Top 10 August 2010

This is, more or less, my top picks for the month. This does not mean that they are really in any kind of order (well OK, the Kyara Kokoh really is the top dog). There are also a lot more then ten incenses that I burn but we try and hold the line for the write up’s. I did find that as it got hotter in the Bay Area  my use of the Electric Incense Heater went up, as did my own blending for things to put on it. Great fun by the way!  -Ross

Kyara Kokoh by Baieido: I burn, maybe,  one plus sticks of this a month, in small “installments”. It is somewhat of an almost religious experience. Baieido says that this one is hand made by the owners using green oil Kyara that had been specially selected and I can believe it. It is pretty much beyond words and just gets better with each “installment”. Not inexpensive, but quite wonderful. Note to Baieido, if any of that green oil kyara is laying around ’cause it did not make the cut, I could find a use for it 🙂

Ogurayama Aloeswood from Baieido: Baieido is all about the woods. This one is from Vietnam and is considered a “sweet” scented Aloeswood. I love to put a small amount on the electric heater and let it gently infuse the room with it’s beautiful and very smooth scent. Trying to describe this is not easy, but basically it is about as pure of an Aloeswoods experience as you can get. If you like Aloeswoods then this is a great way to really start to understand them. Baieido’s Hakusui is another to try, actually any of them would work! At some point (when we get really brave) I think we might be doing some full reviews on the Baieido woods and possibly the Rikkoku (Six Countries) Set.

Saimei Koh from Gyokushodo: This is a wonderful Aloeswood and Sandalwood mix with a nice helping of spices, resins , herbs and  camphor. I do wish it packed a bit more “punch” and often find myself burning two sticks at once. It has a very classic “Old Japan” type scent. There are some similarities to a number of other makers scents but(at the moment) I think this one stands out.

Ranjatai or Kyara Seikan from Shunkohdo: Rajantai is one of my favorite scents; it pretty much has it all. Really good Aloeswoods combined with musk and resins. It’s deep, dark and wonderful, plus you get enough in the bundle to go on a real incense burning binge! Kyara Seikan adds Kyara to the mix and is also much smoother, it also cost more and is worth it (but not so “bingeable”) I ended up using both of these a lot during the Mystery of Musk series just to get a straight up scent logon for musk.

Honey Amber by Fred Soll: This is one of the very few incenses in the world to actually use Ambergris(beach caste). It has a really deep, yet clean amber note to it that the honey aspect adds an even deeper sweet note to. It is pretty strong so one stick can go for quite a few burns and still do up a room quite nicely. I think that Soll’s incenses are one of the best deals in the world and this one is right up there for me.

Copal Negro by Fred Soll: I would have to term this one as “heavy hitter” copal. It is smooth with a touch of sweetness in the background that kind of tempers everything together, but all that is riding on lots of deep dark copal. Wonderful stuff, great for grounding the environment of a room(or a person).

Japanese Musk from Koh Shi (Daihatsu): I am pretty sure that this does not use real musk, that being said it does really convey the idea of musk. It is  strong and has a nice, not too sweet, quality to it. It produces a wonderful scent to a room that also feels quite clean.

Swallows in Flight by Les Encens du Monde(Kunjudo): I had not used this a while and then “rediscovered” it last month. It is very complex, uses very good quality woods, resins, spices and maybe oils. Sometimes it almost seems a bit over the top in how much is going on here (another long learning curve)but having never been adverse to excessive excess, I just light another stick and go with it.

Deep Earth Premium – 2010 from Mermade Magical: This is something for the heater, to be gently warmed over a period of time. It has many musk like elements to it as well as resins and spices, It is a very deep, complex and meditative scent that really shows off Katlyn’s skills as well as the use of very high quality materials. It also takes quite awhile to make with a lot of ageing involved, which is reflected in the complexity of the scent. Beautiful.

Healing  from Mermade Magical: One of Mermades incense triangles, which is along the lines of a cone. This has a very clean and clear scent to it, I find it refreshing and uplifting; it seems especially good during the summer months. There is a great play between the resins and woods Somewhat unique and very nice.

