Mermade Magickal Arts / Dionysos, Icaro +

One of the things I’ve been noticing of late is that I can often have a Mermade incense in queue to review (the latest two are the fantastic Heart of the Sun and Honey (Amber Champa) incenses) and then they’re already gone by the time I make a move to writing about them. So it should be said that in general Mermade vintages are going out to higher demand, so it behooves oneself to move quick on these things, perhaps even quicker than waiting for our reviews as unfortunately we can’t get to everything in time as much as we’d like to. Olfactory Rescue Service is of course well pleased that more and more people are experiencing Mermade and Katlyn’s bountiful creations as I can’t imagine a time where we wouldn’t have good things to say about them. The latest creations could be gone by the time I get this posted and it would be a shame as both of these are comparatively unique to the roster and well worth checking out.

Another thing I’ve been noticing is how Mermade’s linking of myth and magick to the incenses give them a sort of power in their own right. Dionysos is one of these and the label immediately puts in mind the feral Greek wine God and his intoxicated entourage. When the first notes of the incense arise from the heater, the scent is grape, berry and wine all of some mysterious vintage. But woven through this central note is the wildness you’d associate with this God, an evergreen, balsamic and grassy mélange that speaks of remote pagan locations. Two of the incense’s notes are Greek Aleppo pine resin and Bay laurel leaves, both of which work with frankincense, myrrh and labdanum to give this scent a noticeably different feel to it. It’s a brave creation and has that touch of the weird to it that helps to get these images rolling.

Icaro moves across an ocean from frankincense and pine to copal blanco, elemi and Breu Claro, from European forests to the rainforests of Brazil. The comparison between these two incenses shows how different scents can be. It is something of a hot, dry incense especially in comparison to the liquid resin-like qualities of Dionysos but it’s also defined by an intense cactus-green scent that likely comes from the ground ayahuasca that is buried in the copal-heavy mix of ingredients. This combination speaks to the shamanic myths of the area and strangely enough I’m also reminded of how close to the word Icaro (defined at the Mermade link), the Greek figure Icaros sounds, and how both speak of long voyages and journeys. Once again, we’re seeing new directions being assayed by Mermade and this is a heady combination that has an impact similar to the Dream Snake of many years ago.

I was sent other current samples of Mermade works, including two variations of a stick version of Pan’s Earth, one an aloeswood version thereof. I had enough to know these were beautiful and heady blends that speak of how strong Mermade’s stick incense has been getting with new variations (and this goes for the Honey/Amber champa sticks to which I’m looking forward to more of after I rocketed through my tube of the amazing things). Mermade is also selling Styrax Benzoin, which comes looking like a fragile geode of dark crystals sparkling in part due to the added tincture/essential oils. This nurturing of the natural brings out a very gentle amber-benzoin scent on a heater, mild and unassuming and avoiding some of the harsher qualities of cheaper benzoin.

I also received a sample of small disc-like lozenges of Deep Earth, but when I opened the little package, I lost one of them as it shot out of the package into that same dimension lost socks go. The other landed on my heater where its familiar but variant scent reminded me of how much I love the lineage of this incense, I believe I still have samples going back at least five vintages.

In summary, it’s just always a joy to go through Katlyn’s latest work and share it, but don’t forget these incenses are getting more and more fleeting as people learn about this venerable company, so it doesn’t hurt to grab a vial or two right away. Also, next review I should have some incenses from a new entry into the nicely growing US field of incense artists, a “newer” company I have really been looking forward to talking about…

Mermade Magickal Arts / Naga’s Nest, Wild Wood, Scentuality, Kamiwaza, Ensense Antique

Receiving a new Mermade batch is one of my favorite parts of running Olfactory Rescue Service, in fact I can’t really think of too many other companies where I would be hard pressed to come up with a blend they created that I didn’t love. The whole spirit of the operation from the incense to the artwork to Katlyn Breene’s generosity and support makes reviewing the incenses a total joy and as the years go by, the sheer art and experimentation involved, now stretching into actual Japanese and Tibetan style incenses, never fails to elate. If you read this site and have not had the pleasure of checking the Mermade operation out, I’d consider it one of the first stops an incense lover should make. Everything created here is managed to the last detail and the ingredients used are top quality, only to be worked into something of even higher quality. Every chance I get to dish out the hyperbole I relish it greatly and with no reservation. And to see the line incorporate newer incense creators like Gregg King or our very own Ross Urrere only underlines the spirit behind the incense underground. Once I thought that high quality incense could only be found on the other side of the planet, now I know it’s made here too.

