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.

Stupa / Spikenard, Dorjee Samba, Healing (Agar 31), Austa Suganda, Champabati

Stupa Incense Industry creates a number of incenses under the hand of Lama Dorjee, several of which I’d count in the upper class of Nepali incenses, in that the quality ingredients in any of the scents is always of a high enough content to push past the bland. I’ve reviewed several of these in the past (which you can access by scrolling down this page). As I mentioned in one of the previous reviews (the Buddha set), there are a couple boxes that actually include more than one incense and there is one of those sets here as well.

Spikenard is a pretty rare scent to be found in Tibetan style catalogs, perhaps due to its cost. In Japanese incense kansho’s musky caramel sweetness is a pivotal player in high end incenses and in my opinion is often just as important in the bouquet as the woods. On the other end of the spectrum you have this rough and ready Stupa version which is actually quite impressive for its cost. Yes, there’s definitely a lot of base wood in this (Himalayan pencil cedar) incense, but it manages only to seat the general spikenard scent, which here has a bit of coppery or brassy vibe to it, and doesn’t have the refined sweetness you find in the Japanese incenses. Otherwise the muskiness and slight caramel aroma still manages to more or less get the aroma right. In the end this is a solid incense for the price and unlikely to duplicate what you might own.

The Dorjee Samba blend gets top billing by Lama Dorjee and consists of an impressive blend of saldhoop, kud, agar, holibasil, nutmeg, cardamom and other hebs and spices. Despite this list of ingredients the most notable part of this bouquet is a strong, green, pungent evergreen scent that has similarities to Bosen’s Pythoncidere as well as the high altitude campfire like scent you’d find with the Dhoop Factory’s Alpine. And as such this is an incense I like very much with the sort of tire-like elements you tend to find with heavier woods reduced to a reasonable amount. In fact I’d wager a guess that the balancing sweetness here is the saldhoop (often considered an amber). In a list of good Nepalis this is definitely one that would be high up the list for me.

If the Spikenard and Dorjee Samba are fairly unique Nepalis, the Stupa Healing Incense (Agar 31) is in a pretty common class of Tibetan incenses. Here there are three kinds of black aloeswood, various herbal flowers, cloves, saffron and red and white sandalwood listed as ingredients but like all Healing/Agar 31 incenses the result doesn’t evince so much complexity and is somewhat nondescript (that is, if you’re looking for the Tibetan equivalent of a Japanese aloeswood, this and any of its brethren come nowhere close). It’s even difficult to describe as a scent as it doesn’t have the same woody/campfire qualities of high juniper and cedar levels nor the subtleties usually found in incenses with aloeswood, sandalwood or saffron. Of course incenses like this one seem less designed with aroma in mind rather than the supposed healing properties they may or may not have, in fact this one claims it will alleviate flatulences. Duh, right?

The final two incenses here come in one box, with a roll of Lama Dorjee/Stupa Austa Suganda and another of Champabati. The former contains pencil cedar, valerian, holy basil, gum-guggul and sandalwood, along with, I’d assume, the key ingredient in the name. The result is a very tangy sort of Tibetan that has an aroma fairly close to the paper on many ropes and a bit like toasting marshmallows over a fire. It’s a fairly static scent and probably only likely to appeal to some. Overall I find it a bit plastic-like in this form and that almost every ingredient listed can’t be detected over the austa sugandha.

The Champabati definitely has a strong campfire/tire/rubber-like base, which is somewhat uncommon for a Stupa, it also does a fair job at imparting a champa-like aroma on top. Unfortunately the competition of such a gentle floral scent with all the strong woods doesn’t create a particularly memorable incense and I’m once again fairly convinced the champa scent doesn’t work particularly well in a Tibetan style incense. If you’re experiencing even a hint of aromatic fatigue this will come off probably more bitter than intended. Rare are the good Nepali florals…

Stupa has some other incenses in their catalog including sandalwood, juniper and jasmine, although I’ve foregone checking these out for fear of duplication. But I’d think eventually this would be one of the catalogs I’d revisit as I’m fairly confident that the quality will be high.

Unknown / Heritage, Pilgrim

Readers of ORS will likely be familiar with Yog Sadhana incense, a site Hall of Fame pick (be sure to scroll down and read the comments on this page for more info) and one of Nepal’s best incenses. Unfortunately little seems to be known about the company who makes this incense, there appears to be little information on the wrappers. However, we do know by the way the “series” looks that there are two more incenses in the same line, a deep red stick called Heritage and a green one called Pilgrim. While Yog Sadhana is certainly the crowning achievement of the line, the maker’s other two incenses are worthy of attention.

My favorite of the two is the deep red Heritage. You could easily see this as an analog to the Mandala Trading Himalayan Herbal incense, as it strikes the same sort of heavy clove and cinnamon based spice stick mixed with a tangy, herbal nature. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this aroma was partially made with essential oils or extracts as the spice nature is very strong. It’s not quite the polyherbal masterwork the Himalayan Herbal is, with a much more consonant blend of spice and funk and less complexity, but it’s also a little more ancient and mysterious. It’s also quite a bit less smoky than Yog Sadhana.

Pilgrim is an incense in what appears to be a very common Tibetan style, a thick and evergreen stick based on sandalwood. The closest analog I can think of off hand is the Mandala Arts Green Tara, although Pilgrim is slightly less distinctive and refined. The description has this incense as spicy and floral, although it’s the least spicy of the three sticks in the line and the floral nature is quite restrained. Mostly it strikes me as a sweet and very Himalayan wood incense. While it’s not the sort of incense I’d be compelled to burn often, it’s still very pleasant and friendly, with some slight resin content, a bit of herbal musk and even some slight oceanic hints. Like Yog Sadhana it’s possible much more will be revealed as I continue to use it.

All in all the three incenses that make up this unknown line are all very high quality for the price, with ingredients that give the blends an uncommon richness. However, it should be noted that given the thickness of the sticks, the count will be a little bit lower in a package, although most of these are well suited to breaking 2-3 inch fragments.