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zuko: body incense

Given the recent discussion on oud and agarwood, I thought it might by informative to discuss an unusual kind of perfume style from Japan: zuko. Zuko means "body incense" in Japanese. Instead of being burned, it's rubbed on the skin. It is used primarily for religious purification, or for tasks that require mental concentration, and is associated with Shingon, the esoteric form of Buddhism practiced in Japan.

So this is the form of incense I tried recently, Shoyeido's Johin. The word Johin 上品 means "refined", and is made from the Chinese characters for "superior", 上, and "stuff", 品. This refers to the grade of materials used in producing the incense. It's not expensive and only costs about 10 dollars for about 15 grams, being the least expensive in Shoyeido's line.


I've only used this a few times, being curious about the effect it would have being used instead of burning incense in meditation. The scent is actually reminiscent of Pinaud's Bay Rum (lots of clove and cinnamon), but it has a strong camphor note up front, giving it a medicinal character. In fact, this perfume is fairly potent, only requiring tiny pinches to be detectable. However, unlike modern perfumes, it doesn't have alot of projection, and it's really meant for personal use, and not the enjoyment of others. When it "dries down", there is more harmony and integration in the scents, and it just has a clean, spicy aroma.

Rather than strong wood notes, I get hints of patchouli. The smell is reminiscent of a Japanese incense I have tried, Koukando Sennenko, which is a gentle, less-smoke sandalwood-patchouli-spice type meant to be an everyday type incense. These kinds of subtle incenses are very popular in Japan.


There's also hints of a musky, marine note, perhaps there is a small amount of onycha in the mixture. One reviewer, perhaps unfamiliar with Asian incense, compared it to B.O., and while I think that perception is a bit off, it does have a faint musky heaviness beyond the cinnamon and clove spiciness.

So this incense is used primarily for spiritual purposes, and not usual perfume use. So how does it perform? Well, the fragrance is frankly a bit jarring to me far as incenses go, because it's so intensely medicinal. But the incense mixture does have the effect of being calming and centering, so I would say it fulfills the intended function. I am curious now to try a more expensive form of zuko.
 
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I tried Shoyeido's Tokusen today... the scent is similar to Johin, but different. This one has more aromatic woods. It smells similar to pumpkin spice, but it has sweet, honey-like, buttery, creamy basenotes. Sort of like Mrs. Butterworth pancake syrup.

The basenotes are extremely rich, similar to onycha, but I don't pick up any overt marine notes. Depending on how onycha is processed (drying in the sun to deodorize it), it can smell more or less fishy. This could also be down to the grade of agarwood used, since some have a sweet, animalic, even marine scent.

I actually found this incense to be the least helpful in meditation owing to the heaviness. I think this might make an interesting fragrance viz a viz perfume, as it has a similar scent profile to the popular "gourmand" or food fragrances now days. I found the richness a bit distracting, actually. But I'll have to give it another go tomorrow, in smaller amounts (which is hard to do as this stuff is so potent).
 
After doing more reflection, I believe the unusual lactonic (smooth, honey-like, milky), salty, marine note I am smelling is just due to the combination of high resin aromatic woods, such as sandalwood. I now believe I have smelled this in aged, weathered Indian sandalwood before. I burned this type of incense, and burning the incense produces a different fragrance as compared to wearing body incense, so I did not immediately make this association. But carefully listening to actual sticks of incense, by sniffing the unburned sticks, has clued me in.

After sampling Shoyeido's Gokuhin body incense (which means "extra fine stuff"), I believe this may be the "Goldilocks" of the three, being somewhere in between Johin and Tokusen in character. The impression I get is a woodsy spice type Oriental fragrance. There are some clingy sandal/agarwood resinous, lactonic notes, but it's balanced by clove and cinnamon, and other spice notes. The price is just right, too.

I believe I can conclude now that Johin and Gokuhin are the best values of the bunch. Tokusen is an intense experience of honeyed, lactonic warm woods, but I believe it works no better than the less expensive offerings And if you just want a warm, woody fragrance to wear as a perfume or use as an ingredient, you can buy actual agarwood and sandalwood mixtures fairly inexpensively.

The clinging quality of real, high quality sandalwood is tremendous. It will stay around for hours and hours, and resists washing away, even with soap.
 
Great stuff @FireDragon76!
I love Japanese incense and use it during meditation frequently. I also enjoy modern styles for scenting the home. Temple style incenses use only pure botanical ingredients for their scents; while modern/home incense often incorporates perfume oils. Their is some overlap but sort of different intended purposes. Traditional styles used at zen temples have their roots in Chinese medicine. Camphor and cinnamon are two common notes along with either a sandalwood or aloeswood base. Reiryo Koh, by Kunmeido, is commonly used at Soto zen temples and has the distinctive medical scent of the reiryo root.
I think that zukoh is primarily made for ceremonial and religious purposes. Some zen monks use zukoh to scent their robes. I think it smells lovely but is decidedly in the traditional style.
I would be curious to know if anyone makes a modern style body powder. Some of the perfume oils used in high quality modern incenses are really exquisite and could be very nice as a cologne.
 
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Great stuff @FireDragon76!
I love Japanese incense and use it during meditation frequently. I also enjoy modern styles for scenting the home. Temple style incenses use only pure botanical ingredients for their scents; while modern/home incense often incorporates perfume oils. Their is some overlap but sort of different intended purposes. Traditional styles used at zen temples have their roots in Chinese medicine. Camphor and cinnamon are two common notes along with either a sandalwood or aloeswood base. Reiryo Koh, by Kunmeido, is commonly used at Soto zen temples and has the distinctive medical scent of the reiryo root.
I think that zukoh is primarily made for ceremonial and religious purposes. Some zen monks use zukoh to scent their robes. I think it smells lovely but is decidedly in the traditional style.
I would be curious to know if anyone makes a modern style body powder. Some of the perfume oils used in high quality modern incenses are really exquisite and could be very nice as a cologne.
Alot of the smaller sticks are burned in peoples homes in front of butsudan ("Buddha shelves" for those that don't know), that is my understanding. Some people use more modern style incenses for that purpose- cherry blossoms and green tea seem very common; being artificially fragranced, they are relatively inexpensive.

The best modern style incense I have tried has been Nippon Kodo's Seiun Chrysanthemum. It's reminiscent of chrysanthemum, but it has a more modern perfume type accord, which comes across as very elegant and sophisticated, without being heavy. It's also a low smoke incense.
 
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