Rokok / Sintren Frankincense Cigarettes

Happy Halloween! Since Mike already reviewed some of the ‘Vampires Blood’ incense sticks I figured reviewing a much more dangerous kind of incense – the kind that you inhale to get the ‘aromatherapy’. Let me just preface that I am not a smoker in any real way. When I go to Europe, I will roll my own tobacco-cannabis mixture with rolling papers but I really don’t seek out smoking pleasure.

However, when I encountered the simple idea that someone out there was lacing cigarettes with frankincense, I was intrigued. Digging into it further, I was able to find that there is one village with a bunch of 60+ people who roll these with the hopes that kids somewhere will get interested in the ‘benefits’ of smoking frankincense.

So here I am, having bought a pack of Rokok Sintren Asli Klembek Menjan, and having paid more in shipping by four times, I am getting a chance to scratch my curiosity itch. But I found I was too much of a wimp to just light one up, so I lit one and stuck it in an incense holder and smelled it. The smell was so exciting and relaxing that I decided to take a puff. Three puffs in and I am seeing first hand the psychoactive qualities of frankincense, enhanced by the stimulation of the tobacco.

How does it smell? Well, if you’re familiar with clove cigarettes where you smell clove oil and then the tobacco and the cloves sort of marry together. This is the same, the prime scent is tobacco with a bit of frankincense. The flavor? The paper is slightly sweet like a clove cigarette and the smoke is smoother than I imagined. The cigarette is rolled with a thick end and a thin end and there is no filter, reminding me of the kinds of ‘professional’ joints you’d get at a cannabis dispensary.

If you’re a smoker and you like novelties, give this a try, but if you don’t like smoking, it’s not worth the effort of importing a pack or two just to light it like incense. It’s cheaper to just get some loose-leaf tobacco and frankincense resin and put it on a puck of charcoal or incense burner.

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Thoughts on the Major Incense Houses of Japan

I wanted to link to this article, as it’s truly one of the most well written, comprehensive and insightful reviews of Japanese incense I have read on the internet. Well done!

Interview with Anna Pach/Masahiko Kikuya from Kikuya Seishindo and Kohgen

Olfactory Rescue Service is delighted to bring to you an interview with Anna Pach, who works at Kikuya Seishindo/Kohgen in Japan. The questions in this interview come from myself and several of our readers who left questions in a previous thread. As time goes by, we at ORS have been noticing that the Japanese incense market has been opening up to the west and we figured there could not be a better time to learn more directly from the source. – Mike

Hello Anna, could you introduce yourself to us? (Where you work and what your position is.)

Hello ORS Readers! First of all I would like to thank each one of you for the questions and to Mike who gave us the opportunity to make this interview. I think he had a great idea on building a bridge between Japan and the West to spread knowledge about Japanese incense to all incense lovers! The questions have been answered with the consultation of Mr. Masahiko Kikuya – the owner of Kikuya Seishindo (Kohgen) company.

My name is Anna. I was born in Poland, in the middle of Europe. I got interested in Japanese culture and language when I was a teenager. Since that time I was dreaming about studying Japanese at university and hoped to go to Japan one day. I managed to make my dreams come true and entered Japanese Studies at Jagiellonian University – one of the oldest universities in the world. Then I traveled to Japan several times. During my studies I also practiced Japanese Way of Tea (Urasenke school) for five years. I wanted to find a job close to the traditional Japanese culture, so I was looking for an internship in Japan. I found the Kikuya Seishindo company, which runs Kohgen, a Japanese store which specializes mainly in Japanese incense, but also provides traditional Japanese prayer beads (ojuzu), Kodo (“Way of Incense”) utensils, incense ingredients, hand made Japanese candles, fragrant bags, bath essence and other fragrant goods. The name “Kohgen” (香源) literary means Source of Incense, but I think that the translation Source of Fragrance reflects better the variety of our products available.

Our English site for individual Customers is called Kohgen World (http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/).

How did you come to get a job selling incense in Japan given where you’re from? How many languages do you speak?

After I finished my half-year internship at Kohgen, I received a job offer. I was still a student at that time, so I had to return to Poland to graduate. After that I went back to Japan this year and became a full time worker here at Kohgen. Today I work as a translator and international marketing manager. My mother tongue is Polish, but I speak English and Japanese as well. During my education I also studied French, German and Chinese, but I`m not speaking them on a daily basis, so I cannot say I`m fluent. I just know some basics 🙂

What is a typical day at the job like?