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Clearing up Encense du Monde

In my last Encense du Monde article I was given assistance by a couple readers on the origins of some of the incenses, that is what company they originated from. Given that most of the line heralds from several companies I thought I’d put up the rest of the line to see if we can’t collectively clear up the rest of the line. Originally I thought in doing so we’d find out where some duplications are, however it’s become clear that even in cases where there seems to be duplication, there often isn’t. I was pretty stunned to find out that Middle Path and Mount Fuji were apparently the same name as the two Daily incenses Daigen Koh and Hoyei Koh, as they are very different in scent. So anyway, here’s the list after the break, if you can fill in the gaps in the comments I’d most appreciate it. Pictures of the incenses can be found here and on subsequent pages. Eventually once complete I’ll put up a comparison page between similarly named incenses for reference. Read the rest of this entry »

Encens du Monde / 1000 Years of Wisdom, Pine & Orchid Wedding, Whispering Bamboo, Oriental Breeze, Aloe Vera, Middle Path, Mount Fuji

It’s dawned on me recently that if you want really high quality but low price incenses, the various Encens du Monde sandalwoods are really some of the best on the market. It’s true there’s something of a price markup with most of these due to the incenses’ long travel regiment, but I think the quality of most of these incenses does indeed offset these prices to some extent. The real difficulty with these incenses is making sure you don’t overlap with something directly distributed to your country; however, my experience over time has been that even in the cases that incenses do overlap, there’s still enough of a recipe difference to set two similar brands apart.

For example, I reviewed Kokando Rangetsu vs Encense du Monde Jade Orchid a while back and while you certainly only need one or the other, I felt the EdM variety was slightly the superior with a better wood base. Later I got the opportunity to compare Kunjudo’s Karin in the box to Karin in the tube and found that the difference was nearly significant, the former much sweeter, the latter muskier and more traditional, making me wonder if the Encense du Monde Forest of Flowers variant might differ in its own right. With these experiences I wouldn’t be quite so sure that even when two packagings match up in style that you’re dealing with the exact same incense. And Ross’s warning in the latest top 10 should be taken under advisement as well, there are indeed formulation changes happening with nearly every incense under the sun as aloeswood, sandalwood and halmaddi all get rarer. In the group I’ll be reviewing today, the Oriental Breeze packaging matches up with the “generic” Shobikoh incense distributed via the Incense Works, but I’d make a guess that the Shobikoh probably isn’t quite as strong as the Oriental Breeze given the difference in price. In summary, buyer beware. I believe most of the EdM incenses in this review are made by Kunjudo, with the known exception of Mount Fuji, which is a Shoyeido incense not otherwise distributed here. [Correction: Please note Francois’ comment below for the right origins of these incenses]

1000 Years of Wisdom (1000 Ans de Sagesse) is something of a potpourri type of incense with ingredients extracted from various wood powders, essential oils, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus and patchouli. It’s a black colored stick but not of the smokeless kind usually found in this color. It’s a hard one to describe given there are really no dominant scents other than the eucalyptus content being fairly obvious with its almost menthol like cooling scent. It does appear to have the typical sandalwood base and although there is no obvious aloeswood content, oil or otherwise, has some similarities to the Shoyeido Sei-Fu blend. Whisps of sweetness, anise and even an herbal flavor that reminds me of veitivert pop up occasionally, but overall this is an incense formulated for a unique scent. It’s not at all a bad deal for the almost $9 a roll and one I’ve found gets better with use.

Pine & Orchid Wedding (Mariage du pin et de l’orchidée) I’ve tried in the short roll but it also appears to be part of the Japonessence line as well, although I’m not sure if it varies in scent or not. This is one of my very favorite under $10 sandalwood based rolls and in some ways it’s almost like a low octave and inexpensive version of the incenses you see as Seeds of Transformation and Blissful Mountain in the much pricier Meditation range. That is, it’s a wood based stick with a fabulous floral oil on top, a marriage I’ve really grown to appreciate with use. The floral oil isn’t as expensive or as high class as it is in the previous mentioned incenses but nor is it bitter or off  putting, just a bit mellower (it should be mentioned that the two top ends use lily essential oil rather than orchid, but the results are too similar not to compare). The pine is typical of its use in most Japanese incenses in that it’s a woody scent rather than the heavily resinous pitch you’ll encounter in, say, Fred Soll’s incenses (Shunkohdo Matsuba Pine is fairly close for example). Overall just a perfect scent, fresh and calming and even with the EdM hike, very affordable.

Like 100o Years, Whispering Bamboo (Le Chant des bambous) is a pretty complex and multi-ingredient heavy scent, although in this case we’re dealing with a square stick with the typical green color. The ingredient list has “a delicate touch” of violet along with sandalwood, cinnamon, eucalyptus, Chinese plants and patchouli. And in particular the Chinese plants aspect evokes similarities to various traditional Kunmeido and Shunkohdo scents that use medicinal herbs, with a unique spice as a backdrop. This is a much more intense scent than, say, the bamboo incense found in Kunjudo’s Three Scents box due to these herbs, although I would suspect the slightly fruity undertones are where the violet manifests (or at least it doesn’t all evoke for me what I typically think of as a violet scent). Overall its quite unique and another EdM winner that improves for me with every stick of use.