Mermade’s Naga’s Nest is a true original. One of the things you’ll notice about Tibetan incenses, particularly the ones sourced from Nepal or India, is that so many of the aromas you’ll find are embedded in very inexpensive woods, often the kind that smell like burning tires and make your eyes water. So imagine if you were to take a Tibetan rhododendron or lawudo incense, strip away all of the cheaper ingredients so that all is left is the aroma itself, and mix those ingredients with good resins and sandalwood adding just the right foresty touch so that the rhododendron ingredient isn’t suffocating anymore. What you have left is a gentle and unique scent floating like a mirage on the top of a good base. The scent is then recognizable from Tibetan incenses but allowed to flourish, and that it does in this blend, which lasted for hours when I put it on the heater. There really is no other incense like this in any market, in fact even the occasional powder incenses don’t sing like this one does. One only hopes Mermade will try their hand at some of the other Tibetan ingredients in a similar fashion.

Wild Wood, on the other hand, is another in the long lineage of Mermade’s forest blends. It’s probably no secret by now that I’m a huge fan of Katlyn’s work in this area, she knows how to craft them in a way where the aroma always tends to be perfectly green, just like you’d smell if you were walking in a forest. This art of using evergreen ingredients and using resins to intensify the scent always makes these a rare treat, and an incense style that might even crossover to friends that can’t abide by strong Indian incenses or heavy woods. Wild Wood is something of an evergreen mix with amber floating in the background, but like all of Mermade’s forest incenses, the green is still up to 11 on this one, with lots of fruity citrus from the combination of two frankincenses, the copal blanco and the pinon resin. The amber subscent acts to give what could be similar to a lot of resin blends a nice richness, and I’m assuming some of this comes from the two balsams in play. Naturally this also comes highly recommended and if you have never tried one of Mermade’s wild nature blends, there’s no better place to start.

The last three incenses here turn over to Japanese styles, with one slight exception. All three of these incenses start with a base of high quality sandalwood and agarwood, but the third element sends all of these to unique destinations. Readers may remember Gregg King’s fantastic Ali’s Roadside Lozenges. The newest variation of it is Ali’s Rare Incense Powder. I have not had the chance to try the latest blend on its own, but recognize its scent from the lozenges, it is an incense created from a staggering number of high quality materials.

Katlyn has managed to take some of this powder and create a meta-incense with it by combining it with the aforementioned base as Scentuality. This blend takes a while to get going on a heater, but when it does, it gets more impressive as it goes and lasts several hours. The mix of ingredients doesn’t tilt in any particular direction, which to my nose creates a kind of bewitching merging, particularly where the spicy and deep qualities of the agarwood intertwine with the complexity of the Ali’s. This creates a lot of rich and wonderful subscents that remind me of the kind of sweet, quasi-kyara candy scents you can find in some of the good Shoyeido wood and pressed incenses. The early scent is powdery and gentle before the agarwood really kicks in. Overall, it’s a fairly mellow incense, more akin to where a Baieido incense might sit and it’s a tribute to both Mermade and King that they’ve created a Japanese style incense of very high quality and complexity with all of the similar grace and subtlety you’d expect. It’s an excellent example of how incense circles and collaborations are improving the work year after year. And for just under $20 it’s quite price conscious and better than a lot of Japanese incenses in that range.

Kamiwaza is an incense in the same family as Scentuality, starting with the same or similar base but using clove, cinnamon, patchouli and borneol from Japanese sources as the “third element” in the incense. These ingredients have deeper aromatic qualities than you would normally find if you were to source them elsewhere and they merge with the base in a rich and spicy way that is a complete delight. The agarwood really pops in this blend, balancing all of the multiple sweetness and spiceness with a solid resin note. If you have ever tried any of Shoyeido’s speciality incenses whether wood chip mixes or pressed incenses you will recognize notes like a fresh roll of Sweet Tarts or a spice tea mix. But like with Scentuality this will likely be at a much more affordable price point and it all works without the use of perfumes and oils. One tip, however, the balance of the scents is probably best achieved by turning the heater a bit lower so the aromatics don’t volatize too quickly, particularly as the woods will go for quite a while.

