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.

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Yamadamatsu / Shuju Kyara, Shuju Rakoku, Shuju Manaka, Shuju Manaban, Shuju Sasora, Shuju Sumotara

I know this might seem disrespectful, but I grew up with Italian immigrant grandparents, and every time I see Yamadamatsu, I can’t help but do it in an Italian accent and add a lot of extra syllables and gesture a bunch. “Yamada-damada-maddamadda-matsu.”

With that out of the way, I wanted to start with a chart I put together from different sources about the Rikkoku Aloeswood scents. (More information about history and details of Rikkoku can be found here.) The idea that there was a quick way to identify where aloeswood comes from based on the scent is fairly solid. In fact, in my head, it conjures that sort of troped scene in movies where someone sips a wine and is able to tell the region, vintage and winery off that one sip. And just like wine, I think there are far more than just six categories, but to honor this tradition, we’re working with the six that Yamadamatsu produces.

When I first started on this journey, this chart was daunting and hard. I would light a piece of incense and try to place it in this chart. I gave up after a few tries and just let this sit for six years while I continued sniffing and reviewing both raw chunks of wood and incense made from single source. Several artists like Kyarazen and similar were helpful on this journey with their making ‘exemplar’ sticks like Manaban Malik.

In the chart below, I found the scents on the Baiedo site from a few versions ago, and can’t find it currently. The poems I lifted from a site that no longer exists but I found this site, that mentions the name of the poet – Kōdō Master Yonekawa Johaku.

In the poems, the countries are personified as an Aristocrat (Kyara), Warrior (Rakoku), Woman (Manaka), Peasant (Manaban), Monk (Sasora), Ninja (Sumotara). I realize the poem doesn’t say ninja, but really, why else would a peasant disguise themselves as a noble other than for a ninja mission (also noting a peasant couldn’t afford any trappings of a noble, but a ninja clan would)?

NameScent (from Baiedo)OriginLabelPoem
KyaraBitterVietnam伽羅“A gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness.”
RakokuSweetThailand羅国“A sharp and pungent smell similar to sandalwood. Its smell is generally bitter, and reminds one of a warrior.”
ManakaSoftMalaysia真那伽“Smells light and enticing, changing like the mood of a woman with bitter feelings.”
ManabanSaltyCambodia真南蛮“Mostly sweet, the presence of sticky oil on a mica plate is often present after smoldering Manaban. The smell is coarse and unrefined, just like that of a peasant.”
SasoraHotIndia佐曾羅“Cool and sour. Good-quality sasora is mistaken for kyara, especially at the beginning. It reminds one of a monk. Sometimes very light and disappearing.”
SumotaraSourIndonesia寸聞多羅“Sour at the beginning and end. Sometimes mistaken for Kyara, but with something distasteful and ill bred about it, like a peasant disguised as a noble.”

I didn’t write that chart in any real order and started with my favorite at the top, so I’m going to drop the reviews in the same order. Starting with Kyara (not pictured as the box has not been available for a while) I was not sure if I was going to be able to talk about this because my initial reaction years ago was just ‘bitter ash and burned wood’, but now I know what to sniff for in between those smells and I get a rich resinous experience. This is what the kyara sticks of other companies are trying to reproduce, this sort of thin layer between the ashy, salty smoke and the resinous wood, where there is tobacco, rum, caramel, raisins, and then it goes right back to the salty wood. This is worth the price, as one of the more expensive kyara sticks because it (as far as I know) is just kyara and not adulterated with many other things, which, while pleasant, can get in the way of appreciating the raw power of kyara. I’m going to note that like kyara, this stick is very strong and could either be broken into parts and heated on a heater for more economic enjoyment or simply burned a few times to give the needed scent. Such a treat, worth the price.

Rakoku is supposed to remind one of a warrior. I am starting to wonder how awesome ancient warriors must have smelled if this is what one is reminded of? To be sure, when I read the poem and lit the stick the first time, I imagined that I was going to smell some heady sort of body odor that would be coming off a soldier after a week of forced marching through tropical climates. This comes across as a typical Thai, to me, after having experienced the raw wood. There is a sweet front that immediately shifts gears into the bitter of the poem. I still wish I could travel in time and experience both the sandalwood and the warrior that the poet compares this to, because this is nothing like sandalwood. None of that ‘woodshop’ or ‘salty’ or even ‘buttery’ scents I associate with the santalum is present here. I have to imagine that perhaps this warrior starts off sweet when you smell the leather armor and the oiled sword, but when he takes off his armor the smell is a bit more bitter and pungent. But overall, I love this for how great it smells as an aloeswood.

