Aluwwahs Last Breath-And Then Some :-)

I got quite a shock a month ago when touching base with my friend Simon at Alluwah, creator of such fine Bakhoors as Hajar and Ramlah, and more recently the much appreciated farm related Sheep and Lambs Breath. It seems that he has decided to take up farming fulltime for now, and was in the process of clearing his shelves. He did go out on a high note, after creating a creature that in name sounds as if it might devour those poor sheep and lambs, but whose nature is quite the opposite. The Black Pine Dragon arrived with a spicy smell exuding through several layers of packaging, making me fear it. However, upon heating, it became a beast more mellow than the sheep and lambs that preceded it. The spiciness from the Dragons Blood quickly mellowed into a dreamlike cloud of Black Pine, Red Cedar, Sandalwood, Indian Agarwood, and Jawee, accented by touches of Vanilla, Somali Frankincense, and Ambergris. After floating upon this mellow dragons back for what seems like a most incredible time, he belches out a super smooth, spicy sweet and lingering puff of Galbanum infused with Dragons Blood fire. While Al Misky considered this to be an extension of his Lamb/Sheep line, minus the honey, I would tend to think this would tend to have taken him in a new, and even more creative area. Also in my parcel was the last in his line of bakhoors, the bakhoor Majlis B. Much more than the traditional “splash and dash” Omani style bakhoor, this Omani styled bakhoor featured a typical base of an AB grade Indian Agarwood, soaked in a luscious mixture of Chocolate, Patchouli, and Labdanum oils. I also detected trace amounts of frankincense and Indian amber in this one, all of which serve to make it a hefty mix. This was quite nice as is, although I might have added a touch of Taif to put it over the top. All in all, two very fine creations, and hopefully Simon will tire of retirement soon.

Shoyeido / Floral World / Gold (Pine, Violet, Jasmine)

Shoyeido / Floral World / Echo
Shoyeido / Floral World / Royal
Shoyeido / Floral World / Star

It has been a while since we covered a Shoyeido incense and in that time I realized we’d never discussed the most inexpensive assortment of Floral World incenses. In the meantime it seems the company has discontinued either part of the line or the entire line (I couldn’t find a link to this one in the Shoyeido catalog, but Essence of the Ages seems to have stock still). so you’re left with what is a 60 stick box, 20 short sticks per aroma.

It’s probably helpful to look at the whole series in terms of its gradient. At the top end in the Star set you have some of the finest modern florals on the market. The ingredients used are extremely high quality and it gives a definition to the florals that is a really rare thing for any incense. This extreme definition is gone with the Royal set, but generally speaking you’re still getting very high quality florals with slightly more static aromas. With Echo you’re definitely a step down and getting close to more of what you see floral wise on the Japanese market. When you get down to Gold what you’re mostly smelling is the moden process involved in the work and the way that process makes the incenses sweet and friendly, however by the Gold they’re starting to lose a lot of individual personality.

For instance, I’m not sure Pine would even be something I’d get out of the set’s red stick, although this is not a suprise given the previous sets’ sandalwoods tend to the floral and not the traditional. This is sugary, sweet, loud and brash , unsurprisingly not bearing any of the subtlety of the higher ranges, while still being a friendly incense in its own right. At this level, however, I get subscents like berry candles and the side effects of the massive perfume hit these incenses are given. The incense in itself is actually not bad, but I think I get a bit of dissonance when I try to think of it as a pine incense.

The Violet is a little thin in the middle and it’s impossible not to think of how wonderful the higher end violet is in the Floral World series. It seems that some of the incenses in the entire series might use some resins to give it some middle, but whatever it is that causes that effect is missing here. Like the Pine, there isn’t so much a specific violet aroma as there is an approximation of it. Maybe in another company such lack of distinction would lead to a poor incense, but again this is certainly nice and friendly just not very specific.

The Jasmine feels like a fainter, less quality version of the Floral World royal jasmine, again the lack of distinction is what really sets these apart from the other incenses in the series. It’s puffy, sweet, overperfumed yet friendly and like the other incenses in the box, I can’t help but sense similarities to the Nippon Kodo Yume no Yume line in terms of what they’re trying to do.

