Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Agarwood, Forest, Peppermint, Frankincense, Sandalwood, (Fresh) Green Tea (Sencha), Tea, Coffee

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

The eight incenses in question here are part of Shoyeido’s pressed Xiang-Do line, a series of short incenses using a patented technology to create aromas that are much more intensified than one finds in traditional and even most modern or perfumed lines. In this group are what I consider perhaps the best of the line, 16 incenses of which are currently exported to the United States. More details on the line can be found in the first Xiang-Do article which can be accessed by clicking on the above link.

For a company well-known for deep and deluxe aloeswood incenses, the Agarwood version of Xiang-Do actually evinces as much the woody scents of aloeswood as the resin scents and as such this incense reminds me of more inexpensive aloeswood sticks, where the actual bitterness of the wood peaks through. Xiang-Do does manage to balance these aspects of the scent so they’re not as harsh as they would be in a traditional incense, the results of which give this incense a very unusual scent. It’s the least sweetest incense in the line and as such may be slightly unfriendly to the casual user, but appreciators of aloeswood may end up liking this one the most.

I have an extreme fondness for Xiang-Do Forest, possibly due to the way it hits some notes of a pine incense I used to like as a teenager, in fact that might have been one of the first incenses to really grab my attention. Almost every time I burn this it’s somewhat evocative of these years, with an extremely fresh, concentrated, multi-evergreen blend that smells of pine, fir and other conifers. It’s perfectly made for the style, with all these fresh evergreen-like resins working well under such concentrations. I’m on my second if not third box of this aroma and really wish this was one they brough 60/80 stick packages over for. It may be one of my favorite incenses for breaking up a string of traditionals.

I warmed up to Peppermint immediately. It probably should be said that Xiang-Do incenses that are very close to one another in the rainbow of colors are quite close in scent at times, and this subrange of greener Xiang-Dos tends to appeal to me a little more than the others. In fact that the Peppermint is colored greenish gives way to the idea that it’s actually more of a peppermint/spearmint sort of combination, the latter quality being part of its richness with the peppermint notes on top. It’s as cooling as you’d want, with a bit of that green freshness that Forest also has.

Frankincense I like in most incenses, but I found this version to be slightly disappointing, perhaps because sticks from Tennendo, Minorien et al tend to capture some of the high quality resin’s more profound notes. The Xiang-Do version is somewhat muted, icy white and overall a bit on the standard side. I’ve used the white coil in the Sakaki set as a comparison ever since a reader pointed it out, they both have a sweet and candy-like nature to them that capture the center of the resin pretty well. But for such a concentrated series, I actually expected this to be closer to the resin than it was.

Like the Agarwood, the Sandalwood seems a bit closer to standard or lower quality wood without a lot of quality resin notes. It does manage to come off rather woody for the style, without the sort of spicy breadth to it you tend to expect in pressed incenses. Overall it’s a bit airy and powdery, surprisingly light for the style and scent. I’m always amazed at the restraint of these incenses, when stylistically they could be a lot more off. That it actually seems woody still in this sort of base is rather clever.

The last three Xiang-Do incenses here have been marketed in a sampler subtitled “Fresh,” but I believe this may be just a way to promote them in the United States, as like the others in the line all have a number, implying a much larger range to be found in Japan. All three of these follow the wave of popularity of tea and coffee incenses, a passion I only partially share.

The Green Tea (or Sencha) incense is roughly in the Forest and Peppermint vein, and like many Green Teas I’m always struck by their sweet patchouli-sort of aromas. Fortunately the central green tea oil does bring out the leaf quite a bit, I’m always reminded of sage family plants when I smell this, almost as if there’s a slightly psychoactive side to it. It does have the range’s rich base to it and I was actually a little surprised this one didn’t grab me as much as I’d expected, although I’m definitely warming to it with every stick.

It was actually the Tea incense itself that really impressed, a reddish, pungent blend that combined tea with spices in a way that reminds me of Chai without the milk. There’s both jasmine and cinnamon/clove hints that really give this a richness beyond just the leaf itself and I fell for this in a way that puts this on my next Shoyeido shopping trip. Tea, spice and floral all at once, there’s a definitely exotic bent to this that’s as far away from Earl Grey or Darjeeling as you can get.

Readers will know I don’t go for Coffee incenses in general (and I should mention that I do love coffee itself) and while this Xiang-Do moved a little closer to the bullseye for me, due to the way the overall aroma smells more like vats of crushed beans than a café after a long day, it still doesn’t strike me as something I’d particularly want to fragrance a room with. But overall if you are a fan I think this is one you might prefer as it has an intensity that helps to mitigate the funkier aspects found with charcoal coffees.