The poem for Manaka seems to lose something in the translation, but this is the feminine scent according to the poet. The scent is supposed to be soft, while the poem says “light and enticing” and “bitter feelings”. Manaka for me tends to have a salty, wet earth type of smell that maybe could be wet with the bitter tears of someone crying? Overall, this comes up as the sort that when you really listen you get softer things like fruit, ash and moss, as well as a note that reminds me of saltpeter and similar after lighting a firecracker, and that note overall is one of the favorite notes of Manaka for me. Firecracker.

Classism haunts this poem for Manaban, and if you would believe the way the poet talks about this, this should be the one that is farthest from Kyara. However, this is probably one of my favorites in terms of the one that is almost gone of the five boxes. This comes across as salty, hot, and bitter and those three things come together to make something really deep. I have come to associate this kind of smell with Cambodian aloeswood and surrounding regions, but this is also the profile that I think gets propped up in other Japanese incense with clove and cinnamon to be able to sweeten it and I guess, refine it and make it less coarse. The thing that I think also makes this worth noting is that I feel like the ‘course and unrefined’ could also be phrased ‘strong and brash’ because we live in an age where aristocrats outdo each other in tastelessness, ‘course and unrefined’ defines quite a few “noblemen” of our day. Strong and Brash also defines how this aloeswood comes across to me. This captures a lot of the notes you used to get from wild Cambodian.

For our monk, Sasora comes from India, and while India can produce many different aloeswood localities, I think this is going for the Assam, but can’t be 100% sure because I haven’t sniffed every Indian region of aloeswood yet. The Baiedo description of ‘Hot’ is counter to the poem that says ‘Cool and sour’. I have to agree with both. Here’s why. There is a hot sort of feeling when inhaling this, like you’re on a dry and dusty road. But when you start to listen to the smells, there is indeed a sour and cool component right behind that hot dustiness. The poem also suggests that if you get good enough Sasora, you’re sniffing something like kyara. My take is that this is a wonderful stick that has interplay between the varied components that if you sit with it long enough, some of them start to marry into a complex fragrance that playfully shifts between sour, hot, cool, dry and sometimes a hint of salt or sweet just to mix it up.

To finish our journey through the six countries, we arrive in Sumotara, and this is what I like to call the ninja smell, since it’s a peasant disguised as a noble according to the poem. This definitely hits the sour note, and had I not done this kind of differentiation, I would have called this sour note bitter. But it is not the kind of biting that bitter has but rather a more frowning sour. Once you get behind that, there is this deep wooden smell that gets complicated, like a precious wooden box that once stored opium, tobacco, a leather pouch of money, and a flint and steel. That complicated box of smells is where I think this can get mistaken for kyara as the poem suggests.

Overall, my best recommendation on these kinds of sets is to educate your nose. But for me, what this did was give me a reference so that I could start categorizing my other aloeswood incenses into the six countries. Of course, not all the premium blends would support this as I would have a hard time placing the likes of Shokaku or Kyara Tenpyo on this list because they don’t fit the kyara entry so well. As aloeswood disappears from the wild and we are left with farmed localities of varying quality and complexity, some of these smells represented here may no longer exist in the future so I like to suggest these kinds of luxury incenses might be on the endangered species list. That alone is why I like keeping my collection stocked with top shelf because the likes of Shoyeido stopping production on their top tier kyara incenses is only going to keep happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamadamatsu / Kouboku Senshu / Sandalwood, Java Aloeswood, Siam Aloeswood, Kyara