Each day at Kohgen is different and filled with different fragrance! I learn a lot everyday, as we have over 5,000 products! Of course there is also a day schedule, which contains morning meetings, cleaning of our workspaces, one-hour breaks, business meetings etc. Every day I`m answering e-mails, serving our international customers, preparing goods for shipment and of course translating product descriptions and data about the incenses, designing graphics and web-pages, managing our Facebook and Instagram profiles.

What are the challenges like for you in terms of communicating with customers all over the world in different languages?

As you said, our customers are spread all over the world, and I communicate with them mainly in English (sometimes in Japanese, if they speak in Japanese to me, if for example they have Japanese roots). I`m aware that sometimes communicating in English is hard for people whose mother tongue is different, especially when I`m not a native speaker too. Knowing that I try to adjust my words to be easy to understand even by people who are not very fluent in English. Of course, people all over the world have different accents, so sometimes it`s hard to understand well and fast on the phone, but I`m doing my best to provide the best service. Another thing are time zones, but this is another topic.

Does your company just market incense or does it also have its own line of incenses?

Kohgen provides incense of almost all Japanese makers for both individual customers and for wholesale orders. We are not an incense maker, but we have our own original Kohgen line of incense which was created by our owner.

Recently the most popular ones are:

Original Kohgen Incense Classical Agarwood (you can find it on our Kohgen World English site here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1559618)

Kohgen Incense Sticks, Sumi (Ink) (available here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1559616)

CREATING INCENSE

What are the requirements for hiring a Japanese incense maker? Is there a name for the job?

A person who is responsible for creating fragrance and compounding the incense ingredients is called in Japanese chogo-shi or chokoh-shi, which may be translated simply as a perfumer, or to elaborate more: a master of compounding aromatic materials.

A person who is producing incense in terms of creating its shape is called an incense making craftsman.

The requirements for hiring a Japanese incense maker differ depending on a company, so the best way to know them in detail is to contact a particular incense maker.

Are there precedents for non-Japanese incense makers or is the work strictly kept to nationals? Do Westerners ever get hired as incense makers in Japan?

I think that there are no precedents for non-Japanese to work as an incense maker, but to work in Japan you have to clear many documents and procedures, so it`s not easy to get such job. Incense making recipes are the secrets of the companies, so they are not revealed.

But if you study a lot and do many trial and errors you can learn how to make a good incense. I have never heard about Western person who is working as an incense maker in Japan.

What do you think the dominant trend is in Japanese incense? Do you see Japanese incense evolving for the time or do you see it adhering more to tradition?

In general, half of the Japanese incense market is Less Smoke Type incense and the second half is ordinary smoke type. At Kohgen stores in Japan, over 90% of incense sold are those which have a clear fragrance or produce smoke. Over 70% incense sold are traditional fragrances.

There are family Buddhist altars at homes in Japan, so incenses are burned regularly. People who lives in Japanese apartments prefer using Less Smoke Type incense, so as not to disturb the neighbors – I think this is a popular trend. Except for that, a lot of people are burning incense as a hobby, so those are trying all kinds and types. Another one is to enjoy the fragrances which refer to the ongoing season.

There are also Less Smoke Type incenses, but with strong, deep and fragrance despite their low smoke – this is also one of the trends in Japan.

Are incense makers given free reign or are they presented with certain parameters (price point, type of incense, use of specific ingredients, etc.) that they are required to follow?

Incense makers can create them freely, which means it’s up to them regarding the parameters you provided. Raw materials used by Japanese incense makers are approved by IFRA (International Fragrance Association), so they are also checked in terms of safety.

EXPORTING INCENSE

What have been the challenges for Japanese incense makers breaking into the international markets? How long have you been selling to American and other customers?

The biggest challenge for Japanese incense makers is language. There are a lot of people who like Japanese incense abroad, but the makers need to make a great effort to introduce their incense to the international market.

In Japan, incense is used to relax, to help focus or for meditation, but of course it can also be used the same way abroad. To export the incense, the suppliers need to deal with many obstacles like, for example, shipping fees.

Kohgen sells worldwide and has provided English support since 2014.

In regard to the North American market, does the company have plans to change its product range, marketing, and customer education? How has the company changed from its experiences selling over here?

We would like to introduce Japanese incense as it is to all people around the world, so we do not change the products range. Regarding marketing and customer education, we are making the product descriptions in English more detailed to introduce and explain various aspects of Japanese culture. For example, there are a lot of traditional Japanese patterns on incense burners. One of them is called sho-chiku-bai (松竹梅). When a Japanese person sees the Japanese characters, he/she knows immediately that the pattern is a combination of pine, bamboo and plum. Not everyone abroad knows that, so I believe that additional explanations are relevant.

