Hey, hello, greetings. Welcome to the fourth installment of Burn This, our incense review series where we introduce you to our incense collections and their many delights. This month we’re debuting Chië, a new collection from Nippon Kodo, who has been our Japanese incense purveyor of choice for many years.
Nippon Kodo is well-established as a maker of incense for Buddhist ceremony, and in Buddhist tradition, the word chie 智慧 signifies the wisdom and hence ability to see things as they really are—to recognize the truth in its purest form. With this in mind, the Chië line introduces us to the potent fragrances of ceremonial incense traditions from around the world. Using resinous aromatics culled from their native sources—Copal from Peru, Frankincense from Somalia, Sandalwood from Australia—they're taken to powder form, with no synthetic oils or bamboo core, for a strikingly potent burn.
For centuries humans have burned the wood and resins of fragrant trees for mediation, prayer, and purification. You may recognize some “Trees of God” already: Sandalwood, Agarwood, and Palo Santo. For many, these ancient rituals have continued into modern times without a hitch. Others may not be burning pyres to the gods or submitting to spiritual fumigations, but we’ll still clear the air with a smoking bundle of rosemary or light a stick of incense in the morning to kick start the day’s work. An intention to get through the day or end it on a good note.
The Chië collection includes nine scents inspired by these sacred trees, and we picked four to try. Read on for our honest review of each, from scent notes and first impressions to burn style and atmosphere.
The first thing we notice about Chië incense is the packaging. Each scent is packaged in a chic rectangular box, with minimalist branding and muted, stone-like colorways that correspond to each scent: grape purple for Agarwood, peach orange for Sandalwood, and so on. A calligraphy “C” written in a Zen single stroke style depicts a circle (or enso), representing the infinite, the beginning and the end of everything. The intention here appears to be a reminder that an ancient practice can still work for a modern lifestyle.
On the practical side, sliding open the box feels like opening a matchbox of very long, luxurious matches. Each box also includes a chubby ceramic incense holder made in Seto, a 100-year-old Japanese kiln. This lets you turn the plate of your choice into a burner (just make sure it's fire safe and not too precious to suffer an occasional scorch mark).
The serene packaging design lends itself well to gifting, and feels like the kind of elegant gift that looks expensive without breaking the bank.
So you get 30 sticks in a box and according to Nippon Kodo, the burn time per stick is anywhere from 45 to 70 minutes (hello Frankincense!) depending on which scent you choose. As with most Japanese incense, Chië incense is a compressed powder stick with no wooden core, which makes for a much less smokey burn. Chië’s burn style differentiates itself in that the scent is potent, making it excellent for large spaces or small rooms with open windows. We found that most of the scents we sampled roughly hit the 45-50 minute mark.
Now let's get to the good stuff...
Our first scent is Agarwood, a tree native to Indonesia that’s auspiciously known as “the wood of the gods.” When the bark becomes damaged, it begins to form a resin (known in Japanese as jinkoh 沈香) that produces a distinct woodsy aroma. This resin is collected and made into the incense we’re sampling today. [Editor's note: Agarwood, also called aloeswood, is synonymous with Oud!]
Right out of the box, I can tell that Agarwood will be a new favorite. Its woodsy notes remind me of musky fragrances already in my collection. I’m partial to this scent profile, and this is one box I can see myself storing in my drawers for fresh smelling socks and pants. I take a stick, light it, and wait.
The scent takes a minute to reach me but once it does I feel like I’ve entered a wooden temple. When I traveled to Japan last autumn I spend a lot of time exploring Buddhist temples made of wood (the Todaiji Temple especially comes to mind). Incense was burned constantly in there, but usually the doors were kept open and the breeze that passed through diluted the strong scent of religious incense. Chië’s Agarwood transports me back to these wooden structures, when you’ve been inside for a minute and you realize the temple has probably been there for centuries, and will hopefully continue long after you’re gone. It’s a powerful moment, and a nice-smelling one, too.
When I open the box and take a whiff, the word "bracing" comes to mind. Hinoki cypress by a winter waterfall combined with billowing sandalwood and enigmatic palo santo. The fragrance is potently herbaceous and sweetly floral all at once, like no bad smells or bad vibes will dare remain in the wake of its cleansing smoke. It smells so strong in the box, I'm a little nervous to light it up.
Purification has a delayed reaction in me: at first I don’t smell much of anything, and then I realize that I’ve become enveloped in its aroma without realizing. I soon discover that Purification has layers: first you get the invigorating cypress scent of hinoki, followed by a woodsy palo santo, and finished off with grounding sandalwood. Each ingredient has its own moment in time, before it moves aside to let the next one take its turn. The process repeats over and over, like a turning wheel, and I start to ponder the experience of purification itself: the fact that it’s not just one action but many separate actions, repeated over and over, that have the power to clear a bad energy.
The scent of Purification is stronger in the box than it is burning. For my fragrance preferences, I found it pretty pungent, falling on the stronger side of the Chië scents reviewed. I’d recommend lighting it in a room, opening a window, and letting it do its thing while you cook dinner or read a book somewhere else.
Frankincense is probably the “spiritual” incense I am most familiar with, having attended many a church service with my parents when I was young. This was the subtler of the scents I sampled, and immediately brought me back to sitting in a pew contemplating my life’s purpose while I waited for my dad to finish his monthly confession. There’s a peace that lingers in empty stone churches that helps you think clearly, and I think the scent is part of that ambiance.
Chië’s version of frankincense feels fresh and invigorating. Using a resin from the Boswellia Carterii tree, the scent delivers an aroma of citrus and spice. What I notice most, however, is the physicality of the smoke itself. The smoke begins as a taut straight line that follows the line of the stick, before widening into a ribbon-like plume. It’s visually very beautiful and holds your attention in place. I can’t help but think it would be a perfect incense for mediation, prayer, or just sitting with your thoughts in silence. Your senses are engaged—the scent puts you in a certain state of mind and the smoke plume gives your attention has somewhere to focus on—allowing you to think a bit more deeply without getting enmeshed in the distracting anxieties of everyday life.
I light this incense thinking I know what sandalwood is. If you’ve ever lingered at the perfume counter of a department store you probably know what sandalwood is: woodsy, leathery, musky. But this version feels different. I smell maize corn? Dry sand? That can’t be right. But it is. The aroma is rustic but gentle, smokier than others at first light, though the incense itself has minimal smoke. The best way I can describe it is that it smells like taking a walk in a dry climate, somewhere like a mesa or even a ranch where the horses are long gone. Once the stick burns down I can’t help but feel a little disappointment that it’s over. I’m intrigued. I can imagine lighting this in the morning before my day begins, ushering me from the dream life into reality. Have I found my favorite from the bunch? Looks like it.
Thanks for reading! Hopefully this incense sampling was helpful for you. Chië is made with serious resin ingredients, and if you've ever wanted to get into burning raw resin but tried and failed miserably (or just can't burn something so strong where you are), this line may be for you. You can shop the entire Chië line plus our full selection of incense, home fragrance, and burners here. Smell ya later!