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.


Kyukyodo / Hōun Gift Set / Haru no Yama, Natsukusa, Shiun, Akikaze, Fuyu No Yoru

So first of all I’d like to thank reader Jean Claude for not only his generous samples from this most amazing of sets, but for his pictures as well. Many years ago, ORS posted, with the help of other readers and contributors, a somewhat translated guide to the Kyukyodo catalog. This was when only a handful of Kyukyodo incenses were being distributed in the US and some years before Japan Incense began carrying more of their line. Back in this day I was lucky to get on board some international orders direct from Japan to try a bunch of different Kyukyodo incenses, including two of the incenses in this box, but I never got around to what were these unbelievably beautiful gift sets towards the beginning of the catalog. One of these is the Hōun gift set as pictured here. The draw to these often was that it had some familiar incenses, but then also had some incenses that were unavailable on their own and in any other form, and all of these tended to be higher end sandalwood and aloeswood incenses. It should be mentioned as well that there are both small and large roll versions of this set, but the pictures in the catalog don’t differ so I’m assuming the difference is in the amount of incense that’s inside each roll.

So first of all let me recapitulate some of what we’ve learned about the Kyukyodo premium line. At the very head of the line we have their kyara, Musashino. As discussed at that review, this is packaged in a large container of its own, featuring a small plastic container of the incense. The next three incenses in this line are (from most expensive to least) Murasakino, Haru no Yama (also Harunoyama), and Akikaze. All three of these incenses are long stick aloeswoods that come in these unbelievably beautiful silk rolls that are nested in rather large pawlonia wood boxes. The latter two of these incenses, including the silk roll containers, also come as part of this gift set. I feel fortunate Jean Claude sent me samples of these at a time when my own stock had run out on both, so it will give me a chance to review these (as well as link to where you can buy these two on Japan Incense). Fortunately I do have some Murasakino left, so I hope to address that one a bit later. Anyway, all four of the aforementioned incenses sit at the top of the Kyukyodo line in terms of being able to purchase them separately and then underneath these is the famous Sho-Ran-Koh, which Stephen just reviewed a little while back. Below this quintet is a whole range of incenses that follow their way down from smaller pawlonia boxes with aloeswood/sandalwood blends down into paper boxes that work their way all the way down into daily incenses.

One other item to address is that you will notice this set also has an incense called Shiun. This is not the same incense that Kyukyodo used to produce in larger box sets and had a sweet aloeswood profile, the Shiun in this gift set is a completely different (green color, sandalwood) incense and as far as I can tell, like the other two incenses in this box, is unavailable outside this box set. And really this may be one of the biggest draws for a set like this, the three incenses you can not find anywhere else, all in silk rolls similar to those at the premium end. Anyway this set is essentially another seasonal-themed set, and so each incense corresponds with a season, with a fifth, non-seasonal incense in the middle. I’m going to take this from Spring to Winter.

So first of all let’s talk about Haru no Yama (Spring Mountain). I should first say that the upper Kyukyodo range are all fairly strongly aloeswood based. Where Musashino and Murasakino have a green color, the next three down are shades of yellow/brown. One of the first things that struck me about burning these new samples was that it felt like the same incense I had originally had but it made me notice that since Kyukyodo incenses are so oil-based that my previous box had lost a lot of strength by the end and was probably even missing some of the complexity as a result. Haru no Yama might be considered something of an archetypal Kyukyodo, it has a very powerful aloeswood hit, some level of sandalwood and a great deal of spicy qualities that show this to be a real premium entry. There feels like there could be both spikenard and operculum in the mix (especially after my review of the Mukusa no Takimono set) as like a lot of crafted aloeswoods the aromatic profile has quite a bit of caramel in it. The wood is really in front on this one, everything else in the blend seems crafted to accentuate it. Overall it’s really no shock at all that this is one of Kyukyodo’s finest offerings and since this is reflecting current stock it might be worth it to say that this still does what I don’t really sense Sho-Ran-Koh doing anymore. I’ve previously thought of this almost like it’s a more premium version of SRK. It never had that really trickly almost mirage-like cleverness that old SRK stock had, but it always had more premium ingredients. I had literally forgotten what a great incense this is, so it was great to sample it again (not to mention put it on my shopping list).

Natsukusa (Summer Grass) moves to a sandalwood blend. Kyukyodo have more of these green-colored sandalwood incenses than perhaps any other line (maybe Gyokushodo is close). Leaving some of the lower dailies out like Ikaruga or Shirohato, Natsukusa is more in the range of incenses like Miyuki, Ichiyamatsu, or Gyokurankoh. However, where some of the regular line sandalwoods have taken a bit of a hit in terms of quality, the sandalwood in Natsukusa is still quite premium, it has solid resin content as well as that aroma of freshly sawed wood. In many ways this is sort of a higher end version of one of the dailies except there’s no mistaking that this is more of a blend and that the sandalwood in front is the real wood itself. In fact in many ways this reminds me more of what Gyokurankoh used to smell like more than its more recent boxes do. I actually love Kyukyodo sandalwoods when they hit this sort of aroma, so I find Natsukusa pleasurable indeed. It even has a bit of that powdery quality that Azusa used to have without being at all floral and there’s some level of this that really is hinting towards something of a freshly mown grass smell as well. It’s really a beautiful stick and unquestionably deserving of belonging in a gift set of such a quality.

