Nado Poizokhang / Happiness Incense, Jaju Grade 1, Jaju Grade 2, Cinnamon

I like to think of Nado as something like the Nippon Kodo of Bhutan. They definitely seem to be the largest and most widely exported, but surprisingly, in the West, they are also sold by disreputable sellers who are selling fake Nado. This has led to Nado, to me, being very inconsistent. Sellers like “Incense Guru” sell fakes that come with names like “Bhutanese A” or similar, and when you get them, they have Nado Poizokhang labels with little stickers over ‘made in Bhutan’ and replaced with ‘Made in Nepal’.

I bring this up because, at this time, only Incense-Traditions sells non-counterfeit, authentic Nado incense in the west. All others I have purchased from have unabashedly sold me counterfeits and when I bring it up to them, I either get ignored, ghosted, or have my account deleted from their site.

Starting off with Happiness Incense. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims that it is a product of Bhutan, the country of Gross National Happiness. I’ve always appreciated that in the 70s and 80s, the leadership of Bhutan was so turned off by crass capitalism that when they showed up to a world summit, other leaders were asking what their GDP was and the king answered, “We don’t measure out output in money, we measure it in the happiness of the citizens”. I am familiar with this and have bought this many times from multiple vendors. Of all the recipe changes, this one surprised me because I had imagined these were ancient family recipes that you only change at your peril. Compared to my notes in my incense journal from 2015, this stick has changed a bit. I find it is less sweet and more on the ashy/bitter end of the spectrum, which feels like a misfire because my 2015 notes say that this is a spicy and sweet stick.

What I’m getting from this is a more muted sweetness, covered under a smell similar to burning slightly dirty charcoal as the base scent and then adding the spices and a touch of sweetness to it. If I had one complaint about Bhutanese incense is that it all tends to smell very similar to each other, so with this change in the recipe, you actually have something that comes across as more unique in the Bhutanese incense because I feel like the bitter/ashy component brings more gravitas and presence to the incense. However, as “Happiness Incense” I feel like this reformulation misses the mark because to me, I feel like the sweetness and spices of the original was more ‘happiness’ than this profile, but that could just be me.

Cinnamon is a really interesting creature. The bamboo case it arrives in proclaims it as “Cinnamom” (see top pic for this) which leads me to jokingly call it the “Mother of all Cinnamon Incense”. This incense lists only one ingredient, the bark of a cinnamon tree. This produces a very delightful cinnamon scent that is surprisingly complicated for one ingredient. This makes me feel like other incenses that use it are using only a bit to get a hint but since this is 100% cinnamon, you get all the notes, from sweet to spicy and the interplay keeps it from falling into a boring one-note drone of an incense.

Unlit, the stick smells like a freshly opened bottle of cinnamon sticks. But when you light it, you’re treated to a whole spectrum of cinnamon-based smells, from the candy-smell of the cinnamon oil to the bitterness of the wood, to the overwhelming denseness of the central cinnamon scent, this smell is concentrated up close, but if you get into the next room, it does smell like someone might be baking cinnamon cookies.

Jaju Grade 1 sticks come in a paper wrapper, which is completely green compared to Grade 2 which comes in cellophane. These tan sticks are about 50% thicker than the Grade 2 sticks, making the 2 sticks for daily use and the 1 sticks for special occasions. Lighting one of these up is easy thanks to the nicely ‘fluted’ edges. Immediately, the smoke comes off this with sweetness like opening a box of raisins. My understanding of Bhutanese incense is that all the ingredients are macerated into the wood powder in a special vessel and left to age together in these cold mountain monasteries. At least, the traditional incense came like that, since Nado is a factory, I’m uncertain if this is still produced traditionally like in the videos.

As I dive into this, you get a chance to feel a bit of each of the ingredients here, and I’m going to guess there is milk, honey, wine, along with aloeswood and sandalwood of different grades, as this has notes that shows off a bit of each, but the notes are definitely married together notes and not single notes that define exemplar scents. So no salty sandalwood, just a woody presence that mutes the milk and honey into something less food-like so I’m not thinking about eating while smelling them.

Spending more time with this, I have found that there is a spicier, saltier tail to this scent that gets picked up by me after I’ve spent time with the sweeter part and start looking for something more. I can sense some of the cinnamon, clove and saffron in here now, hiding behind the sweeter front scents. Definitely a good incense for those who love the Bhutanese style.

Jaju Grade 2 sticks are exactly the same length, but thinner than the Grade 1. While they look like they are made from the same dough because they are the same color, lighting this up shows off that they share different formulas. I’d say this comes across more with an opening like a spicy raisin. Like a raisin rolled in li hing mui, sugar and cinnamon. This definitely has a bit of a ‘rough around the edges’ like maybe it has lesser quality ingredients or perhaps they don’t age it as long. However, it does come across a few dollars less per roll and with it being thinner, there are more so this seems to be made for economical daily use.

