Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery / Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

Any time I see a new (more accurately, new to me or ORS) monastery or incense company with grades on their incenses, it’s unlikely that I’m going to like all of them. First of all you have to take a look at the pricing, while not forgetting that sometimes stick length and even thickness can play a part in cost. Honestly for the most part, price decreases down grades tend to be fairly gradual. Mindroling is a good example of a graduated sort of scale and Nado Poizokhang used to have something like 6 grades that were available, although that seems no longer the case. Grades don’t always mean an indication of decreasing quality as the numbers rise, but they often do. So you tend to expect a #1 is just simply going to be a better incense than #5, not to mention more pricey.

None of this is really the case in this wonderful line of Tanak Thupten Ling Monastery incenses, or at least as the grades go down you’re not left thinking the lower incenses are worth skipping. Where I often dip into a sampler and then only buy a roll or two that I like, I went with the #1 and #3 first and then over time decided to get the rest. It doesn’t hurt that four of the five come in really beautifully designed cardboard rolls. Once again we must tip a hat to the great incense-traditions.ca for continuing to expose us to the many fine treasures of Tibet.

These are all wonderful, classy, complex and unique incenses that you come to expect from the area. The ingredients list in all of them are white sandalwood, wormwood, saffron, nutmeg, cloves and cypress;, although, you should note right away that the incenses vary a lot more than just what this list is telling you. Grade 1 is unquestionably the line’s treasure. Where later sticks get longer, Grade 1 is a modest sized stick popping with aromatic complexity. It’s literally beautiful and arresting from the first light and immediately popped up into my top 10 Tibetan incenses, it’s just that good. Repetitive burning has not changed my mind on this. Every ingredient in that list can be found here, popping with high resolution and sitting right next to each other, it’s got fine woods, great tanginess, that sense of herbal wildness you get from the wormwood and so much more. It has an aromatic intensity that even a lot of other monastery incenses don’t have. Just now I noticed some almost like spice rack sort of side note, peppery and piquant, which I hadn’t even noticed in the first five or six sticks. I love to use the word kaleidoscope when it comes to incenses like this that are so resolute and intricate, you still notice new things about them as you go. Incredible incense, extremely highly recommended.

Grade 2 changes quite dramatically and it’s funny of the five grades here this is the one I’ve found hardest to get used to. It brings out the more dangerous qualities of the wormwood a bit more so that it runs close to, say, some of the Dzongsar monastery incenses. It goes for a much drier profile than the Grade 1 and seems to not be quite as complex, although if you concentrate on it a bit you do still notice that the ingredient resolution is still pretty high. It feels like a lot of the spice content is a lot more dialed back so that the overall profile ends up being a lot more herbal, in fact there’s something of a grassiness or hay-like scent in that would seem a lot more barnyard if it wasn’t just completely missing any musk. Had I just experienced this incense as a sample on its own, I might have foregone a roll, but in the grade scheme of the entire Tanak Thupten Ling line, it’s actually kind of fascinating the way it fits in and contrasts with the other grades. And as you get used to it you realize that the overall dryness and herbal content hides a bit of the depth that experience will bring out with use. This is not what I call a Western friendly incense overall, but nor is it cheap or low quality. Perhaps its defining strength is that like with the Grade 1 it has a definite wood contour in the middle. But make no mistake this one has a learning curve.

Grade 3 is an incense that actually reminds me a little of my extreme favorite monastery incense Wara. I’m actually starting to feel like I go through an entire package of Wara between every mention of it and the desire to sing its praises threatens to take over sometimes, even from this review. Part of the similarity is there is some crossover with Wara with whatever makes up this sort of almost tarry blackened resin-like element in both incenses. Grade 3 veers away from some of the deeper, more complex and almost undefinable characteristics in Wara but increases some similar, more woody and evergreen elements that serve more as side notes in the Wara. The wormwood is much more subsumed in this incense, much more of a side note, and the cypress and spices are more obvious than they were in the Grade 2. So despite the same ingredients list, you’re talking about a third, completely different incense in this range. Naturally I liked this a lot and notice that it’s the one TTL incense that’s out of stock as I write this. Anyway some other notes in this are a bit of clay, peat, and juniper and in the end has some level of a fresher forest-y note somewhere in the middle that gives it some character. It’s wonderful stuff and the second one here I would recommend unequivocally. Not sure there are a lot of Grade 3s this good and there’s a bonus in that from this grade on, the sticks get a bit longer.

