Kunjudo / Karin, Tokusen Karin Select, Karin Togetsu, Karin Kifune, Karin Hien, Karin Zuito

While this may look, at least in part, like a new review, it’s really something more of an update and correction all at once, an attempt to sort of set the record straight on Kunjudo’s main line which is available in the US through Japan Incense. Half of these incenses were originally introduced and reviewed as part of the Les Encens du Monde line, but either the regular Karin or the Tokusen Karen Select had been available in the US for quite some time. One of the issues I came across in cleaning up the old Encens du Monde reviews is that when I read my original Karin review it made me feel like maybe I had actually been reviewing the Tokusen Karin Select. When I restocked recently on both of those, I recognized the Select version but not so much Karin itself. This is part of the issue with reviews that have outlived my memory of them, I’m not always quite sure. But with the incenses in front of me, I think I can clear some of the issues up as well as reintroduce what I think are a number of excellent and affordable incenses that sit on both sides of the traditional and modern lines. And in most cases I’ve provided links to the original reviews if you would like to compare and contrast. But other than correcting errors, I believe most, if not all, of these incenses have survived with aromas intact over the intervening years.

So let’s start with Karin itself first. It’s an extremely inexpensive every day sandalwood based stick with a dark red color. You know it’s the regular Karin because it doesn’t have a more solid pink shade to it. Side by side the two incenses are very easy to pick out. The main ingredients listed are sandalwood and cinnamon, although one might sense there are some milder floral elements in the mix as well as it doesn’t lean overtly spicy. As Karin is said to mean “forest of flowers,” the mix of woods and slight floral elements does seem apropos. Overall, however, Karin is definitely something of a perfumed incense and like a lot of perfumed dailies there’s a chance that the oil mix can end up being cloying and this one sort of falls on the fence for me. But let’s face it, any incense that comes in this many sizes and is this well known as an incense is loved by many people and at least in a case like this you’re not taking much of a risk of trying a roll.

However, I might recommend starting with the Tokusen Karin Select. You’re not really putting all that much more money out for what strikes me as a much better stick. The Tokusen Karin blend may be the one I originally though of as just Karin way back in the day but the thing I always remember about it was its sort of amber-like candy sweetness. If you get a little lost in the mix with the regular Karin, the “excellent” version seems to present a lot of the same elements in a much more friendly fashion. The cinnamon seems a bit more pronounced now that it isn’t falling back into the oil so much and it feels like the wood has a more pronounced resolution as well. This is honestly a really good incense, especially for its entry price. It has a surprising amount of complexity and bouquet to it, a bit of saltiness and a nice gentle floral mix as well. It’s almost an essential as an under $10 roll. Oh and it has several sizes too.

The next four incenses leave this basic pink scent way behind and go through a number of permutations. For one thing I used to remember seeing daphne wood in the Tokusen Karin Select ingredient list and perhaps there still is a small amount but it is the one note listed for the green stick Karin Togetsu. I have not completely confirmed it but I believe Karin Togetsu is the same as the Les Encens du Monde Moonlight Night scent as they both share the daphne element and the olive green color stick. I’m not sure this shares any particularly profile with the Tokusen Karin Select. It certainly has something of a unique aroma on top of a sandalwood base that may be more of a subnote in the previous incense. This is definitely a more modern sort of floral blend, and as I mentioned in my EdM review it’s more akin to something in the Nippon Kodo line than most of the incenses that sit around it. I’ve always been a bit neutral about this one except for the fact that its central nature is really unlike any other incense. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled daphne in nature so I do like that this feels a bit different. However, there’s a bit of harshness to the burn, not enough you can’t overlook it but its certainly there.

