Baieido / Kobunboku, Tokusen Kobunboku (long sticks)

So third in a series of recent Baieido incenses is somewhere between the new review and revisit review of the last two in that I’ve had rolls of both of these incenses before but not the long ones. And I wondered just how much have these incenses changes given they’re both created from all natural ingredients and no perfume oils. The first thing I thought was is this true, but unfortunately we don’t have David Oller around anymore to check in with him. Because my thoughts with both of these was wondering if maybe they were using just a little bit now?

If I was to name one of the great affordable incenses in Japanese incense, I would easily name the great Kobunboku. In many ways this could be the archetypal “plum blossom” incense. Baieido have always included a really wonderful sandalwood to balance the mix but it still has a distinct and gentle plum blossom scent without drifting into anything harsh or cheap smelling. These plum blossom incenses are a hallmark of Japanese incense and many of them also go right up the price range when they’re mixed with aloeswood. Now this long stick version does remind me very much of the old shorter stick bundle (or two) I went through years ago. It often struck me that I enjoyed that incense as much as any of the aloeswood blends in Baieido’s ready for market traditional line. It does seem a bit different to me now, which is to be expected with ingredients drift, but there’s also a feeling that the bouquet is a bit stronger than it used to be. Baieido incenses have always been the sort that smelling the fresh stick without burning means you can’t really smell much and that still seems to be fairly true, so I can’t be certain if the company is using oils now or if perhaps this is just a lot fresher than I remember. But it at least invoked the question for me. Anyway this is described as a mix of sandalwood, aloeswood and herbs, but I would guess the aloeswood note is very faint and used more as coloring in the base. And that’s entirely because this range moves up in price when there’s more in the mix. And while this is technically a “blossom” incense and not a fruit incense, I really like that there is a distinct scent of plums on top in a sort of floral way that doesn’t feel cheap or artificial. Anyway I think this is an incense that you want to check out if you are exploring Japanese incense as it remains a classic at its price point.

Tokusen Kobunboku is a good example of a plum blossom incense that bumps up the aloeswood. In doing this that top fruity-floral plum aroma drops a bit backward into the wood mix without entirely disappearing, but at least to my nose it creates a very big change between its aroma and the regular Kobunboku even if some of the similarities are still there. Now I had a bit of the same feeling that it was stronger when I lit up a stick of the long stick version after purchasing a box, but now that I have sit with this a bit the afternoon I wrote this, it feels very much on par with what I remember. And even if there is some aloeswood tang to it that has moved in front, I still feel this has quite a bit of good sandalwood in the mix. This woodiness also brings out the spices a little more, as if to accentuate that element in the sandalwood.

So it appears both the regular and excellent Kobunboku are still in good health, which is fortunate as Baieido are really well knowing for making price-efficient incenses that still give you plenty to meditate on and enjoy. They’re really good examples of blends actually and while you can discuss the idea of how much aloeswood and sandalwood are in these, there are a lot of spice and herbal notes that make the overall scent that much more fascinating. If you haven’t checked these out, I highly recommend both. And be sure to check out the entire Baieido catalog at Japan Incense as there are some even more price conscious choices available to sample these. Even if you’re paying a little more, to my nose the quality is much higher here for low end incenses than you’d find in Shoyeido and Nippon Kodo catalogs.

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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!

Bosen / Hoi-An Aloeswood, Refining

So I had meant to sweep up these Bosen scents. I think for the most part ORS has covered many of this Taiwan-based line’s incenses through the years but occasionally they have added a new (ish) one like the Hoi-An Aloeswood, which is basically an ambergris-infused aloeswood and one we hadn’t reviewed.

This one’s a real treat from my perspective and the company appears to have matched the ambergris with a decent level aloeswood so you can equally experience the notes of the wood as well as the salty goodness of ambergris (also be sure not to close the link after the first sentence.) This stick of course reminds me of Ross and his “souked” agarwood, which this certain resembles in many ways. Anyway this is simply a match made in heaven, where some of Bosen’s lower end aloeswoods on their own can be average, the mix with ambergris just gives you a whole host of notes to experience during a burn. It’s honestly near the top of my favorite Bosens.