Overall, the two scents are close to each other, and doing them back-to-back has helped me spot a few of the differences. I think because this one is a bit smokier in its undercurrent(I notice my clothes smelled like smoke after sitting next to it for a bit) that this one definitely has the cheaper ingredients.

Advertisement

Bosen / Ambon Aloeswood, Blessing Incense, Old Sandalwood

So here’s a trio of Bosen goodies that we haven’t previously reviewed. As stated in a previous Admin Notes, I’ve gone back and confirmed some of the old recipes and surveyed what needs to be looked at anew or again. There is probably another incense or few that we might want to take a look at like the Ambergris Hoin-an Aloeswood that is fairly new, so there’s more to come. But overall we have a lot of respect for the high quality of the Bosen shop and the fact they’re easily accessible through their shop on Amazon in the US.

Another (relatively) new Bosen offering is their Ambon Aloeswood. While it only says so in the fine print, Ambon Aloeswood is really part of the Chin-Zhou aloeswood series featuring Indonesian aloeswood, and this wood is specifically from Kota Ambon in Indonesia. Bosen claim this is basically 92% wood and includes a touch of “jinko agarwood.” We’ve covered the Chin-Zhou series in the past and it’s something I might like to tackle again given how much agarwood changes in profile over the years, but for now we’ll just take this Ambon on its own. This box goes for about $23 so it’s probably somewhere in the lower to middle quality wise, but in Bosen’s line it usually means it’s still pretty good. It has a nice a bit of sweetness to it and it’s not too bitter and it still feels wild rather than cultivated (or if it’s the latter they’re getting better at it). Honestly I felt that this was actually a bit better than even some of the old Baieido Indonesian aloeswood-sourced sticks so it feels like reasonable quality wood to me. It has a fairly mid resin punch and while it isn’t the complex wood you’ll find at higher Chin-Zhou price ranges, it’s still a very pleasant stick.

Blessing is the last of the Tibetan blends that we hadn’t covered yet (it seems to currently only available as coils, but I’d check back if you want to wait for sticks as Bosen often replenish unavailable stock). It’s somewhat notable in having a bit more of an amber heft to it than the others. It’s made from 10% agalloch eaglewood (aloeswood/agarwood), 5% white sandalwood, 20% nard (spikenard), 20% moly (not sure if this is wild rue or something else), 10% acronychia pedunculata, 20% lysimachia (this may be somewhat equivalent to “reiryo-koh), 2% asarum (wild ginger), 3% several Tibetan Dharma medicine and nectars and 10% Machilus zuilensis Hayata powder (which I believe is the binder). The spikenard is very obvious in this one, sweet and herbal all at once, it seems to have a similar presence that the cypress does in Pythoncidere. It’s interesting that given the different ingredients list, including several you don’t often see in incense, that it’s still fairly similar to some of the other Tibetan incenses in the Bosen line and still manages to have some evergreen qualities that don’t come from the usual sources. But as I mentioned earlier it has a bit of amber-like thickness that gives it its own aromatic qualities and this is a richness that makes this a very pleasant incense indeed. Honestly if I hadn’t seen the ingredients list I would have thought there was plenty of cypress, amber and resin in this one as well, so it’s quite remarkable. Definitely recommended and one of the first I’d start with among their Tibetan style incenses.

The front of the Old Sandalwood box says “Centuries Weathered” which seemed really promising to me. The stick is 90% sandalwood but it only says Indian, so there’s no confirmation on whether this is Mysore (unlikely), but they do seem to be going for older, more quality tree wood nonetheless. It’s certainly got enough of a price hike to match with it, so I really wanted to see if they’d do a good job with a sandalwood note, not to mention giving myself a little bit of a variation from the usual Japanese and Indian sticks. This actually does have a fairly pure sandalwood note to it, its provenance is maybe not the finest trees but for sure the wood here is quality enough to not feel like you’re being fleeced. It has a freshly sawn wood vibe which I tend to like a lot, some actual definition as being sandalwood and not other wood mixed with it and it’s fresh and vibrant. The only thing missing, and it’s something you only get with the highest grades, is that more crystalline level of wood resin, but even a bit of that peaks through. Very enjoyable, fairly priced, and while it leans closer to Japanese than Indian, the thickness of the stick gives it more power.

