Kyarazen’s Artisinal Incense: Song of Rain and Sea of Clouds

Sea of Clouds

The unlit sticks of Sea of Clouds smell dry, bitter and woody with a hint of borneol that adds its customary energetic uplift. I think I smell a sprinkle of dry white pepper and a hefty amount of sandalwood. The burning stick initially smells vanillic sweet. Then creamy sandalwood waltzes in, smooth and wavy and very light on its feet, smelling of mellow woods and coconut. It’s so strange that I can’t smell the camphor at all. I imagine it’s the invisible charioteer, content to drive the gently drifting and weightless wood skyward without contributing a scent of its own.

When I smell sweet agarwood incense I’m always charmed and feel as though I’ve rediscovered something very wonderful, however the bitter sticks are the ones I come back to again and again and again. Sea of Cloud’s bitterness is tempered by age-earned ease and gossamer grace, a welcome, unburdened bitterness that makes me feel determined and secure as I enjoy it’s meditative flight.

Sea of Clouds is an agarwood kiss, a breath of wood spirit, a floating puff of sylvan stillness. It takes me away, not on a wild adventure or a child’s fanciful daydream, but on an intent, silent pilgrimage made in earnest joy.

 

Song of Rain

As soon as I removed Song of Rain from its plastic sleeve I was really surprised! I wasn’t expecting to smell such strong, thick, sweet spiciness! The unlit sticks smell very ambery- lots of caramel (is that benzoin?) – accompanied by cumin, turmeric and cassia. A bittersweet chocolate makes me wonder if patchouli is the source of the herbal element. Before it’s lit, Song of Rain reminds me of a gourmand-smelling zukoh, but while it’s burning the sweet and spicy notes recede and woody and subtly animalic notes become much more prominent.

This is not the song of a suburban Spring shower. I smell the rainforest after a stampeding downpour, the sweet loaminess of sodden earth, the sour bitterness of fungus-laden bark and the damp thickness of heavy air. It’s easy to imagine green crested lizards scurrying beneath sinking rocks, birds of paradise seeking shelter under the spreading canopy and the drenched gray coats of squirrel monkeys glistening silver with sun-warmed droplets. While many amber incenses are way too sweet for my personal taste, Song of Rain balances sweet spiciness with herbal, earthy and plum skin agarwood notes. It’s a rain I’d happily sing in and a song I’d happily sing!

 

 

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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!

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.

Okuno Seimeido Kunsui Ginsen [Reprint]

Howdy!
This will be my first review of the new year!
Today I will be reviewing Okuno Seimeido’s  Kunsui Ginsen, or  green incense – singing* selection. The stick is your standard brown and is listed as containing “aloeswood and Chinese medicinal herbs”. On first lighting, I smell a hit of salty aloeswood with a touch of pine, with a mid note of plum, and a touch of cassia, nutmeg and sweet spice in the background. Overall I would describe this stick as a mild, sweet, woody floral scent. It is definitely a pleasing aroma, If you are a fan of floral and spice I would definitely give this one a try.

*I think I translated this correct :/

Shroff Channabasappa / Soft (Semi-Dry) Masalas / Apsara, Exotic Petals, Little Woods (new version), Orange Blossom, Pride, Raja Yoga, Silver Bouquet, Suganda Mantri, Tapasya, Yatra, Yogi Bouquet

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6
Shroff Channabasappa Part 7
Shroff Channabasappa Part 8
Shroff Channabasappa Part 9
Shroff Channabasappa Part 10
Shroff Channabasappa Part 11
Shroff Channabasappa Part 12
Shroff Channabasappa Part 13
Shroff Channabasappa Part 14
Shroff Channabasappa Part 15

Shroff Channabasappa Part 16

I’ve been wanting to write about this group of incenses for a really, really long time now, in fact it should be a measure of my appreciation for them that I’ve restocked every single one once. If there can be one string that ties all of these incenses together is that they’re (almost) all very sublime in terms of their mixtures of notes, the kind of quality that’s like a lure or siren’s song. When I first started to use them, I found it fairly difficult to get a really good impression that I could turn into words and then before I knew it they had sucked me in and I fairly rocketed through all of my initial packages before I could even put words down on paper. So then I ended up restocking them again a few months ago and was a bit more careful and methodical with them. By then there was a new blend called Silver Blossom and some of the original soft masalas were starting to change in recipe. One of these is here, the new version of Shroff’s classic Little Woods.