Refining Incense was probably left out of reviews all those years ago by accident as my check on Amazon shows I’ve ordered it twice. This is one I mentally classify with their more Tibetan-style incenses like in this group. Refining Incense is a mix of agarwood, white sandalwood, styrax, ghanten khampa, several Tibetan Dharma medicines and nectars, and binder. However, it really seems to be the styrax resin that stands out, and at 35% it is more than double the amount of any other ingredients. So the overall incense has a very strong and distinct resinous note with the agarwood, sandalwood and ghanten khampa (a Tibetan wormwood) making up much of the incense’s back notes. Most Bosen Tibetans have some sort of fruity-resin like mix that distinguishes them from the usual Tibetan incenses, not to mention the tensile strength of these sticks is certainly stronger. In many ways this actually reminds me a little of the Pythoncidere, although it seems to have some floral and other aspects that incense doesn’t have. But Bosen always made these to smell fresh, high altitude and distinctive and they’re all really enjoyable, there are none of the cheap wood aspects you get in lower tier Nepali/Tibetan incenses in Bosen products.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baieido Premium Assortment Set / revisits of Kokonoe Aloeswood, Ho Ryo Aloeswood, Kun Sho Aloeswood, Koh En Aloeswood, Koh Shi Boku Kyara

Anyone who is an afficianado of aloeswood knows that the stocks of the premium woods have been slowly shrinking over the years. The fact that the best of these stocks came from woods buried underground in deep jungles, allowing the fungus that turns aloeswood into the aromatic treasure that it is, not to mention the wood’s popularity, has essentially made it close to impossible for Japanese companies who deplete their stocks to make the same incenses. The response to this has been either to discontinue the incenses, permanently or temporarily, or use lesser quality woods. It is perhaps somewhat surprising that Baieido, a company well known among aficionados for using the least amount of oils or perfumes in their natural sticks, would choose the latter approach. Simply because it means Baieido, of all the great Japanese companies, has taken the biggest hits in quality in the last decade or so. And some of the evidence comes from the five aloeswood incenses in this assortment set, a set bought last year. ORS reviewed all five incenses in this line by Ross here and here many years ago, and I would only add that around this time I owned full boxes of all five of these and got very familiar with them and largely agree with Ross’ take on these incenses. They were almost entirely great through the line and matched perfectly at their price points.

And this is why the Kokonoe Aloeswood, at the most inexpensive point in the line, seems like a completely different incense than it used to be. Baieido have long claimed that they essentially present the actual woods with just enough binder material, so the usual oil or perfume trickery to help modify the scent just isn’t here on these incenses. In fact one of my first impressions is this smells more like the binder than the aloeswood. There is really very little in this stick to commend for it and while the 00’s version of this scent wasn’t really my favorite in the series, I seem to remember it having much more personality than it does now (not to mention it used to match up with the actual aloeswood Baieido used to sell as well). And Ross’s review, where he says he burned this one more than the other two featured in that review, really underlines the differences here. Honestly my feeling is that if you were to have me smell this incense in a blind taste test I’d probably tell you it was a low quality aloeswood without a lot of personality. But at a guess what may be happening is that there may still be a small amount of the better Indonesian wood it’s just that there is either other wood and or/more binder in this. I just walked in and out of the room while this was burning and did get some notes that reminded me of the older version. But then when I sat down next to it, not so much. And $48 for an actual roll of this seems well above its worth, but keep in mind it’s hard to get unstuck from the lower prices to better wood ratio of a decade or so ago.

So how does the Thai wood stack up? Honestly, the Ho Ryu seems very similar in that the issue could be a higher binder to aloeswood ratio. Of the sticks from the original boxes that lasted the longest I believe this may be the most recent I had sampled. Fortunately this one seems to have some level of presence left. It’s interesting because if I was to reasonably guess which countries come up in aloeswood discussions, obviously the most prized Vietnamese woods be first and then probably the Indonesian woods. I don’t see Thai aloeswood spoken of quite as often, but I do love how its scent profile tends to differ from the others and you are not missing that display even with the current form of the wood. It made me wonder if this was the wood in the Kai Un Koh for example as it shares some of the more perhaps leathery or “masculine” spiciness in the woods. So honestly if all you’re paying is $2 more for a box than the Kokonoe, you are getting a much more interesting woody stick here and not feeling so much that the price is too high for the resinous content or level of quality. The resin is here, if in slightly less dense thickness than it might be in a more expensive stick. But ultimately Ho Ryu is still a very enjoyable stick. I don’t quite remember how much this differs from the last version, but it’s not striking me as all that different.