Grade 4 is maybe the first one in the line that starts to feel like there’s some level of ingredient shift as well as some level of similarity to one of the higher incense grades, but it’s still a remarkably strong incense. It’s fairly akin to the Grade 3 in that sort of dark, somewhat resin-heavy feel, but there feels to me less wood and a bit more heavy an emphasis on the spices. There’s a net tangy sort of thing that often shows up somewhere in the clove, nutmeg and cinnamon territory and it’s a level of spice that you really don’t get in the first three grades. In fact, if you step away and come back you can feel the wormwood a bit more, although not as crackly and herbal on top like it is in a higher resolution, more just like a bit of the Tibetan funk. I like the way this blend tends to merge with Grade 3’s darker profile. I will say that my expectations on this had me thinking I’d get tired of it, but the stick did the absolute opposite and continued to surprise me with reuse. Honestly at about $15 it’s quite decently priced and really doesn’t have the same sort of quality drops that, say, Mindroling does when it reaches its Grade 4.

The price of Grade 5 drops quite a bit to $12. But imagine simply if you did not know this was a grade 5 and was just evaluating it as a new Tibetan incense at this price. I think you would find it remarkably good. What is interesting about it is unlike the previous four grades, this incense seems to be more of that salty sort of blend you find in Holy Land and numerous other Tibetan classics except the herbal quality of the wormwood weaves its way in that blend which makes it a little unique. I think a lot of the more heavier wood aspects you find in the previous two grades are dialed back for this blend. And it actually feels like the muskier qualities are more active than in the previous four as well. So I would definitely just completely throw out the grading system at this point because this is really as good as any of the previous incenses or better, except the Grade 1, which is in a class of its own. Honestly in a lot of ways its like getting a slight variation on a big long stick roll of the Holy Land grade 2 except with a valid alteration in personality. One thing I really liked about this one on reuse was just how complex it is, how arresting the burn is. There’s no feeling at all along the TTL line that cheap wood filler is being used to replace quality at all. Its the capstone to an absolutely terrific, fascinating monastery line – a bravo to incense-traditions.ca for finding more new and interesting scents for us to try.

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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.

Kunlha Incense: Jetsun Dolma, Lotus Pema, Shing Tsa, Pangpoe, Loong Pö

These are produced by Kunlha Incense, which is a small family business. They are made without any animal materials and also seem to be made of very high quality herbs and woods. They are also pretty much “non sweat sock” or “funk note” in style. At the same time they are very approachable to a pretty broad range of people if you don’t demand the above two stylistic elements. Other than Loong Po there do not appear to be any oils used. At this point I have re-ordered three times so I am pretty sure I like them 🙂

Jetsun Dolma (Green Box): I think this is modeled after Green Tara as it is listed as “curative and healing incense”. The scent is a bit heavier then any of the other sticks, which might be valerian or mugwart. It is also very relaxing (to me at least) and is great later in the evening. This one seems to be herb heavy with some wood notes in the background. I find it fairly pleasant but not something I would use just for the scent.

Lotus Pema (Yellow Box): This is the wood scent one hopes to find when trying out anything that says “cedar” or “juniper”. It is beautiful, subtle, and very clean with no off notes at all. Really a great stick of incense in the pure wood style. This has become my “go to” woods scent. Highly recommended and I have yet to find anything comparable to it.

Shing Tsa (Blue Box): The cinnamon, rhododendron, and juniper in this blend seem to inter weave themselves yet at the same time you can sense each separately, which is a pretty good trick in incense or perfume. It can be very entertaining to sense them as they play out in the room. Great for mornings and afternoons. Really a well-rounded incense, almost Japanese in style. Uplifting and not overdone.

Pangpoe (Red Box): This is along the lines a of a fairly traditional “red stick” Tibetan incense. Lots of herbs and some woods totally blended into an overall combined scent profile. Classic but at the same time maybe not as much a standout like the three above. IMO, as always.