As I said above, Shiun (Purple Cloud) is a different blend to the cherry-aloeswood blend that used to be a favorite of ORS many years ago, but that one has been discontinued for quite some time and I wonder if that was part of the rationale to shift the name to a new incense. Needless to say this is a completely different class of incense, but it’s not at all far from the kind of quality Natsukusa pointed to as a high end sandalwood blend. In fact although I failed to notice this when I first tried it, the Shiun feels like a move into the sandalwood/aloeswood range a bit, although the latter is almost just a bit of flavoring than any real presence. You might put it on the scale somewhere between Benizakura or Ryuhinkoh and Kinbato or Sho Bai Koh (both of which are a bit further into the aloeswood range). In fact I actually think this is somewhat educational as to what a sandalwood blend might be like which just a trace amount of aloeswood that is used almost to season the front note than to become part of the base itself. The sandalwood strikes me as being a very similar wood to that used in the Natsukusa, but the formulation here moves attention away from a sort of fully fresh cut wood scent into something a bit more sober and polished. Honestly the only thing I worry about with an incense like this is the oil formulations of Kyukyodo have a tendency to fade that might make this one start to feel a bit generic over time, but fresh stock really does seem to have a nice sandalwood kick to it that is quite pleasant.

We move back to the premium aloeswood rolls to Akikaze (Autumn Breeze). If I remember correctly this was one of the first (originally) non-US-imported incenses I ordered back in the day. It’s a step above SRK pricewise, the box is slightly more expensive and the stick length slightly larger and the count quite a bit fewer. By the time I had also bought Haru no Yama I used to remember getting both of the two confused, something which may have been more true as my rolls got a bit older. With this fresh new stock, it’s a bit easier to tell the differences, but I think it’s obviously from the get go that this one’s a bit of a drier and less spicy aloeswood than the Haru no Yama. Don’t get me wrong at a range like this you still have a strong aloeswood scent, but this one feels a bit less rich in comparison. Which brings me to an observation I’ve long had on Kyukyodo and that’s that there feels like a thematic or creator stamp on just about every single incense they have done from top to bottom. It’s like you know it’s Kyukyodo, it couldn’t be any other company. It’s both impressive in one sense, but in another it can add a slight bit of repetitiveness to the formulas that becomes more obvious when you’re evaluating similar grades of incenses. What I mean here is that as great as both Haru No Yama and Akikaze are, there is a strong feeling I’ve always had that you may not need both of them as their profiles are so similar (this is not nearly as true with Murasakino, which has a different sort of profile). So depending on your budget, I’d go for HnY if you have the cash, but you’re not losing much sticking to the Akikaze. And honestly they’re all within a similar scent range to SRK as well, so keep that in mind.

To me the gift set’s real draw (well, outside of beauty and presentation), given you can get two of the best scents separately, is Fuyu no Yoru (Winter Breeze). It feels like I have been coveting a sniff of this for approaching ten years at this point, so once again a grateful nod in Jean Claude’s direction. Where two sticks of these I was well familiar with, and two I was more familiar with by proximity, Fuyu No Yoru is startlingly new to my nose. This one bucks the profile a bit by moving over to a much more musk-fronted incense. After reviewing Kourindo’s Jyakourin Musk and Kyukyodo’s Musashino, it’s easy to note how sweet the musk is in front with the aloeswood content almost forming a background for this top note. It is an intensely beautiful black stick and as evocative of winter as the Natsukusa is of summer. It is cool, sophisticated and a stunning work of art and is easily one of Kyukyodo’s finest. It is achingly sophisticated and complex in all the best ways, noble and high class, a virtual treasure of the senses. I would suspect it would take half the roll to probably learn all of the subtleties involved.

Below is a picture Jean Claude sent me that labels each of the rolls so you know which is which. Once again, I thank him for the opportunity to have enough incense to be able to review this incredible gift set. Please also note that as of the posting of this review, Japan Incense do not carry this gift set, so one would have to use avenues directly to Japan to find it.

Kyukyodo / Mukusa no Takimono

Kyukyodo’s little Mukusa no Takimono set (I’m not sure if this is an exact translation but the set is basically “six kneaded incenses”) includes six different modern, short-stick scents and a holder and is clearly intended as a gift box. I would definitely pop over to this Kohgen page for more info. The downside to sets like these (think of many of the Shoyeido Genji gift sets) is that if you particularly like a scent then you have 5 sticks and counting and will need to buy the whole gift box over again. This is essentially a seasonal themed set although the total of 6 scents is tabulated by having two corresponding to winter and one that is all seasons. They are all color coded. I am not sure I have ever tried a Kyukodo modern, per se, so it was interesting to compare this to previous Shoyeido and Kousaido buys, which these sticks most closely resemble. But it should be kept in mind that all of these are probably as comparable to actual kneaded incense which you usually heat on charcoal of a mica plate. Also, the description of this set as modern sort of belies the fact that is really a high-end, deluxe agarwood selection and certainly recommended to fans of the wood as well as traditionals. The price of $48 a set actually seems fairly dead on for the quality on display here. It’s a work of art.

