Nippon Kodo / Exceptional Quality / Ume Komon – Premium Sandalwood, Kyara Kiku Botan, Kyara Momoyama

In the way way past I covered some of what is called Nippon Kodo’s Exceptional Line. There’s the interesting Mori No Koh gift pack and then Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan. All of these incenses sort of bridge the gap between their massive, overall, and largely inexpensive modern lines and the Superior line, the latter of which I covered a bit with Kyara Heian. Let’s face it, there’s no incense company on the planet more liberal with the word “kyara” than Nippon Kodo are, quite frankly if you haven’t dipped into a Superior you might not think there is any in their incenses, including the ones I am going to discuss today.

The bottom line and as most people familiar with Japanese incense know, Nippon Kodo is a more populist company, maybe something like the Wonder Bread or Budweiser of Japanese incense. They create a lot of incenses that are very affordable for consumers and their Morning Star line is hugely popular, so far be it for me to lay into it. The best thing about popular incenses is none of those really need a blog to discuss them. But it is fairly puzzling how far into the line and how expensive you have to go to get anything really authentically kyara about their incenses. But before we dip into the two kyaras we have to mention as well that even the sandalwoods can be confusing in Nippon Kodo’s catalog.

The bottom line is that Ume Komon might boast as premium sandalwood, but there’s really nothing authentic about it at all. It’s no less a perfumed incense than most of Nippon Kodo’s line and quite frankly I’d probably enjoy the scent more if it just didn’t bullshit you with a promise. It’s not an awful incense, I mean it doesn’t have the types of bitter and off notes so many lower brand NKs have, but it is still just as perfumed as anything else in the line and it’s this sort of muddiness that seems to come nowhere near sandalwood that really makes you scratch your head. The little green sticks actually remind me a little of Shoyeido’s Floral World or Incense Road sandalwood sticks except even those felt like they weren’t a floral in disguise (well at least in part for the former). It’s all quite puzzling and I would guess if you burn more than an inch or two of this at once it will start to fatigue. And you also have to take into account that these burn really really fast.

So let’s hop up the Exceptional Quality list a bit past the Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan mentioned earlier to Kyara Kiku Botan. Unlike the other “kyaras” in this line there doesn’t appear to be an option for a bulk box or long box, all that is available is the three-slotted gift pack with the little burner. It has been many years since I tried the Taikan last but Kiku Botan seems to be like a light level up from the sweetness of that scent. There appears to be a bit more attention paid to making this somewhat woody, although if you’re familiar with other NK incenses then you can also spot their base aloeswood scent in this mix here as well (it’s actually subtitled as a “premium aloeswood” so I believe its fair to say that it’s where this is really pitched). At least with this scent you feel like NK are truly going for something with woody qualities although once again, it’s hard to justify anything approching real kyara. Good green kyara is somewhat delicate and complex and while this does seem to go for some overall perfumed kyara note, it’s a lot louder and feels a bit more contrived. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad incense in the slightest. There’s quite a bit going on with it when it comes to having multiple elements of its bouquet and that already raises it above the Kongo and Taikan. But it’s still a perfumed incense and not even as authentic as the old Tokusen Kyara Taikan used to be. I think if you’re the type to stay away from NK in particular there’s nothing here to rope you in, but I still find this enjoyable on its own merits.

Kyara Momoyama is another step up the ladder and it also has a long-stick version in a wooden box that places it almost at the foot of the Superior range at $290. Since this is actually equivalent in price to the old Gokuhin Kyara Taikan, this is essentially an incense considered more superior than the Tokusen Kyara Taikan which I actually really liked and fairly well lament its deletion. As you move up the range, it’s not as if these incenses get less perfumed so much as the perfumes tend to get a lot better. And at least here I feel the range is starting to get where it at least feels legit. Momoyama is certainly comparable to either the Tokusen or Gokuhin Kyara Taikan. The wood oils in this are starting to feel like actual wood oils rather than trickery. They’re of course not at Heian level at this point, so the reaction is more oh that’s nice rather than having steam come out of your ears and of course like most NK’s there’s some level of sweetness that’s likely to get in the way for wood appreciatiors. But this is still a very nice incense indeed and easily the most enjoyable in the entire Exceptional line.


