Nippon Kodo / Café Time / Cassia, Mocha; Sakura (Cherry), Green Tea; Lime, Mint Tea; Lotus, Wine

As a creator of a number of different modern lines, it could be said that Nippon Kodo, at least in its American front, leads the market when it comes to user friendly, accessible and modern scents, and as such it’s a company that doesn’t really make a lot of incense that appeals to my personal taste. But even beyond this disclaimer, a lot of modern incenses I have tried in the Nippon Kodo stable have gone beyond just having a different aesthetic into what I find to be unpleasantly perfumed incenses. That is, there’s a difference between not being a big fan of fruity or floral incenses while recognizing that there are times when they are well done and just dismissing anything of the sort. Having reviewed (and not altogether positively) incenses in lines like Free Pure Spirit, East Meets West, Elemense and New Morning Star, it’s time to turn to some incenses that, while not being my thing, are sometimes well done for what they do.

Café Time is a series of cone incenses that come in pairs in cylindrical cardboard containers with five cones for each of two flavors per container, with a theme to tie them together. Café Times are rather small cones and even if they’re quite affordable between $5 and $6 a container, you’re still paying at least 50 cents a cone. Given these cones are done in 15 to 20 minutes, you’re not getting a lot of value for the money, but at least in most of these incenses you’re getting a decent scent, with very few of them showing the off notes and cheap perfume aromatics of some of other NK’s lines. Read the rest of this entry »


SAMPLER NOTES: Kunjudo / Japanese Gardens (Tea Garden, Fruits Garden, Bonsai Garden, Moss Garden, Stone Garden) (Discontinued Line); Less Smoke (Plum, Cherry Blossom, Lavender, Rose, Lily of the Valley)

These two Kunjudo ranges, all of which are exported directly to the US rather than via Encens du Monde, feature some of the company’s lowest end incenses and as such could be comparable to similar Shoyeido or Nippon Kodo lines. In fact the Japanese Gardens line does have some similarities to Shoyeido’s Daily series, while the Less Smoke incenses remind me quite a bit of Nippon Kodo’s Morning Star line. The former, in general, strike me as traditional or natural scents, while the others definitely have synthetic qualities that often seem to come into less smoke incenses. And it should be said that while these do have less smoke, they are not smokeless.

Tea Garden is the line’s green tea incense. I thought this one smelled almost identical to the Green Tea incense in Kunjudo’s Three Scents packaging, enough where I did a side by side. I don’t think they’re identical, with Tea Garden’s green tea oil not quite so intense, but they’re definitely close enough where you’d need one or the other. Having tested out a few Green Tea incenses recently, this one might be the one I liked the most in that it does have a noticeable element of leaf or oil in it.

It’s going to be up to the user whether or not Fruits Garden is to their tastes, as I can’t think of too many fruity incenses that would appeal to me. This bouquet is kind of like a mix of apple, pear and cherry and as such has a fruit bowl smell, which tends to be less distinctive than if they went for one particular scent. While it does have some synthetic notes to it, the sandalwood base (and this is true for all this line) carries it past those notes for the most part. I can imagine this could be considered quite nice for those going for this sort of scent.

Bonsai Garden is well named, a spicy evergreen scent with hints of cypress and conifers. It’s not really a pure pine or evergreen incense because of the spice and it finishes with a bit of sweet perfume. Overall this is why I’ve written this as sampler notes, as I wasn’t anywhere close to getting a bead on the overall scent and thought this could be quite nice.

Moss Garden‘s a bit indistinct and it’s certainly nothing like the Shoyeido incense of the same name. I remember the aroma here being kind of muted and soft with hints of wet moss and a slight, lifting oil in the back. There’s a bit of fruit or lavender in there somewhere as well.

Stone Garden goes for a really spicy scent, with a strong cinnamon and floral content. I didn’t have enough of a sample to decide on whether it was distinct enough from other similar blends, but this kind of thing is generally to my liking.

Overall I thought the Garden series was rather nice for daily incenses and if I hadn’t already bought the Three Scents package, I’d probably want at least Tea Garden, even if it’s possible I wouldn’t use it much. On the other hand, the Less Smoke blends aren’t really quite to my tastes (it should be taken as a given that smokeless incenses aren’t generally my bag), the leftover whiter ash implies a certain method of creation that’s more synthetic than natural and in these cases it becomes fairly obvious. Recently I went through a Daihatsu line with very similar scents, except in those cases there was perfumery art to them that really lifted the scents (and, of course, they weren’t less smoke/smokeless.)