Ensense Antique also uses a sandalwood/agarwood base, but the third ingredient here is an oud oil called “Encense Angkor.” As such, I would suggest, like with Kamiwaza, to apply gentle heat to this incense in order to not burn off much of the oud oil too fast. This oud oil is of the rich and spicy variety and it melds quite perfectly with the woods and it often seems like the scent dances somewhere in between them. It reminds me slightly of Ross Urrere’s sandalwood and ambergris or souked aloeswood in that the general aroma is woody dry, while having some very complex top notes resulting from the ingredients being very high quality. In particular the sandalwood comes through nicely on this one. All of these blends, as usual, come with the highest recommendation and it has been so much fun to see how Mermade is working in all sorts of incense world traditions, all of the blends created with such a deft and careful touch. And of course all of them are graced with Katyln’s terrific artwork, spirit and presentation, it never feels like any stone is unturned in reaching the final released work. And good news, there are even more blends in queue for review, including a carefully recreated Abramelin incense, an agar/rose/labdanum mix called Cyprian that absolutely wowed me last night, Mermade’s newest forest blend Dark Forest and a new “earthy blend” called Dark Goddess (I’m excited about this one in particular as the description references the old Mermade blend Hecate, an incense I still miss). Stay tuned!

Apothecary’s Garden

Apothecary’s Garden is in Canada and has a number of interesting and “off the beaten track” incense materials, as well as tinctures at his Etsy store. The owner does much of the materials collecting all over the world , which you can read about in his blog.

I have tried the Frankincense Rivae, Papyrifera and Neglecta which are nice a a bit different then Omani Greens or the Somalia. I am experimenting with some of the wild collected sap’s for new blends. Nice Etsy shop and a very informative blog.  I will add the links onto the left hand side of our blog under suppliers and blogs. -Ross

Shoyeido / Floral World / Gold (Pine, Violet, Jasmine)

Shoyeido / Floral World / Echo
Shoyeido / Floral World / Royal
Shoyeido / Floral World / Star

It has been a while since we covered a Shoyeido incense and in that time I realized we’d never discussed the most inexpensive assortment of Floral World incenses. In the meantime it seems the company has discontinued either part of the line or the entire line (I couldn’t find a link to this one in the Shoyeido catalog, but Essence of the Ages seems to have stock still). so you’re left with what is a 60 stick box, 20 short sticks per aroma.

It’s probably helpful to look at the whole series in terms of its gradient. At the top end in the Star set you have some of the finest modern florals on the market. The ingredients used are extremely high quality and it gives a definition to the florals that is a really rare thing for any incense. This extreme definition is gone with the Royal set, but generally speaking you’re still getting very high quality florals with slightly more static aromas. With Echo you’re definitely a step down and getting close to more of what you see floral wise on the Japanese market. When you get down to Gold what you’re mostly smelling is the moden process involved in the work and the way that process makes the incenses sweet and friendly, however by the Gold they’re starting to lose a lot of individual personality.

For instance, I’m not sure Pine would even be something I’d get out of the set’s red stick, although this is not a suprise given the previous sets’ sandalwoods tend to the floral and not the traditional. This is sugary, sweet, loud and brash , unsurprisingly not bearing any of the subtlety of the higher ranges, while still being a friendly incense in its own right. At this level, however, I get subscents like berry candles and the side effects of the massive perfume hit these incenses are given. The incense in itself is actually not bad, but I think I get a bit of dissonance when I try to think of it as a pine incense.

The Violet is a little thin in the middle and it’s impossible not to think of how wonderful the higher end violet is in the Floral World series. It seems that some of the incenses in the entire series might use some resins to give it some middle, but whatever it is that causes that effect is missing here. Like the Pine, there isn’t so much a specific violet aroma as there is an approximation of it. Maybe in another company such lack of distinction would lead to a poor incense, but again this is certainly nice and friendly just not very specific.