Nippon Kodo / Kyara Heian

Appreciators of high end kyara incense are probably familiar with high end Nippon Kodo price tags. Kyara Heian itself is an extaordinarily expensive incense but it’s actually and currently the #3 of 3. The #1 in this range is Kyara Fugaku which commands an incredible price of $2935 and the #2 is Kyara Kayou which goes for about half that at $1465. I think it’s safe to say that the reasoning for these astronomical prices has to do with the Nippon Kodo technique of using high amounts of perfumes and oils in their incenses and the fact that they don’t stop doing this even with pricy ingredients. So you have to imagine kyara or high-end aloeswood oils at the very least. Add to that diminishing stocks of high priced woods as well as the obvious presence of the woods themselves in these incenses and it starts to make a bit of sense. Of course if you’re putting prices tags like these on your incenses then they better impress. Because I’m sure they have to make up for the tremendous amount of personal reticence one would need to shell out these funds, unless of course you’re making a salary far in excess of most people. I was even a bit hesistant to shell out for Kyara Heian at $445. And when telecommuting essentially allowed the risk, I felt like I had hit the bingo on it, I got a phone call from the lovely people at the Nippon Kodo US shop who threw in a rather charming CD of meditation music in with it. There was this sort of like, are you sure you know what you’re getting into vibe? I imagined that purchasers of the top two incenses may have had red carpets or gala festivals as extras.

It should probably be said as well that these sticks are longer than the usual Japanese luxury kyara at just under 8 1/2 inches in length. At 60 sticks (when you consider a lot of kyaras are more in the 35 to 40 stick range and a couple inches shorter) you find that this incense is really well within the range of kyaras by Minorien or Kunmeido, there’s just a bit more outlay at first. They are packaged in deluxe fashion with a green outer box, an inner pawlonia box and a nice silk holder that the roll sits on. It takes up a lot more space than the incense does, similar in a way to Kyukyodo’s Musashino. It’s all tremendously beautiful and elegant, typical of the attention that should be given to such a masterpiece. And, of course, it is. Can you imagine paying for any of these boxes and being disappointed? And if the #3 is this stupendously impressive, one can only imagine the top two. Are they pure kyara oil? Are they as good as Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh or Kunmeido’s Tokusen Kyara Tenpyo? If incenses have appreciable affects on one’s being are these straight tickets to nirvana? Questions like these of course zipped through my mind as I excitedly lit the first stick.

Wood, wood, wood and more wood. Distilled, fine aloeswood, so dense and intense it is almost alarming. No need to guess the kyara note, even at this range it just jumps out of the aroma. The sticks are as saturated with fine oils as the brand’s lower end perfumed incenses, but naturally there is nothing off putting or synthetic about these oils. They are much louder and more striking than kyaras based on woods, but don’t take that to mean they’re less fine in any way, it’s just with this stick you don’t really have to sit close. The volume is so turned up it’s almost like the wood patterns and knotting spiral out at you from the burn. The range of subscents is nearly off the chart, in fact if you own it try moving it to different locations and see how much this changes the way you appreciate it. Lower end Nippon Kodos, even Kyara Momoyama, tend to the much sweeter (not that this isn’t, but it’s mostly due to the kyara) and don’t have nearly this sort of resolution. I was left thinking that I really don’t have any other incenses quite like this one. The old, now-deleted Tokusen Kyara Taikan and Gokuhin Kyara Taikan both hint at this range but as superb as those two were they’re still sweeter than this one.

In the end this is a matter of the price matching the aroma for sure. It’s way more a budget call than anything else. I start to feel at these high ranges nearly every kyara is gorgeous and I would imagine that it would take some real heat to justify the #1 or #2 (and maybe a mortgage). But there’s no question Nippon Kodo know how to deliver on this end. I think I’d only die happy if I lit one of these at a party, only for a guest to crinkle their nose and ask me to put it out.