Another example is, that when we are adding samples to the parcels, international customers who cannot read Japanese would not be able to know the incense name, brand and fragrance just by looking on the package. Because of that we decided to number the samples packages and attach a sample list, which has incense brands, names and fragrances written according to the numbers on the samples we send. Thanks to that our customers can easily find the incense they received as a sample from us.

To sum up, we are adjusting our services to answer our international customers needs and to make Japanese incense more understandable and approachable for them.

INCENSE

What are some of your best selling incenses in Japan? In the US?

In general, the best selling incense series in Japan is Seiun and Mainichi Koh (Everyday Incense) which are available at many department stores or supermarkets. Kohgen is the incense specialist shop where you can find a wide variety of incense and find your personal, favorite one.

The best selling incense series at Kohgen stores in Japan are: Gyokushodo brand Kojurin series, Kunjudo brand Karin series, Baieido brand Kobunboku series, Nippon Kodo Kyara Taikan series.

In the US the most popular series are: Shoyeido Horikawa and Kinkaku series, Kyukyodo Six Kinds of Fragrant Woods (Rokushu Takimono), Nippon Kodo from Mainichi-koh up to Kyara Taikan series. Kneaded incense (nerikoh) from Shoyeido and Kyukyodo are also popular.

Are modern incenses more popular now?

Modern incenses are popular, but traditional fragrances are popular as well. Incense arrived in Japan about 1500 years ago and has been used since, so traditional fragrances are still popular today.

What is the general price range of good-quality (NOT high-quality agarwood) Japanese incense?

The average price of good-quality incense is 5000 JPY (approx. $49.62) for an economic bulk pack (approx. 400 sticks).

Is all nice japanese incense either sandalwood or agarwood, or are there other types of scents that are considered really nice?

Sandalwood and Agarwood are the fundamental incense ingredients, but there are also another raw aromatic materials. They are used to supplement and reinforce the fragrance. Through mixing the ingredients in different proportions many various blends and fragrances can be created. Incense ingredients used 1500 years ago are still used to this day.

There is a very interesting incense called Wakaba (Daihatsu is the maker). This is the incense which is available on Japanese market for a very long time. It was created from Rozan Sandalwood from Mysore and French perfumes to make an impression of Young Leaves – this is how you can translate this incense name. The incense was very popular among previous generation of Japanese people, so it is a very nostalgic fragrance for today’s generation. I think that this nostalgic for Japanese incense may be a very nice discover for people abroad.

What else is out there that is very different from the traditional agarwood and sandalwood based incenses?

There are a lot of fragrances very different from traditional agarwood- and sandalwood-based incense. For example various flowers scents, perfumed scents or even drink fragrances (like coffee, green tea, black tea etc.). New fragrances are moving along with the times and people’s needs.

What are your personal favorite incenses? What would be your favorite incenses if you had unlimited money?

High price does not mean the best incense. Of course, for example the incenses made by Nippon Kodo worth about 2 thousands USD are great without fail, but each maker has its highest quality incense and all of them are wonderful. There are many great ones like Kyara Enju (Seijudo maker), Kyara Kokoh (Baieido maker), En no Sho (Gyokushodo maker).

Whether incense is good or bad depends on the ingredients quality, blending technique, but the most important is ones personal taste. The same way we like some dishes and foods us the same way we like fragrances. We may even come across our favorite incense by complete accident and fell in love with it. Because of that I would like to encourage you to try as many as possible and find your own favorite one.

Can you recommend a few good books on the history of incense in Japan?

In Japanese there are many books, but if you are learning Japanese and looking for something good, then I can recommend the book called 『よく分かるお香とお線香の教科書』(“Easy to understand Japanese Incense Handbook”). It is great for two reasons: one is that it was written by top famous Japanese incense companies and second, it is in a form of dialogue, so it is easy to read and understand.

If you don`t know Japanese, then I would recommend “The Book of Incense” written by Kiyoko Morita with the cooperation of Shoyeido. It is complex, easy to understand and written by Japanese of profound knowledge about Japanese incense and its history.

Both titles include information on the history of incense in Japan.

What five incenses could you recommend to a newcomer?

It is extremely hard to recommend only five as you cannot try many fragrances within this number. Instead of that I would like to introduce you the way to find your favorite fragrance by trying many incense without wasting your money and time:

STEP 1

Try Kohgen Original Trial Kit – it contains 20 different incenses, 2 sticks per each. There are 10 Japanese style and 10 European style fragrances. English explanations are included in the kit, thanks to which you can easily understand the incenses names and brands.

You can find Kohgen Original Trial Kit here:  http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/?pid=1628476

STEP 2

After you know to some extend which fragrances you like, then try the trial size packages and assortment packages of your favorites brands.