Karin Kifune is imported through the Les Encens du Monde line as Royal Nave. Karin Kifune is really the first of three extremely wonderful incenses, especially now that you can buy a 90 stick box in the teens. I want to stress that even though these are largely oil-scented incenses there are still plenty of natural woods in the base and the creator of all three of these has made some really creative and wonderful scents with this trio. I used to be happy with all three of these at a more expensive Encens du Monde price so it makes them an extremely good deal for the money. Karin Kifune is probably what you’d call a sandalwood-based incense, but I think there’s enough hints of aloeswood and other ingredients to make it feel quite a but more deluxe. It has quite a bit of spice in the mix along with both of the base woods and a nice bit of saltiness. It is elegantly contoured in a way that is analagous to the way fine aloeswoods almost make you feel like you’re looking at the spiralling and patterning of the wood, and although it is relatively inexpensive it’s not unlike the feeling I get looking at and being around stained furniture. The only real difference from this review and my previous one as Royal Nave is this doesn’t feel quite as sweet. Which maybe puts its a little closer to the classic Kunjudo Hogetsu.

Karin Hien lies at the same price point as Karin Kifune, but I might like it even more. I believe it is marketed as Swallows in Flight in the Les Encens du Monde line. As I mentioned in my previous review, this is a very sweet incense, much sweeter than the Kifune. While Japan Incense moves the aloeswood to the front of the note list on the incense’s page, I would guess Karin Hien probably has a similiar mix of sandalwood and aloeswood hints as Karin Kifune does. It does introduce what I find is one of my favorite things about this incense and the next one, and that’s the sort of interesting nut or hazelnut aroma that’s in the oil mix, it’s something I absolutely love about it. Kunjudo are also really good at, if not making it super resolute, making an identifiable aloeswood note in terms of its more traditional woody but slightly bitter scent, so these also don’t feel like they’re the watered down sort of modern aloeswoods you might find in Nippon Kodo or midline Seijudo incenses. Like Karin Kifune this is a really good example of a modern meets traditional, with no small success. Its both confectionary, caramel-sweet and densely woody all at once.

Karin Zuito is the Karin high end and man is it wonderful to see the classic Golden Waves at such a great price (Japan Incense seems to have set this one on sale right over the $15 mark). This was my second favorite of the entire Les Encense du Monde line after Guiding Light. For one thing, it’s unquestionably the most fully aloeswood of the whole line with any of hints of sandalwood more or less submerged if there at all. In fact it feels like the Karin version of it might be a little woodier than Golden Waves is, even the hazelnut note I can still detect in Karin Hien is much more on the outside here. And of course this one isn’t even as remotely sweet as the Hien, and although it doesn’t lose an oil-based mix that compliments the woodiness it remains a fairly dry stick. It would be a superb entry even if it was a 45 stick box at the $15 point. With twice as many sticks it’s something of a steal and recommended if you need a lower budget option. I try always to keep this one in stock.

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Les Encens du Monde (Florisens) / Kunjudo / Tokusen Karin, Swallows in Flight (Karin Hien), Royal Nave (Karin Kifune), Golden Waves (Karin Zuito), Blissful Mountain, Guiding Light (Hogetsu)

[NOTE 7/3/21 (updated): Les Encens du Monde (also Florisens) are a French distribution company who contract with various Japanese incenses to release them under their own branding. It is not unlike Japan Incense producing its own lines with incenses made by other companies, except that most of the incenses EdM distributes are available directly from Kunjudo (or in the US, Japan Incense). EdM used to have a website, but I was unable to locate it, so they may have just moved to distribution or no longer exist. Many of these incenses are sold under the Karin line. One of my current plans is to reintroduce many of these incenses under the Kunjudo Karin line that are now distributed in the US. As a prelude to this, I am including both links to Zen Minded for Les Encens du Monde incenses and Japan Incense for Kunjudo equivalents. Please note that when there are both, the direct Kunjudo incense is far less expensive. – Mike]

The lion’s share of EdM incenses appear to be made by Kunjudo, at the very least the Karin line is certainly a Kunjudo line, but there are others in their catalog created originally by Shoyeido or Baieido. A few of these duplicate incenses you can already find in the US, which makes any sort of discussion about this company’s incenses a little difficult to be specific about.

[This review has been edited to refer the review to Karin’s Tokusen Karin. There was some confusion here on ORS that has been resolved by comparing Karin and Tokusen Karin. More in the forthcoming Kunjudo review.] I find Tokusen Karin to be one of the gems of inexpensive incense, an affordable and fantastic blend of sandalwood, Daphne wood, and cinnamon that hits a number of different buttons. It has hints of amber even without the ingredient listed as well as wood, spice and floral and it manages to spin out different combinations of these elements like an echo of expensive aloeswoods. It’s fresh, vibrant, wonderfully spicy and addictive enough to have been a personal top 10 incense in May [Note: This will likely refer to Karin] and I can imagine wanting deep stock in it.