While Shroff don’t tag these as wet masalas, it’s kind of difficult to really tell what the difference is between the two categories, except, perhaps, that the wets are a bit stronger in terms of perfume content. There’s perfume in these as well but they are much quieter in terms of how much the scent comes out of the boxes when you open them. Think of Darshan or Saffron and how potent they are, these are something of a step down from those. But most of this group is also different than the original group that Little Woods came in, and what they tend to smell like on the burn is quite a bit different from what they smell like in the box. But in all of these incenses’ cases, the more you get to burn them, the more you come to love them and some of these I’d find difficult to do without, especially with all the changes and bad news on the market at the moment. With Dhuni closing up shop, Shroff are now the predominant incense in the Indian export field and the reason why they are is part to do with the subtlety and quality of the last couple of groups.

Apsara lists balsam, jasmine and musk as part of its ingredient list and you’ll see musk pop up at least a couple more times in this group. In particular this is a really crystally perfume musk that really works well with these incenses. With Apsara it’s married to a really sublime and gorgeous floral champa scent with a terrific spicy finish. It’s somewhat reminiscent of pink or even royal amber incenses at times and the mix of what seems like cinnamon (but is probably partially the balsam) and the champa base is perfectly done. As such, it is fleetingly similar to some of the better Japanese florals with a high quality perfume scent at heart. Gentle and seductive, like nearly incense in this liine, this has a subtle quality that always keeps me coming back to it.

With lavender, sandal, and palmarosa in the description, Exotic Petals is a mix of lemon and citrus with a floral and fruity type of center. This is the type of scent I always find reminiscent of air freshener or furniture polish, it’s bright, intense and almost impossible not to get the huge palmarosa hit in front. But don’t let comparisons to these household products scare you off, this is much more well done than a synthetic fragrance, and it has a unique atmosphere that is well worth checking out, particularly for those into “desert flower” type mixes. It has a bit of sandalwood in the mix that grounds it nicely and it has a really cleansing vibe that is good for lifting the atmosphere of your burning area. In fact this one seems quite perfect for summer.

Little Woods has been reviewed here before and has shown up in previous monthly top tens for me, I’ve always stood behind it as one of the best incenses India has to offer. So I was a little tentative to realize that the group it came in has rumored to have changed in scent. The new version is definitely different but the good news in this case is that it’s at least as good as the old version. When I originally reviewed this, I found it slightly reminiscent of the incense known as Woods that started out brilliant and then really took a dive with the recipe changes. However, I’d say the new version might even be closer to that original classic and this seems to be less perfumed in some ways and more evergreen or resinous in scent. As a result it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost another old favorite so much as gained a new one (even if the perfumed version was brilliant). Little Woods is still an evergreen and evocative wonder.

Orange Blossom lists orange and ylang as ingredients. Like an orange cream soda or popsicle, this fruity-citrus champa is one of the best and most unique of its type. It’s not only that it gets its scent right (too many bad memories of off orangey incenses makes me hesitant to approach these), but it does so and manages to be subtle as well. The blossom part, if you will, is nicely defined and gives the scent a lot of sunshine, it’s still distinctively gummy and balsamic at the same time with a touch of the powdery. The combination of elements makes this one perfect overall, but do note these are thicker sticks than the rest of the line and thus the stick count will be a little lower.

Pride sticks out of this group quite a bit by moving away from obvious floral scents and using sandal, aloes and musk as its ingredients. It’s probably the driest in the bunch, stick and scentwise and reminds me a little of Shoyeido’s Haku-Un, a woody blend with a nice touch of aloeswood in the mix. It’s quite different for a champa or soft masala, with peppery hot notes mixed in with the woody/spicy blend. At the risk of repetition, it has a great balance like all of this line. The whole scent has a spicy richness that makes this an earthy classic and could easily be used as a temple incense. Don’t expect this to have any sort of whopping Japanese style aloeswood note in it, but you can tell the ingredient is part of the mix nonetheless.