STEP 3

When you know your best choices, then you can use economical bulk packs. If you want you can also change the fragrance and start over.

INGREDIENTS

Can you comment on the future of agarwood content and quality, and how are old companies dealing with formula changes and demands?

Throughout the years people learned more about agarwood. It is possible to cultivate it now to some extent, although it takes time to get a high quality wood. The more time passes the better quality it becomes, that is why it’s very expensive and it needs to be saved. There is still an issue with Kyara, the highest quality agarwood, of which it is not yet known how to cultivate. Incense makers are keeping those precious ingredients stored and use them with a great care and consideration. They are adjusting the ingredients compounding according to current times and customers’ needs by producing new incense or stopping to produce some items.

Are there similar issues with sandalwood or other ingredients?

Sandalwood is crucial for incense making, so it is also secured and used with a great care. There are similar issues with other very rare incense ingredients which cannot be easily obtained.

How is Japan adapting to international laws protecting endangered species and how has that changed the incense market?

International laws prohibit the export of raw Agarwood outside Japan, but incense sticks including Agarwood as an ingredient can be shipped. I think this is the way how Japan has adapted to the international laws and this is the factor which changes the market.

Any last words?

Incense has been used in Japan from long ago, but it is not yet widely spread abroad. Kohgen would like to introduce the goodness of Japanese incense for as many people as possible and also spread the knowledge about them. Our company motto is: “To spread the culture of Japanese incense to all people and to the future.” We would like to put it through and reach as many incense lovers and future fans as possible.

Thank you very much for reading this interview and your interest in Japanese incense! I hope that you had a chance to learn something new. If you are interested and would like to stay updated, feel free to join us on:

・Facebook (Kikuya Seishindo) https://www.facebook.com/KikuyaSeishindo/

or

・Instagram (kohgen_world) https://www.instagram.com/kohgen_world/

You can also visit our English site here: http://kohgenworld.jugemcart.com/

Thank you!

 

Kyarazen’s Artisinal Incense: Enko, Old Sage and Zen Moon

Kyarazen has spent the last two months creating a trio of luxury incenses. Each embodies a unique character and personality and creates a different mood and atmosphere. That an artist can compose olfactory poetry, using nature’s raw materials, is truly amazing and inspirational! Thank you, Kyarazen, for sharing your painstakingly crafted reflections. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to try them.

ENKO

Kyarazen’s Enko is a larger than life scent- one that unabashedly fills a room with its hypnotic presence. It immediately reminds me of the interior of a traditional Chinese medicine shop where the mysterious scents of roots, barks, herbs and fungus, seashells and mineral extracts, and animal and insect components, are compounded into remedies that have been used for over 2000 years.

Enko has a rustic vigor that settles on my shoulders and burrows into my clothes with confident persistence. It is primarily a bitter scent, whose liveliness and energy are enhanced by warm herbs (turmeric, spikenard), woods (sandalwood), spices (pepper?) and salty mineral notes (shells).

Rather than unfolding note by note, the elements fuse to create a very dynamic and dense scent. This combination of vibrant buoyancy and weighty substance is unexpected and intriguing. I find myself inhaling it’s unfamiliar, medicinal aroma more and more deeply, and feeling invigorated by its penetrating presence.

To me it is very much an earth toned scent- russets, ochers and ambers; the scent of rugged escarpments and expansive plains. Although it is a quintessentially Chinese scent, Copeland’s Fanfare For the Common Man celebrates the same strength and openness that Enko, more humbly but not any less passionately, encapsulates.

OLD SAGE

Old Sage is an exceptional sandalwood incense that continues to perfume the air with the sweet scent of Santalum album long after it has finished burning.

Held breaths of silence punctuate this milky, opalescent fragrance that wraps its user in a haze of tranquility and mellowness. The fragrance is so intoxicating that I long for its reappearance during those vacant, scentless intervals.

Old Sage is more restrained than Kogado’s Hoshinohayashi, and its creamy notes are tempered with a hint of dry bitterness and salty mineral odorants. Inhaling the smoke has a strong physical effect: lured into a complacent daze, I’m happy to drift away, my chin nodding to my chest, my shoulders limp, my mind a puddle of blurred and melting images. Perhaps this smooth, undulating incense has already become an addiction? If so, it is one I willingly and wholly embrace.

Mutton jade; an anniversary pearl; a carnelian snuff bottle with sloped shoulders. Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais. Golden mercury.

ZEN MOON

Zen Moon is delicately transparent. It is luminous, ethereal and elegant yet it radiates dignity and calm. The scent drifts in and out of my consciousness, dry and aloofly bitter, a cool, crescent moon sickling crystal waters. Intermittent surges of resinous sweetness, wavy lines of lactones and wisps of earthy herbs add complexity, dimension and depth to the scent, but the composition is, above all, a reverent homage to the stately and austere woody scent of agarwood.