There are lots of styles of Japanese incense packaging but my least favorite aspect of a few of them is when a box has some sort of slip cover that acts to seal the box tight. I must have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fit the tighter ones back on the boxes to some mild level of frustration. Think of, say, the little Nippon Kodo gift packs. There are times I feel like tossing the slips out except they often do prevent accidental breakage of sticks later on, so unfortunately you need them sometimes. While the Yamadamatsu Kouboku Senshu series doesn’t have full box slips and a bit of a sticker and glue sort of arrangement where you could technically just wrap the two strips around both the incense inserts and the pawlonia box, this degrades the stickiness after a few attachments and reattachments. Even odder, the two inserts in the pawlonia box seem to use a sort of corrugated cardboard to hold the incense sticks. While the pawlonia boxes are kind of charming in a sort of antique fashion (they have what looks like a stamp of an old map that overlaps the spine and front of each box), I think I’ll go with ease any day. These also have paper inserts which of course you usually notice sitting outside the box after you finally get the damn strip back on. Sigh. Also, as you can see from the upper picture, the application of the stamps are a little haphazard and I only noticed the kyara box was flush right rather than left like the other three boxes at the last minute and so the lone picture of it below I just flipped upright. This really shows how loathe I am to keep messing with these boxes, as you can see in the below picture the glue isn’t holding on the inner slip. So yes this is like a C- for packaging.

Yamadamatsu are of course one of Japan’s finest incense companies, particularly if you like sandalwood and aloeswood, so you end up having to put all that aside anyway and this series of four wood based sticks is of course of immediate interest. For a company that has an entire box range of sandalwood and aloeswood blends, another that is based on the Rakkoku (six countries) aloeswoods (the Shu-Ju) series, another that is coils and finally a few kyaras, one might think another series like this might be overkill. The answer to that might be both yes and no. Yes in the sense that these incenses really don’t surpass or improve on much of what has come before and no in that these seem formulated a little bit differently. I’ve also been sampling Kikijudo’s Kouboku Ginmi series recently which is probably a decent comparison to this, they’re basically a series that tend to present the woods in a fairly pure form. The Kouboku Senshu incenses are only 4 inch sticks, but it can be assumed that these are all pretty woods heavy and not modified too much from the natural materials, although there are times I’m not entirely sure.

While there are two sandalwoods in the Kikijudo series there’s just the one Indian old mountain sandalwood version in this Yamadamatsu series. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the Kouboku Senshu Sandalwood but for a company who does remarkably good low end daily sandalwood blends I was a little surprised this didn’t have the full knockout punch, at least for my tastes. Yes, it’s old mountain sandalwood, but it feels somewhat arguable whether or not this is the best of this sort of wood scent to offer. The Kikijudo version seems a bit better pitched even if it’s a matter of needing to buy more of it at a higher price. Don’t mistake me, the KS is still pretty premium stuff and it’s a different breed from Yamadamatsu’s lower end woods which I’m sure are at least mostly not made from Indian mysore sandalwood. But it feels to me its missing that tail-like, crystalline crescendo of the best woods. It is, however fresh, and based on looking forward at the aloeswoods one wonders how much oil is used in these sticks, as it feels a bit more full bodied than many a sandalwood stick. As I’ve mentioned before, sandalwood ranges in Japanese incenses tend to be a bit narrow so there’s probably some level of hair splitting going on with this one, but as it’s not provided as samples that I know of, I figured it was worth giving you my full take.

The Kouboku Senshu Java Aloeswood doesn’t strike me as particularly resinous, which is something I’d consider a must at this price point, or maybe I would have before it started feeling like companies were pulling back on their woods or at least replacing them with stock that’s a bit of a shadow of the past. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of it there but it feels largely woody. Indonesian aloeswood is often the lowest price point aloeswood, so it’s not super surprising (consider this in, say, a Baieido blend) that this stick may be lacking in personality a bit, but it’s also not getting too bitter or thin either. It’s actually a bit of an odd duck overall, intriguing in that it’s kind of a different profile than I’m used to, but it brings up the usual observation at this point which is that this is not an aloeswood worthy of the price point ten years ago, but it may be now. Overall, though, it’s hard to get excited about it or sell it too much, there’s a level of it that feels disappointingly generic.