As I mentioned before, Oriental Breeze (Brise Orientale) has packaging reminiscent enough of Shobikoh as to hint that we’re dealing with a very similar incense and a significantly different price. Of all the incenses in this review, this is the most obviously inexpensive, it’s described as a sandalwood incense with clove and cinnamon, a combination very common at the lower price ranges. The wood, unlike with the other scents here, is a bit on the bitter side at times, and the oil content is much lower, making this one only roughly indistinguishable from most lower end “every day” sandalwoods. Although I haven’t tried the Shobikoh per se, it may be the one to start with given its low cost. Those stocked heavily with green low end sandalwoods will likely not need the duplication.

The next three incenses could be considered “sampler notes” in that I’ve only tried a couple sticks of each and don’t feel I’ve exhaused the aromatic potential of any of them. The good news is that with all three I felt my best experiences were towards the last stick, and in one case I did an almost complete turn around. This case was the Aloe Vera, admittedly not one of my favorite scents, it’s quite the common addition to soaps and even tissue paper, with its very noticeable green, verdant and fresh scent. My initial take on this incense was that it was too bitter and unpleasant, but I found myself actually warming to it by the second stick. It really does what it says on the box, representing the aroma in a wood base, with some hints of clay and patchouli in the mix. I perhaps did not have enough of a sample to know how I’d feel about it in the end but still ended on a positive note.

Middle Path I liked from the start, it’s a purple stick with a very purple “feel” to it, slightly mellow and otherwise not terribly far from most low end green sandalwoods, except it generally avoids the bitter tendencies found in the woods. There’s quite a decent sandalwood value here, with a noticeably sawdust like aroma, but the best part is the myrrh and spicy oil, the former of which would account for the mellowness. One I think I’ll be adding to the next incense order.

Mount Fuji, as previously mentioned, is a Shoyeido incense not distributed through the main company, perhaps because it’s fairly similar to the same line’s Miyako-gusa scent. That is, it’s a typically spicy, but uncommonly rich and slightly sharp low end sandalwood mix that wouldn’t have fit particularly comfortably in the Daily or Classics range.  There appears to be lily of the valley in this one, but I didn’t notice the same sort of powerful oil that’s in Seeds of Transformation or Blissful Mountain, more so I got impressions of forests, pine and other woods and maybe a touch of patchouli. But again, with only a couple sticks its possible I was just missing the notes.

Likely next up on the Encens du Monde agenda will be a look at the Aromambiance line, which to my nose is almost how I’d envision Nippon Kodo moderns if they were done a bit better. But that will be some time down the road. As far as these incenses are concerned, Pine and Orchid Wedding is something of a must, but other than the Oriental Breeze and maybe the Aloe Vera, all the rest seem to be strong low end sandalwoods all with unique combinations you may not have tried before.

Encens du Monde / Meditation; Short Rolls / Celestial Nave (Ranshuko Temple Blend), Seeds of Transformation; Virgin Snow

Previous Encens du Monde / Meditation reviews

The French distribution company Les Encens du Monde is responsible for bringing over a number of great incenses to the Western world; however, several of them overlap with currently available incenses and there are also subtle differences between overlapping incenses, all of which make them somewhat problematic and difficult to review. As a distribution company, Encens du Monde brings over a number of different incenses which are dominantly from Kunjudo, but also feature scents from Shoyeido, Baieido, Kokando and others.

We can generally guess an overlapping incense by the graphics on the roll, which, while not identical, tend to feature a similar artistic motif, for example the green roll with Koh game symbolism on Kokando Rangetsu and Jade Orchid. The same goes for two of the three incenses here, there’s a definite overlap between the Celestial Nave and Ranshuko Temple Blend (which now appears to be deleted or unavailable from many suppliers) boxes, almost identical in this case. And the motifs of Virgin Snow and Byakudan Shirayuki (also translated as White Snow) are also similar enough to be considered fairly identical. However, there appear to be slight differences among the recipes that could be attributed to either a different batch or an adjustment for a particular market. I’m not sure what these all are, but will account for them given a particular incense.

