Prabhuji’s Gifts / Devotion Line / Gopala, Gopinatha, Mukunda, Vrinda Devi, Yamura

The first time I got a whiff of Ramakrishnanda (NOTE 10/8/21: Ramakrishnanda refers to the previous name of the line, which is now Prabhuji Gift’s Devotion line.) incense was when walking into the local new age store one afternoon. The use of ingredients and oils in these scents was so potent that you could tell new incense had been added as soon as the door opened even with the incense at the very back of the store. While Ramakrishnanda have a few different styles within their catalog, including charcoals and durbars, their most common scents tend to be in the flora category. Flora incenses (perhaps the  most famous is the Sai Flora blend created by Damodhar, which is the genesis of the Golden Champa style most commonly found imported to the US) are heavily aromatic Indian incense masalas, however in the case of Ramakrishnanda, the thickness of the sticks tend to be much closer to the typical durbar style rather than the extra thick size of the Sai Flora type blends.

However, they do have in common with Sai Flora and the like an oil mix which is probably the root of the flora style, a mix usually so complex it’s difficult to parse into its elements, but it imparts not only a heavy perfume but a marriage with a sweet base that makes them quite attractive and accessible. In four of the five incenses in this group, all of which can be sampled in the Dhanvatari Variety Pack, there is a distinct similarity in the base of the incense which only tends to be modified by the top oil notes. It, perhaps, made them a little difficult to review as I found myself a bit blurred out by the time I reached the fourth stick. At the same time, the first three of these are actually some of the best incenses in the line.

Gopala is described as a special flora, and as such appears to be one of the few incenses in the line where specific ingredients haven’t been provided. Like all of the incenses here there’s a very sugary, sweet and heavily oiled base at work, however due to the thinness of the stick, the scent isn’t totally overwhelming, and it gives rise to a very pleasant top note that is like a mix of orange, spice and earth, a scent that’s somewhat accidentally a lot like earlier champa blends. There appears to be quite a bit of clove in the mix and it reminds me a bit of spiced tea. Strangely enough and very unlike most flora incenses it’s quite the fast burn, however like most floras the scent is quite long lasting.

Gopinatha, described as a mix of Iris, Daffodil and Jasmine, isn’t terribly different in style from the Gopala although it does indeed lose a lot of the hotter and spicier qualities. As such it’s perhaps a bit closer in style to the classic Sai Flora/Golden Champa style, but as usual, thinner sticked and mellower overall. The entire incense seems to be anchored by the jasmine element, which blends nicely with the sugary base with the iris and daffodil elements playing somewhat drily on the outside. If anything it might suffer from being too indistinct at times, an issue for many flora incenses that hit you with all the ingredients at once. But this problem isn’t quite so pronounced here.

Mukunda‘s patchouli and spice blend doesn’t render the stick closer to the typical mix of patchouli and champa elements, in fact the patchouli’s more wilder, earthier and controversial side seems to disappear into the blend, leaving only its drier and, thanks to the base, sweeter qualities. It’s also not unlike Gopinatha, once again reminding one of how similar the bases of all these flora incenses are. Of the group here this is probably and marginally the closest to my personal tastes, but in saying so I almost wish for some of the wilder more feral elements of the patchouli to come into play, this is something of a safe mix as a result.

Of the four floras, I’d say Vrinda Devi is the least distinct, but as the line’s straighter nag champa, I wouldn’t initially consider this with the preceding floras if it weren’t for the base being so similar. Perhaps the lack of the creamier and more honey/vanilla side of the champa is what’s missing on this one, or perhaps entries such as the Bam and Shroff eclipse this one in power and presence by comparison. What I described earlier as a mix of oils and sweetness at base seems to move this in a direction I’d say isn’t generically champa like and it even has a dryness I find unusual. Not a bad incense on its own merits, but as a champa it’s distinctly uncompetitive.

Yamuna is the odd one out here being a charcoal and oil mix and I’m not sure if Ramakrishnanda have improved their charcoal mix or if my nose has grown further accustomed, but this strikes me as being a lot better than it did when I initially tried it out a couple years ago. As a mix of vanilla, copal and amber it’s something of an unusual blend and possibly why I appreciate it more now, particularly as you rarely see copal in a charcoal blend. But amazingly all three elements are fairly apparent in the oil blend (the vanilla the dominant note) and it’s something of an attractive mix. An interesting comparison could be the Pure-Incense Hari Leela in either Absolute or Connoisseur lines, it has that back and forth way of both impressing with the oil mix and slightly detracting due to the charcoal.