Raj Yoga is an earthy champa of a different type, and lists rosemary, olibanum and oakmoss among its ingredients. It’s very close to what I’d call a patchouli champa variant with a green, herbaceous character (the oakmoss I’m sure) that is reminiscent of vetivert as well. The middle seems sandalwood heavy and there’s a touch of spice/floral to give it some individual character. It’s all extraordinarily fresh and original, and a great example of why these are all such impressive hybrids, incenses that only work because all the moving parts are in their right places. It’s tough to pick a favorite in this group, but for sure this would be in the running.

Silver Bouquet is one of Shroff’s very recent blends and is a really excellent entry that reminds me of the older champa days. It’s not so much that it reminds me of one scent in particular as it evokes a combination of older notes in a newer blend. Hints of Maharaja or Incense from India’s Silver Temple, a touch of Lotus, a bit of Incense from India’s African Violet fill the mix as well as a bit of nuttiness and a thread of spice permeate. It hits the kind of sultry end you want with a “silver,” with the perfume revealing some cool subtleties through the burn. Amazing, like a quality spiced tea.

When I restocked Suganda Mantri, it was the one incense in the group I bought two boxes of. It’s one of this line’s brilliant pieces of art, a rich, sultry Eastern perfume in champa form. The scent is quite woody (musk and sandalwood are listed) and the subtleties are many and difficult to list. There’s a bit of chocolate, some earthiness, some sensuous florals, especially rose. It has a depth to it all the best Indian masalas have, where the plurality of ingredients come together in all sorts of sublime ways. It may be the best of several examples of why this batch of Shroffs is so good. Perhaps a bit similar to desert flower blends but if so the most superior version of that scent on record.

If there’s one incense in this group that I might have slipped a little bit with, it’s the musk, sandalwood and amber blend Tapasya. It’s a bracing, fruity blend with the usual sandal, orange peel and spices, in fact this could be considered something of an alternate version of the old Maharaj scent. The main issue with it is that either the bamboo stick or part of the aroma cuts through with a slightly rough woody scent that gives it some bitterness. It gives an abrasive note to the scent that prevents it from working properly. Like Pride, it’s quite dry, but not in a good way. In fact as I took notes down on this I went through several sticks just to try and capture why it wasn’t working as well for me anymore and mostly it just doesn’t pop like the rest of them.

Yatra, a mix of jasmine, sandal and musk, is an excellent blend of fruity and floral with a really powerful and crystally musk presence, this is really what this line does well, balancing several ingredients in an unusual and clever fusion. The wood and champa base sits in the middle and they seem to ground both the jasmine and musk so that both are distinct in the bouquet. Sometimes jasmine can be overwhelming, but like with Apsara it is placed rather perfectly in the scent. Very nicely done, fresh with a touch of evergreen in the mix.

Finally we have Yogi Bouquet which lists citrus, musk and balsam. Like Yatra, it has a distinct and noticeable musky quality, although where it’s more crystalline and perfume-like in Yatra, it shows up a bit more sultry here, meshing perfectly with the balsam. The citrus is nicely mixed in and doesn’t kill the incense like it often can when the essential oils are over accentuated. There’s a bit of sawdust in the mix as well and it’s perhaps a touch rough, but the combination makes it quite worthwhile.

This article more or less catches up with the Shroff line to date, although after trying the new Little Woods, I’m curious to revisit some of the other incenses in the group that have probably changed. I tried Pearl again but it’s close enough to the old version to be redundant and reports elsewhere on the site evince that Jungle Prince might not be up to the standards it used to have. Another big change is that Shroffs are now being packaged in 50g packages, which seem a good balance between not having enough and having too much. Let us know in the comments section what your current favorites are in this thread and if you’ve noticed any changes, any observations will be highly worthwhile to our readers.