Loong Pö (White Box): This one seems to be designed as something to use for post work chill out. It has a mellower background scent then the Pangpoe with the addition of a perfume note added into it. Since my box is at least two years old and the note is still there (somewhat reduced) I am assuming there are some synthetic aspects to the scent. Essential oils or Absolutes, especially any floral’s do not tend to last that long unless tightly sealed, which these were not. However it is an interesting scent, like a light floral mixed with (maybe) aldehydes, pretty classic in style and not overwhelming at all. A nice mix and a pretty good stick that should appeal to many people.

-Ross

Mermade Magickal Arts / Abramelin, Cyprian, Dark Forest, Dark Goddess

So just as I was wrapping up the previous Mermade review, another surprise batch of new creations showed up at the door. It’s funny but I’ve probably never mentioned what boxes from Katlyn look like, although customers are surely familiar, but even the presentation of the arrival has the same care everything else does. It should be noted of course that Katlyn’s talent at art matches the same talent involved in the incense creation, so part of the fun is seeing the labels and stationery that comes with each box. As someone who gravitates towards the motifs of western esoterica, I find the way each incense comes packaged to be a delight and in fact anyone who has been involved in the western mystery schools to some extent will be delighted at the symbolism just on the tiny jar of the first incense to be reviewed here and even the bag the jar sits in. There is an attention to detail that rewards the attentive.

For example, check out the amount of research and information provided by Mermade on their newly created version of the legendary Abramelin ceremonial incense blend. This is a historically documented incense associated with the occult work, “The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage,” a guide written to teach a student how to converse with their holy guardian angel and largely associated with Aleister Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema. Of course much has been written elsewhere on this subject and so we’ll stick to the incense itself. Katlyn has chosen to create this incense with one part green frankincense, a half part mix of myrrh and storax and a quarter part aloeswood powder. While this seems like a simple recipe the quality of ingredients can have a massive effect on what the final product will smell like and this is I’m sure the first of its kind used with the powerful and lime-like green frankincense. I know this isn’t Katlyn’s first attempt at such an incense and different attempts and styles can make them all quite different from another. This work has a maturity that has allowed for quite a bit of subtlety most of which seems to float around the beautiful and heady myrrh and storax combination in the middle. The frankincense is definitely powerful in this but once heating gets underway all of the parts merge very nicely together with the aloeswood providing a subtle and more fleeting sort of presence. I also love the color of this incense, it tends to a lovely golden like shade which reflects rather perfectly with the intent behind the incense. One wonders if the original creators behind the incense ever envisioned or formulated the incense with such fine ingredients.

Also a simple, lovely and almost overwhelming incense is the labadanum, rose and agarwood combination found in Mermade’s new Cyprian. This mix strikes me as quite different than a lot of the other Mermade incenses. It’s as if the ingredients are all adding up for something very spicy, alluring and somewhat vigorous. The rose scent in particular is beautifully calibrated and reminiscent of some of the old rose and resin mixes, somewhat veiled by the incense’s spiciness, but still very authentic and gorgeous. The labdanum and agarwood are all finely balanced and the whole thing works perhaps because of its simplicity as a combination, allowing the nature of each ingredient to bring life to the blend. Strangely there is a beguiling earth or clay tone in the mix, as a result of the incense’s combination and the fresh incense itself almost seems to have a complex level of hoppiness to it. I was quite taken away with this blend and highly recommend it as a deep intersection of floral, resin and wood.

I reviewed Wild Woods in the previous Mermade installment and Dark Forest is another in Katlyn’s long and distinguished line of forest and woods incenses. This one is definitely a bit closer to center than the ambery Wild Woods and has a very pungent foresty green presence that is practically unadulterated with any note that might move this off center. I’ve admitted my almost unconditional love for this kind of scent before and this one is no different. It’s not complex in a wider sense, but there is a lot of activity within the greenness, made possible by juniper, black spruce, cypress, fir and cedar with strong backing from the black frankincense. There’s a slight note of patchouli on this that fills in around the edges, not to mention and even more fleeting glimpse of vetiver, both elements that just give different kinds of greens to the whole. As always, there’s a bit of sweetness to the evergreen and resin combo. As always, these incenses are bullseyes and tend to be as user friendly as anything on the market.