I noticed by looking at the numbers on the Xiang-Do boxes that there has to be a good four or five dozen more aromas we don’t even see in the United States, similar to the LISN lines. It’s hard to imagine how successful more aromas would be given the short stick and expensive (14.75 for 20 sticks) price. When I think of these incenses, I think of them as game changers, that is a pleasant way to mix up my traditional incenses without the funkier perfumes. One can find samplers of the line in order to check these out on your own, as the style is similar enough in most cases that everyone’s going to find their favorites. For me, the Forest is the huge favorite, although I’m finding Peppermint and Tea to be both on the ascendance in terms of use. And as a great example of a modern style, these are incenses likely to be friendly to the visitor who is casual about these things.

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Baieido / Black Coffee, Coffee, Green Tea, Honey, Hinoki, Izumi

Baieido are well known and highly praised for their traditional Japanese incense blends; however, they also have a number of incenses that aim at the modern end of the market. In most, if not all of these cases, Baieido use a special charcoal for the stick and oils for the scents, the type of incenses that are more likely to appeal to the casual user or those not interested in the tradirionals. In this group are a number of scents growing in popularity, such as Coffee, Green Tea, and a fresh cleansing floral called Izumi. All of these scents, except the Izumi, are smokeless. You can find the Hinoki here.

Even though Baieido appear to use a very user friendly charcoal base for these incenses, it’s a delievery method I’ll never be fond of because even in the best cases charcoal imparts certain qualities to the incense that detract from the actual scent. This is true for most of the incenses in this article as well, although I find in both the Hinoki and Izumi cases that it gets in the way the least. All of these are quite affordable incenses and now that Baieido are starting to break down some of the larger $20 packages (Honey, Green Tea and Coffee) into smaller 40 stick packages they should be even more accessible.

Both Black Coffee and Coffee are very similar yet slightly different incenses. I read something to the effect that the former’s more about the bean where the latter’s more like coffee with creamer. Perhaps due to the charcoal presence I only noticed a slight difference between them. The Black Coffee is very earthy with hints of clay, wet slate and soil among the coffee bean. At first this seems to be offputting but the smell does grow on you a little bit. The Coffee is still almost as penetrating and earthy, but reminds me more of a cup of coffee than the bean. Unfortunately I’ve never tried a coffee type incense that doesn’t remind me of the smell of a cafe rather than a fresh cup, so I’ve never found one that I find successful, but to my nose there’s lots of subtle differences between different kinds of gourmet coffee, while both of these seem to be going more for something like Folger’s. But it should be said that both of these seem to be fairly popular incenses and my reaction is definitely from a traditionally minded perspective.

The Green Tea I found to be a bit less sweet than those by other companies, almost as if it accentuates the slight floral nature of the aroma rather than the tea leaf aspects. Like most Green Teas this is an aroma that actually reduces or absorbs off odors, leaving a lingering freshness. My short experience with this actually seemed like it reduced the aroma of whatever traditional incense I was burning before it. You could compare this to the Shorindo Chabana I wrote about a few weeks ago, except this is a bit warmer and even has a summery vibe to it.

Baieido’s Honey appears to be kind of unusual for this style, or at least I can’t think of a comparable incense in another company off the top of my head. Those familiar with the durbar/champa blends Satya Natural or Honey Dust will have a rough idea of the type of scent here, except in this case the pesky charcoal base interferes with the aroma more than most in this line. The oil/aroma itself is quite pleasant and mildly sweet and it sort of split my experience, when I got more oil and less charcoal in the scent, I enjoyed it, when the charcoal was dominant I didn’t.

Baieido’s Hinoki isn’t a traditional stick, even if it’s definitely a traditional scent. I’ve tried woodier cypress incenses and have not really been fond of any, but this incense has a real clarity to the essential oil one that comes very close to the natural scent of Japanese cypress. At times this is quite sublime, very delicate and is quite reminiscent of higher end oils with a very distinct definition. Perhaps the charcoal works better with this oil as it didn’t interfere with my experience so much, in fact I found this to be one of the best smokeless incenses I’ve tried. Even traditional-minded users should give this one a sample.

However, I think my favorite in this group is the Izumi. While I believe I got the essentials of the previous five with just samples, I’ve had a little more experience with the Izumi. Like the Green Tea it seems to have freshening and perhaps odor reducing qualities. The aroma is described as “the essence of many flowers, mixing in the spring winds” and it has a fresh, cleansing and uplifting vibe about it. Like many multiflorals, this will be reminiscent of home fresheners or even suntan lotion and some perfumes, but there’s never a moment I think of Izumi as synthetic or offputting. It almost has a meadow-like aroma, and works nicely as a contrast to traditionals.

Overall this is a group of incenses that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of potential appreciators as it covers a wide spectrum of scents. I can imagine with many of these that leaving a stick burning in a corner somewhere will mitigate the effects of the otherwise decent quality charcoal format and a couple of them will help freshen up the home too. Indeed, both Hinoki and Izumi I’d have no problems recommending.