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.

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Minorien / Fu-in / Sandalwood, Aloeswood, Kyara + Scents of Japan / Eucalyptus

It is particularly true with incenses that feature strong wood notes that shifts in materials affect these the most by a long shot, so I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the basic Minorien line again after all these years. I am very fond of the Minorien line, in fact I’d easily call them one of my favorite Japanese outfits from top to bottom. They have this Fu-in line (previously reviewed here and here), two of the best kyara blends on the market (reviewed here, here, and here), a couple of fantastic aloeswood blends somewhere in the mid price range and some florals and moderns that are rather good as well. They have also tailor made incenses for the western market through Japan Incense and at least one other company as well. They do what they do very well. However, we are starting to notice what appear to be some large shifts in their recipes and as a result this is unlikely to be the only time we revisit their incenses.

So let’s start with their Fu-in Sandalwood. While this may have shifted some since my original review, nearly everything I said there still remains true. This isn’t your usual somewhat thin on the ground basic sandalwood, it feels to me like they’ve taken good quality wood and bolstered it a lot with some oils as well. I mention in my previous review that it makes it somewhat similar to some Indian dhoop sandalwoods and I think that’s still true. Much has been made about the Minorien “wet” note and I think that’s often because the incenses marry fine materials with fine oils and that gives this affordable sandalwood a very pleasant and somewhat damp-like aroma. So this one isn’t really about capturing more old mountain sandalwood type qualities or being super high end, it’s more about pitching something in the middle that works really well. So honestly when I started to rebuy my incense stock, this was one of the first I started with. So really, there aren’t much in the way of shifts and this is very dependable. Even if there is some trickery to make a $14 box smell above average, it’s super well done. And if you want to just try a bit of it there’s a mini box too. There are also other shapes and sizes (of all but the Scents of Japan Eucalyptus) as well, maybe close to a half dozen in total. You might be able to grab high end sandalwoods, and some cool low end blends, but I think this might be the best of the affordable single notes.

The big change in the line is really the Fu-in Aloeswood, which to my nose is almost a completely different incense than the way it used to smell. Simply put this used to be one of the most satisfying aloeswoods for its price on the market and in many ways it’s merely very good now, if that makes sense. I don’t notice the “wet” smell on this one quite like I used to, although the incense does appear to be going for the same sort of profile. It feels like it’s a bit more polished now, which I don’t quite remember from older stocks as much, and occasionally I get what might be described as more perfume-like elements, which also seems new to this incense. I would guess, of course, that the base woods are just different, and Minorien is still attempting to craft this one as a very legit aloeswood smell and it still is. But I did feel on this one my previous review was somewhat obsolete now as it’s quite different. There was something a bit more unique about this one in the past and it feels like this one is more reaching for it than hitting the target. Of course if you’re coming fresh to this you won’t notice any such thing and I definitely wouldn’t wave you away. But if I think to the Ryugen, the Aloeswood has almost like the same kind of craft going on except with the high-end kyara it’s at a much more impressive and unique level.

The real comparison though is when you move forward to the Fu-in Kyara. Now I have weighed in before that this isn’t really what I call a kyara, quite frankly if you want that kind of note you’ll get a little in the Ryugen and a bit more in the Chokoh, although I think with both they are being bolstered by additional perfumes and ingredients. But here I think you’re getting more a of a premium aloeswood scent and at least the overall profile starts to hint at kyara. I was thinking very recently after sampling the Kourindo Kyara just how utterly vast the gap is between the real thing and the label, but my secondary concern is if you’re going to use the label at least make it worth it (looking at you NK). I’m not sure the subnote range in this incense is all that more complex or vast as it is in the aloeswood, it’s more than the materials here are better, and the overall profile a bit more polished and sublime. It’s unquestionably a terrific incense, and it is deeply resinous and bitter in the best aloeswood fashion, but I do remember that back in the day I didn’t feel it justified the leap from the Aloeswood where now I think it probably does. And although it has been a while since I had my first box of this, it also feels like the profile is somewhat different, in ways that are probably hard to remember at this point. But overall you are more or less getting a quality akin to the amount of your money willing to shell out and as you can see there’s a big box in the picture which should show how much I really do like this one. It has that aloeswood intensity you can almost feel in the middle of the forehead as it tugs on the energy.