I’m wondering if the description of the Kouboku Senshu Siam Aloeswood at Japan Incense describing this as having Vietnamese aloeswood might be off for two reasons, one is that Siam is the former name for Thailand and two it’s at a price point equivalent to the Java Aloeswood, when actual Vietnamese aloeswood would likely jump up in price. Or maybe there’s a mix of both or the wood is from Vietnam with more of a Thai profile. I know, I’m reaching. However the description of the scent profile being watery seems really dead on to me and reminiscent of the Yamadamatsu blend Hyofu which is also described as having Vietnamese aloeswood. Suffice it to say with two aloeswoods at the same price, this is certainly the better deal even if one might argue that there’s a bit more resin scent in the Java. Like Hyofu itself this feels sort of round and polished with a bit more presence and it doesn’t present as muddled a profile as the Java. I know Hyofu really goes over well with some people so if you’re a fan of the blend then this should be right up your alley. I do like that this is a bit different and that the deeper aloeswood qualities do play around the edges of it a bit. So overall this feels more appropriately priced than the Java.

FInally there’s Kouboku Senshu Kyara and obviously at a $60 price point it’s kind of hard to believe this is a legit kyara stick, although in this case it’s actually “Indonesian kyara,” which doesn’t seem to show up all that much as part of an ingredients list. But you do want to get it right out of the way that this is a kyara in the sense of other Yamadamatsu or Japanese sticks and consider it more of a higher end aloeswood. There’s no real kyara sweetness to this at all, but for sure it’s the deepest and more aloeswood-consonant wood in the series. In fact it’s really the only one in this series that seems like a legit aloeswood stick in terms of resinous notes and the usual profiles. It’s certainly a pleasant stick and one I think a lot of aloeswood appreciators will be happy with, but it’s one that you will end up wanting to do the math on and compare to other incenses at a similar price range. This has 30 4 inch sticks which is certainly much cheaper than most boxes with the name kyara on it, but if you consider it from the perspective of it being a fine aloeswood then I think it’s probably a bit on the bubble in the sense that it’s unlikely to compare to others at the price range while being indicative of where things are at now. Maybe the major issue with this overall is while it’s a nice aloeswood, I’m not sure it has tremendous personality, which is something you can’t usually accuse any Yamadamatsu incense of lacking.

Overall I think I’d certainly consider leaving this series to the end, until you’ve exhausted most of the other lines I mentioned above. And yes on the ORS to do list, we plan on new/full reviews of both the color boxes and Shuju incenses, many of which will be easy to recommend, in coming months.

Nippon Kodo / Exceptional Quality / Ume Komon – Premium Sandalwood, Kyara Kiku Botan, Kyara Momoyama

In the way way past I covered some of what is called Nippon Kodo’s Exceptional Line. There’s the interesting Mori No Koh gift pack and then Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan. All of these incenses sort of bridge the gap between their massive, overall, and largely inexpensive modern lines and the Superior line, the latter of which I covered a bit with Kyara Heian. Let’s face it, there’s no incense company on the planet more liberal with the word “kyara” than Nippon Kodo are, quite frankly if you haven’t dipped into a Superior you might not think there is any in their incenses, including the ones I am going to discuss today.

The bottom line and as most people familiar with Japanese incense know, Nippon Kodo is a more populist company, maybe something like the Wonder Bread or Budweiser of Japanese incense. They create a lot of incenses that are very affordable for consumers and their Morning Star line is hugely popular, so far be it for me to lay into it. The best thing about popular incenses is none of those really need a blog to discuss them. But it is fairly puzzling how far into the line and how expensive you have to go to get anything really authentically kyara about their incenses. But before we dip into the two kyaras we have to mention as well that even the sandalwoods can be confusing in Nippon Kodo’s catalog.

The bottom line is that Ume Komon might boast as premium sandalwood, but there’s really nothing authentic about it at all. It’s no less a perfumed incense than most of Nippon Kodo’s line and quite frankly I’d probably enjoy the scent more if it just didn’t bullshit you with a promise. It’s not an awful incense, I mean it doesn’t have the types of bitter and off notes so many lower brand NKs have, but it is still just as perfumed as anything else in the line and it’s this sort of muddiness that seems to come nowhere near sandalwood that really makes you scratch your head. The little green sticks actually remind me a little of Shoyeido’s Floral World or Incense Road sandalwood sticks except even those felt like they weren’t a floral in disguise (well at least in part for the former). It’s all quite puzzling and I would guess if you burn more than an inch or two of this at once it will start to fatigue. And you also have to take into account that these burn really really fast.

