Kousaido / Sanshi-Suimei / Gion Koh; Waboku Set (3 scents); Koto koh, Take koh, Sumi-koh, and Ume koh

Kousaido is a Japanese company of a very modern bent, carrying many of the same sorts of lines you see with Nippon Kodo. So I’ll be straight up when I say that these styles aren’t usually to my taste and this review is of a few places I cast my net looking for some things I thought I might go for or to at least get some general overview of the company. Like in Nippon Kodo and even some of Shoyeido’s lines, some of these incenses are the sort of short 2 1/2 to 3/4 inch, slightly thicker sticks that tend to be machine produced and laden with perfumed aromas. They are perhaps not targeted at traditional incense fans, although one of the boxes here perhaps presents a slightly closer pitch to wood-based scents.

You usually don’t see moderns in pawlonia boxes, but Gion Koh is part of a series of five moderns in small little ones called Sanshi Suimei. Japan Incense sells a nice little sampler of 3 sticks each which you can find here. I received these close to the beginning of reopening ORS, so not only did I really not think to make notes of the other four, but none of them were really to my tastes. That’s not to say I disliked them all, but it was only Gion Koh that really stood out in a way that made me order a separate box. As I’ve probably gone on record elsewhere, I do tend to like amber themed incenses and a mix of that with sandalwood and ylang ylang ended up being quite a pleasant affair. Don’t mistake what this is, a perfumed modern, but it reminds me of the better aspects of some of the deluxe and discontinued Shoyeido Floral World sticks. The sandalwood is still pretty strong in the midst and while this doesn’t really smell much like the ylang ylang I remember from essential oils, as that’s a fairly gentle scent compared to the somewhat hair product level strength of this, the note doesn’t really overwhelm the wood or the base amber scent. And for me it’s that last piece that makes this something of a pleasant diversion for me. Other scents in the series just hit different areas within the same format, so if you think you might like the style I’d probably recommend the sampler first to see what you gravitate towards.

These next two boxes are actually made up of multiple scents and are sampler boxes whose contents don’t appear to be imported separately. So before we go back to the short stick format, we’re going to discuss the Kousaido Waboku set, which includes Kusunoki (Camphor), Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) and Keiyaki (Zelkova) at 25 sticks each. This set seems far and away the most traditionally minded series Kousaido exports to the US through Japan Incense. I was curious, not at all for the Cypress which tends not to deviate from either Baieido or Nippon Kodo versions, but for the other two incenses which actually seem to be fairly rare aromas on their own. And I do love me some camphor. First of all, I should say that the inserts each of the three series of incenses come in are less boxes than cardboard wrap arounds. As such it felt like a bit too much trouble to unwind and take separate pictures of the incenses as it feels like these wraparounds are likely to degrade with too much use. Besides the incenses themselves look almost exactly what you might expect from something in an inexpensive Nippon Kodo line.

And unfortunately the Kusnoki seems strangely contrived. It’s not difficult to tell what Kousaido was going for, just that it’s somewhat puzzling it doesn’t really hit the camphor sweet spot when expenses shouldn’t need to get in the way. It’s as if they dialed it back a bit on purpose which really kind of sets it a bit too close to what is a fairly, obviously, inexpensive wood base. Even that’s fairly mellow but matching this kind of light base with a dull note really doesn’t work all that well. But it’s a modern right? When you pitch woods as moderns this is often the sort of effect you get. The Hinoki is really little different, although inexpensive Japanese hinoki incenses tend to work out OK, even the smokeless Hinoki in the NK line isn’t a bad incense. But when I think of something like the Bosen Pythoncidere and that super green cypress scent in comparison, this just feels a bit lukewarm. It’s closer to the NK but even closer to the Camphor in that it’s got that thin wooden base with just a bit of the main scent sort of submerged in the middle. As such I think most will probably find this a bit more pleasant than the Camphor, but I’d still advise sticking to the Hinokis you already have as this one doesn’t have much to offer. And strangely the Zelkova tree, based on rummaging the internet a bit, seems like a shade tree and not something usually considered an aromatic source. But Keiyaki might be the most fascinating blend of the three here in that this incense has an aroma that’s fairly unique. And it’s not only that, but where the previous two incenses felt like mild aromas in lighter wood, this seems a bit stronger and more in your face, which might imply a greater level of perfume here. So even though I’ve never smelled a zelkova, nor could make any fair comparisons, it’s still the incense of the three I enjoy the most. Make no mistake, this one is still obviously perfumed, but at least its distinct.

