Shoyeido / Xiang-Do / Rose, Palo Santo, Vanilla, Mixed Fruits, Citrus, Marine, Lavender, Violet

Shoyeido’s Xiang-Do series is created by what the company calls their exclusive pressed incense process, a process that for most of us on the outside will be somewhat obscure. What we can tell from the product is that these incenses concentrate the aromatics to a degree rarely found in the natural world and, most importantly, do so very successfully. To my nose, Shoyeido is responsible for many of the best modern incense styles on the planet and their pressed incense is generally extraordinary.

Like Shoyeido’s LISN series, one is aware by the numbers on the boxes that we only see a small part of this line here, what would amount to 16 incenses, with three of them labelled as Xiang-Do Fresh (Green Tea, Tea, Coffee). Xiang-Do not only provides a small sampler for the Fresh trio, but a 12 stick/12 aroma sampler as well. It looks like the larger 30 stick/10 aroma sampler has been deleted at the Shoyeido site, but may be available for a little while longer if you look around. The price of the 20 stick boxes is rather close to $15 and with the short 2 3/4 inch length, these incenses can generally be considered pricy, as is all of the incenses that use the pressed incense process (I know I’d like to see bigger (60 stick) boxes). I’ll be covering half of the line in this article, the other half will be forthcoming (including my two favorites in the entire line – Forest and Peppermint).

Xiang Do’s Rose is easily one of the better Rose incenses I’ve been able to sample, perhaps not quite at the level of the Floral World/Royal Rose, but certainly more affordable. Like all of the line’s incenses the floral oil is very concentrated, starting with a sweet garden-like rose aroma and ending in a surprisingly dry finish. Rose incenses aren’t generally my favorite, but the style and rich base make this quite attractive.

Palo Santo comes from an Andean tree and while it’s a rather extraordinary scent whether natural or in this pressed style, it’s one you rarely see in Japanese incense, which makes this somewhat unusual. I think of it as a somewhat orangey aromatic wood, with hints of mango and apricot and a bit of talcum. Quite pleasant and definitely unique, it’s likely to be friendly to most noses.

Vanilla is about what you’d expect, although the intensity of the aroma brings out sides to the scent rather uncommon to most vanilla incenses. It’s both slightly sweet and spicy, but not at all like vanilla in the ice cream or confectionary sense, a little closer to the tonka bean sort of aroma, almost as if it had fruitlike qualities. This is one I’ve slowly grown to over time and I’d probably put it in the second tier after Forest and Peppermint.

Mixed Fruits never strikes me as a good idea for incense, and while this is decent the overall mix of apple, citrus, banana and grape kind of renders the overall aroma somewhat banal. I can imagine specific fruits would probably work better under such a style and can imagine the Japanese line must have them. Here there’s a surprising lack of aromatic concentration and distinction. However fruit incense lovers might see this a bit different.

Citrus has similar issues, although in many ways this is fairly close to Forest and Peppermint in style. The previously mentioned 30 stick sampler was displayed sort of like a rainbow of colors and while it does help to make it look like a pretty box, there may also be some similarities in style with scents similar in color. The end note on this one has a grapefruit-like citrus aroma that for my nose doesn’t finish quite so well.

Marine is another one that may seem bizarre to the western nose. It’s that attempt to capture the aromas of being at sea or on a beach. Nippon Kodo have an incense called Aqua that captures that sort of wet/watery sort of scent. Marine itself is more of a saltwater vibe, a bit of brine that doesn’t seem to work so well with the general base of this incense. Fortunately it’s dry, but this will be one you’d want to try in a sampler first.

The last two are probably my favorite in this specific group. Lavender surprised me in not being very typical of incenses with French lavender oil, which is a good thing given their prevalence. The aromatics are intense enough to give the incense an almost liquor-like lavender scent, dense, perfumed and sweltery. It does have similarities to the lavender you might find in hair products, however the Xiang-Do base helps to balance this proclivity and keep it a little on the sweeter side.

Violet‘s my favorite of the Xiang-Do floral scents, not terribly far from the natural aroma, although the base adds sweetness and balance to the oil. I got a little purple valentine candy in there as well, it’s a really delightful scent, one of the few florals I can really get behind.

Other than the Fresh trio I mentioned earlier, the remaining Xiang Do incenses (exported to the US) are Forest, Peppermint, Sandalwood, Frankincense and Agarwood, all of which I hope to cover in the future once I managed to “complete the series.” Despite that I’ve been fairly critical on this first eight, I’d still recommend giving the sampler a try as depending on one’s personal tastes you might well find that you enjoy certain blends more than I do. I tend to find Shoyeido pressed incenses to be among the finest treats in incense and very complimentary to woody, spicy and more natural styles.

Advertisement

Nippon Kodo / Yume-No-Yume (Dream of Dream) / Bamboo Leaf, Butterfly, Fern (Discontinued), Fiddlehead Fern, Goldfish, Horse-Tail Plant (Discontinued), Japanese Morning Glory, Maple Leaf, Pink Plum Flower, Whooping Crane)

Nippon Kodo seem to be the largest Japanese incense company, especially when looking at all their various lines and collaborations. From their very inexpensive Morning Star Line all the way to the Most Exceptional Quality kyara line, the company has a wealth of different incenses, being one of the few Japanese companies to also have a bamboo stick line. In fact only Shoyeido has a similar wide range in styles and tastes.

As incense is generally a niche interest in the United States and usually allied with new age shops, there tends to be strong trends towards smokeless incense and all natural incense. From research, I think it’s very difficult to tell where a company diverges from using all natural ingredients to using organic if not entirely natural ingredients all the way to the art of perfumery where synthetic oils and ingredients are often taken for granted. Having wandered too often into the wake of mainstream and heavily synthetic colognes and perfumes, it’s easy to get turned off by the idea.

