Gokula Incense / Marigold & Juhi, Musk & Amber, Musk & Champa, Musk Heena, Musk & Patchouli, Pink Rose

Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla
Flora Fluxo, Floral Bouquet, Gold Sandal, Jasmine & Lotus, Jasmine & Nag Champa, Lotus & Kewra

This is the third of four in a series of Gokula Incense reviews, please see the first installment for an introduction to the company.

In the latest installment I wrote about three very good floral incenses, some of which used marigold and/or juhi in the aromas. However the Marigold & Juhi as an incense on its own is probably the first Gokula incense I’ve come across I found actively unpleasant. Floral charcoals often have pitfalls of having bitter, sour or other off notes and this one seems to have the middle quality. The lemon or citrus qualities (described on the site as citric floral) are a too loud and while the charcoal often isn’t too bad in Gokula incenses, it’s unwelcome in this sort of combination. Perhaps this is just my own feelings about citrus floral mixes and I admit I don’t usually like them so if you do you might like this one better.

Then we go from maybe the worst to probably the best incense in the catalog that I’ve tried, Musk & Amber. In the last year I’ve sampled a number of great Vedic Vaani musks and this one is akin to those that lean more in the animalic direction rather than the sweet. Amber always seems to pair really well with musk and there is a thickness to this scent that a lot of the catalog doesn’t have as much. There’s something about amber that brings out some balsamic qualities in the middle that really compliment the musk so it’s almost a perfect merger. The site also describes this as having frankincense, hina and sandalwood in the mix and while I wouldn’t expect any of these notes to be loud they certainly help with the complexity. I know this is one I would bulk up on with a repeat visit, it’s just extraordinary so I’d certainly recommend adding this to an order.

The Musk & Champa incense is a scent that I’ve gotten really familiar with through the Vedic Vaani catalog. VV have a gigantic host of sticks that are dark brown colored and usually have some level of halmaddi in the mix. They’re a faint cousin to some of the darker flora/fluxos but in something like 8 out of 10 cases the top note is something that doesn’t quite come together with the rest of the stick. This note often kind of reminds me of crayon or an oil used in a candle. For sure whatever the musk here is very different to that used in Musk & Amber and is much moved over to the sweet side but I’d guess that element is either synthetic or created from a combination of elements. This probably includes the agarwood and saffron given as side notes. Where the champa is soft and powdery in the florals I described last review, everything in this incense blots out those gentle elements. Don’t get me wrong, this is likely to be something ORS readers will like, but I will admit these sort of incenses are heavily fatiguing me. But I have tried a couple that got the balance right outside of Gokula, although I will have to discuss those another day.

One of my new favorite aromas of late is heena (also hina), the leaves from the tree that impart a lovely green note very different from western trees. Like amber, and sometimes included with amber, heena imparts a really different characteristic to incenses that tends to make the aroma a bit more complex, because being fairly unique it tends to broaden any profile its put in. While I’d love to see what Gokula imports could do for a Musk, Amber and Heena incense, the Musk Heena here is still a really lovely scent with the heena sorta of tempering the animalic qualities of the musk. It keeps a sort of bitter but somewhat evergreen meets herbal freshness to the scene that a lot of these other musk incenses don’t quite have as much. So this is a yummy goody as well, well worth checking out.

It’s strange that with some of the Gokula musk incenses being so powerful that the Musk & Patchouli would be such a mild incense and not really be strong in either ingredient. Perhaps some of this profile is because of the additionally listed ingredients of sandalwood, frankincense and neroli. It seems more like this was going for a champa-ish incense without really evoking musk or patchouli all that much. The incense is instead cooling, camphorous, powdery and has quite a bit of vanilla. So it’s a relatively mellow scent but seems to have a bit of resolution nonetheless. The incenses tilts largely over to a dusted charcoal but even some of these that are quite firm seem to have a bit of halmaddi in them. I wouldn’t really get this for the musk or patchouli, and nor would I recommend this as a starter incenses but there’s little wrong with it. It just doesn’t leap out and grab you and I would guess it doesn’t end up being particularly memorable.

Finally, we have the Pink Rose with a similarly colored masala. All roses these days are usually created from something else as it’s rarely been an affordable oil. This often results in incenses well off the aroma and some can be painful. Gokula have the right compromise which is basically something of a sweet floral hybrid, a very common take on a recipe (think Krishna Rose at Absolute Bliss for example). This is certainly a pleasant version of it and while it’s not really all that near rose, it’s likely to be well appreciated as long as you’re not overstocked in this area.


Gokula Incense / Agarwood & Musk, Agar Sandal, Aloeswood & Jasmine, Amber & Frankincense, Celestial Fruits, Chocolate & Vanilla

With the assistance of a reader, I made a 24-incense order of Gokula incense earlier in the year, basically all of the ones I was informed were not sourced by the Madhavadas family as these often overlap with other companies like Pure Incense. So these are divided into four reviews of six incenses each. My order arrived somewhere in the middle of several early orders to Vedic Vaani which largely eclipsed my entire incense year and while I went through all of the Gokulas, it felt like a good idea to sample and then let them rest a bit and come back to them with a fresh nose. With some exceptions in either direction, Gokula import a lot of decent scents and I might generally rate this half of the line as being on par with some of the Prabhuji’s Gifts incenses. All of these came in 20g packages although I do believe 250g bundles are also available. In my experience Gokula scents are either dusted charcoals almost entirely made from oil mixes or a step into masalas with occasional incenses being a bit softer to the touch.

So up front we’ll start with a trio of aloeswood/agarwood incenses. The Agar Sandal is definitely a masala and one way I can tell is that my package of it showed a number of places on sticks where parts of the masala had crumbled off (you can probably see in the photo) and even if the stick is relatively hard it definitely feels there is a noticeable amount of halmaddi in this. So in a way this is something like a cousin to Absolute Bliss’ King of Sandal in that it’s a bit of a “sandalwood champa” type. The agarwood doesn’t feel like it’s particularly woody or perhaps even the real thing, but whatever they are using does modify the aroma away from it just being sandalwood heavy on its own. I have noticed a lot of incenses like this in the Rare Essence or Prabhuji’s Gifts catalogs and this is basically on par with those, but perhaps not quite up to the resolution or balance of King of Sandal. There’s a feeling that at this level a lot of the aromatic functions of an incense tend to blur together to its detriment. But don’t get me wrong, this is still a pleasant burn, but unless you’re new to Indian incense it won’t be much of a surprise.

On the fresh Agarwood & Musk stick you really do get something of an idea of what the musk is supposed to be like here. And in the burn, it’s in there somewhere. But like the previous incense, there probably isn’t any actual agarwood in this, rather it feels like a mix of things meant to approximate it. So the overall aroma is almost like a collection of notes in between both of these things with the musk pulling the other elements over in its direction. It’s a reasonably pleasant scent overall but lacks a bit of distinctiveness, although I do like that this isn’t a sweet musk. For a charcoal it has some surprisingly masala-like characteristics and it reminds me a little of the Parrot Green Durbar that Shroff used to carry 10 or 15 years ago. The issue in the end is that the description isn’t quite what you get, but it for sure isn’t anything like what a Madhavadas incense would be with the same description. But it reminds me too much of what is missing from better incenses, which may not be an issue for everybody but it pushed it out from being a keeper.