The Jasmine feels like a fainter, less quality version of the Floral World royal jasmine, again the lack of distinction is what really sets these apart from the other incenses in the series. It’s puffy, sweet, overperfumed yet friendly and like the other incenses in the box, I can’t help but sense similarities to the Nippon Kodo Yume no Yume line in terms of what they’re trying to do.

Obviously this Floral World line is priced so that the more you pay the better the quality of incense and really it’s much easier to recommend the better ones even at those prices. These are nice, but it wouldn’t shock me if this really was deleted.

Unknown / Pure Frank Incense, Pure Aromatic Jasmine, Pure Aromatic Pine, Pure Aromatic Vetivert

In terms of unfavorable reviews this one’s going to be in nuclear territory, so if you don’t like them I’d skip this one. These are four incenses out of a total of at least 30 different kinds that all fall under the “Pure” appelation and nowhere on the wrappers of these four is any indication who’s responsible for these, in fact my guess is they wouldn’t want to own up to it. In fact it’s already problematic at the wrapper stage, these incenses are bound so tight that to get them out you nearly have to destroy the packaging.

In many previous reviews related to Nepali incenses and those Tibetan monasteries now in India, I’ve often compared them to poorer incenses, well these are a really good example of the poorest of the poor. Quite frankly these incenses seem designed to get rid of large quantities of cedarwood, by adding a dash of “flavor” to each one. My guess the cost to make these is almost negligible. In fact each individual scent is barely worth discussing on its own. The Frank Incense is perhaps the strongest of the group in terms of the individual scent, but the reason for that seems to be the perfumey nature of what ever frankincense oil or synthetic they happen to be using that ends up covering up some of the wood. The Jasmine is even more cloying, there’s no way such a gentle floral should ever smell this awful, it smells like a bad soap. I can’t even really detect pine in the Pine, it mostly smells like burning pencil shavings. The Vetivert is at least somewhat detectable but overall it’s little different from the Pine in terms of getting a noseful of cheap burning wood.

Based on the these four, I wouldn’t touch the others in the line, especially since Nepali incenses are all roughly in the same price range where you can easily find much better incenses (like from the Dhoop Factory). I should also mention that I did these reviews based on maybe a stick at the most of each one, it’s really all I could bear.