Unlike Enko, a sustained note that never vacillates, Zen Moon is a fugue, its shadows and overtones embellished adornments of Aquilaria’s meandering melody.

Silver solitudes, a wooden box embossed with almost forgotten memories, the permanence of impermanence, Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor.

Kyarazen wrote “What I had wanted to achieve with Zen Moon is to create a special space, a hollow, omnipresent clear quietness, and the incense presenting itself in that background, weaving through the air, allowing the perceiver to experience wafts of scent like the clouds that drift slowly past the full moon in stainless light.“

He has certainly succeeded.

For more information about these incenses please see:

http://www.kyarazen.com/making-incense-sticks/

Burning Basics for Beginners

From the first time I burned a piece of fragrant wood, up until now, I’ve been trying to figure out the optimal way to burn wood at a temperature and rate that would allow me to appreciate its scent over an extended period of time, fill the room (and scent my clothes) with a beautiful and memorable fragrance, and that would be relatively easy to accomplish and share with friends. I haven’t yet found a burning method that accomplishes all of these goals at the same time, but I’d like to share my experiences so far. I hope some of you will take the time to share your own tips and tricks. I’m sure there are many techniques and materials that I’m unaware of.

Burning on charcoal- My first burner was a brass burner with a grill on top. Because it gets so hot it cannot be passed from guest to guest and has to be placed on a heatproof trivet to prevent it from scorching whatever is beneath it. If I were to purchase another charcoal burner I would try to find one that doesn’t conduct heat and has a grill that is recessed below the top of the burner.

I’ve tried 4 types of charcoal:
1) Self-lighting charcoal. This is easy to light but I haven’t found one that doesn’t have a nasty scent. Sparks fly from the charcoal when it is first lit. On the positive side, it’s inexpensive and readily accessible.
2) Japanese bamboo charcoal – These are supposedly scentless but to me they have a slight odor. They come in different sizes and shapes. The one that is covered with foil is cleaner to handle and seems to burn the longest of those that I’ve tried. (I haven’t yet tried the cylindrical shaped ceremonial charcoal). Bamboo charcoal can be purchased from many online incense vendors.
3) Bincho-tan charcoal- This is an incredibly dense Japanese charcoal that is made from ubame oak. It has a very clean burn and burns for an extremely long time. Unfortunately it is super difficult to light and to cut because it is so dense (it clinks like metal when it is dropped). Because this charcoal is expensive and so difficult to work with I’m not sure it’s worth the effort, although it’s a pleasure to find a scentless charcoal that stays hot for so long.
4) Coconut charcoal- This charcoal, supposedly scentless, also has a very slight odor. It’s larger and burns longer than the bamboo charcoal. Some might consider it disproportionate to the size of many incense burners. It’s easy to find on the web and is relatively inexpensive.

Charcoal can be lit with a crème brulee torch or cigar lighter, by placing it on the burner of an electric stove or in a mesh frying pan above a stove’s gas burner. I use a small pair of tongs (from Mermade Magickal Arts) whenever I have to move the charcoal or place things on top of it. Once I squeezed the tongs too hard and the piece of charcoal broke into small pieces and burned little holes in my wooden floor ;-(

When a layer of gray ash covers the charcoal it’s ready to be used.

If my goal is to scent a room, or my clothes and hair, I put a few small pieces of wood directly on the charcoal. The wood goes up in smoke very quickly and my clothes and hair absorb it’s scent, and retain it, for quite a few hours. I burn this way very rarely because although I like the lingering scent on my clothes, I prefer wood that smells less acrid than it does when burned this way.

If I want to use charcoal while enjoying the scent of the wood as it burns, I put a mica plate directly on the charcoal and top it with 4 or 5 small squares of aluminum foil that are each comprised of a few folded layers. A small piece of wood sits on the pile. If the wood isn’t burning because it’s too far from the heat I remove one foil square at a time until the wood burns slowly enough to release its oils without smoking. Generally I use one small piece of wood at a time when burning this way, and gently fan the air towards my friend’s or my face while the wood is burning.

I read about the Kodo ceremony and became curious about the role of incense in ancient and contemporary Japan. “Kodo” translates as “way of incense”. During a Kodo ceremony a Kodo cup is prepared, passed from guest to guest, and games are played that involve “listening to incense” and attempting to identify, and accurately pinpoint the relationship between, different woods. Making a basic kodo cup involves burying a lit piece of charcoal in “ceremonial” white ash, building a pyramid around the charcoal, piercing a vent to allow it to breathe, placing a mica plate on top of the charcoal and placing a grain-of-rice-sized piece of wood on top of the mica plate. The ash and mica insulate the wood from the heat of the charcoal and allow the wood to release its fragrance slowly and gently.

