Nippon Kodo high end offer

Nippon Kodo are offering sampler packs of their higher end aloeswood lines, expiring on September 18th, although I don’t see a sampler pack for Tokusen Kyara Kayou, the highest end NK kyara I’ve seen for sale in the US. There’s also a small package of Kyara Taikan I haven’t seen before. This should be a neat opportunity to check out two scents that seem remarkably uncommon in the US and perhaps give us more of a taste of what NK can do with aloeswoods, as their company has always been light on the high enders here. The scents higher (in price and quality) than Kyara Taikan rarely ever make the boutique shops, so this will be one of your rare chances for a sample. The samples look to be in the same inner packaging the Yume no Yume series uses. As an example in price differential, the Gokuhin Kyara Taikan is about $0.413 per inch in the usual box where it’s about $0.792 per inch in the sampler.

Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.

SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo / Elemense

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that at least 75% of Nippon Kodo’s US catalog isn’t really marketed at my sort of nose. But it’s interesting that the most recent two lines they’ve released, including Elemense, have been roughly traditional incenses, or at least both this and the Kohden line are sandalwood-based incenses that stay fairly close to traditional ingredients, even if it seems clear that perfume art is used in most of these cases to get the aromas. Elemense incenses are actually quite a bit more inexpensive than the Kohden lines and perhaps maybe not as clear in their aromas. They all seem to retail around $5.95 a box.

The Elemense line seeks to embody the five classical elements in five different incense blends, using Space as the fifth point (rather than, say, Spirit or Akasha). In doing so they tie down each element to a geographic location, or as some of the spiritually inclined might say, a mundane chakra. Having reviewed Mermade cones that followed a very similar pattern recently, I was constantly reminded of the similarities and differences between these two lines as the sorts of blends they come up with are similar. However, as mentioned before, Mermade cones are definitely all natural while there are synthetic aromas used in the Elemense incenses.

We start with Earth which is described as having bountiful hints of vetiver, cypress and patchouli and is tied to El Mirador, Guatemala. Where Mermade’s Earth cone was very strong in the patchouli era, it seems to be very mellow or blended in this one, in fact I didn’t pick it up at all. Like many of NK’s incenses that use three ingredients, the result is more of a blend that comes off like one ingredient, and in this case the more citrusy/evergreen qualities of the cypress came out the strongest. If I see patchouli and vetiver in ingredients I do tend to expect a certain earthiness not apparent here, instead they just seem to give off milder spice hints to give background to what’s a very strong, and mildly cloying perfume oil.

Water doesn’t have an ingredients list unless you count green mist, ice water and musk. Personally I don’t really have much of a line on the ice water or green mist aromas, but let’s assume this is roughly the fragrance around the Detifoss waterfall in Iceland. I found this to be pretty loudly aromatic, the sandalwood base front a very intense floral perfume that reminded me of the Free Pure Spirit line, with a scent that dissolves into soapy, synthetic-ish back notes. It evinces the trouble I have with a lot of this company’s incenses, a desire to combine so many fruit and floral elements that the result is something indistinctive and washy. In fact I assume the fruity qualities are supposed to come close to water, but as with the Earth incense, I didn’t find this particularly elemental.

Fire was the most successful of the five incenses in terms of nailing the element itself. This stick burns hot, with a lot of spice and sweet benzoin notes (I was thinking amber, so this is likely more a Siam Benzoin). Along with benzoin are Philippine Mango and clove, supposedly evoking the Mayon Volcano in the Phillipines. The overall effect is dry and crispy, but like all the incenses in this line the oil is pretty strong and synthetic-like and thus more intense than some of the Kohden incenses I might compare this with.

Air introduces a combination of anise, tomato leaf and galbanum, the middle ingredient evocative of the Fragrance Memory incense Siesta Siesta. This is quite different of course, and I found myself picking up more a watermelon vibe than tomato leaf. Usually with air incenses you tend to get a strong lavender note, but there’s no such thing here, perhaps none grows on Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. I got quite a bit of spice on this one, in the thyme or rosemary vein (perhaps the anise), which did give it some very airy qualities. It made me feel a bit edgy overall, which I’d also attribute to the company getting pretty close to the element on this one.

