Gangri Thökar Nunnery / Snow Mountain Gathers Incense

So I was just talking about the similarity of certain nunnery incenses and how a few of them have an almost amber-ish/balsamic quality to them when one comes up that isn’t quite like that at all. In fact I had to read the fine print at incense-traditions.ca to realize Snow Mountain Gathers Incense was a nunnery-sourced incense, and it sure is a fine one. And hey how wonderful it is to get a rather large ingredients list to look at: black myrobalan, white sandalwood, red sandalwood, clove, nutmeg, saffron, alpiniae katsumadai seed, fructus amomi and herb of tabasheer. I had to look up what half that stuff is, but some of the less seen ingredients seem to impart a number of really interesting new notes for this nose, herbal qualities that mix the fresh and familiar with some neat differences. One of the things I love about these deep Tibetan picks is the aromatic variation and newness, the hope that the monks and nuns are bringing forth some ancient recipe in all of its wonderful, healing glory. And honestly this is one that will keep your sensory apparati busy, it’s rich, full bodied, has both friendly and funkier notes weaving a dance together, and it has that quintessential freshness that is the hallmark of all the best Tibetans. Make no mistake, if the more dangerous Tibetan sticks aren’t to your style, this one may be a bit challenging, but for me it’s just the right amount of balance of sour/dense to high altitude/invigorating and it has a bit of brown sugar spice and sweetness on top that gives you so many places to sense the interactions. Another Hart-curated wonder scent.

Advertisement

Shang Valley of Shigatse / Gangtruk Grade A and Grade B Incenses

Incense-traditions.ca classifies both of the Shang Valley of Shigatse Gangtruk incenses under a “therapeutic” category. Many of these incenses that fall under this rubric have a surprisingly addictive quality to them. I think there’s something to be said for incenses that make you reach for them, to crave them and to think about them when they are not burning. To this day I still reach incredibly frequently for my Holy Lands and my Wara monastery incenses, there is something about them that relaxes me after a long day. Winding down with these burning and a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I could be adding at least Gangtruk Grade A to this short list.

Both of the Gangtruk incenses are created in or by the Shang Valley of Shigatse. These appear to both be intentionally marketed, in part, to the English speaking audience as there’s some informative literature on the boxes. Gangtruk Grade A is an incredibly rich and beautiful incense, one I added to the ORS Tibetan Hall of Fame list. Gangtruk incenses are a little thinner than the usual Tibetan stick and that thinnness will once again remind some of Bosen incenses, Shambhalla, Five Fragrances and the like (although this stick is a bit more fragile than any of those). There is something about this kind of formulation that really makes the evergreen qualities of Tibetan incense pop in a surprising way. But the cool thing about Gangtruk A is that it doesn’t move completely in that direction, it also has qualities more common to the usual traditional blends. Grade A contains 30 therapeutic herbs and other precious substances, including white and red sandalwood, saffron, musk, bamboo manna and clove. That’s actually the first occurrence I’ve ever seen of bamboo mana, and I’m not sure I can quite pick it out, but there’s something in the middle of the scent that is cypress-like and evergreen, which is a quality I adore in incense. Some of this could be a healthy hit of resinous ingredients as well. The musk hit is really gigantic in this one, it nearly cuddles up the whole bouquet in its warm embrace. Overall this is one of the best of the real traditional Tibetan incenses, it has has a lot of the same elements that other traditionals have, but this is of really peak richness and quality.

Gangtruk Grade B is slightly less expensive and only slightly less rich and is enough of a different recipe to treat them as two separate incenses. Which is a bit surprising when you consider the ingredients listed are the same. The evergreen/resin note from the Grade A is not in this one at all and the overall aroma is a lot more tangy and akin to the more harvest-like, rhododendron-infused Tibetan sticks. This one has a bit more of the funky Tibetan note, just enough to kind of liven up the entire blend and mix with the musk in a way that’s completely different from the Grade A. I actually enjoy the contrast quite a bit because they obviously both come from the same shop and so it’s fascinating to see two completely different incenses in comparison. Again it’s notable just how rich and dense these sticks are, there’s no feeling whatsoever that there’s too much wood in the middle or that that aroma isn’t something that won’t grab your imagination right away. If you love the Grade A, I’m sure this one will be next on your list.