So let’s hop up the Exceptional Quality list a bit past the Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan mentioned earlier to Kyara Kiku Botan. Unlike the other “kyaras” in this line there doesn’t appear to be an option for a bulk box or long box, all that is available is the three-slotted gift pack with the little burner. It has been many years since I tried the Taikan last but Kiku Botan seems to be like a light level up from the sweetness of that scent. There appears to be a bit more attention paid to making this somewhat woody, although if you’re familiar with other NK incenses then you can also spot their base aloeswood scent in this mix here as well (it’s actually subtitled as a “premium aloeswood” so I believe its fair to say that it’s where this is really pitched). At least with this scent you feel like NK are truly going for something with woody qualities although once again, it’s hard to justify anything approching real kyara. Good green kyara is somewhat delicate and complex and while this does seem to go for some overall perfumed kyara note, it’s a lot louder and feels a bit more contrived. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad incense in the slightest. There’s quite a bit going on with it when it comes to having multiple elements of its bouquet and that already raises it above the Kongo and Taikan. But it’s still a perfumed incense and not even as authentic as the old Tokusen Kyara Taikan used to be. I think if you’re the type to stay away from NK in particular there’s nothing here to rope you in, but I still find this enjoyable on its own merits.

Kyara Momoyama is another step up the ladder and it also has a long-stick version in a wooden box that places it almost at the foot of the Superior range at $290. Since this is actually equivalent in price to the old Gokuhin Kyara Taikan, this is essentially an incense considered more superior than the Tokusen Kyara Taikan which I actually really liked and fairly well lament its deletion. As you move up the range, it’s not as if these incenses get less perfumed so much as the perfumes tend to get a lot better. And at least here I feel the range is starting to get where it at least feels legit. Momoyama is certainly comparable to either the Tokusen or Gokuhin Kyara Taikan. The wood oils in this are starting to feel like actual wood oils rather than trickery. They’re of course not at Heian level at this point, so the reaction is more oh that’s nice rather than having steam come out of your ears and of course like most NK’s there’s some level of sweetness that’s likely to get in the way for wood appreciatiors. But this is still a very nice incense indeed and easily the most enjoyable in the entire Exceptional line.

Seikado / Kyara Koh Hien

ORS has admittedly taken something of a scattershot approach to reviewing Seikado’s incense line. When I began restocking my Japanese incense collection late last year I sent for a Seikado sampler in order to do a sort of combined new incense and revisit check on the line. I may actually have to do this again at some point because outside of Zuiun Aloeswood, my memory is already a bit sketchy on some of the other scents. I found I didn’t like everything and amazingly even the two kyaras kind of left me somewhat nonplussed. Ross reviewed the Gokujo Kyara some time ago and was extremely flattering over it, so it’s perhaps not super safe to take my word on it after revisiting just a stick of it. But the implications here and what my memory tells me is that the two Sekiado kyaras we’ve seen to date are sort of more in the oil kyara vein, so more similar to the discontinued Shoyeidos or the Seijudo line. And I remember from top 10 lists that Seijudos were more a regular occurence in Ross’ list than my own. So I’m sure if you know where you stand on this issue, you’ll know if you’re inclined to those or not. I’ll end up having to take another shot.

But Seikado’s Kyara Koh Hien is a completely different sort of thing, this is a much more woody kyara and a scent that I warmed to immediately. I think you can put this right next to, say, the two cheapest incenses in the Yamadamatsu Hojo or Shunkohdo kyara line. It fits right in the mid 100s price range while managing to portray an authentic and noticeable kyara note as part of a blend. While Kyara Koh Hien doesn’t have quite the lacquer/turpentine-like power of a Hojo, it does have a lower volume of it in the mix, which helps to get a solid caramel note. The sweetness of the kyara has likely been amped up a bit with musk, but I’ve always found that to be a legit move on the creator’s part, you make a little go a long way. And whatever sweetness is found in that middle note is grounded in the wood’s overall platform. It is most importantly a very accessible kyara, honey sweet and woody both at once.

Overall it’s a tremendously gorgeous incense and I’m a big fan of companies who manage to deliver a legit kyara blend at this point. A new “Mike’s Pick.”