Swallows in Flight (Karin Hien) is one of Kunjudo’s masterstrokes. It’s a rich, decadent and almost confectionary-sweet blend that starts with an aloeswood base and adds indulgent aromatics. The minute this one hits the nose I think of things like caramel and nougat, as this has a combination of sweet and musk that reminds me of walking into a candy shop. It definitely has a slight perfume on top with hints of white mocha that cyclically hide the base, only for the agar to remind you it’s still there in the background. It might be an incense that’s too rich at times, but when it’s right it’s a tough one to beat.

As, I mentioned before two Karin incenses are not part of the line anymore. The first of these is the stupendously good Golden Waves (Karin Zuito). Of all the Kunjudo incenses I’ve tried, this is the one with the most obvious agarwood note. Sometimes I don’t notice this for some reason, but my most recent stick reminded me that this is very much based on the aloeswood, with a rich sweet musk and a note of hazelnut or something similar added to the top. All these elements go to making this one of those aloeswood sticks with mutable qualities, making it a fascinating stick to explore over time. At the Karin price this is a very affordable incense for its quality. There is also a long-stick temple version of this incense under Encens du Monde.

The other ex-Karin incense is Royal Nave (Karin Kifune). This isn’t quite so woody, its bouquet working more as a combination of various spices and woods. Like Guiding Light, it seems that Kunjudo do indeed like working on incenses with a massive number of ingredients and so this one is often like a faceted jewel, looking different from every perspective. The description tips us off to the aniseed, but it’s not that dominant of a characteristic to my nose. I’d say it’s more strongly spicy than strongly woody, but there’s also a perfume oil in the middle that adds to the overall complexity and comes out strongly with little fatigue. It struck me as what a Nippon Kodo Kohden stick might be like with better ingredients and also had hints of gingerbread cookie. Like many incenses in this line there appears to be a tilt to the sweet.

[NOTE: This review has been edited as I’m not sure if Guiding Light carried over from Encens du Monde to Florisens. However, the great news is this fabulous incense is easily available and also much more affordably. – Mike] The first of these in question is the stupendously good Guiding Light (Hogetsu Long). It blends agarwood with 7 essentials and 8 wood powders for a very dense and woody incense. The aroma is all about spicy wood and I get hints of old wooden chests, brown sugar, clove, high quality sandalwood, and leather. There is definitely a high oil content, but its aroma adds a bit of mystery and insularity to the blend. Given the claim of a large quantity of agarwood, I was surprised that it didn’t have that much of a dominant note, so my guess is it’s more mid quality wood, and the blend evens some of the more specific characteristics out. I’d actually like to see this in a shorter stick, a length more appropriate for its strength outside a temple. [NOTE: Adding that as of 2021, Japan Incense also offers a shorter stick of Hogetsu.]

Finally, a really interesting, high end sandalwood and oil blend, Blissful Mountain. Like many EdM incenses I can imagine one of the other lines has smaller packages of the same or similar incense under a different name, based on the description of combining sandalwood with lily essential oil. Blissful Mountain is a very thick, green stick that starts with the base aroma of a common every day green sandalwood, and adds a very potent and powerful floral lily oil to it. The combination is quite intense and due to the stick’s thickness, only a fragment of a stick would totally fragrance a room. The oil is very rich, a slight tad to the soapy/floral side, but overall rather excellent, and given very few incenses already sold in the US have this sort of aroma, it’s well worth checking out. My guess the lily essential oil here adds significant to low sandalwood costs. [NOTE 7/14/21: It looks to me that Blissful Mountain is completely identical to Juzan Daikunkoh except for the box and roll wrapper. There is also a thinner stick version in the Les Encens du Monde line called Seeds of Transformation.] – Mike]

[Please note that this page is somewhat temporary, as I plan I reconfiguring it in a second step with the two missing Karin incenses and adding photos and reissuing it under a new date. – Mike 7/3/21]