Kousaido: Bamboo, Lotus, Engimono / Ocean

Kousaido seems to be a  fairly new incense company in Japan ( in other words less than 50 years). They also seem to be directing their line towards  the newer styles of scents coming out of Japan. They very skillfully use a variety of materials to create some very fresh takes on many classic ideas for incense.

I do not think any of the three that I reviewed here are based on classic sandalwood or aloeswood formulas, rather than that they are designed to present a scent that is built to showcase an idea or concept, a sort of scent picture of the name of each incense.

Lighting a stick of the Bamboo and closing your eyes finds one sitting within a bamboo grove, it’s soft with a slight green note, a little sweetness (just a touch) and very real. There are none of the harsh or chemical smells that so often underlay this type of scent. It is really nicely done. [NOTE 7/13/21: Unfortunately Ross isn’t around to ask but there appear to be two Kousaido incenses that are “Bamboo,” an Engimono series and one in a Hanga or Hanaga art box. They might even be the same incense presented differently, but can not confirm. – Mike]

The Lotus truly gets the idea across of what you would think of as a lotus scent. Somewhat sweet with floral notes, not like jasmine or the other “white flower” scents. There is a slight edge to it that really brings the “lotus” note home, without the almost latex aspect of lotus. [NOTE 7/13/21: The same is true here for Lotus, there is an Engimono and a Hanga or Hanaga. – Mike]

Ocean smells like a very clean beach, probably cleaner than most you can find. Ocean scents or aquatic scents were all the rage at one point in the perfume world, most of them ended up smelling like a chemical bath in a chroming factory. This incense is completely devoid of those notes and is really a great mood changer in a room. Clean surf at a secluded beach, just the ticket to lighten up the atmosphere in a city environment. [NOTE 7/13/21: Assuming this review refers to this incense, although I can’t confirm.

The other great aspect about these is that the price is very good and one gets quite a lot of sticks. To the best of my knowledge Kohshi /Japan Incense in San Francisco are the only people selling these in the US and they have pretty large selection to choose from.

Boudha / Riwo Sang Chhoe, Tara, Tara Naga Lokeshor (Discontinued Line)

Boudha Tibetan Incense neatly crosses the divide between Nepalese and Bhutanese incense. With only three different incenses being sold, the statement that the incense is made by a small family in Nepal seems to only apply to the third of these incenses while the other two also seem to be made in Bhutan and given the style and consistency of these two, I’d say they’re rather definitively Bhutanese in that so many Tibetan style incenses from this country have an almost plastic like consistency and strength.

Boudha Tibetan Incense also uses the same type of packaging, artwork and in some cases even some language akin to the original Red Crystal incense. Although they’re apparently different companies altogether, it’s difficult not to make a connection between the two in not only the packaging materials but in the scent of the incenses. Perhaps the middle incense is the closest in style, but again the big difference between the two is Red Crystal is a very traditional Nepalese incense and Tara incense is certain Bhutanese. So it all gets a bit confusing to say the least. Overall, however, you’re not likely to find superlative quality work here, in both price and scent these incenses are ultimately mediocre.

Riwo Sang Chhoe Incense is created from so many different substances, including microsubstances from gold to coral to cat’s eye (let’s assume we’re talking about a stone here), that any meaningful notes are more or less submerged in one very Bhutanese blend. Unlike a number of Bhutanese incenses with this sort of tough consistency, Riwo Sang Chhoe is the typical tan color rather than pink or red, however, it’s still fairly close in style to the midrange of Nado Poizokhang’s graded incenses. While the production and artwork is reminiscent of Red Crystal, the incense itself lacks that scent’s more sagey and tobacco like herbal notes leaving it mostly in the inexpensive sandalwood range. It’s rather tough to quantify, there’s a bit of spice at work and a bit of juniper berry in there somewhere, but overall it lacks its own personality.