So after such a hoary, dense treat as the Ho Ryu, the Cambodian aloeswood Kun Sho seems to dial back the energy a bit, but the resin content and overall high quality presence do take a leap both quality wise and price wise. So certainly, and this was true both a decade ago and now, this is where the aloeswood jumps up to a higher grade and you start to feel a true, deep aloeswood presence. This is also where latent floral qualities and subnotes start to abound aromatically. Now my impression in general is that the Kun Sho of a decade ago was a better wood. I don’t have a lot to prove there as my box of it was yummy enough to burn up a long time ago. But looking at Ross’ review again I am reminded that this was and probably is one of those incenses you really want to spend time with. Any good aloeswood really deserves this kind of meditation because initial smells will throw the scent into your face and your brain needs work to pick out all the sub-elements. Right now I am particularly bowled over by what Ross calls the “exotic fruit” subscent. It is absolutely the hallmark of a great wood to have this sort of note in it. It is what sets one regional wood apart from another. So even when you read my impression that this might have been better, it’s certainly different as I don’t remember the herbal qualities quite as much from my initial box. But I genuinely do feel like this earns the price of $80 a box, especially considering all the shifts in pricing.

From my experience Koh En may be the biggest change in the series. This was actually one of my favorite incenses back in the 00s because the aloeswood really had this wonderful cherry blossom note. There are a lot of incenses in more inexpensive realms where they do a cherry blossom scented aloeswood, but the wood here is much finer than the wood normally used in these types of incenses and in many ways it made it one of a kind. The new version of it seems to have some sort of herbal note in front with maybe a touch of the cherry blossom scent a little farther back. As always, the stick follows the wood and it certainly does here but there’s no question this is a different aromatic bundle. The aloeswood is still quite nice, there’s no lack of resin and there are some interesting camphor and floral notes around the side that really get your attention. Honestly as you go through the stick, it’s so impressive that you actually start to forget that it isn’t the same Koh En as you remember. I was told by a venerable vendor once about a fairly popular incense which was something like when incenses change it’s usually the old hands that have an issue with it, but not so much those who are new to it. Keeping that in mind then I think you’d only have an issue with this one coming from an older version. But then you’re looking at a $140 price tag. Is it worth that? Well it’s definitely an aloeswood with some great notes. It might even be somewhere in the top tier of what you can get from Vietnamese aloeswood now. It’s still a very good incense, complex, multifaceted and deep. But hey that’s where the premium assortment is really helpful.

Finally there is the great kyara incense Koh Shi Boku. For a long time this was a very affordable and yet completely legitimate kyara incense. It had a distinct green kyara note down the middle and even if there was binder or maybe other aloeswood mixed in, it always felt like a classic and truly great kyara incense, in fact only the line’s Kyara Kokoh is a better incense and that’s because Kyara Kokoh may be one of the best incenses anywhere. So the first thing I do when I burn a stick of this is to look for that green, camphorous and complex note. The strange thing, like I discussed with some of the earlier incenses, is this feeling that some of the better notes in these incenses have been dialed down a bit. And without having a stick from 2009 it’s hard to be completely objective about this, but indeed my memory is it was a bit sharper in the 00s. But generally the front facing wood is still a kyara fronted aloeswood with a lot of denseness in the center. There are truly some beautiful notes in this, some floral notes that make me wonder if a little of the wood used in the Koh En is used here. But I do remember when I first pulled this out of the sampler feeling like this was a completely different mix to the one I remembered. But there is no question this is still great incense, there is enough going on here to take many sticks to learn. And even though it showed a sale price at Japan Incenses when I wrote this, this is still the same price it was many years ago so at least there’s been no appreciation on this account.

So really the moral of the story is that woods change and so do the incenses, but at least in these cases it feels like there was some reformulation or changes needed. Maybe only the Kokonoe here suffers from the changes even if 2 or 3 of the rest are really quite different incenses than they used to be. If you’re coming in fresh the Baieido Premium Assortment Set is a really good way to sample them all. If you’re only familiar with the older versions then it’s still a good way as Japan Incense does not appear to carry smaller samples, but then again all the deep cuts in this lovely box are all worth exploring for many sticks. Keep in mind there are very few other high end aloeswood incenses out there that don’t formulate the blend with oils and perfumes so these are quite special even if you need to nudge up really close to them.