Nehnang Monastery / Nehnang No. 1 Tibetan Incense

I’m always a bit charmed by what lowering the ambient temperature of the room does to Tibetan incense. If you consider the colder weather in higher mountain latitudes, it sort of makes sense, but in California, where a streak of 100 degree plus days is a fair norm during the summer, you do have to take into account that even regular heat can sometimes hide the notes of a fine monastery incense. I often like lighting one of these first thing in the morning when its cooler and it’s almost a necessity for an incense as complex and interesting as Nehnang No. 1 (I covered the No. 2 some time back). The No. 1 is described as containing “25 kinds of “pure natural precious fragrances”, incl. nutmeg, clove, spikenard and cinnamon.” While spikenard (or sometimes nard) is often not listed in a monastery incense ingredient list (although it might often still be there), when it is you can almost be sure it’ll be a more profound note and here you can definitely sense it as part of the background. In fact there’s something about it that I think tends to pull out the resinous elements that aren’t listed. The remaining listed ingredients, of course, show that this has a nice bit of spice to it. But it might be stressed overall that this does have a different profile than the No. 2 and one might stress that this appears to be about double the price of the next grade. Perhaps strangely while sandalwood is listed in the No. 2 but not in the No. 1, I would still describe this one as a bit woodier of an incense. It’s just that within the base there’s a large amount of spice and herbal notes that come out that show an almost delicate intricacy to the composition that is intensely fascinating. I might say it earns an almost Baieido-like level of “listening” in order to suss out how truly complex it is. As I let this stick burn down, I’m quite surprised at how the spice comes out sometimes, while at others its the spikenard or some unique, leafy herbal note. While I wouldn’t describe this as quite as musky as the No. 2, it does have some level of it that is sweet. It might be worth nothing here that there is a Nehnang Vegetarian No. 1 as well which kind of hints that this one probably isn’t. If I would further sell this incense, I would just remark that it’s fairly unique in its scent profile, much more so than the No. 2. Anyway this is certainly recommended for the monastery incense afficionado for sure, it shows the marks of a blender of high skill and sophistication.

Temple of Incense / Himalayan Spikenard, Wood Spice, Bengal Beauty, Ganesha

Temple of Incense Part 1
Temple of Incense Part 3
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

So here’s the other half of my initial order, minus the samples, from Temple of Incense. I noticed there’s an “est. 2012” on the boxes which just made me wonder why news on these fantastic incenses took so long to spread. It does seem like there’s a substantial UK to India connection that really helps with the foundation to some strong companies there, so I’m sure there’s more hunting to do. Anyway in this round we have both charcoals and masalas (including a very familiar traditional) and another of the line’s baton size wonders that nearly makes me faint away due to the beauty of it.

Himalayan Spikenard acts as one of the high enders in the Temple of Incense catalog at nearly twice the price much of the range goes for. That’s because it’s not just a spikenard-fronted charcoal but because it has a something of a bakhoor-like oud scent in it as well as musk, oak moss and vetivert. The thing I really love about spikenard is you can experience it ranging from the sweeter notes found in Japanese incense or Greek monastery-styled incenses to musky, earthy aspects of it that feel a little wilder in the natural source. Here you have the full range of the spikenard note even though it’s essentially fronting a blended oil. It is a charcoal, so I do think the mix of these elements actually goes to highlight that in a way not everyone might like, but there’s nothing wrong with this mix of oils on their own, in fact it’s a bewitching blend with a bit of a erotic flair to it. And most importantly it has some aromatic elements I don’t think you will find in most incenses. It’s like having something familiar with a more exotic edge to it.

The Wood Spice is an intriguing (also charcoal, but not as obviously so as the Himalayan Spikenard) incense that reminds me of a couple different scents. The notes listed here are not specific, just flowers, woods and spices, and while I think the woods obviously take the central place, there seems to be a lot of other activity rotating around this center. It feels like it works on two levels, the woods blend on one hand and then some sort of tangy richness on the other with a powerful hit of spice that reminds me of anything from cardamom to clove or nutmeg. The spicy wood feels like it goes in a bit of an Oud Masala direction, but without the more expensive agarwood touches and with the heavier spice touches, the scent profile ends up being something like the old Maharaj or Maharaja blends of the original champa era, although to be fair I think this is more due to the oils than any sense of halmaddi at play. It just feels that there are dozens of ingredients and that the mix creates something that justifies the more general notes than being specific of just a few. The oil overall feels like it could work either as a perfume or cologne, depending on your definition or preference.

Bengal Beauty is one of the latest in the family of incenses that have a long history of lavender-ended goodness. My old favorite was the old Mystic Temple Honey Dust incense, which was a delectably sweet treat of honey and vanilla and I’ve seen it in the old Satya Natural and Happy Hari’s Yama Sutra and probably a few more lines I’ve forgotten about now. It may very well be the second most common traditional Indian masala next to Nag Champa itself, although it feels like this version may have shifted more to a charcoal or hybrid style than it used to be in the old days. And this is as good of a version that exists on the market currently. Part of that is the sweetness, another part is it’s a bit more balanced in a sandalwood direction and part of it is that its more obviously an amber as well (there are some similarities to ToI’s Amber Supreme as well). The other notes mentioned on the box are khus and rose and while I get the earthy notes of the former, the rose is far more subtle. It probably tends less to the sweet side than other versions, but that makes it a better balanced incense. This is a very friendly Indian masala and not a bad one to put on your starter list.