Space would be the most difficult one to nail of course, and the idea is embodied here by Erg Chebbi’s “transformative mysteries.” In reading the ingredients list I was quite surprised, the saffron, cinnamon and amber implying something much spicier than the heavy floral notes at work in this incense. I was getting rose, carnation, gardenia and/or daffodil similar in ways to arabic ouds, except no oud of course. Unfortunately any sort of floral incense at this price is likely to have a lot of off notes and this one is no different, with a very strong soapy, alkalline vibe to it. While the idea of something so intensely floral should work for the element in question, I found the overall stick to be fairly unpleasant and unbalanced.

At least in the case of Elemense, one’s not going to be putting out a lot of money on a risk, but I’d suggest sampling them first if you’re not familiar with the company’s incenses. As they’re probably the most visibly marketed Japanese incenses in the country, they’re subsequently not the sort of scents those looking for wood and spice are going to go for. Unfortunately for the most part the scents are fairly shallow and often strike aromas without a lot of intricacy. Compare a $6 box of this to a $6 roll of Baieido Kobunboku if you don’t believe there can be a big difference even at very low prices.

{Afternote: It seems that the 5 incense Elemense series seems to match up in both name and number of incenses with NK’s Naturense line. Having tried only one incense from that line, I’m not sure how much more they do match up, but thought it was worth noting.]

Nippon Kodo / No. 4 (Notes on another Nippon Kodo discontinuation)

I didn’t notice before, but along with the Ka-Fuh Bamboo and the entire New Morning Star line, the NK No. series has also been discontinued. I’d only tried the No. 4 before, which was the “Tree” set, Aloeswood, Sandalwood and Bamboo. I always thought of them as NK’s version of Shoyeido’s Incense Road series. Although they weren’t in the same league as Incense Road, I thought these were among the more pleasant NK incenses (at least from a more traditional incense-minded perspective). I would have eventually tried No.s 5 and 6, but knowing I won’t be able to restock for too long, it won’t be happening.

Anyway, the following are my notes for No. 6. In looking at them I realized I had never matched up the color with the wood, but can do so thanks to Japan Incense (they have sold out on sticks, the link is for coils). The orange Aloeswood stick/coil didn’t strike me as being aloeswood like in most ways, instead it was spicy and sweet, with cinnamon in the background. It reminded me a little of the old Mermade Dragon Fire incense. The green Bamboo stick/coil, also sweet and powdery, struck me as very green tea and was probably the least impressive of the three. The red Sandalwood stick/coil might have been the best, also spicy and sweet, but with a smooth unobtrusive woodiness.

I doubt this is a series that will have anyone running for restock (the discontinuation also supports this), but as a once over, it’s pleasant, if maybe a bit too user friendly for the scents involved. I’d be curious if anyone’s tried Nos. 5 or 6.

Nippon Kodo / Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan

[NOTES: I didn’t get to finish the second half of the 12 Months series over the weekend (have one stick left to go over), so I thought I’d take an unexpected detour here.]

Having spend a bit of time with Shoyeido’s classic kyara incense Myo-Ho over the weekend, it has turned my attention to all things kyara. Kyara is basically the most stupendously resinated quality aloeswood available, a substance not only rarer than gold but getting rarer. It’s now so rare that rumors abound over just how much real kyara is in incenses with the ingredient in the list and perhaps Nippon Kodo may have helped to blur the issue a little. There’s a Cho-Cho-San cone called Kyara and their very lowest end aloeswood incense is often followed around by the name “Kyara Deluxe.” And both of these incenses are extremely inexpensive and not anywhere near something like Kyara Kongo, let alone Myo-Ho in expense or quality.

What we’re basically establishing here is the idea of kyara as perfume or scent rather than wood. Because other than the rarely exported and likely true Nippon Kodo kyara incenses like Tokusen Kyara Kayo, Gokuhin Kyara Taikan and Tokusen Kyara Taikan, the mid priced aloeswood incenses in question here, Kyara Kongo (Diamond Kyara) & Kyara Taikan (Great Prospects Kyara) are priced too low for the actual kyara content to be more than a note in an overall incense. While one can immediately detect an approximation of kyara in both of these incenses, the very lack of depth to the scents and the lack of true wood quality make me think of these as accentuated or perfumed incenses. They may not be natural in an overall sense but it certainly doesn’t mean they’re unpleasant by any means – quite the contrary. But when it comes to the deluxe kyara experience, the sensation of depth is missing here.

Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan, other than the above-mentioned rarer lines, more or less crown the Nippon Kodo line in the US and are generally the company’s most expensive incenses. They come in Pawlonia gift boxes with very short sticks (both between $30 and $40), regular boxes and long stick boxes (around $60 for Kongo, $80 for Taikan). The gift boxes are a very nice way to introduce yourself to these scents, even with the boxes, although I must say that having had boxes like this for a while, the look and presentation far outweigh their practical use (lots of broken sticks, a book-like format that never closes quite properly etc.)

Kyara Kongo, while being the less inexpensive of the two incenses here, is actually the best of the two overall (they can easily be lined up as Kongo/dry, and Taikan/sweet). With both of these incenses the overall kyara oil note is way up front, except in Kongo’s case it doesn’t drown out the background notes quite as much. The oil note is kyara in a perfume sense and in combination with what is probably a sandalwood or mixed sandal/aloeswood base you do get the sort of anise or licorice qualities that always seems to be a feature of good kyara. While the incense is a bit one note overall, it does strike a rather nice balance, with the overall impression being dry enough to return to. Overall it’s actually one of Nippon Kodo’s very best (exported) incenses.

Kyara Taikan is the more deluxe of the two but the oil note is thicker, sweeter and while the incense does give the impression there was some expense in its creation, whatever wood base is being used here is almost drowned out completely by the nature of the perfume. It’s almost like a digital imitation of an analog sound the way a certain angle of the kyara scent is snapshot here, and the very lack of woody qualities in this incense upsets the balance a little. That’s not to complain about the oil itself, which does have an alluring richness, but over time the extreme sweetness of this blend starts to cloy, and I’ve found myself preferring the Kongo over the Taikan.

It must be said that in some ways these aren’t terrible introductions to kyara but they are missing the entire experience of that very fine and rare wood. It’s a plus that they’re much more affordable than Shoyeido or Baieido kyara incenses, but in that comparison they don’t feel quite as authentic either, more approximations than true kyara incenses. But in approaching this sort of scent it’s hard to knock either scent in that they do both evoke the sort of wonder involved with the apex of incense materials. In fact if one hasn’t tried the higher end kyaras at all, I’d suggest starting here and working your way up, with the caveat that it’s hard to go back once you’ve stepped foot on this path.

Nippon Kodo Ka-Fuh/Bamboo and Morning Star Gold lines discontinued

Today’s Essence of the Ages (link on right) update announced these discontinued items today (and it’s not too late to grab them). I haven’t tried any of these personally and none were really high up my “wish list” but I’m really amazed at the company’s revolving door policies with their scents. Perhaps that’s the price for having such a large international profile? I’ve only tried the Aqua and Hinoki in the Ka-Fuh line, but nothing from Morning Star Gold.

Nippon Kodo / Fragrance Memories / Green Oasis, Happy Valley, Paris Cafe, Santa Fe Breeze, Siesta Siesta, Silk Road Dream, Tequila Sunrise

The Nippon Kodo Fragrance Memories line, which I believe used to be called NK Style, is an admirably ambitious line whose results don’t really live up to the bargain on most occasions. You can think of the line as something of an incense travelogue and the scents concocted for this line span the entire globe. All of the scents are affordable, around $6 for a 20 stick box, and the style on all of the scents is modern and usually user friendly. My experience with nearly all of these is that they were very interesting on an initial burn or two but over time most of them wore out their welcome and often blurred with some of the other scents, making very few of what I sampled distinctive. While this line has many different scents, some of which are switched in and out of the line over the years, I’m just covering the seven fragrances I’ve tried, as it’s likely I won’t be trying anymore in the near future.

Several of the “greener” fragrances all definitely kind of blurred together for me over time. Whether it’s the mangrove in Green Oasis or the cactus in Happy Valley or Santa Fe Breeze, the scent reminds me of something alive and verdant, green and snappy and tends to dominate most of the other notes in the incense. Green Oasis adds starfruit and palm tree to the mangrove but all of the notes seem to wash out in one very crisp green and eventually cloying incense that suffers from having very little personality. The stone pine and lime in Happy Valley might balance it a bit more but mostly what you get is the snappy, green cactus odor and in this case the extra notes make it a bit too citrusy and like the Tequila Sunrise, one is left with the impression of a margarita left a bit too long in the sun. The cranberry and green chili in Santa Fe Breeze give the incense a bit more character than the other two with a similar green-ish sort of scent (and the spice of the chili gives it a bit of zip), but there’s still a dominant plant tone that makes all three of these all too similar in effect. Over time, I’ve grown fairly tired of all of them.

