Happy New Year (including Gokula and notes on Mermade Magickal Arts)!

I just posted the last two articles for my Gokula series today as Gokula is running a 20% off sale through 1/8, so I figured if you hadn’t checked the line out yet now is a perfect time! There are some definite goodies in their gigantic line and there’s actually a whole back half I didn’t review that are Mahavadhas sourced, so if you come across any of those that are good, do let us know in one of the Gokula post threads! Anyway, this takes us nearly to the end of the reviews stored up from last year, there may be a couple more to trickle in. More on this in a sec…

As I’ve been taking it easy over the holidays, I haven’t had too much of a chance to review or evaluate anything, but I did want to mention a few more Mermade Magickal Arts goodies. These aren’t intense reviews as I basically love all Mermade incenses which definitely all deserve deeper dives, but Katlyn tends to always be really busy during the holiday season and releases quite a few new vintages and I wanted to get in my thoughts before they’re gone. It was really nice to see Baccy Claus again, it’s at least the second vintage but I would guess the batch I had previously was before we started ORS up again. This one seems an improvement, never a surprise with Katlyn’s work, almost as if the middle had been brought up to match that peppery herbal note that makes this a scent unique in her catalog (think a mix of tobacco and herbal with the greener evergreen notes cradling this top scent). This one even has some unique elements in the mix with a touch of Amanita and Sativa, I’ve had the pleasure of an incense or two in the long past where Kat will mix something like this in and the results are always special and a bit different from the normal catalog. So certainly this is one to add to your cart right away.

Also checked out was her latest vintage of the Classic Kyphi, as I have long stated on these pages the Mermade kyphis are always well worth checking out, although I have been really unable to plumb the depths of this one quite yet. It’s really impossible to evaluate something this complex after just a sitting, but this will certainly be out right next to the heater over the next month. Some of the most recent kyphis strike me almost like drier wines compared to the sweeter ones, if you need an overall take. Forest Honey seems like a new experimental merging of two of her lines (say Sweet Medicine and Wild Wood for example) and is quite a bit different from Kat’s usual green holiday mix and a welcome variation. As always you get that great balance that allows you to experience both sides of the scent. But once again, I still need to dig out the time to really sit with it. Similarly with the Jasmine Dreams. I spend a lot of time both reviewing and evaluating and largely getting really fatigued by jasmine incenses over the last year, so it was great to get back to one that really highlights how good it can be. Perhaps part of the reason is this has a lot of green frankincense and repeat customers generally know how high quality this frankincense can be from Mermade. But this has a real nice peach note (resin seems to help bring this out) that you can often get out of the better jasmines and it seems like a perfect match with the better frankincense. So overall and as usual, it’s impossible not to recommend all these new treats, not to mention that it looks like Mermade has several Esprit de la Nature goodies in as well which always go really fast. I haven’t tried any of these but they’re always great as well. I would bet Bonnie probably has more at her site!

So with that said while there are probably a few more reviews in the wing to go, we’re reaching the end of the current “season.” This year is unique particularly in that there’s also very little in the current queue to review as well. I think we’ve debating internally that there are things like Satya incenses that I’ve sort of had on the table, but with less time to really review things of late it can be difficult to force yourself to take a look at incenses better worth avoiding. There’s a Review Information link at the top left if you’d like us to review your incenses, just let us know. Happy New Year everyone!

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Kunjudo / Kan Ken Koh / Breath, Sleep

Early in 2021 about when I reopened ORS I covered an interesting new incense Japan Incense had gotten in stock called Kan Ken Koh/Healing. This was an interesting charcoal-based mix of oils packaged in these neat little glass test tubes. As it turns out this incense is part of a series from which Japan Incense has turned up two new ones, Sleep and Breath. With a bit more data one can only come to the conclusion that these are really essential oil mixes rather than what you usually see in traditional Japanese sticks, and almost feel like they could have been targeted at a more new age or even co-op sort of audience. As such, they’re quite different than what you’d normally expect.

Breath lists magnolia kobus, eucalyptus oil, artemesia princeps and borneol as ingredients, with the eucalyptus being the focus. You absolutely get that eucalyptus leaf oil scent from this burn, in fact it’s a bit tea-like in a way and I’d assume the artmesia (mugwort) probably helps get it there as well, moving the overall aroma in an herbaceous direction. The borneol content seems rather small in comparison, hanging just onto the edges and the magnolia seems to be used more to ground this in a friendlier direction rather than being a feature on its own. It’s a neat stick overall because of its herbal qualities and quite natural smelling, definitely recommended for those who enjoy eucalyptus. That tree’s sort of slightly bitter and unique scent has really been given justice by this stick.

