Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Koh (Laughing Orchid)

When I was just starting to write reviews of incense in my incense journal, this was one of the very early incenses that I wrote about and loved, but also noted that I needed more experience to try to understand this scent better.

In the six years following my initial encounter with Sho Ran Koh (link to Mike’s 2007 review) which influenced my initial purchase), I learned a great deal about incense by listening to multiple styles and writing about them, but also reading about them. My favorite research was visiting websites and buying books. A while ago, I was able to get into conversation with two scholars who had translated a Tang Dynasty document on incense creation.

In this document, they discussed how to create several incenses and give recipes. One of which is ‘Smiling Plum/Orchid’, a recipe that when altered just slightly can either represent an orchid or a plum blossom. Having explored the recipes as it was created and then as it was toyed with by the artists who go by ‘Dr Incense‘ and ‘Kyara Zen‘, I feel like that was just the education and experience I needed to better understand this and talk about it.

First of all, I understand that this stick has gone through several alterations over the years as material becomes harder to procure. This review is for the current stick in production and available at Japan Incense. I am reviewing the 10″ version currently for sale at Japan Incense as I purchased this only a couple weeks before writing this.

Before lighting, the package and stick have a fenugreek/curry smell to it. It is a soft tan stick, perfectly round and straight. Upon lighting up this stick, I’m immediately hit with a complex of spices like cinnamon, clove, borneol. Aloeswood comes right behind it, this being a bitter type like a Kalimantan. There is a sweet note but I think it comes more from the cinnamon and spices than the aloeswood, but instead it supports the aloeswood so the bitterness doesn’t bring me down, but instead grounds me.

There is definitely something like ‘reiryo koh’ in small amounts because there is a ‘curry’ or ‘maple syrup’ kind of note that keeps showing up but it’s minor and in the scenery and not in the foreground.

To wrap this review up, I wanted to discuss what I learned about this from sniffing the recipes prepared by KyaraZen and Dr Incense as well as comparing the last of my box of original Sho Ran Koh that I bought back in 2014 to try to understand both what has changed over the years and if Kyukyodo has stuck to the original recipe or made it their own.

First of all, the “original”, while muted by age, seems to have more pronounced sweet and bitter notes as well as being maybe a bit smoother. If anything, I think the difference is that there is either some oil or perfume added to the more recent one that seems to give it more ‘clarity’, or it could just be the ingredients being fresher.

Dr Incense’s Smiling Orchid – This seems to be muskier, heavier, but still has the recipe. I know Dr Incense processes his aloeswood and that makes it a little less bitter so there is a sweeter wood note in his but it does show how the recipe maintains similarities. This also seems to have some extra… grounding or earthy depth to it that makes me feel like this is made to meditate.

Kyarazen’s Smiling Orchid – Saltier. The aloeswood in here has a much saltier quality, like a Manaban. I am not sure if he included sandalwood in this but if so, that might also help give it this salty note. This is a very large and playful note that has all the wood and spice seemingly in step behind it. If anything, I feel like the small batch allows for a sort of artistry to be created that you don’t get when you’re producing 100,000 sticks at a time. It feels that while the scents are all connected, you get these ‘solos’ where something comes to the forefront for a moment before fading back into the chorus.

I also want to iterate that as artists, they don’t maintain a stable stock of anything, and they both drop their incenses once a month and in the first few hours the good stuff can be snapped up. Because of this kind of feeding frenzy, I am not exactly recommending this unless you’re eager to engage in the kind of ‘Black Friday’ shopping anxiety. I grew weary of this after a few months and hope that they might start a subscription-based plan instead of a feeding frenzy approach. Dr Incense drops their incense at 8pm Singapore time on the last Saturday of the month. His shop is in the link above. KyaraZen is a little more fickle, but if you follow this site, they carry his stuff and will usually send out a newsletter about it. Lastly, Yi-Xin Craft Incense drops their incense once a month and occasionally features Sho Ran Koh type recipes. He is a student of KyaraZen.

Conclusion – if you can find it, get a small batch version of this if you like Sho Ran Koh. If you’ve never tried Sho Ran Koh, try it, see if you like it before pursuing the more expensive versions. As Mike said in his talk about it, it is unique and harder to compare to other Japanese incenses.


Yamadamatsu / Shihou Kyara (Coil) (Discontinued)

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.

Yamadamatsu / Shoyo, Shigei (Discontinued)

Yamadamatsu’s Shoyo is quite enlightening, hence the name as it is written here means “Shining Light”. This coil has a strong initial top note of both vanilla and a resinous labdanum scent, combined with at first a woody, salty aloes wood that eventually fades to a mid/base note of cedar. There’s not much else to say other than this is a wonderful scent well worth the price.

Shigei on the other hand is all about the wood. Unlike its predecessors, this coil forgoes any blend and instead contains a straight blend of Vietnamese aloes wood, with a top note of buttery, salty aloes wood to its scent. With a price of 10$ per coil, it is definitely a incense you will want to sit down with and study.

Yamadamatsu / Gyoka (Coils)

Yamadamatsu’s Gyoka blend is the lowest of the line of aloeswood coils currently available. It has a top note of strong, slightly sweet, spicy, peppery aloeswood, alongside a buttery mid note of medicinal herbs and a touch of lysimachiae herba. Overall it reminds me a lot of a Baiedo blend, but slightly sweeter. The fragrance of this blend has a bit of a learning curve to it, and after a bit of time spent with it, it begins to remind me of an old log cabin, with the rich turpentine and wood scents that one associates with such.

Okuno Seimeido / Ginsen Kunsui Aloeswood

This will be my first review of the new year!
Today I will be reviewing Okuno Seimeido’s Ginsen Kunsui Aloeswood, or green incense – singing* selection. The stick is your standard brown and is listed as containing “aloeswood and Chinese medicinal herbs”. On first lighting, I smell a hit of salty aloeswood with a touch of pine, with a mid note of plum, and a touch of cassia, nutmeg and sweet spice in the background. Overall I would describe this stick as a mild, sweet, woody floral scent. It is definitely a pleasing aroma, If you are a fan of floral and spice I would definitely give this one a try.

*I think I translated this correct :/

Nippon Kodo / Hatsune Nerikoh (Discontinued)

Today I will be reviewing Nippon Kodo’s “Hatsune” Nerikoh. This kneaded blend tends to be a strong, syrupy sweet mix. I ordered a ceramic container of this, and was pleasantly surprised when I received it. It is slated as having aloeswood and sandalwood, while its name is a phrase meaning “the first bird warbles of spring” in japanese. Although slated as having aloeswood in the ingredients, I was initially confronted with overtones/base note of sweet apricot, with a background note of talcum powder and sandalwood. After the initial burn in on charcoal in a traditional koro, (and slight heat increase), the overtones faded to a more woody, sweet and bitter sandalwood, and the apricot faded into the background. Overall I believe this to be a very approachable nerikoh that will definitely appeal to those who love sweet incense.