Obviously this Floral World line is priced so that the more you pay the better the quality of incense and really it’s much easier to recommend the better ones even at those prices. These are nice, but it wouldn’t shock me if this really was deleted.

Sarathi Perfumery Works / Sri Govinda / Gopala, Keshava, Krishna, Madhava, Mukunda

NOTE: This line has been discontinued

Sarathi Perfumery Works is responsible for Tulasi incense as well as this small, five incense Sri Govinda range. These five incenses all pair two different aromas in a champa style. While the link will take you to a page where you can purchase all five incenses, the incenses also come in larger boxes, although in my experience you’ll find each store varies in terms of what size and aromas they stock. Quality wise I’d say these are probably right above the Satya and Nitiraj ranges while still significantly below today’s premiums.

Gopala combines patchouli and vanilla, two ingredients fairly common in champa variants. In this case I’m far more reminded of Mystic Temple’s Vanilla Amber Champa than I am any patchouli champas, it’s almost as if the patchouli is something of a faint note in the incense. Overall the Gopala is quite dry as a result with the combination accentuating the sandalwood notes. It’s a bit one dimensional in the end but it does it nicely.

Keshava combines Rose and Geranium but as most incense veterans might guess, this is a lot more geranium than rose, although I’d even go as far to say that the geranium is actually kind of fuzzy, leaving the stick with a generic floral scent that doesn’t work particularly well with the sweet base. Overall it seems a bit too bitter or coarsely perfumed. It’s as if you’re burning two clashing incenses at once.

Sarathi’s Krishna mixes up honey and jasmine, two aromas that seem natural together, however like in the previous two incenses, one ingredient dominates and in this case it’s a jasmine scent somewhat reminiscent of Triloka’s. You can detect the honey but it sits below the jasmine as a subnote, probably as it marries with the base more. The combination doesn’t clash like the Keshava, but it’s not perfect, with a scent that strikes me as a little cloying due to a slight touch of soapiness.

Madhava is probably the most balanced of the three floral mixes in this group, combining violet and amber, which is a mix you don’t see very often if at all. At least in this case the oils don’t clash with the base like the Keshava did, and the violet sits on top of a gentle and sweet base. The amber merges into this, gently powdery and the combination gels, even if not in a particularly memorable way.

Mukunda definitely starts in the benzoin department with a decent quality scent (minus the rough and gravelly qualities associated with cheaper benzoin. The myrrh is difficult to pick out (an issue pretty common to myrrh incenses given how widely it can vary in scent) because it doesn’t have the individual qualities of good resin, but it does prevent this from being purely benzoin.In fact I detect a little more on the honey side in this one than I do with the Krishna.

I think in terms of whether you’d want any of these totally depends upon how deep you want your incense collection, as there’s a lot better and a lot worse. I think maybe these are a cut above Satya and Nitiraj because the base is better, in fact I often wondered going through these if some of the oils actually detracted from the base. But perhaps only the Madhava is memorable and even it’s not a perfect incense. The line has since been discontinued, but most of these incenses should still be locatable.

A few Nippon Kodo notes (edited)

[Edited] In the ever revolving NK catalog, the full catalog of the East Meet West is no longer available (implying deletion?)  I had originally mentioned in this post that the Elemense and Most Exceptional lines seemed no longer available but I was incorrect, they only seem to be inaccessible through part of the site. Apologies for the confusion and thanks to Beth for clearing it up!

Shoyeido Classics incenses discontinued

As of July 31, 2009, the following Shoyeido incenses have been discontinued: Hanakagari, Ake-bono,  Shino-nome, Miyako-gusa, Hana-noki and Kamo.

Shoyeido LISN line discontinued in the US

As of March 31, the LISN line will no longer be available in the US despite its popularity in Japan. For a limited time you can still buy the incense from the Shoyeido webstore, but you’ll want to moved fast if there are scents you like.