Baieido / Ensei / Healing, Gallant, Pure

Baieido started their Ensei series many years ago with five different aromas and looking in the index I see Ross did a review of four of them in 2009 (I’m still kind of amazed any time I’m reminded how long ago some of our reviews are at this point). I tried them in a sampler back then, I think, and don’t remember them being particularly great, they felt more like a way to modernize some of the more traditional scents and in a catalog of wonderful aloeswood and sandalwood incenses, they didn’t strike me as measuring up. Ross said in his review, “These are not super powerful scents, but rather work on more subtle levels, one can use them near others without “blowing them away,”” which I think is a solid statement that also goes for this new trio. I don’t know if any of these particular sticks match up with the old (and still available) Ensei scents, but Healing is a “spicy aloeswood aroma,” Gallant is a “meditation aloeswood,” and Pure a “thick aloeswood aroma.” So some overlap maybe. But anyway, all of these are shorter sticks and come in smaller tubes of 20 sticks. They’re priced about where you would imagine at $15 and the aloeswood is probably what I might describe as low to mid end wood, with the sandalwood being a bit more premium, and Baieido usually do a pretty good job with both (although I might argue with aloeswood depletions the company is not quite what it once was).

And so they burn fast, real fast. Healing is really not terribly unlike one or two of the Kobunboku blends. It’s not heavily spicy and there is some level of aloeswood in the mix but it’s not a dense or resinous blend, it’s definitely pitched a bit lighter. There’s also a bit of like fennel like cooking spice in addition to whatever that cinnamon clove layer has in it. And I would guess there’s some nice sandalwood (it has fresh quasi-heartwood notes) in the middle as that’s part of what reminds me of the Kobunboku series. Overall it’s a bit cooling as well. So yes this one is very Baieido and if you know the company then you would expect to get to know the materials, although in this case 20 short sticks may not be quite enough. On the other hand after four sticks I’m not terribly sure how deep this one goes.

Initially, I found Gallant to be a bit richer of a blend, somewhat tangy, in fact the kind of smell I more usually associate with a spicy aloeswood rather than a sweet one. But there were some comparisons where it actually felt like it wasn’t all that different from Healing, so I figured the spatial configuration of your burning set ups may bring out different notes. I noticed what I thought were some intentional floral elements blended in and then searched for them on a different burn without finding them. Once again it feels like there is some decent quality sandalwood in the middle and once again it’s actually quite nice and beneficial for the overall aroma, but there is no really powerful aloeswood scent here. It feels more or less like the aloeswood exists to contour the overall scent. Like Healing, I was left fairly nonplussed by this one.

Finally, there’s the Pure. I’m assuming thick isn’t meant to reflect modern slang, and after two rather delicate blends I was hoping this one might be dialed up a bit more. And it is, maybe a little. It’s a bit cooking spice like the Healing, a bit more aloeswood-aroma heavy on the front end. But calling it thick seems to not take into account that like the others this is a very mellow aroma, with maybe a bit more tangy of a mix than the other two.

Ultimately these are not unpleasant incenses but they match my memory of feeling like the Enseis were really not all that much to get excited about in a crowded world full of aloeswood mixes, even in the Baieido catalog where most of their sticks are better than this. The format means it’s something where you might want a touch of scent and in a home full of heavy incense use, these are probably too fleeting to make much of a dent. Of course if you’re someone who leans to the Japanese style and even finds some of those too powerful, this might be more to your speed. But it feels like if I get the slightest bit of a distraction, I’ll turn around and the stick will be out.

Seijudo / Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends, Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends

Seijudo are mostly known in the US for their very expensive aloeswood to kyara line that seems largely made from charcoal and expensive oils/perfumes rather than woods (much older reviews of these are in the Reviews Index link on the left and the few I’ve tried in last year or so were still about the same as I remembered them). The high ends of these incenses were probably comparable with Shoyeido’s now deleted kyara trio, so given that we are losing a lot of these high enders to aloeswood depletion it’s a bit surprising you can still purchase these. So if you were thinking about trying something deluxe now’s the time to do it (for example we just lost the top three Kourindo incenses to shortages). I can’t imagine most of these are going to last forever. However, these two larger box Kotonoha incenses (120 sticks) present both sandalwood and aloeswood incenses in a much more traditional form and accessible price (the remainder of the catalog available in the US seems to be low smoke incenses).