Sleep lists cedarwood, chamomile, thyme and hops, something of a very unusual mix I would guess; however, the link between chamomile tea and a bit of drowsiness seems fairly common in US herbal tea culture as well. Overall Sleep isn’t terribly different than Breath but where Breath seemed to have some high resolution oils in the mix, Sleep seems a bit more dialed back, perhaps intentionally. Cedarwood would actually not be the kind of aroma I’d imagine would help me sleep and it’s fairly strong here, but the rest of the herbs seem like they’re pulling it all a bit more in the right direction and it feels like that thyme and hops mix gives the edge of the scent a bit of luster it might otherwise be missing. But of the two in the series this feels less individual and realized than the others in the sense that the other two aromas really pop out at you while this one feels a bit more blended.

Pure Incense / Bulgarian Rose Masterclass, Saffron & Rose Masterclass, Camphor Masterclass, Connoisseur Laos Agarwood

This (final for now) installment of the most recent Pure Incense 2021 reviews ends up as something of a miscellaneous section, but includes a couple rose incenses.

The first of these is the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass. One might consider this the most high end upgrade of the Connoisseur Rose, even if it is geography specific, as it still has a lot of similarities. This latter formula is one of the incenses that has maybe traveled the most in scent through the years. In many ways any Pure Incense Rose I’ve sampled is still the conglomerate aroma of the rose oil being used along with the vanilla, charcoal and sandalwood of the base, and it can be fairly difficult to comment on the rose perfume being used without being cognizant of how much this base shifts that. In this case the base provides something of a sweet note that certainly cuts in, but I don’t think it obscures the fine delicacy of the rose oil being used here, which has enough resolution to it that it actually starts to resemble the actual scent of roses and not an approximate pitch at a related floral. Before telecommuting I used to work across from the California State capitol park which has a very sizeable rose garden in it and when this thing is in bloom, walking through it is a veritable lesson on what a lot of roses smell like at once. I will say, first, that it’s something of a confirmation that roses may not be my most personal favorite scent even at its most natural so I’m not always the one to give the right take, but I would say the Bulgarian Rose Masterclass comes as close to any natural rose scent as I’ve seen on an incense and that is highly commendable. For one of the few times I’ve ever said this I actually wonder what this oil might smell like without the ever competing vanilla scent and on a more pure charcoal delivery system because it really seems like a fine absolute. But certainly if you love the scent, you will want to check this one out.

The rose is moved to a bit more of a back note with the Triple Saffron and Rose Masterclass. Here the saffron is in charge and it’s a reasonably resolute saffron note with that sort of tangy, spicy-herbal note you tend to find in most saffron incenses. Saffron is of course the stamen of a crocus sativa flower and so even the raw materials tend to break down a huge supply of these flowers into the cooking spice and then one might have some idea at what it would take to turn even that material to an oil, absolute or otherwise, with the expense of such perhaps raising the question to how much real saffron is in this. The rose becomes less resolute in the face of such saffron heft and, as a result, loses some of its clarity to become a complementary note. I do feel with this one that the intensity of the oil does tend to mask the base more so it’s not cutting through as much and it tends to prevent this mix from getting too sweet. There is, fortunately, some level of interplay to the saffron and rose that makes it interesting nonetheless, but I would guess that whether you like this or not entirely depends on how much you like saffron. High end Pure Incenses can be pretty successful with saffron, for instance I very much enjoyed their Saffron & Musk incense, so again this may also be where I sit with rose as described above.

The scent of the Camphor on the Masterclass stick is actually much stronger on the fresh stick than during the burn, which disappointed me a bit because that note is almost exactly what I’m hoping for (camphor is one of those medicinally-related scents that not everyone likes but I most assuredly do). Alit, the vanilla of the base comes through almost shockingly loud and while you think it might create a conflict, once you get used to it it’s actually surprisingly comfortable. At this point the camphor tends to fade back into roughly the same place that it fills in some of the agarwood or oud sticks. There’s some intriguing dryness to this scent as well, almost as if some level of buttery sandalwood also wanted to be part of the profile. Overall though one thing I do like about camphor wood and it’s even true to some extent on a campfire is that kind of weird cooling vibe that it exhibits (I mostly remember using it for cold sores). So while this stick may be much more than the single note itself, it’s a nice stick nonetheless. And it is certainly different enough to feel more like a genuinely unique incense stick than just a variation.