Celestial Nave was fairly easy to identify, as I mentioned above, as the same incense as Ranshuko Temple Blend, the orange box and graphics making this fairly obvious. However, I’ll be reviewing from the latter box. The ingredients on both appear to be the same: agarwood, sandalwood, kansho (spikenard), cloves, patchouli and camphor. And in this incense’s case you can quite easily pick up just about every single ingredient even though they also blend together nicely. It’s a long, thick, square stick with plenty of burning time, reflecting its value for temples nicely. The sandalwood seems to be of very high quality, the agarwood and camphor notes, the clove particularly strong and spicy, and the kansho and patchouli faint but still noticeable overall. It’s fairly similar in some ways to the Reiryo-Koh blend in that it’s tangy and strong natured, with something of a hoary, earthy vibe to it; in fact other than that incense it’s tough to compare Ranshuko to anything. In most aloeswood/sandalwood blends, the aloeswood tends to dominate but it could be that the reverse is true here. I’d actually had this for a while, so when I pulled it out for this review I was surprised at how much better it was than I remembered, it’s a very memorable scent. But I’d hunt down the Ranshuko version before it disappears, as it’s half the price the Encens du Monde version is and a steal at that price. Even if you can’t, Celestial Nave would be well worth it.

Seeds of Transformation is one of two incenses in the Meditation line that features a sandalwood stick drenched in the essential oil of the lily. I reviewed the other sandalwood/lily incense, Blissful Mountain, at the top link, which is a thicker stick, however even though the descriptions are virtually the same, the incenses differ in a way that’s quite difficult to capture in writing. Both are terribly gorgeous incenses, two of the best florals available, with no off tones in the perfume, just a rich scent of flowers that really lingers. If I were to guess, I’d say that the oil might be a bit purer with the Blissful Mountain, where there might be a bit of spice bolstering the Seeds of Transformation, but these differences could be between the thick and thin stick versions as well. Like the high end florals in the Shoyeido Floral World series, both incenses have great definition and thus belong with the aloeswoods in the more expensive incense ranges. Really beautiful work here, I can even see why there are two similar incenses in the same line.

Virgin Snow tends to be a bit more complicated. The version I have comes from the shorter rolls, but there are 3 versions of it, including a long stick meditation version. The odd thing to me is, despite the long box being identical to the Byakudan Shirayuki, the version I have isn’t low smoke by any means, fairly normal actually, which makes me wonder if there’s a recipe change for the version distributed via Incense Works. Regardless, the short roll sticks are really nice incenses, green sandalwoods also imbued with quite a bit of oil or perfume. The freshness and slight evergreen nature of the stick does reflect the incense’s name quite well, and it’s also quite sweet and friendly with a slight mintiness and maybe a touch of green patchouli to it. Overall it’s a very accessible stick, like a walk in a snowy forest. In this case, I’d probably recommend trying out an Encens du Monde version first, unless you’re partial to low smoke incenses.

The Meditation line is really one of Encens du Monde’s finest, it’s quite solid across the spectrum, although I found Imperial Family a little hard to get used to at first. They’re all packaged in very attractive boxes, use high quality ingredients even down to the spices, and feature scents you’re unlikely to match outside of the incenses’ obvious, directly exported duplicates. And they’re quite interesting for having some of the most high end, non-aloeswood incenses available as well. It’s not at all difficult to give recommendations for all three of these.

Encens du Monde / Karin / Pearl, Ruby, Moonlit Night, Perfumed Prince

Reviews of the previous Encense du Monde/Kunjudo Karin incenses can be found here.

Encens Du Monde’s Karin line is somewhat confusing given the changes executed a year or two ago, which ended up in totally different box designs and the elimination from the line of two of its best incenses, Golden Waves and Royal Nave (both of which can be found, at relatively expensive prices, in Temple length form). Karin now consists of six incenses, two of which, Forest of Flowers (also called Karin via Kunjudo in the US) and Swallows in Flight, I reviewed in the first link above. The remaining four incenses are all fairly different (with one exception) from these two, all being very floral incenses. They’re also very good floral incenses, different from those that often have bitter and cheap perfumes, with surprisingly satisfying finishes for the style. As always, Encens du Monde incenses have considerable mark up, coming from Japan via France, however even with this markup, the quality often matches the price. Almost every incense in the line seems to use perfume oils, but all seem to be perfectly pitched.

Karin is a strange line having so many differently styled incenses. Along with the amber-infused every day style of Karin and the decidedly aloeswood leaning Swallows in Flight, we have two less smoke incenses with square cuts (Pearl and Ruby), a very similar round cut but not smokeless incense (Perfumed Prince) and a floral yet traditionally styled incense (Moonlit Night). There really isn’t much of a qualitative difference among the six incenses, even the one you think would be the most expensive (Swallows) seems to get much of its impact from the oil, in a similar way to Tennendo’s roll incenses, like Renzan or Tensei.