Triloka / Bulk / Jamaican Coconut, Lemongrass, Mystic Ambrosia, Nepali Musk, Tropical Garden, Vanilla, Vanilla Rose, Vanilla Sandalwood

[This line has been discontinued – Mike 1/22/09]

As long as I can remember, Triloka has been around distributing a large number of incenses and incense styles. In fact one of my most prevalent memories of the company’s incense is that it seemed to change almost every time I would shop for it, making it difficult if not problematic to restock something you liked. So it was no surprise in finishing up this article that most of the incenses here, which I bought less than three years ago, if not sooner, aren’t all that easy to find, being part of their “bulk” incense line, and thus not carried by many of the suppliers who offer Triloka incense, including Sensia and Incense Warehouse.  Based on the scents here, the choice not to stock these aromas is somewhat justified.

While I haven’t tried any of Triloka’s durbar styles in quite some time, my memory of many of them is good, although I wouldn’t put them on quite the same pedestal as those from Shroff Channabasappa, Ramakrishnanda, Mystic Temple, etc. They were always a little drier, implying a relative lack of halmaddi in the center, but this is probably the same trend that’s affected Shrinivas and other suppliers given the rising costs of halmaddi itself. These bulk incenses, however, are a step down and in the realms of the generic masala, incenses that, while not unpleasant, are unnecessary given the number of quality masalas and durbars that can be found these days. It will generally be impossible for me to recommend any of these, as not only are they attuned to modern rather than traditional tastes, but they don’t really hit the bullseye on any particular scent. Almost all of these incenses also share a very similar base, one slightly sweet and gummy but lacking character.

Jamaican Coconut, for example, isn’t an incense that really hits the smell people will usually associate with the coconut. It’s much more of a floral in many ways, with a green, and slightly spicy patchouli base that moves the coconut in certain directions one might find in suntan lotions. The coconut aroma is thus relatively mild and like most of the incenses in this list, somewhat halfhearted and thin. In my opinion an incense must commit to its direction and this one fails to do so.

Lemongrass is a difficult aroma to mess up due to the high strength and pungency of its oil, a favorite in Vietnamese cooking. However in this case it clashes with its base to some extent, the sweetness of the gums not contrasting particularly well with the lemongrass scent. It’s as if the stick has some durbarish qualities without going the whole way. In fact it’s somewhat fortunate that the oil isn’t all that heavy in the incense. Overall, though, it wouldn’t be a bad stick for someone who finds the average lemongrass incenses a little too powerful as it is not unpleasant, perhaps one of the few aromas in this batch that benefits from its halfhearted attempt at merging a strong oil with sweeter gums.

Mystic Ambrosia is basically the one true durbar in the group, or it would be if it wasn’t so dry, with an obviously different base from the usual style. But it strikes that sweet gum sort of champa smell that’s similar, if inferior, to, say, Surya’s Forest Champa. That is, there’s a thinness in the scent you won’t tend to find in most durbars. It has some resin (most likely inexpensive frankincense) and sandalwood mixed with a somewhat generic floral oil to give it presence, and the results are a little on the harsh side in the final burn. However with so many quality durbars to choose from, this is something of a wash.

Appreciators of some of the true Tibetan musk incenses will likely chuckle seeing a masala incense named Nepali Musk, like I did, despite the credit to Triloka for keeping it herbal. This is a good example of why this is a difficult scent to nail without the real thing, and like with the Lemongrass, the typically sweet gum base of these Trilokas doesn’t assist all that much in getting the aroma right. Like many herbal musks this is less musky and more dusky or dark with a somewhat harsh finish. Like many incenses that don’t hit the right target, one wonders if you’d enjoy it under a different name; personally I find it difficult to even consider this a true musk even for a masala.

Continuing the generic formula of this line, Tropical Garden also seems to suffer from having an identity crisis due to the base. Like most cheap floral incenses, the perfume here is quite harsh while not being distinct in any way, nor particularly tropical in the sense I think of it (orchids, mango, pineapple etc). Fortunately for the incense’s harshness, the stick is still relatively generic meaning the “aftertaste” is more blunt than unpleasant. That is, unlike most rose incenses in this format, things never get too bitter, also probably a byproduct of having a gum and wood base. It’s like a long sum adding up to zero.

