SAMPLER NOTES: Nippon Kodo / Elemense

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that at least 75% of Nippon Kodo’s US catalog isn’t really marketed at my sort of nose. But it’s interesting that the most recent two lines they’ve released, including Elemense, have been roughly traditional incenses, or at least both this and the Kohden line are sandalwood-based incenses that stay fairly close to traditional ingredients, even if it seems clear that perfume art is used in most of these cases to get the aromas. Elemense incenses are actually quite a bit more inexpensive than the Kohden lines and perhaps maybe not as clear in their aromas. They all seem to retail around $5.95 a box.

The Elemense line seeks to embody the five classical elements in five different incense blends, using Space as the fifth point (rather than, say, Spirit or Akasha). In doing so they tie down each element to a geographic location, or as some of the spiritually inclined might say, a mundane chakra. Having reviewed Mermade cones that followed a very similar pattern recently, I was constantly reminded of the similarities and differences between these two lines as the sorts of blends they come up with are similar. However, as mentioned before, Mermade cones are definitely all natural while there are synthetic aromas used in the Elemense incenses.

We start with Earth which is described as having bountiful hints of vetiver, cypress and patchouli and is tied to El Mirador, Guatemala. Where Mermade’s Earth cone was very strong in the patchouli era, it seems to be very mellow or blended in this one, in fact I didn’t pick it up at all. Like many of NK’s incenses that use three ingredients, the result is more of a blend that comes off like one ingredient, and in this case the more citrusy/evergreen qualities of the cypress came out the strongest. If I see patchouli and vetiver in ingredients I do tend to expect a certain earthiness not apparent here, instead they just seem to give off milder spice hints to give background to what’s a very strong, and mildly cloying perfume oil.

Water doesn’t have an ingredients list unless you count green mist, ice water and musk. Personally I don’t really have much of a line on the ice water or green mist aromas, but let’s assume this is roughly the fragrance around the Detifoss waterfall in Iceland. I found this to be pretty loudly aromatic, the sandalwood base front a very intense floral perfume that reminded me of the Free Pure Spirit line, with a scent that dissolves into soapy, synthetic-ish back notes. It evinces the trouble I have with a lot of this company’s incenses, a desire to combine so many fruit and floral elements that the result is something indistinctive and washy. In fact I assume the fruity qualities are supposed to come close to water, but as with the Earth incense, I didn’t find this particularly elemental.

Fire was the most successful of the five incenses in terms of nailing the element itself. This stick burns hot, with a lot of spice and sweet benzoin notes (I was thinking amber, so this is likely more a Siam Benzoin). Along with benzoin are Philippine Mango and clove, supposedly evoking the Mayon Volcano in the Phillipines. The overall effect is dry and crispy, but like all the incenses in this line the oil is pretty strong and synthetic-like and thus more intense than some of the Kohden incenses I might compare this with.

Air introduces a combination of anise, tomato leaf and galbanum, the middle ingredient evocative of the Fragrance Memory incense Siesta Siesta. This is quite different of course, and I found myself picking up more a watermelon vibe than tomato leaf. Usually with air incenses you tend to get a strong lavender note, but there’s no such thing here, perhaps none grows on Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. I got quite a bit of spice on this one, in the thyme or rosemary vein (perhaps the anise), which did give it some very airy qualities. It made me feel a bit edgy overall, which I’d also attribute to the company getting pretty close to the element on this one.

Space would be the most difficult one to nail of course, and the idea is embodied here by Erg Chebbi’s “transformative mysteries.” In reading the ingredients list I was quite surprised, the saffron, cinnamon and amber implying something much spicier than the heavy floral notes at work in this incense. I was getting rose, carnation, gardenia and/or daffodil similar in ways to arabic ouds, except no oud of course. Unfortunately any sort of floral incense at this price is likely to have a lot of off notes and this one is no different, with a very strong soapy, alkalline vibe to it. While the idea of something so intensely floral should work for the element in question, I found the overall stick to be fairly unpleasant and unbalanced.

At least in the case of Elemense, one’s not going to be putting out a lot of money on a risk, but I’d suggest sampling them first if you’re not familiar with the company’s incenses. As they’re probably the most visibly marketed Japanese incenses in the country, they’re subsequently not the sort of scents those looking for wood and spice are going to go for. Unfortunately for the most part the scents are fairly shallow and often strike aromas without a lot of intricacy. Compare a $6 box of this to a $6 roll of Baieido Kobunboku if you don’t believe there can be a big difference even at very low prices.

{Afternote: It seems that the 5 incense Elemense series seems to match up in both name and number of incenses with NK’s Naturense line. Having tried only one incense from that line, I’m not sure how much more they do match up, but thought it was worth noting.]