Tara Incense is a bit closer to Red Crystal, although the consistency remains Bhutanese and the stick not so thick. Unlike RSC, this does have some wilder herbal notes in the mix and the more overt sandalwood feel is submerged into something less expensive with that slightly alkaline tang common to low end Tibetans. Overall it’s fairly dry and also not unlike Nado Poizokhang except for the tan color, but it also doesn’t have quite the same character. In a blind scent test it would take a fairly careful nose to tell this one apart from the RSC.

Tara Naga Lokeshor is much shorter and less expensive and moves solidly over into Nepali fare with a more brittle consistency and a darker brown color. Made with 108 different ingredients one will wonder why the necessity of such an endeavor when the end result is largely woody and inexpensive smelling. For the most part I get binder, cheap sandalwood, juniper and cedar in there and only a faint hint of anything else. It’s actually quite harsh overall which is typical for the very low price range.

Unfortunately it’s difficult to recommend any of these incenses in that it’s fairly easy to pick out others close in style that have more personality. Although Nado Poizokhang is quite a bit more expensive, it’s also a lot more savory then the two Bhutanese sticks here and Tara Naga Lokeshor may indeed comform to some ancient recipe, but it’s likely to have little positive impact on most Western noses. If you like the Tibetan artwork on the boxes, it’s far easier to recommend Red Crystal which has a much greater personality and a strong sandalwood middle none of these quite have.

Kunjudo / Kozanmai (Three Scents Assortment): Green Tea, Bamboo, Cypress

This smart little gift box contains 50 sticks each of three scents, all of which are, if not rare, fairly uncommon in the incense world. All are decidedly traditional scents, featuring a fair amount of wood at base and only enough essential oils and spices to make the scent work, if there are much at all. All three scents are wrapped in these nice styrofoam wrappers that cushion the incense quite nicely, wrappers that are fairly unique to this package, perhaps unfortunately. And the three wrappers fit snugly inside a conservative green box, wasting very little space. In all, a very attractive and intelligently made package.

The Green Tea scent is fairly unique in that it features a dry, very herbal green tea without much sweetness, a tendency I find truer to the smell of green tea leaf in a tin. The Nippon Kodo Café Time Green Tea cone is perhaps the only one I’ve tried that approaches this electric, sage-like (or even salvia divinorum-like) note to it, although where the cone will leave a holder in a pool of perfume oil, there’s no such downside to the Kunjudo stick. I’d hoped to have been able to link to Ross’s review of the single roll of Kunjudo’s Green Tea, as based on that I’d guess both that and the one in this package are the same incenses, but it seems to have disappeared! Like all of the incenses here there seems to be a mixture of sandalwood and other woods at base which keeps this one from being a true modern and in the realm of traditional incenses.

Bamboo incenses also appear to be fairly uncommon, and those that are available tend to feature as a scent, a very mellow, fleeting aroma that while fairly distinctive is kind of difficult to describe and not always all that striking. The Kunjudo version is quite mild and traditional and certainly fairly accurate of a bamboo grove, although perhaps bolstered in the middle by the woods and spices. It sports kind of a pale green color to it and ends with a mild floral note that helps to lift the overall scent. It’s a stick one ought to find quite different from the usual offerings.

Cypress is an extremely woody version of the scent, closer in spirit to the Nippon Kodo Ka-Fuh version, although this one is not at all smokeless. Where the Baieido Hinoki probably hits the spirit of the cypress a little closer by the use of fine and rare essential oils, imparting the crystalline quality one tends to find on the fresh tree, the Kunjudo version seems rooted in a woody base that renders the overall cypress smell a lot milder. And given it’s a mild smell as it is, the result seems to be a bit more of a woody blend, certainly pleasant, but as equally evergreen or even sandalwood infused as it is cypress.