I very much wanted to make a Kodo cup, and despite many attempts it continues to be both difficult and time consuming. It’s trickiest figuring out how deeply to bury the charcoal and how much to tamp the ash. However when I succeed it’s very satisfying. Making the cup with care and respect can be a meditative process and some woods that I’ve burned this way have smelled especially smooth, rich and soothing. Passing the cup between friends is very enjoyable, and I feel a special reverence participating in such a venerable and age old tradition.

The last way I use charcoal is with Shoyeido’s Portable Incense Burner. I like the refined yet rustic charm of the design and being able to comfortably pass the burner between guests. It’s much easier than making a Kodo cup and it works particularly well with very small granulated chips.

Electric burners allow the user to control the temperature by turning a dial. The wood is placed either in a metal bowl or on a mica plate above a ceramic heating element, depending on the model. The thickness and density of the wood determine the optimum temperature at which to set the dial, which can be adjusted according to the behavior of the wood. The ability to control the temperature is a big advantage of these burners and the design makes it easy to combine other incense ingredients with the wood. If you line the pan with a piece of foil clean up is a breeze. On the down side, some of these burners have a faint smell of metal,  it’s a little inconvenient to have to be near an electric outlet, and a dangling wire makes passing the burner somewhat awkward.

Speaking of cleanup- I’ve found that using alcohol can help remove resin from mica plates. It doesn’t remove the residue completely but it takes off some of the superficial stains. I’ve always washed the plate with water after wiping it with alcohol.

The most recent burner I tried is Shoyeido’s Kodutu battery-operated portable wood chip heater. This burner is perfect for sampling pieces of wood. A round mica plate sits over the heating element and a small wood chip is placed directly above the coil. Although the heating filament only stays lit for 3 minutes it can immediately be reactivated. There is a dial that can be set to 3 different temperatures and replacement mica plates can be purchased. This burner makes a great traveling companion and because it is so easy to use I find myself reaching for it when I want to indulge my senses without going to any trouble.

Electric and battery-operated burners can be purchased from japanincense.com and essenceoftheages.com.

Lastly, it’s possible to burn a piece of wood quickly with a lighter- just long enough to get a whiff of the fragrance ☺

Although I still haven’t found a burner that’s good at doing all things well, is easy to use and is very affordable, or a method of burning that’s satisfactory in every situation, I have found a variety of burners and methods that work well in different circumstances. I would be really interested to hear what works for you, about your favorite practices and products, and what doesn’t work, too! I feel as though I’ve just gotten my feet wet, and I’d like to have company as I head towards deeper and deeper water ☺

A Whiff of Japan

During my recent visit to Japan I had the good fortune to visit Yamada Matsu in Kyoto, and Tenkundo in Kamakura. At Yamada Matsu Ms. Yuka Kawahara, who speaks English, assembled a beautiful, traditional Kodo cup and generously burned a few different pieces of green kyara for my enjoyment and education. I had expected all of the green kyara pieces to smell the same but there was a lot of variation. In general, what seemed to distinguish green kyara to my untrained nose was that each piece contained a full spectrum of scents that ranged from bitter to sweet (although some amplified one end of the spectrum more than the other). The most interesting piece, because it was the most unexpected, was very acidic- it had a sharp, fizzy and very penetrating smell. All of the green kyara pieces were stronger than the subsequent yellow and white pieces that Ms. Kawahara kindly burned. The white and yellow kyara projected less and smelled somewhat thinner and less complex.

I wish I had more time to pay attention to the many beautiful and interesting pieces of agarwood displayed in Yamada Matsu’s glass cases, as well as the handsome incense burners and sandalwood carvings, and the huge variety of sticks and chips that were available to purchase. I was so transfixed by the uplifting, luminous, sublime and soothing scent of burning kyara that I didn’t realize how quickly time was passing and I had to rush away to a previously scheduled appointment.