So where does the Kotonoha Indian Sandalwood Blends fall on the Japanese sandalwood spectrum? I would say at least mid-end. It may not quite capture the sort of crystalline resinous top of the best old mountain woods but it’s rather superb through the rest of the burn and very much avoids the pitfalls of the low end stuff that is usually full of filler wood and often other oil elements. It’s a very friendly sandalwood that really avoids any off notes, and it has a bit of coolness and freshness. To roughly compare, if I was to go up to what might be my current favorite Japanese sandalwood, the Kikijudo Koubouku Ginmi Sandalwood Mysore India, you would be basically paying up to four times more per stick to get that extra note. So I think, assuming you’re willing to pay a bit for bulk, this may be one of the better sandalwood buys out there and I would think at this price there’s a bit of creative magic to make this one work as well as it does.

The Kotonoha Vietnam Aloeswood Blends is a little harder to pitch because when we look at 2022 vs 2012 what we might tag as low, mid and high end aloeswood has changed drastically. This means the high end stuff is getting incredibly rare to where the mid end may be the high now in many cases. The prices haven’t changed much at all but it is worth keeping this in mind when you shop. So the Kotonoha Aloeswood at just $10 more for the same amount of sticks in the sandalwood box may not be the sort of deluxe aloeswood that you meditate on for deeper more profound notes, but it is a very nice and accessible aroma that sort of hints at the type of stick that has a bit of cherry on the top, except this is equally as herbal and is still resinous enough to be interesting. The comparison of this to the Koubouku Ginmi aloeswoods is not unwarranted either, and while those three are deeper sticks overall and priced accordingly, they still hint at the kind of stick you are getting in this box. Ultimately these are still aloeswood sticks and there is no attempt to make them something more than that.

I am not sure if the creators at Seijudo, like Kikijudo, are essentially trying new works with the sandalwood and aloeswood quality that remains accessible, but if they are I think they’re still doing some fine work as both of these are very pleasant wood incenses. I’ve had them out numerous times since I bought them last year and while they are not intended to be high end pleasures, they are still quite a fine quality for the price, so if you want something you can pull out more frequently and still get a decent incense, I would recommend both of these.

Qinghai Jiumei Tibetan Medicine Pharmaceutical Co. / Jiumei Tibetan Incense

So here’s one of those “double roll” packages of Tibetan incense, filed at incense-traditions.ca under their therapeutic and relaxation category. It’s described as “an excellent therapeutic incense containing a lovely blend of fragrant plants such as eaglewood, sandalwood and nutmeg.” First of all, like why don’t we just get rid of agarwood and aloeswood and start calling it eaglewood? Isn’t that a much cooler name? Diversions aside though, finding this wood in relaxing or healing incenses from Tibet seems to be a very common sort of thing. The nutmeg addition, though, seems quite a bit more in front than it usually does and in many ways sort of makes this incense. It doesn’t quite add that same sort of spice note you’d find when cinnamon and clove are more forward in the incense but you can still sense the nutmeg quite clearly as something that tops the mix of the two woods and gives it its own aromatic nudge. And just like most Tibetan incenses the use of a sort of musk on top of the scent is present here as well and somewhat titled to a slightly animalic presence. So yes, this is indeed quite the nice scent and like so many goodies from incense-traditions, you never get the impression that Jiumei Tibetan Incense is anything but a dense and quality scent. And it’s a little bit different in that the eaglewood base doesn’t lean this in an evergreen direction so much, so its addition to your collection will likely expand its diversity.

Absolute Bliss, Happy Hari / Absolute Sandalwood, King of Saffron, King of Sandal, Oudh Saffron, White Lotus Oudh Saffron (new versions)

Absolute Bliss has recently gotten in a big restock and while I’m not entirely sure if this covers everything with significant scent differences (I am told there is also King of Musk which I would have absolutely jumped on had I known), it definitely covers five sticks that range from slight to significant improvements in aroma.

