Seikado / Meikoh Gohitsu (Five Brushstrokes) Aloeswood Blend, Daikouboku + Keigado / Jiyou Koh

Seikado’s Meikoh Gohitsu (Five Brushstrokes) Aloeswood: A nice, inexpensive Aloeswood blend from Seikado. It holds to a “middle of the road”  Aloeswood scent with a slight top note that is somewhat spicy. Which is not too say cinnamon like or anything along those lines. It’s actually quite different from other Aloeswood blends and is pleasant, easy to use as a background scent and a pretty good deal as an everyday incense. Fifty sticks in the box at around $14.00.

Seikado’s Daikouboku Sandalwood: This is a very nice straight up Sandalwood from the makers of Solitude line of wood blends. Seikado seems to big on the use of oils married up to Sandalwoods or Aloeswood to produce some pretty potent blends, almost ranging into what reminds me of Indian styles. In this stick they have not gone that route, opting instead to produce a very nice deep Sandalwood scent with a bare hint of spice/herb notes. I find it to be very easy to use and at the same time different then say the Baieido or Kyukyodo sandalwoods. This is another excellent everyday scent that will be merciful to your wallet.

Keigado’s Jiyou Koh: This is low smoke type incense, and it really is closer “no smoke”. Normally I do not like this style but this one I am finding pretty fun. When I first smelled it at Kohshi /Japan Incense it reminded me of something, about a week later I realized there were similarities with Shoyeido’s  Myo-ho in the top and mid notes. After looking at the ingredients list (Fennel, Cinnamon, Clove, Polygala tenuifolia (Polygalaceae), Angelica acutiloba) I realized that the first three are something I always associate with the scent of Myo-ho(along with Star Anise). All this being said I find this stick to be a pleasant backround scent, not very strong or prominent( like most low smoke stick) but it does add an interesting note to a room. Because it is a low smoke stick it will also tend to eliminate other scents, something to keep in mind if you want to clear the air.

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Awaji Koh-shi / Seasonal Yuzu, Water Lily, India Ink, Japanese Musk, Coffee, Green Tea

Scents of Japan has some pretty deep ties to the Awaji Island incense makers and has had these scents custom made for them for their Awaji Koh-shi line. There was a lot of R&D involved as they wanted incense’s that could hold their own in the market as well as be unique. This is Part 1 with Part 2 to follow shortly.

Seasonal Yuzu (Awaji Baikundo): This particular incense is not like anything else I have sampled. There is a great citrus note combined with an almost pink pepper top note and way under it all a slight wood scent. This is really surprising and delightful in its delivery, excellent for an overall refreshing room scent. Very uplifting, light, and the pink pepper  really brings it up into another level.

Water Lily (Less Smoke) (Keigado): This is a very subtle and almost etheric scent. I think the name aims more at a concept rather then a true scent as I am not too sure that water lilies have a scent( well maybe blue lotus). All that being said this is a very pleasant light floral note that is very much a back round rather then in your face incense. Not particularly sweet, and it does invoke the feel of the name. A lot of people who would like to try incense but do not want something too strong will find this just right.

India Ink (Less Smoke) (Seikado): India Ink is famous for( well one of the things) its scent, which is a mix of many materials as well as Patchouli oil and camphor. This incense is a wonderful combination of materials that has a very soothing and grounding quality to it, much more going on here the just the Patchouli oil and camphor. A great back round scent that to me invokes far away places and times. Somewhat stronger then many less smoke type sticks. It is defiantly a distinctive scent and something that could fit in many different enviroments.

Japanese Musk (Daihatsu): Whoever figured this scent out is really good. The musk is right up front with a light floral/spice and cream back round. Its surprisingly strong but not over powering and every time I burn some I think of the colors magenta and violet, which sort of describe the scent characteristics to me. Very elegant and almost hypnotic at the same time, a solid winner. I think it will appeal to a wide variety of people.

Coffee (Less Smoke) (Kunjudo): This smells like a very good cup of French Roast with a bit of heavy cream, no sugar, to round it out. An very pleasant and friendly sort of aroma that is actually stronger burning then unlit. It is supposed to act as an air purifier and freshener. I was not at all sure what a coffee scented incense was going to do for me but ended up being quite pleased. I can see this could be very useful in commercial areas or at home as a back round scent.