At Tenkundo, which I located by following the scent of incense that enticingly drifts into the narrow street, the owner, Mr. Suda, escorted me upstairs to an elegant room that was the epitome of the refined Japanese aesthetic. He generously burned pieces of green, purple and black kyara for me to sample. I felt very relaxed and calm during the session, although I was disturbed to hear Mr. Suda’s confirmation that kyara and agarwood are becoming increasingly scarce. Tenkundo is an offshoot of Nippon Kodo, which has a very strong presence in the Chinese market. Mr. Suda brought out a carefully wrapped piece of agarwood that amazed me- it was longer and thicker than a man’s forearm! A Chinese buyer had just purchased it, for carving, for a very hefty sum. At the end of my visit Mr. Suda showed me a small lacquer container inlaid with mother of pearl that is used to store pieces of agarwood for use during the tea ceremony. If only the exchange rate had been more favorable…

Before I left for Japan I had written to a number of incense stores asking if kyara was available to purchase. Most of my queries were not answered, and the couple of stores that did reply, using Google Translate, said they were out of stock. I would strongly suggest to anyone who plans to visit Japan on an incense quest that, if possible, they engage the help of a translator. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but my inability to speak Japanese prevented me from taking full advantage of the wealth of knowledge I’m sure my hosts would have gladly shared.

Incense sticks are burned in huge burners at some of the temple entrances. It is traditional to light individual sticks or bundles of incense, which are sold along with good luck charms and fortunes at small stalls at the temple entrance, and to place them in the ash-filled burner, after which smoke is waved towards one’s body and/or rubbed into one’s clothes for purification and health purposes. Most of the sticks smelled like a combination of sandalwood and agarwood; at some of the temples the scent was woodier, at others sweeter and at others it had a spicier, more herbal scent. The scent of incense added to the feeling of calmness and tranquility that pervaded the atmosphere regardless of how many worshipers and visitors were present.

Coiled incense (I recognized boxes of Shoyeido’s Tenpyo) was sold at a couple of the temples and very large pieces of agarwood were on display and for sale at Kinokoku-ji, the Golden Pavilion (or maybe that was at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, where there are 2 rooms that were used as incense chambers). Most of the temples sell incense that has the name of the temple printed on the packaging but the temple does not make it.

There are many small stores that specialize in incense and many offer incense appreciation classes on a regular schedule, although I don’t know if any classes are conducted in English. Both Shoyeido and Baiedo offer factory tours, by appointment. Kyukyudo had a large selection of sticks and fragrant woods, however, once again my inability to speak Japanese made it extremely difficult to get information and make purchases.

I wasn’t able to visit as many incense shops as I would have liked, however Ms. Kawahara and Mr. Suda were extremely kind and generous, and experiencing the entrancing scent of kyara with such gracious hosts are experiences I will always treasure.

Incense on the Tree of Life

I’ve written a long article on my other blog based on incense use in the Western esoteric tradition. It might also be of use to those fairly new to incense who want to choose a scent from zillions of different choices. It covers Patchouli, Jasmine, Lavender, Rose, Frankincense, Dragon’s Blood, Cedar, Myrrh, Musk and Sandalwood incenses. Readers are welcome to come over and suggest other incenses if they’d like.

Changes

There seem to be quite a lot of changes going on in the incense world, which are becoming more and more apparent. A major one is that the cost of the raw materials to make incense (as well as natural based perfumes and ouds) has been steadily rising for the last few years. This year has seen drastic price increases in sandalwood and agarwood. Much of this is happening because the supply of “wild harvested” wood is becoming much more limited as it becomes harder to find. It has also become much harder to get any of the woods, at any price. There is a real limit to how much is still available; it is not something that can be cultivated (at least not yet). This same process is happening to many of the most popular ingredients, to the point where it is becoming impractical to use them in the quantities they were used in, in the past.

Recently I noticed at least a 30% bump in retail sandalwood and agarwood prices within Japan. It’s worse over the last few years. A fifteen-gram bag of SS grade Jinko that sold for 7200 yen in 2009 is now at 18,500 yen. There are lots of rumors that people or even countries are buying up stock, which will drive prices even higher. Logic would point to big price increases by all the incense makers, not to mention formula changes as a way to keep prices down or offering lesser amounts of sticks in a bundle at current prices. All this appears to be happening, although very few makers are talking about it, at least anywhere the average buyer can find. Which is where the importers are caught in the middle, once you order and pay for and then receive a large order getting a refund or replacement for incense (or rose, jasmine, etc)that is not up to the quality you expected becomes a very difficult task.

To add more fuel to the fire currency rate fluctuations are all over the board so (for the dollar) one’s money does not go as far. The dollar has fallen off about 50 points in the last two years to the yen. If you are an importer of incense right now that means your wholesale profit margin is pretty much gone, one might say, literately, up in smoke.

I notice in our site that there is mention of changes in the scents of a number of incenses from many manufactures lately. Mike’s recent piece pointed out some from a number of the Indian and Tibetan makers and I have seen mention of similar differences from some of the Japanese makers.