I don’t know what it is about these thick stick incenses like Ganesha, maybe it’s just that they feel like they’re frontloaded with a lot of halmaddi resin, but just like the Shiv this is a stone classic of a scent. The notes are lotus, lavender, eucalyptus and light florals, but the overall effect is like some modern candy fronted Japanese stick except in big stick form. It is super pink in color and in aroma in fact “Valentine’s Day candy champa” popped right in my mind as I wrote this in front of a burning stick. This is fairly well blended, sweet and feminine floral, you certainly get the lavender and eucalyptus notes in the mix but it’s so sweet that most of the rest of the floral notes just kind of converge into this big bouquet of hallelujah. It’s an incredible floral and because of the oils not quite as gentle as the Shiv is, but it’s no less impressive. I would love to see what a big batch of this looks like and smells like. More like this please!

Mermade Magickal Arts / Sanctuary, Pan’s Earth (2021) + Esprit de la Nature / Lavender Kyphi (via Mermade) (Discontinued)

Here’s another handful of Mermade offerings including one direct from Esprit de la Nature. One I almost missed and the other two newly arrived…

I bought Sanctuary a little while back so I’m not sure if what I’m reviewing here was the first or second batch as mentioned on the page. Katlyn lists the ingredients for this blend of sacred space as Copal Blanco, Copal Negro, Maydi and Sacra Frankincense, Breu Claro, Greek Sage, Palo Santo, Peru Balsam and Fir Balsam. So I think the one thing that this instantly brings to mind is the idea that this is something of a South American blend with a touch of the outside. Space clearing incenses often to tend to be resin heavy, so this checks the box, plus this has that sort of uplifting feel that copals frequently bring to incense especially when they’re high quality. Sanctuary is also a bit of gentle blend, much more so than resin mixes that are frankincense heavy, in fact the frankincenses here seem to have not so noticeable an impact on the overall bouquet. The Palo Santo is fairly obvious as it always is in a mix, and I very much like the way the balsams weave in here as well. Once again Katlyn’s skill at blending multiple ingredients and getting them all to face out in a noticeable way is quite apparent.

Be en Foret’s Lavender Kyphi (picture is just a sample container but cool enough to include – check out the final artwork at the link) is another one of her intriguing variations on the old Egyptian formula. Check out this amazing ingredient line up: “From the Garden: Salted lavender buds and Dominican Sage leaves from my garden, Spikenard root from the Himalayas, Violet leaf extract from France. Resins: Dark Frankincense, Tolu Balsam, Dark Benzoin, Labdanum, Kua Myrrh, Liquidambar, Peru Balsam. A dash of aged Ambergris in Sandalwood oil ● Bound with organic honey and raisins ● Rolled in Agarwood and Sandalwood powder.”

Gulp. That’s a whole lotta goodness there, as is common with labyrinthine Kyphi preparations. Be sets this at a very low temperature kind of melt so you really gotta get in there to experience how complex this is, but of course the lavender is in front just like the name implies. One thing I love about kyphis is there are multiple ingredients, multiple recipes, everyone does them differently, they’re aged and tend to have vintages even among single “authors” and so vary all over the place while still hitting these notes that remind me of the finest of wines or even ales. The second thing I notice off this incense is the honey and balsam scent, a lovely mix that also tends to highlight the spikenard which is a favorite of mine. I do tend to like my lavender as close to the plant as possible, so I appreciate that it’s the kyphi that tends to be sweet here, which is a really nice contrast. And yes this does have that almost thick, wonderful base of a kyphi, more noticeable as the heat progresses, which I always contribute to the raisins and the way they kind of infuse a bit of wine-like goodness to the mix. Anyway I hope you’re convinced on this one, Be has the kyphi juju down!

And if kyphis are a tradition going back to Egyptian times, Katlyn has made something of a vintage out of Pan’s Earth herself. This is one of Mermade’s perennial classics, an almost definitive pagan earth incense, a mix of divine resins with all sorts of herbal notes that furrow their roots deep into the soil. And like kyphi, repeated vintages of Pan’s Earth always seem to improve and get more deep and impressive, and honestly, this one’s even a bit of a quantum jump in how good it is, easily my favorite of all of the good scents under this name. So what’s in the 2021 version? Black frankincense; breu claro; copal negro; vetiver root; aged patchouli; agarwood chips, powder, and oud; Pan’s Earth Special Blend Oil; Arbor Vitae cedar tips; jatamansi; costus root; kua; and Yemeni myrrh. The first thing that always strikes me about Pan’s Earth, despite all of the high end ingredients is that patchouli and vetiver mix. That green, soil-rich earthiness is just right up my alley and has always been the feature that would draw out this god of satyrs (and to be fair jatamansi and spikenard also have a little of it). If you’re gonna talk about Pan you need something feral and dark, something that makes civilization vanish. However to my nose this is actually a bit more resinous than I remember previous vintages, and it almost feels like the aged depth of it actually highlights and provides a well-roundedness to the incense that reminds you that the mystery of Pan still remains and that matched with all that earth is the sense of the universal as well. Perhaps 100s of years from now, some future archaeologists and anthropologists will be trying to make sense of the complexity of Pan’s Earth. Because this great incense is now becoming a tradition like kyphi, where there’s so much to experience, a review may not be able to do it full justice. One subnote melts into another into another. Definitely don’t miss this!