October Top 10

  1. Mother’s India Fragrances – Om Nag Champa  I don’t mean to take much attention away from all of the other excellent incenses in the Mother’s series, but there’s something about this one that’s hit a bullseye with me, to the point where I ran out my first 20 stick package of this about a month or so after I received it. However in stocking it deeper in the smaller packages, I noticed the batches were a little different and it’s something I’ve been wondering about in terms of aromatic differences as the Om I started with really is something of a triangular balancing act and the small package scent falls perhaps a little short. But generally speaking this works for me because I love an incense with a perfect cinnamon/cassia note and this one, at least in the big package has that to an almost addictive state.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho  I find this to be one of the greatest incenses period, definitely my favorite of the top 3 premiums and I love the effect it has on company when they first get the aroma. The liquerish sweetness and dark kyara and aloeswood notes mesh just about perfectly in this one.
  3. Baieido / Ogurayama Aloeswood  I still find this a natural miracle, it just never ceases to astound me that you can get this much aroma from a small piece of this wood. I mean you can literally get 3-4 hours of it when you get the right temperature and I spend most of it double taking, going yeah it really is that little chip doing that. I might actually slightly prefer the Hakusui in terms of its spiciness but I think the resin might actually be a bit more intense in the Ogurayama. Anyway this is about as close to incense nirvana as it gets for me.
  4. Fred Soll / Red Sandalwood  Like many Solls this does have the penchant to not stay lit, but that’s really its only weakness. Like Shroff’s Red Sandal, this is a spicier take on a sandalwood incense, showing a totally different facet of the wood due to the cinnamon-ish notes. With Soll’s version you get that combination mixed in with that southwestern woodsy/resiny vibe to great effect. It’s also one of the mellower Solls and seems to have less powerful oils than they usually do.
  5. Tennendo / Enkuu  This is always a perennial favorite in my book, in fact long time readers might know that this is one of the most common incenses in the top ten lists here. I think that’s largely because so many of the top end incenses have kyara and are thus very sweet, Enkuu is more at the apex of the drier spicy end, for its kind there are really few better incenses. And even after a year or two since I first tried it, I still find it strikingly original and only find it mildly comparative to other high end aloeswood/spikenard mixes.
  6. Fred Soll / Nag Champa with Amber and Vanilla  I don’t bring out the Soll champas very often as for a couple of years now they’ve shown nothing but delays in terms of restocking these scents, no doubt due to the usual shortages. But when I do I’m always completely bowled over by how great these are, particularly in the realms of the sugary sweet. This one’s about as rich and amazing as you can imagine, perhaps even too much so for a small room, but perfect for these late warm California summers outside where it can penetrate with even a small wind.
  7. Yamadamatsu / Kumoi Koh  Another absolute classic in my book, an oil and woods mix that is rich, spicy and animalistic, so strong that you can get an idea of its scent just from the fresh stick. It’s similar to one or two of the coils that haven’t been imported here yet that clearly use some ingredients you don’t usually find in incenses at this level of strength. Very exotic and heady.
  8. Kyukyodo / (several)  Clearly the top catalog whose entry to US shores seems to be problematic at the very least. Sure you can find Sho-Ran-Koh and Azusa these days, but there are just a good dozen incenses or so that just badly need to be imported that haven’t ever been over here, such as the incredible aloeswood Akikaze or even the stunning and much lower end Benizakura or one of the really great high quality sandalwood based incenses Gyokurankoh. Oh and RIP Shiun and Yumemachi, what a pair to be deleted!
  9. Nippon Kodo / Tokusen Kyara Taikan  Readers may not fully be aware that if you don’t count the regular Kyara Taikan or Kongo, which I don’t, this is actually the lowest incense on a scale that goes up to what seems like the world’s most expensive stick incense, the $2500 Gokujyo Kyara Fugaku. I think you’d only have to pay $120 something for the Tokusen Kyara Taikan, which is actually an excellent stick in that it drops some of the more perfumy sweet aspects of the straight Kyara Taikan for a more elegant result. It’s a shame these are so breakable and thin, but they do pack quite a wallop.
  10. Shroff / Akash Ganga  I’ve always found this an odd scent because it’s one if not the only incenses in the Dry Masala range that shares the yellow boxes with the Semi-Drys, and I can see why as it seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I find this a very unusual variant on the “desert flower” sort of scents in that it doesn’t have the heavy camphorous notes they usually have or the sort of sickly sweet perfumes. And as a result it strikes me as a very mysterious scent with a depth that continues to make me go through my supplies very fast.

As always feel free to share with us what amazed you this month!

Sam-Sung / Bo Rim, Ja-Kum, Seok-Hyang, Il-gakmun

It’s something of a convenience, but I tend to think of Korean incense as a hybrid of the Japanese style with Tibetan-like aromas. But ultimately they’re really a unique style with threads of similarity that run through almost 80% or more of what’s available. Korean incense tends to use ingredients both familiar and unfamilar to those found in other incenses. In particular, red sandalwood tends to show up quite frequently, and to a lesser extent elecampane, pine, along with the more familiar elements of frankincense, sandalwood, clove, and cinnamon.

Overall the description I could use for most of Korea’s incenses would be tangy. This in itself can be reminiscent of some of Japan’s less sweet aloeswoods and can approach similar elements in Kunmeido and Shunkohdo incenses. While the four incenses in review here are basically Korea’s finest and highest end incenses, lower end Korean sticks become a bit coarser with this tangy sort of aroma, and include what I’d almost describe as a mesquite/lime tinge. These qualities make it fairly difficult to differentiate the lower end sticks from one another, and it’s a pattern that follows Korean incenses from the most to least expensive. That is, while the style of incense is quite distinctive compared to incenses from other countries, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between similar Korean aromas. This is even the case with the two top line Korean incenses, Bo Rim and Ja-Kum.