Green Tea (Less Smoke) (Kikujudo): A nice medium tea scent. Not really sweet and with that subtle bitter edge that tea can have that, to me, gives it character. There is a green note that flows through the whole mix and kind of holds it all together. There are no forceful notes in this stick, rather it is a grouping of three or four delicate scents that work very well together to add a distinctive “Japanese Tea” scent to a room, in other words, it smells like its name.

Scents of Japan / Firefly Series / Beech, Amber

Scents of Japan has had these two low smoke incense sticks custom blended for them in Japan. They both use the low smoke charcoal process to produce their scent and at the same time when you light the stick in a draft free area, it will remain standing with a white ash tower and you can watch the red/orange part of the burn moving down the length of the stick. Thus the “Firefly” moniker.

The Firefly Beech really does smell like a beech tree with a sweetish finish to it. Kind of interesting as I have not seen or smelled anything like this before. This is not really the type of scent I gravitate towards but I can see how many people would, especially as it is pretty faithful to what a beech tree smells like.

The Amber stick has a rather nice amber scent to it, on the sweetish side of that category, but not overpowering. The low smoke(really almost no smoke) means that people who normally cannot deal with the smoke issues could, most likely, use this.

These are great fun in low light conditions as it makes the “Firefly” aspect stand out and would probably work well at a party or similar environment.

Samples were provided by Scents of Japan.

Daihatsu / Father’s Love, Eight Scenes Green, Eight Scenes Orange

These are three new sticks that Japan Incense has brought in from Daihatsu.

Father’s Love is a smokeless stick, which I generally stay away from as the smokeless sticks seem to lack punch and, to me,  a lot of the characteristics( woods) that I look for in incense. This one is a different customer, it has a Aloeswood base topped with a sort of cherry/plum top note that is very interesting. It really surprised me, both in the amount of scent as well as the overall complexity within it. There is a resemblance to Kyukyodo’s Shiun in the scent qualities. This would be a great stick for someone who has problems with smoke but would like to experience incense.

Eight Scenes Green is a regular type of incense stick, colored a very dark purple/blue (so I am assuming that the colors of the sticks have no bearing on the names). The scent is a combination of  florals that edge into almost fruit based notes with a very light wood note of Sandalwood under it all. It sort of reminds me of some of the Shunkodoh’s (like Haru no Kaori) without the Aloeswood.

Eight Scenes Orange (which is colored green) is quite interesting, it’s write up says Sandalwood and secret spices. There is a distinct vanilla note at the top with a slight powdery feel to it, underneath that is a spicy note that tends to weave in and out of perception and then finally the Sandalwood. Vanilla is tough to pull off in incenses it scent reminds me of some Indian sticks, but much less intense.

All three of these come in very large amounts, you might want to check with Japan Incense, as the samples they kindly sent to me are in smaller tubes. These are everyday style incenses that are reasonably priced and well made.

SAMPLER NOTES: Keigado, Seikado, Kunmeido

I’ve long had the internal debate on reviewing incenses where I only have small samples, in many cases I often just hang onto the ones I’m going to buy anyway and do a review proper on them. But I’m getting to the point where I’m kind of backing up with them and in a lot of cases they’re new and it’s probably time to get the word out, particularly as we’ve been seeing a lot of new modern styled imports coming in in the last six months. So periodically and probably through the end of the year I hope to get some comments out on these in batches of (approx.) 5 or 6.

The three Keigados in this batch, however, have been around for a couple years. The Blue Berry was even discussed in some comments a while back, and I can see why, it’s a pleasant smokeless stick that does what it says on the box, exude a pleasant smell of blueberries that’s pitched just about right. However I’m at the point where I wouldn’t even be sure what I’d do with 370 sticks of this, I could easily even imagine getting tired of it. But it’s light, airy and friendly, I can’t imagine the person who would find it unpleasant. [Please note that the link now goes to a 70 stick for $7 bundle, rather than the old 370 stick version, I think this makes this incense more attractive given you’re not getting too many sticks. – Mike 7/6/21]

Keigado’s Pink Magnolia is one of their three magnolias and I believe I covered the Purple Magnolia some time ago. Like the purple, the pink isn’t smokeless, the main difference is this stick evokes typical pink-like smells, perhaps rose or carnation in parts, as much as it does magnolia. In fact I was reminded a little of the Shunkohdo Shuhou I reviewed yesterday in terms of tone. The Pink Magnolia, however, has a slight bit of cinnamon spice in the mix which made me like it a little more than the purple, but overall this is the kind of low end, inexpensive floral that will appeal more to the modern than traditional incense fan.