And finally, perhaps circling around to the Oud group in some way, is the Connoisseur Laos Agarwood. There’s some level of similarity to the camphor on the fresh stick but it’s a bit sweeter here and not as pure a note. This is actually quite an intense agarwood, similar to the general Connoisseur but quite a bit denser in aroma. While it’s labelled as an agarwood and not an oud I have to stretch the imagination a bit to even say what the difference could be as this seems like it could fit in with the oud reviews fairly easily. It’s perhaps not as spicy as some of the others, but generally speaking this sort of wood tends to have that element even at its mellowest. Like the Oud Kathmandu, this has some level of actual wood presence in terms of resolution and definition. In fact based on a recent box of the generic Connoissuer Agarwood I’d easily recommend this one over it, perhaps because the oil seems pretty intense. Like most Pure Incenses there’s still some level of vanilla in the base but the oil mix more than makes up for it. In the end I think if you’ve tried any of the ouds I recommended in that review then it depends on how much you like them in terms of whether you want what are essentially variations on a theme, but then again most of the variations are all the kind of incenses that aloeswood lovers are going to go for.

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.

Lopen Tandin Dorji Poizo Khang / Tara Puja Incense

I might have this a bit off but in Bhutan a Poizo Khang/Poi Zokhang translates to something like a house of incense. Nado Poizokhang appears to be the largest of these incense houses, but there’s quite a few small ones as well and most seem to include the creators in their name (Mr. Nado is considered the father of Bhutan’s commercial incense industry), in this case one Lopen Tandin Dorji. While you will see what looks like two incenses in the pictures, about the only thing that seems different to me from the two packages is the color. The ingredients listed on both wrappers include red and white sandalwoods, juniper, species of fragrant plant, camphor, the resin of the Sal Tree, saffron, three sweets of sugar, honey and molasses, and three with milk, curd and butter. You may be happy to know there is no meat, alcohol or onion in this incense. Tara incenses relate to the meditation deity Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism and the colors relate to different forms of Tara, so it is assumed the incenses are intended for the specific forms. However, for Western noses, both of these incenses (green and yellow wrapper) seem aromatically identical and if there are any differences in recipe they are beyond my threshold to be able to tell. I lit both sequentially and at the same time to compare.

Tara Puja is actually a very friendly incense overall and the ingredients all seem high quality. I find that it reminds me a little of the long disappeared Lung Ta line which also claimed to list foods like honey or milk in the ingredients and however they formulate these (because imagine burning either on their own), they impart a bit of their own richness to the mix. But outside of these you’re essentially getting something of a woody and spicy blend. They actually seem a bit more akin to Nepalese incenses more than say the red/purple or Jaju styles normally found in Bhutanese incense houses, but there are still some similarities. The sandalwoods, juniper and the saffron seem well up in the mix, and the spice accentuates the sort of high altitude, evergreen feel without leaning into campfire directions. Whichever wrapper you choose, this isn’t a bad choice for an entry point into Bhutanese incense, and if you are stocked up on the traditionals you may still find this to be a different take, not to mention nice and friendly.

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.

Temple of Incense / Amber, Amber Supreme, Benzoin Absolute, Big Cleanse

Temple of Incense Part 6
Temple of Incense Part 8
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

I am a relative beginner in the world of Indian incense. While in my incense journey, Indian style incense was the first I encountered, it was during that time period in 2013-2015 that, for the most part, Indian style incense was mostly overly bombastic with shrill single notes that chased me out of the room or had me putting it out hastily. Smells like burning hair and cheap cologne would have made many of my descriptions back then.

So recently, I encountered Happy Hari for the first time, years after the founder died. This opened a door and I quickly began searching for more, almost coinciding with Mike reopening ORS. Learning about Temple of Incense sent me in a scramble. My first order was for one of everything. I have not been let down by this exciting journey and I decided to share the reviews in alphabetical order, leaving out the ones that Mike has already reviewed.

Our first stop is with Amber. As someone who first encountered King of Amber, this is exactly the same. For those who don’t know King of Amber, this is an extruded resin stick. It has a thickness and a heaviness to it that makes it stand out from most other masala sticks(other than other resin sticks like it). It also takes a while to light, showing that there is more resin than oil to make this stick.

