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 🙂

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.

Lamb’s Breath Incense by Aluwwah

When I think of lambs I think of sweet, gentle, soft, unhurried animals with fleecy white coats, kind, dark eyes and moist, glistening noses. They are small yet sturdy, soft and tractable, fluffy yet compact and very content and sociable. Aluwwah’s Lamb’s Breath incense has many of the same traits. It’s sweet and warm and makes me want to bury my nose in it’s deep, floeuve-y fuzziness. It exudes a moist thickness that feels very embracing and cuddly, and a strong ambery goldeness makes it smell as though it glows. The thing that gets me most, though, is that it’s an unusual blend- I’ve never smelled anything quite like it. It’s sweet without being cloying, resinous without being sticky and spicy without being sharp. It’s a balanced blend of florals, woods, earth and spices- one in which each note retains it’s unique identity yet the blend is far more than a sum of its ingredients.
Smelling this comfy blend makes me feel very relaxed so I’m going to guess it contains a high grade of sandalwood; vanilla may account for a portion of its sweetness; a downy, powdery fluffiness could be musk, and a sweet, dry spiciness, (patchouli?), makes the herbal aspect seem alive and vital. I smell an almost mineral, metallic zinginess that’s so shimmery it’s fizzy. A rich moistness and licorice-y succulence make me think of toffee-colored tobacco leaves that are juicy and squeezable, and an elusive floral delicacy brings to mind a newly-formed blossom opening its first, pristine petals . The earthy scent of henna completes the composition and a cedar-like dryness prevents it from ever becoming overpowering or heavy.
Aluwaah’s Lamb’s Breath would be a lovely compliment to a bowl filled with pomanders, or an arrangement of pine boughs and bayberries. Grab a glass of mulled wine, flock around the hearth and light up some Lamb’s Breath to usher in the New Year! May each of you have a Happy and Dream-fulfilling 2012, replete with much joy, love, beauty, hope and, of course, many intoxicating moments adrift in your favorite incenses and perfumes!