Finally, it should be noted that Minorien sometimes designs incenses for outside the Japanese market, in fact it’s fairly well known that their Frankincense is one of these. There’s also one called Kuromoji (Forest Breeze) and then there’s a three-incense line designed for Japan Incense which include Sage, Myrrh and the fantastic Eucalyptus. I would guess there are others. I wrote about this one in my 14 One of a Kind Japanese Incenses article from earlier this year, but I wanted to circle around again to have it in place for an actual review. It may very well be that I’m not as big of a fan of Sage and stick Myrrh (I do like a good resin) to have been the right audience for the other two, but on the other hand I wouldn’t have thought so for the Eucalyptus either, but it really turns out to be a really cool scent. We have a lot of Eucalyptus trees in California and so it’s a fairly familiar scent but you don’t usually see it as intensified or as prettied up as it is in the Japan Incense version. I like its uniquely minty-like presence in this stick and the way it is refined for something like a modern/traditional hybrid that really works. I would guess that most people don’t have a eucalyptus incense in their article so this is one to start with and one that’s quite affordable too. It’s a lovely, fresh sort of aroma and unlike anything else.

Temple of Incense / Tulsi, Desert Sage, Dragon’s Blood, Frankincense

Temple of Incense Part 7
Temple of Incense Part 9
The entire Temple of Incense review series can be found at the Incense Reviews Index

While the plan was to go in alphabetical order, the fine ladies at Temple of Incense decided to send me two samples and they said they are coming to the website soon so this is a sneak preview of Tulsi and then we go back to the alphabetical crawl through the ToI catalog.

Tulsi arrives as a thick extruded agarbatti that looks to be a mixture of charcoal and aromatics, finished with a brown powder. It lights up into a warm, mildly sweet scent that is dominated by tulsi. My caveat to talking about this is most of my tulsi olfactory experience comes from the tea, which steeping in boiling water is different than extracting the oil and combusting it. What I get here is something that comes across as warm and fresh, with a herbal note that almost pushes into the lavender/fabric softener range. The soft sweetness could be a touch of halmaddi or similar binder/sweetener.

As I mentioned, being relatively new to Indian Incense, I don’t have the experience to talk about the stuff from 10 or 20 years ago and compare, but one thing that I can do is mention that in the 100s of sticks I’ve sniffed that have mentioned tulsi as an ingredient, none of them were as pleasant as this one, in fact, until this stick, I had started to think that tulsi was a note to avoid in incense, as I was starting to associate it with a Ivory Soap type of smell. But none of that is here. What I like so much is how fresh this is and how it seems to freshen a room and brighten it.

Speaking of cleansing, Desert Sage is one of the entries from ToI that follows on the tails of the likes of ‘Big Cleanse’ in that many of the ingredients are used as space cleansing for intentional work. They list eucalyptus, sage, mint, rosewood, cedar and pine on the box. Coming out of the box, unlit, the scent is like a sage bundle. But when you light it, you get more of the other ingredients in a shifting interplay that sometimes combines into a minty, cool, refreshing sort of scent and other times you just get a whiff of cedar or eucalyptus.

You can tell they are using high quality oils both because it smells great as it burns but also because it lit up like a torch soaked in gasoline. There are moments when the pine shines through it all, and others where the cool mint can be felt, but mostly this is good for anyone who likes ANY of these scents because they are all rather in the same ‘school’, they all come across cool, clean and refreshing. I’m going to mention that initially, when I got all the samples and had 1 of everything, this was the first stick I didn’t like. Now that I bought a box of it, I can tell the first one was contaminated by nearby samples because of how much more this smells like the ingredients and not like a bar of soap.

Dragon’s Blood is an extruded agarbatti with a red powder finish that stains the bamboo stick. Absolute Bliss sells this same stick as ‘Red Blood Dragon‘. This is a very fruity and sweet interpretation of the resin, and the stick format is similar to the other resin sticks in this lineup; like Amber, Myrrh, Frankincense, all have similar extruded resin-agarbatti though this one is a bit thinner. The masala is charcoal heavy because it is very black under the red powder.

This is almost like having a cherry soda or similar kind of treat. I would call it a ‘nose dessert’ because of how sweet it is. The nice thing is that it has a lot of class. Some sweet types of incense get too cloying, but this is one of those things that reminds of one of my weird friends who asked if I’d ever had microwaved Kool-Aid. This is what the microwave smelled like after we boiled a few cups of ‘berry’ Kool-Aid. It was delicious, by the way, hot Kool-Aid. I’m fairly sure that this incense will titillate anyone who loves sweet but also needs a bit of class, like choosing Tiramisu over a Snickers Bar.

Frankincense opens up with a nice serrata/frefreana citrus note. This is a thick extruded agarbatti with a soft coating of powder and it burns a bit slower than average. If you’re familiar with Happy Hari’s King of Frankincense, this is the same stick coming from the same maker, even the bamboo core is the same color and size.