As far as I can tell one of the identifying features of an incense that has a healthy share of synthetic ingredients is how strong a stick smells without burning it. Natural ingredients by their lonesome don’t stand out very often from Japanese sticks, especially sandalwood and aloeswood heavy sticks, which is a far cry from sampling fresh Indian masalas. Nippon Kodo’s Yume-No-Yume line is a good example of an incense whose fresh stick could nearly scent a room without lighting it.

This line is rather elegantly presented for the modern consumer. The gift packs come with incense and a porcelain holder (both also sold separately) that mirrors the packaging art, usually a white background with slight Japanese art that reflects the nature of the incense. Yume-no-yume also comes in both stick and coil form, and while I haven’t tried the coils yet, the scents do seem eminently suited to that form (if maybe too much for smaller rooms). The only thing to watch out for in the packaging is the plastic holder that contains the incense and mini burner, it’s far too easy to cause a spill opening the holder (counterintuitively) the wrong way. Other than that bit of warning that becomes mitigated once you get used to it, I actually really like the packaging.

If I remember correctly, Nippon Kodo’s Fragrance Memories phases certain incenses in and out every so often and I believe they do something similar with this Yume-No-Yume line as I’ve happened across one incense that seems deleted (for now). Currently the line has nine different blends and the least impressive of these incenses is fine indeed.

Pink Plum Flower contains key notes of white plum, red plum and willow leaf bud. This listing of the ingredients will automatically give one the impression there’s something different at work here, as I don’t have a clear idea of what each of these three notes might be like. Like the whole line, the stick is strong and pungent, far more so than any natural Japanese plum flower incenses, most of which I’ve tried have been very mellow and light. In fact that sort of subtlety is what prevents me from being totally behind this blend, it may be the least distinctive blend in the range.

Goldfish is the other incense in the line that doesn’t quite come up the rest. While I’m generally very impressed at the way certain notes are blended for effect, I find it pretty hard to get used to the mint/watermelon/jasmine blend, especially with the whole water motif at work here. I’d almost forgotten jasmine was involved but the other two are quite strong. It’s definitely unusual, but a bit like a symphony not quite in synch.

Butterfly was the first blend I tried and won me over fairly quickly. Here, the key notes, geranium, vanilla and cinnamon all blend almost flawlessly into a scent that reminds me more of amber than any of the other blends. Part of it is not terribly far from Shoyeido’s Horin/Nijo scent, but as a far more perfumed scent this is much stronger in impact and not as subtle.

Bamboo Leaf might be my favorite of the whole line, it appeals to my taste for sweet/green and patchouli-esque hints, despite the fact it doesn’t appear to have patchouli as an ingredient. The green tea is way out in front and surprisingly the yuzu citrus and lemon flower notes don’t really give that much of an impression of a lemon tang to the tea, I get the impression they mostly add to the complexity. This is probably the one I’d start with first if you’re new to the line.

Maple Leaf is another favorite in the line, its hints of persimmon, tonka bean (think vanilla), and ambergris blend perfectly into a rich and somewhat fresh scent. While this doesn’t strike me as quite as amber-like as Butterfly, it’s obviously by ingredient in that general class, but the name of the incense isn’t misleading either, with some hints that will likely remind you of a pancake breakfast, partially due to just how sweet it is.

Whooping Crane might be the least intense blend in the line and you can see why the choice is made. With a winter/snow motif, there’s a very slight mint hint to what is a rather perfectly blended combo of camellia, musk and frankincense. I detect the musk at times, but frankincense can often be a tough call since quality can vary so much. As far as a packaging theme to incense scent relationship, this is about as spot on in the line as it can get. Very sultry.

For fans of fruit scents, you can probably do no better than Fiddlehead Fern, which takes berry intensity into its own level. Lots of fruity incenses strike me as pretty synthetic or unsatisfying, so it’s kind of a jolt to find out that the one I like the best might be the most synthetic in the bunch. Very fruity and rich with the raspberry middle almost, if not quite obliterating the black currant and leaf bud of peach notes. Quite impressive overall.

My second favorite in the line is probably the Morning Glory, partially as it strikes me as YNY’s most exotic blend. The green banana in particular is fabulous and the vetivert gives it most of its Eastern tinge, almost musky and dense. I’m used to bergamot as being slightly citrus-y, but it’s kind of hard to detect here. Above all, the oil scent is just a little unusual and it really adds quite a bit of character, although at the odd time it might seem like everything clashes – only for a moment.

The strangely named Horse-Tail Plant is not likely to win over the western consumer, but it ought to as it’s the weirdest incense in the line. For one thing, it’s the only incense with only two named notes, strawberry flower and oil-seed rape blossoms. Neither name gives any hint to the blend involved here which is almost beyond description. The small print says “Fruity-green. The refreshingly bitter scent of new leaf buds in the moning dew.” Bitter might be the only descriptor that resonates with me, but again it’s a bitter I’ve not quite experienced before.

The deleted line is called Fern, and I assume Fiddlehead Fern was its replacement. You can see why in some ways as other incences in the line capture similar qualities better. The notes are maple leaf, yuzu-citrus and bitter orange and if you scroll up you can see all but the latter note in other blends. Here they don’t seem to blend quite as well, although I may think differently after another sample or two.

Overall, this is a really neat line. Whatever you might consider synthetic, the scents here are clean, smooth and not headache inducing in any way, they’ve certainly changed my mind about the potential of the meeting of perfumery and blending arts. And they’re also very affordable, a package of 12 sticks or 5 coils (without holder) running you about $6-$7. I’m actually looking forward to the next switch out to see what they come up with next.