Yamadamatsu / Gancho Koh

I think of Yamadamatsu’s Gancho Koh as something of a lateral step from their main “color box” line incense Kumoyi or maybe even the Shoyo coil. Although we’re given a fairly sizable ingredients list on this one with aloeswood, clove, patchouli, and cinnamon, this incense seems to pack a seriously syrupy wallop with a great deal of musk, caramel, chocolate, sandalwood and some level of decadent perfume that is not only rich but unusually spicy as well (ambergris? operculum?). In fact this incense could probably fit into the main Yamadamatsu line if it wasn’t for the box and label being slightly different in style. I’m not sure if this means this is a relatively new Yamadamatsu incense, but one thing I would note right away is that this has something like about half the sticks that most of the color boxes have, in fact the inner cardboard box is a bit nested in the same way Ouju is to account for the smaller roll. So even at a $34 price this is a more deluxe incense per stick than Kumoyi is, although this still strikes me as a terrific buy at its price range just because it is so thick and exotic. In fact one of its real features is that mix of all this decadent candy sweetness with that almost peppery (cayenne or otherwise), turmeric-like spice in the mix, in fact I’d guess the patchouli leaf plays a part here as well. It’s yet another fine example of Yamadamatsu’s commitment to quality and their independent stamp of creativity.


Yamadamatsu / Shikun, Saiun, Kumoyi, Ouju

So now we turn to the line’s “upper half,” well sort of. The following includes new reviews of both the Shikun and the Saiun. Before I started restocking incense late last year, I had some sticks remaining of each and compared them with both the new stock I just received (and my reviews) and started to wonder why it seemed there were rather large differences between the sticks. I considered that I had switched lids on the old stock years ago, but given that Yamadamatsus can have substantial oil content in their incenses, I thought that maybe they had lost some of their power. So I decided to redo those from scratch, but in the redoing of the reviews, it felt really like I got them right the first time (I rendered and then unrendered the previous reviews obsolete). It was a bit of a lesson on how much these incenses changed with age. Also in that review is the incense, Hyofu. This one, based on the samples I recently tried (not to mention, I believe I was out of old stock by then), seems to be the same incense, and so there didn’t feel a need to do that one again, it has remained remarkably unchanged through the years (it’s also not a favorite of mine, so I didn’t restock it). Kumoyi, on the other hand, is a huge favorite here. Ouju is the top end of the series. Gancho Koh, however, I have moved to a separate review because even though it looks superficially similar to the rest of these incenses, it actually varies a bit in label and box type and is a bit of a side step from these. So look for that one in a later installment on its own.

First of all Shikun is listed as 85 5 1/2 inch sticks at $28 while Saiun is listed as 100 5 1/2 inch sticks at $32, so they’re close enough in price for the difference to be fairly marginal. If the two Suifus were the entry point into the low end aloeswood blend range then these start moving a bit into the mid range, although they are still priced rather inexpensively all things considering. This is the first incense in this line where, although you don’t have the ingredient list, one might extrapolate from some of the old Yamadamatsu ingredient lists that list things like real deer musk and operculum. I’ve said it before that animal ingredients often hide in the pockets of the secret recipes, but Shikun is where I start actually noticing things like deep musk and marine notes in the mix. There seems to be a mix of high level sandalwood as well as quality aloeswood, all of which act as the base for a great deal of perfume work. Of all the Japanese companies, Yamadamatsu may be one of the most unique in terms of how different and unusual their blends are. While this has some base level similarity to the Suifu, there’s a whole lot more going on, with hints of the floral, some saltiness, and a touch of caramel sweetness in the mix. It’s interesting reading the old review though as it actually still seems like it works pretty well. I would guess a lot of the more perfume notes probably float away when the box ages. Also of interest, I get hints of both Hyofu and the Oubu in this as well, as if the incenses share elements and recapitulate them in the same way the Kourindo line does.

One of the things about low- to mid-line aloeswood blends is the rubric is generally to paste aloeswood on the description of them first, it is after all most of what we are looking for. However a lot of these early blends have a lot of sandalwood in them, and Saiun is a very good example of that, in fact I think the sandalwood is a lot more prominent and the aloeswood more a player on the outside of the aroma, a note that often seems both mellow and strong along the burn. It has a bit of a dusky sort of scent to it and some sense of spice, although it’s not a super potent level of it. It doesn’t have the same sort of musk hit the Shikun does, but it is there in the mix and dialed down a bit for subtlety. It’s worth comparing this a bit to my previous review as it strikes me about the same and I’m not sure I would have noticed the apricot without reading it, but it’s definitely there in the mix. Overall it’s an intriguing incense, maybe not as immediately striking as the Shikun is but there’s still quite a bit of complexity and interplay in this to keep one interested.