I will admit that I am at a place in incense life where jasmine incenses are getting on my nerves, no matter how good they are, so I may not be the best judge of Aloeswood & Jasmine. Unlike the previous two incenses I don’t smell a lot of anything that might fall under the aloeswood category here but there does appear to be a reasonable jasmine perfume here in the sense that it’s that sort of weird mix of floral and peaches. This incense verges slightly in both bitter or astringent sort of areas which may be part and parcel of having jasmine in it because even some of the better Absolute Bliss, Temple of Incense or Vedic Vaani variations tend to still have these aspects (for example the deluxe “tube” Vedic Vaani Jasmine Sambac incense is one of the few premium tubes they do I don’t really like much). But it’s also possible some of this is where the “aloeswood” comes out. My opinion has often been that even in the best cases some of these florals either don’t work out or just as likely I’m not naturally fond of them. So definitely a YMMV sort of thing.

Amber & Frankincense is a recipe somewhat similar to Samadhi Sutra in the Happy Hari line. In Indian incenses, particularly those that are more akin to champas and have a little halmaddi, frankincense often sort of appears in a more peppery-spicy sort of form often with like a touch of licorice and these remind me a bit of frankincense champas and more of an old school recipe like Maharaj. It’s the green dipped tip that often identifies the formula as well. The amber, of course, gives it a bit of balsamic heft and an overall richness, so it’s a nice merging. This is really as good of a place to start with the formula as any, but if you’re familiar with a lot of Indian incense it’s likely you will know this one already.

With Celestial Fruits I’m largely out at the name. It’s the sort of incense that tends to inspire mini rants from me on why fruits are usually not a good idea in incense and this is even more so when it is a fruit salad sort of scent like this one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant but it’s definitely way too generic. The lightly dusted charcoal sticks gives it away and it’s essentially what I’d call a fruity floral in that I would guess the bouquet is probably a combination of elements all used to approximate fruitiness that is akin to something like one of those canned fruit cocktails by Dole or something. It’s soft, powdery, inoffensive and ultimately dull. And even though it’s supposedly in a sandalwood base I don’t sense much in the way of that.

Chocolate & Vanilla runs similar risks to the Celestial Fruits but incenses that cover coffee or chocolate are usually a bit more on point. However this is a bit softer of a masala which implies there’s a bit of halmaddi in the mix. I’ve tried a Vedic Vaani or two that had a similar profile to this and even though this doesn’t explicitly say so there’s a bit of coffee in this mix as well. The masala like elements of the stick do tend to help when it comes to moving this a bit farther away from a purely charcoal stick and for sure there are some elements of the burn that feel more traditional. But I would not go into this thinking you’re going to really get much in the way of an actual chocolate and/or vanilla scent. But it is kind of intriguing as a scent, there’s some level of woodiness (identified as sandalwood but more generic to my nose) along with something that roughly plays along the chocolate to vanillla to coconut axis. I actually enjoy a stick like this here and there but it’s the kind of scent I find fatiguing with overuse. It’s still quite a ways away from the kind of smell you get from baking or melting chocolate or so forth.

Holy Smoke / Bloom, Cardamom, Dammar, Free Spirit, Nag Champa

Holy Smoke is the name of a domestic incense creator that can be found on both Etsy and its own website. The company states, “All our ingredients are natural and directly from nature. We try to source the best ingredients to produce the finest products. Our incense sticks are hand-rolled using honey, gum resin, botanicals and pure essential oils. Each stick will burn for an hour or more.” This in particular got my attention because even some of the best Indian incenses (and Holy Smoke sticks are Indian-style for sure) out there can be completely charcoal based which has never really been one of my favorite bases for a scent. And one must admit Holy Smoke present their incenses in a very attractive way at their sales sites. So I was very interested in checking out some of their scents.

First of all I was a bit disappointed in that the incenses I received did not have the bright colors that the presentations on line hinted at. This is of course not a deal breaker for a scent, but it IS part of what had me scrambling for a purchase. The incenses do vary a bit in color but one must come to the impression that the lighting may be bringing out what you see a bit more than the reality and in fact if you look at my own pictures in this review, the flash is definitely helping some on that account. In my experience a lot of Indian sticks that use colors may not impart any scent variations through the colors themselves but there is often something psychological about using them and I once raided the Vedic Vaani catalog trying to find the brightly colored ones and this often led to some of their better incenses. So be sure to temper one’s expectations from the pictures.

So that lovely purple color on the Bloom picture at the Holy Smoke website I don’t really see at all in the actual incense, it turned out to be much redder. This is described as a mix of rose, musk and patchouli, but what you immediately notice is just the overall blast of scent coming from the stick, it’s literally drenched in perfume oils. In fact I did not mind at all letting these sit for a while hoping to temper the power of them a little and even in doing so they still strike me as strong and powerful, perhaps even too much. So it’s probably worth setting one’s expectations that a stick like this at an hour burn and this powerful is likely something you don’t want as close to your space. The other issue, which not all of the sticks have, is that the combination of the oils being used often reminds me of air freshener type scents rather than any of the specific ingredients. As we know getting a legitimate rose oil from an essential is virtually impossible at this price range, but the overall floral scent does seem to be largely drowning out whatever is being used as the musk and patchouli. You can certainly sense both in the mix at some level but the combination still adds up in a way that reminds me if your levels on your CD are too high.

The Cardamom is very different to the Bloom. It was actually nice to see this rarely represented spice in an incense and the overall levels turned down a bit. Cardamom is a fairly unique spice but tends to appear as drier in incense which matches a bit better with the honey and resin base. But it does appear that there is more in play than the just the spice (as well as the question of how much of the spice is the actual spice and how much is in the oil). I wondered a bit about some of the natural resin in the midst of it coming through as it seemed somewhat basic quality, perhaps a touch gravelly, but it wasn’t ultimately problematic with the top note. There is some level of a floral feel to this as well as if the base or additional ingredients contribute quite a bit to the overall aroma. It’s an interesting and fairly unique aroma overall, very different to the others I sampled from the catalog. But once again, the sheer strength of the overall stick feels like it gets a bit overwhelming during the burn, something that might be mitigated by burning half sticks.

Part of the issue with incenses whose essential oil mixes are this loud is they tend to resemble household products and that’s the main issue with Dammar, an incense with a resin whose lemon-like tendencies push the overall aroma into furniture polish territory. The thing is, where in the Cardamom I could detect some level of actual resin burning here, the lemon characteristics supposedly coming from this resin all seem to be on the oil level. The issue is that it feels a bit chemical on some level in the sense where fruitiness in an air freshener or cleaning product ends up being too cloying. This also runs into having a bit of a bitter edge to it. Unfortunately, it has probably been a while since I tried the actual resin to see how close it is but it seems like here there’s much more going on than just the resin. I don’t mean to doubt the creators claim that these are all natural but sometimes the mixes can still perhaps not work quite as well.

Free Spirit is a blend of Nag Champa, Lotus, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. One thing that originally struck me about this mix and the plain Nag Champa (below) is that it seems like the company may use a Satya-sourced Nag Champa oil or something very similar as it has an extremely familiar scent to it. The difference in base, then, is made more obvious by contrasting it with this oil which does make you notice the honey and resins a bit more. This is a bit of a drier mix but it still feels a bit crowded with florals and one starts to come to the conclusion that not unlike Madhavadas sourced incenses, the base of these tends to be aromatic enough to be part of every aroma in a way that makes them all somewhat similar. There’s a fruity sort of scent that seems common to all of these incenses that tends to mute all of the specific named notes. And so the mix ends up being quite a bit different from any one scent and in a largely generic sort of way.

Nag Champa on its own is a lot more familiar, and maybe here you can mostly sense what this base is all about as it’s easier to mentally isolate that one note. What it probably does the most is show what this sort of oil smells like outside of the usual halmaddi and sandalwood mix, that is, it’s quite a bit different without those notes and with what is the unique Holy Smoke honey and resin mix. But like the Cardamom, not having the extra oils is a bit more pleasant to my nose. But overall this doesn’t really smell all that much like a traditional Nag Champa so much as the use of that scent in this format.