Dark Goddess is a new vintage of a previously named incense with some similarities, but overall I think this new blend is quite a bit different in scent. For one thing, the patchouli was a big note in the previous incense, here it’s much more subtle and blends with greater balance. As someone who doesn’t mind a healthy bit of good patchouli, and by that I don’t mean the cheap stuff that can overwhelm a drum circle, I love both the old and new Dark Goddess, but certainly like all of Mermade’s work, the most recent vintage is always the mature work. This mix, which includes ingredients that tend to the polar opposite of the blends based in green frankincense, such as black Ethiopian resin and black frankincense, is a very complex incense where the parts interlock like pieces of a puzzle making it just that more difficult to pick out the single elements. All of the resinous material gives the incense hints of molasses, caramel but also something a bit more dry with the herbs, especially the vetivert, giving it all an earthly feel.

As always, these are just a segment of the wonderful work going on at Mermade and it’s always a distinct pleasure to be able to share my impressions. One thing I often notice is later on I tend to pick up new things as I use the incenses, further giving testament to the depth of the art at play here. And so once again I highly recommend newcomers to Olfactory Rescue Service to visit the site, grab a heater and try out some of the luxuries in the Mermade catalog, as they’re all limited editions and vintages that eventually give way to new ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting Notes: Daihatsu Pocketan Series

These are new to the US market and so far the only place I know of that has them is Kohshi in San Francisco. They are geared for scenting a room with a particular scent, in this case floral’s or woods. The sticks burn for around 10-12 minutes and there are about 150 per box, there are also cones. You can try them out here.

Lavender Tanka: This has a spicy back round note intermixed with a sort of powdery scent. The lavender/floral notes ride across all of this. In this particular case it is more spicy floral then lavender. This is a fairly strongly scented incense in keeping with the concept of a “Room Incense”. The scent is also going to last awhile within the room.

Rose Tanka: Much like the lavender above the are a lot of spicy notes underneath a distinct rose scent. This reminds me of more a wild rose then one that has been overly cultivated. I find this to be refreshing as so many rose scented incenses can be (to me at least) overly done and cloying. Not the case here. Again the scent is strong but the spiciness tends to balance things out. Nicely done and a great way to add a rose scent to a room with out over doing it.

Cypress Tanka: Similar base notes in this woody scented stick. This does seem to capture the feeling of Cypress trees as well as a forest in general. It is not overly “green” in scent more a mix of woods tempered with a green note. Probably my favorite out of the group, enough so that I bought a box.

Very different then Sandalwoods or Aloeswoods. Again this is a long lasting scent and very good at putting a mellow and relaxing scent through out a room.

SAMPLER NOTES: Shochikudo, Shorindo Kobiana Line (Discontinued), Tahodo / Sekizen Koh (Discontinued)

This is a slight summary of some of the more recent modern Japanese incense imports, including one traditional scent and another on the fence. [9/28/2021 – Please note that although the Shorindo Kobiana line has been discontinued, I have added one link below to what looks like remaining stock.]

Like many of the new imports we’re seeing there are quite a few new companies making their entry into the US Market, including an incense from Shochikudo called Kirari or Ocean Breeze. This one has a rather huge list of ingredients given as: rose, lavender, jasmine, ylang ylang, iris, lemon, bergamot, blue cypress, sandalwood, vanilla beans and oak moss. It’s almost like a starter list of essential oils and with a sampler I’d be hard pressed to say that any of these particular ingredients stand out more than any other except for, perhaps, the vanilla bean (I get an impression of some amber as well). This is an incense generally in the vein of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua, a floral mix with a distinct seaside sort of aroma, not quite briny, but a more upbeat and pleasant approximation, like a mix of garden and beach. It’s going to be only for those who really go for a sample as with a box of 200 sticks, it’s one you’ll want to be sure you really like at first. I found it quite pleasant, but my experience with Aqua was the same and I found it quite cloying over time so I’d be hesitant even though I think this is a better incense.

Shorindo has been extremely active on the exportation of front after entering the US market with their Chabana Green Tea mix, in fact since I received the following samples, they’ve added two more incenses in the Chabana line. The first of the four samples here is the most traditional incense in this whole group, a sandalwood and cinnamon scent called Wakyo. I love cinnamon so I found this instantly a winner, it’s not a particularly complicated incense, but it differs slightly from the traditional sense in that it seems polished and possibly made partially out of oils or perfumes. But give cinnamon essential oil is quite cheap, it all comes off quite authentic and just a bit stronger than the average Japanese traditional blend that doesn’t use oils like, say, Baieido Koh. It’s somewhat reminiscent of incenses like Shoyeido Horin’s Hori-kawa or even Kunjudo Karin or its Gyokushodo analog Kojurin in scent, maybe in the middle of this group in terms of a traditional to modern axis.