If there’s a large gap between how much I love Kumoyi and how long its taken me to review, it might be the largest one in the history of ORS. I first discovered this one way back when from a pre-Japan Incense order direct from Japan and managed to burn through my first box so fast I needed to restock it pretty fast and now I’m on my third one (and I’d add this even seems to have a slightly larger stick count than the previous boxes at 125). This may be the real prize of the whole line, a tribute to not only Yamadamatsu’s originality and creativity, but both in the way they weave oils and other materials together into a greater whole. It’s a very dank scent fronted by an almost hazelnut-caramel sort of top note where below there is a tremendous musk hit, a powerful sense of the marine that I would assume is some level of operculum and of course an aloeswood presence by far for more deluxe and powerful than any incense prior to this one in the line. It’s one of those Japanese incenses with such a perfume hit you can really smell it from the box. It is both confectionary sweet and a little dangerous in all the best ways and it’s about as close to something I’d like as possible. And not only that we’re still under $60 on this one on an incense I enjoy nearly as many that are double or triple the price. So yes this one is a stone classic of incense, well worth checking out, and I’d also add its remained remarkably stable over the years. I should also mention this one reminds me quite a bit of the Shoyo coil as well.

Not only does the price take quite a jump at this point but the stick count goes down by over half with the highest end box in this range, Ouju. This one really jumps into a very powerful, thick and resinous aloeswood scent and as such it feels like the additions back off a little in comparison to the early line. But what is really notable about Ouju is the spice mix with the woods is very different than you usually expect for an aloeswood at this price range. It’s a bit masala- or even food spice-like, with quite a bit of pepper, coriander, celery salt, and other spices in the mix. It still has a bit of the marine note that makes you feel like operculum is still in the mix but the musk is more backed off than in the Kumoyi. But with all this stuff playing around the edges it’s still the wood that is the real highlight, with that sort of peek-a-boo characteristic a lot of wood in this range has where a resin pocket might blast you with that hoary goodness. I would keep in mind that this isn’t an aloeswood that’s really anything like the Shu-Jus or the Firebird, and feel the black color box here kind of reflects this sort of midnight-like aloeswood aroma. It’s a beautiful stick, one that actually needs a bit of space to diffuse into the room in order to unpack the depth of it. It may be a bit different than what you expect, but the potential for listening is extremely high here. It’s unquestionably recommended, especially if you want an aloeswood that really has no analog anywhere else.

Yamadamatsu / Kayo, Kagetsu, Suifu, Suifu Gokuhin

So today we’re going to start at the low end of the Yamadamatsu “color” box incenses. I call them this because they all come in the same size boxes with similar graphic designs, all sort of implying they’re something like the company’s main range. We have covered a few of these in the past, but two of the reviews at the link will be redone in the following installment. The four incenses here have not been reviewed here as far as I can remember.

Before I continue, I want to note the Japan incense Yamadamatsu sampler. This sampler contains 3 sticks each of all the incenses in the series, so it’s likely to be a good place to start if you want to cut through the chase and try them all. It also includes both the Karaku Sandalwood and the Karaku Aloeswood, as well as what might be considered the first in the color box line, Oubai. When I started restocking my incense last year, I started with this sampler to try everything (again) and even though 3 sticks can often be not quite enough to really understand an incense fully, I felt at the low end, none of the three were really worth upgrading to full boxes on. Oubai in particular I remember being a very low end daily with not much in the way of real sandalwood presence, and I’ve largely forgotten the Karaku duo. However, my experiences with both the Kayo and Kagetsu low end sandalwoods were much more positive, in fact I really enjoy both and think they’re among the better incenses in this category. It should also be mentioned the strange fact that while Kayo is described as having old mountain sandawood and Kagetsu isn’t, they’re essential identical in price, stick count and length.

But I will start with the Kagetsu in the mustard color box first. It’s a bit of a dual mix of herbs and spices along with a still very distinct sandalwood note. It’s definitely a daily, not a sandalwood stick on its own, but it is a remarkably classy incense. The sandalwood note is actually fairly crystalline and resinous in the middle and seems fairly separate from all the other herb and spice additions which allows you to sense and listen to them to both. Japan Incense describes this one as fresh and woody and it’s an excellent description as it really does have a nice freshening effect to it. It really will be a matter of whether you like the herb and spice mix in it, as it cuts through nice and strong with a distinct sense of oil work. It’s just that it has been nearly tailor made to mesh perfectly with the wood. So yes this is a really nice piece of work and at approximately 100 sticks for $14 a good deal for the money. I particularly like that the Japanese incense aesthetics are still in full play here at this end and that it isn’t muddy, diffused or boring like some incenses at this end can be.

