Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit (All Discontinued)

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.

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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.