The first, all-season stick is black and is called Kurobou. My translation skills aren’t great and searches brought up some odd and concerning ideas for what it means. There’s a translation that corresponds with a form of Japanese sweet, although it does seem to take a bit to realize how sweet it is. In the end I’ll thank Stephen and some Reddit sub support for the translation here being “subtle scent.” It’s basically an aloeswood stick in the modern sense, and the ingredient list at the Kohgen page lists agarwood, clove, sandalwood, powdered operculum of a rock shell, white musk and kunriku powder (I’m not exactly sure what this latter element is as the Kohgen page is the first one up on a Google search). It reminds me a little of Kyukyodo’s Seigetsu, not only in that its a black stick but the sort of caramel tinge here is also really prevalent once it kicks in and it’s a little reminiscent of the way Shoyeido’s Horin Muromachi coils have that too. It’s probably my favorite stick in the box and while the wood doesn’t go too deep, it’s a genuinely pleasant little treat that balances a bit of heartiness against the delectability of it.

Baika is a plum blossom incense with a red color, and perhaps not surprisingly is the set’s spring incense. The ingredient list gives agarwood, sentou (the closest translation I found was something like “public bath”), powdered operculum of a rock shell, spikenard, sandalwood, clove and white musk. It is a much deeper incense that you might expect from, say, Shoyeido’s Baika-ju and seems to have a healthy amount of aloeswood and sandalwood in it, making it so whatever blossom scent from it is about even with the base. It’s the kind of incense that makes you wonder why there isn’t a bigger box of this available, as it reminds me a lot of the most recently reviewed Minorien Chrysanthemum. I kind of love this sort of floral and woods mix, it’s like the best of both worlds, and it’s something of a shame to need to lay out this money for about 10 inches of the scent. Like the Kurobou this is my kind of modern and it very much resembles your basic kneaded incense that is going for a Baika scent, although it’s a bit more perfumed than you might find in that sort of traditional format.

Kayou (lotus leaf) is a green stick for summer and the ingredients given are spikenard, agarwood, powdered operculum of a rock shell, sandalwood, turmeric and patchouli. It is fairly similar to the Baika except the turmeric and patchouli particulary turn it away from a much more obviously floral bent into something a bit more general. There’s still the same level of sandalwood and agarwood here and as one goes from incense to incense one can also feel how the operculum gives way a bit to the tendencies you tend to find in kneaded incenses, almost like a mix of salty and marine. Once again one is struck by just how deluxe the ingredients are here, at the same time you are searching for each incense’s specific scent, you tend to notice the similarities that underpin them all.

Kikka (chrysanthemum) is a yellow stick (for fall) containing agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, kunriku powder, white musk and spikenard. It’s a bit drier and less sweet compared to the recently referenced Minorien chrysanthemum, but it’s certainly roughly similar if a bit more deluxe. As previously mentioned, all of the incenses have an underlying kneaded-like base to them that creates as much of the aromatic profile as the top notes, so this still has a touch of marine saltiness in the very background. It’s a tremendously gorgeous and rich little treasure with quite a bit of depth to it. Like the Minorien the floral plays beautifully off of the woody notes.

The two winter incenses are last. There is Jijyu, a purple stick which apparently means “chamberlain.” The ingredient list here is agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, spikenard and turmeric. Kohgen also seems to mention something about sentou and musk, although it is phrased in a way that implies that they may have been in the recipe rather than this version of it. This is a very noble, woody, and not at all floral incense with something of a similarity to the Kurobou, although missing all of that incense’s sweetness. Once again the impact of the strong agarwood note is the most noticeable thing about it with the usual base notes secondary. One might describe this scent as heavily masculine, but it’s the kind of agarwood scent also described as aristocratic.

And finally the brown stick Ochiba (Fallen Leaves), which lists agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, kunriku powder, white musk and spikenard. Kohgen notes that “the amount and order of adding ingredients are quite same as in Kikka, but the quantity of agarwood or white musk has been increased.” It’s interesting to not see sandalwood in this list as the overall aroma seems to have a rather powerful level of it along with the rest of the wood powder. It doesn’t strike me as wintery in the same way the Jijyu does, but you can certainly get some level of the clove at work which does have the extra effect of adding a bit of a holiday vibe to it. It’s a lovely little stick, and don’t forget like all the others, this has a strong agarwood and operculum presence as well.

Anyway I should mention that when I went into reviewing this it was on my third stick in each box, but it almost felt like I didn’t really start to notice the power of the scents until I got started writing about it. This is a very special set. I have reviewed sets like the Shoyeido Genjis before where occasionally you might find one scent in a set with some agarwood in it, but you rarely find one like this where all six have this aroma in abundance. It’s a high end gift set utterly redolent in more of the high end ingredients you see in Japanese incense and well worth checking out.

Admin Notes

Site updates still happen. My general plan on these things is to make notes on older reviews when I have new stock on something and can confirm (or not) if an incense has remained the same. I have:

  • Updated many incenses from the Bosen company. This includes four of the five on this page and some clean up on the others. Bosen has remained surprisingly consistent in the years since we first reviewed them. I do have an upcoming review on a few we missed and hope eventually to go back in and redo the aloeswoods, as if anything has changed it’s likely to be those. But at least the Tibetan-styled incenses seem to remain largely the same recipes.
  • Updated the Kyukyodo reviews. Kyukyodo are one of the Japanese companies that I believe to be hit the hardest due to materials changes. Sho Ran Koh has been addressed here. Azusa and Gyokurankoh, along with a couple of new reviews, have been addressed here. Noted that Shiun and Yumemachi have been discontinued, including the latter’s most recent limited edition (there is a Shiun in the Ho-Un gift set, but it is a completely different incense). Have noted on some reviews that many of them were written prior to Japan Incense carrying the line, so it is not always clear if certain incenses have been discontinued; however, when at all possible links to Japan Incense have put in place.
  • Updated the Minorien line. While the high end incenses have seemed to be remarkably stable, there is a plan to revisit the Fu-in woods as the profiles have changed drastically on the aloeswood and perhaps less so on the kyara. Also a plan to eventually redo the Kyara Chokoh review, in order to include the long stick variation if possible. Our original review was a bit early stage and feel this one is special enough to need an in depth review. But all of the reviews have had links fixed to Japan Incense and any necessary cosmetic edits and changes.
  • Updated the Shunkohdo line. Noted that the sandalwood incense Yae No Hana has been discontinued. Tried in most places to standardize the English spelling to Shunkohdo. While pronunciation-wise it’s the same, Koh is a generally used word for incense so I try to update all spellings so that this clear, if only due to preference. Updated links to Japan Incense. Confirmations that Ranjatai and Yoshino No Haru (short stick) remain virtually the same.

Kyukyodo / Azusa, Gyokurankoh (revisits), Ichiyamatsu, Kun Shi Koh

Like the other two big houses of Baieido and Shoyeido, Kyukyodo seems to have been hit pretty hard over the years from reformulations. The biggest and perhaps most drastic instance of this is the changes to their great Sho-Ran-Koh, changes that I still have yet to get over as it was one of my favorites incenses. It’s almost as if I don’t want it to change, as if I’m almost resisting admitting to myself that the wonderful depth and complexity of that incense are just no longer apparent in newer stock. But it’s not just Sho-Ran-Koh, but both Azusa and Gyokurankoh have also changed.

Azusa is perhaps the one least hit the hardest in that the reformulation still manages to try and reach a very similar scent. Azusa quite simply has always been one of Kyukyodo’s most remarkable incenses and over the years it has gone from the thin long-stick box to a packaging in paper boxes that matches it up with the half dozen or so sandalwood and aloeswood mixes that tend to have colored labels, with Azusa inheriting a lime green. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of Japanese floral incenses but this was always one of the best, a mix of wonderful jasmine-fronted perfume based in a sandalwood stick. It managed to be beautiful, feminine and not at all harsh, which always tended to push it somewhere into a sandalwood price range. Now I’m not sure exactly how to describe the reformulation, I just noticed that when I went from my last sticks of an old long stick box to the new incense it seemed qualitatively different in a way that I believe wasn’t exactly just because the newer stock was a bit fresher. The old stick had a more obviously powdery quality that the reformulation is missing, perhaps because the sandalwood base is a bit more obvious in the newer version. Even the perfume itself has changed in some way I’m not entirely sure how to describe. I burned a stick during the same day I evaluated the Absolute Bliss Vintage Jasmine and would say that the while the Azusa does have some jasmine tendencies, I would guess they’re more the lead note in a general floral bouquet rather than being the only one. In the end, I still think this is a good incense, perhaps not as refined or perfect as it used to be, but there hasn’t been a seismic shift.

Gyoku Ran Koh, on the other hand, was definitely a major change. The sandalwood stocks that use to make up one of the finest Japanese sandalwood sticks on the market are clearly different. The last time I had a box I felt this stick had one of the most well-defined old mountain sandalwood notes you could buy, with a really distinct and finely crafted middle resin note that was actually fairly rare in Japanese sandalwoods (although I will note in rereading my old review that it was probably something I started to notice later). But the scent has changed much more in the direction of the sorts of every day sandalwood scents that are generally priced much lower than this. It’s certainly one of the better variations if you were to count that range but the price doesn’t really justify it anymore. It has essentially moved behind the limited edition and now deleted (for at least a second time) Yumemachi. But this just goes to demonstrate that aloeswood losses aren’t the only issue in Japanese incense, unfortunately.

Moving to a couple never reviewed incenses, there is the sandalwood Ichiyamatsu. Years ago we posted a Kyukyodo catalog and someone had described this as a pine incense similar to Matsukaze, which seems about right. It’s not terribly far from Shunkohdo’s Matsuba Pine in that there’s something of an inexpensive wood base with a bit of sandalwood mixed in, while the pine scent on top seems like it’s probably from resins or oils rather than any wood. For my tastes I tend to prefer pinon resin a bit more than this sort of pine scent which strikes me as maybe a bit more perfumed than dense. But it does fit with the sort of elegant, restrained nature of both Japanese incense in general and Kyukyodo more specifically. One thing I always tend to notice about Kyukyodo in general is that no matter where in the line you look it always feels like an incense specific in some way to the brand, a stamp of the house’s creators I’m sure. In the end the question is whether a mark up on an incense like this is really worth what it is essentially an incense that’s more in a daily range scent wise. Matsuba Pine as a comparison is much less expensive, but it’s also maybe not quite as refined as this one. But Ichiyamatsu is undoubtedly pleasant.