Kayo, in the pale orange box, uses old mountain sandalwood, and like I said previously, without moving the needle at all on the price. Where Kagetsu is definitely a mix, Kayo is definitely less a daily and more an actual low end sandalwood incense. Honestly with sandalwood prices appreciating to get a note this nice out for this price range is actually somewhat astonishing. Where Kagetsu has a bit more of an herbal flavor to it, Kayo is really going more with the spices just working around the sandalwood contour. In fact this is actually a really good example of an incense that doesn’t resort to the types of tactics you see in Shoyeido where everything is unnecessarily sweet and given the stick count here it’s probably only a little more expensive that the cost of three 35 stick Shoyeido incense boxes. It’s dry, regal and hits the spot dead on perfectly. While I like both of these sandalwood blends, it’s hard in terms of my personal taste not to lean heavy in favor of this one. But keep in mind that this has something of a strong cinnamon like element too, so be sure to factor that in. Anyway this is a straight up hall of famer for an under $20 roll and would say the same if you were getting as much as a third of the quantity of sticks. Yamadamatsu genius even at this end of the spectrum.

At $20 you’re already in aloeswood territory, although Suifu is certainly more a low end blend with a little. It’s one of those sweet and cherry-like low end blends, similar to something like Tennendo Renzan, Nippon Kodo Zuiun or the old, now-deleted, Kyukyodo Shiun. It’s not even far from something like Baieido’s Kaden Kobunboku in that this seems to be something of a variation on the “plum blossom” incense with a bit of a kick. Honestly at this point I find this such a standard Japanese incense that it is somewhat ubiquitous and would generally recommend that unless you are really drawn to the style that you really only need one of these. However if you did pick one I might go with this one or maybe the Baieido, simply because these companies are as likely as any to really do quality work with the woods. This is a very pleasant and friendly incense for sure and even at its level there is a lot of complexity to listen to for such a traditional recipe.

And if Baieido has a Tokusen Kobunboku then Yamadamatsu also has the Suifu Gokuhin. Where Tokusen is usually excellent, Gokuhin often signifies something of an extra fine quality to it so we can really just assume this is a bit of a Suifu upgrade overall. It moves the scent into somewhat richer territory, with a bit more of a tangy and spicy herbal content in the mix, one that’s somewhat similar to the profile found in the Kagetsu. The woods are definitely a bit better here and the aloeswood feels like it’s a step up in quality, like it’s not just one element in the mix but a more prominent one. Honestly given this is only a $2 increase in price it seems like it would be a no brainer to go for this one, but keep in mind that the Suifu itself is a bit more of a traditional recipe and has that sort of sweet fruitiness of the style that really changes with the Gokuhin into something different. While the Gokuhin still has the overall plum tree or plum blossom profile, it’s a different take on it and even though they’re variations on a theme they feel like largely different incenses. But still for $22 a box you’re talking yet again about another really fairly priced and extraordinary incense. One always keeps wondering with incenses that have really legit aloeswood profiles when the bottom is going to drop out, even on something this budget.

Part 2 of this series will be live in by the end of the week and move quite a ways up the gourmet aloeswood range.

Yamadamatsu / Shuju Kyara, Shuju Rakoku, Shuju Manaka, Shuju Manaban, Shuju Sasora, Shuju Sumotara

I know this might seem disrespectful, but I grew up with Italian immigrant grandparents, and every time I see Yamadamatsu, I can’t help but do it in an Italian accent and add a lot of extra syllables and gesture a bunch. “Yamada-damada-maddamadda-matsu.”

With that out of the way, I wanted to start with a chart I put together from different sources about the Rikkoku Aloeswood scents. (More information about history and details of Rikkoku can be found here.) The idea that there was a quick way to identify where aloeswood comes from based on the scent is fairly solid. In fact, in my head, it conjures that sort of troped scene in movies where someone sips a wine and is able to tell the region, vintage and winery off that one sip. And just like wine, I think there are far more than just six categories, but to honor this tradition, we’re working with the six that Yamadamatsu produces.

When I first started on this journey, this chart was daunting and hard. I would light a piece of incense and try to place it in this chart. I gave up after a few tries and just let this sit for six years while I continued sniffing and reviewing both raw chunks of wood and incense made from single source. Several artists like Kyarazen and similar were helpful on this journey with their making ‘exemplar’ sticks like Manaban Malik.