Nippon Kodo / Kurobo Nerikoh (Discontinued)

Today I decided to open up my container of Nippon Kodo‘s “Kurobo” Nerikoh and give it a review. Upon first impressions I am confronted with a sweet, woody and spicy mix of scents, straight from the package. It is slated as having aloes wood and sandalwood, while its name is a phrase meaning “Black Priest” in Japanese. I was initially confronted with a base note of a salty/bitter aloes wood scent, alongside cassia and clove and a sweet floral smell I was unable to identify. I also noticed a slight undertone of a soapy smell (barely noticeable, similar to bar soap). After the initial burn in on charcoal in a traditional koro, (and slight heat increase), the overtones faded to a more woody, bitter aloes wood, and the sweetness tapered off. In my personal opinion, I liked this blend a tad more than the previously reviewed Hatsune, And believe that it will appeal to almost anyone, especially those who love sweet woods.


Nippon Kodo / Hatsune Nerikoh (Discontinued)

Today I will be reviewing Nippon Kodo’s “Hatsune” Nerikoh. This kneaded blend tends to be a strong, syrupy sweet mix. I ordered a ceramic container of this, and was pleasantly surprised when I received it. It is slated as having aloeswood and sandalwood, while its name is a phrase meaning “the first bird warbles of spring” in japanese. Although slated as having aloeswood in the ingredients, I was initially confronted with overtones/base note of sweet apricot, with a background note of talcum powder and sandalwood. After the initial burn in on charcoal in a traditional koro, (and slight heat increase), the overtones faded to a more woody, sweet and bitter sandalwood, and the apricot faded into the background. Overall I believe this to be a very approachable nerikoh that will definitely appeal to those who love sweet incense.

November Top Ten

Welcome to the November Top Ten. As is usually the case for me these are not necessarily laid out in any kind of  “order of wonderfulness”! I like to use many different styles and types of incense so getting it down to ten is an interesting endeavor and something of a difficult task. I would also like to mention we try and hold these to ten selections so if you current favorite is not listed, remain calm and perhaps light another stick 🙂

Next months Top Ten will turn into our “end of the year, completely over the top, blow out list” which we hope to get up by mid December. We are holed up in the secret ORS testing lab wildly waving sticks at each other to back up our various favorites. It’s getting a little smoky in here and I hope the extra fire extinguishers show up soon.

You can find all the incenses listed below in past reviews at ORS unless I have added a link as they are too new to have a review. Enjoy  -Ross

Baieido’s: Rikkoku Aloeswood Set: Quite simply put this is a work of natural art. It comes in a wonderful presentation box that is stunning all by itself. All the woods are great and at the same time very different. The Kyara is mind bending, but then again, in their own way, so are the others. There is a lot of study potential here. Used in the recommended manner this set will last one for quite awhile. You can also sometimes find this in the “mini” size.

Baieido’s Kokonoe: This is one of my “go to” wood scents. I find it very enjoyable and the cost makes it pretty easy to use. It has a clean aloeswood scent and does a great job of showcasing the Indonesian wood. Its also a good place to start looking at specific examples of regional scents within aloeswood as any extra spices or resins in these sticks is there to highlight the wood.

Nippon Kodo’s: Gokuhin Kyara Taikan: This is the second rung up in NK’s high end Kyara ladder. It features a more distinct wood note as well as more refinement in the top notes then Tokusen Kyara Taikan. It is a very elegant incense and quite potent at the same time. There is a sort of resin/floral/powder feel in the overall scent that is a wonderful counterpart to the wood notes. It’s only draw back is that it makes you start wondering how you can afford to get the next one up, which is much more money.

Kyukyodo’s: Sho ran Koh: This one is on our Top Tens a lot and with good reason. It is a very beautiful scent, an elegant floral that is not overdone and has some quality Aloeswoods backing it all up. Not to mention the roll is very large, just opening the box is a huge treat. Koh Shi in San Francisco tries to have this in stock.