The two less smoke incenses are quite pleasant surprises. Both use something of a charcoal formula for a base, yet neither have the slight bitterness that even the Baieido smokeless incenses have. Both are very modern perfumes, having little relationship to most incenses or even other florals. Pearl has an almost vanilla or honeysuckle like perfume, sultry, mellow and reminiscent of modern perfumes. It reminded me a little of an old memory of daffodils, with hints of talcum powder and even tonka bean at times. It’s still surprising to me that such a mellow aroma isn’t cut through by its own base. Ruby might be even more delicate, with slight hints of rose and carnation in the midst of what is a fresh, cleansing sort of aroma similar to Baieido’s Izumi but not as intense. There are some citrus-like notes in particular that help to separate it from the Pearl, not to mention it’s lacking Pearl’s creamier notes for something a bit more overtly floral.

Perfumed Prince might have been the third of this style if it was less smoke and square cut. It still has what seems like a similar charcoal base, although it seems to have the normal smoke content of a Japanese stick. Strangely enough, however, it’s an incense very similar in aroma to Pearl, with an almost coffee creamer-like aroma on top. There seems to be some strong vanilla notes involved, although it’s hard to tell if this originates from vanilla itself or a resin like benzoin. I also get a bit of jasmine or marshmallow in here as well. Like Pearl, it’s a very gentle incense that is likely to appeal to even those put off by traditionals. The only issue is there’s some slightly metallic hints that might come from the base, but these hints aren’t noticeable enough to be offputting.

Moonlit Night differs greatly from these three, being a traditional, wood-based incense. Inspired by the aroma of the Daphne flower it draws the obvious comparisions to Forest of Flowers, a sandalwood-based incense that also incorporates the Daphne aroma to fine effect (honestly Karin/Forest of Flowers is about as good as an inexpensive Japanese incense gets). Moonlit Night’s floral nature is much more overt, to the point where it reminded me of a lot of Nippon Kodo and other Kunjudo florals, however, Moonlit Night stops just before it gets bitter or offputting, leaving the incense’s floral nature rather pure. Unlike the other three incenses in this review, Moonlit Night has some wood base to it that prevents it from being a fully modern incense and in many ways bridges the three black stick florals to the other two traditionals.

I’m not a big fan of floral incenses, but have to say that the four in question here are among the best I’ve tried in that they are all rather original aromas without the problems associated with cheaper incenses: the bitter off notes, bad charcoal bases and inexpensive perfumes without any true depth. They really make the Karin line one of interest throughout the six incenses, and present some modern styles that one might be able to introduce to even the most casual appreciator of incense. Even at these travelled prices, these incenses are generally worth it. Were they to arrive in the US without a European side trip like Karin does, I’d be telling you about their high quality/low price ratio.

Encens du Monde / Prince of Awaji, Imperial Family, Ikebana, Jade Orchid/Kokando Rangetsu

Other Encens du Monde (now Florisens) reviews can be found here. Prince of Awaji has been discontinued, however the other incenses are still available.

Encens du Monde is a French company that contracts with various Japanese companies, especially Kunjudo, to provide a number of lines of incense to the public. Due to such an arrangement, the prices of these incenses tend to be quite a bit higher than most in the same range, although the overlap between EdM incenses and those already catalogued in the US is small enough that the lion’s share of EdM incenses could be considered new to US shores. Overall you’d probably have to consider EdM a somewhat higher priced, more boutique version of Nippon Kodo, who tends to market their incenses more so to gift and new age shops, than appreciators of traditional Japanese incenses. As of today only Essence of the Ages supplies this company’s incenses for the US market.

Encens du Monde include numerous sublines, many of which signify the length of the stick. Prince of Awaji is the line’s most deluxe luxury incense, Imperial Family a long stick Meditation incense. Both Ikebana and Jade Orchid are long rolls and floral in bouquet, the former two incenses definitively woody.