Like Gyoku Ran Koh, Kun Shi Koh is a pawlownia boxed long stick Kyukyodo incense. I’ve always been a bit fascinated as to why Kyukyodo packages things the way they do as their aloeswood incenses tend to start in really gigantic pawlonias that take up way too much space before moving down the line into boxes this size and then into the cardboard boxes. There seems to me to be some sort of qualitative overlap between the long stick wooden boxes and some of the upper end cardboards I’m not sure I understand as both styles of packaging have incenses that I might consider sandalwood-aloeswood mixes like this one. The aloeswood in this is fairly light, just enough to really give a bit of spice and flavor to the overall green sandalwood base. This definitely does have what I’d call the Kyukyodo sophistication and elegance, and in some ways this is something of a lower level mirror to the Musashino kyara. And one thing I want to note here is where that sandalwood note is now missing in the Gyoku Ran Koh, well it actually seems to still be in this stick to some level. It reminds me a little of how the old Shoyeido Go-Un used to balance all three wood notes in such a way that none were subsumed. Overall this is an almost definitive Kyukyodo stick, it balances both woods and some level of gentle oil or perfume mix in a way that really allows a level of complexity to play out on in the burn. I will only note that one might get the most enjoyment out of it, burning it either on its own or as a contrast to completely different incenses.

Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Koh (Laughing Orchid)

When I was just starting to write reviews of incense in my incense journal, this was one of the very early incenses that I wrote about and loved, but also noted that I needed more experience to try to understand this scent better.

In the six years following my initial encounter with Sho Ran Koh (link to Mike’s 2007 review) which influenced my initial purchase), I learned a great deal about incense by listening to multiple styles and writing about them, but also reading about them. My favorite research was visiting websites and buying books. A while ago, I was able to get into conversation with two scholars who had translated a Tang Dynasty document on incense creation.

In this document, they discussed how to create several incenses and give recipes. One of which is ‘Smiling Plum/Orchid’, a recipe that when altered just slightly can either represent an orchid or a plum blossom. Having explored the recipes as it was created and then as it was toyed with by the artists who go by ‘Dr Incense‘ and ‘Kyara Zen‘, I feel like that was just the education and experience I needed to better understand this and talk about it.

First of all, I understand that this stick has gone through several alterations over the years as material becomes harder to procure. This review is for the current stick in production and available at Japan Incense. I am reviewing the 10″ version currently for sale at Japan Incense as I purchased this only a couple weeks before writing this.

Before lighting, the package and stick have a fenugreek/curry smell to it. It is a soft tan stick, perfectly round and straight. Upon lighting up this stick, I’m immediately hit with a complex of spices like cinnamon, clove, borneol. Aloeswood comes right behind it, this being a bitter type like a Kalimantan. There is a sweet note but I think it comes more from the cinnamon and spices than the aloeswood, but instead it supports the aloeswood so the bitterness doesn’t bring me down, but instead grounds me.

There is definitely something like ‘reiryo koh’ in small amounts because there is a ‘curry’ or ‘maple syrup’ kind of note that keeps showing up but it’s minor and in the scenery and not in the foreground.

To wrap this review up, I wanted to discuss what I learned about this from sniffing the recipes prepared by KyaraZen and Dr Incense as well as comparing the last of my box of original Sho Ran Koh that I bought back in 2014 to try to understand both what has changed over the years and if Kyukyodo has stuck to the original recipe or made it their own.

First of all, the “original”, while muted by age, seems to have more pronounced sweet and bitter notes as well as being maybe a bit smoother. If anything, I think the difference is that there is either some oil or perfume added to the more recent one that seems to give it more ‘clarity’, or it could just be the ingredients being fresher.

Dr Incense’s Smiling Orchid – This seems to be muskier, heavier, but still has the recipe. I know Dr Incense processes his aloeswood and that makes it a little less bitter so there is a sweeter wood note in his but it does show how the recipe maintains similarities. This also seems to have some extra… grounding or earthy depth to it that makes me feel like this is made to meditate.

Kyarazen’s Smiling Orchid – Saltier. The aloeswood in here has a much saltier quality, like a Manaban. I am not sure if he included sandalwood in this but if so, that might also help give it this salty note. This is a very large and playful note that has all the wood and spice seemingly in step behind it. If anything, I feel like the small batch allows for a sort of artistry to be created that you don’t get when you’re producing 100,000 sticks at a time. It feels that while the scents are all connected, you get these ‘solos’ where something comes to the forefront for a moment before fading back into the chorus.

I also want to iterate that as artists, they don’t maintain a stable stock of anything, and they both drop their incenses once a month and in the first few hours the good stuff can be snapped up. Because of this kind of feeding frenzy, I am not exactly recommending this unless you’re eager to engage in the kind of ‘Black Friday’ shopping anxiety. I grew weary of this after a few months and hope that they might start a subscription-based plan instead of a feeding frenzy approach. Dr Incense drops their incense at 8pm Singapore time on the last Saturday of the month. His shop is in the link above. KyaraZen is a little more fickle, but if you follow this site, they carry his stuff and will usually send out a newsletter about it. Lastly, Yi-Xin Craft Incense drops their incense once a month and occasionally features Sho Ran Koh type recipes. He is a student of KyaraZen.

Conclusion – if you can find it, get a small batch version of this if you like Sho Ran Koh. If you’ve never tried Sho Ran Koh, try it, see if you like it before pursuing the more expensive versions. As Mike said in his talk about it, it is unique and harder to compare to other Japanese incenses.