Gyokushodo / Hana no Sho (Bloom), Mori no Sho (Woodland), Nami no Sho (Wave)

I first got to try these over a year ago, when they were brought to me by a friend in Japan, and like a number of readers that I have noticed in the blog I was very curious about them. This was just before Japan Incense had brought in so many of the other offerings from Gyokushodo. Then, as now, I was impressed with the ingredients  it was also the first time I had even seen ambergris mentioned as an ingredient. These are made with very traditional materials and the ingredient list seems pretty simple, which means the quality of the materials has to be pretty good in order to work. There are six different blends in this series and Part One will look at three with Part Two finishing it off next week sometime. I had a friend translate the ingredient list from their catalog for me and decided to put that in also as it is so very rare to get something like this from any Japanese incense maker. These are available from Japan Incense/Kohshi.

Hana no Sho (Bloom): This one has a very up front sandalwood oil presence to it. It really stands out and comes across very differently from other Japanese sandalwood based sticks. It has a very “full” quality to it as the oil plus the woods really fill out all the corners and produce their own top, middle and base notes. If you like sandalwood it would be hard not to own this. This would also appeal to someone who is used to the Indian style and wants to sample Japanese incense.

[Ingredients] Tabu bark powder, activated carbon powder, Sandalwood, Jinsui Koboku (jinko,) Sandalwood oil,

Mori no Sho (Woodland): Very woody and spicy, a sort of classic Japanese grouping of incense materials. It is also extremely balanced. Just when you think its cinnamon, it might just be clove, but wait, that could be borneol, then there are woods but it is all done so well that they just keep mixing. This would be pretty fun as meditation incense, assuming it didn’t end up making you completely analytical.

[Ingredients] Tabu [Machilus thunbergii] bark powder, activated carbon powder, Jinsui Koboku (jinko,) Cinnamon, Cloves, Benzoin, Borneol,

Nami no Sho (Wave): This particular incense has caused me to spend quite a lot of money on ambergris. I was so taken with the smell, which was just different enough to really catch my attention, that I decided I wanted to use ambergris in my own incense. So I started to and my wallet has been in shock ever since. There is a sort of, but not quite, musky quality to this stick, but there is also a very subtle, very clean, marine background note that goes along with it. Plus ambergris has the somewhat unique ability to increase other scents in the mix(one of the reasons it was and still is so popular in perfume).This is also a really balanced blend with the different players sort of briefly stepping up to the front of the stage and into the lime light. This is a very beautiful, somewhat masculine in nature, scent with woods in the background while the spices and ambergris move through the top notes.

Huitong / Cure Disease, Taizhen, Solemn, Golden Light, Plum Blossom, Sky Dragon, Yun Hui Incense Powder (Discontinued or Unavailable Line)

While we do see a lot of incenses coming in from the Tibetan region within the political boundaries of China, Huitong is the first Chinese incense company we’ve been in contact with. In many ways Huitong might be considered the Chinese analog of Baieido in that all of their incenses seem to be made without the use of perfumes and oils, using only ecologically sound ingredients. What this means is that it’s been very difficult to do their incenses justice as to even pick up on their subtleties means you have to approach them like you do with Baieidos and “listen” to them.

This is essentially sort of a hybrid style, using extruded Japanese-like sticks to format what are essentially very Tibetan-like scents. So the most obvious comparison would be to Bosen’s Tibetan traditionals or even some of the Korean incenses, except as already mentioned that Huitong doesn’t use oils as Bosen does and the scents will be friendlier to Western noses than many of the Korean incenses. But one thing most of the scents have in common is they all have multiple ingredients and thus often don’t have the dominant sandalwood or aloeswood notes that tend to make categorizing Japanese incenses a little easier.

Cure Disease is described as a “kind of historic incense, which is mainly used for cure disease and health preserving. It was originated from Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) and recorded in ancient books that burning this incense regularly could help to strengthen us both emotionally and physically.” The ingredients are listen as figwort root, spikenard, cypress seed, rhubarb, aloeswood, storax and clove.  As such, this type of mix reminds me a lot of some of the sweeter TDHF Tibetan ropes with a bit of fruitiness  in a much more refined format. Like with most mainland incenses, the aloeswood is quiet and mixed in but it works quite well to give the incense some heft. The results are quite pleasant, especially as the scent builds, almost like a mix of woods and grape.

Taizhen incense is the second of three Huitong incenses packaged in beautiful cardboard rolls. The incense “originated from Imperial Consort Yang of Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Consort Yang known briefly by the Taoist nun name Taizhen, was one of the four beauties of ancient China, she was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong for many years. According to legend, Consort Yang treasured this incense very much and named it by her own Taoist nun name. Taizhen Incense is made from various famous and precious Chinese traditional materials according to the ancient spice formula.” The ingredients listed are sandalwood, Chinese eaglewood (aloeswood), saffron, cloves, jave amonum fruit, saussurea involucrata, rue, cogongrass etc. In this case the sandalwood is noticeably up front in a sort of freshly cut wood way. The other ingredients sweeten this base scent up in the same way they do in wood powder heavy Tibetan ropes. The Chinese Eaglewood gives the aroma a bit of roundedness and the front has a fruitiness not dissimilar to the Cure Disease, In some ways it’s like a nice, smooth low wned aloeswood crossed with Tibetan-style spices.