In the chart below, I found the scents on the Baiedo site from a few versions ago, and can’t find it currently. The poems I lifted from a site that no longer exists but I found this site, that mentions the name of the poet – Kōdō Master Yonekawa Johaku.

In the poems, the countries are personified as an Aristocrat (Kyara), Warrior (Rakoku), Woman (Manaka), Peasant (Manaban), Monk (Sasora), Ninja (Sumotara). I realize the poem doesn’t say ninja, but really, why else would a peasant disguise themselves as a noble other than for a ninja mission (also noting a peasant couldn’t afford any trappings of a noble, but a ninja clan would)?

NameScent (from Baiedo)OriginLabelPoem
KyaraBitterVietnam伽羅“A gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness.”
RakokuSweetThailand羅国“A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood. Its smell is generally bitter, and reminds one of a warrior.”
ManakaSoftMalaysia真那伽“Smells light and enticing, changing like the mood of a woman with bitter feelings.”
ManabanSaltyCambodia真南蛮“Mostly sweet, the presence of sticky oil on a mica plate is often present after smoldering Manaban. The smell is coarse and unrefined, just like that of a peasant.”
SasoraHotIndia佐曾羅“Cool and sour. Good-quality sasora is mistaken for kyara, especially at the beginning. It reminds one of a monk. Sometimes very light and disappearing.”
SumotaraSourIndonesia寸聞多羅“Sour at the beginning and end. Sometimes mistaken for Kyara, but with something distasteful and ill bred about it, like a peasant disguised as a noble.”

I didn’t write that chart in any real order and started with my favorite at the top, so I’m going to drop the reviews in the same order. Starting with Kyara (not pictured as the box has not been available for a while) I was not sure if I was going to be able to talk about this because my initial reaction years ago was just ‘bitter ash and burned wood’, but now I know what to sniff for in between those smells and I get a rich resinous experience. This is what the kyara sticks of other companies are trying to reproduce, this sort of thin layer between the ashy, salty smoke and the resinous wood, where there is tobacco, rum, caramel, raisins, and then it goes right back to the salty wood. This is worth the price, as one of the more expensive kyara sticks because it (as far as I know) is just kyara and not adulterated with many other things, which, while pleasant, can get in the way of appreciating the raw power of kyara. I’m going to note that like kyara, this stick is very strong and could either be broken into parts and heated on a heater for more economic enjoyment or simply burned a few times to give the needed scent. Such a treat, worth the price.

Rakoku is supposed to remind one of a warrior. I am starting to wonder how awesome ancient warriors must have smelled if this is what one is reminded of? To be sure, when I read the poem and lit the stick the first time, I imagined that I was going to smell some heady sort of body odor that would be coming off a soldier after a week of forced marching through tropical climates. This comes across as a typical Thai, to me, after having experienced the raw wood. There is a sweet front that immediately shifts gears into the bitter of the poem. I still wish I could travel in time and experience both the sandalwood and the warrior that the poet compares this to, because this is nothing like sandalwood. None of that ‘woodshop’ or ‘salty’ or even ‘buttery’ scents I associate with the santalum is present here. I have to imagine that perhaps this warrior starts off sweet when you smell the leather armor and the oiled sword, but when he takes off his armor the smell is a bit more bitter and pungent. But overall, I love this for how great it smells as an aloeswood.

The poem for Manaka seems to lose something in the translation, but this is the feminine scent according to the poet. The scent is supposed to be soft, while the poem says “light and enticing” and “bitter feelings”. Manaka for me tends to have a salty, wet earth type of smell that maybe could be wet with the bitter tears of someone crying? Overall, this comes up as the sort that when you really listen you get softer things like fruit, ash and moss, as well as a note that reminds me of saltpeter and similar after lighting a firecracker, and that note overall is one of the favorite notes of Manaka for me. Firecracker.

Classism haunts this poem for Manaban, and if you would believe the way the poet talks about this, this should be the one that is farthest from Kyara. However, this is probably one of my favorites in terms of the one that is almost gone of the five boxes. This comes across as salty, hot, and bitter and those three things come together to make something really deep. I have come to associate this kind of smell with Cambodian aloeswood and surrounding regions, but this is also the profile that I think gets propped up in other Japanese incense with clove and cinnamon to be able to sweeten it and I guess, refine it and make it less coarse. The thing that I think also makes this worth noting is that I feel like the ‘course and unrefined’ could also be phrased ‘strong and brash’ because we live in an age where aristocrats outdo each other in tastelessness, ‘course and unrefined’ defines quite a few “noblemen” of our day. Strong and Brash also defines how this aloeswood comes across to me. This captures a lot of the notes you used to get from wild Cambodian.