Nippon Kodo / Kurobo Nerikoh

Today I decided to open up my container of Nippon Kodo‘s “Kurobo” Nerikoh and give it a review. Upon first impressions I am confronted with a sweet, woody and spicy mix of scents, straight from the package. It is slated as having aloes wood and sandalwood, while its name is a phrase meaning “Black Priest” in Japanese. I was initially confronted with a base note of a salty/bitter aloes wood scent, alongside cassia and clove and a sweet floral smell I was unable to identify. I also noticed a slight undertone of a soapy smell (barely noticeable, similar to bar soap). After the initial burn in on charcoal in a traditional koro, (and slight heat increase), the overtones faded to a more woody, bitter aloes wood, and the sweetness tapered off. In my personal opinion, I liked this blend a tad more than the previously reviewed Hatsune, And believe that it will appeal to almost anyone, especially those who love sweet woods.

-John

Nitiraj / Color Aromatherapy Nag Champas / Black, Blue, Green, Gold, Orange, Purple, Red

This line up of Nitirag nag champa incenses seems to be one of the few remaining sublines in their catalog. There are seven aromas, undoubtedly to match up with the chakras, and they’re all created to represent a color in scent (there are no artificial colors on the incenses themselves). The entire line is more or less saddled with a lack of distinction in the same way so much of the Shrinivas line is, lots of aromas that only change  things to slight degrees.

Nitiraj’s Black Nag Champa for meditation lists sandalwood, vanilla and floral oils, which unfortunately doesn’t tell you much. And why would it? Everything is slightly tweaked here from the generic Nag Champa scent, especially the spicy middle and floral top notes, all of which are just gently different. The variation is quite nice, not up to the Shroff and Dhuni quality you’re seeing these days, but not poor either. It actually reminds me a little of the base that is part of the Nikhil flavored champas.

The Blue Nag Champa is for relaxation and contains rose, jasmine and sandalwood, making this somewhat similar to the Shrinivas “Valley of the Roses” incense. Like that incense the floral oils have an almost chemical-like scent and there’s no hint of true rose and very little jasmine. Unfortunately most floral champas don’t work out too well due to the avoidance of expensive ingredients and this is little different. There’s too much of a furniture polish thing going on here.

The Green Nag Champa is about balance and includes citrus oils with garden flowers and sandalwood. It’s quite nice, sandalwood heavy, with the citrus and flowers mixing in nicely and giving the entire incense an uplifting feel. The citrus oils in particular enhance the sense of freshness, strangely, in a way the Blue totally failed to accomplish. And most importantly, everything feels real with no off notes.

Wisdom is the theme of the Gold Nag Champa and the incense includes amber, jasmine and sandalwood. This champa is nice and hevay in the amber department, which gives the whole champa scent a totally different feel. The amber champas found in other lines are similar in style, but the jasmine really pops nicely in the mix (although a better jasmine oil might have made this a classic). Definitely one of this line’s best incenses, no surprise it gets the gold spot.

The Orange Nag Champa aims to evoke happiness and includes sweet woods and spices. It’s another semi-sweet champa, not terribly far from the Green if it had no citrus oils. Because of the lack of flashy ingredients, this also is still within the more specific nag champa aroma. It’s gentle, which is nice, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of a personality. There are Mother’s incenses that do this kind of thing much better, let alone Shroff’s Little Woods.

The Purple Nag Champa has a prayer theme and includes forest herbs and flowers. Another extraordinarily foofy, sweet nag champa, this one is mildly evocative of the sweetness of Honey Dust or Vanilla. Like with some of the other incenses in this line, it lacks a certain personality, althought it does seem to capture its color in a way the others don’t so much. Then again it doesn’t strike me as foresty in any way. Not much more to say, it reminds me of a forgettable Shrinivas offering.

Finally we have energy in the way of the Red Nag Champa which features exotic oils and sweet tropical fruits. At least in Red’s case we have a bit of vigor, probably due to the fruit oil mix (memories of Ajaro or Aastha from the Satya line come up here). But overall, we have the same issues, slightly weak and multiple ingredients combining for mild and unsuggestive aromas. This has sort of a champa mixed with a mild fruitiness that has little definition. It’s not unpleasant, but this just pales next to better incense.

There’s one more Nitiraj line, Masterpiece, although I believe this line may be on the way to deletion. But better than all of these, at least slightly, is Nitiraj’s gigantic Atmosphere brand which as a whole is a little more deluxe than the actual Nitiraj lines. Again, it’s worth keeping in mind that even when I’m positive about the incenses above, this is in no way to indicate these incenses are on the same level as the Mother’s champas, Shroff, Dhuni, Happy Hari etc.