One of the things as I was getting introduced to Indian style incense is that many times if frankincense appeared in the name it was never available in the scent. Even the high end Pure Incense Connoisseur Frankincense doesn’t actually smell like frankincense. But this one does. There isn’t actually much else competing with the scent other than maybe something salty that I can occasionally detect as possibly one of the binders. This is easily one of my favorite frankincense sticks, if you like the Tennendo Frankincense, you will most likely like this and it burns for an hour or so, too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Incense (Minorien) / Theology Series / Eucalyptus, Sage and Myrrh

These are three scented offerings from Japan Incense’s Jay Cowan, who had them made by a major producer in Japan [NOTE 7/5/21: All appear to be produced by Minorien –  Mike]. These tend to be a very “Japanese” take on these scents as compared to other companies styles. They have an overall elegant and somewhat subtle scent as opposed to the more standard “in your face” style. I was personally pleasantly surprised at how nice the Eucalyptus is, this is not something that I would normally buy but I picked up a box of it before Christmas and have been steadily going through it. The eucalyptus scent is lifted up out of the ordinary with a slightly (very slight) sweet woods base note that also seems to run through the rest of the line and works well with all of them.  The Sage is also very approachable with a light sage note mixed in with the above mentioned sweetish/woods. The Myrrh continues along the same lines as the other two with a noticeable main note mixed with the base. This one was also a surprise as getting a decent myrrh scent out of a stick is (IMHO) rarely successful.

Overall I think these will appeal to many people who would like to experiment with these scents but do not want to deal with the big amounts of smoke and normally very strong scents that these three plants can present. These are not for smudging as much as for creating an lightly scented environment. Let your nose be your guide!

Les Encens du Monde (Florisens) / 1000 Years of Wisdom (Koukando Sennenko), Pine & Orchid Wedding (Kunjudo Shoranko), Whispering Bamboo (Koukando), Oriental Breeze (Kunjudo Shobikoh) (Discontinued), Aloe Vera (Discontinued), Middle Path, Mount Fuji

It’s dawned on me recently that if you want really high quality but low price incenses, the various Encens du Monde sandalwoods are really some of the best on the market. It’s true there’s something of a price markup with most of these due to the incenses’ long travel regiment, but I think the quality of most of these incenses does indeed offset these prices to some extent. The real difficulty with these incenses is making sure you don’t overlap with something directly distributed to your country; however, my experience over time has been that even in the cases that incenses do overlap, there’s still enough of a recipe difference to set two similar brands apart.

For example, I reviewed Koukando Rangetsu vs Encense du Monde Jade Orchid a while back and while you certainly only need one or the other, I felt the EdM variety was slightly the superior with a better wood base. Later I got the opportunity to compare Kunjudo’s Karin in the box to Karin in the tube and found that the difference was nearly significant, the former much sweeter, the latter muskier and more traditional, making me wonder if the Encense du Monde Forest of Flowers variant might differ in its own right [NOTE 7/3/21: As it turns out this is because it was really Karin vs Tokusen Karin]. With these experiences I wouldn’t be quite so sure that even when two packagings match up in style that you’re dealing with the exact same incense. And Ross’s warning in the latest top 10 should be taken under advisement as well, there are indeed formulation changes happening with nearly every incense under the sun as aloeswood, sandalwood and halmaddi all get rarer. In the group I’ll be reviewing today, the Oriental Breeze packaging matches up with the “generic” Shobikoh incense [NOTE: Discontinued], but I’d make a guess that the Shobikoh probably isn’t quite as strong as the Oriental Breeze given the difference in price. In summary, buyer beware. I believe most of the EdM incenses in this review are made by Kunjudo, with the known exception of Mount Fuji, which is a Shoyeido incense not otherwise distributed here. [Correction: Please note Francois’ comment below for the right origins of these incenses]

1000 Years of Wisdom (1000 Ans de Sagesse) is something of a potpourri type of incense with ingredients extracted from various wood powders, essential oils, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus and patchouli. It’s a black colored stick but not of the smokeless kind usually found in this color. It’s a hard one to describe given there are really no dominant scents other than the eucalyptus content being fairly obvious with its almost menthol like cooling scent. It does appear to have the typical sandalwood base and although there is no obvious aloeswood content, oil or otherwise, has some similarities to the Shoyeido Sei-Fu blend. Whisps of sweetness, anise and even an herbal flavor that reminds me of veitivert pop up occasionally, but overall this is an incense formulated for a unique scent. It’s not at all a bad deal for the almost $9 a roll and one I’ve found gets better with use. This incense, available in a large box, has been identified as an equivalent to Koukando Sennenko.