For our monk, Sasora comes from India, and while India can produce many different aloeswood localities, I think this is going for the Assam, but can’t be 100% sure because I haven’t sniffed every Indian region of aloeswood yet. The Baiedo description of ‘Hot’ is counter to the poem that says ‘Cool and sour’. I have to agree with both. Here’s why. There is a hot sort of feeling when inhaling this, like you’re on a dry and dusty road. But when you start to listen to the smells, there is indeed a sour and cool component right behind that hot dustiness. The poem also suggests that if you get good enough Sasora, you’re sniffing something like kyara. My take is that this is a wonderful stick that has interplay between the varied components that if you sit with it long enough, some of them start to marry into a complex fragrance that playfully shifts between sour, hot, cool, dry and sometimes a hint of salt or sweet just to mix it up.

To finish our journey through the six countries, we arrive in Sumotara, and this is what I like to call the ninja smell, since it’s a peasant disguised as a noble according to the poem. This definitely hits the sour note, and had I not done this kind of differentiation, I would have called this sour note bitter. But it is not the kind of biting that bitter has but rather a more frowning sour. Once you get behind that, there is this deep wooden smell that gets complicated, like a precious wooden box that once stored opium, tobacco, a leather pouch of money, and a flint and steel. That complicated box of smells is where I think this can get mistaken for kyara as the poem suggests.

Overall, my best recommendation on these kinds of sets is to educate your nose. But for me, what this did was give me a reference so that I could start categorizing my other aloeswood incenses into the six countries. Of course, not all the premium blends would support this as I would have a hard time placing the likes of Shokaku or Kyara Tenpyo on this list because they don’t fit the kyara entry so well. As aloeswood disappears from the wild and we are left with farmed localities of varying quality and complexity, some of these smells represented here may no longer exist in the future so I like to suggest these kinds of luxury incenses might be on the endangered species list. That alone is why I like keeping my collection stocked with top shelf because the likes of Shoyeido stopping production on their top tier kyara incenses is only going to keep happening.

Yamadamatsu / Kouboku Senshu / Sandalwood, Java Aloeswood, Siam Aloeswood, Kyara

There are lots of styles of Japanese incense packaging but my least favorite aspect of a few of them is when a box has some sort of slip cover that acts to seal the box tight. I must have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fit the tighter ones back on the boxes to some mild level of frustration. Think of, say, the little Nippon Kodo gift packs. There are times I feel like tossing the slips out except they often do prevent accidental breakage of sticks later on, so unfortunately you need them sometimes. While the Yamadamatsu Kouboku Senshu series doesn’t have full box slips and a bit of a sticker and glue sort of arrangement where you could technically just wrap the two strips around both the incense inserts and the pawlonia box, this degrades the stickiness after a few attachments and reattachments. Even odder, the two inserts in the pawlonia box seem to use a sort of corrugated cardboard to hold the incense sticks. While the pawlonia boxes are kind of charming in a sort of antique fashion (they have what looks like a stamp of an old map that overlaps the spine and front of each box), I think I’ll go with ease any day. These also have paper inserts which of course you usually notice sitting outside the box after you finally get the damn strip back on. Sigh. Also, as you can see from the upper picture, the application of the stamps are a little haphazard and I only noticed the kyara box was flush right rather than left like the other three boxes at the last minute and so the lone picture of it below I just flipped upright. This really shows how loathe I am to keep messing with these boxes, as you can see in the below picture the glue isn’t holding on the inner slip. So yes this is like a C- for packaging.

Yamadamatsu are of course one of Japan’s finest incense companies, particularly if you like sandalwood and aloeswood, so you end up having to put all that aside anyway and this series of four wood based sticks is of course of immediate interest. For a company that has an entire box range of sandalwood and aloeswood blends, another that is based on the Rakkoku (six countries) aloeswoods (the Shu-Ju) series, another that is coils and finally a few kyaras, one might think another series like this might be overkill. The answer to that might be both yes and no. Yes in the sense that these incenses really don’t surpass or improve on much of what has come before and no in that these seem formulated a little bit differently. I’ve also been sampling Kikijudo’s Kouboku Ginmi series recently which is probably a decent comparison to this, they’re basically a series that tend to present the woods in a fairly pure form. The Kouboku Senshu incenses are only 4 inch sticks, but it can be assumed that these are all pretty woods heavy and not modified too much from the natural materials, although there are times I’m not entirely sure.