Paris Cafe is a cinnamon, coffee and chocolate blend that’s vaguely similar to the New Morningstar Earth line except this is a much stronger and intense blend that is very evocative of a café, although part of the aroma makes me think of a coffee smell that’s been, perhaps, sitting around too long. I really liked this aroma the first couple of times, but eventually found that it was too intense and stimulating for almost all moods, except when needing a pep up. You’d almost believe you’d get a caffeine dose from the scent itself. Overall the New Morningstar Earth strikes a better balance and isn’t so in your face.

Siesta Siesta is one of the line’s truly distinctive incenses and immediately with the blood orange, tomato and sangria notes you know you’re getting something unique. In fact only the sangria acts as a note in the background, with the blood orange and in this case sort of a vine ripened tomato scents combining in a fairly exotic fashion. It’s an extremely rich blend, maybe too much at times but the scents used are undeniably fascinating and thus you really can’t compare this to any other incense.

Silk Road Dream is probably my favorite in this group, likely due to the presence of jinkoh/aloeswood. While the line is probably synthetic to some extent given that many of these scents aren’t all that easily extractable from their source, at least in this case it adds up to a fairly well balanced blend. The other two ingredients are olibanum and fennel, and it’s particularly this last note that gives the blend a bit of spice pep. I wouldn’t put this in the same league as other natural aloeswood sticks by any means, but it’s perhaps somewhat comparable to the Kayuragi Aloeswood stick, which also seems to be enhanced in some way and has a more surface like rather than complex aloeswood scent.

Tequila Sunrise evokes for me a scent more redolent of long drinking nights rather than anything aromatically pleasant. Its combination of aloe, bergamot and lime probably should have had me include this with the greener incenses early in this post as the aloe (not the wood of course) has a greenish scent, but overall the aroma is a bit mesquite and unfortunately reminds me of what a room might smell like after a tequila party. It has that sort of salty, sickly sweet aroma at times, while at others there’s a slight (and unidentified) woodiness to the incense. I can’t imagine many westerners will find this pleasant.

Overall this is definitely an incense line for the modern market and most of these incenses aren’t likely to appeal to those seeking high end and more traditional scents. I don’t think I could recommend any of them wholeheartedly although I find Silk Road Dream pleasant and Siesta Siesta unique enough to be worth a sample. But the rest of the line doesn’t really encourage me to seek out the other scents, and I think part of this is all of the incenses share a base scent that isn’t quite as succesful as that used by Shoyeido in their Horin, 12 Months and other lines, all of which are comparable to Fragrance memories due to the thickness and short stick size.

With at least another 15 fragrances I haven’t tried, I’d be interested if anyone has any favorites from this line that might be worth trying…

Nippon Kodo / Kayuragi / Aloeswood, Bitter Orange, Osmanthus, Pomegranate

Nippon Kodo’s Kayuragi line consists of eight different incenses all packaged in very striking cardboard slips over wood boxes. They’re obviously created for the western market, although unlike the Morning Star lines these are fairly expensive incenses for the quality, especially for what are sandalwood-based incenses, pricing anywhere between $9-$14. Kayuragi also comes in both sticks and cones, the latter perhaps a little less expensive per box. While I haven’t tried the entire line and may not for a while, I do get the impression that the whole line is pretty user friendly and at least two scents in this current list are among the best-selling and most popular in the line.

The Kayuragi Aloeswood reminds me a lot of their new Kohden aloeswood incenses, where those familiar with the difference between sandalwood and aloeswood bases will immediately note that all the aloeswood play is in the spice or oil notes rather than the base, with the sandalwood being as dominant as anything in the blend. This gives me the impression of a sandalwood stick being dipped in aloeswood oil, rendering the entire aloeswood scent in this influence as surface notes. It’s as if they eliminated all of the depth and expansiveness of aloeswood and kept the sweet top notes, spicing everything up for Western noses. It’s a pleasant incense, sure, but, as an analogy it feels like one’s drinking an American commercial beer rather than a Belgian tripel ale.

