Shunkohdo: Sarasoju, Zuika koh, Yoshino no haru, Ranjatai

Sarasoju is a nice, pretty straight up sandalwood. I am assuming that besides the wood that there is sandalwood oil as it has a very rich, deep sandalwood scent but you would need to use oil to get it to smell this way. Regardless, I think this is a winner and if you are looking for a sandalwood stick without other spices added into the mix then this could be one of your best bets.

Zuika koh is an agarwood blend that has a large amount of patchouli added in as well as just a hint of Borneol Camphor and probably some benzoin. Of course since people who really know what they are doing produce this, there are probably at least five more ingredients in it that one cannot detect that add to all this 🙂  I think it is pretty much “oil-less” although it is also fairly strong, not by Indian incense standards, but for a Japanese traditional stick. It has a very smooth delivery and can produce a very pleasant aroma. I tend to use this later in the night rather then during the day as it just seems more suited to the late night hours. Then again it would work well in some retail environments to set the mood.

Yoshino no haru, at least in the long format, is a very thick square stick with a nice green color (I always have wondered if the colors actually mean something, some sort of secret incense code). It has the “greenish/herbal” scent of Foenun Graecum plus some Borneol Camphor and other spices mixed into an agarwood base. I think this is one of the masterpieces of their line as it also, somehow, conveys a slight floral note within all of this that is very elegant. In fact I think this, as well as Ranjatai, are pretty unique in the incense world (although for different reasons). I do not use this on a daily bases, more like once a week, but if I am seeking this kind of scent the alternative is something at twice the price from other makers. It does a great job of living up to its name “Smell of Spring”.

Ranjatai has always been a favorite of mine, as well as many of the reviewers here. My vote says it is still one of the greats. There is a noticeable agarwood scent in the background over which the scent of musk and some spices float. It is truly elegant and captivating. It is also very smooth, which only happens via the use of decent materials and a big dose of skill. There are a lot of sticks from many countries that try to use a musk note. They are all pretty much synthetic smelling sweet concoctions that miss the reality of musk. These guys do it right. Other then their Kyara Seikan (which takes the whole concept up a couple of notches) I cannot think of another incense that comes across like this. For what you are getting the price is really good. Not inexpensive, but worth it nonetheless.

I am planning on reviewing their Kyara line up some time next month (after my bank account has recovered from this months buying spree). -Ross

Shunkohdo leaf cut Sandalwood:

Kohshi, at their retail San Francisco store, has gotten in leaf cut Sandalwood from Shunkohdo. These are about one millimeter thick “slabs” that are roughly 3” x  3” in size, all cut from the same piece of wood. It is a beautiful presentation and has a nice medium reddish color. The scent is pure Sandalwood with a very slight hint of cinnamon after it’s been heated up for awhile. I would recommend an electric incense heater or non direct heating to the side of a coal.

I also noticed when I was there last weekend that they had a pretty good assortment of Kyukyodo (lot of the really good high end line, not to be missed).

You might also check out the selection from Kousaido. I have three that I am writing up for review, they use  what would seem to be a mixture woods and oils to produce some great scents at very good prices, just the thing for Christmas.

Enjoy  -Ross

February 2011 Top Ten

This is, more or less, what I have been using this last month. It is winter so I find I turn towards some of the heavier scents. I also just got around to ordering some of the new Indian incenses that have come on the market but it was a late order so they didn’t make this list.

Onkun Koh by Kunmeido: I have had this for awhile; it got buried and then resurfaced recently. It has a deep, somewhat bitter, yet also smooth scent to it with a touch of green notes. There are lots of Chinese herbs and spices floating across a nice woody base. It’s not very expensive, lasts quite awhile and delivers a pretty well balanced ride.

Tokusen Syukohkoku by Baieido: Subtle, complex and a long learning curve make this a great incense. It also happens to use some of the best Aloeswood around. This is something that could easily be overwhelmed if not burned first. There are an infinite number of layers within  this blend, I consider it one of Baieido’s best.