Seijudo’s: Kyara Horen: Seijudo decided to create the best Kyara blends that they could for as long as they can get the materials to do so. The top three in the line up actually use Kyara in their blends while the other 4 have very similar notes but use aloeswood. Sometimes the differences seem very subtle. This one is the third from the top. I find it the easiest to get along with, it has tons of Kyara notes mixed in with spices and maybe a hint of musk. It is refined and elegant, but still friendly. It’s also something to be burned first and savored. There is quite a lot going on here and you will get the most out of it this way.  Not inexpensive but a real treasure as well as a treat for the soul.

Mermade’s Scared Grove: Lighting this will almost instantly surround you in the scent of a very large forest. It is very clean and for this time of the year I find it a great way to sort of “open up” the room it’s burning in. High quality and natural ingredients play a big part in Mermade’s success. I notice that there is a bunch of new offerings listed on their site right now.

Daihatsu’s Kaizan: Not only does this has a very nice amber note but the story I was told is that it was formulated by Daihatsu’s Ko Shi ( Fragrance Master) to mimic the scent that geishas used in their hair. Nice scent and a great price. A strong and long lasting aroma that can easily fill a room. Just the thing for all us amber fans.

Shunkohdo’s Houshou: A quality aloeswood at a very reasonable price. It has subtle top notes of chocolate that play with the aloeswood. Quite a beautiful combination and at the price($20) is a great deal not to be missed. Great gift for the incense people in you life.

Incensio’s Palo Santo Wand: If you like Palo Santo then you will be in heaven. The incense look’s sort of like thin cigars on a stick. They are packed with a wonderful and very woody scent that is particular to Palo Santo. These are available at Mermade and a full review of the line is in the works. By the way, using just a portion of a stick will do the trick; these people did not mess around when they put the woods in! Very interesting and at a good price.

Blue Star’s: Lavender: This is from a small producer in Canada (I can hear Anne getting excited). He uses all natural ingredients and the sticks are done in a sort of Tibetan Japanese fusion style, so they are thick and go for around 30-40 minutes. This one stands out for me as it has a nice light wood base note overlaid with a very clean and clear Lavender scent. Just a tiny bit sweet and really beautiful. Lavender Essential Oil is used and then the stick is rolled in Lavender flowers. This one is a winner and a review of the lineup is coming soon. Not to be missed and you get 10 sticks for around $4.00