I recently modified our Hall of Fame list for Incenses from India, removing the Ramakrishnanda incenses in this sampler from the list. However this is more an attempt at improving the quality of that list than a general slight on the Ramakrishnanda line as these are all actually quite good, particularly the first three, in fact perhaps the major change is that at 10 sticks per package these aren’t quite up to what is being imported now compared to what was on the US market two years ago. But if you’re looking to expand your Indian stick pallet, you definitely need to stop here and considering you can check out all these scents for an affordable price, there seems little reason not to.

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Encense du Monde (Florisens) / Karin / Pearl, Ruby, Moonlit Night, Perfumed Prince

[NOTE: Updated later 7/3. All incenses with Kunjodo equivalents available at Japan Incense have been linked. Links to the actual Encens du Monde incenses now go to Zen Minded.]

Reviews of the previous Encense du Monde/Kunjudo Karin incenses can be found here.

Karin is a strange line [NOTE: this refers to the Encens du Monde Karin line, not the Kunjudo one.] having so many differently styled incenses. Along with the amber-infused every day style of Karin and the decidedly aloeswood leaning Swallows in Flight, we have two less smoke incenses with square cuts (Pearl and Ruby), a very similar round cut but not smokeless incense (Perfumed Prince) and a floral yet traditionally styled incense (Moonlit Night). There really isn’t much of a qualitative difference among the six incenses, even the one you think would be the most expensive (Swallows) seems to get much of its impact from the oil, in a similar way to Tennendo’s roll incenses, like Renzan or Tensei.

The two less smoke incenses are quite pleasant surprises. Both use something of a charcoal formula for a base, yet neither have the slight bitterness that even the Baieido smokeless incenses have. Both are very modern perfumes, having little relationship to most incenses or even other florals. Pearl [assuming within Kunjudo this is the same as the Takara Pearl] has an almost vanilla or honeysuckle like perfume, sultry, mellow and reminiscent of modern perfumes. It reminded me a little of an old memory of daffodils, with hints of talcum powder and even tonka bean at times. It’s still surprising to me that such a mellow aroma isn’t cut through by its own base. Ruby [assuming with Kunjudo this is the same as the Takara Ruby] might be even more delicate, with slight hints of rose and carnation in the midst of what is a fresh, cleansing sort of aroma similar to Baieido’s Izumi but not as intense. There are some citrus-like notes in particular that help to separate it from the Pearl, not to mention it’s lacking Pearl’s creamier notes for something a bit more overtly floral.

Perfumed Prince might have been the third of this style if it was less smoke and square cut. It still has what seems like a similar charcoal base, although it seems to have the normal smoke content of a Japanese stick. Strangely enough, however, it’s an incense very similar in aroma to Pearl, with an almost coffee creamer-like aroma on top. There seems to be some strong vanilla notes involved, although it’s hard to tell if this originates from vanilla itself or a resin like benzoin. I also get a bit of jasmine or marshmallow in here as well. Like Pearl, it’s a very gentle incense that is likely to appeal to even those put off by traditionals. The only issue is there’s some slightly metallic hints that might come from the base, but these hints aren’t noticeable enough to be offputting. [NOTE: I am unable to locate, yet, the Kunjudo equivalent.]

Moonlit Night (I believe this one to be the same as Karin Togetsu) differs greatly from these three, being a traditional, wood-based incense. Inspired by the aroma of the Daphne flower it draws the obvious comparisions to Forest of Flowers, a sandalwood-based incense that also incorporates the Daphne aroma to fine effect (honestly Karin/Forest of Flowers is about as good as an inexpensive Japanese incense gets). Moonlit Night’s floral nature is much more overt, to the point where it reminded me of a lot of Nippon Kodo and other Kunjudo florals, however, Moonlit Night stops just before it gets bitter or offputting, leaving the incense’s floral nature rather pure. Unlike the other three incenses in this review, Moonlit Night has some wood base to it that prevents it from being a fully modern incense and in many ways bridges the three black stick florals to the other two traditionals.

I’m not a big fan of floral incenses, but have to say that the four in question here are among the best I’ve tried in that they are all rather original aromas without the problems associated with cheaper incenses: the bitter off notes, bad charcoal bases and inexpensive perfumes without any true depth. They really make the Karin line one of interest throughout the six incenses, and present some modern styles that one might be able to introduce to even the most casual appreciator of incense. Even at these travelled prices, these incenses are generally worth it. Were they to arrive in the US without a European side trip like Karin does, I’d be telling you about their high quality/low price ratio.