Ranjatai by Shunkohdo: Deep musk mixed with a superb Aloeswood, this is one of my all time favorites, it is also(considering what you are getting) a very good deal. The bundle should last quite awhile, even with “excessive use”. It has made a lot of Top Tens for a good reason.

Sarasoju by Shunkohdo: This is a very good straight up sandalwood, with a minimum of additives. It delivers a very nice Sandalwood scent that is neither sweet,  wet or dry, just, you know, Sandalwood. Great stuff from a very traditional maker.

Kyara Seiran by Seijudo: On a Japanese site that I have seen, this is appears to have both green and purple Kyara plus musk, how can you not like it? But really it’s just stunning; it is also quit strong and potent with a huge amount of depth and complexity. It has all the interesting Kyara notes that twist and turn between bitter and sweet with the musk and spice notes somehow interwoven throughout the mix. I notice that Essence of the Ages has sampler sets from this company.

Tensei by Tennendo: This is another that I rediscovered. Tennendo makes some of the best incense around and this is one of their Aloeswoods blends. It smooth with a nice touch of herbs across a good grade of woods. It is not sweet nor is it bitter, yet at different times it just brushes those notes. Elegant.

Kyara Coils by Yamada Matsu: These are available from Kohshi and they are stunning. If you are similar with Shoyeido’s Tenpyo, they are along the same lines but this is much, much more. I am pretty sure these are using wood instead of perfumes/oils to achieve the scent, it is very deep, smooth and full of that Kyara scent that also has a touch of musk. Not inexpensive, but worth it.

EverGreen Forest & Sacred Grove by Mermade: These two are the deep evergreen, cedar and aromatic woods duo. They are the perfect scents if one has been indoors for too long. These are some of the greenest scents I know of and I use them a lot. They have both been reviewed and talked about here and are simply great. Katlyn goes to great lenths to use the best materials around and it show.

Dragons Blood by Blue Star Incense: Blue Star Incense makes some really nice blends at an incredible price, especially given that he is using natural ingredients plus real essential oils. This one uses a good helping of Dragons Blood resin to produce a very grounded and soothing scent with a nicely done woody base. It’s relaxing, smells great and does a great job of scenting a room at a insanely low price. He also puts samples in with orders. A winner.

Top Ten for January 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2011 be a good one for you, bringing health and happiness, and lots of great incense!

It’s my turn up at bat for the Top Ten for Jan 2011. The top ten can be difficult at times due to the sheer amount of great incense out on the market, and the many personal faves that I have. However, for this month, I’ve decided that the following ten incenses are my favorite this January. In no particular order, they are:

-The Direct Help Foundation Eternal Maiya incense. A lovely blend of sandalwood and patchouli, where the sandalwood provides the expected woody note and the patchouli a light airiness that is both earthy and slightly sweet.

-The Direct Help Foundation Oum Pure Sandalwood incense.  Sandalwood incense done up Tibetan style that has sandalwood and sandalwood oil. The sandalwood and the sandalwood oil are a one- two punch combo that makes this superior incense, one with a truly delightful sandalwood aroma.  This is not high end incense like Shroff’s natural sandal that runs north of $150 USD. This is much more modest incense, but one that still manages to be quite good.

-From Chagdud Gonpa Foundation, Sitar Dorje’s Unsurpassable Healing Incense (P’hul-Jung Men-Po).  This is absolutely lovely incense that ranks right up there with Dzongchen Monastery and Holy Land, in my opinion. Unsurpassable Healing Incense is like a first cousin to both, having similarities to Dzongchen and Holy Land, but is still different enough and with its own character that make it unique. This is another earthy, resiny, floral, musky blend. It’s an “all rounder”, hitting all those aforementioned bases, and has that special mojo that is both calming and uplifting at the same time. Some of the ingredients are aloeswood, white and red sandalwood, frankincense, saffron, valerian, magnolia, musk…etc. The scent itself manages to be both fresh and floral, with a darker resinier base and herbaceous endnotes with a touch of musk.