Natural Arogya Dhoop Incense/Bodhisatwo, Karmayogi, Mahadhup, Meditative, Vaidhyaraj

There isn’t a company associated with these five incenses that’s on the wrapper, but each has a full name that goes Natural Arogya-xxx Dhoop Incense, with each of the five specific names going where the xs go. These are fairly common Nepali blends you’ll likely find at most incense outlets, all of them packaged in paper wrappers and like most common Nepali blends, most of these really aren’t worth the cedarwood chips in the base.

One thing I’ve noticed really frequently when it comes to many inexpensive Nepali incenses is just how many ingredients can add up to zero. All of these incenses have long lists of ingredients, but when the full list really only makes up a small spot on the roster next to filler and binder wood, the list starts to feel less than trustworthy. It does me little good to know, for instance, if there’s agarwood or sandalwood in the incense if the quantity is microscopic. It’s almost like someone telling you they’re friends with a famous celebrity only to realize they just waved at them at an airport.

The first of these incenses, Natural Arogya-Bodhisatwo Dhoop Incense, smells of pencil shavings and juniper with a sour or bitter tang in the mix. Naturally, the list of ingredients includes solukhumbu, gosaikund, himla, jimla & mustang along with haro, barro, aguri, krishagur, gokul (one of the few I recognized), cinnamon and others. A teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee makes a difference, but that same teaspoon in a swimming pool full of coffee isn’t going to make much of an impression. None of the ingredients in the list do anything to distract you from the cheap, irritating smell. The list, however, does make me curious as to what it would smell like to burn a pencil fire.

Natural Arogya-Karmayogi Dhoop Incense is a resin heavy Tibetan stick in a style you’ll come across in other Nepali lines. I’m assuming from the ingredients most of what I’m smelling is the saldhup embedded in the red and white sandalwood mix. The somewhat marshmallow-like astasugandha is also fairly prominent, helping to give it some herbal depth. This isn’t a rare scent overall, but it’s one I usually like and so I’ve always considered this the best in this group. This is largely because the resins have the presence to make you forget about the binder wood, and not so much a judgment of its quality, which is still relatively low.

Natural Arogya-Mahadhup Incense (see how they did that?) lists sandalwood, gurgum, sunpati, jattamansi, rupkeshar, and dhupi. The jattamansi is fairly noticeable as the soft element in the front, to help make the overall bouquet somewhere between floral and woody, but this is largely because the florals are competing with the cheap woods dominating the whole stick. At least in this case the woods give off a little bit more than pencil shavings with some hints of Himalayan evergreen, but overall the incense still lacks too much personality.

The Natural Arogya-Meditative Dhoop Incense lists sugandhabal, bakchi, kut, ambergris, cloves, and cardomom, all of which seem to promise a rather excellent incense. The intensity of this stick lies somewhere between the Bodhisatwo/Mahadhup and the Karmayogi, in fact it shares a certain swankiness with the latter. It has a nice spiciness in the middle, a combination not very far from Mandala Trading’s Tibetan Monastery incense. This is a good example of where ingredients can transcend the base and not make you feel like you’re burning cheap stuff (relatively speaking). This has a nice clove burn to it and a genuine firey atmosphere I quite like.

The ingredients for Natural Aroga-Vajdhyaraj Dhoop Incense include kapur, dhupi, kumkum, saffron, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The black color of the stick makes me wonder if this is an Agar 31 attempt, but again, like with the Karmayogi and Meditative, the herbs are pretty swanky. Here you get that with the wood center, and the reuslts will remind most of tires and campfire wood. This is a good example, I think, of how certain Tibetan herbs aren’t likely to go down as aromatics with most westerners. And after so many sticks, this is one I feel like I can do without. The only ingredient that really comes out for me is the nutmeg.

Overall this is more or less your standard Nepali line, almost typical of what you’d get from a surface overview of the style. Like many inexpensive Tibetan incenses, these are heavy in cheap materials and rarely reach the promise found in their ingredient lists. Both the Karmayogi and Meditative will do in a pinch, but generally speaking you’ll find better incense elsewhere.