While there are two sandalwoods in the Kikijudo series there’s just the one Indian old mountain sandalwood version in this Yamadamatsu series. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the Kouboku Senshu Sandalwood but for a company who does remarkably good low end daily sandalwood blends I was a little surprised this didn’t have the full knockout punch, at least for my tastes. Yes, it’s old mountain sandalwood, but it feels somewhat arguable whether or not this is the best of this sort of wood scent to offer. The Kikijudo version seems a bit better pitched even if it’s a matter of needing to buy more of it at a higher price. Don’t mistake me, the KS is still pretty premium stuff and it’s a different breed from Yamadamatsu’s lower end woods which I’m sure are at least mostly not made from Indian mysore sandalwood. But it feels to me its missing that tail-like, crystalline crescendo of the best woods. It is, however fresh, and based on looking forward at the aloeswoods one wonders how much oil is used in these sticks, as it feels a bit more full bodied than many a sandalwood stick. As I’ve mentioned before, sandalwood ranges in Japanese incenses tend to be a bit narrow so there’s probably some level of hair splitting going on with this one, but as it’s not provided as samples that I know of, I figured it was worth giving you my full take.

The Kouboku Senshu Java Aloeswood doesn’t strike me as particularly resinous, which is something I’d consider a must at this price point, or maybe I would have before it started feeling like companies were pulling back on their woods or at least replacing them with stock that’s a bit of a shadow of the past. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of it there but it feels largely woody. Indonesian aloeswood is often the lowest price point aloeswood, so it’s not super surprising (consider this in, say, a Baieido blend) that this stick may be lacking in personality a bit, but it’s also not getting too bitter or thin either. It’s actually a bit of an odd duck overall, intriguing in that it’s kind of a different profile than I’m used to, but it brings up the usual observation at this point which is that this is not an aloeswood worthy of the price point ten years ago, but it may be now. Overall, though, it’s hard to get excited about it or sell it too much, there’s a level of it that feels disappointingly generic.

I’m wondering if the description of the Kouboku Senshu Siam Aloeswood at Japan Incense describing this as having Vietnamese aloeswood might be off for two reasons, one is that Siam is the former name for Thailand and two it’s at a price point equivalent to the Java Aloeswood, when actual Vietnamese aloeswood would likely jump up in price. Or maybe there’s a mix of both or the wood is from Vietnam with more of a Thai profile. I know, I’m reaching. However the description of the scent profile being watery seems really dead on to me and reminiscent of the Yamadamatsu blend Hyofu which is also described as having Vietnamese aloeswood. Suffice it to say with two aloeswoods at the same price, this is certainly the better deal even if one might argue that there’s a bit more resin scent in the Java. Like Hyofu itself this feels sort of round and polished with a bit more presence and it doesn’t present as muddled a profile as the Java. I know Hyofu really goes over well with some people so if you’re a fan of the blend then this should be right up your alley. I do like that this is a bit different and that the deeper aloeswood qualities do play around the edges of it a bit. So overall this feels more appropriately priced than the Java.

FInally there’s Kouboku Senshu Kyara and obviously at a $60 price point it’s kind of hard to believe this is a legit kyara stick, although in this case it’s actually “Indonesian kyara,” which doesn’t seem to show up all that much as part of an ingredients list. But you do want to get it right out of the way that this is a kyara in the sense of other Yamadamatsu or Japanese sticks and consider it more of a higher end aloeswood. There’s no real kyara sweetness to this at all, but for sure it’s the deepest and more aloeswood-consonant wood in the series. In fact it’s really the only one in this series that seems like a legit aloeswood stick in terms of resinous notes and the usual profiles. It’s certainly a pleasant stick and one I think a lot of aloeswood appreciators will be happy with, but it’s one that you will end up wanting to do the math on and compare to other incenses at a similar price range. This has 30 4 inch sticks which is certainly much cheaper than most boxes with the name kyara on it, but if you consider it from the perspective of it being a fine aloeswood then I think it’s probably a bit on the bubble in the sense that it’s unlikely to compare to others at the price range while being indicative of where things are at now. Maybe the major issue with this overall is while it’s a nice aloeswood, I’m not sure it has tremendous personality, which is something you can’t usually accuse any Yamadamatsu incense of lacking.

Overall I think I’d certainly consider leaving this series to the end, until you’ve exhausted most of the other lines I mentioned above. And yes on the ORS to do list, we plan on new/full reviews of both the color boxes and Shuju incenses, many of which will be easy to recommend, in coming months.