Shunkohdo / Kyara Houzan

ORS spent quite a bit of time back in the “early years,” in reviews and top 10 lists, singing the praises of Shunkohdo’s Kyara Aioi No Matsu and Kyara Seikan. Both are superb and affordable entries into the kyara field. However, unless I missed it somewhere, we never covered the most high end of these kyaras, the deluxe Kyara Houzan. It reminds me of something that comes up a lot when I cover the really high-end incenses and that’s if you’re going to put this kind of price on it than it better be worth it. And most of the time and surely in this case, the incense fits the price. Kyara Houzan has a very noticeable green kyara note to it, it’s much more than the hints you get in the other two incenses. Everything in the bouquet goes to serve this fine wood and if there are any oils at all they are in service to what is a very wood-based incense. With any incense of this premium quality, this is an extraordinarily complex incense and not because it has been buffed up with ingredients but because aloeswood of this quality is the sort of stuff that lifts and inspires the imagination. It’s almost like no burn is exactly the same because the aroma reaches so far down into your memory that it will pull up all sorts of associations from the past in the almost automatic hope to identify subscents that are so rich, deep and unknown that they’re nearly archetypal.

How do you describe something of this complexity? Well if you know green kyara, it’s a start, this wood is concentrated and has those almost evergreen like overtones that most aloeswoods don’t have as much. But it is only part of the overall wood profile, which is rather broad. There are caramel notes and a bit of a sugary sweetness in there somewhere, but for the most part this is a sumptuous, regal, elegant and dry burn. There’s a bit of wilder spice as a delicate touch too, but it’s almost like something you have to reach for to hold onto it. There’s something about great aloeswood incenses where it almost feels like you’re looking at some polished slice of wood with a beautiful array of whorls and knots. Everywhere you look the majesty of nature abounds. Stupendously beautiful stuff, a kyara worthy of the name.

Kunmeido / Kyara Tenchi, Tokusen Kyara Ten-Pyo (Discontinued)

These two kyara incenses are the upper echelon of the Kunmeido line. Kunmeido is a personal favorite company for me, largely based on the high quality and relative affordability of incenses like Asuka, Heian Koh, and Shin Tokusen Reiryo Koh. But these kyaras take that range and elevate a similar trend to really rarified heights. ORS has reviewed many of the previous scents in this line (including one of these), but for context, their basic scent, Reiryo Koh, is made from sandalwood, clove, foenun graecum, patchouli, tarmelic/turmetic, and borneol camphor. Very roughly speaking as the ingredients improve the incenses go from a kind of basic spicy blend into really green territories, with a greater sense of refinement. So you start with the basic Reiryo-Koh, then a couple of variations of it (the Shin Tokusen and Aloeswood versions), then Shoryu-Koh, then you hop to green with Heian-Koh. Greater aloeswood content moves towards the great Asuka (the more recent Fuiji aloeswood probably falls more in between these two), and then you’re in kyara range with these two.

In fact in this case you might even describe Kyara Tenchi (I believe this was previously called Kyara Ten-Pyo and was previously reviewed by Ross in 2009) as a kyara-laced version of Asuka. While the stick is now a brown color, a lot of the green features from the Asuka scent still exist here. Kyara Tenchi is really an astonishingly complex incense. It takes that sweet green note from the Asuka and adds a sort of caramel-chocolate layer on top of it to make this an almost delectable sweet sort of kyara, certainly not too cloying, but definitely a bit in the candy-coated range. It’s probably a bit more cooling than the Asuka, maybe a bit of adjustment to match the borneol note more with the kyara in here. It really spirals out all sorts of complexities and sub notes from the level of woods and the match of ingredients, so it’s certainly one you want to get close to and feel out. Asuka on its own alright has a really surprisingly high resolution aloeswood back note to it, so it’s not a surprise this one does as well at a higher level. And honestly what is mostly incredible about it is its price, which Japan Incense has at $110 for a 70 stick roll. For my nose this is an uncommonly good incense for that low a range and while overall I think the level of real kyara in this is probably really small, the way the incense has been created magnifies the impact of it. Overall all of this is why it’s on my Mike’s picks list.