Sennichiko, however, is definitely more in the traditional vein and strikes me as, perhaps, a slightly more inexpensive version of Keigado’s Full Moon, the amber scents are not quite as strong in this version, although it’s strong enough that this doesn’t just come off like another low end green sandalwood. But like most of those, it has a mild perfume oil on top that’s hard to describe, except that it seems to have a touch of patchouli or cinnamon in the mix. And certainly at $3 a roll, it’s kind of a steal.

Moving over to Seikado is another entry in the company’s Hitori-Shizuka line, the Fancy Floral. That’s not particularly the kind of description that really appeals to my sensibilities so much and my opinion wasn’t far off the same one I had for the Floral Elegant in the same line. Like many an NK floral (or even Daihatsu or Kunjudo), it’s part of the modern trend of perfumed incense sticks, and like a couple I’ll talk about later in the Shorindo Koibana line or the NK Free Pure Spirit line, I get watermelon more than I do floral, sort of a gentle and subtle feminine perfume that isn’t likely to do more than lightly perfume an area. Like the whole line, the base is sandalwood but in this incense more than the others it’s perhaps the most sublimated.

Seikado’s Kyoyama Bokusho is also modern, but in this case they’ve put together a distinctive and special incense not quite like any other, although again I’m fairly put off by the sheer number of sticks (180+) in the box more than I am by the price; that’s probably way more incense than I can crunch at this point. Anyway this incense is unique in that it largely exudes the aroma of Sumi ink. Not having any conscious memory of Sumi ink specifically, I can say that it does remind me of the better examples of calligraphic ink I can remember and married to camphor it makes for a distinct almost oceanic incense, very water elemental. It’s smokeless, so never gets too potent, a bit spicy and overall this one just about anyone will need a sample of first to check out as it has virtually no comparison at least among imports.

Finally, another oldie from the Kunmeido stable, the Hosen is one I feel amiss at not having discovered earlier as although it’s a distinct modern floral, it’s really no less brilliant than most of the line’s traditionals and one of the best multi-floral air freshener type incenses I can think of. While it’s definitely a bouquet scent, I’d say the violet’s out front on this one but what’s great about it from my perspective is it’s almost as spicy as it is floral and the complexity the combined styles exude make for a fascinating burn. Some similar incenses might be Baieido’s Kokonoe Floral and Izumi and less so Shorindo’s Chabana Green Tea, all mentioned mostly due to their similarities as freshener types. A 200 stick box, again, could be stretching it for me, but in this case I might be on the purchase side of the fence as I can see this mixing into a day perfectly.

Up over the next few weeks new incense from Shorindo (including the excellent Wayko), a handful from the new Ancient Forest line, scents from Scents of Japan, Nihon Senko Seizo, Saraike Kunbutsudo, Tahodo and I believe Ross will have some words on a few new Daihatsus.

Baieido / Kobunboku, Tokusen Kobunboku, Kaden Kobunboku, Bikou Kobunboku, Bikou Kobunboku Smokeless, Byakudan Kobunboku

If you consider both affordability and quality in your incense purchasing, there may be no better series in the US market than Baieido’s Kobunboku line. From top to bottom it’s a virtual triumph of incense crafting, particularly when you consider that none of these use any overt perfumes or oils in them. The Kobunboku line has perhaps one of the longest incense learning curves available, which to some extent makes reviewing them problematic. If you come back and ask me in a year what I think of them, I’d probably be even more positive as with every stick I notice more and more subtleties and unique qualities. These are not incenses for stuffy noses and short attention spans, they reveal themselves more in introspective mode and as such are perfect fits for meditation, and are categorized both as incenses that are traditional and used for meditation.

