Yamadamatsu Gyoka

Yamadamatsu’s Gyoka blend is the lowest of the line of aloeswood coils currently available. It has a top note of strong, slightly sweet, spicy, peppery aloeswood, alongside a buttery mid note of medicinal herbs and a touch of lysimachiae herba. Overall it reminds me a lot of a Baiedo blend, but slightly sweeter. The fragrance of this blend has a bit of a learning curve to it, and after a bit of time spent with it, it begins to remind me of an old log cabin, with the rich turpentine and wood scents that one associates with such.

SAMPLER NOTES: Kunmeido / Tsukinowa / Blue Rose, Green Lily, Yellow Jasmine, Red Violet

If you scroll down just over half way here, you’ll see the four packages of Kunmeido Tsukinowa coils that come in four varieties, eight coils for $21.00. It should be said up front that like many traditionally minded incense appreciators, I don’t tend to go for floral aromas as much as woods or spices, so the four coils here aren’t really aimed at my tastes, except that I’m very fond of coils.

In terms of quality, I’d say these are definitely better than most under $10 floral incenses, but not quite up to, say, the Shoyeido Floral World Star line. Floral World Royal’s closer, but I’d say these are just under those in terms of quality. In the Shoyeido Floral World line, the better quality of aromatic oils seem to distinguish price and at the Star level you’re probably getting something very close to essential oil in the aroma, there’s actual specific definition of the aromas involved. When you move down to Royal the definition loses its specficity some while still being of very high quality. I imagine the Tsukinowas as another step down, where the aromatics aren’t quite up to Royal but have about the same amount of definition.

It’s fairly difficult to really describe these four coils outside of their base aromas, like many florals, it’s a matter of the top oils that set the tone for the scent. The Yellow Jasmine for example will be of little surprised to those familiar with Japanese Jasmine incenses. There’s definitely sandalwood in the base, but the overall aroma is driven by the powerful Jasmine oil. Like all the Tsukinowa coils, these almost have Indian incense-like strength and will have a room smelling like Jasmine in a matter of seconds. Perhaps, a little too strong at times, at least these are high quality enough not to have any noticeable off notes.

The Green Lily is also pretty definitive and while I prefer something like Encense du Monde’s Blissful Mountain, which combines a traditional Japanese sandalwood with Lily of the Valley essential oil, this comes pretty close in a more modern, perfumed sort of way. I’m not a huge fan of Lily to be honest, there’s a bit of bitterness or sharpness in the smell that I may just not be built to appreciate, but there are some sweeter notes in the base of this coil that help to make it somewhat user friendly.

The Blue Rose isn’t generally the most friendly of Roses, after all blue colored roses don’t appear in nature and as such a symbol around it has grown to mean an impossibility (think of the Red Rose symbol and the heart). I thought it was actually impossible I’d find a rose I’d like until I bought the Shoyeido Floral World Royal pack, but even then there’s an aspect of very red rose incense that’s a bit bitter or sharp for me, so I found this Blue Rose to be a bit mellower and more to my liking. It may not make a rose convert out of me, but I found the harsher notes to be muted here, so that you get the rose aroma but not in an overwhelming base. I found it to be the best of the four coils here, not something I would have bet on before sampling.

In fact I thought Red Violet would have been my #1 before checking the Tsukinowas out, but I’ve probably been ruined on the Shoyeido Floral World Star Violet, which is still my favorite floral. Very little compares favorably to it, but at least with the Tsukinowa you get a fairly definitive violet aroma. Here the aroma seems to be quite a bit different, at times reminiscent of violets, at others more like a general floral incense. I thought there was maybe a bit of tartness to this scent that didn’t make it work as well as I would have liked, but without a full box I’m not sure if that was an anomaly for this coil. Overall it may have been the most strongly perfumed of the four and as such approaching, if not getting to an off note.