Overall, with all of these incenses getting some idea of whether you like their base is going to be key where you fall with any of their aromas. But even if you like the base, the predominance of certain oil mixes is very likely to overwhelm if you are not careful. So I might recommend checking one of their samplers first, if available.

Dimension 5 / The Utopian Dream Collection / Division By Zero, Sandstorm, Yume No Supaisu, Borneo LTD, Cosmika Flamboya

I hope those of you who are looking for the experience of a stick incense created from ultra-fine quality materials have had the chance to check out Josh Matthews’ Dimension 5 line. Given that many of these types of incenses tend to be run in small batches with Comiccon-like windows for purchasing, it’s good to see one a bit more available. And not only can you contact Josh at dimension5incense@gmail.com for more information as well as purchasing information on these incenses, this latest batch is also up at Mermade Magickal Arts for purchase as well! We are really glad to see this wonderful series of incenses available at both sources.

The first of the five incenses in this collection, Division By Zero, is described as a Vietnamese agarwood, sandalwood and spice blend with some oil work. Usually with Japanese incenses (or in this case Japanese-styled incenses), we tend to check if they’re predominantly agarwood or sandalwood based. In this case it really is a blend of both woods with a rather equal amount of spices. The mix, which I’d guess must contain a bit of cinnamon and clove, or a similar mix, imparts an almost applesauce-spice like element to the entirely, one that seems an equal to the woods. The aloeswood and the sandalwood sort of blend together where the crystalline nature of the latter seems more topped with the regal elements of the former. One notes as with all of the Dimension 5 incenses that there seems an almost painstaking attention to getting the balance right which allows all of the elements to shine in their own right. In this case it feels like the aloeswood is being used more for the top aspects than for any middle or base. The surprise is that it feels somewhat resinous, although that isn’t listed in the ingredients, but it’s a quality a lot of fine wood tends to impart on its own. In reviewing this on two occasions it was the first stick I burned in the morning and it seemed quite fit for that time of the day.

Sandstorm is Dimension 5’s most sandalwood-fronted incense, although it includes quite a bit of Indian and New Guinea aloeswood in it as well; however, the presence of sandalwood oil in the mix tends to mean the aloeswood is included to contour what is indeed a storm of sand(alwood). I tried an early version of this before this current refinement and was immediately amazed by it. I tend to prefer good Indian sandalwoods by a long margin usually because Japanese incenses seem to mostly center on certain qualities in the wood that have long been diminishing in quality due to shortages. Sandstorm does a better job of dialing the volume up on the overall scent a bit without losing those more heartwood like qualities. As a comparison, while I was reviewing this stick I also had the Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood blend out so decided to burn a stick of it to compare it. As a comparison, Sandstorm does appear to use quite a bit more aloeswood, as the edges of the scent tend to have agarwood qualities that are a bit deeper than what you’d usually find in a sandalwood-based stick. But these notes also maintain a bit more of that central sandalwood note in Sandstorm that the Kotonoha stick basically just hints at. Sandstorm adds what are some neatly complex aspects to what is a surprisingly involved blend for this type of wood. It’s a sandalwood to contemplate and even so just a bit more than that.

Yume No Supaisu is described as “A dry, woods, resins and spices incense with musk, kaiko, and others. An advanced incense connoisseur stick – the least immediate of the collection, tremendous depth, a highly complex incense for the blackbelt afficionado to learn over time. Old school Japanese with whispers of Tibet.” It has a very large list of ingredients: red soil Vietnamese agarwood, New Guinea agarwood, Indonesian agarwood, Tongan and Mysore sandalwood, spices, resins, musk, operculum of sea snail, and others. So where to start reviewing such an elaborate stick? There are really a ton of varying notes that come off this one. In front it feels almost like some sort of tangy fruit or plum, but this front really gives way to a mix of sandalwood and agarwood qualities that are quite startling. With so many different kinds in use, you are treated to a fairly wide range of aspects, but they all sort of hang together as one and that’s before the other elements outside of the woods pop out to tickle your nose. Once again that feeling of the unity giving way to a multiplex of sensations and then back again really arrests your attention. Truly a beautiful aroma and almost hard to believe it was possible to take this big a step up from the first two classics, but I’d dare say this is Josh’s masterpiece to date. There are depths in this one that you don’t reach except at the higher levels of Japanese woods. And the “whispers of Tibet” seem very real on this as well, there’s a note that pops up that feels a bit more swankily herbal than you would normally find in a Japanese stick. It’s a touch on this one I really enjoy.

Josh provides a longer and detailed explanation for his Borneo LTD blend, which gives a window on a creator’s thinking about how they go about crafting their incenses. Josh uses a number of different types of aloeswoods for his blends, but this one focuses on a particular island’s resinous woods. This is somewhat edited but you can request the full explanations directly from Josh if you want to read more: “My apex Borneo island wood blend, featuring 4 different types of top-shelf Borneo agarwood and 2 primo Borneo island Ensar ouds, blended with resins and spices. If you’ve had very high quality Borneo agarwood on an electric heater then you’re familiar with those lovely “green mint honey” types notes and the deep woodiness … I spent a great deal of time balancing the ratios of the different Borneo agarwoods and Borneo ouds, and also balancing those elements with the resins and spices blend – the goal was to highlight those gloriously green, woody, somewhat austere type notes of Borneo agarwood while eliminating the acrid, harsh type notes that can so easily arise from such wood. Is there a sweetness in there? Maybe, but, more this is focused on the pleasure of bitterness. May have a learning curve..”

This was actually the one I dipped in first as I am fascinated by this type of wood and the surprising variation of regionally sourced aloeswoods. To say the least if Josh’s goal was to highlight the honeyed tones this is a pitch perfect job with that element directly in front and center. That mix of sweet and bitter is really the prime experience with all of the different woods and ouds mixing in for a rather unique, powerful, and yet very friendly aloeswood experience. In fact there’s not really a lot more to describe than what Josh does himself except to say this one is an extraordinary success. The thing about a lot of these really rich and powerful sticks with high quality materials is that they often tend to be so multiplex that their uniqueness isn’t always as obvious from initial burns, but I think like most of the incenses in this collection you are really getting a lot of differences as well that highlight why these types of woods are so coveted. This is an absolute beauty for sure and if Yume No Supaisu was a masterpiece on a multi-ingredient level, this one is a masterpiece of aloeswood crafting.

And finally we have the long-awaited Dimension 5 high-ender, Cosmika Flamboya. Josh says “This one pulls out all the stops. By far the most elaborate oil work of any of my sticks. A decadent mélange of agarwood, sandalwood, spices, oils, oud, resins, musk, and others. Stack it against any kyara incense in terms of wow factor.” It includes Vietnamese agarwood, Malaysian agarwood, sandalwood, oud, musk, operculum of sea snail, resins and others. So you could literally write an essay on exactly what kyara is but rather than being explicit that there is kyara in here, I think you can definitely describe this as least as a kyara-like incense. It has the kind of notes you might find in some of the real kyara incenses such as the sadly depleted Kourindo Kourindkyarai where caramel-ish tones meet a much deeper wood scent with that almost definitely kyara blend sweetness in the mix as well as a touch of that sort of minty-menthol-green note you find more in the less blended kyaras. But much of this plays on top of those deeper turpentine-like notes you only tend to find in the more expensive aloeswoods. A lot of these aspects seem matched with the other notes in order to bring out the woodiness, but there’s a rather dank musk note floating on top and some level of acridity that may come from the operculum. It’s all quite fascinating and gives you this feeling there’s so much more to learn from it once the stick has been used up.