I’d love to call this ‘Amber Absolute’ or ‘exemplar’ of the amber scent but it is more like ‘Egyptian Amber’ in that it comes across more like the soft Egyptian Musk type of smell you can get in attars and even in multiple brands of incense sticks. However, I don’t want you to imagine the cheap and artificial smell that can come from those $5 perfume bottles. Rather, this is more that they took actual resins and oils to create this from natural sources, and the result is this amazing, bewitching, soothing scent that everyone in the family comments on when I burn it.

The best thing about this compared to so many other incenses with ‘amber’ in their name on the market, this never crosses the line into cloying. It maintains a atmosphere of mystery with the soft amber scent. Since amber is common in so many western perfume blends, my nose always picks up amber in many Indian incenses as ‘perfume’ yet here it remains solidly like I expect honey amber resin to smell, with that touch of something else that grounds it a little bit, perhaps labdanum or similar, and it adds that mystery and musky type of note that keeps this from getting too sweet.

Next is Amber Supreme. Instead of being a thick, extruded resin stick, this is a handmade masala finished with a light brown dust. The name makes me imagine that this is going to be stronger, faster, better than Amber, but supreme can mean other things, like restraint, discipline and regimen. In this case, this is a much more muted version of the amber smell, it is less sweet and has a little more of the ‘baby powder’ note of amber in it, but again, none of this is the artificial amber or perfume amber. This doesn’t cross into cloying, or sweet, it remains subtle and restrained, which is two words I rarely trot out in a review of anything Indian style. I also want to a address how different the sweetness is between the two. Amber has a sweetness like honey and this one has a sweetness more like confectioners sugar, which helps support the more bitter aspects of it’s scent.

I would suggest Amber Supreme for anyone who finds Amber to be too strong for their tastes, this also lacks less additional ingredients so it is more like ‘pure amber’ or ‘amber absolute’ than the previous entry. Definitely do not burn this on the tail of Amber because you will barely notice it.

Similar to Amber, Benzoin Absolute is a thick resin extruded onto a bamboo core. As someone who has loved Meena Supreme in the past, my initial hit off this was ‘Oh, so ToI renamed Meena Supreme to Benzoin Absolute’. But that lasted for just a moment as I realized this lacked the other perfumes and finishes of Meena Supreme and instead has a scent profile that would represent maybe 50% of the Meena scent.

What you get here is what I call the ‘Indian’ interpretation of benzoin, as this doesn’t come across as the burnt marshmallow note I associate with the plain benzoin, so either the locality or the processing is different here and this benzoin is less sweet and has a few more metallic and maybe even confectionery notes, like a bitter marzipan.

Big Cleanse is a thick charcoal stick with oils and maybe a bit of resin. The website sells it as a smudging stick and I think it might be good for exactly that sort of thing. It has a very herbal smell, reminding me of the German bitter teas like 7×7, and because of that, I like how this smells, though many who I have burned this with have commented on how they don’t like the bitter and acrid notes coming off it.

If the three sweet incenses reviewed here are yin, this has enough yang bitterness to balance all of them at once. While the purpose of this blog isn’t to wander as far into the spiritual nature of incense, this is clearly more for intention and cleansing than for sitting and pleasantly enjoying. However, I’m also someone who has spent years drinking bitter Chinese teas and similar kinds of things from Europe and so I don’t mind a little bit of bitter here and there, especially if you consider some of these sweeter incenses like Amber dessert.

Nehnang Monastery / Nehnang No. 2 Tibetan Incense

I’m sort of scratching my head right now trying to remember what my impressions were for the two other Nehnang Monastery incenses. This amounted to something like a No. 1 but also a Vegetarian No. 1 where there doesn’t seem to be a Vegetarian No. 2 listed, so I may have sort of mixed up in my head the two number 1s (although I have noted that I did have sample of the Vegetarian). But for sure the Nehnang No. 2 is in the same tradition of salty, woody, musky, bag-of-pistachios scented Tibetan incenses like the Holy Lands, Dirapuk Monastery Tibetan Incense, Ga’re Therapeutic Incense etc. It reminded me that any of these usually tend to be a bit more woody or slightly evergreen than the Holy Lands, which have always felt a bit more streamlined to me, perhaps due to whatever is making up the hue of the sticks.

