Nippon Kodo / Café Time / Cassia, Mocha; Sakura (Cherry), Green Tea; Lime, Mint Tea; Lotus, Wine

As a creator of a number of different modern lines, it could be said that Nippon Kodo, at least in its American front, leads the market when it comes to user friendly, accessible and modern scents, and as such it’s a company that doesn’t really make a lot of incense that appeals to my personal taste. But even beyond this disclaimer, a lot of modern incenses I have tried in the Nippon Kodo stable have gone beyond just having a different aesthetic into what I find to be unpleasantly perfumed incenses. That is, there’s a difference between not being a big fan of fruity or floral incenses while recognizing that there are times when they are well done and just dismissing anything of the sort. Having reviewed (and not altogether positively) incenses in lines like Free Pure Spirit, East Meets West, Elemense and New Morning Star, it’s time to turn to some incenses that, while not being my thing, are sometimes well done for what they do.

Café Time is a series of cone incenses that come in pairs in cylindrical cardboard containers with five cones for each of two flavors per container, with a theme to tie them together. Café Times are rather small cones and even if they’re quite affordable between $5 and $6 a container, you’re still paying at least 50 cents a cone. Given these cones are done in 15 to 20 minutes, you’re not getting a lot of value for the money, but at least in most of these incenses you’re getting a decent scent, with very few of them showing the off notes and cheap perfume aromatics of some of other NK’s lines. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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.

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.

SAMPLER NOTES: Kunjudo / Japanese Gardens (Tea Garden, Fruits Garden, Bonsai Garden, Moss Garden, Stone Garden); Less Smoke (Plum, Cherry Blossom, Lavender, Rose, Lily of the Valley)

These two Kunjudo ranges, all of which are exported directly to the US rather than via Encens du Monde, feature some of the company’s lowest end incenses and as such could be comparable to similar Shoyeido or Nippon Kodo lines. In fact the Japanese Gardens line does have some similarities to Shoyeido’s Daily series, while the Less Smoke incenses remind me quite a bit of Nippon Kodo’s Morning Star line. The former, in general, strike me as traditional or natural scents, while the others definitely have synthetic qualities that often seem to come into less smoke incenses. And it should be said that while these do have less smoke, they are not smokeless.

Tea Garden is the line’s green tea incense. I thought this one smelled almost identical to the Green Tea incense in Kunjudo’s Three Scents packaging, enough where I did a side by side. I don’t think they’re identical, with Tea Garden’s green tea oil not quite so intense, but they’re definitely close enough where you’d need one or the other. Having tested out a few Green Tea incenses recently, this one might be the one I liked the most in that it does have a noticeable element of leaf or oil in it.

It’s going to be up to the user whether or not Fruits Garden is to their tastes, as I can’t think of too many fruity incenses that would appeal to me. This bouquet is kind of like a mix of apple, pear and cherry and as such has a fruit bowl smell, which tends to be less distinctive than if they went for one particular scent. While it does have some synthetic notes to it, the sandalwood base (and this is true for all this line) carries it past those notes for the most part. I can imagine this could be considered quite nice for those going for this sort of scent.

Bonsai Garden is well named, a spicy evergreen scent with hints of cypress and conifers. It’s not really a pure pine or evergreen incense because of the spice and it finishes with a bit of sweet perfume. Overall this is why I’ve written this as sampler notes, as I wasn’t anywhere close to getting a bead on the overall scent and thought this could be quite nice.

Moss Garden‘s a bit indistinct and it’s certainly nothing like the Shoyeido incense of the same name. I remember the aroma here being kind of muted and soft with hints of wet moss and a slight, lifting oil in the back. There’s a bit of fruit or lavender in there somewhere as well.

Stone Garden goes for a really spicy scent, with a strong cinnamon and floral content. I didn’t have enough of a sample to decide on whether it was distinct enough from other similar blends, but this kind of thing is generally to my liking.

Overall I thought the Garden series was rather nice for daily incenses and if I hadn’t already bought the Three Scents package, I’d probably want at least Tea Garden, even if it’s possible I wouldn’t use it much. On the other hand, the Less Smoke blends aren’t really quite to my tastes (it should be taken as a given that smokeless incenses aren’t generally my bag), the leftover whiter ash implies a certain method of creation that’s more synthetic than natural and in these cases it becomes fairly obvious. Recently I went through a Daihatsu line with very similar scents, except in those cases there was perfumery art to them that really lifted the scents (and, of course, they weren’t less smoke/smokeless.)

The obvious comparison from the music world would be the difference between 70s analog and 80s digital technology. The former’s generally fuller and more natural sounding, where the latter, before technology caught up, provided thin and inaccurate samples that were photographs to the analog’s reality. This incense range is similar. The Plum struck me as being thin, almost like an approximation of other plum blossom incenses, and I suppose it suffers from me being on a Kobunboku trip recently. The Cherry Blossom is similar, but doesn’t have the Plum’s slight bitter notes making it a little friendlier. But like most of the line this is more in the vein of sprays and home deoderizers than traditional incense, and thus less to my liking than something like Shoyeido’s Daily version. The Lavender, in particular, reminded me of a Nippon Kodo Morning Star blend, with an aroma that’s obviously synthetic and only remotely like its original oil or herb, but I did like this one more than the prior two, maybe even BECAUSE it’s not like lavender oil, something that doesn’t vary all that much when its pure. Both the Rose and the Lily of the Valley are scents I generally have a bit of trouble with in the first place, so I think my opinion can be extrapolated from the rest of the line without needing to keep firing away.

As I mentioned earlier it’s important to compare your own aesthetics to my own in these cases as I tend to prefer traditional scents and many of these are quite floral. That is while I felt fairly comfortable talking about the Gardens line, the Less Smoke line isn’t something I’d necessarily seek out on their own and was mostly curious about how good they’d be considering so many of the high line Kunjudos are so good.

Shorindo / Chabana Tea Flower

Shorindo’s Chabana Tea Flower is a smokeless incense roughly in the same vein as other green tea incenses or Baieido’s Izumi. Incenses like these tend to be oil based using a form of charcoal for the delivery and such a style isn’t usually successful to my nose, although the charcoal used by Japanese companies is far superior to that used in cheap, bamboo stick punks. Chabana combines both tea and flower scents to approach the sort of fresh and cleaning smell you might find with Izumi. If you’ve been into new age stores you might have seen the Moldavite charcoal incense, which is a style based around some sort of meteor rock with fabled effects. Chabana resembles it quite a bit in scent, but without any sort of chakra stimulation or third eye opening involved.

The aroma’s a little too gentle and floral for the delivery method, meaning that the subtleties of the scent are as likely to get lost in the burn. Of the few sticks I burned, maybe half of one of them revealed the best aspects of the scent, the oil alone which is fresh and cleansing, but like with many charcoal incenses, I’m left wondering what the oil alone would smell like. And while this is similar to Baieido’s charcoal incenses in style, it’s not quite up to that level of subtlety in the aroma. I tend to like my green tea a little electric in terms of getting the full smell out of it, here it’s only one of a number of notes whose overall bouquet is a little difficult to pinpoint.