Doma / Agar 31, Relaxation, Ribo Sangtsheo, Pyukar, Mandala, Special Incense

Doma Herbal Incense have a rather sizeable line of Nepali incense products that vary from the inexpensive to the premium ($18). Their products vary quite a bit in style, packaging and quality, but for the most part they tend to be pretty standard Nepali/Tibetan fare with the lion’s share of their sticks tending to inexpensive woods mixed in with light aromatic touches. This review covers about six different packages in the line.

The Agar 31 – Healing Incense (as well as the Relaxation) comes in these unusual flat sized boxes that aren’t really all that easily storable when you consider most Tibetan sticks come in long boxes or rolls. This is what I’d call a pencil shavings incense, even compared to other Agar 31 incenses, this has very little in the way of luster. It even has a strange, light floral note in the mix which is very unusual for this style. The black agar doesn’t appear to be very high grade and along with the herbs it just appears to flavor up a very overwhelming and cheap cedarwood base, which ends up being the dominant aroma.

Relaxation, fortunately, is quite a bit better, but that’s likely because the middle is filled up with resins rather than woods. Not sure if we’re dealing with frankincense, benzoin, myrrh or gugal gum here, although I’d assume it’s a mix of some of these that combines with a bit of herbal swank in the middle. It’s akin in some ways to both Yog-Sadhana and the swankier Heritage (or maybe a mix of the two), as well as the Natural Arogya-Karmayogi or Himalayan Herbs Centre Traditional Mandala. I like all these scents quite a bit, as well as this one, as they’re essentially like resin mixes embedded in Tibetan woods. Don’t expect fireworks, but it’s a good buy for the money and it holds up to any of the comparisons.

Ribo Sangtsheo is one of the biggest rolls I’ve ever seen in a cardboard box. The ingredients listed are cardamom, clove, spruce, hemlock, butterworth and benth, but like many inexpensive Tibetans with dictionary lists of ingredients, the incense ends up as the average. I kind of think of a scent like this as sour wood. It seems to have a great deal of pencil shavings mixed in with the other elements. Nagi? Sandalwood? Saffron? Musk? Maybe in microquantities but I don’t even think straining turns up much in the way of aroma. Then again, most incenses with the Ribo Sangtsheo name tend to be for inexpensive offerings and thus have as much traditional use as aromatic, so perhaps in the end this shouldn’t be held up to too high a standard. As an aromatic it’s not much of interest.

Pyukar is not an expensive incense but at least it doesn’t just smell like spiced up pencil shavings. Like one of the other higher quality Domas, the smoke is fairly low and there’s enough sandalwood to give it a bit of dignity as well as some benzoin and a light touch of spice. It’s still a touch on the sour side, but it’s also a bit similar to Red Crystal and thus bears a sense of familiarity. A touch better than fair.

Doma’s Mandala lists sandalwood, musk, saffron, juniper, and cardamom, but the deep red and thin base speak of cedar and/or juniper wood, and once again it’s difficult to suss out the ingredients on the roll (although strangely the saffron does manage to peak out). Overall this is one of those generic red Tibetan sticks with a strong nod to the campfire, with little to speak for it except for a slight sense of high alititude. There’s lots of incenses like these, after a while it’s difficult to really sense any great difference in quality from one to another.

Finally there’s Doma’s premium priced Special Incense which to be fair isn’t really worth a half or third of its price, given that it shares that tier with much better incenses. Still it’s easily the best Doma in this group. Like the Pyukar this is a low smoke incense and I’d guess in this case that’s due to the myrrh content. The scent is very clean and mellow, with quite a bit of resin and wood in the mix. The major difference to me from other Domas is the base wood quality is a lot higher than usual, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s share of campfire associations. It does have that red berry juniper roundness, but then so do a lot of incenses at much more affordable prices.

Doma have quite a few other products, but based on the handful I tried here, I wasn’t inspired to check out any of the other incenses. In many ways the level of Doma quality is generally what you’d expect as a baseline for Nepali incense, there’s definitely some cheaper companies and a few much better, but what you’ll find in the catalog will generally be traditional and not too flashy.

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.

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