The problem with reviewing a stick like this after saying the same things for similar incenses is that it’s fairly difficult to describe what is different about them, Even the ingredients list: “…contains more than 30 ingredients, incl. white, red and purple sandalwoods, cinnamon, borneol and clove” is pretty much about what you’d expect. Perhaps one difference I might notice is that because this has a more powerful spice and musk presence, occasionally you will feel the combined weight of the two show up in quite an impressive way that I don’t think I’ve quite seen in any of these other named incenses. While it’s pitched in about the same place as the Ga’re or TPN Nectar, it’s a bit more basic than the latter, without the more floral notes (which would likely be more subsumed in this sort of mix anyway). Like all of these incenses they’re all in about the same price range. There really are a lot of very, very good monastery incenses. Anyway I sent for the “regular” No. 1 and will get to that one at a separate time, because this is quite good for anything you might call a No. 2.

Dirapuk Monastery / Mt. Kailash Holy Incense

A couple months back I wrote about Dirapuk Monastery’s Special Incense, but they also have one that comes in a box (and while mine is white, apparently it comes in red and blue boxes as well). Mt. Kailash Holy Incense (which is probably a touch more special than the special) is another really spectacular monastery wonder. It features more than 30 ingredients which include red and white sandalwood, cinnamon and borneol. Right away this checks a lot of the boxes I like, it has deep evergreen tendencies that make it a wonderful morning scent, it has a really distinct and strong hit of camphor in it, always a favorite of mine, and it really has a surprising amount of complexity to it. A reviewer at the incense-traditions.ca page sensed wormwood in the mix, which seems like a very good call and I’d guess there’s some rhododendron here as that seems to be common when the sticks are ochre colored. The juniper and sandalwoods all seem to be nicely fresh and exude quality which really help to contrast against the wonderful camphor note here. Also all of these other elements seem to tie together through the natural cinnamon (and likely, other spice) content. So you have it all, evergreen, camphor, mint, herbal, wood and spice all rolled into one and everything popping with aroma. Recommended.

Kida Jinseido / Byakudan Sandalwood, Ranjatai, Kodaikoh, Joyokoh, Kingyoku Koh, Hanakokonoe

I might have chosen to hold back on my Ikuhohkoh review and reviewed it with all of these incenses except that I wanted to get the word out on how good it was and also because my blog writing hadn’t gained the traction and momentum that it did weeks later. So it may be worth popping over to that review first because in terms of more recently imported incenses, that one is a real highlight in my book. In a world where the aloeswood profiles are changing at that end of the incense world, Ikuhohkoh is still a very satisfying incense.

Japan Incense started importing Kida Jinseido incenses somewhere during the ORS hiatus, but relatively speaking they’re one of the more recent companies to gain a profile through the webstore. For traditional incense lovers this is a great thing as there’s a nice selection of different scents at all sorts of price points and Kida Jinseido play both in woodier and more perfumed incenses. My experiences with many of their incenses is that increased use tends to show up the complexities of what they are doing more, their aromatic profiles are often as compressed and complex to listen to as some of the Baieido incenses made from natural materials. Stick counts are quite high too, so it’s good to take that into consideration, that the price points you’re seeing are often approaching 100 sticks. Which is a good thing when you can burn through a third of those very quickly if you like them.

So of course first let’s start with the ubiquitously named Byakudan Sandalwood. It’s worth noting at this point that there are two on the Kida Jinseido page with different labels but I was told the $12 roll is (or may be) no longer available. The $10 box presents a very typical baseline, inexpensive sandalwood scent. Other incenses in the same ballpark would be Yamadamatsu’s Kayo or Kagetsu, Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku, Tennendo’s Kohrokan Sandalwood, and Shunkohdo’s Sarasoju. Incenses like this often tend to diverge a bit off a purer sandalwood scent and often add a bit of sweetness or balancing spice to create a slightly more distinctive incenses, but the range of these types of sticks tends to remain pretty narrow. Lately I’m probably more fond of the Yamadamatsus than anything else, but I definitely think taste will make this different from individual perspectives (and by all means feel free to drop your favorites in comments if you like!) I like the Kida Jinseido stick here too, although I feel like the additives are a bit more noticeable than the wood itself. You’re not really getting any sort of noticeable sandalwood profile, just a decent inexpensive stick that is built on that platform. For me incenses like this feel like deep Japanese tradition; you may not need to own every company’s but having one or two makes a nice change to switch back to for something lighter.

