Gyokushodo’s new Nerikoh – Kusa no To, Hanafuna, Shiun

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Its been a while since I wrote a review! I have been trying to reign in my budget a bit by going through my existing stockpiles before purchasing anything new, but I had the opportunity to try Gyokushodo’s new line up of nerikoh offerings earlier today thanks to Kotaro-san from Japan Incense.

On first analysis all three blends contain the typical Ume-gaka style ingredients, including camphor, clove, cassia and agar wood. They each start off with a blast of camphor and clove, and then settle down into a sour plum fragrance, and eventually wrapping up with a nice woody agarwood aroma. The difference in the three though is the concentration of ingredients. Whereas Kusa no To is the lowest price point of the three, it is obvious it has less of the key ingredients than the next two up the line, and does not project as much. Hanafuna ups the game a bit, and Shiun does that but also seems to have extra agar wood added to it.

Kyarazen Monthly Newletter

Kyarazen posts a more or less monthly digest of informative articles, covering everything from fine tea to fine agarwood. I found this months to be most informative and timely, covering the two obvious lines of soil agarwoods on the market, as well as in depth information and pictures of what you should be looking for when you put large amounts of money out for wood which in many cases is coming from 1000’s of miles away with a “no return” policy. The article clearly points out how to tell the difference between what used to be traded as opposed to what is being sold in the last few years as meager copies. While many incense users only notice this as a decline in the quality of the incense stick they used to love, it was most noticeable in the quality of wood being sold out of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and today, even from Japan as the last of the old logs are consumed. While I got to see only a sampling of this decline during my 25+ years of trading in the wood, it is hard to beat Kyarazen’s view from Ground 0, so to speak, in Singapore, as well as the vast amount of research that he has done over the years. I really appreciated seeing the pictures of what is no longer possible to obtain (barring a lottery win, inheritance, etc.), as well as concise and easy to understand information. The article can be read here http://www.kyarazen.com/soil-agarwoods/

Yamadamatsu Shihou Kyara

Where to start. A note on the name, Shihou in Japanese means ‘all directions’. I put some prep time in before I lit this coil to take notes on it, cleansing my olfactory senses with coffee beans and ensuring the room was free from other scents, etc etc.
This coil is all wood. It immediately hits you with concentrated, pure aloes wood scent, with a rich turpentine backed up by a light rosy cedar sweetness, mixed with a hint of ozone. This is by no means a 100-paces style incense, even though it comes in a coil. You will definitely want to sit down and listen to this one on a personal level.

Nippon Kodo / Kurobo Nerikoh

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

-John

Nine Japanese Incenses I Burn PLUS a Wonderful Cheat

Seijudo Lotus Flower Kyara (Kyara Horen) – Light and sweet (quiet vanilla) and somewhat lacking in depth, but elegant and almost floral in its delicate fineness. It has a gentle and gauzy feeling that make me think of tender moments.

Seijudo Yeonsu Kyara (Kyara Enju) – Stronger, deeper and fuller than Lotus Flower, containing sweet notes of kyara and powdery, cushion-y musk.  It is heartier than Lotus Flower though they both feature Kyara from Vietnam.

Shoyeido Beckoning Spring (Shun-yo)- a very feminine, floral stick in that makes me think more of perfume than of incense. The name of the incense is very apt- it resembles a flower garden waking in the morning dew.  The scent is quite strong, without being suffocating, and feels very joyous and generous in spirit. I don’t think it will appeal to lovers of wood-scented incense, but it is one of few floral incenses I like despite its linearity and one dimensionality. It supposedly contains agarwood,, cloves, camphor and patchouli but I can’t smell the cloves and I would guess it contains other synthetics and/or perfume oils in addition to white musk. This incense really makes me sing 🙂

Shoyeido Hoetsu Rapture- a chip mixture with very strong notes of camphor, star anise and sandalwood (also aloeswood , cloves and probably other stuff, too). The sandalwood overshadows the aloeswood, but the blend is a pleasant combination of woody and floral notes. I enjoy burning it on Shoyeido’s portable burner. The gossamer floral notes that I think are a combination of camphor and clove make their appearance early in the burn; the woods predominate after a few minutes have elapsed.  I’ve tried a couple of Yamada Matsu chip mixes with similar ingredients that I prefer. I can’t figure out why the YM mixes seem more potent and more interesting since the ingredients, as listed,  are pretty much the same.

Kyukyudo Murasakino- I wish I knew how to upload a photo. The packaging is stunning-bluish/purplish and gold brocade, a wide, eggplant-colored cord and gold-flecked parchment label with black characters – the epitome of opulent presentation.  The sticks themselves are a bright yellow-green in color- a marriage of emerald and chartreuse. The incense is a less sweet than the above sticks. Although I can smell agarwood, borneol and herbs the individual ingredients don’t stand out as distinct entities but fuse together to form a complex amalgam with its own particular character. The scent is dynamic and energizing, and seems less “processed” and more natural than the others sticks I’ve mentioned so far. The stick is a little edgy without being harsh. It makes me think of a brisk woodland stroll through in autumn where campfires were recently burning and furry animals glide through the night. (There is a hint of musk but it is somewhat subdued).  Despite the fact that the separate notes blend together so effortlessly, the scent of the stick varies throughout its length. I like that- it keeps me guessing 🙂

Seikado Kyara- I think this one is worth mentioning because it showcases the bitter side of Kyara.  I like the dryness of the stick, though sometimes it smells a little earthy and muggy.

Baiedo’s 350th anniversary stick- I only smelled this once but it made a big impression on me because of its successful combination of seemingly contradictory elements. The stick smelled densely sweet with notes of cinnamon, cloves and the sweetness of  creamy woods, yet also crystalline, confident and sinewy. The juxtaposition of dignified strength, pastoral earthiness, suede-like skin scents and floral sweetness was as surprising as it was alluring.

Gyukushodo Nami No Sho-  I was sure this contained ambergris! There’s a mineral fizziness- almost like white pepper- that fooled me 🙂  That’s OK- I like the way it plays the trick 🙂  I’m a huge fan of ambergris because I love the salty marine notes and the many images they conjure up. If anyone knows of sticks that do contain ambergris, I’d be grateful for the information.

Kyukyodo Koroboh kneaded incense- Heavy on the borneol and plenty of plum-y, jam-y fruits.  I really love the way the almost eye-smarting camphoraceous notes collide with the juicy stickiness of dried fruits. The combination of heat and ice makes me absolutely giddy. That such seemingly opposite scents can get along so well gives me hope for mankind 🙂

The downside- not much carrying power

Cheat- Agarwood mix by Olfactory Rescue Service’s Ross Urrere- I’m saying this is cheating because Ross isn’t Japanese but I think it’s OK for me to list his incense here because I think the ingredients are ambergris, agarwood and musk- real musk. One of the major reasons I like this incense is because it starts off with a blast of animalic, brine-y ambergris that is unmistakable. That mineral note is so seductive- perhaps because of the images of harpoons, scrimshaw, bursting waves, one-eyed pirates, etc, that it immediately brings to mind. The agarwood is so sweet it almost smells caramelized, and the musk adds warmth and mellowness. I would call this an animalic/gourmand agarwood mix- perfect for a cozy winter evening 🙂

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.