October Top 10

  1. Mother’s India Fragrances – Om Nag Champa  I don’t mean to take much attention away from all of the other excellent incenses in the Mother’s series, but there’s something about this one that’s hit a bullseye with me, to the point where I ran out my first 20 stick package of this about a month or so after I received it. However in stocking it deeper in the smaller packages, I noticed the batches were a little different and it’s something I’ve been wondering about in terms of aromatic differences as the Om I started with really is something of a triangular balancing act and the small package scent falls perhaps a little short. But generally speaking this works for me because I love an incense with a perfect cinnamon/cassia note and this one, at least in the big package has that to an almost addictive state.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho  I find this to be one of the greatest incenses period, definitely my favorite of the top 3 premiums and I love the effect it has on company when they first get the aroma. The liquerish sweetness and dark kyara and aloeswood notes mesh just about perfectly in this one.
  3. Baieido / Ogurayama Aloeswood  I still find this a natural miracle, it just never ceases to astound me that you can get this much aroma from a small piece of this wood. I mean you can literally get 3-4 hours of it when you get the right temperature and I spend most of it double taking, going yeah it really is that little chip doing that. I might actually slightly prefer the Hakusui in terms of its spiciness but I think the resin might actually be a bit more intense in the Ogurayama. Anyway this is about as close to incense nirvana as it gets for me.
  4. Fred Soll / Red Sandalwood  Like many Solls this does have the penchant to not stay lit, but that’s really its only weakness. Like Shroff’s Red Sandal, this is a spicier take on a sandalwood incense, showing a totally different facet of the wood due to the cinnamon-ish notes. With Soll’s version you get that combination mixed in with that southwestern woodsy/resiny vibe to great effect. It’s also one of the mellower Solls and seems to have less powerful oils than they usually do.
  5. Tennendo / Enkuu  This is always a perennial favorite in my book, in fact long time readers might know that this is one of the most common incenses in the top ten lists here. I think that’s largely because so many of the top end incenses have kyara and are thus very sweet, Enkuu is more at the apex of the drier spicy end, for its kind there are really few better incenses. And even after a year or two since I first tried it, I still find it strikingly original and only find it mildly comparative to other high end aloeswood/spikenard mixes.
  6. Fred Soll / Nag Champa with Amber and Vanilla  I don’t bring out the Soll champas very often as for a couple of years now they’ve shown nothing but delays in terms of restocking these scents, no doubt due to the usual shortages. But when I do I’m always completely bowled over by how great these are, particularly in the realms of the sugary sweet. This one’s about as rich and amazing as you can imagine, perhaps even too much so for a small room, but perfect for these late warm California summers outside where it can penetrate with even a small wind.
  7. Yamadamatsu / Kumoi Koh  Another absolute classic in my book, an oil and woods mix that is rich, spicy and animalistic, so strong that you can get an idea of its scent just from the fresh stick. It’s similar to one or two of the coils that haven’t been imported here yet that clearly use some ingredients you don’t usually find in incenses at this level of strength. Very exotic and heady.
  8. Kyukyodo / (several)  Clearly the top catalog whose entry to US shores seems to be problematic at the very least. Sure you can find Sho-Ran-Koh and Azusa these days, but there are just a good dozen incenses or so that just badly need to be imported that haven’t ever been over here, such as the incredible aloeswood Akikaze or even the stunning and much lower end Benizakura or one of the really great high quality sandalwood based incenses Gyokurankoh. Oh and RIP Shiun and Yumemachi, what a pair to be deleted!
  9. Nippon Kodo / Tokusen Kyara Taikan  Readers may not fully be aware that if you don’t count the regular Kyara Taikan or Kongo, which I don’t, this is actually the lowest incense on a scale that goes up to what seems like the world’s most expensive stick incense, the $2500 Gokujyo Kyara Fugaku. I think you’d only have to pay $120 something for the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which is actually an excellent stick in that it drops some of the more perfumy sweet aspects of the straight Kyara Taikan for a more elegant result. It’s a shame these are so breakable and thin, but they do pack quite a wallop.
  10. Shroff / Akash Ganga  I’ve always found this an odd scent because it’s one if not the only incenses in the Dry Masala range that shares the yellow boxes with the Semi-Drys, and I can see why as it seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I find this a very unusual variant on the “desert flower” sort of scents in that it doesn’t have the heavy camphorous notes they usually have or the sort of sickly sweet perfumes. And as a result it strikes me as a very mysterious scent with a depth that continues to make me go through my supplies very fast.

As always feel free to share with us what amazed you this month!

SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo, Men-Tsee-Khang (Discontinued), Lhundup (Discontinued)

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

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

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

On the other hand Nippon Kodo’s Jinko Seiun is perhaps more what you’d expect from a low end Nippon Kodo incense. Despite the $37 asking price, you’re still getting 170 sticks which sort of belies the idea this is a deluxe aloeswood and implies this probably fits better with the low ends. I’ve not, nor plan to try any of the other Seiuns, so I’m not totally sure what the characteristic is of the line across Amore, Violet and Chrysanthemum incenses, but the Jinkoh is certainly floral enough to where its nature as an aloeswood is somewhat trivial. Certainly this seems to have more of an aloeswood approximation than definition and as such it seems like it’s crossing a modern/traditional divide that’s likely going to appeal more to the modern-inclined.

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

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

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

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

Nippon Kodo / Ka-Fuh / Hinoki + Naturense / Inspired Mind

Aside from the kyara ladder which Ross reviewed in part a little while back, I’m probably not the biggest appreciator nor perhaps the true end user of Nippon Kodo product. Even their aloeswood incenses strike me as weaker than just about every other Japanese company and their moderns can often be bitter and very synthetic smelling. This latter observation could be a good reason why they tend to have a lot of affordable incense lines, but I’d prefer to shell out for quality in just about every case. Of course with every rule there are exceptions.