Yamdamatsu / Fujitsubo

Fujitsubo appears to be the short stick version of the coil; however, it should be noted that the wisteria note is only listed on the stick, while the coil gets sandalwood and flower. I actually ended up with these trying to restock all of the line’s coils, and since this coil was unavailable at the time (in most cases I tend to prefer coils over sticks when given the choice) I was happy to have a secondary option. I will note however that the stick appears to be very close to the description of the coil. This is a highly perfumed, modern stick, in fact very different from much of Yamadamatsu’s more traditional line and much more along the line of what used to be a mid-end Shoyeido Floral World until the company shook up the line and reverted much of it to inferior incenses. I’m not sure this is a pure wisteria stick overall even if it makes up a large part of the bouquet and would definitely agree with the previous review that there are both lavender and vanilla hints in the mix, in fact this is not a particularly surprising thing to do when trying to stretch a rarer floral note in a more inexpensive incense. Overall these sticks pack very large aromatic wallops, in fact they might almost be best as a quick freshener set in the back in order to permeate the room and come back to it, to allow the intensity to settle more. It reminds me a little of Baieido’s Izume or Kunmeido’s Hosen in that sense. It’s probably a bit more pleasant than your average commercial air freshener but seems to be geared to do the same thing.

Yamadamatsu / Hojo – Kyara “Firebird” / Green Label, Red Label, White Label

Japan Incense started importing Yamadamatsu incenses a year or two before ORS closed for a while. Prior to that I had received boxes through different channels. But I think that sort of trickle and then flow meant that our reviews on their products were a bit more haphazard and not as organized as some of the other Japanese companies and that many of our comments probably showed up in previous top ten lists around the time. (Also, I believe the write ups for the red and white label Hojos at Japan Incense were written by Ross as well, so they’re worth checking into from the product links given below). A similar situation is probably true for our Kyukyodo reviews and so part of the new ORS plans is to visit/revisit a lot of these incenses and of course at the same time look at what is currently being offered under these most revered of companies. Personally I don’t notice huge changes in this particular line (Hojo); however, in the more lower end boxes with all the colors it did seem that some of the incenses had changed a lot.

The Hojo or Firebird line is an incredibly well-priced line for its quality. The Green and White labels are about the same in cost while the Red label is a step up in price. These are very different kyaras from a lot of the incenses we’ve reviewed here. The Hojo series has a bit of what I’d call like a lacquer or turpentine sort of vibe to their overall bouquet. They seem to both combine elements of dry woodiness as well as a thick sweetness in the mix. I think I only had a sample of the Green label kyara a long time ago but these are my second boxes of the Red and White. They took me a while to appreciate, but part of that is because Yamadamatsu is so good at the aloeswood incense that there can be a really long learning curve to start to appreciate what is going on with these. Honestly except for the White label I’m not sure there is a super strong kyara note in these, it’s more mixed in with what I’d guess is other prize aloeswoods, but I think in deference to the skill of the creators what they’ve done to highlight or mix in the note on these is really impressive. If you’re an aloeswood appreciator and want to skip the fluff, these should be right down your alley.

My (current, subject to change) favorite of these, perhaps because it’s a bit newer to me, is the Hojo Green label. It’s actually quite cool that you can get a least a little genuine presence of this fine wood at a $140 price point as this is a tremendously good incense at this range. One thing I love about this one is it has a forest-like presence to it, it’s a bit more cooling than the other two. I’m not sure if this just my association with the green or if there’s an intention to it, but this seems to be strong in presenting the kyara with a nice helping of borneol, musk, some intriguing green notes and a bit of saltiness in the mix. When I first tried this in a sampler I was impressed, but then the box really warmed me to what a tremendously great incense this is (it will certainly end up in the new hall of fame). The kyara note seems to diffuse through the bouquet rather that sit as a note itself and because of it having such a nice mix of elements, it really gives one’s attention a lot of reward, as you sit back and let the complexity of it gather in the air around you. This is actually one of my very favorite incenses, a straight 10 out of 10 and I highly recommend it if you are new to high-end woods and want to splurge for the first time.

The Hojo Red Label I’m a lot more familiar with and it’s the high end of the three here. It is the most powerful and lacquer-like of the three and less complex extra ingredients-wise than the Green label. This is definitely an all out high-end wood assault and because it doesn’t feel like this has as many additions, the complexity of the wood itself is more noticeable. The thing about Yamadamatsu is when it comes to aloeswoods they’re very much not afraid to give you the wood itself in all its pungency and sheer strength, including any of the actual wood notes that a lot of other incenses tend to balance out with other things. But this is simply the way you want it sometimes. The kyara is really starting to peak through, although it has to to cut through all of this boldness. Overall it comes over strongly patriarchal, regal, meditative, and daring you to flinch. And if you don’t, you realize that the overall carrier wave is really delivering on the kyara front and as the wood burns you’re delivered the simple complexity and depth of the wood in a way that only an incense like this can. I would guess this wouldn’t go over quite as well to a newcomer given its utterly unforgiving density, but if you can lock into the overall powerful note akin to something like caramel, butterscotch or toffee (which isn’t unlike Shoyeido’s Muro-machi without falling more into the sweeter, more approachable realms) then you might be able to work with the less forgiving aspects that come with purer wood, whatever the type. Unsurprisingly another classic just like the Green label, just a masterclass in aloeswood skill. This is the apex of a wood incense.