I’ve struggled with Prince of Awaji for quite a while as this is a good example of where the Encens du Monde price differential makes a difference. Readers of our Hall of Fame page will notice the Luxury category, which are boxes in excess of $150. In nearly all cases, a box of incense costing over $150 is going to be superb and while they will always be cost prohibitive given a certain salary, it’s hard not to recommend most incenses at this price for those who can afford them. However Prince of Awaji is more a Premium level incense at a Luxury price and while it’s still excellent, it’s hard to justify it as a Hall of Fame pick given its expense. Going for it are what seems like a larger number of sticks than what’s on the box, at least at a guess. Like several other EdM incenses like Whispering Bamboo and the two Karin smokeless incenses Pearl and Ruby, Prince of Awaji is a square stick, skinner than, say, Baieido Kai Un Koh but similar in cut. Prince of Awaji is described as having accents of kyara and that would be a fair statement. That is, this is not a kyara incense in the same way, say, Koh Shi Boku or Aioi no Matsu are, rather that element of the incense only exists at the most faintest top note, the note missed most with aromatic fatigue. In fact of a dozen or more burned sticks, I only caught this note once and while it’s quite sublime, it’s not likely to survive past what is a rather workmanlike and slightly nutty aloeswood base that, while reminiscent of other excellent EdM aloeswoods like Golden Waves or Swallows Flight, is rather pale and not particularly compelling without the essential oils to bolster it. Overall most incenses at $150 or more are intense and heavily aromatic, Prince of Awaji by comparison is less rich and far more fleeting, whatever good can be said for it.

The most striking thing about Imperial Family would have to be the attractive box, its green, floral motif one of the most striking outside pawlonia boxes. Incense-wise, it’s very difficult to describe, ostensibly a sandalwood based green blend, but that would incorrectly imply a noticeable sandalwood aromatic element. Instead the woods and spices blend into something far more difficult to put a finger on, with a number of rarely used woods that give the incense a slight tang to it. The description implies flowery, but it’s quite unlike Pine and Orchid Wedding, Ikebana, Whispering Bamboo, Virgin Snow and other green EdMs with stronger floral elements. Overall it’s a difficult incense to really talk about as it’s quite unlike other woody incenses and might be something of a risk given its relative expense and quantity. I’m still fairly neutral to it although there are indeed some accents that are intriguing and overall it is reminscent of other incenses with rei-ryoko root or other medicinal herbs, particularly from Shunkohdo or Kunmeido.

Both Ikebana and Jade Orchid (scroll down about half way) are sandalwood-based long rolls with very floral aromas. Ikebana presents a bouquet-like floral that will remind many of Kyukyodo’s similar florals (such as Azusa and a few currently unexported to the US). While Kyukyodo florals tend to hide their base more than this, leaving Ikebana with a noticeable sandalwood center, the jasmine-tinged multi-floral perfume oil on top will likely be considered very pleasant and similar, with a bit of spice to pep things up including what seem like cinnamon and patchouli, similar to many low end daily incenses. Overall a bit powdery and sweet, with only a bit of sharpness from the base.

Jade Orchid is one of the Encens du Monde crossovers, being an almost identical recipe to Kokando Rangetsu. Kokando Rangetsu (scroll down to bottom, this page has it listed as Ranshuko Rangetsu) is an extraordinarily affordable floral sandalwood with what I would have described as a jasmine oil in front, but what appears to be something of an orchid aroma based on the EdM name. A lot of sandalwood incenses at this low end often have sharp or bitter notes in the base, but the Rangetsu seems to avoid these. It’s interesting to compare Rangetsu to Jade Orchid as the recipe does indeed seem to be slightly different despite what is similar packaging and almost identical aromas. Jade Orchid seems to have a higher quality and more sandalwood rich base than Kokando Rangetsu, despite their being very little difference otherwise. While it’s not the sort of difference to explain the same in price, Jade Orchid has a pleasant woodiness to it that gives it the slight nod.

Lots more Encense du Monde incenses to still cover, the next batch should cover four more Karin blends and after that some more short rolls.

Best Incense – August 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land

Encens du Monde / Moments of Eternity, Moments of Serenity

Right in the middle of the Encens du Monde Short Rolls list (scroll down a little over half way) are a couple of incenses that are actually quite different from the others in the line. For one thing, they’re at least an inch shorter each than the rest of the short rolls and they’re also quite a bit thicker. The thickness of the stick, however, doesn’t really add to the smoke content and both of these incenses are quite smooth and consonant even while made up of a number of ingredients. Like many roll incenses, these two come singly or in boxes of (12) rolls. I’ve also seen gift boxes with rolls of both and a holder, but as far as I know these haven’t been imported yet and could be discontinued.