Solemn Incense is one of the previous Buddhist incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to legend, when burning this incense, all the gods will pray to Buddha all together. It is usually used for practice Buddhism or reading at the home.” Like the previous two incenses, this is packaged in a cardboard roll. It contains sandalwood, aloeswood, mastiche, galbanum, and saruma henryi among other ingredients. It’s a very light sandalwood and aloeswood blend, with a slight fruitiness akin to the Taizhen (one wonder if this roll series might have some thematic similarities). It’s quite pleasant, again largely due to the fresh wood powder scent at the center. It seems like the galbanum might give the scent the fruity subnote. Like all good meditation incenses, it also has a slight ineffable quality about it. Solemn may not be as rich as the previous two incenses but in a way it’s the most successful.

Golden Light moves the packaging format to boxes and presents another tradional Buddhist formula from the Tang Dynasty, its name originating from the Golden Light Sutra. The ingredients are given as sandalwood, frankincense, basil and cypress seed and the incense definitely smells like a variation on a combination of those first two ingredients. As such it’s not terribly far from, say, a less refined Kyukyodo Yumemachi as if it was done as a Tibetan stick. This puts the incense in the general catgeory of the “daily incense” in that the ingredients here have less luster than in the other sticks. For the most part this is a woodshop sort of scent and as such it is also similar to the Incienso de Santa Fe bricks.

I’m about 95% sure the next incense I’m reviewing is Huitong’s Plum Blossom. Although the box wasn’t clearly labelled, the graphics seem to match the story which goes like this. “Plum Blossom Incense was created by Princess Shouyang, the daughter of Emperor Wu in the Nan Dynasty’s Song Era. Princess Shouyang was a plum blossom lover, according to the legend, one day when she slept beneath a tree, a plum blossom fell on her forehead, leaving a floral imprint. With the imprint, she looked much more beautiful. Soon, all the ladies followed her to paste plum blossom shaped ornaments on their foreheads. It was then called Plum Blossom Makeup. Hence, Princess Shouyang was crowned Goddess of Plum Blossom and this incense was also name Plum Blossom incense.” Plum Blossom is a coil incense (the coils are the same shape and size as many mainland aloeswood coils) and is made from spikenard, aloeswood, radix angelicae dahuricae, cortex moutan, clove bark and sandalwood. It’s interesting to see spikenard listed first as I didn’t sense it taking up a lot of the scent. Instead you seem to have the mainland take on something like Baieido Kobunboku done Tibetan style. That is the incense itself is centrally woody but it supports a sort of light floral mix that creates the plum blossom aroma and does so without the off scents one would expect with inexpensive perfume. It’s not spectacular so much as understated and like all the Huitongs, nicely done given the boundaries.

“Sky Dragon is a kind of precious Chinese traditional incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to traditional recipes, the incense requires several days of cellaring during production process.” Sky Dragon has a huge list of ingredients: rosewood heartwood, cloves, sandalwood, valeriana jatamansi, cogongrass, rue, frankincense, benzoin, ageratum, galangal root and cypress powder. The rosewood appears to be the central ingredient and the mix gives this stick a very different bent from the previous incenses which all have a substantive sandalwood component. It makes for a nice change, slightly anyway, because the rosewood doesn’t have quite the depth to carry it completely. Even the spices mixed in the other scents are missing here, leaving this one with a sort of campfire scent.

I didn’t receive any information with the last incense here, Yun Hui incense powder. This seems to be the deluxe item in the batch, as the powder has an intense richness that none of the sticks quite approach. Even fresh out of the box the spicy, fruity blend pops out of its small ceramic interior container. And maybe it starts with that container but it makes the whole incense reminiscent of Japanese kneaded incenses mixed in with the woody and powdery elements of Tibetan powders and ropes. This scent seems highest in good aloeswood content with subnotes of tea, caramel and butter on the heater. In order to get this review up in even a remotely reasonable time, I had to forego a sample of it on a charcoal burner but I may come back and add that. Needless to say, this is very good powder, reminiscent to some of the better Tibetan powders and I’m hoping to be able to get to know it better.

We’ll have some more Huitong incenses up for review somewhere down the line. Overall what reviewing these did for me, is really question the idea of what effects perfumes and oils have on an incense’s immediacy, because without them one’s work is a lot more difficult in trying to describe a scent as all of these, with perhaps the exception of the powder, are very quiet and gentle scents which will make you stretch to understand. Which is not at all a bad thing in my book. I’m actually overall very impressed with the sheer class and visual impression of Huitong. However, there’s one disclaimer and that these incenses aren’t easy to get at the moment, at least in the US and as I finish this up I realize I don’t have a URL. So I’m going to first direct you to Frankie’s blog where I assume one can leave a comment if you’re interested in purchasing, and I should be back in a few days with something a bit more direct.