Bitter Orange was a scent I was really hoping to like, as I’ve never tried an incense that captured citrus to my liking. But I found the scent to be fairly cloying and offputting, which may mean that I’m not really fond of the Bitter Orange flower as opposed to a bitter/orange combo. Every stick of this has basically made me like it that much less, but I don’t think I’d chalk that up to the quality as much as to my resistance to the style. While Kayuragi incenses don’t tend to have much of a soapy, synthetic offnote, if there was one scent close to that it would be this one.

Osmanthus was recommended to me at a local store a while back and appears to be one of Kayuragi’s most popular lines. It’s easy to see why as this is a very mellow, floral almost watery incense that’s extremely accessible. Of course, this also means that there’s not a whole lot of depth to the scent, but those who like very mellow florals (think honeysuckle for example) will probably enjoy this easily. Unlike Bitter Orange, there’s nothing offputting at all about this one.

Pomegranate was my first Kayuragi and still remains my favorite of the four I’ve tried. Fruit-based incenses aren’t often all that succesful to my nose (a lot of the times it seems the woods and oils are at cross purposes), but this one more or less nails it on the head, it’s got a tart, berry like note that tends to dominate the base and should be recognized as pomegranate without a lot of head scratching. Again, this isn’t likely to appeal to those who want complexity or depth to their scents but it’s certainly a better alternative to scents like this that come from spray cans. Occasionally I find this mixes it up quite pleasantly.

So really, Kayuragi seems to strike a decent balance between its base and top scents and should really appeal to those who might be adverse to more traditional or exotic scents. It’s generally one of Nippon Kodo’s better lines in this vein, if a bit on the pricey side, and definitely one of the more smartly packaged brands around.

New Nippon Kodo Incense

Nippon Kodo / Kohden (brief thoughts)

This isn’t going to be a review of the Kohden line exactly, but there are quite a few people who hit this blog searching on this new incense line so I thought I’d briefly go over the six aromas. This is particularly important in that this appears to be a somewhat overpriced line – not that the incenses aren’t good, they are, but because they all strike me as being sandalwood based incenses in an aloeswood price range.

Before that gets too confusing, I’ll bring up the first two aromas, Sweet Aloeswood and Spicy Aloeswood. Both these bring to mind Baieido’s Ensei line that also have similar incenses, but in that line, they both still strike me as aloeswood sticks and are priced accordingly. The two Kohden aloeswoods seem to be to be sandalwood incenses with aloeswood oils and thus don’t strike me as having the depth and richness of most aloeswood incenses. The Sweet Aloeswood is pretty smooth and does have a bit of spice but the sandalwood base is strong and gives it the aroma of a blend. The Spicy Aloeswood has a rich, spicy oil in front but has the same issues.

When moving to the other four incenses, the price is a little cheaper and the fact that aloeswood is not a concern makes it a little more comfortable to talk about them on their own merits. The Kohden Sandalwood is quite nice, very dry and smooth with a bit of a weird aromatic contour I can’t place with just a sampler. I do like the Kohden sandalwood base on most of these sticks, although it would not surprise me if the wood was intensified by essential oil.

Kohden Musk Note starts with the same base but adds a very alluring, sweltery musk and a bit of sweet and spice to the mix. I like my musks to be a little dangerous and dense and this comes only about half way there, but seems like it would be very user friendly to those who like the style.

Kohden’s most impressive incenses are probably the last two. The Japanese Mint really benefits from the smooth sandalwood base and seems a rather broadreaching mint in aroma with a cool peppermint background that the wood brings out. This may be the one I’d pick up first. The Kohden Star Anise shows equal balance, which is good because Anise always strikes me best as part of a blend and can be overwhelming at times.

In summary this seems like quite the user friendly line. The incenses may not be totally natural but at least there are no off hints like in some of NK’s cheaper lines. There’s kind of a smooth mellowness to all of them that I credit the base for, but one would have to be a sandalwood appreciator to get fully behind them. However, at prices like $16.50 and $18.50 (for 40 sticks) I find it hard to justify their purchase over other wood incenses in the same price range, so I’m not sure when I’ll visit these again.

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