Pine & Orchid Wedding (Mariage du pin et de l’orchidée) I’ve tried in the short roll but it also appears to be part of the Japonessence line as well, although I’m not sure if it varies in scent or not. This is one of my very favorite under $10 sandalwood based rolls and in some ways it’s almost like a low octave and inexpensive version of the incenses you see as Seeds of Transformation and Blissful Mountain in the much pricier Meditation range. That is, it’s a wood based stick with a fabulous floral oil on top, a marriage I’ve really grown to appreciate with use. The floral oil isn’t as expensive or as high class as it is in the previous mentioned incenses but nor is it bitter or off  putting, just a bit mellower (it should be mentioned that the two top ends use lily essential oil rather than orchid, but the results are too similar not to compare). The pine is typical of its use in most Japanese incenses in that it’s a woody scent rather than the heavily resinous pitch you’ll encounter in, say, Fred Soll’s incenses (Shunkohdo Matsuba Pine is fairly close for example). Overall just a perfect scent, fresh and calming and even with the EdM hike, very affordable.

Like 1000 Years, Whispering Bamboo (Le Chant des bambous) is a pretty complex and multi-ingredient heavy scent, although in this case we’re dealing with a square stick with the typical green color. The ingredient list has “a delicate touch” of violet along with sandalwood, cinnamon, eucalyptus, Chinese plants and patchouli. And in particular the Chinese plants aspect evokes similarities to various traditional Kunmeido and Shunkohdo scents that use medicinal herbs, with a unique spice as a backdrop. This is a much more intense scent than, say, the bamboo incense found in Kunjudo’s Three Scents box due to these herbs, although I would suspect the slightly fruity undertones are where the violet manifests (or at least it doesn’t all evoke for me what I typically think of as a violet scent). Overall its quite unique and another EdM winner that improves for me with every stick of use.

As I mentioned before, Oriental Breeze (Brise Orientale) has packaging reminiscent enough of Shobikoh as to hint that we’re dealing with a very similar incense and a significantly different price. Of all the incenses in this review, this is the most obviously inexpensive, it’s described as a sandalwood incense with clove and cinnamon, a combination very common at the lower price ranges. The wood, unlike with the other scents here, is a bit on the bitter side at times, and the oil content is much lower, making this one only roughly indistinguishable from most lower end “every day” sandalwoods. Although I haven’t tried the Shobikoh per se, it may be the one to start with given its low cost. Those stocked heavily with green low end sandalwoods will likely not need the duplication.

The next three incenses could be considered “sampler notes” in that I’ve only tried a couple sticks of each and don’t feel I’ve exhaused the aromatic potential of any of them. The good news is that with all three I felt my best experiences were towards the last stick, and in one case I did an almost complete turn around. This case was the Aloe Vera, admittedly not one of my favorite scents, it’s quite the common addition to soaps and even tissue paper, with its very noticeable green, verdant and fresh scent. My initial take on this incense was that it was too bitter and unpleasant, but I found myself actually warming to it by the second stick. It really does what it says on the box, representing the aroma in a wood base, with some hints of clay and patchouli in the mix. I perhaps did not have enough of a sample to know how I’d feel about it in the end but still ended on a positive note.

Middle Path I liked from the start, it’s a purple stick with a very purple “feel” to it, slightly mellow and otherwise not terribly far from most low end green sandalwoods, except it generally avoids the bitter tendencies found in the woods. There’s quite a decent sandalwood value here, with a noticeably sawdust like aroma, but the best part is the myrrh and spicy oil, the former of which would account for the mellowness. One I think I’ll be adding to the next incense order. [NOTE: While the link to Zen Minded also has “Daigen Koh,” I am not sure if it’s the same as the Daigen Koh in the Daily line. The Dailies used to have different colors but the ingredients list seems a bit different.]

Mount Fuji, as previously mentioned, is a Shoyeido incense not distributed through the main company, perhaps because it’s fairly similar to the same line’s Miyako-gusa scent. That is, it’s a typically spicy, but uncommonly rich and slightly sharp low end sandalwood mix that wouldn’t have fit particularly comfortably in the Daily or Classics range.  There appears to be lily of the valley in this one, but I didn’t notice the same sort of powerful oil that’s in Seeds of Transformation or Blissful Mountain, more so I got impressions of forests, pine and other woods and maybe a touch of patchouli. But again, with only a couple sticks its possible I was just missing the notes.

Likely next up on the Encens du Monde agenda will be a look at the Aromambiance line, which to my nose is almost how I’d envision Nippon Kodo moderns if they were done a bit better. But that will be some time down the road. As far as these incenses are concerned, Pine and Orchid Wedding is something of a must, but other than the Oriental Breeze and maybe the Aloe Vera, all the rest seem to be strong low end sandalwoods all with unique combinations you may not have tried before.