Stupa / Spikenard, Dorjee Samba, Healing (Agar 31), Austa Suganda, Champabati

Stupa Incense Industry creates a number of incenses under the hand of Lama Dorjee, several of which I’d count in the upper class of Nepali incenses, in that the quality ingredients in any of the scents is always of a high enough content to push past the bland. I’ve reviewed several of these in the past (which you can access by scrolling down this page). As I mentioned in one of the previous reviews (the Buddha set), there are a couple boxes that actually include more than one incense and there is one of those sets here as well.

Spikenard is a pretty rare scent to be found in Tibetan style catalogs, perhaps due to its cost. In Japanese incense kansho’s musky caramel sweetness is a pivotal player in high end incenses and in my opinion is often just as important in the bouquet as the woods. On the other end of the spectrum you have this rough and ready Stupa version which is actually quite impressive for its cost. Yes, there’s definitely a lot of base wood in this (Himalayan pencil cedar) incense, but it manages only to seat the general spikenard scent, which here has a bit of coppery or brassy vibe to it, and doesn’t have the refined sweetness you find in the Japanese incenses. Otherwise the muskiness and slight caramel aroma still manages to more or less get the aroma right. In the end this is a solid incense for the price and unlikely to duplicate what you might own.

The Dorjee Samba blend gets top billing by Lama Dorjee and consists of an impressive blend of saldhoop, kud, agar, holibasil, nutmeg, cardamom and other hebs and spices. Despite this list of ingredients the most notable part of this bouquet is a strong, green, pungent evergreen scent that has similarities to Bosen’s Pythoncidere as well as the high altitude campfire like scent you’d find with the Dhoop Factory’s Alpine. And as such this is an incense I like very much with the sort of tire-like elements you tend to find with heavier woods reduced to a reasonable amount. In fact I’d wager a guess that the balancing sweetness here is the saldhoop (often considered an amber). In a list of good Nepalis this is definitely one that would be high up the list for me.

If the Spikenard and Dorjee Samba are fairly unique Nepalis, the Stupa Healing Incense (Agar 31) is in a pretty common class of Tibetan incenses. Here there are three kinds of black aloeswood, various herbal flowers, cloves, saffron and red and white sandalwood listed as ingredients but like all Healing/Agar 31 incenses the result doesn’t evince so much complexity and is somewhat nondescript (that is, if you’re looking for the Tibetan equivalent of a Japanese aloeswood, this and any of its brethren come nowhere close). It’s even difficult to describe as a scent as it doesn’t have the same woody/campfire qualities of high juniper and cedar levels nor the subtleties usually found in incenses with aloeswood, sandalwood or saffron. Of course incenses like this one seem less designed with aroma in mind rather than the supposed healing properties they may or may not have, in fact this one claims it will alleviate flatulences. Duh, right?

The final two incenses here come in one box, with a roll of Lama Dorjee/Stupa Austa Suganda and another of Champabati. The former contains pencil cedar, valerian, holy basil, gum-guggul and sandalwood, along with, I’d assume, the key ingredient in the name. The result is a very tangy sort of Tibetan that has an aroma fairly close to the paper on many ropes and a bit like toasting marshmallows over a fire. It’s a fairly static scent and probably only likely to appeal to some. Overall I find it a bit plastic-like in this form and that almost every ingredient listed can’t be detected over the austa sugandha.

The Champabati definitely has a strong campfire/tire/rubber-like base, which is somewhat uncommon for a Stupa, it also does a fair job at imparting a champa-like aroma on top. Unfortunately the competition of such a gentle floral scent with all the strong woods doesn’t create a particularly memorable incense and I’m once again fairly convinced the champa scent doesn’t work particularly well in a Tibetan style incense. If you’re experiencing even a hint of aromatic fatigue this will come off probably more bitter than intended. Rare are the good Nepali florals…

Stupa has some other incenses in their catalog including sandalwood, juniper and jasmine, although I’ve foregone checking these out for fear of duplication. But I’d think eventually this would be one of the catalogs I’d revisit as I’m fairly confident that the quality will be high.