But the only reason the deluxe version isn’t on the Mike’s Picks list is because it was essentially discontinued due to the lack of kyara needed to make it. But every time I circle around to Japan Incense and see Tokusen Kyara Ten-Pyo still showing in stock, I’m almost shocked, because if you can afford high-end kyara range incenses then I would snap this up before it’s gone. If the regular is a 10 out of 10 then the Tokusen has to at least be an 11 or 12. I went on a bit as to how complex the regular version is but it really has nothing on this incredible marvel, it’s literally one of the greatest kyaras ever made that I could barely afford. This is definitely a variation on the regular Kyara Tenichi, but the wood is so high quality that the aroma takes a quantum jump up. It’s the literal, mind melting, 4K real deal. And it’s not just the woods here, it feels like a lot of the other ingredients that have followed this line up to this one are all at that kind of high-resolution brilliance and it means that a good listen will familiarize yourself with all of them independently while watching them interact all in the face of a world-class conductor. In particular it’s almost like it comes back to the Reiryo Koh scent as a climatic final chorus. The better wood also means it will likely be more to the taste of those who like their aloeswoods purer and maybe find the regular too sweet. Don’t miss this one because when it’s gone, it’s really gone. And if we’re seeing any real indications it’s that incenses like this are a vanishing breed.

Kyukyodo / Musashino

There was a lot of talk about Kyukyodo incenses in the (previous) heyday of ORS because they were one of the longest holdouts for importing to the west. We initially used to order Kyukyodo incenses through third party vendors before Japan Incense began carrying them and there’s still a Kyukyodo catalog from that era with translations and links on the left. Looking through those was almost painful, there were still huge sets of incenses I never got to try due to expense (especially those multiple roll sets with scents that didn’t appear on their own). I even bought bulk and sold off partial boxes just to be able to try them (I miss Denpo, an incense that is somewhat analagous to Musashino on a much less expensive level, now discontinued, probably more than any of those others). But then as was inevitable, Japan Incense found a way to add many of the scents, including a lot of their premium incenses, and they became more available in the US. However, like most companies, incenses go in and out of their catalog.

Kyukyodo isn’t really known for doing kyara incenses. I’m not sure a woody kyara incense is really the style for a company who specializes mostly in oil-based incenses. But Musashino is really a one of a kind kyara, it’s unlike any other company’s kyara incenses and really much more in line with their entire aloeswood- and sandalwood-based, higher-end catalog. In fact it shares some similarities to the company’s top line aloeswood, Murasakino. But where that’s just a highly elegant and smooth aloeswood, Musashino is more of a mix of green elements with a touch of really fine kyara oil on the top. There are earthy and sweet hints of patchouli and vetivert, that bit of clay-like smell some incenses that include those ingredients often have, as well as a bit of mint and some fresh sandalwood in the mix. There’s no denser layer of wood like you’d expect at this price point, that doesn’t appear to be the intent of the stick. It’s a much brighter, fresher scent and strangely it’s this that is evocative of really expensive green kyara on a heater. And if you want to take the plunge and give it a shot without risking a larger outlay, Japan Incense sells single sticks for $15.

Yamadamatsu / Hojo – Kyara “Firebird” / Green Label, Red Label, White Label

Japan Incense started importing Yamadamatsu incenses a year or two before ORS closed for a while. Prior to that I had received boxes through different channels. But I think that sort of trickle and then flow meant that our reviews on their products were a bit more haphazard and not as organized as some of the other Japanese companies and that many of our comments probably showed up in previous top ten lists around the time. (Also, I believe the write ups for the red and white label Hojos at Japan Incense were written by Ross as well, so they’re worth checking into from the product links given below). A similar situation is probably true for our Kyukyodo reviews and so part of the new ORS plans is to visit/revisit a lot of these incenses and of course at the same time look at what is currently being offered under these most revered of companies. Personally I don’t notice huge changes in this particular line (Hojo); however, in the more lower end boxes with all the colors it did seem that some of the incenses had changed a lot.