Kyukyodo / Musashino

There was a lot of talk about Kyukyodo incenses in the (previous) heyday of ORS because they were one of the longest holdouts for importing to the west. We initially used to order Kyukyodo incenses through third party vendors before Japan Incense began carrying them and there’s still a Kyukyodo catalog from that era with translations and links on the left. Looking through those was almost painful, there were still huge sets of incenses I never got to try due to expense (especially those multiple roll sets with scents that didn’t appear on their own). I even bought bulk and sold off partial boxes just to be able to try them (I miss Denpo, an incense that is somewhat analagous to Musashino on a much less expensive level, now discontinued, probably more than any of those others). But then as was inevitable, Japan Incense found a way to add many of the scents, including a lot of their premium incenses, and they became more available in the US. However, like most companies, incenses go in and out of their catalog.

Kyukyodo isn’t really known for doing kyara incenses. I’m not sure a woody kyara incense is really the style for a company who specializes mostly in oil-based incenses. But Musashino is really a one of a kind kyara, it’s unlike any other company’s kyara incenses and really much more in line with their entire aloeswood- and sandalwood-based, higher-end catalog. In fact it shares some similarities to the company’s top line aloeswood, Murasakino. But where that’s just a highly elegant and smooth aloeswood, Musashino is more of a mix of green elements with a touch of really fine kyara oil on the top. There are earthy and sweet hints of patchouli and vetivert, that bit of clay-like smell some incenses that include those ingredients often have, as well as a bit of mint and some fresh sandalwood in the mix. There’s no denser layer of wood like you’d expect at this price point, that doesn’t appear to be the intent of the stick. It’s a much brighter, fresher scent and strangely it’s this that is evocative of really expensive green kyara on a heater. And if you want to take the plunge and give it a shot without risking a larger outlay, Japan Incense sells single sticks for $15.

14 One of a Kind Japanese Incenses

This article was an idea to have a Top 10 of what I consider one of a kind Japanese incenses in the sense that the 9 incenses and one line (of 5 incenses) would all be scents I consider unique. I thought of this burning selection #2 today. This list is in absolutely no hierarchical order, I just went through and thought of incenses that are so singularly their own that there’s really no other incenses like them, no match in their own line or in other company’s lines. So it features both affordable and highly priced wonders. I didn’t really have time to go through and link to previous reviews to them at least yet (and not all of these have reviews, so there is a first time showing or two), but you can use the search engine to the left to find my years-old impressions of them and in certain cases I give my thoughts here of what I think of them now. Do you know any one of a kind Japanese incenses that aren’t on the list? Please feel free to share them in the comments and discuss!

  1. Kyukyodo/Sho-Ran-Koh (Laughing Orchid) While I largely wanted to avoid a great deal of aloeswood incenses, where either in line or out of line you can usually find something similar in style, I find Sho-Ran-Koh utterly unique in its mix between oils and woods. Like most Japanese incenses I think it has probably taken a minor hit from what it smelled like ten years ago, it’s either my nose or the blend isn’t quite as complicated anymore. But I do think it still really fits the Laughing Orchid name in that the scent has an incredible amount of movement in it and almost playful and joyful quality to it. There’s aloeswood certainly, but the creators of this incense have a completely unique mix of other ingredients on top that made this a one of a kind, there is no incense in its line or any other that quite capture what it does. Even the more premium Kyukyodos I believe are not quite as excellent as this one. It is truly one of the treasures of traditional incense, a prime expression of Japanese art.
  2. Kunjudo/Hogetsu What used to be Incense du Monde and then became Florisens I believe still markets this incense as Guiding Light, but the mark up as it sails around the world is quite substantial. I was pleased when Japan Incense began to import this on its own and for a $20 spot which makes it an excellent deal. This is described as a mix of woods and while there’s probably a bit of aloeswood in it, there’s really not enough to make this an aloeswood incense per se, but the blend of woods and oils here gives off an utterly unique, salty and tangy incense that has been a favorite of mine since I first tried it. The fact that it’s not really an aloeswood or a sandalwood incense and yet still remains high quality is very rare in Japanese incense and there’s absolutely nothing else that smells like this that I know of. And I nearly ran out of my Guiding Light box as I discovered it was imported so I can now happily stock this one deep.
  3. Tennendo/Propolis – This is a very special incense. It is a modern short-stick sort of deal and you have to spend into the mid 20s but you get a large amount of sticks with a scent that is unlike anything else in incense (I certainly can’t think of any other propolis stick incenses). It’s essentially the resin that bees bring back to build their hives and as such the properties of the wood resins change into a remarkable and rich scent that actually kind of hints at other wood resins while not being close enough to be duplicative. So it’s modern, deep and intense all at once and the aroma is powerful and fills the room really quickly.
  4. Shoyeido/Horin (the original line). While I’m technically cheating here given that the newest incense in this line, Shira-kawa, is essentially a variant of Hori-kawa, the five incenses, both stick and coil, in Shoyeido’s original Horin line are remarkable in that they start with vanilla and spice/amber blends but notably tackle a few rare modern aloeswoods of which there are really no other analogs in the field of incense. When I first started restocking, most of these were actually at the top of the list for me. You will find that through Amazon marketplace a lot of these are actually priced cheaper than the Shoyeido going price as well. I’m not sure what my favorite of the five are but I often feel it’s either Hori-kawa because I love the cinnamon in the mix or Muro-machi because it as a very nice caramel-aloeswood blend I’m not sure you can find anywhere else.
  5. Minorien/Kyara Ryugen – Unless you’re looking at one of the really high end purer kyara woods like Baieido Kyara Kokoh, for me Ryugen is the singular and most impressive kyara blend ever made and one of my all time favorite incenses. I don’t think I can match my original review of it, so I’ll point you there. Most kyaras are amazing enough to have very complex personalities but often that complexity actually creates similarities, where in this case there’s an oil mix with the woods that just gives off this unique mystical nightshade sort of ambiance that has as much vibe as good taste.
  6. Shoyeido/Premium/Nan-Kun I was glad this incense survived the recent cuts as it’s the one incense where spikenard is a really powerful presence, something you don’t see as much anywhere else. It’s also, of course, a pretty expensive and premium aloeswood incense at the same time, but rather than going for the hoary antique side of things the woodiness presents a balancing act with sweetness in an analogous way to the great Kunmeido Asuka stick while ending up in a completely different area. I actually like this one in tandem with Ga-Ho, as for years I’ve always rotated them in sequence due to how different there are, but it also ends up reminding me that this is really the rarer of the two sticks.
  7. Shoyeido/Xiang-Di/Forest Popular incense companies Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo churn out modern sticks almost as fast as you can keep up with them and many of them are so geared to specific scents that they can often just be aromatically monochromatic and at worse bitter or synthetic smelling. This little gem has always been a favorite to me as its crystal freshness doesn’t have any off notes and captures the fresh feel of a walk through an evergreen forest with a candy touch. It’s no secret I love green incenses whether it’s the Kunmeido’s or Mermade Magical Arts but this presents the scent in a completely different venue and actually succeeds for its build.
  8. Minorien/Kagiku (Chrysanthemum)  I’m not a huge floral fan so my eyes tend to zoom by them in catalogs and it probably zoomed right by this one at some point without noticing that it’s also an aloeswood incense. Also something of a modern scent due to the short, thicker stick, the combination of floral and wood here is something I’ve seen before (probably, I can’t think of any off hand) but certainly not as a Chrysanthemun scent. A sample of this one won me over almost instantly.
  9. Kyukyodo/Azusa  Another Kyukyodo gem and perhaps the world’s greatest floral or at least jasmine. Powdery, sweet, not bitter in the slightest with a distinctly pretty scent, I have kept this in stock since I first purchased it. However, I do miss the slim long stick boxes.
  10. Japan Incense/Theology/Eucalyptus You can tell by the box and the little inserts inside that this is a Minorien incense marketed for the USA’s finest source of Japanese incense, Japan Incense. Many incenses like this are likely targeted for people who visit off the streets and gravitate to more familiar scents and as everyone in California knows eucalyptus trees are ubiquitous in a way that incenses of that scent really aren’t. I was surprised by this one in a way I wasn’t quite by the Myrrh and Sage in the same line, but still I’m always impressed by Minorien and how brilliant they are, I think maybe four of my favorite incenses are made by this company. This has a nicely polished Eucalptus sense with a bit of richness to it that I was surprised to find and now that it’s in rotation, it’s actually easy to see how different it is from anything else I own.