And finally the Hojo White label. In some ways this is like a more affordable Red label. There isn’t as much of the caramel-like note but it’s there farther back in the mix. It’s a touch spicier and there’s a bit of chocolate in the mix and the lacquer like scent isn’t dialed all the way up. Feels like this one’s a bit muskier than the other two labels as well even if it feels they all have it in some way. It distinguishes itself from the other two mostly because it is mellower with a bit of a powdery touch. I think of the three this kyara note is perhaps the least noticeable in this one. It feels like there might be a touch of citrus it is making its present felt in, but this is a very faint subnote. Overall while I might like the White and Green a little more, it’s a bit hairsplitting to say so because again, this is Yamadamatsu and their aloeswood incenses are always unique, thoughtful, well crafted, and innovative. In fact this might even be the friendliest of the three (old brain is telling me I liked this one the most of the white and red for a long time).

Anyway not much more to say. It’s kind of crazy when you think the new Shoyeido is going for $500 and you can get the top end of the Hojos for $260. If it wasn’t on sale (at $600) you could get all three of these for less than one box of Myo-kaku. There’s just no contest what is the better incense even if they were even. And overall these aloeswoods are without comparison. Even Yamadamatsu’s Shu Ju range and most of the color range are different. One or two of the high end coils have some similarities but those are as likely down to the other ingredients as the woods. I just have to stop myself now before I discover new aspects of these great incenses and feel the need to edit. A+++

Yamadamatsu / Shu-ju Series (Overview)

The Yamadamatsu Shu-ju series has been around for some time but has never gotten much attention here. This is more in the realm of a heads up rather then full on review, there are no “lesser lights” in this line up. You might think of this set as a sort of “Laboratory Standard” in stick form as to what good wood based incense is supposed to smell like. To a large degree this smells like incense used to. The scents are the deep agarwood scent of high resin content that one might have found in a Rikkoku set from years ago. Each as a slightly different scent to it that is reminiscent of its name.

I think the current batch is pretty close in scent to the ones I have from five years ago but given that my older sticks were not keep air tight it gets hard to tell. It is, to my knowledge, the only series of its kind (at least on a major commercial level, Kyarazen’s single area sets are also along these lines).

Japanincense/Kohshi sells these at a remarkable price, one, which is pretty much at Japanese retail and  makes these a great deal. The Yamadamatsu line is one of the very few that is sold in this country at these prices and this includes their other incenses as well as their pure wood pieces.

The Kyara sticks tend to go out of stock the fastest which is somewhat humorous to me as the others smell just as wonderful but of course we all get stuck on the Kyara hype.

I highly recommend these, the 15 stick sets in the presentation case are a work of art and very affordable, plus you get the case they come in.

Yamadamatsu / Shihou Kyara (Coil) (Discontinued)

Where to start. A note on the name, Shihou in Japanese means ‘all directions’. I put some prep time in before I lit this coil to take notes on it, cleansing my olfactory senses with coffee beans and ensuring the room was free from other scents, etc etc.

This coil is all wood. It immediately hits you with concentrated, pure aloes wood scent, with a rich turpentine backed up by a light rosy cedar sweetness, mixed with a hint of ozone. This is by no means a 100-paces style incense, even though it comes in a coil. You will definitely want to sit down and listen to this one on a personal level.

Yamadamatsu / Shoyo, Shigei (Discontinued)

Yamadamatsu’s Shoyo is quite enlightening, hence the name as it is written here means “Shining Light”. This coil has a strong initial top note of both vanilla and a resinous labdanum scent, combined with at first a woody, salty aloes wood that eventually fades to a mid/base note of cedar. There’s not much else to say other than this is a wonderful scent well worth the price.

Shigei on the other hand is all about the wood. Unlike its predecessors, this coil forgoes any blend and instead contains a straight blend of Vietnamese aloes wood, with a top note of buttery, salty aloes wood to its scent. With a price of 10$ per coil, it is definitely a incense you will want to sit down with and study.

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