I would probably classify Kida Jinseido’s Ranjatai more as a modern than a traditional. I do find it slightly amusing when incense creators name one of their incenses after the iconic piece of aloeswood call Ranjatai (and more on that here) as it seems highly unlikely a $12 box of aloeswood is going to smell like a rare chunk of aloeswood kept in a museum. I recently covered a couple moderns in the Seikado line that this incense is far more akin to. Like the Hitori Sizuka aloeswood, Ranjatai is more of a polished, audience-friendly sort of approximation of a real aloeswood scent, leaning a bit to the sweet. It’s actually surprisingly soapy, betraying its more perfumed approach even without a hint of floral in the mix. This is the kind of blend I think is likely to be more appreciated by those coming from a more Nippon Kodo-style as it will have that dual effect of aloeswood appreciators hoping for the real thing and modern incense appreciators maybe not going for as much for the sorts of deeper notes aloeswood appreciators like. I’ll also add that the aroma isn’t purely an aloeswood either and that the sandalwood also in the mix feels maybe a bit more authentic. It feels a bit like the odd duck in the Kida Jinseido line.

Kodaikoh is a square-cut stick very much in the traditional mold of combining aloeswood, sandalwood and camphor. I don’t think camphor is to everyone’s tastes but I have loved it in every form from medicines to campfire wood to all the refined variations found in Japanese incense and I really dig the balance of it with the other woods here. And I should also mention that this feels more camphor than its more refined cousin borneol. It’s just noticeable enough to sense it without overpowering anything. I would hesitate to really call this an aloeswood incense, so much as a blend, but I think this is a really nice incense at the $15 for 70 stick price point. It has a level of definition with all three main ingredients, everything feels fresh, and there’s a touch of sweet spice in the mix to bind everything together in a way that gives it unity while still having a surprising amount of complexity for such an inexpensive incense. If you love Japanese incense but struggle to afford more expensive incenses, I would definitely recommend this one for an entry point.

Joyokoh presents a similar level blend without the camphor. This also feels like a minute push more in the sandalwood dominant direction than the Kodaikoh and also like it leans more to a spicy, Reiryo-Koh like blend. Just now it triggered a reminder of an incense I reviewed many years ago called the Joyoko Temple Blend. I can’t remember if I ever found out which company was responsible for that incense but in thinking of it, I was definitely reminded that this has a similar scent profile. Reiryo-Koh too is also a temple blend sort of scent, so there may be some tradition to this I’m only peripherally aware of. I do like the whole idea of this sort of traditional blend in that it hits a specific area of its own and although it verges a little in a spice direction not to my taste (it’s like spice-peppery), I’d certainly remember checking either one of these incenses out and making your own decision on it, as it does have a specific level of popularity to it. It’s not just a sandalwood/aloeswood low end blend so much as it uses those ingredients for a different purpose.

Kingyoku Koh moves out of this range to a bit more of a low- to mid-end aloeswood level. This was a scent that took me a few sticks to warm up to, in fact I came fairly close to not pulling a trigger on it after sampling it. I don’t think that would have been a particularly good move. Burning one now, I’m reminded this is a very nice aloeswood stick. It feels just on the edge of starting to reveal the wood’s more high end qualities but certainly its well within range of being a legitimate aloeswood stick rather than a blend. For a long time I actually was thinking about this more like a Baieido incense with a mix of sandalwood and spices but listening to it from the current angle shows that it’s actually quite akin to the Hanakokone and Ikuhokoh, each of which ups the quality of aloeswood and other ingredients. All of this I really want to press is that this is a surprisingly complex and involved incense with enough going on that it feels a little different with every burn. There is a bit of a faint play of spice in the mix, a bit more of a cinnamon and clove presence, perhaps, but certainly enough to contrast with the woods to a greater level of interest. Honestly if this was going for $18 at 50 sticks I’d be raving about it for sure, so even if you have to start with twice the stock it’s well worth it for its price range.

I’ve had a bit of difficulty really trying to differentiate between the Hanakokone and the Ikuhohkoh because they are so, so close in style and scent that even in talking about the $10 difference in price, I really wonder if my impression that Hanakokone isn’t quite as deluxe is just that price difference and its influencing my head more than the scent is. I feel like maybe the musk isn’t quite as sweet on this one or perhaps the aloeswood quality isn’t quite the same, but each time I consider it I feel like I’m splitting hairs. Hanakokone might be a little drier, a little less concentrated, and certainly less sweet, but it hits a lot of the same notes. It’s a wonderful aloeswood, and just like Ikuhokoh I think it’s an excellent deal for the money and the scent profile still feels like its wood taken from wild stock. And to recapitulate from the beginning of my review, if you haven’t read my Ikuhohkoh review, then it would be the next logical step as it appears to be the top of the line. The listed kyara (Kyarakunko) is really a much lower level incense without any noticeable sort of kyara note and I wasn’t convinced to grab a box after the sample, so a review of it doesn’t appear here.

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