The next Kousaido grouping falls under the name “Set of 4 Scents.” This artistically designed box set, where the four different boxes provide a nice little mosaic of tree branches, hides four different modern aromas with 2 and 3/4 inch sticks (I would guess this is a typo at the Japan Incense site as nearly all modern mini sticks are in this range). Koto Koh is described as including sandalwood, amber, ambergris, and oak moss and could almost be a cousin of Gion Koh because of the red-colored base and the amber. The oak moss element is surprisingly noticeable in the mix, although it blends into what is perhaps too much of a generic perfume. On the outside of the individual box, Sumi Koh also says “(Ink).” Along with borneol you essentially get a decent description of the purple stick’s bouquet. The borneol gives the aroma its piquant top end while the ink scent makes up the rest of it. I find ink scented incenses to perhaps not be the kind of aromas I’d burn all the time, but I do appreciate their originality and difference. And at least here the muskiness of it outweighs any sort of heavy floral note. I’m pretty sure Nippon Kodo has one or more bamboo themed incenses but from those or the Kousaido Take Koh, it’s difficult to tell what this is going for as the lily of the valley, cyclamen and bergamot notes sort of mix aqua like and citrus qualities up into one very muddy green floral. It’s honestly a bit of a mess and not a bad example of a modern that really doesn’t work. Finally there’s Ume Koh which intends to be a baika or plum blossom incense, but is so full of off and synthetic lilac notes that any hope of the plum and clove saving it is completely lost. It’s virtually impossible to find a sunny side up on this one as it has more in common with insect sprays than anything pleasant.

Overall, Kousaido moderns may not really be at all to the taste of most of the ORS readership. They are perhaps more tailor made for the causal browser who might stumble across the Koh Shi brick and mortar on a visit to the bay area and want something more in line with the types of modern air fresheners, perfumes and candles that tend to proliferate in modern stores.

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Awaji Koh-shi / Seasonal Yuzu, Water Lily, India Ink, Japanese Musk, Coffee, Green Tea

Scents of Japan has some pretty deep ties to the Awaji Island incense makers and has had these scents custom made for them for their Awaji Koh-shi line. There was a lot of R&D involved as they wanted incense’s that could hold their own in the market as well as be unique. This is Part 1 with Part 2 to follow shortly.

Seasonal Yuzu (Awaji Baikundo): This particular incense is not like anything else I have sampled. There is a great citrus note combined with an almost pink pepper top note and way under it all a slight wood scent. This is really surprising and delightful in its delivery, excellent for an overall refreshing room scent. Very uplifting, light, and the pink pepper  really brings it up into another level.

Water Lily (Less Smoke) (Keigado): This is a very subtle and almost etheric scent. I think the name aims more at a concept rather then a true scent as I am not too sure that water lilies have a scent( well maybe blue lotus). All that being said this is a very pleasant light floral note that is very much a back round rather then in your face incense. Not particularly sweet, and it does invoke the feel of the name. A lot of people who would like to try incense but do not want something too strong will find this just right.

India Ink (Less Smoke) (Seikado): India Ink is famous for( well one of the things) its scent, which is a mix of many materials as well as Patchouli oil and camphor. This incense is a wonderful combination of materials that has a very soothing and grounding quality to it, much more going on here the just the Patchouli oil and camphor. A great back round scent that to me invokes far away places and times. Somewhat stronger then many less smoke type sticks. It is defiantly a distinctive scent and something that could fit in many different enviroments.

Japanese Musk (Daihatsu): Whoever figured this scent out is really good. The musk is right up front with a light floral/spice and cream back round. Its surprisingly strong but not over powering and every time I burn some I think of the colors magenta and violet, which sort of describe the scent characteristics to me. Very elegant and almost hypnotic at the same time, a solid winner. I think it will appeal to a wide variety of people.

Coffee (Less Smoke) (Kunjudo): This smells like a very good cup of French Roast with a bit of heavy cream, no sugar, to round it out. An very pleasant and friendly sort of aroma that is actually stronger burning then unlit. It is supposed to act as an air purifier and freshener. I was not at all sure what a coffee scented incense was going to do for me but ended up being quite pleased. I can see this could be very useful in commercial areas or at home as a back round scent.

Green Tea (Less Smoke) (Kikujudo): A nice medium tea scent. Not really sweet and with that subtle bitter edge that tea can have that, to me, gives it character. There is a green note that flows through the whole mix and kind of holds it all together. There are no forceful notes in this stick, rather it is a grouping of three or four delicate scents that work very well together to add a distinctive “Japanese Tea” scent to a room, in other words, it smells like its name.