Overall Three Scents is something of an unusual combination in that it provides you with an electric, powerful incense in the Green Tea, but opts for milder and more graceful scents with the Bamboo and Cypress. But its real strength is that while there are some comparisons, you’re not likely to find three incenses this distinctive and different from the status quo and they’re really good for mixing things up. In many ways these are moderns for the traditional crowd, with different directions for what are nominally wood-first incenses.

Nippon Kodo / Morning Star / Fig, Lotus + East Meets West / Thai Memory

This write-up is an odds and ends sort of thing and likely to be one of the last Nippon Kodo modern reviews I make here. Most of these incenses come from my early days (which really wasn’t all that long ago) exploring Japanese incense, when I didn’t know quite what I liked yet and it has since dawned on me that I’m just not a Nippon Kodo type of person, at least when it comes to moderns (the jury is still out on their high end aloeswoods). The issue, as I’ve mentioned before, is that most if not all of their moderns are created with what I’d call inexpensive and offputting perfumes, the type of scents that always remind me of what digital technology sounded in the early 80s, bad snapshots better captured in a more authentic setting. An NK modern often starts out OK but like a diet soda (particularly the old saccharine ones), it becomes quickly apparent you’re dealing with a subsitute.

I also haven’t reviewed the very popular Morning Star line before, not only because that line and my pocketbook aren’t intersecting anywhere, but because they’re also inexpensive enough that virtually anyone could try them on their own. And I’d have avoided them entirely except for a trip to a local store where on a whim I decided to give the Fig and Lotus brands a try. That a different trip had me purchasing another East Meets West coil set may have been the last straw for this sort of on the spot purchasing. It’s one thing paying that extra retail price for something you like, another when you get something you don’t. Most if not all these sailed off in the “trading circle” box with the hope someone things my opinions on these are crazy.

To be honest, based on the Fig and Lotus, at least with Morning Star incenses they’re properly priced. One will not be expecting kyara at $2.50 a box. What one will get is a very inexpensive, partially sandalwood based and rather heavy perfume oil on top. This basically means you match your taste to the scent on most of these Morning Star incenses. In both of these cases, the scent captures the most perfume-like and floral natures of the relative scents. Where fig can also be pulpy, damp and, err, Fig Newton-like, here it’s brightly floral and somewhat reminiscent of grape Kool-aid, a memory scent that came welling up from my seven year old head. It’s not initially harsh, but like many synthetic florals the aroma really starts to cloy around a third of the way down the stick.

The Lotus is similar. It’s a scent that varies with just about every permutation, but one aspect that makes a Lotus incense successful is the sultry, shimmering mirage-like quality of the flower, something undeniably exotic and even a little erotic when it’s done right. I’d never had that much of an expectation for this incense, but given the sort of depths the lotus can muster, the results are certainly pale even with low expectations. It’s like a black and white photograph of a flower garden, we can indeed see the Lotus but it’s hard to be affected any more than that.

The problem with some of the more expensive NK moderns is they don’t really improve on the Morning Star formulas, giving the impression they’re quite overpriced. Take the East Meets West line. I covered a different scent from this line a while back (and for more info on the line itself I’d refer you to this same link) and if I’d ever made a mistake going twice to the same dried up well, it was with this line. Like Scandinavian Memory, Thai Memory is fraught with bitter and soapy aromatics. Even in its description we get “sharp citrus,” which even if this was considered a selling point comes off extremely offputting. The key notes are bougainvillea, bamboo, and honey, but like most NK incenses with unusual combinations of three, the result is quite clashing. The honey doesn’t seem to survive the combination too well, dominated by the sharp citrus, which, combined with ginger, is just too much top note for this mellow of a base. Overall it’s not quite as extreme as Scandinavian Memory, but too far into the unpleasant category for me to hang onto.

It’s unlikely I’ll be back to visit these lines any time soon, at least not with my pocketbook. Morning Star incenses aren’t much of a risk for any incense budget, but the East Meets West line, despite the striking presentation, is too highly priced in coil or stick format. At a price of $21.50 you could be diving into Tibetan high enders and quality aloeswoods rather than letting harsh perfumes etch unpleasant memories into your head.