Shorindo has also brought over three perfume incenses in a line called Kobiana. These are definitely far to the modern style and seem to exist to carry over previously created perfumes, although they seem a little different in that they’re not quite smokeless. I doubt my impressions are going to be particularly useful, so as an addendum I’d like to refer you over to Sprays of Blossoms, Curls of Smoke for a much more informed review before I take a clumsy stab at these.

All three of these sticks, despite the color names, seem to be a dark blue color. The Kobiana Yellow Cute is created to be reminiscent of Etro’s Magot perfume and the notes given are, on the top, bergamot, lemon, jasmine and iris; lavender and cloves in the middle; and patchouli, cedar, vanilla and musk at the base. Like with the Kirari, I have trouble picking these apart although at least I can distinguish this scent from the other two in this series as being distinctly floral and very reminiscent of the types of perfumes you run into being worn in the US. As is the case, I tend to get as much of the alcohol or synthetic scent as I do the florals and completely miss any of the elements supposedly in the base with, perhaps, the iris, lavender and jasmine the most obvious scents to me.

I have a lot of trouble telling the Kobiana Red Elegant and Kobiana Blue Sweet apart, but both strike me as fruit and florals, and like the Kirari above, both are somewhat reminiscent of Nippon Kodo’s Aqua in that they both have an almost watery like scent. The Red is reminiscent of Chanel Chance perfume, the Blue Etro’s Anice. The Red lists pink pepper, lemon and pineapple on top; hyacinth, jasmine and iris at the heart (likely where I’m getting the Aqua similarity from); and amber, patchouli, vetiver and white musk in the base. Strangely enough from this mix I get watermelon, cyclamen and the listed jasmine, but it’s such a light scent that with a sample it’s really hard to break it down. Similarly scented, the Blue lists Brazilian rosewood, anise and bergamot; the middle notes iris, jasmine, anise and garden dill; and the base notes amber, musk and vanilla. I’m not sure if the note similarities between these two incenses account for why I can barely tell them apart, but for some reason I wasn’t getting much anise or rosewood and still felt it was mostly watery, fruity and floral. In the end I had to separate the two and test them at different times just to confirm for myself I hadn’t accidentally gotten the same sample twice and to maybe convince myself I don’t quite have the nose for moderns like these.

Like Shochikudo, Tahodo has currently exported only one incense to the US, although similar to Shorindo Wayko, this is something of a modern/traditional blend. In this case Sekizen Koh is clearly something of a perfumed sandalwood stick and not authentic in terms of a pure sandalwood, but it makes up for it with a nice blend of clove, nutmeg and slight floral and citrus hints. It tends to the slightly sweet and in another life could have easily been added to, say, one of Daihatsu’s modern lines. Like most perfumed incenses I’m not sure how long I’ll last in terms of appreciation, but my initial samples were extremely pleasant and I liked it right away, especially due to the attractive nutmeg subnote.

More in the next installment including pairs from Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsado and Scents of Japan.

Bosen / Dakini, Herbal Meditation, Pythoncidere, Shangrila and Zambhala Incenses

Amazon-distributed and Taiwan-originated company Bosen has had a number of their aloeswood incenses reviewed by Ross here and here. The company also has a number of different blended incenses, several of which are considered to be Tibetan incenses by the company. Blend and ingredient-wise these are similar to Tibetan incenses in many ways but the sticks’ unique densities and high levels of quality wood make them more like hybrids between the Tibetan style and Southeast Asian sandalwood and aloeswood sticks and as such are fairly original and certainly a lot higher quality than all but the most deluxe Chinese exported Tibetan blends. I’ll be breaking up the eight current blends into two groups, the five here that have unusual or Buddhism-related names and, later, three (Blessing, Refining and Purifying) that are basically verbs. The division is somewhat arbitrary however, as my experience is that there are similarities among all the incenses. [8/31/21: Worth nothing here, I never did get around to the the later three, although for sure a Blessing review is forthcoming.]