Kobunboku means “plum blossom” and each incense seems to be geared as an “expression” of the plum tree, an abstract concept more so than an indication of aroma. All of these incenses are woods first, despite the number of spices that work to contour them all to different scents. Both the regular Kobunboku and the Byakudan version are generally sandalwood incenses, while Tokusen, Kaden and the Bikous add different types of aloeswood to the mix. What’s amazing is that despite the expensive ingredients, nearly all of these incenses are affordable, even the larger boxes (such as with Bikou) that go for $20 have enough sticks in them to last you for years. The more common varieties of the Kobunboku line come in various boxes and even some long stick sizes, making matches for different purposes an effortless endeavor. In many ways this line is the base of a solid incense collection and it’s also recommended that one does not make a decision on their quality based on a single stick, but rather one works closely with a formula over time, so that one can learn the sophistication and brilliant art that goes into making these.

The regular Kobunboku may be one of the best deals for incense on the US market. Few incenses whose rolls go for $7 are as sophisticated, complex or eye opening as this combination of sandalwood, borneol, clove, cinnamon and medicinal herbs. Usually it’s high end aloeswoods that cause obsessive burning behavior on my part but my first roll of the regular Kobunboku was almost impossible to stay away from. As with all Baieido incenses the sandalwood used is of a high, uncommon quality level, less about the wood and more about the resins hiding in the woods. It’s always fresh, crystalline and snappy, absolutely the best aspects of Mysore heartwood. As with all Baieido incenses, the added spices are almost unobtrusive, contouring the incense so that the better qualities of the central wood come out. Where the Byakudan version moves closer to a pure sandalwood, the spices used in the the regular version give it an almost elegant and slightly fruity quality that is common to many incenses with a plum blossom theme, but there are none that capture it more perfectly than Kobunboku. This is one of the rare non aloeswood incenses that has an aloeswood level of complexity and sophistication. It’s dry, elegant and extremely pleasant, an essential purchase for either the Japanese incense newcomer or veteran.

The learning curves get more difficult for Tokusen Kobunboku, basically the “excellent” version of the line. Added to this formula is Kalimantan (Indonesian) aloeswood and in many ways this reformulation is an unfolding mystery, an incense whose subtle qualities are nearly impossible to pick up without some experience. Personally it took me maybe a good 15 sticks before I really started to “get” this incense and when I did it was a revelation. Because Tokusen Kobunboku is both a similar and completely different incense to the regular stick, it’s abstractly similar in approach while totally different in execution. Like the difference between the regular Kunmeido Reiryo Koh and the aloeswood version, the latter is quieter in many ways, insular to the point that the brilliance works on a very quiet level. As with all Baieido sticks, this has an obvious wood contour, but clove seems to come out a bit more, reminding me of Baiedo’s classic Kai Un Koh blend. The contour of the wood and quiet nature of the stick hides what’s an emerging complexity as if the various herbs and spices all reveal themselves in a Zen-like fashion, asking the question rather than revealing the answers. It’s beautifully done, a masterwork of incense, an aloeswood that still charts under $10 a roll. Few companies have an incense this sophisticated for the same price.

Kaden Kobunboku is the “Family Secret” version of Kobunboku and the aloeswood changes to Baieido’s Tsukigase, a soft and mellow Vietnamese type. Where the Tokusen was mellow and smooth, Kaden works a bit hotter and on a livelier level, with perhaps a more obvious complexity. The level of spice here approaches essential oil level, with the cinnamon and clove a lot more obvious and even competitive with the woods for attention. It’s an incense with an aroma far more expensive than the $12 a roll asking price and while this does have a decent quantity of sandalwood, it’s still the Kobunboku that is most obviously an aloeswood incense at heart. It’s a very traditional and even hoary scent and perhaps one to work your way up to as it constrasts nicely to the regular and Tokusen versions. And even with a much brasher approach there is no complexity or sophistication lost here.