Moments of Eternity is an earthy, tan colored stick and made from white sandalwood, cinnamon, oak moss and essential oils. Overall it’s actually not a heavily perfumed incense, which is often the case for many brands in the Encens du Monde canon, instead it definitely goes for a strong spice content and as such is reminiscent of gingerbread cookies or graham crackers. While it’s not a particularly startling incense at the beginning, I’ve found myself presently surprised coming back into a room full of the aroma of one that has been burning for a while, it has a mellow consistency to it that’s quite nice, a spicy stick that’s really never overwhelming.

Moments of Serenity is the green stick companion and a far less distinctive incense, created from sandalwood, cinnamon, benzoin, kansho (spikenard), star anise seed and cloves. I could see this ingredients list almost being more appropriate for Moments of Eternity as it implies a high spice content. However Moments of Serenity is far more like a green, every day sandalwood in scent. While there are notes of the ingredients list in the top part of the aroma, they’re very subtle and often lost with fatigue, leaving the stick smelling rather standard after a while. I spent quite a few sticks just trying to suss out further qualities from this one and was left disappointed (nor was I convinced age was a factor in this case). However, it does share the same slick and consonant qualities of Moments of Eternity, even if that particular incense is the most successful of the two.

Overall, I’d recommend Eternity, but would suggest other green sandalwood types with more distinctiveness (for example Kyukyodo Ikaruga or Shoyeido Evening Zen) over Serenity.

Les Encens du Monde / Karin, Swallows in Flight, Royal Nave, Golden Waves, Blissful Mountain, Guiding Light

One month ago, I planned to write an article on a few of these incenses with the fact hanging heavy that at that point one could not buy Encens du Monde incenses in the United States. I’m pleased to say that this has changed and that the first batch of these incenses are now available at Essence of the Ages. We must all thank Beth for her persistence in trying to provide these incenses, several of which are world class, particularly in an era where the dollar isn’t doing so well. You’ll be able to read more reviews of these incenses in the future, but there are a number I want to cover right away as an early introduction to the line.

Les Encens du Monde is a French company who contracts with several Japanese companies to distribute various incense lines. The lion’s share of incenses distributed by this company appear to be made by Kunjudo, at the very least the Karin line is certainly a Kunjudo line, but there are others in their catalog created originally by Shoyeido or Baieido. A few of these duplicate incenses you can already find in the US, which makes any sort of discussion about this company’s incenses a little difficult to be specific about. Several of the line’s incenses also exist in Temple and Ceremony lengths and while I’d normally just consider them long stick versions, I’ve seen some of these incenses referred to as “Temple quality” while also having a significant price attached to them.

It also seems like EdM have switched around their lines a bit. I ended up buying both Golden Waves and Royal Nave overseas as part of the Karin line, only to realize that EdM have not only changed the Karin line, but the presentation and stick number as well. Both Golden Waves and Royal Nave  seem to exist as Temple or Ceremony sticks, but they do not appear to be part of the Karin line anymore. These two aromas are not currently available in the US, but I suspect we will see them eventually. I’d assume Simply Incense may still have Karin versions in limited stock. Nevertheless, all of these details make it a bit difficult to talk about these incenses in terms of lines. This article does cover the four temple/ceremony incenses in question, although all my versions come from the Karin boxes or samples. Both Blissful Mountain and Guiding Light can be found in the Meditation category.

The first incense in question is a bit complicated. Kunjudo’s Karin is already imported into the United States. As already mentioned, Karin also appears to be a line via Encens du Monde. While the boxes of the Karin incenses have changed, the old box of Forest of Flowers appears to have the same presentation, ingredient list and stick color as Kunjudo Karin, so I’d assume this is the same incense. I find Karin to be one of the gems of inexpensive incense, an affordable and fantastic blend of sandalwood, Daphne wood, and cinnamon that hits a number of different buttons. It has hints of amber even without the ingredient listed as well as wood, spice and floral and it manages to spin out different combinations of these elements like an echo of expensive aloeswoods. It’s fresh, vibrant, wonderfully spicy and addictive enough to have been a personal top 10 incense in May and I can imagine wanting deep stock in it.

Swallows in Flight is one of Kunjudo’s masterstrokes. It’s a rich, decadent and almost confectionary-sweet blend that starts with an aloeswood base and adds indulgent aromatics. The minute this one hits the nose I think of things like caramel and nougat, as this has a combination of sweet and musk that reminds me of walking into a candy shop. It definitely has a slight perfume on top with hints of white mocha that cyclically hide the base, only for the agar to remind you it’s still there in the background. It might be an incense that’s too rich at times, but when it’s right it’s a tough one to beat.