-Holy Land Grade 1. Well, I finally bit the bullet and bought this once it was back in stock over at EOTA. I’m glad I did, though, as that it is definitely a worthy purchase. I won’t write too much about this one due to the fact that it’s been covered extensively here on the ORS. Suffice to say that this incense that as Mike might say, “has mighty mojo that borders on being mystical.” The scent is darker, muskier, and less floral than either Dzongchen or Unsurpassable Healing Incense. If Holy Land incense was a food product, I’d say that it’s more savory than sweet (if that helps any in getting an idea of its scent and description).

-Mother’s Fragrances Lotus Incense. A singular and linear incense and scent, where there’s no complexity but dang if this isn’t a good one. Slightly sweet, and of course floral, this is incense that is very calming and is a good room scent. It’s one to use when having guests over as that it gently perfumes the room but isn’t overwhelming perfumey or ostentatiously showy.

-Mother’s Fragrances Atma Incense. The Mother’s incense catalog is simply superb, with their Nag Champa line being quite a standout. One of my favorites from their Nag Champa collection is Atma. A delirious blend of various ingredients, with floral notes and sweetness from halmaddi and honey. This is a tough one to describe because so many things are going on, and it’s all going on at the same time, the ingredients are working together and not against one another. It’s a symphony of scent, with lead violin being performed by the lavender, the cello is geranium, piano is vetiver, and the triangle is clove with halmaddi as the composer, and honey is the conducter.

-Hougary frankincense resins. A hold over from last month’s Frankincense and Myrrh review, but when incense is this good, it’s going to pop up continually in a lot of people’s “best of” lists. Bright, citrusy, fresh and fragrant, this is frankincense royalty. If you like frankincense at all, do yourself a favor and get some hougary.

-Duggatl al Oud Wardh Taifi. My favorite rose incense of all time, and one that provides an astonishing authentic fresh rose scent. There are many rose incenses out in the market, but this one stands head and shoulders over them all, in my opinion. Simply gorgeous and a must try for rose lovers.

-Mermade Magickal Arts Faery Call. I don’t know about you, but in the midst of winter, I often dream about and long for spring. This incense brings a touch of freshness and brightness and evokes spring and summer in appearance and scent. Literally garnished with dried flowers of marigold petals, rose petals, and lavender buds, and deliciously scented with neroli and other top notch ingredients, this incense is sure to put you in a cheerier mood and drive away the winter blues.

Shunkodo Haru no Kaori. The name of this incense translated into English means ‘smell of spring.’ Can you tell that I’m tired of winter? 🙂  This is great incense, more subtle than Faery Call, but equally good in its own way. As to be expected, it’s more refined being Japanese incense, with a less in your face scent bouquet. There’s the added touch of aloeswood, which adds that certain “je ne sais quoi” quality, that extra special touch that puts this incense into the category of wonderful.

The above incenses can be found at various retailers on the net. The Faery Call incense can be purchased from Mermade Magickal Arts, and the Sitar Dorje’s Unsurpassable Healing Incense from http://www.tibetantreasures.com/tthtml/ttmerch/incense.htm. Incidentally Tibetan Treasures will be going offline from February 7th to March 7th for a site renovation, and will return on March 8th. As such, if you want to purchase the Unsurpassable Healing incense, I recommend that you do it soon to avoid delays in processing and shipping.

What are the incenses that you have been burning lately? Are there any that are your “go to” ones to beat the winter blahs? Chime in and share your thoughts!

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

Top 10 August 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Olfactory Rescue Service Top 25 (Mike and Ross)

Today we introduce to you the Olfactory Rescue Service Top 25. However, unlike our usual top 10s and last year’s combined top 20, we thought we’d do something a little bit different and a little bit tricky. This year’s top 25 is something of a meta-list, in a way we want to capture the best of incense by looking at things from a larger perspective. So instead of having one incense per entry, we’re just going for broke: full companies, sublines, incenses, incense materials, incense supplementals – everything we could think of that would lead to a top tier incense experience. In fact we started at a top 20, expanded it to a 25 to make sure we got everything and ended up with a pretty good group.