The first, Absolute Sandalwood, was enough of a trainwreck that I didn’t review it originally. Corey at Absolute Bliss is basically as aware as we are when something ships over that is not up to snuff, so in that sense I don’t really relish a blistering review of something we all know isn’t good. The new version of Absolute Sandalwood may not be the greatest sandalwood every extruded but it presents a really unique sort of woodshop-like take on it. Where the previous version did not get this mix right in the slightest, this new one actually really started to intrigue me after a few sticks. Think of that mix of turpentine, glue and fresh wood dust you’d get in a shop and then kinda bolster that with some level of sandalwood in the mix and you’re onto what this one smells like. I’m sitting here with my third stick from a 10g package and actually really starting to like it, in the sense that it’s actually complex but the complexity is almost like these specific woodshop elements one at a time. It has a strange quality of richness with these elements that elsewhere might not be to a lot of people’s tastes. So while I’d probably caution one not to go hogwild, I would also highly recommend checking out a small package of it to see if it’s your speed. I’m actually starting to love it.

King of Saffron is not the King of Saffron I remember from many years ago when Paul Eagle was running the shop – that stick I remember being brown and very different from this one. The current King of Saffron should be familiar to those with some experience with Indian incense as it’s essentially the very thin, extruded, yellow dusted stick often called saffron sandalwood or some other name in plenty of catalogs through the years. I probably came across 3 or 4 versions of the same incense in the Vedic Vaani catalog this year except Absolute Bliss’ version is definitely better than all of those, and incredibly reminiscent of when the Mystic Temple version was a classic. The only other incense I’ve tried in the last 25 years that reminds me of the glory years of Indian incense is Temple of Incense’s Extreme Sandalwood. King of Saffron not only has the dryness, the saffron spiciness and a level of wood but it has that incredible floral finish that these incenses used to have but have usually just disappeared. It also has a wonderful camphor thread through it which has always been one of my favorite things about this particular scent. And remember these sticks are thin enough that 125g of this is likely to have has many as two times as many sticks as you usually get by that weight. So this is one you want to jump on for sure.

The King of Sandal is also very different from previous versions and it’s not really so much a pure sandalwood stick now as a sort of sandalwood champa type mix and a really beautiful one at that. It’s actually not easy to balance the sweet and woody of these two elements, and I come across plenty of these mixes that are off in some way. This new stick is halmaddi rich and probably leans in the sweeter direction but it’s rather perfectly balanced for a sandalwood top note and not only that it’s a very accessible scent. In many ways it’s not unlike the Oud Masala in this sense, where the sweeter base really creates more of a blend than say a charcoal with oil would. I actually was kind of wondering if part of this is that the sandalwood here isn’t turned up too high where the woodier notes might conflict a little more. Needless to say this is another highly recommended new find.

The last two incenses, the Oudh Saffron and White Lotus Oudh Saffron are now in a different format, moving to a bit larger of a charcoal masala base than the previous versions. These are incenses that are largely carried by the oil mixes on top and when they are, the mixes tend to vary a little from batch to batch. This is my third batch of the White Lotus and it’s largely the same incense, just maybe a little bit different. The second batch may have been a tiny bit more dialed back in the woodiness where this new batch turns it back up a bit. The Oudh Saffron however, actually strikes me as quite differently formulated. I am not sure how to explain this except that this new formulation seems a bit more complex and rich than the prior one. I think that the inherent woodiness in Indian oud incenses is generally pretty rare because there usually isn’t any real oud in them and so the approximation doesn’t account for the deeper and richer aspects you’d find in wood or wood-heavy aloeswood incenses like you’d find in Japan. Instead Indian oud incenses tend to approximate that a bit and go for more of those spice tones you tend to find at the top of ouds. Saffron itself is also pretty multifaceted, even among incenses called saffron sandalwood that stretch beyond the one I reviewed above, the note can be anything from floral to spicy and all places in between. Here I think it ends up pushing the usual Indian oud spice mixes into something a little richer. It still has the same sort of almost licorice like middle in it the previous stick had, but of course when the batch is fresher you’re likely to catch all of this more up front.

So ultimately a stock well worth going back for. As always, there are no current plans to actually put these incenses up at the Absolute Bliss website so it is highly recommended and encouraged to contact Corey directly using the methods at his contact page. My experience is that you can find what you want and ask him for a Paypal invoice. Please note that currently Absolute Bliss only ships to the US.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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