Bikou Kobunboku moves in a different direction to Tokusen and Kaden and is unsurprisingly defined as a softer and milder version of the formula. I’m a little further behind on the learning curve with this one, while noticing the same pattern of having each stick improve my experience. It has a somewhat similar wood contour to the Tokusen version but without quite so much of an aloeswood impact, that particular wood only acting as a spice or flavoring rather than being particularly dominant. In many ways it has more in common with the sandalwood dominant Byakudan version and at times even the Sawayaka/Koh version with its stronger cinnamon base, yet there’s really nothing strong or powerful about Bikou, it’s perhaps the most meditative of the entire line.

The smokeless Bikou Kobunboku is certainly one of Baieido’s oddest incenses being that it’s format has more in common with its other smokeless incenses such as the Green Tea, Coffee and Honey formulas. I almost see these as appealing to different audiences entirely with the woodier Kobunbokus for traditional users and the charcoal smokeless sticks for the moderners. So this is perhaps the only stick that bridges both traditional and modern and in many ways I would think it could be difficult coming from either side. It does share its non smokeless version’s milder and woody qualities, but with the smokeless base so much of this impact is removed. The change gives it a bit more of a citrusy vibe to it as well as something of a powdery touch (a touch common to nearly every incense in this format) and I’m left with the impression that it’s something of a picture of the real thing. But perhaps it would thrive without comparisons to the rest of the line, on its own. [NOTE 7/2/21. This link may go to a nonsmokeless version of the Bikou. There is also a smokeless Jinkou Kobonboku available and this may be the closest incense to this review, but it has been so long since this review was done, it’s hard to remember if there were any mix ups.]

Finally, there’s the line’s most poignant sandalwood incense, the astonishing Byakudan Kobunboku. Baieido is already responsible for one of the most deluxe sandalwood incenses available, the expensive and stupendous Byakudan Kokoh. In many ways this could be considered the least expensive variant of that incense, still capturing that amazing crystalline Mysore aroma but perhaps at a lower vibration. I find this stick, fresh, and exhilirating, capturing all the best aspects of good heartwood without any off notes whatsoever. In fact for the price, there’s really no better sandalwood incense available, there are no oversaturated sandalwood oils or harsh wood contents in this stick whatsoever. The spices here do nothing more than accentuate these excellent qualities. At 30g for $11 this is yet another mandatory starter buy and may very well put other sandalwood incenses in a totally different perspective. In fact I’d recommend this one before the Kokoh version, the only (nondeleted) sandalwood incense superior to it.

There’s one more Kobunboku I previously covered, the Sawayaka Kobunboku which has also been repackage under the name of Koh. If the Byukadan accentuates the sandalwood in the formula, the Sawayaka does the same for the cinnamon and is also highly recommended (indeed it’s part of our yearly top 20 for 2008). [NOTE: This incense appears to be discontinued.]

I can think of no affordable, under $20 line better than the Kobunboku series, it’s a line with aromatic qualities far more expensive in impact to one’s olfactory senses than pocketbook. If you’re new to Japanese incense there really are few better starter incenses than what could be found here, and other than the anomalous smokeless Bikou Kobunboku, every single one of these can be solidly recommended. But do take your time with them, these are not scents to jump to conclusion on, they’re perhaps a little smarter than your own nose at first and patience will repay itself manifold.

Encense du Monde (Florisens) / Karin / Pearl, Ruby, Moonlit Night, Perfumed Prince

[NOTE: Updated later 7/3. All incenses with Kunjodo equivalents available at Japan Incense have been linked. Links to the actual Encens du Monde incenses now go to Zen Minded.]

Reviews of the previous Encense du Monde/Kunjudo Karin incenses can be found here.

Karin is a strange line [NOTE: this refers to the Encens du Monde Karin line, not the Kunjudo one.] having so many differently styled incenses. Along with the amber-infused every day style of Karin and the decidedly aloeswood leaning Swallows in Flight, we have two less smoke incenses with square cuts (Pearl and Ruby), a very similar round cut but not smokeless incense (Perfumed Prince) and a floral yet traditionally styled incense (Moonlit Night). There really isn’t much of a qualitative difference among the six incenses, even the one you think would be the most expensive (Swallows) seems to get much of its impact from the oil, in a similar way to Tennendo’s roll incenses, like Renzan or Tensei.