Overall these four are a little above standard florals and those already prone to floral incenses are likely to enjoy at least one or two of these quite a bit. For me, so many florals have harsh or off notes, so it’s easy to celebrate incenses that don’t have those notes. And between $3 and $4 a coil isn’t too bad for this sort of quality. (Thanks to Ross for the samples) – Mike

Shoyeido / Genji Series / Sakaki

Shoyeido’s Sakaki presentation is as much a work of art as a box of incense. It features eight small coils, two each of four different scents, with a small coil burner in the middle. The inner box’s two flaps closes over this presentation and the box itself is wrapped in paper artwork. The box retails for $19.95, the price mostly reflecting that the coils here are what Shoyeido refer to as “pressed” incense, a proprietary modern technique that has given birth to the Xiang-Do line, among others.

I want to thank Jeff Banach at Shoyeido for tracking down information on this set from the home company. In particular, for a presentation like this, there are cultural concepts behind the presentation that are fairly difficult to “translate” from Japanese to English. Sakaki could be translated as “ripples” and it’s a concept (and chapter title) brought forward from The Tale of Genji. The coils themselves are designed as four whirlpools in four cardinal directions, and the colors of these coils roughly match the Japanese color schematic for the cardinals: west/white (coil is actually a bit more tan), north/purple, east/blue (coil is green – my guess is a blue would have made it aesthetically too close to the purple one), and south/red (the red tilted a bit to pink). The coils have not been described in terms of their aromatic constituents (although they are all likely sandalwood based), nor have names attached to them.

The incenses are all rather superb and strike an aromatic balance between the above mentioned Xiang-Do line and the company’s In-Koh Pressed line like Himenoka, whose fragrances are meant to be used with a heater rather than burned. Himenoka’s scents seem to match up roughly similarly with Sakaki in that there appears to be a stronger wood presence than most of the Xiang-Dos. Unfortunately the aromas here do not appear to be duplicated elsewhere on their own, although the aromas are similar in ways to other Shoyeido pressed incenses.  The facts add up to make it a package almost worth keeping rather than using, even after burning part of one coil, it felt like the value had been reduced considerably. That the incense is so good makes this something of a conundrum.

The west/white coil was instantly my favorite of the four. It’s fruity and rich, with a bit of wood and a presence that might be described as a note of chocolate. I suspect there’s a lot of resin at work here. The fact I couldn’t necessarily stock this aroma was a bit frustrating given how good it was. I’d also like to thank Bernd Sandner who pointed out that this coil is reminiscent of Xiang-Do Frankincense and after buying a box of that I’d have to agree. The Xiang-Do Frankincense, however, isn’t quite this rich and the recipes are different, but if it’s a favorite I’d definitely recommend checking this one out.

The north/purple coil may have had the most obvious sandalwood presence. Despite its floral aromatics, the wood stays pretty strong in the background. I get hints of roses or violets in the florals on this one and it reminds me a little of one of the corresponding Himenoka fragrances (it would be difficult to specify which one, as like Sakaki, Himenoka’s fragrances don’t seem to come with names per se). From the first through the second coil I found this fragrance improved for me as I noticed the woodier qualities.

The east/green coil seems to have some rather fruity qualities (even a bit of apple or something) which like its opposite point reminds me of the Xiang-Do line. However it’s not quite similar to that line’s fruitier fragrances as it seems to have hints of green tea or patchouli in it. In fact with only two coils, I wasn’t able to totally absorb this fragrance as it seems to have a number of interesting qualities.

The south/red coil is also reminiscent of fruit with a very cherry-like spice in front (and this is actually more cherry than cherry blossom to my nose). Like its opposite cardinal point, this has a bit of floral to it as well, and besides the wood I sensed a little tobacco or something (think the smell of fresh cherry pipe tobacco). Overall the biggest impression it made, from my childhood, was like smelling a bottle of Flinstone vitamins.

Overall, this set is a success in every way, in fact I’d love to see Shoyeido do something like this with aloeswood. However, Sakaki may be a case where you want to buy two, one to experience the coils and one to experience the presentation an art. As soon as the first tip of the first coil is lit, the eddy of the first whirlpool begins to fade, Sakaki’s ripples growing out of and returning to calm water.