Bo Rim means “treasure woods” in Korean and is the gem of Korean incense, a stick fine enough to compare to similarly priced Japanese aloeswood incenses. Described as a combination of pine and red sandalwood, other ingredient lists have Bo Rim containing aloeswood and while it’s not the particularly expensive, mind-expanding class of wood, it complements the rest of the ingredients nicely. The previously mentioned tanginess is almost perfect here, while in the less expensive sticks it can occasionally become cloying. Part of this is the high quality of wood used which imparts a smoothness that helps to bolster the more intense herbal content. The ingredients really help in making this a refined, world-class incense, one apparently enjoyed by the Dalai Lama himself. But be warned, if you start here you do run the risk of many other incenses from the country not being able to compete.

Ja-Kum (or Ja-Keum depending on transliteration, I’m using the spelling on the wooden tube) is an incense very close to Bo-Rim. The ingredients list is likely to be unfamiliar to most, including teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos. With all these new and unfamiliar ingredients, I found it to be surprising that it’s not particularly unlike Bo Rim, but with the herbal content starting to win out over the background woods. The tanginess is more pronounced and a little less balanced, but not so much as it is in the lower end sticks where it can be a little overbearing. Other than the Il-gakumun, this is one of the incenses that can be considered a high end version of many of the more inexpensive Koreans. Ja-Kum still has a slight alkaline edge, but it’s only a slight note here.

Given how similar so many of these Korean incenses can be, Seok-Hyang actually sticks out like a sore thumb, being very different to the tangier varieties of Korean incense. It’s basically a rather high quality sandalwood incense that can be reminiscent of Tibetan sandalwoods due to the occasionaly unusual spice involved. The stick itself is colored slightly pinkish intimating that there’s probably as much red as there is white sandalwood involved and the stick is also a bit thicker than most Koreans. Overall it’s similar to old mountain sandalwoods with a little kick added, one that can really hit the spot at times. Overall it’s a bit coarser than most Japanese sandalwoods and not quite as refined, but it’s unquestionably of good quality. It’s also reminiscent of the Essence of the Ages rope incense Nava Durga.

Il-gakmun‘s probably the least of these four (click to page 2 and scroll down to find it), the crossover incense into the multitude of lower end Korean incenses. In a way it does represent a step sideways from Ja-Kum. The main ingredients appear to be aloeswood, Japanese cedar and gardenia seeds, but there’s a large unknown herbal content that tends to dominate the wood. The tangy, mesquite qualities mentioned earlier are the most prevalent of the four in Il-gakmun, with a spice content that always reminds me of the oregano found in pizza sauce. It’s a difficult incense overall, with so many unfamiliar and possibly clashing elements that I’ve never been able to get comfortable with it, despite the quality of ingredients involved.

Coming up in a moment, a small series of notes on seven other Korean incenses that I wrote down so long ago I’ve almost forgotten, but might as well share while there’s a sale on.

Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Earth Church, Heart Beat, Dark Goddess, Babylon

These are new offerings from Mermade Magickal Arts. They all come in glass veils with cork stoppers sealed with beeswax. There is enough incense in them for  easily 10-12 large burnings( really, you will find you get more then this) except for the Earth Church which has six large “wands”. I am quite sure by this point that these people are very fanatical about the quality of the ingredients and how they are made and there is a lot of R & D involved i each scent. Plus the price for what you are getting is extremely good.

Earth Church
These are thick sticks, about a ¼ inch wide by 2 ½ long. They are composed of finally ground woods and plants that together produce a lot of fairly sweet smelling smoke. Given the thickness of the stick you can count on quite a long burning time. It’s prefect for setting the up the energy or vib in an environment for metaphysical work or perhaps just to clean up the scent in a room. I am reminded of very sweet smelling campfires or of walking into a wood shop where many different types of woods have recently been cut. It’s a very fresh clean scent.

Heart Beat
As the name suggests, this is a very upbeat, vibrant and spicy incense. It is a sort of brick or chunk of material and needs to be heated up slowly, either on coal or in a heater.
It has a whole lot of resins and such: Oman and Hougary Frankincense, Rain Forest Elemi , Copals , Benzoin, Juniper EO, Sweet Grass EO, Cedar EO and wild crafted tips, Opopanax and Pinon Pine resin. It is really very lively and rich and the scent tend to change up as different parts ignite. It is packaged in a glass vial with extra ingredients surrounding the bricks. What this means is that you can heat just the bricks, the extra powders or any combination thereof. It’s great fun to experiment with. All in all, this is a very uplifting and rich incense which I find myself using quite a lot, Also, when used in the heater it does not produce smoke, or very little, which opens up possibilities for more people to enjoy the scent.