There is a feeling with the Dimension 5 line, particularly due to the shortness of the sticks that is kind of Boggle-like in that you have something like a set time to name all the incense notes before the stick depletes. You are reminded that the premium ingredients are premium for a reason but one thing I really like about these is Josh seems to craft these to maximize the notes and really get them out there in a clear presentation. These are very much incenses to give your entire attention to, they are not at all made to light and be peripheral, there is simply too much goodness to these to waste them like that. Even in reviewing I had to almost block out the time to make sure I had a nose on the stick through the entire burn. And these are simply the best Dimension 5 work to date, some of the deepest and most extraordinary mixes that you would almost expect to see in the upper stratospheres of premium Japanese incenses. So if you’re for mining for depth I can not recommend these highly enough. PS: if you have an Instagram account you can also access some short videos where Josh talks about these incenses.

Tibetan Medicine Company of Traditional Tibet College (Tibetan Medical College) / Holy Land, Holy Land Grade 2

The Tibetan Medical College and the Holy Land incense are some of the first Tibetans I tried that were actually from Tibet. Up until this point, the “Tibetan” incense I bought at places like Whole Foods or similar were not from Tibet, but from the Tibetans who fled Tibet during the illegal Chinese Annexation (which happened around the same time as the illegal annexation of Hawaii, which I always found amusing when I saw well-meaning white people with their “Free Tibet” bumper stickers not realizing Hawaii is the same thing, a kingdom where a bigger power deposed the leader and annexed the nation. But enough about the politics of that region, just putting a bit out there for people who still hold a candle for “Free Tibet” can actually bring that sentiment home since we have our own annexed and exploited kingdom.)

As my first foray into real Tibetans, around seven years ago, the only place to get them was Essence of the Ages (now out of business), where reviews from ORS were posted gushing about how awesome these are.

Well, as someone who has kept this in stock constantly and moved from Essence of the Ages to Incense-Traditions back in 2015, I have tracked the quality of this and Tibetan Medical College seems to be fairly stable. I have heard from other reviews of these that people complain about changes to the recipe, but I haven’t actually sensed this. I still had a couple sticks from a 2015 Holy Land purchase that I could compare these to, and other than the older stick being a little softer and muted due to age (and little specks of white that I imagine are mold), it is the same incense.

Starting with Holy Land, this comes in a small little yellow and green box covered in Tibetan script with only the contact information in Roman characters. This is where it started for me, these bamboo-free reddish-brown sticks are thinner than average for Tibetans, and when lit, produce a wonderful medicinal funk. I have heard “barnyard” used to describe the salty, musky scent coming off it but this is not an average barnyard because, to me, the smell of animal waste isn’t a part of this scent. As someone who has spent plenty of time in a “barnyard” setting, I do not detect any of those scents. I think the “barnyard” term comes from people who have never been to a farm because what I get here is more of an animal musk muted and diluted down to “a comfortable animal smell” sort of like how your cat’s bed smells after a few weeks of the cat laying in it, or a dog house after a dog has been in it for a day. With all the talk of animal lets not forget there are some great herbs and woods in here that balance out the musk and turn it into this bewitching scent, of which it is hard to pick out the individual smells because my guess is one of the steps in making this is to macerate the ingredients for a year or two so they all blend.

Additionally, I think that Holy Land has always been very “present” for me, in that whenever I put this scent on in my office, it’s easier for me to stay present and in the moment as if the very scent grounds me into the present. For the 6-7 years I have been burning this, this has been one of my favorites, as long as I keep it in stock it is in high rotation and tends to get busted out in the mornings and evenings as it has that type of ‘framing the day’ vibe to it.

Holy Land Grade 2 is a big surprise. First, I generally tend to think that if something is listed as ‘2’ it is not as good as ‘1’, but in this case, we are given a much longer, thicker stick. These longer sticks are actually muskier and stronger and basically smell like the same recipe just with more intensity because the stick is thicker and longer.

Doing a close side by side, I feel like my initial take on Holy Land 2 was simplistic, there are some differences and if I had to guess, this is made for temple burning for a specific ritual that takes the time it takes for this to burn because it does seem like this tries to fill a lot more space with smell than the grade 1 and the length seems quite specific. I feel like this has a bit more of a salty presence that might mean that there is more sandalwood or similar ingredients, but otherwise, this is really like an extended remix of Holy Land grade 1.

Pure Incense / Connoisseur Blue Lotus & Musk, Connoisseur Musk De Luxe, Vintage Catuhsama Oud Musk, Connoisseur Opium Intense

In this second, recent, installment of Pure Incense reviews, I’ve sorted this group essentially into the musk category, even if the Oud Musk is probably more of an oud with musk touches and the Opium may or may not have it at all, but the latter does seem to have some real similarities to the Musk De Luxe stick both in color and perhaps more partially in scent. Second, two of these incenses, the first and last listed, were part of the samples a kind reader sent to me some months to check out (the third sample is currently out of stock, so I did not get to grab that one but certainly would have) so this is a group I like a lot. In many ways when you’re really looking into ouds and sandalwoods and so forth it can be a breath of fresh air to move to incenses that tend to differ from more or less any other creator’s output and are great without needing any woods to complete things.

The Connoisseur Blue Lotus and Musk, unsurprisingly, is essentially just a slight variation on the Connoisseur Blue Lotus. As most Pure Incense appreciators know the Blue Lotus is certainly one of the line’s most original and dependable aromas and it ranges across the entire Pure Incense spectrum, although for my nose, I prefer to have the quality of the perfume cranked up as much as possible, as it is on this stick. Lotus oils vary so much in incense that it can be fairly difficult to really describe what a lotus scent actually smells like other than the flower itself, but in the Pure Incense Blue Lotus incenses, it has always been something of a powdery, gentle and distinct floral scent that is so unlike any other lotus incense that it’s an essential stop for increasing the variety of your scent collection. It is, for example, completely different than the lotus incenses in the Absolute Bliss/Happy Hari/Temple of Incense range, and as far as I know I can’t think of any other line producing the quality of either manufacturer that’s still in business. The musk added here seems to be very slight in comparison to the main Blue Lotus incense, it’s certainly tangible and perhaps moves this into a different kind of sweet territory but it doesn’t have the power that the musk does in the De Luxe below. But for my nose after retrying the regular Connoisseur Blue Lotus recently, it feels like this is of slightly higher quality overall and it reminds me more of the first time I tried and reviewed it than the most recent box I tried. And yes here, the vanilla of the base I think really compliments the perfume. It’s a really friendly and wonderful incense.

The Connoisseur Musk De Luxe is also the type of aroma I think is relatively uncommon and could be quite novel to readers’ noses. In a lot of ways it’s a similar issue to lotus perfumes, musks can vary a lot and of course they can also be sourced from animal or plant sources. Often when it is not expressly stated that it’s a plant-sourced musk, it’s because it isn’t, but in this case if you pop on over to the Pure Incense Nepal Musk page, you will see the language affirming that Pure Incense musks are plant based. Anyway this brick red color stick is kind of a sour-sweet marvel that is really an aroma of its own. The vanilla feels a bit more dialed back here compared to many Pure Incense sticks, which I feel was a good move (or maybe the musk obscures it) and the musk has a very pretty center note that really sells it. I like its tanginess, the almost definitive sweet note and just the overall power of the stick. In fact this is often the case in the Pure Incenses that have the perfumes dialed up. It is not at all the kind of refined musk scent you’d see in, say, a Kourindo incense which would have the sweet center note up more in front.