As, I mentioned before two Karin incenses are not part of the line anymore. The first of these is the stupendously good Golden Waves. Of all the EdM incenses I’ve tried, this is the one with the most obvious agarwood note. Sometimes I don’t notice this for some reason, but my most recent stick reminded me that this is very much based on the aloeswood, with a rich sweet musk and a note of hazelnut or something similar added to the top. All these elements go to making this one of those aloeswood sticks with mutable qualities, making it a fascinating stick to explore over time. At the Karin price this is a very affordable incense for its quality, which may be part of the reason it’s not in that line anymore. Hopefully we’ll see the long stick versions in the future, as this is no incense to be resigned to obscurity.

The other ex-Karin incense is Royal Nave. This isn’t quite so woody, its bouquet working more as a combination of various spices and woods. Like Guiding Light, it seems that Kunjudo do indeed like working on incenses with a massive number of ingredients and so this one is often like a faceted jewel, looking different from every perspective. The description tips us off to the aniseed, but it’s not that dominant of a characteristic to my nose. I’d say it’s more strongly spicy than strongly woody, but there’s also a perfume oil in the middle that adds to the overall complexity and comes out strongly with little fatigue. It struck me as what a Nippon Kodo Kohden stick might be like with better ingredients and also had hints of gingerbread cookie. Like many incenses in this line there appears to be a tilt to the sweet.

EdM’s Meditation line appears to have many of their high end incenses. The first of these in question is the stupendously good Guiding Light (scroll to bottom). It blends agarwood with 7 essentials and 8 wood powders for a very dense and woody incense. The aroma is all about spicy wood and I get hints of old wooden chests, brown sugar, clove, high quality sandalwood, and leather. There is definitely a high oil content, but its aroma adds a bit of mystery and insularity to the blend. Given the claim of a large quantity of agarwood, I was surprised that it didn’t have that much of a dominant note, so my guess is it’s more mid quality wood, and the blend evens some of the more specific characteristics out. I’d actually like to see this in a shorter stick, a length more appropriate for its strength outside a temple.

Finally, a really interesting, high end sandalwood and oil blend, Blissful Mountain (fourth item down). Like many EdM incenses I can imagine one of the other lines has smaller packages of the same or similar incense under a different name, based on the description of combining sandalwood with lily essential oil. Blissful Mountain is a very thick, green stick that starts with the base aroma of a common every day green sandalwood, and adds a very potent and powerful floral lily oil to it. The combination is quite intense and due to the stick’s thickness, only a fragment of a stick would totally fragrance a room. The oil is very rich, a slight tad to the soapy/floral side, but overall rather excellent, and given very few incenses already sold in the US have this sort of aroma, it’s well worth checking out. My guess the lily essential oil here adds significant to low sandalwood costs.

A browse through Essence’s EdM list will show there are dozens of aromas in the company’s lines, many of which I’m looking forward to trying and writing about down the line. There may be a small bit of risk in exploration, given that there do appear to be some crossovers between currently imported incenses and the EdM versions, but for the most part most of these have not seen our shores until now. Indeed, EdM has now expanded our choices for Japanese incense significantly.

Figuring out Kunjudo and Encens du Monde

One of the great incense companies that has only a small profile in the US is Kunjudo. While our incense companies do cover some of their incenses, usually the low end modern ones, there are a number of truly excellent incenses that don’t see these shores but appear to be available in Europe. I’ll be reporting on a number of these in the near future. One of the most interesting comparisons I found is this (scroll down to the bottom to Ranshuko Temple Blend) and this.  Clearly what we consider Ranshuko Temple Blend is called Celestial Nave under the Encens du Monde trademark. Both boxes and ingredients match up. I’d have covered this on its own at some point, but eventually when I write on it, it will be under the Kunjudo umbrella.

US stores also carry one called Karin, which is actually a subline for Kunjudo and Encense du Monde and is the first of anywhere from 6-8 fragrances. The Forest of Flowers aroma in Europe appears to be the one we call Karin here. Under Karin is also the unbelievable Golden Waves in short stick form, one of the great world incenses we don’t see here, and Flight of the Swallow, another excellent aloeswood blend. The US also carries the Virgin Snow/Shirayuki sandalwood. But we don’t see the astonishing lily essential oil topped sandalwood Blissful Mountain. Or the very woody and amazing Guiding Light. And there are many more I haven’t covered here. All these you’d need to find overseas, which strikes me as quite the shame. Along with the missing Kyukyodo line, these are some of the best incenses we never see in the US. Perhaps some hurdles are too large?

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