Nine Japanese Incenses I Burn PLUS a Wonderful Cheat

Seijudo Lotus Flower Kyara (Kyara Horen) – Light and sweet (quiet vanilla) and somewhat lacking in depth, but elegant and almost floral in its delicate fineness. It has a gentle and gauzy feeling that make me think of tender moments.

Seijudo Yeonsu Kyara (Kyara Enju) – Stronger, deeper and fuller than Lotus Flower, containing sweet notes of kyara and powdery, cushion-y musk.  It is heartier than Lotus Flower though they both feature Kyara from Vietnam.

Shoyeido Beckoning Spring (Shun-yo)- a very feminine, floral stick in that makes me think more of perfume than of incense. The name of the incense is very apt- it resembles a flower garden waking in the morning dew.  The scent is quite strong, without being suffocating, and feels very joyous and generous in spirit. I don’t think it will appeal to lovers of wood-scented incense, but it is one of few floral incenses I like despite its linearity and one dimensionality. It supposedly contains agarwood,, cloves, camphor and patchouli but I can’t smell the cloves and I would guess it contains other synthetics and/or perfume oils in addition to white musk. This incense really makes me sing 🙂

Shoyeido Hoetsu Rapture- a chip mixture with very strong notes of camphor, star anise and sandalwood (also aloeswood , cloves and probably other stuff, too). The sandalwood overshadows the aloeswood, but the blend is a pleasant combination of woody and floral notes. I enjoy burning it on Shoyeido’s portable burner. The gossamer floral notes that I think are a combination of camphor and clove make their appearance early in the burn; the woods predominate after a few minutes have elapsed.  I’ve tried a couple of Yamada Matsu chip mixes with similar ingredients that I prefer. I can’t figure out why the YM mixes seem more potent and more interesting since the ingredients, as listed,  are pretty much the same.

Kyukyudo Murasakino- I wish I knew how to upload a photo. The packaging is stunning-bluish/purplish and gold brocade, a wide, eggplant-colored cord and gold-flecked parchment label with black characters – the epitome of opulent presentation.  The sticks themselves are a bright yellow-green in color- a marriage of emerald and chartreuse. The incense is a less sweet than the above sticks. Although I can smell agarwood, borneol and herbs the individual ingredients don’t stand out as distinct entities but fuse together to form a complex amalgam with its own particular character. The scent is dynamic and energizing, and seems less “processed” and more natural than the others sticks I’ve mentioned so far. The stick is a little edgy without being harsh. It makes me think of a brisk woodland stroll through in autumn where campfires were recently burning and furry animals glide through the night. (There is a hint of musk but it is somewhat subdued).  Despite the fact that the separate notes blend together so effortlessly, the scent of the stick varies throughout its length. I like that- it keeps me guessing 🙂

Seikado Kyara- I think this one is worth mentioning because it showcases the bitter side of Kyara.  I like the dryness of the stick, though sometimes it smells a little earthy and muggy.

