Huitong / Cure Disease, Taizhen, Solemn, Golden Light, Plum Blossom, Sky Dragon, Yun Hui Incense Powder

While we do see a lot of incenses coming in from the Tibetan region within the political boundaries of China, Huitong is the first Chinese incense company we’ve been in contact with. In many ways Huitong might be considered the Chinese analog of Baieido in that all of their incenses seem to be made without the use of perfumes and oils, using only ecologically sound ingredients. What this means is that it’s been very difficult to do their incenses justice as to even pick up on their subtleties means you have to approach them like you do with Baieidos and “listen” to them.

This is essentially sort of a hybrid style, using extruded Japanese-like sticks to format what are essentially very Tibetan-like scents. So the most obvious comparison would be to Bosen’s Tibetan traditionals or even some of the Korean incenses, except as already mentioned that Huitong doesn’t use oils as Bosen does and the scents will be friendlier to Western noses than many of the Korean incenses. But one thing most of the scents have in common is they all have multiple ingredients and thus often don’t have the dominant sandalwood or aloeswood notes that tend to make categorizing Japanese incenses a little easier.

Cure Disease is described as a “kind of historic incense, which is mainly used for cure disease and health preserving. It was originated from Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) and recorded in ancient books that burning this incense regularly could help to strengthen us both emotionally and physically.” The ingredients are listen as figwort root, spikenard, cypress seed, rhubarb, aloeswood, storax and clove.  As such, this type of mix reminds me a lot of some of the sweeter TDHF Tibetan ropes with a bit of fruitiness  in a much more refined format. Like with most mainland incenses, the aloeswood is quiet and mixed in but it works quite well to give the incense some heft. The results are quite pleasant, especially as the scent builds, almost like a mix of woods and grape.

Taizhen incense is the second of three Huitong incenses packaged in beautiful cardboard rolls. The incense “originated from Imperial Consort Yang of Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Consort Yang known briefly by the Taoist nun name Taizhen, was one of the four beauties of ancient China, she was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong for many years. According to legend, Consort Yang treasured this incense very much and named it by her own Taoist nun name. Taizhen Incense is made from various famous and precious Chinese traditional materials according to the ancient spice formula.” The ingredients listed are sandalwood, Chinese eaglewood (aloeswood), saffron, cloves, jave amonum fruit, saussurea involucrata, rue, cogongrass etc. In this case the sandalwood is noticeably up front in a sort of freshly cut wood way. The other ingredients sweeten this base scent up in the same way they do in wood powder heavy Tibetan ropes. The Chinese Eaglewood gives the aroma a bit of roundedness and the front has a fruitiness not dissimilar to the Cure Disease, In some ways it’s like a nice, smooth low wned aloeswood crossed with Tibetan-style spices.

Solemn Incense is one of the previous Buddhist incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to legend, when burning this incense, all the gods will pray to Buddha all together. It is usually used for practice Buddhism or reading at the home.” Like the previous two incenses, this is packaged in a cardboard roll. It contains sandalwood, aloeswood, mastiche, galbanum, and saruma henryi among other ingredients. It’s a very light sandalwood and aloeswood blend, with a slight fruitiness akin to the Taizhen (one wonder if this roll series might have some thematic similarities). It’s quite pleasant, again largely due to the fresh wood powder scent at the center. It seems like the galbanum might give the scent the fruity subnote. Like all good meditation incenses, it also has a slight ineffable quality about it. Solemn may not be as rich as the previous two incenses but in a way it’s the most successful.

Golden Light moves the packaging format to boxes and presents another tradional Buddhist formula from the Tang Dynasty, its name originating from the Golden Light Sutra. The ingredients are given as sandalwood, frankincense, basil and cypress seed and the incense definitely smells like a variation on a combination of those first two ingredients. As such it’s not terribly far from, say, a less refined Kyukyodo Yumemachi as if it was done as a Tibetan stick. This puts the incense in the general catgeory of the “daily incense” in that the ingredients here have less luster than in the other sticks. For the most part this is a woodshop sort of scent and as such it is also similar to the Incienso de Santa Fe bricks.

I’m about 95% sure the next incense I’m reviewing is Huitong’s Plum Blossom. Although the box wasn’t clearly labelled, the graphics seem to match the story which goes like this. “Plum Blossom Incense was created by Princess Shouyang, the daughter of Emperor Wu in the Nan Dynasty’s Song Era. Princess Shouyang was a plum blossom lover, according to the legend, one day when she slept beneath a tree, a plum blossom fell on her forehead, leaving a floral imprint. With the imprint, she looked much more beautiful. Soon, all the ladies followed her to paste plum blossom shaped ornaments on their foreheads. It was then called Plum Blossom Makeup. Hence, Princess Shouyang was crowned Goddess of Plum Blossom and this incense was also name Plum Blossom incense.” Plum Blossom is a coil incense (the coils are the same shape and size as many mainland aloeswood coils) and is made from spikenard, aloeswood, radix angelicae dahuricae, cortex moutan, clove bark and sandalwood. It’s interesting to see spikenard listed first as I didn’t sense it taking up a lot of the scent. Instead you seem to have the mainland take on something like Baieido Kobunboku done Tibetan style. That is the incense itself is centrally woody but it supports a sort of light floral mix that creates the plum blossom aroma and does so without the off scents one would expect with inexpensive perfume. It’s not spectacular so much as understated and like all the Huitongs, nicely done given the boundaries.

“Sky Dragon is a kind of precious Chinese traditional incense. It was originated from Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Buddhism was popular in the society. According to traditional recipes, the incense requires several days of cellaring during production process.” Sky Dragon has a huge list of ingredients: rosewood heartwood, cloves, sandalwood, valeriana jatamansi, cogongrass, rue, frankincense, benzoin, ageratum, galangal root and cypress powder. The rosewood appears to be the central ingredient and the mix gives this stick a very different bent from the previous incenses which all have a substantive sandalwood component. It makes for a nice change, slightly anyway, because the rosewood doesn’t have quite the depth to carry it completely. Even the spices mixed in the other scents are missing here, leaving this one with a sort of campfire scent.

I didn’t receive any information with the last incense here, Yun Hui incense powder. This seems to be the deluxe item in the batch, as the powder has an intense richness that none of the sticks quite approach. Even fresh out of the box the spicy, fruity blend pops out of its small ceramic interior container. And maybe it starts with that container but it makes the whole incense reminiscent of Japanese kneaded incenses mixed in with the woody and powdery elements of Tibetan powders and ropes. This scent seems highest in good aloeswood content with subnotes of tea, caramel and butter on the heater. In order to get this review up in even a remotely reasonable time, I had to forego a sample of it on a charcoal burner but I may come back and add that. Needless to say, this is very good powder, reminiscent to some of the better Tibetan powders and I’m hoping to be able to get to know it better.

We’ll have some more Huitong incenses up for review somewhere down the line. Overall what reviewing these did for me, is really question the idea of what effects perfumes and oils have on an incense’s immediacy, because without them one’s work is a lot more difficult in trying to describe a scent as all of these, with perhaps the exception of the powder, are very quiet and gentle scents which will make you stretch to understand. Which is not at all a bad thing in my book. I’m actually overall very impressed with the sheer class and visual impression of Huitong. However, there’s one disclaimer and that these incenses aren’t easy to get at the moment, at least in the US and as I finish this up I realize I don’t have a URL. So I’m going to first direct you to Frankie’s blog where I assume one can leave a comment if you’re interested in purchasing, and I should be back in a few days with something a bit more direct.

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.]