Vanilla and Vanilla Sandalwood are similar enough to be nearly redundant and thus worth comparing and contrasting rather than treating separately. Both are very woody at heart, with the typical gum content seemingly reduced as a result. Strangely enough it’s the Vanilla Sandalwood that hits the true vanilla notes, possibly due to the wood being a little better quality. The Vanilla itself seems lighter and drier without the buttery sandalwood as a base and the vanilla itself isn’t quite as rich on its own, so to speak. As a contrast, the Vanilla Sandalwood isn’t bad at all and is perhaps the best stick among the eight in this review, thin yes, but at least reasonably balanced and successful in its mix.

Vanilla Rose is almost like crossing the Vanilla and Tropical Garden scents. It’s surprisingly delicate overall and seems to have quite a bit of benzoin in the mix, which might be responsible for the light vanilla scent. There’s also some slight spice and cinnamon here, reminding me that this isn’t much of a group for spicier scents. The vanilla and gum base does help to mitigate any of the more bitter rose qualities found in masalas of this type, but like with Tropical Garden it seems like this incense is trying to do too much with out the requisite ingredients.

Triloka does much better incense than what can be found in their bulk line, a line that just really can’t compete with so many fine masalas and durbars to choose from, all of which will be so close in price as to render any differences irrelevant. At the same time, for extremely inexpensive incense (per stick), none of these are particularly offensive and avoid the harsher qualities found in charcoal sticks and cheap masalas, which, while still damning with faint praise, is somewhat impressive. But overall they all fall under my threshold for keeping in stock.

Shoyeido Aesthetic Series: Kasumi, Oboro, Shino-nome, Miyako-gusa (by Nancy)

[As of 7/31/09, Shino-nome and Miyako-gusa have been discontinued. Kasumi and Oboro are still available. – Mike]

This series from Shoyeido was designed to produce 70% less smoke than their traditional incenses and definitely succeeds in doing so without sacrificing any olfactory enjoyment. Burning incense usually produces a lot of airborne particles which can irritate the respiratory system and eyes, making this series perfect for those with allergies or other sensitivities. Another unfortunate side effect of regular incense burning is the copious amounts of dust that is produced. Because this series burns cleaner, it also produces less dust by default. In general, the scents in this series not only burn lighter, but have more delicate aromas as well, almost ambient in quality. They tend toward the sweet and floral side of the spectrum more than the woodsy or spicy side. This line is very affordable for the quality making it a great introduction into the world of Japanese incense and each box of 40 sticks comes with it’s own ceramic burner tucked into a compartment under the top flap.

So far I have sampled four of the five selections offered in this line, including Gossamer, Illusions, First Light, and Botanica. Kasumi (Gossamer) is sweet like vanilla bean with a slight hint of cinnamon. Patchouli is also listed as an ingredient but I do not detect any of this herb’s distinct muskiness in the mix at all so it‘s probably more of a minor player. Described by Shoyeido as being “For any setting or occasion with a spirited and balanced nuance of fragrances,“ it is overall very enjoyable!  Oboro (Illusions) is the most resinous of all, with a definite aloeswood edge that lends an acrid or sour quality. It has a sweet note too, probably from the benzoin resin, and a high, almost imperceptible note of camphor. Compared to Kasumi, this blend is more complex, better for contemplation than atmosphere and perfect if you‘re in a more meditative state.

It is in Shino-Nome (First Light) that the sandalwood base common to all the blends in this series really comes out. Blended with cinnamon and benzoin, this incense has been one of my top ten picks for the past year. I even invested in the 10-bundle gift box! I burn this one at my acupuncture practice and everyone who walks through the door comments that they love it.  The scent is rich and uplifting and universally loved, making it a favorite of mine for gift giving. Recently, however, Miyako-gusa (Botanica) has eclipsed them all! Contrary to what you’d think based on the name, this blend is not strictly floral. It is by far the most complex of the four that I’ve sampled from this line, with distinct base, middle and top notes. There is a floral quality, but there is so much more! I also detect aloes wood, cloves and maybe even a citrus scent (orange peel?). This makes for a very unique and thoroughly enjoyable mix! Overall, a great series of incense, each blend distinct and light enough to be burned on a regular basis.

Encens du Monde / Prince of Awaji, Imperial Family, Ikebana, Jade Orchid/Kokando Rangetsu

Other Encens du Monde (now Florisens) reviews can be found here. Prince of Awaji has been discontinued, however the other incenses are still available.