Baiedo’s 350th anniversary stick- I only smelled this once but it made a big impression on me because of its successful combination of seemingly contradictory elements. The stick smelled densely sweet with notes of cinnamon, cloves and the sweetness of  creamy woods, yet also crystalline, confident and sinewy. The juxtaposition of dignified strength, pastoral earthiness, suede-like skin scents and floral sweetness was as surprising as it was alluring.

Gyokushodo Nami No Sho-  I was sure this contained ambergris! There’s a mineral fizziness- almost like white pepper- that fooled me 🙂  That’s OK- I like the way it plays the trick 🙂  I’m a huge fan of ambergris because I love the salty marine notes and the many images they conjure up. If anyone knows of sticks that do contain ambergris, I’d be grateful for the information.

Kyukyodo Koroboh kneaded incense- Heavy on the borneol and plenty of plum-y, jam-y fruits.  I really love the way the almost eye-smarting camphoraceous notes collide with the juicy stickiness of dried fruits. The combination of heat and ice makes me absolutely giddy. That such seemingly opposite scents can get along so well gives me hope for mankind 🙂

The downside- not much carrying power

Cheat- Agarwood mix by Olfactory Rescue Service’s Ross Urrere- I’m saying this is cheating because Ross isn’t Japanese but I think it’s OK for me to list his incense here because I think the ingredients are ambergris, agarwood and musk- real musk. One of the major reasons I like this incense is because it starts off with a blast of animalic, brine-y ambergris that is unmistakable. That mineral note is so seductive- perhaps because of the images of harpoons, scrimshaw, bursting waves, one-eyed pirates, etc, that it immediately brings to mind. The agarwood is so sweet it almost smells caramelized, and the musk adds warmth and mellowness. I would call this an animalic/gourmand agarwood mix- perfect for a cozy winter evening 🙂

April 2012 Top Ten

1. Dhuni Frangapani: Maybe one of the best flora’s around. It smells a lot more like the real flower then, say, as essential oil. It is also not cloying or overly sweet. A remarkable incense and well worth the price (actually it is dirt cheap compared to most Japanese scents, I am clueless as to how they manage to do this).

2. Dhuni Citronella: I really like the somewhat sharp top note in this one; it is unlike anything else I am familiar with in incense. The floral notes that follow behind are also very nice and like the Frangapani not cloying. A very nicely balanced scent.

3.Tennendo Enkuu: One of the last words in a dry scented incense. Very elegant and austere as well as a great mediation tool. Lots of Vietnamese Aloeswood make this unique and a real winner.

4. Kyukodo Murasakino: This comes in a truly beautiful wooden presentation case, inside of which is a scroll shaped tube covered in dark silk. The sticks are a deep shade of green and have a wonderful aloeswood base upon which a stunning, somewhat indescribable floralish/spice/perfume set of notes ride. I cannot think of any other maker that does this as well as Kyukodo. This is a real show stopper and is also a very classical “Old Japan” scent offering. They seem to have pulled out all the stops on this one, the word “flawless” comes to mind.

5. Kyukodo Seigetsu: A beautiful Japanese floral based on aloeswood. More overtly floral then Murasakino but less sweet then Azusa. Somewhat like Jasmine but with notes of Honeysuckle and some other white flowers. Like some of the offerings from Kyukodo there is a very slight under tone of charcoal (at least to my nose) but in this case the overall floral is so beautiful that it just does not matter.

6. Mermade Hougary Light Green Superior Frankincense: If you like Frankincense you should get this. It has been hard to get really top quality green Hougary and I am glad that Katlyn has found a source. This has a really clear citrus note riding across the resin backround that is pretty unbeatable. A winner.

7.Baieido Byakudan Kobunboku: One of the all time incense deals and still going strong. Given the recent price increases in sandalwood I was a little worried but having used this for the last ten days or so and compared it to an older box it still rocks. I tend to judge most other sandalwoods by this one. It has a very well done and classic set of spice notes (cinnamon, clove, camphor and lord only knows what else) that add to the blend.

8. Minorien Granulated Aloeswood Blend: A great loose aloeswood blend for the electric heater or coals. Very spicy with a big dose of Japanese/Chinese herbs mixed in at a very reasonable price. Somewhat dry in nature without all the overt green notes that can tend to be in these blends.

9. Yamada Matsu Firebird Select (Houjoukoh Gokuhin): There is a wonderful dry, aloeswood set of notes here on top of which clove, borneo camphor and a host of other notes are riding. The wood really makes this loose mix, which reflects the price. I have found my hand reaching for this a lot since I got it from Kohshi in San Francisco.

10. Baieido Kai un Koh: Because sometimes you just need an incense that can run with the big dogs 🙂 Very deep, thick, strong, multi layered, strong and with an amazing balancing act between dry and spicy, not to mention strong. Not for all occasions but just the thing for some moments. There are a lot of reasons that this has been in so many Top Ten’s at ORS, all of them viable.


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