In fact the similarities among the incenses are worth discussing first as there is a a base that is roughly common to all of their Tibetan blends. The binder, Machilus Zuihensis Hayata Powder, appears to be 10% of each incense and is likely what gives each incense a slightly evergreen flavor. All of the incenses, except the Pythoncidere, have quantities of aloeswood and sandalwood in them, although in a couple of cases the aloeswood is called agalloch eaglewood, 15% each in the Shangrila and Zambhala blends. Aloeswood is surprisingly at its highest in the most inexpensive blend, the Herbal Meditation 20% and lowest at 10% in the Dakini. Except for the Pythoncidere again, white sandalwood varies from 10-15%. So as you can see there’s a good 40% or so of four of the incenses that are basically the same. All five of the incenses have a large, unidentified quantity of several Tibetan Dharma medicines and nectars (spelled amitas in Shangrila). From there each incense varies by note.

[Updated 8/31/2021 No discernable changes from this review. – Mike.] Dakini Incense is one of Bosen’s two “Top-Grade” incenses and contains small percentages of lubu, nard, safflower, and semen alpiniae katsumadai (I’m not asking either). It’s the densest and most complex of the five incenses here with a definite strain of spikenard in the mix and a very fruity, sweet smell as the top note. Like all of the incenses here, due to the above-mentioned commonalities, there’s a tangy mix of aloeswood, sandalwood and evergreen binder, but the large ingredients list gives the incense some latent heft to it that improves the incense with use. It’s not quite as immediate as the next two scents but definitely seems to be the most deluxe of the batch.

[Updated 8/31/2021. Reupped the thicker sticks and notice no discernable changes from this review. – Mike] The company’s low end Herbal Meditation Incense is something of a revelation and is available in 11″ bulk thin sticks, 8″ thin sticks, and 8″ thicker sticks (an earlier search pulled up 18″ thin sticks and powder, but I didn’t find them this go around). The uncommon ingredients in this blend are a good 25% of zijin rattan and 25% of lysimachic foenum-graecum hance. It’s rare to find a company whose lowest end incense is one of their best, but I’ve found this incense to be extremely addictive. While not particularly resinous in quality, the aloeswood does come through and give it some character and the tangy herbal quality of the foenum-graecum balances out the sweetness nicely. The entirety has hints of apple tobacco and other herbal qualities along with the light evergreen touch. It’s extraordinarily pleasant and a great deal for the money, especially at its bulk price. However, it may be an even better incense in its thicker form, where the sweetness comes out a bit more and the impact becomes heavier. I’m not sure if this is because the ingredient to binder ratio is higher, but it’s certainly more aromatically redolent in this form.

[Updated 8/31/2021. No change in review except price. Incense remains the same, review still valid.] Bosen’s Pythoncidere Incense is a virtual triumph of incense making and one of the finest blends you’ll ever try outside of the aloeswood and sandalwood worlds. The company says the “…formula contains heavier density of Phytocid, which will make you feel like in green shower when you use it.” I’m honestly not sure you can really create a better description than this, it’s what drew me in for the buy and I believe they absolutely succeeded with this blend, which starts with literally a 50% content of high-resin hinoki (cypress). The evergreen qualities are cranked up to a high without the harsh qualities usually brought with it and the green qualities verges verdant with an almost banana like quality in the mix as well as hops and a sweet candy-like note. It’s the kind of green almost approached in alpine-like incenses or even those green durbar variants in Indian incense, but none of those perfect the quality like this one does. It’s literally one of the best incenses you can buy for $13. I’m hoping Bosen add a bulk box for this one as soon as possible as I’m already rocketing through my first box.

Like Dakini, Shangrila Incense is labelled as top-grade Tibetan incense, although I don’t think it’s nearly as successful as the rest of the line. It’s distinguishing qualities are 15% safflower and 15% ganten khampa, but the overall aromatic flavor is one of woods and an almost candle/beeswax like overlay.  Like all the Bosen Tibetans it has a certain sweetness, but unlike the others it also has something of a drier touch to it. It’s possible there’s a learning curve at work here but initially I’m not as impressed with this one as I am with the other blends. Shangrila is also available in coils and powder, neither of which I’ve tried but it’s possible both formats might improve the quality due to different ingredient ratios.