The Vintage Catuhsama Oud Musk is described as “two parts of musk, four parts of sandalwood, three parts of aguru or saffron and one part of camphor, when mixed together, form catuḥsama.” I would still probably class this closer to the ouds in the previous installment however this has a much mellower wood sort of scent which I would assume is due to the dialed up presence of the sandalwood. The vanilla in the base is also pretty noticeable here, partially because it tends to come out a bit more when there’s more sandalwood oil in the mix. For an oud scent this is probably closest to the Egyptian Oud from the previous installment in that it has a healthy bit of spice to it as well, not to mention there are no really overtly strong agarwood notes in this (although definitely enough to recognize its oudness). It feels a bit more of a balance of a number of aspects than any one thing. I remember some musk sandalwood masalas from the past that were kind of roughly in this area, so if you remember those, think of what that would be like with a spike of oud in the middle somewhere and you’d be fairly close.

Finally, the other sample that I received prior to this order, the Connoisseur Opium Intense. In my experience Opium in an incense tends to be more related to the perfume with that name than the poppies or the smell of opium itself. However here the scent comes from opium essential oils which “have been used to create a masterful wondrous scent that is like a rich sultry Ambery oriental woody fragrance with dark exotic notes.” I like that description, can definitely get the amber out of it and overall I just like how this is another great scent that doesn’t really smell like any other, and for sure it’s better than any opium perfume on charcoal stick I have seen offered. But naturally I can’t really side by side this with the real thing nor do I have any valid memory or what that might be like, and if I did I’d still wager this is probably a lot prettier. And you really gotta love the end of the description: “Lose yourself in dreams of other realms far away from the concrete and iron civilisation all around us….to a place with a variety of trees and bushes and flowers and birds and bees and swans and parrots and all manner of colourful flowers and scent and birds and creatures!” Wheeeee!

Kourindo / Byakudankourin Sandalwood, Zenkourin Aloeswood, Senkourin Aloeswood, Tsukasakourin Aloeswood, Takarakourin Aloeswood

With the gloriously decadent half of the recently imported Kourindo line behind us, it’s time to take a look at the five you could buy all at once without coming quite up to the price of a box of Saikourin Aloeswood. All of these are essentially low to midlines incenses. It is perhaps not surprising that Kourindo do a fine job on this end as well. You really get the impression with the aloeswoods that they’re all increasing grades of a sort with modifications to bring out the best in them. But like with that group, this one starts with something a little different.

Anyway I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the Byakudankourin Sandalwood page at Japan Incense seems to list musk as the main ingredient (in fact every single incense in this review does). I’d wonder if it’s a mix up since it’s also a green box like the Jyakourin Musk is, but in lighting it you are not really getting a pure sandalwood scent here so much as a bit of a high end daily if there is such a thing. Seeing the musk actually reminded me of Tennendo’s Shingon which it does resemble (well not really in price so much), so describing this as a sandalwood/musk isn’t really far off the truth. It’s interesting as well because I seemed to notice the sandalwood a lot more from the sampler where maybe not having it in proximity with other sticks made it easier for the top oils to dissipate and let the woods bleed through. Here there’s no question that this is more than just a wood stick and something a bit more artfully perfumed, which is strange when most of the aloeswoods don’t leave you with that impression. Anyway it still has the Kourindo magic overall, almost like there’s some sort of toffee-like sweetness to it, maybe some trace spikenard or a touch of floral in the mix. I would not approach this as something to scratch a sandalwood itch however. When I bought this I had also gotten a nice box of the Kida Jinseido Kinbouku India Sandalwood in which mostly demonstrated how far apart the two scents are. It’s also interesting considering that this is priced at $20 which is a little farther up the cost chain than many a line’s basic daily. You might have to see for yourself if it justifies that cost, but I will say this definitely seems to have some level of premium ingredient that sets it apart, even from the Shingon. And finally it’s worth paying attention to this level of caramel-ish sweetness as it’s a theme taken up most of the ladder.

Zenkourin Aloeswood is the first of a very long aloeswood ladder. You would first want to look at this incense as being more of a blend with a little aloeswood mixed in. It doesn’t have the heavy contours of the higher end woods discussed in my previous review, but what it does have is a lot of the same fine crafting in it. It’s sweet, has the sort of candy-caramel like profile so many of the sticks have, quite a bit of nice sandalwood in the mix, and, in fact, one might consider this a slightly aloeswood-laced version of the previous sandalwood. I am actually struck by just how gorgeous of a stick this is and how it’s almost worth completely ignoring that it’s part of a ladder and just enjoying it for what it is. It takes a bit for the aloeswood to come out, it kind of plays in a spicy sort of way at the edges. Honestly this could be one of my absolute favorites when it comes to a more low end aloeswood because it’s just a very pretty incense with so much going on that if I had tried it not knowing it was part of this ladder, I would have been deeply impressed at the way this sort of fills a void you didn’t even know existed. It’s really elegant and restrained, has a slight sense of perfume or floral that moves it away from the sort of heavily woody area you’d usually expect and moves a bit of fine spiciness around, a bit like cinnamon toast. I’m sure this is one I can easily recommend as a hall of famer for its price range. I would only add that it could be an incense to test your psionics skill to see if you can break them just by thinking about it; I was kind of shocked how fragile these were given the thickness.

The wood comes out to play more in the very similarly named Senkourin Aloeswood, taking the place of some of the sweeter ingredients and giving the incense a much woodier background. It doesn’t, of course, have the level up aloeswood of the later grades, but it still manages to retain that pleasant caramel scent most of the line exhibits in some way. Like the Zenkourin this has a pretty broad spice palette, I’d guess a lot of cinnamon and clove as well, which isn’t a huge surprise and a touch of something like citrus in there too. Do you need both this and the Zenkourin? Well they’re different enough, but at $4 apart this might be one you’d want to start with and decide later if you need both. On the other hand, the one without as much of the woodiness might be more interesting sheerly from the fact that what make up the rest of it gives it a slight sense of uniqueness in the overall scheme of mid to low end aloeswoods. But don’t take that to mean the Senkourin is better or worse, just kind of a different take. You would notice in the three kanji characters that only the one at the top is different so there may well be some intentional thematic similarity here (and to be fair the one on the bottom is the same for most of line). But within that similarity there are some interesting variations indeed and even at this end of the Kourindo stable there is a lot to study.

Tsukusakourin Aloeswood is one of the few in the line that seem to sidestep the caramel/sweet note and go for something a lot more intensely dry. So in this case if you have been skipping some of the line that might be more similar, this is unlikely to be one of them. This moves a little bit more into woodier areas while not quite getting too resinous and there’s only an appropriate touch of aloeswood bitterness to go with the dry qualities. There’s still some level of cinnamon spice that’s in play for all the low-end Kourindos, and if there’s any sweetness left it’s the mix with that. It does have a bit of a tang to it as well, but it’s fairly well restrained overall. Once again what you note if you’re looking at all of the incenses is the way every incense shifts up a bit in wood quality and then what Kourindo does to balance that out and supplement the wood’s aromatics. It’s very much a variation on a theme and in that sense there feels like some aloeswood similarities with the Senkourin, but with the notch dialed up just a bit. The thing I notice that seems to set it apart is the contour of the way the wood burns, it’s a little on the polished side with a mite of acridity. Very cool stuff.

And finally, well for this write up, Takarakourin Aloeswood takes a similar level of wood as Tsukusakourin and pivots back to a similar profile to the Senkourin. For me this is the first major step up of the entire line, a really gorgeous, well-round incense that balances a lot of the aspects of the entire Kourindo line, the caramel sweetness, the nice aloeswood, the cinnamon toast, and perhaps here you can start to get a bit of the musk that will be turned up a lot more in the Jyakourin Musk, the next incense in the series. Wondering which one you might want to start with outside of the one stick sampler? Well if you want one incense that really encapsulates the whole Kourindo line and balances it like a fulcrum, this one might very well be it. Obviously the Jyakourin is somewhat sui generis, the kyara a price issue, and there’s only one sandalwood, but Takarakourin may do a bit of everything outside of the kyara. There’s even a bit of a brown sugar that shows up from the mix of elements and I believe it’s the first of several in this line where it feels like the woods kind of hide regally beneath a curtain before slowly revealing their presence. Nearly all of the Kourindos are complex in some way but this one might be complex AND have a lot of different notes to suss out.