Seikundo / Meadow/Usubeni, Peach/Momo, Woods/Jinko (Discontinued Line)

Seikundo may be the only Japanese company who exports more incense holders and gift boxes than they actually do incense types, in fact the three in the subject line appear to be the only incenses available over here, each of which you’d get samples of when buying one of the company’s various and elegant little containers. In fact it’s probably more useful to think of these as gifts or objects of art than ways to store or burn your incense. The containers seem to be marketed more at the casual incense fan or the lover of Japanese artwork and culture, after all the efficacy and use of these containers would seem to be limited to very short sticks, in fact these are almost as small as stick fragments. Of course the wise among us will realize that one could just as easily break up Shoyeido or Baieido sticks for use in one of these, after all they not only come replete with burner but store the incense as well.

The three incense styles here are all so widely different that one can’t really get much of an opinion on the Seikundo craft from them. The Meadow is a smokeless incense, lemon fresh and slightly floral, that follows the pattern of a couple incenses reviewed here recently, Shorindo’s Chabana and Baieido’s Izumi (or even Green Tea). It doesn’t really seem to have the same strength as either (that could have been the age of my sample), but in a way it brings a more uplifting or elegant citrus aroma to it. It’s an incense I could definitely see a more casual appreciator warming to as it’s so mild.

Peach does what it says on the wrapper, a wood-based, mild incense with a rather decent peach aroma. It’s not harsh nor too sweet, both issues I often have with “fruit” incenses, but then again it’s the sort of smell I’d rather get from a fruit or tree than a stick of incense.

Woods looks like a Baieido Kai Un Koh knock off with its square, thicker stick and even resembles it in aroma to some extent, except that the Jinko of the Japanese name doesn’t really seem to show up here in any appreciable quality. It reminds me a little of the Nu Essence blend Pluto, with some slight nutty hints, although it’s closest Baieido scent is certainly Sawaka Kobunboku/Koh, with the heavy cinnamon and clove presence. Likely this will be the closest aroma to those looking for a little depth to their scent, although I’d certainly recommend similar Baieido products before this.

Based on the pictures, the containers are all rather gorgeous, but as they’re quite small one’s incense stick experience is likely not going to last more than 10-15 minutes before a relight, definitely a sort of polar opposite to lighting a large coil or 14 inch temple stick. But again, it’s worth stressing that the complete package seems more a boutique or gift item to appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics rather than a practical apparatus for incense use and as such your mileage will vary.

Nippon Kodo / Yume-No-Yume (Dream of Dream) / Bamboo Leaf, Butterfly, Fern (Discontinued), Fiddlehead Fern, Goldfish, Horse-Tail Plant (Discontinued), Japanese Morning Glory, Maple Leaf, Pink Plum Flower, Whooping Crane)

Nippon Kodo seem to be the largest Japanese incense company, especially when looking at all their various lines and collaborations. From their very inexpensive Morning Star Line all the way to the Most Exceptional Quality kyara line, the company has a wealth of different incenses, being one of the few Japanese companies to also have a bamboo stick line. In fact only Shoyeido has a similar wide range in styles and tastes.

As incense is generally a niche interest in the United States and usually allied with new age shops, there tends to be strong trends towards smokeless incense and all natural incense. From research, I think it’s very difficult to tell where a company diverges from using all natural ingredients to using organic if not entirely natural ingredients all the way to the art of perfumery where synthetic oils and ingredients are often taken for granted. Having wandered too often into the wake of mainstream and heavily synthetic colognes and perfumes, it’s easy to get turned off by the idea.

As far as I can tell one of the identifying features of an incense that has a healthy share of synthetic ingredients is how strong a stick smells without burning it. Natural ingredients by their lonesome don’t stand out very often from Japanese sticks, especially sandalwood and aloeswood heavy sticks, which is a far cry from sampling fresh Indian masalas. Nippon Kodo’s Yume-No-Yume line is a good example of an incense whose fresh stick could nearly scent a room without lighting it.

This line is rather elegantly presented for the modern consumer. The gift packs come with incense and a porcelain holder (both also sold separately) that mirrors the packaging art, usually a white background with slight Japanese art that reflects the nature of the incense. Yume-no-yume also comes in both stick and coil form, and while I haven’t tried the coils yet, the scents do seem eminently suited to that form (if maybe too much for smaller rooms). The only thing to watch out for in the packaging is the plastic holder that contains the incense and mini burner, it’s far too easy to cause a spill opening the holder (counterintuitively) the wrong way. Other than that bit of warning that becomes mitigated once you get used to it, I actually really like the packaging.