Dark Goddess
Another loose incense for coals or heater. The woods in this mix really stand out at first with a fresh forest scent. Then all the resins kick in and the scent gets much deeper and earthy. There are a lot of different aspects to this incense that keep it interesting, a huge play of different smells interacting with each other as well as the environment you are in. One of its ingredients is Salupati which is supposed to have “psychoactive properties”. I have not noticed anything of this nature but experimentation is still in progress 🙂 . Again, like the Heart Beat mentioned above, not much smoke is generated on the heater but quite a lot of great scent is. A small amount ( ¼ teaspoon) will pretty much give a very nice scent to a standard bedroom. This one is woods and earth tones as opposed to the spices and resins in Heart Beat.

Babylon
A Bakhoor style incense, Quite possibly one of the, if not the best, rose incense ever. I kid you not. This stuff is a light, clean, uplifting rose scent that gets help from the Aloeswood and Sandalwoods in the mix. I believe they help to lift the scent up and give it some exotic overtones. I have not been a big fan of the florals but this one opened up whole new vista’s to me. There are none of the off or synthetic scents that so many of the floral scents seem to come with. Really, it’s just a huge pure river of rose scent that just keeps coming. Plus one bottle will last quite a while; it does not take very much and you will find yourself gravitating back to it for that floral hit. Well, at least I do and I am generally an Aloeswood kind of guy 🙂  !

If you do not yet have a heater you can put these next to a coal on a bit of foil and you are in business!

-Ross

Kyukyodo / Daitenko, Hatsuhana, Miyagino, Matsukaze, Gyokuranko, Hikari, Kinbato, Seigetsu

I’ve heard rumors that the US should be seeing more Kyukyodo incenses exported here in the near future, but it’s a rumor I heard more around January and so far it doesn’t seem like anything new has shown up in shops. It’s particularly unfortunate as Kyukyodo has a much bigger profile in Japan than it does here. It’s not that that isn’t true for all the companies, but you would think Kyukyodo ought to have a profile at least on par with Shoyeido or Nippon Kodo here.

What this means is you won’t be able to find any of the incenses in this article in US shops at least yet. Most of them may be locatable at certain European outlets, but given the poor state of the US dollar, importing them yourselves may be cost prohibitive. I will say up front, however, that in certain cases I can see why certain scents have not been imported yet, as a few of these seem to be closely related to (currently imported) Kyukyodo favorites such as Ryunhinko and Asuza. On the other hand there are a couple I only wish were currently imported, as they represent higher end blends that are different enough from Sho-Ran-Ko and the like. I’d like to thank Bernd Sandner, who graciously provided me generous samples of the incenses being reviewed here (as well as comments that influenced my impressions). Thanks also to Kotaro Sugimoto at Japan Incense for translating the unknown, unexported and quite fantastic blend Seigetsu. You can also see some of these incenses at a German supplier here.

I’ll be guessing in terms of ingredients for most of these so my ordering of the incenses in question are assumed to go from the inexpensive, every day blends to the higher end ones. I may very well get some of these wrong (for example I think I’d have moved Gyokuranko up a notch), so comments and impressions are welcomed as always.

The first one up is the very thick stick, every day blend called Daitenko. In many ways this could be considered an every day sandalwood or even less. It’s almost entirely wood and seems to have as much binder presence as sandalwood. It’s possibly one of the thickest sticks I’ve seen come out of Japan and seems tailor made, like coils, for outside and larger spaces. Bernd mentioned to me that the subtler notes come out as you get used to the blend, which is something I think is safe to say about most Kyukyodo incenses. I’d also agree that this has a sort of campfire feel to it, but there are some very subtle notes that I haven’t quite absorbed yet. It’s strength is that it’s not all that reminiscent of generic sandalwood incenses.

