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.