Incense, much of which use natural materials has always been subject to change as there are always differences between different batches of the woods or spices/herbs/etc. that go into them, this is very much what all people who work in the scent industry (at any level) go through when ordering a new, say, jasmine absolute or sandalwood or even just trying to restock from the same supplier. One can pretty much count on having to make some adjustments to achieve a similar scent profile for a specific perfume or incense. This goes on all the time; in fact I think that a lot of the training that an incense master (in any country) or perfumer goes through is based on being able to recreate a specific scent profile with the materials that are currently available. I think that this is becoming harder and harder and in some cases not even possible as supplies (especially high quality woods) become increasingly difficult to get at a price that is economically realistic.

There are a huge amount of reviews at ORS, probably more then anywhere else, yet I am starting to see where they may no longer be accurate given all the changes that are going on. I have seen people get upset because our reviews may no longer hold true, or their nose is not the nose or esthetic of the reviewer.  I would like to point out that we are in no way “professional incense reviewers”. We do it because we like the stuff and are crazy enough to buy incense in the amounts that we do. Nor do we get subsidized or bank rolled by any of the makers or sellers. Sometimes we get samples, but then again we also buy a lot. Right now I would be hesitant to make large purchases, unless it was something I had just sampled. Even then it is going to be a gamble.

In this country we assume everything is standardized in quality and will stay that way, no matter where it comes from. That has never been true and is less so now. The people who bring incense into the country are taking huge chances with a lot of money. They are also the same people who took the time to put together the network of communication and trust to get the process rolling. I am quite sure they did so and continue to do so because they feel a commitment to their customers, it for sure is not because they are making any large profits, which have been cut even more of late.

So it is “buyer and importers beware” at the moment and probably for the foreseeable future. Enjoy what you have, be sensible in your purchases, life goes on.

OK, now back to looking for that 15 gram bag of Jinko buried in my closet!

Halmaddi available

Andrew at Equinox Aromatics has managed to source and bring into the US real Halmaddi.  You can check it out at the link above, It is a brown grey rather sticky substance that needs to be stored in water, so working with it will be “interesting”. You can expect to see incenses using it coming out fairly soon. At least in my case, and I am pretty sure in a number of others, they will be built around natural ingredients. The only problem with this is the cost factor of  of the essential oils and absolutes now days 🙂

OK, back to the laboratory..oh no, the musk ox is loose again!

-Ross

Fifth Anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild

So today marks the fifth anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild, which is a good start. It has come a ways, gone through changes and looks to be in it for the long haul. You can find a list of the different blogs and bloggers at the bottom of this post that are writing something for this event (plus, I think, there are a few other places that will mention something about it).

I have always been attracted to the scented side of things. Making things out of different woods in my Dads shop at home was great because of the smells of the different woods.  The subtle difference in scents between different raw clays and glazes when making pottery added a whole other dimension to ceramics. Hiking, camping, waking up in the mornings in the mountains and taking that first deep breath in at first light were very special moments. The sense of smell adds a huge, but at the same time, very subtle boost to ones sense of the world around them. It’s also so often overlooked.

When using incense it took me awhile to understand that the ones I gravitated to were generally those which used natural ingredients. There is just something that “smells” different to me between those built with woods, resins, herbs, spices and real oils and those that are not. Not that it’s not possible to make odd/bad smelling incenses or perfumes with naturals (as some of my own experiments are examples of 🙂   But for my nose, generally, the naturals just work better.  The incense has lead to perfumes and classes with Mandy Aftel, who has been a great source of inspiration and knowledge and an appreciation of the real Art of Perfumery.

I love to source out new scents and spend hours on the net looking into obscure leads on new places. I am always fascinated at how different the same plant can smell from each place. As I write I can see a box with at least ten different bottles of Rose in it. Each is different and special in its own way. So I find it funny to hear, “It has Rose in it”. Really?, from where? What year? How it distilled and what was the weather/soil/water like in the area where it was grown? Using natural materials can be very tricky, very demanding and an takes an overwhelming passion.

It isalso getting much more expensive  and difficult to obtain many of the key ingredients. The prices for ALoeswood and Sandalwoods have recently gone up around 20% to 30%, that assuming you can find them. The same holds true for most of the oils used in perfumery. Not to mention the many governmental restrictions being imposed or thought up. Its a great time to be into he naturals and at the same time it is a bit scary.

So, when you find them…enjoy!

[Links below cleaned up and edited – Mike 7/6/21]

Ca Fleure Bon
Anya’s Garden
Anu Essentials Blog
I’m Just Saying
Bellyflowers
Ellenoire
Aromatics International
Olive and Oud
A Little Ol’Factory
Natural Perfumes
Aromatherapy Contessa
Absolute Trygve

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