buttery or crystalline and while it still feels freshly cut, it mostly doesn’t work as well when you line it up with the India version. There’s some level of an almost alkaline note to it and overall it feels like it reaches for the depth without quite getting there. Now if the same roll of this was something like $10 then I might be more inclined to sing its praises as I have no doubt it’s probably close to top of the line Indonesian sandalwood. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but given there isn’t a huge difference in prices in the sandalwood range, it just seems redundant to have both when it’s worth just saving a bit of extra money and going for the India alone.

[NOTE: 2/7/22: I just wanted to state I feel like I completely underrated both the Kalimantan and Indonesia aloeswoods in this review. By the end of the sampler I was just starting to be like hmm these are quite good, so I took the chance and ordered full boxes of both. They’re actually quite incredible incenses. So keep that mind as you read the below, it might be instructive in how there can be something of a listening curve for certain incenses. Needless to say I highly recommend both, although they are similar enough that I might start with one or the other. It is one good reason I try to avoid reviews just based on a few sticks if I can!] Both the Aloeswood Kalimantan and the Aloeswood Indonesia are Indonesia based; however, the former aloeswood is specific to the island. These incenses bring up what I think is a pretty important issue and that’s not only just the decrease in aloeswood stocks but what happens when that leads to inflation in remaining prices. Indonesian aloeswood has often been considered one of the lower grades of wood and my general impression of it is that it can be quite nice in blends, but tends to be a bit dissipated and not as memorable on its own. When priced the way it used to be it was commensurate, but when you start putting a roll of it at $84 and you’re still conceptually stuck on aloeswood prices from 10 years ago, it can be harder to justify. However, now it may just be where the prices fall. But the Kalimantan is a really toasty sort of wood scent with an almost completely different profile to the Vietnam. In burning this prior to writing it up, I found I started to like it quite a bit more than I did going into this review. Even if it doesn’t have that sort of deep Vietnam resin to it, the overall profile of the wood feels like a bit of spice, coffee, toffee, a touch of bitterness, maybe some hint of sandalwood back there too. It is often one of the main issues where I have to separate notes I take from a sampler compared to a full review because often something takes a few sticks for me to really start to appreciate it and it’s now under my skin a bit.

So I wondered if the same would happen with the Aloeswood Indonesia, the box-less roll of which is now at $96? This one’s kind of interesting because while it’s a similar sort of aloeswood scent, it feels like there’s some level of a floral feel to it that the Kalimantan is missing. When burning the Kalimantan I was starting to almost get a hazelnut note from it but here I actually feel I get something like that, along with similar coffee and caramel sorts of notes. This also seems to have a bit higher of a level of resin to it that starts to justify better the sorts of prices you’re seeing on it, a resin that perhaps is also responsible for some of that floral top level. It’s interesting to me as well that when I burned these sticks at a different area in my home they felt more bitter than they do where I’m at now, which makes me feel like you get that more when the smoke spreads out a bit. So here I am kind of that end of the review. I bought two boxes, by the end of writing this I feel like I need two more and by the end of the sampler, who knows I may want all five. These are all real treats if you’re into woods and I would suspect most of my long time readers are very likely to be, so yeah while these may be showing some new market level of appreciation I have no doubt you’ll find them not only enjoyable but deep enough to spend some time with them.

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