So anyway if you’re reading this first then you can hop over to the second half now. I just want to reiiterate that if you’re an aloeswood lover and a fan of woody or spicy incenses, this is the line for you. They are quality from A to Z and if there’s really any criticism at all to be given it’s that the incenses are somewhat similar and maybe more so until you really dig into them and get some listening done. Since the KorindaiKyara is essentially an issue of budget (and if you have it, it’s one of the very best kyaras out there – the wood is legit), then I might start with Zenkourin if you can afford a box in the 20s, Takarakourin if you want something right in the middle, Jyakourin Musk for an incense very different than not only the line but much of what is available, and either the Kodaijourin or Jinkourin depending on your budget as a representation of the highend, The KorindaiKyara aside, I think the quality increases for the next two down probably do not justify the bigger leaps in expense, but they are still extraordinary if you can afford them. The worst incenses here are still very good and close to half of them are extraordinary to classic, so don’t miss.

Kourindo / Jyakourin Musk, Kodaikourin Aloeswood, Jinkourin Aloeswood, Ichiikourin Aloeswood, Saikourin Aloeswood + KorindaiKyara (notes)

It is a truly wonderful thing to see that Japan incense is now carrying the greater Kourindo line. There is perhaps no greater pleasure then to see a new, traditional Japanese line available in the US and it really can never be said enough of the efforts of Kotaro and Jay in increasing the visibility and availability of Japanese incense here. And not only does this mean there are 11 new Kourindo incenses to choose from but Japan Incense has gone one step further and provided this handy sampler as a starter kit. It’s where I started and I’m sure many readers here will do the same. But it should be said that there’s really not a bad incense in this bunch, they are all magnificent scents across the broad price range. Today I am essentially going to tackle the priciest 6 of the 11 (I hope to do the other 5 some time in October or so). I will have boxes of all but the high end kyara incense, but for that one I will be going off the one stick in the sampler and just providing some (surprisingly longwinded) initial impressions. For the rest of these I’ve tried to break into the box a little and spend some time with them first. Please note that one feature of the Kourindo line is that these sticks are just a little bit thicker than the usual Japanese stick and so it might be worth considering that in the stick to dollar ratio if you’re adding things up that way.

In most high end ranges you will be used to seeing aloeswood incenses, but I think rarely do you see one that advertises the musk first. Don’t get me wrong, Jyakourin Musk is definitely still an aloeswood, but its green color and highly noticeable musk hit are the big attractions here. In fact if you really want a stick that gives you a very obvious and profound taste of what musk actually smells like you can really do no better than checking this one out, it is not only a beautiful stick but it will be educational in pointing it out in other incenses. For example, think of Shunkohdo Ranjatai or Kykuyodo Musashino as two incenses with a noticeable presence of its sweetness. The greenness of the overall scent is also somewhat reminiscent of the green incenses in the Kunmeido line as well, although I would imagine the musk content in those is much smaller. I can not confirm whether this is animal or vegetal musk, but I suspect the former or at least a mix of both. But overall what you’re getting here is the musk up front, sweet and present, on top of what is a complimentary aloeswood base. And it is the mix of these things that makes this the great incense that it is. In fact I am so used to traditional aloeswoods at this point that this was the immediate standout in the line. It’s just a stone classic, with the musk and aloeswood mix giving the profile a great deal of complexity and warmth. It’s quite frankly a masterpiece and even though we’re about to move up the price scale, I think Jyakourin sits right next to anything in the line.

Kodaikourin Aloeswood is then already the sixth aloeswood in the series going from the most expensive up the chain and if you count the Jyakourin. It’s only a touch more expensive than the Jyakourin overall. I’ve most recently taken a few shots at incenses in this price range in terms of their aloeswood content, but rest assured the profile is wild and excellent on this one, in fact I might even argue that it’s actually fairly superb at this price range, with the kind of balanced bitter and resinous notes you tend to find in something like the Shunkohdo Ranjatai or Kida Jinseido Ikuhohkoh. Which actually makes sense as with both of these where you might be paying 1 1/2 to twice the price you’re also getting about the same hike in the number of sticks. But the similarities are fairly apparent because there’s some level of sweetness in Kodaikourin that provides something of a caramel note and there may be a bit of musk in there as well although certainly not at the level of the Jyakourin. But overall what you’re experiencing here is a stick meant to balance a decent level of wood with a lot of friendlier notes. If you’re someone who doesn’t want any sweet with their woods, this might not be to your taste but if you don’t mind it while not shirking some excellent aloeswood notes, I think this is a superb stick. Overall it’s actually not unlike Shoyeido Muromachi or perhaps more of what it was like when the wood content used to be higher. But here the wood definitely cuts through and keeps it satisfying.

So, now, strip away some of that sweet, caramel decadence, not all of it, maybe more the density of it than the presence, but back to the point where it becomes something of an equal subnote with something new. Tone down the bitterness a bit as well, into something that is a bit more of a glossier wood front. Jinkourin Aloeswood is something of a different grade where the woods seem a bit more dialed up and the recipe to compliment the woods created to highlight a bit more of a drier affair. You can feel like there’s something like a very faint touch of floral playing around the edges of this one, perhaps something faint from a spice cabinet in a more masala-like fashion (is that coriander?). This is the sort of Japanese incense that tends to fall into the aristocratic or noble styles. What’s interesting is that the woods feel a lot more polished here and it almost gives the trick of making it feel like the aloeswood in the Kodaikourin is a bit richer. It really feels like more of a shift in order to highlight the real subtle tendencies of a higher grade wood instead, almost as if all the other materials act like a foil. As a result there’s less of wilder feel to it, but it manages to highlight the aloeswood in a fairly unique way and at times the spices really pack a punch. And then wow that resin hit, almost like it was hiding at first. It’s like the Kodaikourin is a fantastic incense, but this one’s more of a work of art and likely to pay back greater listening. You might get the Kodaikourin right away but this is more of an interesting puzzle and you almost have tease the notes out. But wow when you do, it’s hard to believe this is priced so low. I keep having a similar conversation with several incense aficionados over the relevant merits of kyara. But seriously if you can get a box of aloeswood incense like this for under $70 who really needs it? It is literally shocking how good this one is.

Kourindo have three more scents above the masterpiece that is Jinkourin, which is quite frankly hard to believe given the high level of goods still under $100 a roll. But there’s a jump into that territory with the Ichiikourin Aloeswood. I had burned several sticks of all of these before launching into my writing, but once you really sit and listen to these it’s almost like trying them again brand new, and I could barely wait to get into this one. It’s worth noting while all the previous three incenses had approximately 40 sticks to a box, once you jump to this one, it’s not just the price but the stick count appears to go down to approximately 30, if somewhat thicker sticks, based on the info at Japan Incense. However it seems to me my box went over a few and this may be true for many of these boxes. Anyway this incense, after the Jinkourin, seems like a very similar jump to the Kodaikourin to Jinkourin. This is an even less caramel (if still there on some level), and more woody incense and it feels at this point that a lot of the additives from the previous incenses are becoming thinner on the ground so you’re getting a lot more wood presence. Not to mention the floral and spice like notes in the previous incense aren’t really in this. Seems like this one might have mixed in a little high quality sandalwood as well. Like with the Jinkourin there’s some level of waiting to see where the latent deep aloeswood note will hit. It doesn’t feel quite as polished as the Jinkourin but the aloeswood strength is closer to eye-watering. But it feels a bit more straight forward than the Jinkourin. If there was no Jinkourin then I might not be so hesitant in my recommendation, since this is a wonderful aloeswood incense, but given the differences in price and stick count I’m not sure you’re getting that much of a leap forward from the Jinkourin. I’d just underline that the profile of this incense and the previous two aren’t super different, almost as if they work on a similar theme with the wood being the main difference. But overall starting with the Jinkourin still seems like the best bet on a number of levels.