SAMPLER NOTES: Keigado, Seikado, Kunmeido

I’ve long had the internal debate on reviewing incenses where I only have small samples, in many cases I often just hang onto the ones I’m going to buy anyway and do a review proper on them. But I’m getting to the point where I’m kind of backing up with them and in a lot of cases they’re new and it’s probably time to get the word out, particularly as we’ve been seeing a lot of new modern styled imports coming in in the last six months. So periodically and probably through the end of the year I hope to get some comments out on these in batches of (approx.) 5 or 6.

The three Keigados in this batch, however, have been around for a couple years. The Blue Berry was even discussed in some comments a while back, and I can see why, it’s a pleasant smokeless stick that does what it says on the box, exude a pleasant smell of blueberries that’s pitched just about right. However I’m at the point where I wouldn’t even be sure what I’d do with 370 sticks of this, I could easily even imagine getting tired of it. But it’s light, airy and friendly, I can’t imagine the person who would find it unpleasant. [Please note that the link now goes to a 70 stick for $7 bundle, rather than the old 370 stick version, I think this makes this incense more attractive given you’re not getting too many sticks. – Mike 7/6/21]

Keigado’s Pink Magnolia is one of their three magnolias and I believe I covered the Purple Magnolia some time ago. Like the purple, the pink isn’t smokeless, the main difference is this stick evokes typical pink-like smells, perhaps rose or carnation in parts, as much as it does magnolia. In fact I was reminded a little of the Shunkohdo Shuhou I reviewed yesterday in terms of tone. The Pink Magnolia, however, has a slight bit of cinnamon spice in the mix which made me like it a little more than the purple, but overall this is the kind of low end, inexpensive floral that will appeal more to the modern than traditional incense fan.

Sennichiko, however, is definitely more in the traditional vein and strikes me as, perhaps, a slightly more inexpensive version of Keigado’s Full Moon, the amber scents are not quite as strong in this version, although it’s strong enough that this doesn’t just come off like another low end green sandalwood. But like most of those, it has a mild perfume oil on top that’s hard to describe, except that it seems to have a touch of patchouli or cinnamon in the mix. And certainly at $3 a roll, it’s kind of a steal.

Moving over to Seikado is another entry in the company’s Hitori-Shizuka line, the Fancy Floral. That’s not particularly the kind of description that really appeals to my sensibilities so much and my opinion wasn’t far off the same one I had for the Floral Elegant in the same line. Like many an NK floral (or even Daihatsu or Kunjudo), it’s part of the modern trend of perfumed incense sticks, and like a couple I’ll talk about later in the Shorindo Koibana line or the NK Free Pure Spirit line, I get watermelon more than I do floral, sort of a gentle and subtle feminine perfume that isn’t likely to do more than lightly perfume an area. Like the whole line, the base is sandalwood but in this incense more than the others it’s perhaps the most sublimated.

Seikado’s Kyoyama Bokusho is also modern, but in this case they’ve put together a distinctive and special incense not quite like any other, although again I’m fairly put off by the sheer number of sticks (180+) in the box more than I am by the price; that’s probably way more incense than I can crunch at this point. Anyway this incense is unique in that it largely exudes the aroma of Sumi ink. Not having any conscious memory of Sumi ink specifically, I can say that it does remind me of the better examples of calligraphic ink I can remember and married to camphor it makes for a distinct almost oceanic incense, very water elemental. It’s smokeless, so never gets too potent, a bit spicy and overall this one just about anyone will need a sample of first to check out as it has virtually no comparison at least among imports.

Finally, another oldie from the Kunmeido stable, the Hosen is one I feel amiss at not having discovered earlier as although it’s a distinct modern floral, it’s really no less brilliant than most of the line’s traditionals and one of the best multi-floral air freshener type incenses I can think of. While it’s definitely a bouquet scent, I’d say the violet’s out front on this one but what’s great about it from my perspective is it’s almost as spicy as it is floral and the complexity the combined styles exude make for a fascinating burn. Some similar incenses might be Baieido’s Kokonoe Floral and Izumi and less so Shorindo’s Chabana Green Tea, all mentioned mostly due to their similarities as freshener types. A 200 stick box, again, could be stretching it for me, but in this case I might be on the purchase side of the fence as I can see this mixing into a day perfectly.

Up over the next few weeks new incense from Shorindo (including the excellent Wayko), a handful from the new Ancient Forest line, scents from Scents of Japan, Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsudo, Tahodo and I believe Ross will have some words on a few new Daihatsus.