The Hojo or Firebird line is an incredibly well-priced line for its quality. The Green and White labels are about the same in cost while the Red label is a step up in price. These are very different kyaras from a lot of the incenses we’ve reviewed here. The Hojo series has a bit of what I’d call like a lacquer or turpentine sort of vibe to their overall bouquet. They seem to both combine elements of dry woodiness as well as a thick sweetness in the mix. I think I only had a sample of the Green label kyara a long time ago but these are my second boxes of the Red and White. They took me a while to appreciate, but part of that is because Yamadamatsu is so good at the aloeswood incense that there can be a really long learning curve to start to appreciate what is going on with these. Honestly except for the White label I’m not sure there is a super strong kyara note in these, it’s more mixed in with what I’d guess is other prize aloeswoods, but I think in deference to the skill of the creators what they’ve done to highlight or mix in the note on these is really impressive. If you’re an aloeswood appreciator and want to skip the fluff, these should be right down your alley.

My (current, subject to change) favorite of these, perhaps because it’s a bit newer to me, is the Hojo Green label. It’s actually quite cool that you can get a least a little genuine presence of this fine wood at a $140 price point as this is a tremendously good incense at this range. One thing I love about this one is it has a forest-like presence to it, it’s a bit more cooling than the other two. I’m not sure if this just my association with the green or if there’s an intention to it, but this seems to be strong in presenting the kyara with a nice helping of borneol, musk, some intriguing green notes and a bit of saltiness in the mix. When I first tried this in a sampler I was impressed, but then the box really warmed me to what a tremendously great incense this is (it will certainly end up in the new hall of fame). The kyara note seems to diffuse through the bouquet rather that sit as a note itself and because of it having such a nice mix of elements, it really gives one’s attention a lot of reward, as you sit back and let the complexity of it gather in the air around you. This is actually one of my very favorite incenses, a straight 10 out of 10 and I highly recommend it if you are new to high-end woods and want to splurge for the first time.

The Hojo Red Label I’m a lot more familiar with and it’s the high end of the three here. It is the most powerful and lacquer-like of the three and less complex extra ingredients-wise than the Green label. This is definitely an all out high-end wood assault and because it doesn’t feel like this has as many additions, the complexity of the wood itself is more noticeable. The thing about Yamadamatsu is when it comes to aloeswoods they’re very much not afraid to give you the wood itself in all its pungency and sheer strength, including any of the actual wood notes that a lot of other incenses tend to balance out with other things. But this is simply the way you want it sometimes. The kyara is really starting to peak through, although it has to to cut through all of this boldness. Overall it comes over strongly patriarchal, regal, meditative, and daring you to flinch. And if you don’t, you realize that the overall carrier wave is really delivering on the kyara front and as the wood burns you’re delivered the simple complexity and depth of the wood in a way that only an incense like this can. I would guess this wouldn’t go over quite as well to a newcomer given its utterly unforgiving density, but if you can lock into the overall powerful note akin to something like caramel, butterscotch or toffee (which isn’t unlike Shoyeido’s Muro-machi without falling more into the sweeter, more approachable realms) then you might be able to work with the less forgiving aspects that come with purer wood, whatever the type. Unsurprisingly another classic just like the Green label, just a masterclass in aloeswood skill. This is the apex of a wood incense.

And finally the Hojo White label. In some ways this is like a more affordable Red label. There isn’t as much of the caramel-like note but it’s there farther back in the mix. It’s a touch spicier and there’s a bit of chocolate in the mix and the lacquer like scent isn’t dialed all the way up. Feels like this one’s a bit muskier than the other two labels as well even if it feels they all have it in some way. It distinguishes itself from the other two mostly because it is mellower with a bit of a powdery touch. I think of the three this kyara note is perhaps the least noticeable in this one. It feels like there might be a touch of citrus it is making its present felt in, but this is a very faint subnote. Overall while I might like the White and Green a little more, it’s a bit hairsplitting to say so because again, this is Yamadamatsu and their aloeswood incenses are always unique, thoughtful, well crafted, and innovative. In fact this might even be the friendliest of the three (old brain is telling me I liked this one the most of the white and red for a long time).

Anyway not much more to say. It’s kind of crazy when you think the new Shoyeido is going for $500 and you can get the top end of the Hojos for $260. If it wasn’t on sale (at $600) you could get all three of these for less than one box of Myo-kaku. There’s just no contest what is the better incense even if they were even. And overall these aloeswoods are without comparison. Even Yamadamatsu’s Shu Ju range and most of the color range are different. One or two of the high end coils have some similarities but those are as likely down to the other ingredients as the woods. I just have to stop myself now before I discover new aspects of these great incenses and feel the need to edit. A+++

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