I’m setting this up because except for their premium incenses, I’ve not bought a Nippon Kodo incense in a very long time and probably don’t see myself doing so in the future, even to complete the two lines that I’m going to be featuring one incense each from in this post. But fortunately, I think I’ll be able to post this “odd and end” review on a high note as these are two of NK’s more pleasant scents.

I’m also not really the end user for smokeless lines. I’ve tried one other Ka Fuh scent, the Aqua, which I more or less reviewed in its smoke version in the New Morningstar line a while back. It’s a apparently a popular incense, but not really my style, even in its smoky version it’s a bit light and unimpressive, perhaps incense for those who find most incense offputting. The Hinoki (Cypress) blend on the other hand is actually quite good, in fact I’ve found myself enjoying it more with every stick. For one thing, I think Cypress tends to be a lighter, evergreen sort of scent so it works well in smokeless form, in fact the best Hinoki incense, Baieido’s version, is also low smoke. It’s a scent kind of hard to pick up if you’re not close to the burn but very pleasant when you pick it up. In comparison to the Baieido, the Ka Fuh version could possibly be slightly more synthetic but it really doesn’t come off that way overall, in fact it may just be slightly sweeter. Overall it’s difficult to say more, it smells like cypress without much of anything else and while I’d say start with a roll of Baieido Hinoki if you can afford it, this is much cheaper and only barely inferior. Unlike so many Morningstar scents, this seems to have some authenticity to it.

A company says a lot about the contents of their line when they set two aside as being natural incenses, it’s almost as if it explicitly casts the rest of their lines as being at least in part synthetic. The Naturense line is one of the two lines Nippon Kodo have labelled as natural, the other being NK Pure. Based on Inspired Mind, a lemongrass and orange scent, as well as the comparable but higher end Kohden line, Naturense seems to be an essential oil mix on wood base blend that bears a whiff of base as much as the oils, even in an oil blend as strongly scented as lemongrass and orange. It does indeed smell natural, not far from a mix of a standard inexpensive sandalwood incense and what you’d smell if you combined lemongrass and orange essential oils together. The lemongrass is dominant like it always is, but the orange does come through, lessing the pungency of the overall scent, probably a smart move. If you’re like me, you won’t need more than the occasional lemongrass incense every so often to mix things up and Inspired Mind does fit the bill as far as this is concerned.

So I think that wraps up almost every NK incense I own, apart from a Morning Star Gold sampler, a range which could be the posterchild for why the cheaper end of Japanese incense isn’t always a good idea and one that might take some time to build up the urge to comment on. On the other hand it won’t be long before I can resist a box of Tokusen Kyara Taikan.

Nippon Kodo / Mainichi Koh Sandalwood, Mainichi Koh Kyara Deluxe, Kangetsu Aloeswood (Discontinued), Zuiun Selected Aloeswood

The four incenses in question here are among Nippon Kodo’s most traditional scents, a point well worth underlining given the company’s dominant penchant for modern, perfumed based scents. As such, they’re four of the most affordable traditionals on the market and at least one of these is one of the most best selling incenses in Japan and likely on the international market as well.

In many ways these incenses could be considered ground level, “vanilla” type Japanese incenses and given their affordability aren’t bad places to start in terms of getting a quick idea of what the most traditional and perhaps generic scents are. Basically one of these is the ground zero of the green sandalwood style, while the others are aloeswood based, although I type this with slight reservation. It’s quite possible that the use of aloeswood in these incenses comes from blends or oils, as they’re quite different in many ways from the aloeswood based incenses you’ll find from companies like Baieido and Shunkohdo. They’re generally not as heavy or woody and as such are comparable to similar scents in their other lines like Kayuragi or even Morning Star or Morning Star Gold.