Encens du Monde is a French company that contracts with various Japanese companies, especially Kunjudo, to provide a number of lines of incense to the public. Due to such an arrangement, the prices of these incenses tend to be quite a bit higher than most in the same range, although the overlap between EdM incenses and those already catalogued in the US is small enough that the lion’s share of EdM incenses could be considered new to US shores. Overall you’d probably have to consider EdM a somewhat higher priced, more boutique version of Nippon Kodo, who tends to market their incenses more so to gift and new age shops, than appreciators of traditional Japanese incenses. As of today only Essence of the Ages supplies this company’s incenses for the US market.

Encens du Monde include numerous sublines, many of which signify the length of the stick. Prince of Awaji is the line’s most deluxe luxury incense, Imperial Family a long stick Meditation incense. Both Ikebana and Jade Orchid are long rolls and floral in bouquet, the former two incenses definitively woody.

I’ve struggled with Prince of Awaji for quite a while as this is a good example of where the Encens du Monde price differential makes a difference. Readers of our Hall of Fame page will notice the Luxury category, which are boxes in excess of $150. In nearly all cases, a box of incense costing over $150 is going to be superb and while they will always be cost prohibitive given a certain salary, it’s hard not to recommend most incenses at this price for those who can afford them. However Prince of Awaji is more a Premium level incense at a Luxury price and while it’s still excellent, it’s hard to justify it as a Hall of Fame pick given its expense. Going for it are what seems like a larger number of sticks than what’s on the box, at least at a guess. Like several other EdM incenses like Whispering Bamboo and the two Karin smokeless incenses Pearl and Ruby, Prince of Awaji is a square stick, skinner than, say, Baieido Kai Un Koh but similar in cut. Prince of Awaji is described as having accents of kyara and that would be a fair statement. That is, this is not a kyara incense in the same way, say, Koh Shi Boku or Aioi no Matsu are, rather that element of the incense only exists at the most faintest top note, the note missed most with aromatic fatigue. In fact of a dozen or more burned sticks, I only caught this note once and while it’s quite sublime, it’s not likely to survive past what is a rather workmanlike and slightly nutty aloeswood base that, while reminiscent of other excellent EdM aloeswoods like Golden Waves or Swallows Flight, is rather pale and not particularly compelling without the essential oils to bolster it. Overall most incenses at $150 or more are intense and heavily aromatic, Prince of Awaji by comparison is less rich and far more fleeting, whatever good can be said for it.

The most striking thing about Imperial Family would have to be the attractive box, its green, floral motif one of the most striking outside pawlonia boxes. Incense-wise, it’s very difficult to describe, ostensibly a sandalwood based green blend, but that would incorrectly imply a noticeable sandalwood aromatic element. Instead the woods and spices blend into something far more difficult to put a finger on, with a number of rarely used woods that give the incense a slight tang to it. The description implies flowery, but it’s quite unlike Pine and Orchid Wedding, Ikebana, Whispering Bamboo, Virgin Snow and other green EdMs with stronger floral elements. Overall it’s a difficult incense to really talk about as it’s quite unlike other woody incenses and might be something of a risk given its relative expense and quantity. I’m still fairly neutral to it although there are indeed some accents that are intriguing and overall it is reminscent of other incenses with rei-ryoko root or other medicinal herbs, particularly from Shunkohdo or Kunmeido.

Both Ikebana and Jade Orchid (scroll down about half way) are sandalwood-based long rolls with very floral aromas. Ikebana presents a bouquet-like floral that will remind many of Kyukyodo’s similar florals (such as Azusa and a few currently unexported to the US). While Kyukyodo florals tend to hide their base more than this, leaving Ikebana with a noticeable sandalwood center, the jasmine-tinged multi-floral perfume oil on top will likely be considered very pleasant and similar, with a bit of spice to pep things up including what seem like cinnamon and patchouli, similar to many low end daily incenses. Overall a bit powdery and sweet, with only a bit of sharpness from the base.