The two less smoke incenses are quite pleasant surprises. Both use something of a charcoal formula for a base, yet neither have the slight bitterness that even the Baieido smokeless incenses have. Both are very modern perfumes, having little relationship to most incenses or even other florals. Pearl [assuming within Kunjudo this is the same as the Takara Pearl] has an almost vanilla or honeysuckle like perfume, sultry, mellow and reminiscent of modern perfumes. It reminded me a little of an old memory of daffodils, with hints of talcum powder and even tonka bean at times. It’s still surprising to me that such a mellow aroma isn’t cut through by its own base. Ruby [assuming with Kunjudo this is the same as the Takara Ruby] might be even more delicate, with slight hints of rose and carnation in the midst of what is a fresh, cleansing sort of aroma similar to Baieido’s Izumi but not as intense. There are some citrus-like notes in particular that help to separate it from the Pearl, not to mention it’s lacking Pearl’s creamier notes for something a bit more overtly floral.

Perfumed Prince might have been the third of this style if it was less smoke and square cut. It still has what seems like a similar charcoal base, although it seems to have the normal smoke content of a Japanese stick. Strangely enough, however, it’s an incense very similar in aroma to Pearl, with an almost coffee creamer-like aroma on top. There seems to be some strong vanilla notes involved, although it’s hard to tell if this originates from vanilla itself or a resin like benzoin. I also get a bit of jasmine or marshmallow in here as well. Like Pearl, it’s a very gentle incense that is likely to appeal to even those put off by traditionals. The only issue is there’s some slightly metallic hints that might come from the base, but these hints aren’t noticeable enough to be offputting. [NOTE: I am unable to locate, yet, the Kunjudo equivalent.]

Moonlit Night (I believe this one to be the same as Karin Togetsu) differs greatly from these three, being a traditional, wood-based incense. Inspired by the aroma of the Daphne flower it draws the obvious comparisions to Forest of Flowers, a sandalwood-based incense that also incorporates the Daphne aroma to fine effect (honestly Karin/Forest of Flowers is about as good as an inexpensive Japanese incense gets). Moonlit Night’s floral nature is much more overt, to the point where it reminded me of a lot of Nippon Kodo and other Kunjudo florals, however, Moonlit Night stops just before it gets bitter or offputting, leaving the incense’s floral nature rather pure. Unlike the other three incenses in this review, Moonlit Night has some wood base to it that prevents it from being a fully modern incense and in many ways bridges the three black stick florals to the other two traditionals.

I’m not a big fan of floral incenses, but have to say that the four in question here are among the best I’ve tried in that they are all rather original aromas without the problems associated with cheaper incenses: the bitter off notes, bad charcoal bases and inexpensive perfumes without any true depth. They really make the Karin line one of interest throughout the six incenses, and present some modern styles that one might be able to introduce to even the most casual appreciator of incense. Even at these travelled prices, these incenses are generally worth it. Were they to arrive in the US without a European side trip like Karin does, I’d be telling you about their high quality/low price ratio.

Shorindo / Chabana Tea Flower (Discontinued)

Shorindo’s Chabana Tea Flower is a smokeless incense roughly in the same vein as other green tea incenses or Baieido’s Izumi. Incenses like these tend to be oil based using a form of charcoal for the delivery and such a style isn’t usually successful to my nose, although the charcoal used by Japanese companies is far superior to that used in cheap, bamboo stick punks. Chabana combines both tea and flower scents to approach the sort of fresh and cleaning smell you might find with Izumi. If you’ve been into new age stores you might have seen the Moldavite charcoal incense, which is a style based around some sort of meteor rock with fabled effects. Chabana resembles it quite a bit in scent, but without any sort of chakra stimulation or third eye opening involved.

The aroma’s a little too gentle and floral for the delivery method, meaning that the subtleties of the scent are as likely to get lost in the burn. Of the few sticks I burned, maybe half of one of them revealed the best aspects of the scent, the oil alone which is fresh and cleansing, but like with many charcoal incenses, I’m left wondering what the oil alone would smell like. And while this is similar to Baieido’s charcoal incenses in style, it’s not quite up to that level of subtlety in the aroma. I tend to like my green tea a little electric in terms of getting the full smell out of it, here it’s only one of a number of notes whose overall bouquet is a little difficult to pinpoint.