Saikourin Aloeswood shakes up the line’s profile by moving to a square cut stick. There’s a much more noticeable difference with this incense compared to the previous two. It reminds me a little of the difference of the scent profiles between the old Baieido Ogurayama and Hakusui woods, where the former leans a bit to a sweeter wood and the latter to something spicier. So Saikourin off the bat is a much tangier and spicier aloeswood stick. If there was caramel throughout the previous three sticks it’s fairly well buried here. But conversely you don’t miss it at all because this has such a unique presence of its own. You don’t really have to hunt for the resin as its fairly well in front of the burn and the whole thing just sings of high level wild wood. In fact coming back around to what I’ve said about kyara, this level of high end spicy wood is generally just as satisfying to me. It’s powerful, brash and has all of the elements of a deep wood that you’d want. It has the multi-note complexity of all the best aloeswoods, plenty of space to sink into and muse over. It’s interesting as well if you compare this price to the kyaras in this range, two of the Yamadamatsu Firebirds or the Seikado Kyara Koh Hien. If you’re going for something without all the additional sweetness, you’d certainly have to go with the Saikourin.

Because if you want to go with the Kourindo kyara option, KorindaiKyara, you triple the price point and nearly quadruple it if you count a slightly lower stick count (my guess is a stick is something like half or more of the cost of the sampler). These logarithmic jumps in quality are something I’ve considered quite a bit in my incense journey. I think nearly anyone who explores kyara incense wants to know how much kyara is in them, whether it’s worth the price. There’s legitimate anxiety to be found in an environment where you don’t know if the expensive incense you just bought is going to be up to what you hear or read about. I can say this about the Kourindos up to this point and that all of them still have wild aloeswood profiles commensurate with what you would hope to expect at these price points, and quite a few of them even perform above these prices. But $600 for KorindaiKyara is a gigantic leap, it’s essentially something like Shoyeido or Seijudo level pricing. All the Minorien kyaras, the Kunmeidos, the Shunkohdos, etc all of these are cheaper incenses. So one would assume that there is some level of real kyara in this stick, that it’s not just the magnification of a good thing. I set my high level kyara bar somewhere near the chip provided in the Baieido Rikkoku set or the gold standard Baieido Kyara Kokoh. OK enough already, Mike, tell us.

It’s an impressive stick, the kyara is right up front and the difference between this stick and all the others in the range is immediately obvious. It feels like Kourindo have gone the route of not making this a sweeter kyara but a peppier or spicier one. But leave no doubt at all that there’s a high level of rare wood in this, that there isn’t perfume artistry making up for the materials and that’s largely why you’d be shelling out such a large cost. It is the kind of stick that demonstrates to no uncertainty why this wood is as prized as it. There is that intense note that only this fine wood can bring, something almost like a floral mixed evergreen note and while this doesn’t lean as heavy to the green note as the Baieido kyaras do (or used to), this does indeed have the complexity you want to see at this price range. It’s probably closest in range to something like the Yamadamatsu Shuju Kyara in style and while it approaches the Baieido Kyara Kokoh, it’s maybe not quite there. But to experience the wood mixed in with this different range of spices is kind of a treat in itself because it’s not duplicative of other kyara incenses. And what a great kyara always does, so annoyingly, like the most painful of siren calls, is to make you start looking at all of those dollars you saved in a bank. And like these incenses I’ve compared it to, because this incense is materials first it’s likely to last you a long time if you take it out on special occasions and not decay very quickly. And that makes it a lot more superior to the perfume-based kyaras. If I ever do get some sort of windfall that makes me grabby for a full box, I may circle around again because I really doubt the half to 2/3 of the sample stick I burned probably does it the justice it deserves for such an insanely complex incense, but hopefully I’ve given potential buyers some heads up to what they’d experience. Coming round to what I said at the beginning, you can always grab a sampler too. In the end, bravo Kourindo, you are among the finest houses in incense and these are all deep treasures, among the best in Japanese incense.

Kyukyodo / Mukusa no Takimono

Kyukyodo’s little Mukusa no Takimono set (I’m not sure if this is an exact translation but the set is basically “six kneaded incenses”) includes six different modern, short-stick scents and a holder and is clearly intended as a gift box. I would definitely pop over to this Kohgen page for more info. The downside to sets like these (think of many of the Shoyeido Genji gift sets) is that if you particularly like a scent then you have 5 sticks and counting and will need to buy the whole gift box over again. This is essentially a seasonal themed set although the total of 6 scents is tabulated by having two corresponding to winter and one that is all seasons. They are all color coded. I am not sure I have ever tried a Kyukodo modern, per se, so it was interesting to compare this to previous Shoyeido and Kousaido buys, which these sticks most closely resemble. But it should be kept in mind that all of these are probably as comparable to actual kneaded incense which you usually heat on charcoal of a mica plate. Also, the description of this set as modern sort of belies the fact that is really a high-end, deluxe agarwood selection and certainly recommended to fans of the wood as well as traditionals. The price of $48 a set actually seems fairly dead on for the quality on display here. It’s a work of art.

The first, all-season stick is black and is called Kurobou. My translation skills aren’t great and searches brought up some odd and concerning ideas for what it means. There’s a translation that corresponds with a form of Japanese sweet, although it does seem to take a bit to realize how sweet it is. In the end I’ll thank Stephen and some Reddit sub support for the translation here being “subtle scent.” It’s basically an aloeswood stick in the modern sense, and the ingredient list at the Kohgen page lists agarwood, clove, sandalwood, powdered operculum of a rock shell, white musk and kunriku powder (I’m not exactly sure what this latter element is as the Kohgen page is the first one up on a Google search). It reminds me a little of Kyukyodo’s Seigetsu, not only in that its a black stick but the sort of caramel tinge here is also really prevalent once it kicks in and it’s a little reminiscent of the way Shoyeido’s Horin Muromachi coils have that too. It’s probably my favorite stick in the box and while the wood doesn’t go too deep, it’s a genuinely pleasant little treat that balances a bit of heartiness against the delectability of it.

Baika is a plum blossom incense with a red color, and perhaps not surprisingly is the set’s spring incense. The ingredient list gives agarwood, sentou (the closest translation I found was something like “public bath”), powdered operculum of a rock shell, spikenard, sandalwood, clove and white musk. It is a much deeper incense that you might expect from, say, Shoyeido’s Baika-ju and seems to have a healthy amount of aloeswood and sandalwood in it, making it so whatever blossom scent from it is about even with the base. It’s the kind of incense that makes you wonder why there isn’t a bigger box of this available, as it reminds me a lot of the most recently reviewed Minorien Chrysanthemum. I kind of love this sort of floral and woods mix, it’s like the best of both worlds, and it’s something of a shame to need to lay out this money for about 10 inches of the scent. Like the Kurobou this is my kind of modern and it very much resembles your basic kneaded incense that is going for a Baika scent, although it’s a bit more perfumed than you might find in that sort of traditional format.

Kayou (lotus leaf) is a green stick for summer and the ingredients given are spikenard, agarwood, powdered operculum of a rock shell, sandalwood, turmeric and patchouli. It is fairly similar to the Baika except the turmeric and patchouli particulary turn it away from a much more obviously floral bent into something a bit more general. There’s still the same level of sandalwood and agarwood here and as one goes from incense to incense one can also feel how the operculum gives way a bit to the tendencies you tend to find in kneaded incenses, almost like a mix of salty and marine. Once again one is struck by just how deluxe the ingredients are here, at the same time you are searching for each incense’s specific scent, you tend to notice the similarities that underpin them all.