Please keep in mind as always that our best of lists are something of a lark. For one thing I think both Ross and I probably find it somewhat difficult to truly tier these in order and so while maybe we like the stuff at the top a little more than at the bottom, maybe, there’s no particular rhyme or reasoning to the ordering and we consider everything on here to be superlative work, perhaps with a few individual idiosyncracies we won’t mention. As a whole though, I think this is a good look at what we consider the best incense related stuff on the US market today and we’ve pared it down only to include what is available here. As each entry often includes several incenses, we’ve left off links to reviews and sites, but just about everything on here has been reviewed previously and links to them can be found in our Reviews Index. So, after the cut, the ORS Top 25. Read the rest of this entry »

Shunkohdo / Matsuba Pine, Sarasoju, Shuhou

This write up covers the last three Shunkohdo scents we haven’t covered to date and that are currently available in the United States. All three are wood-based, the Matsuba Pine described as mixing pine scent with spices, the Sarasoju a traditional sandalwood incense and the Shuhou a mix of cedar and sandalwood with a touch of lilac.

The Matsuba Pine could roughly be compared to one or two incenses in the Nippon Kodo Scents of Forest box set, although the Matsuba is a traditional incense in terms of stick thinness and size. While it shares the light pine scent found in the Scents of Forest Conifer stick, it likely has a fair share of cedar and/or sandalwood in the base, as there’s a certain similarity in the base of this incense to the Shuhou. Like the few Japanese pines out there, the scent concentrates more on the wood or tree than the more pungent resin and is lightly rendered here with a very nice and sublime top note that could easily get lost with aromatic fatigue. It also shares some slight similarities to the lower end woody incenses found in the Encens du Monde range and made by Kokando.

The Sarasoju is quite simply a terrific sandalwood and one I’ve found a little difficult to describe as I went from seeing it as standard to truly appreciating its finer more “Old Mountain” like tendencies over several sticks. At first I noticed what seemed like an almost sawdust like sandalwood scent, but the more crystalline resin “interior” is quite present, just not as obvious as it tends to be in the better Baieido incenses and the pure wood on a heater. When you consider you get 70 sticks of this for around $10 bill, it’s a tremendously good deal and one I’d recommend taking advantage of given that some of the sandalwood products coming from Japan are taking gigantic leaps in price. In fact only Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku is comparable and that’s not quite as pure a sandalwood as this one. And it acts as a nice contrast to some of the heavily oiled while still superb sandalwood incenses being exported from India.

Shuhou could very well be the only floral incense currently exported by Shunkohdo, with the pink color of the stick more than pointing at this incense’s direction. While the scent is quite overtly floral, the description of the light touch of lilac is probably only found in the incense’s top note where it takes a place quite similar to the overt pine scent found in the Matsuba. But even with that light note, the cedarwood and sandalwood seem close to being balanced out by the scent’s floral nature and due to this the scent moves closer to a more modern direction, especially for Shunkohdo. It’s an interesting scent, but I’d assume this will appeal far more to floral lovers than those eyeing the woods in the description.

More Shunkohdo reviews can be found by clicking the company name on the left and it’s worth a reminder here that this is by far one of the finest incense companies whose work is being imported to the US, not only are the wide range of scents excellent but in most cases you’re getting as good a deal for the money as you can find in Japanese incense.

Shunkodo / Jinsoku (Chinsoku) Koh, Shun Koh Sen, Houshou

If ever there was a newly imported Japanese incense company who’s name ought to have the same profile in the US as Shoyeido, Baieido and Nippon Kodo, it’s the venerable Shunkodo who have introduced about as deep a line from top to bottom as is available in the US. Like Baieido, Shunkodo only sparingly use perfume and essential oils, leaving their incense sticks fairly mild on the stick and also like Baieido, the results are extremely sophisticated, incenses so subtle and amazing that only with experience does one learn how great they are. We’ve covered their high ends, their not so high ends, and some mid to high ends in the past. Like with Baieido, if I was to review some of these today, my experiences would be even more positive.