The obvious comparison from the music world would be the difference between 70s analog and 80s digital technology. The former’s generally fuller and more natural sounding, where the latter, before technology caught up, provided thin and inaccurate samples that were photographs to the analog’s reality. This incense range is similar. The Plum struck me as being thin, almost like an approximation of other plum blossom incenses, and I suppose it suffers from me being on a Kobunboku trip recently. The Cherry Blossom is similar, but doesn’t have the Plum’s slight bitter notes making it a little friendlier. But like most of the line this is more in the vein of sprays and home deoderizers than traditional incense, and thus less to my liking than something like Shoyeido’s Daily version. The Lavender, in particular, reminded me of a Nippon Kodo Morning Star blend, with an aroma that’s obviously synthetic and only remotely like its original oil or herb, but I did like this one more than the prior two, maybe even BECAUSE it’s not like lavender oil, something that doesn’t vary all that much when its pure. Both the Rose and the Lily of the Valley are scents I generally have a bit of trouble with in the first place, so I think my opinion can be extrapolated from the rest of the line without needing to keep firing away.

As I mentioned earlier it’s important to compare your own aesthetics to my own in these cases as I tend to prefer traditional scents and many of these are quite floral. That is while I felt fairly comfortable talking about the Gardens line, the Less Smoke line isn’t something I’d necessarily seek out on their own and was mostly curious about how good they’d be considering so many of the high line Kunjudos are so good.

Tennendo / Scent of Kyoto, Yoshino Hills, Kohrokan Sandalwood, Karafune

Tennendo incenses are among the best price for the quality, perhaps throughout the line. For instance one can buy a roll of Renzan, an aloeswood blend, for about $6, perhaps one of the best deals in Japanese incense. Even the highest end stick in the same line, Kuukai, goes for just over $20 a roll, and it must be said that even at over $100, Tennendo’s magnificent Enkuu is a bargain for its quality. So it’s no particular surprise that the company’s lower end incenses are also rather good for their prices. The four incenses in question here include the two in the same range as Renzan and Kuukai that I hadn’t covered and two other lower end incenses that come in boxes, Scent of Kyoto and Yoshino Hills. It could be said that all four of these incenses represent Tennendo’s versions of four traditional scents. Scent of Kyoto is basically a cherry blossom incense. Yoshino Hills an every day sandalwood. Kohrokan Sandalwood aims for a more high end, old mountain level of quality pure sandalwood. And Karafune goes for a spice blend. All can be easily purchased for under $10. 

Scent of Kyoto is actually a rather excellent cherry blossom incense, featuring Tennendo’s usual hallmarks of grace, freshness and gentility. The obvious comparison is to Shoyeido’s Kyo-Zakura, what could be considered the standard for this sort of incense, however there’s something even smoother about Tennendo’s version, something that resonates with the rest of the line. While a box of this, due to the increased number of sticks, is likely to cost you more than one unit of Renzan, it seems to be a good buy. While the Shoyeido Daily bases aren’t always perfect for me, I really like the base of Scent of Kyoto. It speaks to the silence surrounding an orchard of these trees on a beautiful spring day.

Yoshino Hills is Tennendo’s analog to Nippon Kodo’s big yellow box of sandalwood incense, the prevalent “every day” style that nearly every Japanese company has a version of. While I really do like NK’s version and prefer, overall, Kyukyodo’s many variations on this theme, there’s something a bit bitter at the edges of this one. Over time it’s possible I may come to see this as a plus, but at the moment, I tend to like the sweeter aftertastes with this style – the bitterness seems like it might be more of a binder issue.

Kohrokan Sandalwood appears to be the company’s pure/high quality sandalwood entry. Think Kyukyodo Yumemachi, Baieidio Byakudan Kobunboku, or Shunkodo Sarasoju as incenses with similar concentration on top quality sandalwood. Like most of these incenses there’s a tiny bit of spice here, not enough to resemble Minorien’s sandalwood, but a little in that direction. Like the Yoshino Hills this too has a bit of sharpness to it that makes me think it’s an intentional note I haven’t gotten quite used to.

Karafune is probably the most low end incense Tennendo exports here, a spicy blend that combines sandalwood, clove, cinnamon and fennel. It’s actually fairly similar to some of the lower end Baieido blends like Syukohkoku or the Kobunboko series in that it’s all about wood and spice. The closest analog is probably Shunkodo’s Chinsoku Koh, except that the ingredients that make up the mosaic that are these sticks are more consonant as a unity in Karafune. In fact where getting used to low end incenses often means one gets a bit bored with them, I’ve found with Karafune that it improves with use, particularly as one gets used to it as an overall scent. It’s definitely less a sandalwood blend than a spice blend and it’s got a nice light smoothness to it that speaks of restraint and taste. One could imagine such a scent browsing Zanzibar spice markets, in fact clove might be the top note here, if there is one.

Again, if you already have incenses that are similar to the various styles on display here there would really be no need to duplicate by adding a box of something various similar. Yet on the other hand, the Yoshino Hill and Karafune in particular would make excellent new entries into the style, although I must say that with the green everyday sandalwood, the NK version makes a good base for comparison, and with the old mountain style I’d say it’s almost about even among brands.