October Top 10

  1. Mother’s India Fragrances – Om Nag Champa  I don’t mean to take much attention away from all of the other excellent incenses in the Mother’s series, but there’s something about this one that’s hit a bullseye with me, to the point where I ran out my first 20 stick package of this about a month or so after I received it. However in stocking it deeper in the smaller packages, I noticed the batches were a little different and it’s something I’ve been wondering about in terms of aromatic differences as the Om I started with really is something of a triangular balancing act and the small package scent falls perhaps a little short. But generally speaking this works for me because I love an incense with a perfect cinnamon/cassia note and this one, at least in the big package has that to an almost addictive state.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho  I find this to be one of the greatest incenses period, definitely my favorite of the top 3 premiums and I love the effect it has on company when they first get the aroma. The liquerish sweetness and dark kyara and aloeswood notes mesh just about perfectly in this one.
  3. Baieido / Ogurayama Aloeswood  I still find this a natural miracle, it just never ceases to astound me that you can get this much aroma from a small piece of this wood. I mean you can literally get 3-4 hours of it when you get the right temperature and I spend most of it double taking, going yeah it really is that little chip doing that. I might actually slightly prefer the Hakusui in terms of its spiciness but I think the resin might actually be a bit more intense in the Ogurayama. Anyway this is about as close to incense nirvana as it gets for me.
  4. Fred Soll / Red Sandalwood  Like many Solls this does have the penchant to not stay lit, but that’s really its only weakness. Like Shroff’s Red Sandal, this is a spicier take on a sandalwood incense, showing a totally different facet of the wood due to the cinnamon-ish notes. With Soll’s version you get that combination mixed in with that southwestern woodsy/resiny vibe to great effect. It’s also one of the mellower Solls and seems to have less powerful oils than they usually do.
  5. Tennendo / Enkuu  This is always a perennial favorite in my book, in fact long time readers might know that this is one of the most common incenses in the top ten lists here. I think that’s largely because so many of the top end incenses have kyara and are thus very sweet, Enkuu is more at the apex of the drier spicy end, for its kind there are really few better incenses. And even after a year or two since I first tried it, I still find it strikingly original and only find it mildly comparative to other high end aloeswood/spikenard mixes.
  6. Fred Soll / Nag Champa with Amber and Vanilla  I don’t bring out the Soll champas very often as for a couple of years now they’ve shown nothing but delays in terms of restocking these scents, no doubt due to the usual shortages. But when I do I’m always completely bowled over by how great these are, particularly in the realms of the sugary sweet. This one’s about as rich and amazing as you can imagine, perhaps even too much so for a small room, but perfect for these late warm California summers outside where it can penetrate with even a small wind.
  7. Yamadamatsu / Kumoi Koh  Another absolute classic in my book, an oil and woods mix that is rich, spicy and animalistic, so strong that you can get an idea of its scent just from the fresh stick. It’s similar to one or two of the coils that haven’t been imported here yet that clearly use some ingredients you don’t usually find in incenses at this level of strength. Very exotic and heady.
  8. Kyukyodo / (several)  Clearly the top catalog whose entry to US shores seems to be problematic at the very least. Sure you can find Sho-Ran-Koh and Azusa these days, but there are just a good dozen incenses or so that just badly need to be imported that haven’t ever been over here, such as the incredible aloeswood Akikaze or even the stunning and much lower end Benizakura or one of the really great high quality sandalwood based incenses Gyokurankoh. Oh and RIP Shiun and Yumemachi, what a pair to be deleted!
  9. Nippon Kodo / Tokusen Kyara Taikan  Readers may not fully be aware that if you don’t count the regular Kyara Taikan or Kongo, which I don’t, this is actually the lowest incense on a scale that goes up to what seems like the world’s most expensive stick incense, the $2500 Gokujyo Kyara Fugaku. I think you’d only have to pay $120 something for the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which is actually an excellent stick in that it drops some of the more perfumy sweet aspects of the straight Kyara Taikan for a more elegant result. It’s a shame these are so breakable and thin, but they do pack quite a wallop.
  10. Shroff / Akash Ganga  I’ve always found this an odd scent because it’s one if not the only incenses in the Dry Masala range that shares the yellow boxes with the Semi-Drys, and I can see why as it seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I find this a very unusual variant on the “desert flower” sort of scents in that it doesn’t have the heavy camphorous notes they usually have or the sort of sickly sweet perfumes. And as a result it strikes me as a very mysterious scent with a depth that continues to make me go through my supplies very fast.

As always feel free to share with us what amazed you this month!

Gyokushodo / Seidai Koh, Buntoku

You can see the first two sections about this entire grouping here and here.

Seidai Koh: this is listed as using Vietnam Aloeswood. It is  somewhat spicy, yet with some sweet, almost musky undertones. I am thinking that this maybe caused by the Reiryo koh (also listed as an ingredient) and perhaps some benzoin resin. Nice woody notes in this one, not super strong but nicely done. Much more distinct then the Buntoku. [NOTE 7/5/21: This incense was later reformulated and the description here may no longer apply.]

Buntoku:  An Aloeswood blend with some Sandalwood and also with Spikenard listed in the ingredients. There is a bit of sweetness mixed in with the woods, faint, but there. The scent seems to sort of balance on that knife edge between the Aloeswoods and Sandalwoods, neither quite making a solid appearance nor playing a leading role  I find this one to be the least satisfying of the line. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not a standout like most of their other products tend to be.

Keiunko is also listed in this grouping, it has also be around longer then the others and you can see Mikes review of it here.

All in all, these incense from Gyokushodo are quite good, some of them are truly outstanding and reflect a very well established and knowledgeable company with a lot of expertise in incense. My own feelings as to what to get would probably be that the prices tell the story, or, you get what you pay for. Given the prices and availability of materials that the incense makers are dealing with right now this makes sense.

« Older entries