Jade Orchid is one of the Encens du Monde crossovers, being an almost identical recipe to Kokando Rangetsu. Kokando Rangetsu (scroll down to bottom, this page has it listed as Ranshuko Rangetsu) is an extraordinarily affordable floral sandalwood with what I would have described as a jasmine oil in front, but what appears to be something of an orchid aroma based on the EdM name. A lot of sandalwood incenses at this low end often have sharp or bitter notes in the base, but the Rangetsu seems to avoid these. It’s interesting to compare Rangetsu to Jade Orchid as the recipe does indeed seem to be slightly different despite what is similar packaging and almost identical aromas. Jade Orchid seems to have a higher quality and more sandalwood rich base than Kokando Rangetsu, despite their being very little difference otherwise. While it’s not the sort of difference to explain the same in price, Jade Orchid has a pleasant woodiness to it that gives it the slight nod.

Lots more Encense du Monde incenses to still cover, the next batch should cover four more Karin blends and after that some more short rolls.

Kyukyodo / Shiun, Yumemachi (Discontinued), Ryuhinko

[Kyukyodo have discontinued Shiun & Yumemachi; Ryuhinko no longer is imported]

As this review will imply, Kyukyodo are perhaps the most underrepresented Japanese incense company in the US market, with a contract that has tied up a number of incenses and prevented them from being sold here, at least to date. It’s particularly a shame, given the numerous, high quality incenses available in Japan and even Europe, that for the time being this will be my last review of Kyukyodo incenses. The previous reviews can be found here and here.

The incenses in question here include two brands that come in large boxes, 400 sticks for Shiun and 550 for Yumemachi. While the quantity does put both incenses in a higher price bracket, many incenses suppliers break these boxes down into smaller bundles that make them quite affordable, although given the quality of both incenses, it’s possible one will immediately wish one had gone for the full boxes.

In particular, Shiun is an extremely good buy for the money, even at a slightly raised per-stick price for a smaller bundle from the box. It’s an incense that could almost fit into the Baieido catalog, its combination of aloeswood and other spices creating a very natural blend. Like many premium incenses, even the slightest aromatic fatigue is likely to cut off the more sublime notes in this incense that give it a slight richness at the top, but even without that crescendo, Shiun works well as a friendly, slighty sweet and even cherry-like aloeswood, a tradition that has similarities in Tennendo Renzan, Nippon Kodo Zuiun and Baieido’s Kobunboku series. I’ve found Shiun to be fairly unusual and quite mutable like many Kyukyodo incenses in that one still learns about them with continued use. And it’s really nothing at all like Kyukoyodos many green stick incenses that all seem to bear a certain Kyukyodo trademark.

Like Shiun, Yumemachi is also quite different compared to the rest of the Kyukyodo line, one which actually has a number of subtly different sandalwood-based incenses. Yumemachi is going for a higher class, old-mountain style sandalwood, except that it’s a bit more than that, with spices and perhaps oil that really lean the central sandalwood aroma in a different direction. I liked this one immediately on first stick due to its balance and quality wood. It actually reminds me a little of a Corona with lime, the incense has a noticeable citrus element and is quite smooth overall. Undoubtedly this is an excellent incense to start with if you want a purer sandalwood, it’s free from the slight, sharp notes you find in, say, Tennendo Kohrokan Sandalwood. In some ways it’s not far off some of the lower end Korean sandalwoods.

Where Shiun and Yumemachi diverge from the Kyukyodo playbook, Ryuhinko might be the best example of it. It’s possibly the driest aloeswood available, like the Cabernet Sauvignon of incense. Like Sho-Ran-Koh and Shiun, Ryuhinko has a lot of mutable qualities that make it difficult to pin down. There is some mint and other greenish spice notes that operate at a very subtle level, while never impinging on the incense’s dry qualities. The aloeswood is almost equally subtle and due to the restraint of all the ingredients, it keeps the overall impact on a very sublime level, one perhaps not possible to pick up with every stick and which tends to fade quickly with fatigue. I’ve had sticks that were lost on me and others that made me full to the brim with hyperbole, as if I can never make up my mind about it. It’s also quite the contrast to the sweet, floral Azusa while being in the same price range. Overall, perhaps another “expert” stick in terms of its longevity and learning curve and certainly a gem, hinting at some of the sticks that haven’t managed to enter the US market yet.

As you can imagine, I await the day we see more of this company’s amazing incenses on these shores, they’re too fine to ever give up hope on.

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