If I remember correctly, Nippon Kodo’s Fragrance Memories phases certain incenses in and out every so often and I believe they do something similar with this Yume-No-Yume line as I’ve happened across one incense that seems deleted (for now). Currently the line has nine different blends and the least impressive of these incenses is fine indeed.

Pink Plum Flower contains key notes of white plum, red plum and willow leaf bud. This listing of the ingredients will automatically give one the impression there’s something different at work here, as I don’t have a clear idea of what each of these three notes might be like. Like the whole line, the stick is strong and pungent, far more so than any natural Japanese plum flower incenses, most of which I’ve tried have been very mellow and light. In fact that sort of subtlety is what prevents me from being totally behind this blend, it may be the least distinctive blend in the range.

Goldfish is the other incense in the line that doesn’t quite come up the rest. While I’m generally very impressed at the way certain notes are blended for effect, I find it pretty hard to get used to the mint/watermelon/jasmine blend, especially with the whole water motif at work here. I’d almost forgotten jasmine was involved but the other two are quite strong. It’s definitely unusual, but a bit like a symphony not quite in synch.

Butterfly was the first blend I tried and won me over fairly quickly. Here, the key notes, geranium, vanilla and cinnamon all blend almost flawlessly into a scent that reminds me more of amber than any of the other blends. Part of it is not terribly far from Shoyeido’s Horin/Nijo scent, but as a far more perfumed scent this is much stronger in impact and not as subtle.

Bamboo Leaf might be my favorite of the whole line, it appeals to my taste for sweet/green and patchouli-esque hints, despite the fact it doesn’t appear to have patchouli as an ingredient. The green tea is way out in front and surprisingly the yuzu citrus and lemon flower notes don’t really give that much of an impression of a lemon tang to the tea, I get the impression they mostly add to the complexity. This is probably the one I’d start with first if you’re new to the line.

Maple Leaf is another favorite in the line, its hints of persimmon, tonka bean (think vanilla), and ambergris blend perfectly into a rich and somewhat fresh scent. While this doesn’t strike me as quite as amber-like as Butterfly, it’s obviously by ingredient in that general class, but the name of the incense isn’t misleading either, with some hints that will likely remind you of a pancake breakfast, partially due to just how sweet it is.

Whooping Crane might be the least intense blend in the line and you can see why the choice is made. With a winter/snow motif, there’s a very slight mint hint to what is a rather perfectly blended combo of camellia, musk and frankincense. I detect the musk at times, but frankincense can often be a tough call since quality can vary so much. As far as a packaging theme to incense scent relationship, this is about as spot on in the line as it can get. Very sultry.

For fans of fruit scents, you can probably do no better than Fiddlehead Fern, which takes berry intensity into its own level. Lots of fruity incenses strike me as pretty synthetic or unsatisfying, so it’s kind of a jolt to find out that the one I like the best might be the most synthetic in the bunch. Very fruity and rich with the raspberry middle almost, if not quite obliterating the black currant and leaf bud of peach notes. Quite impressive overall.

My second favorite in the line is probably the Morning Glory, partially as it strikes me as YNY’s most exotic blend. The green banana in particular is fabulous and the vetivert gives it most of its Eastern tinge, almost musky and dense. I’m used to bergamot as being slightly citrus-y, but it’s kind of hard to detect here. Above all, the oil scent is just a little unusual and it really adds quite a bit of character, although at the odd time it might seem like everything clashes – only for a moment.

The strangely named Horse-Tail Plant is not likely to win over the western consumer, but it ought to as it’s the weirdest incense in the line. For one thing, it’s the only incense with only two named notes, strawberry flower and oil-seed rape blossoms. Neither name gives any hint to the blend involved here which is almost beyond description. The small print says “Fruity-green. The refreshingly bitter scent of new leaf buds in the moning dew.” Bitter might be the only descriptor that resonates with me, but again it’s a bitter I’ve not quite experienced before.

The deleted line is called Fern, and I assume Fiddlehead Fern was its replacement. You can see why in some ways as other incences in the line capture similar qualities better. The notes are maple leaf, yuzu-citrus and bitter orange and if you scroll up you can see all but the latter note in other blends. Here they don’t seem to blend quite as well, although I may think differently after another sample or two.

Overall, this is a really neat line. Whatever you might consider synthetic, the scents here are clean, smooth and not headache inducing in any way, they’ve certainly changed my mind about the potential of the meeting of perfumery and blending arts. And they’re also very affordable, a package of 12 sticks or 5 coils (without holder) running you about $6-$7. I’m actually looking forward to the next switch out to see what they come up with next.