Hatsuhana is not far off and seems to be the company’s equivalent to the traditional or “byakudan” green sandalwoods. I think of the Nippon Kodo blend, the style’s most popular form, as the standard here and really Hatsuhana isn’t too far off, a little more natural and woody. For those who are familiar with Ikaruga and Shirohato, you could almost think of Hatsuhana as similar, but missing those overt top oil notes. It’s really no surprise we don’t see this in the US as it’s not a distinctive blend like the aforementioned incenses, but as with Daitenko, I’m holding out that I may have missed something a bit subtler about it.

Miyagino starts to move in the Ikaruga and Shirohato direction by enhancing the typical sandalwood base with oil and spice notes. While it’s not as intense as the currently imported blends, it has a slighter, more evergreen/citrusy sort of note on top that I found to be rather unique. With such a notable spice presence, it’s easier to evince more subtleties in play, and I found with this one that it has a really nice bright energy to it, almost happy and playful. Which means, of course, that it’s one I’d like to see imported here as it would be quite inexpensive and would sit rather prominently in a group of low end spiced sandalwood sticks.

I’ve been working on a review of the Sakaki coils by Shoyeido, which has been interesting because it features unnamed coils that are part of a concept related to The Tale of Genjii. In researching the linked Wikipedia page, I noticed as one of Genjii’s chapters, Matsukaze, which means “Wind in the Pines.” As the name of a Kyukyodo incense, it captures the scent rather nicely. It’s a scent not far off in style from Miyagino, except the top notes are definitely Japanese pine, a scent quite a bit milder and refined than your typical west coast pitch. Even with this sort of mild top note, the pine overwhelms the wood a bit, but to be honest I don’t think I could name a better, more balanced pine incense as with use I see the wood peaking through a little more.

Gyokuranko takees us, if not out of the sandalwood category, at least to a scent bordering on that area where slight and (perhaps) low quality aloeswood is used to give depth to higher end sandalwood scents. I’m not sure that’s quite the case here, but Gyokuranko’s similarity to Ryuhinko in terms of its stately dryness makes me wonder a little. I detect more of a sandalwood base to this one, but the dry, oil note on top is very reminiscent of Ryuhinko’s own and considering this one of Kyukyodo’s real strengths, I can’t help but hope to see this one imported. I think we can assume by the incense’s picture in a fine wood box (see above link), that this is likely considered a premium.

Hikari moves the scent into a similar realm with the well-known floral incense Asuza. Hikari is very close in style and as such, it’s somewhat understandable it hasn’t been imported yet. But its similarity to Azusa also accentuates the differences between the two. Where Azusa is quite sweet, Hikari is definitely drier, with some slight and exotic Pacific floral notes (I was thinking tropical, but not fruit). It’s a lovely and gentle blend that furthers my opinion that this is one of the better companies when it comes to florals. I couldn’t say that this has much of an aloeswood presence to it, but I feel the same way about Azusa in that the oil sublimates the wood to a note rather than a background presence.

However, Kinbato definitively takes Kyukyodo into noticeable aloeswood-laced incense blends and while so much could be said about how great Kyukyodo is in working on very affordable, high quality incenses, only Sho-Ran-Ko and Ryuhinko give much of the western world a hint at how great the company is at the high enders. Kinbato has all the Kyukyodo strengths, sublimity, gentleness and dryness. It’s a slightly floral blend with what seems like a play between sandalwood and aloeswood. In a way it’s almost like a minor form of Sho-Ran-Ko as it approaches that complexity without quite moving into that type of mutable brilliance (even as recent as last night, I was impressed how many new impressions I still get from Sho-Ran-ko).

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last, a incense that appears only to be available in Japan and one Kotaro helped Bernd and I translate: Seigetsu (Clear Moon). This seems to be quite the high end aloeswood blend, an extaordinarily incense with a great deal of complexity. It has Ryuhinko’s dryness, a slight floral characteristic and the type of sweet and caramel-like wood play you see in Enkuu or Muro-machi. In fact this is actually one of the more complex incenses available and in no way have I come close to really getting underneath the depth of this one. Like all the best incenses, its complexity will always be stimulating.

Kyukuyodo incense is highly valued among enthusiasts for both its high end and affordable incenses and it can be seen here that there are some other parts of the scent spectrum that are not as widely available but in many cases should be. Like many US incense users, I keep up the hope we’ll see many of these in the near future.