Kikka (chrysanthemum) is a yellow stick (for fall) containing agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, kunriku powder, white musk and spikenard. It’s a bit drier and less sweet compared to the recently referenced Minorien chrysanthemum, but it’s certainly roughly similar if a bit more deluxe. As previously mentioned, all of the incenses have an underlying kneaded-like base to them that creates as much of the aromatic profile as the top notes, so this still has a touch of marine saltiness in the very background. It’s a tremendously gorgeous and rich little treasure with quite a bit of depth to it. Like the Minorien the floral plays beautifully off of the woody notes.

The two winter incenses are last. There is Jijyu, a purple stick which apparently means “chamberlain.” The ingredient list here is agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, spikenard and turmeric. Kohgen also seems to mention something about sentou and musk, although it is phrased in a way that implies that they may have been in the recipe rather than this version of it. This is a very noble, woody, and not at all floral incense with something of a similarity to the Kurobou, although missing all of that incense’s sweetness. Once again the impact of the strong agarwood note is the most noticeable thing about it with the usual base notes secondary. One might describe this scent as heavily masculine, but it’s the kind of agarwood scent also described as aristocratic.

And finally the brown stick Ochiba (Fallen Leaves), which lists agarwood, clove, powdered operculum of a rock shell, kunriku powder, white musk and spikenard. Kohgen notes that “the amount and order of adding ingredients are quite same as in Kikka, but the quantity of agarwood or white musk has been increased.” It’s interesting to not see sandalwood in this list as the overall aroma seems to have a rather powerful level of it along with the rest of the wood powder. It doesn’t strike me as wintery in the same way the Jijyu does, but you can certainly get some level of the clove at work which does have the extra effect of adding a bit of a holiday vibe to it. It’s a lovely little stick, and don’t forget like all the others, this has a strong agarwood and operculum presence as well.

Anyway I should mention that when I went into reviewing this it was on my third stick in each box, but it almost felt like I didn’t really start to notice the power of the scents until I got started writing about it. This is a very special set. I have reviewed sets like the Shoyeido Genjis before where occasionally you might find one scent in a set with some agarwood in it, but you rarely find one like this where all six have this aroma in abundance. It’s a high end gift set utterly redolent in more of the high end ingredients you see in Japanese incense and well worth checking out.

Temple of Incense / Sufiaana, Arabian Attar, Banaras Sandal, Delhi Nights

Temple of Incense Part 5
Temple of Incense Part 7
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

I wanted to pause for a second and comment a bit on the overall Temple of Incense line and how it kind of relates to my understanding and I’ll thank Stephen here for some internal conversations on this very subject. I’ve talked quite a bit about how in the 90s masala recipes changes drastically in style, particularly the move away from halmaddi in incenses. The thing I probably didn’t notice as much is that some of these incenses moved into different masala styles, but there seems to have been a greater move towards charcoal bases, more than I probably expected. Charcoals often have dusting that tend to hide the color and some charcoals are actually hybrids with masalas themselves so it’s a little bit of a guessing game with what is what but you can usually tell by how firm the sticks are. So I feel to some extent the old language I was using has maybe not kept up so well with some of these changes. Part of it is that I think some of the charcoals or hybrids do a fairly good job now of mimicking incenses that were previously in a more masala or even champa/halmaddi style in the past. Bengal Beauty was one I was thinking of burning it last night, that it still attempts to go for what is overall a very sweet scent, because those lavender tipped sticks in the past actually did have halmaddi of a sort. But I wanted to mention all of this because 1) the Temple of Incense line actually seems to be largely charcoal or hybrid, but 2) their charcoals are usually so good that it’s easy to overlook that they are. So I’ll also add that the difference between what we cover here is that I try to avoid dipped charcoal sticks, and not as much charcoal sticks that are created differently or hybridized. After all even a Madhvadas line like Pure incense uses some charcoal in their sticks and it’s not uncommon in Japanese incenses either.

So Sufiaana for example, like Bengal Beauty, is a good example of a charcoal or hybrid with a lot of dusting and a very sweet aromatic profile, a scent that used to be fairly common in the halmaddi era. It is described as having a light sandalwood base, with musk and big floral top notes. This is another one of those incenses that reminds me vaguely of an incense that used to be in the Incense from India line (might have been something like musk sandalwood or some such). You can tell from the £14 price on the box that this incense lies more towards the top end of the range. Sufiaana has a lot of its own personality. The sandalwood and musk make up a great deal of the bouquet but the “big floral top notes” could also be just as easily described as fruity. It’s not even terribly different from some of the top floral oils we talked about in the El line in that you get such a mix of different floral perfumes that picking out or describing anything too specific isn’t really possible. But there’s no question Sufiaana is really beautiful and actually justifies the amount of movement in the profile, it really keeps you busy moving one’s attention from one note to another. And a lot of that is that the sandalwood/musk and floral elements have a great deal of interplay in the scent. It’s something of a classic Indian scent overall and well worth trying.

And also somewhat coincidentally, the Arabian Attar is probably a perfect example of an actual masala hybrid, I’m sure charcoal is part of the overall incense blend but the clear choice here wasn’t to just go in the same direction that, say, the Himalayan Spikenard went in. I’d classify this one as existing in the same sort of aromatic area as Perky Pandit and Fruits of the Forest, in fact all you’re really told is its a combination of “oriental perfume” and a fruity note. All of these fruitier blends share a sense of judicious mildness and this one actually seems to fall along the lines of say apple and pear as opposed to berries, tropical or citrus. It’s actually a little reminiscent of the old Juicy Fruit chewing gum in some ways, particularly in how it ends up seeming fairly generic as an aroma. I’m not sure what my expectations were with Arabian Attar but this isn’t how I generally think about them, which may speak more to my inexperience than anything else. But there’s certainly nothing really woody about this incense.

Banaras Sandalwood is the second of three sandalwoods to discuss. As I said with the Extreme, the Temple of Incense sandalwoods are very good indeed and thankfully the Banaras is in a more affordable price range than the Extreme, while not losing too much of what makes that such a great sandalwood. While the note in the Extreme that really makes it special is somewhat reduced here there’s still enough hints of it that make sure this doesn’t fall into more generic categories. Also, unlike the Extreme and the regular charcoal, this is dusted with enough wood that it imparts a bit of a different quality to it. Anyway I find this very enjoyable and certainly well worth checking out especially if the Extreme isn’t in your price range. This is the real deal, brash, in your face and super redolent with sandal oil. Oh and apparently there’s a bit of lemon in here too, something that is not an uncommon addition to a sandalwood as it compliments certain qualities.

Finally, with more of a mix of specific elements there is Delhi Nights. This one has notes of bergamot, citrus, amber and tonka bean, a combination that instantly reminds me of some of the Designs by Deekay blends. Strangely it even has something of what I might call a celery note, which may be due the combination with what smells like a healthy bit of wood as well. And circling around to where I started with this article, this is another example of a stick, one that may be a charcoal or hybrid, that has enough of the vanilla (somewhere between the tonka and amber I bet) and lightness to be redolent of champas in some way even if this is much too dry to have halmaddi anywhere near it. I really do like the resolution on this stick because it plays in ways that you don’t expect at all from the notes. For me the citrus elements are so dampened they barely show up like you’d expect. It’s a very fascinating incense indeed.

I’m pleased to say that I will be handing off the rest of the Temple of Incense series to Stephen starting with the next installment, so stay tuned as there is a lot more coming!

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