At ground zero, the Mainichi Koh Sandalwood (which also appears to be called Viva Sandalwood in roll format) is actually one of the most picture perfect and friendly versions of the “green” every day sandalwood available. This format is basically wood and oil based and the green in this case comes from the color of the stick rather than referring to an herbal nature. That is, sandalwood, probably mixed in with more inexpensive woods, form a base that is touched over with essential oil to form a very mild and pleasant aroma. It’s a style that just about every company touches in some way, from Baieido’s Junenko to Shoyeido’s Sitting Zen to Gyokushodo’s Eisenko to Tennendo’s Yoshino Hills and probably a dozen others or more that all only vary slightly in style/aroma. Amazingly, given that Nippon Kodo doesn’t always fare so well in comparison due to the use of inexpensive perfumes at the base of their incenses, their version of this standard could be the finest of all of them. There’s something about the combination that does not draw out the bitter notes some of these other incenses exhibit with a slight sweet, mintyness that’s gentle and very friendly. This is an incense I often pass up in my collection due to considering it inexpensive and dull, only to occasionally pull it out and realize how wrong I was. And with the 300 stick box going for so little ($7.50!), an up front purchase goes a long way. It’s amazing to think a standard incense could be so surprising, but Mainichi Koh constantly does. And NK deserve due credit for it.

However there’s something entirely misleading pinning “Kyara Deluxe” to their aloeswood version of Mainichi Koh. There’s no legitimate kyara stick in the known universe that charts out to 300 sticks for $18 (if only were it true) amd even if there is actually kyara in this incense it would be like comparing a needle to a haystack, like finding the electron in an atom. While one might recognize a certain aromatic quality that you can find in Kyara Kongo, Kyara Taikan and even Tokusen Kyara Taikan, it couldn’t be considered part of the base, in fact I’d have a hard time saying it’s part of the “and other spices” fraction of the stick.  Mainichi Koh Kyara Deluxe is an incense I’d probably even have a tough time calling an aloeswood, in fact with any affordable Nippon Kodo with aloeswood on tap, there’s an aroma entirely different (I’d even call it whitewashed) to the resinous, acrid heartwood most will be familliar with, as if they were trying to approximate an oil rather than wood. It gives all of the NK aloeswoods an inauthentic feel to them, although in saying that they’re certainly not bad incenses per se. Like Reiryo Koh and Reiryo Koh Aloeswood, one might find the sandalwood Mainichi Koh a more successful incense. MKKD is fairly harsh in a way, with a strong herbal nature and hints of chocolate at core and a hint of spice. It’s not sweetened up or created to be particularly friendly but in the ladder of aloeswoods it’s hard not to see it as a lower rung. Of course, like the sandalwood version, you get a lot of stick for the price and it’s certainly a more pleasant blend than many of the Morning Star lines.

Overall, Kangetsu Aloeswood might be the incense to start with in this vein given it comes in a roll format and has a cheaper start up cost. It’s only vaguely different in aroma from the Mainichi Koh Kyara Deluxe, a bit smoother but also slightly more bitter or sharp. The big difference is there is hints of a slight, legitimate aloeswood aroma in the mix which adds a bit of complexity to the herb, spice and chocolate mix of the MKKD. But it’s generally not enough to move this up from the lower rungs in the style and retains some of the bitterness and harshness that are endemic to cheaper aloeswoods whether legitimate or not.

Zuiun Selected Aloeswood is entirely different to Kangetsu and MKKD. It’s something like an inexpensive variant of incenses like Tennendo Renzan and Kyukyodo Shiun, with a sweet cherry-like aloeswood aroma at center. Zuiun does not have the presence or complexity of either of those classics, at heart it’s a much thinner and airy incense, but it still remains well within friendly territory, as this style is possibly the most accessible of aloeswood incenses. It’s certainly the last one I’d pull out in the style, given that the other two I named are still roughly in the same price range and are far more robust. But I still can’t imagine anyone who would find Zuiun unpleasant based on its own merits.