[Updated 9/2/2021. No real changes to review (added camphor), but as I stated at the end, you do warm to this one.] Zambhala Incenseis set apart by 15% karpura (camphor) and 15% artemisia oligoarpa but is an intensely evergreen incense that resembles Pythoncidere without being nearly as successful. In this case it’s almost the most traditionally Tibetan of the line, resembling in some ways incenses like Dhoop Factory’s Alpine, but quite a bit more refined due to the aloeswood and sandalwood quantities. Given the price similarity to Pythoncidere, I wouldn’t recommend this one first but I’ve also noticed the subtleties of the aloeswood peeking through on this one, promising a learning curve that might make it more worthwhile than my initial impressions.

Beautiful work basically, and given that Amazon fulfills this companies products, you can easily add a $10-$20 box to any other small order to get free shipping out of it (which also means that most of their aloeswood and sandalwood products get automatic free shipping as well). It should also be mentioned that the packaging of these incenses is world class with thick, high quality cardboard boxes, some padding for no breakage and silica gel to keep the incense dry. It’s all around top work from a great company who clearly make high standard product and get good ratings from buyers as well. ORS recommended to say the least.

Nippon Kodo / Ka-Fuh / Hinoki + Naturense / Inspired Mind

Aside from the kyara ladder which Ross reviewed in part a little while back, I’m probably not the biggest appreciator nor perhaps the true end user of Nippon Kodo product. Even their aloeswood incenses strike me as weaker than just about every other Japanese company and their moderns can often be bitter and very synthetic smelling. This latter observation could be a good reason why they tend to have a lot of affordable incense lines, but I’d prefer to shell out for quality in just about every case. Of course with every rule there are exceptions.

I’m setting this up because except for their premium incenses, I’ve not bought a Nippon Kodo incense in a very long time and probably don’t see myself doing so in the future, even to complete the two lines that I’m going to be featuring one incense each from in this post. But fortunately, I think I’ll be able to post this “odd and end” review on a high note as these are two of NK’s more pleasant scents.

I’m also not really the end user for smokeless lines. I’ve tried one other Ka Fuh scent, the Aqua, which I more or less reviewed in its smoke version in the New Morningstar line a while back. It’s a apparently a popular incense, but not really my style, even in its smoky version it’s a bit light and unimpressive, perhaps incense for those who find most incense offputting. The Hinoki (Cypress) blend on the other hand is actually quite good, in fact I’ve found myself enjoying it more with every stick. For one thing, I think Cypress tends to be a lighter, evergreen sort of scent so it works well in smokeless form, in fact the best Hinoki incense, Baieido’s version, is also low smoke. It’s a scent kind of hard to pick up if you’re not close to the burn but very pleasant when you pick it up. In comparison to the Baieido, the Ka Fuh version could possibly be slightly more synthetic but it really doesn’t come off that way overall, in fact it may just be slightly sweeter. Overall it’s difficult to say more, it smells like cypress without much of anything else and while I’d say start with a roll of Baieido Hinoki if you can afford it, this is much cheaper and only barely inferior. Unlike so many Morningstar scents, this seems to have some authenticity to it.

A company says a lot about the contents of their line when they set two aside as being natural incenses, it’s almost as if it explicitly casts the rest of their lines as being at least in part synthetic. The Naturense line is one of the two lines Nippon Kodo have labelled as natural, the other being NK Pure. Based on Inspired Mind, a lemongrass and orange scent, as well as the comparable but higher end Kohden line, Naturense seems to be an essential oil mix on wood base blend that bears a whiff of base as much as the oils, even in an oil blend as strongly scented as lemongrass and orange. It does indeed smell natural, not far from a mix of a standard inexpensive sandalwood incense and what you’d smell if you combined lemongrass and orange essential oils together. The lemongrass is dominant like it always is, but the orange does come through, lessing the pungency of the overall scent, probably a smart move. If you’re like me, you won’t need more than the occasional lemongrass incense every so often to mix things up and Inspired Mind does fit the bill as far as this is concerned.

So I think that wraps up almost every NK incense I own, apart from a Morning Star Gold sampler, a range which could be the posterchild for why the cheaper end of Japanese incense isn’t always a good idea and one that might take some time to build up the urge to comment on. On the other hand it won’t be long before I can resist a box of Tokusen Kyara Taikan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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