One thing I’m noticing lately (I’m also working on Baieido’s Kobunboku line) is that although incenses without (a lot of) oils don’t cut through the air as much as the natural ones do, the trade off is the sophistication and sublimity one might notice by repetition of use. For this reason almost every Baieido traditional has an incredible learning curve, one so long that I often don’t believe my nose at first. Shunkodo’s incenses are very similar in this way. However the differences are largely in their bases. Baieido incenses tend to vary around similar aloeswoods and the use of cinnamon, clove, sandalwood and borneol. Shunkodos are less spicy in the latter sense, with a larger use of Chinese traditional ingredients that give them a slightly tangier scent across most of their line. And unlike Baieido, Shunkodo crosses into Kunmeido and Shoyeido territory with their use of green, herbal woods. The three incenses in question here are among the most affordable in Shunkodo’s catalog.

At first appraisal, it snuck into my head that Shunkodo’s Chinsoku-Koh was the line’s most inexpensive incense, something comparable to Tennendo Karafune, so when I went back to research this scent I was surprised to find out that it’s actually more of a mid line scent; it’s just that with a smaller box size, it actually seems to be a little more affordable (in fact this smaller size box actually exists for most of the Shunkodo line, they’re just not exported for sale in the US) than the rest of the boxes. Perhaps it shows the effects of perception on one’s appraisal as, I’ve never highly rated this incense and had long forgotten it contained aloeswood, as it doesn’t seem to give off that sort of smell. For the most part it strikes me as a standard low end incense, as I mentioned before, like the Tennendo Karafune stick, multi spice and quite a bit of sandalwood. It’s reminiscent of some of the Baieido dailys with a high content of cassia/cinnamon, but doesn’t seem to have the depth to it that makes so many Baieido low ends classics. To my nose it’s almost like too many cooks in the kitchen and the overall effect seems to fall below the ingredients and price range, and turns out to really be the only Shunkodo stick that does so.

Shun Koh Sen is cheaper per stick, lacks aloeswood of any appreciable quality but is overall a far superior incense. My first stick instantly reminded me of a different take on Kunmeido’s Reiryo-Koh, with the the abundance of Chinese medicine materials and that tangy and somewhat earthy scent they bring with it. Shun Koh Sen is not as peppery and invigorating as Reiryo Koh itself, but it’s not as muted as the aloeswood version. Of all the Shunkodos this one may have the deepest oil, which really adds a nice bit of complexity to it in the background. The major difference that sets it apart is that this is a green stick, with those typical and often hard to place notes that range between evergreens and patchouli or vetivert. Such a combination with the Reiryo direction makes this a really interesting and pleasant stick, a definite recommendation for those who want to check out a new take on combining unique herbal notes with standard traditional Japanese scents. It’s also testament to the skill of Shunkodo’s creators that a scent this good could still be so affordable.

While most Shunkodo incenses come in boxes with flaps (which while handsome make them a bit problematic storage-wise), Houshou is one of the company’s “roll” brands. It’s basically a sort of low to mid end aloeswood/sandalwood blend that is indeed a side step from the company’s “flap” line. This is sort of a dark, rich, almost chocolate (and occasionally mocha-like) incense whose aloeswood and sandalwood tendencies both blend so that neither is dominant, acting more as a base for the rest of the materials. The typical Shunkodo medicinal herb mix is still part of the incense but fairly subdued. It many ways it reminds me of lower end aloeswoods in the NK line (both Kangetsu and the big daily yellow and very misleading “Kyara deluxe” blend) but where those scent curves die pretty early in the burn, Shunkodo’s definitely rich throughout. It’s not terribly far off from the Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu blend, but this is less about spice and more about earth and musk. The wood powder, however, is the strongest, almost wood shop like at times. I think if one comes across this less in looking for an aloeswood and more for a darker sidestep, it’ll hit a different spot than any other incense.

It’s difficult to go wrong with Shunkodo incense, despite my criticism of Chinsoku Koh. In many ways they may be one of the most affordable for the quality brands available in the US market and are responsible for some of best incenses available, including Ranjatai, Kyara Seikan, Kyara Aioi No Matsu, Yae No Hana and others. It’s hard not to recommend that you check them all out over time, not only the time needed to purchase some of the high enders, but the time it takes to really grow with these scents, as they have a similar learning curve to Baieido, with the most incredible subtleties coming out when you expect them the least.

Best Incense – September 2008

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

  1. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.

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