I’d certainly recommend a number of aloeswoods over any of the three mentioned here, even if you’re paying a few dollars more. But when it comes to green every day sandalwoods it’s hard to mention many that are better without being noticeably more deluxe (such as the finely oiled based Gyokushodo Toshiwa or Shoyeido’s slightly higher end Evening Zen) than the standard Mainichi Koh. It’s really an amazingly friendly and entirely inexpensive Japanese incense that leads the pack of a very standard and common style.

Nippo Kodo Tokusen Kyara Taikan and Gokuhin Kyara Taikan -Ross

Nippon Kodo is considered the number one seller of incense in Japan. Its Morning Star line has been around for ages and may well be what most people in the US consider the standard of Japanese incense just because it is so prevalent. For me personally, most of their lines just don’t do it for me, not sure why, but that’s how it is.
However, they also happen to have a very large selection of Kyara’s including what is considered the most expensive incense stick in the world; Agilawood Superb富嶽, at 210,000 yen ( around $2100.00, tax included! )( why yes, that does amount to a house payment). The Kyara line up starts at the “lower end” with TOKUSEN KYARA TAIKAN Superior and GOKUHIN KYARA TAIKAN Superior. ( 3rd down ) For a long time I have wondered what any of these were like but there were never any samples available and having been burned once in an attempt to get the Gokuhin ( a very bad and dishonest store) I had become a little gun shy about this line.
Then in September Mike put up an announcement from N. K. that there were, for a very limited time, samples. I spent at least 10 seconds of terribly agonizing soul searching before placing an order 🙂 .
The samples came and I tried one of each. The sample sticks are around three inches long and there are eight in a pack, this comes out to about two full sized sticks. They were very different from what I was expecting in a Kyara blend. At the time I thought they were OK but not mind bending. Took about 5 weeks to come back to them and in the last week or so I have gone through many more sticks and also compared them to other Kyara’s and higher end Aloes.
Like most people here at ORS I started in on the world of Kyara with the Shoyeido high end sampler and for quite awhile, in my mind, I assumed that that was how Kyara was supposed to be. These are not along the Shoyeido style at all; in fact if anything, they tend to be more towards the Shunkodo or Kyukyodo high ends scent combinations.
In the full roll there are 55 sticks at 8.5 inches long and they are very thin (then again I have yet to see a thick Kyara stick, which would, of course, hammer your wallet into oblivion, but, oh my, the smell).
The Tokusen Kyara Taikan might best be described as something along the scent lines of Kyyukyodo’s Sho-Ran-Ko, possibly a little sweeter, with Kyara notes coming up from the background. I am also reminded of similarities to the Shunkodo Kyara’s. The stick, when burning, smells much stronger then when unlit, almost surprisingly so, makes me wonder how they can generate all the scent without a huge amount of oil/spice smell in the unlit stick. It is a very clean and, to me, pure oil and spice mix with the Kyara sweet/sour notes drifting through it all. The Kyara notes are not super strong, but they are certainly there. I find it very pleasant and a nice change from the Shoyeido style. Don’t get me wrong here, I love Myo-Ho and Go-Un and such, but this is very nice and also a lot less money. It is not “in your face” Kyara, it also took me many sittings to start to get it, I liked it enough to order a box.
The Gokuhin Kyara Taikan has a lot more wood scents going for it then the Tokusen. It also has oils and spices but they play a much smaller roll in the blend. It seems to be a deeper, woodier take on the theme set up in the Tokusen. It is $100 more expensive and the cost difference is probably in the amount ( or grade ) of Kyara used. I find it to be a more grounded and meditative scent. I do not yet have a box of this one yet but it is on my “to buy soon” list. ( I keep telling myself that that list needs to be a bit more “sane” or restrained but it never seems to happen 🙂  )
Both of these will require some time to sort out, there are, like in any good high end incense, many different levels going on. Aromatic fatigue plays a big factor here and if you got the samples keeping that in mind will get you more for your money.
One thing these incenses have taught me was to evaluate each one on its own merits. Sure, there are some things you are going to expect at certain price ranges or if it says there is Kyara in it, yet the final call comes down to how much you like it by itself, as itself.


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