I have long been fascinated by traditional Japanese culture, pretty much everything about it. But if there’s one thing Japanese that beats my love for mochi (“once on the lips, forever on the hips!” as they say.. ugh), its the Japanese incense tradition. And within that, of course, the agarwood tradition.
I am no expert in the Japanese agarwood tradition, but given my line of work I have naturally had a fair share of agarwood exposure; and of course wood from all the countries that the Japanese Rikkoku-Gomi system covers.
So in this blog post, I would like to share my personal thoughts (not in the capacity of a self-appointed expert, but rather guided by my nose, experience, and what I’ve learned), as well as share how Agar Aura will be attempting to (almost) implement this in upcoming products.
(please notice the “almost” in brackets, you’ll realize why below…)
If you’re totally new to the Japanese system, here’s a crash course:
1) Rikkoku-Gomi means “Six Countries, Five Tastes”
2) The six woods are: Kyara, Rakoku, Sasora, Manaka, Sumatora, and Manaban
3) The five tastes are: Sweet, Spicy, Sour, Salty, Bitter
4) IMPORTANT: these tastes do NOT correspond to the typical vocabulary used by myself in oils’ descriptions, or what you generally find in oil reviews. A more familiar interpretation would be:
– Sweet = like honey or sugar
– Sour = fruity, like plums, nectarines, and berries
– Spicy = like ‘fiery spices’ such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc
– Salty = oceanic, this one is straightforward
– Bitter = medicinal (NOT in a bandaid-like way a la Montale).
And of course, in the agarwood context these actually refer to smells and not oral tastes.
I will now go through each of the six wood types, share what I have thus far gathered from the Japanese tradition, share my personal thoughts, and then tell you what Agar Aura’s plans are for each type (in the form of our upcoming “Jinkoh” series).
1- Japanese tradition: Unanimously accepted to come from central and southern Vietnam, and most likely Cambodia as well. Predominantly identified as bitter (i.e. medicinal), and often as spicy (i.e. like fiery spices) as well.
2- My thoughts: Interestingly, the wood itself is indeed the most bitter when tasted orally. As for the aroma, I do certainly get a bit of a herbal medicine vibe, but not balmy. Mostly, I get aroma notes of honey, vanilla, sweet condensed milk, a clove-like spiciness without the clove-iness of clove, and most importantly: an ‘oudiness’ that is un-categorizable based on regional scent signatures.
3- Agar Aura’s plans: there never has been, and there never will be a distillation of certified genuine Kyara, because of the mind-boggling cost. You’re looking at five-figures per gram of oil.
I wasn’t born with a diamond spoon in my mouth, so instead of doing a kyara distillation, we will offer the next best thing. By using genuine 100% wild Vietnamese agarwood, from the same region in Vietnam as the source of most certified Kyaras, of the most balanced sweet-bitter-oudy profile wood, and using precisely designed distillation techniques to match the aroma of kyara as closely as possible…
Nothing that’s non-Kyara will ever be exactly like Kyara. Scientifically, and also aromatically. But by tweaking the distillation process with care and deliberation, you can capture many of the scent facets. Distillation scheduled to start in late July/early August.
PS: Out of respect for Kyara, I will not use the term ‘kyara’, but the product name will be indicative of its Vietnamese origin.
(now you see what I meant by “almost” above…? Sorry, but we can’t produce a genuine Kyara oil, unless someone is willing to donate $5,000,000 for a true Kyara distillation).
1- Japanese tradition: Overwhelming consensus is Thailand, and some also suggest Laos.
2- My thoughts: Predominantly identified as sweet (i.e. honeyed), spicy (i.e. like fiery spices), and sometimes bitter (i.e. medicinal). While today the most prized region of Thailand for agarwood is south-central and south-eastern due to its closeness to the prized Cambodian agarwood aroma, I firmly believe that the source of Rakoku wood is far-south Thailand. The reason is that south-central and south-eastern Thai agarwood has blatantly fruity (i.e. ‘sour’ in the Japanese tradition) scent notes, whereas the the Rakoku wood found in Rikkoku-Gomi sets is not fruity. It is exactly as described in the Japanese tradition, and exactly like the aroma of agarwood found in far-south Thailand (Ranong, Pattani, Krabi, etc.)
3- Agar Aura’s plans: I’m super excited! My hunters Naseat and Sarit harvested some remarkable wild-harvested wood from Pattani that is remarkably similar to the Rakoku profile. Distillation style: Pencerahan. Stay tuned for Rakoku Jinkoh!
1- Japanese tradition: believe it or not, almost unanimously accepted to be from Assam, India! Hard to believe, eh? Predominantly identified as sweet (i.e. honeyed), spicy (i.e. like fiery spices), and sometimes bitter (i.e. medicinal). Note how dramatically different that sounds from typical Indian oud oils, and how similar to Agar Aura’s non-barnyard Indian offerings in the past.
The highest quality of Sasora is often mistaken for… KYARA! Even harder to believe, eh! Its true.
2- My thoughts: I have to agree with the Japanese folks here. True (wild, old-growth) Assamese wood has a coolness and a tart berry fruitiness (which is precisely how the Japanese masters describe Sasora, although they call fruity ‘sour’). Most agarwood coming ‘from’ Assam these days is either NOT really from Assam (but rather from other regions in India piggy-backing the fame of Assamese agarwood, or from young Assamese/non-Assamese planted trees), and I can pretty much guarantee that almost none of you has smelled real, wild, OLD GROWTH Assamese agarwood. Eeeeeeyeah, they all claim they’re selling genuine Assam agarwood. Uuuuuuuh nope, most of them are full of it. Now, for the record, I do love me some non-Assamese Indian agarwood as well (Nagaland, anyone?)
3- Agar Aura’s plans: It took us TEN MONTHS of non-stop running around to finally land a tiny amount of 100% genuine, wild, very old growth Assamese wood. And let me tell you, this wood was super special. Not only in terms of the aroma, but even the visual aspect corroborated the Japanese description (brown streaks on yellow, as opposed to the common brown-on-white and black-on-brown Indian agarwood). Distilled using a combination of different styles: Berkilau and Ahmwei-Do.
For what its worth: this is from the same distiller who crafted delicious ouds like our Mokokchung Oud, Royal Assam and so on, but this is the FIRST oud that the distiller’s wife actually loves.
Watch out for Sasora Jinkoh, the most unique Indian oud distillation in history!
1- Japanese tradition: Unanimously accepted to be from far-west peninsular Malaysia, the State of Melaka to be precise. Identified as a perfect balance of all five tastes, and some say slightly leaning on the salty (i.e. oceanic) side.
2- My thoughts: WOW! I have to agree with the Japanese folks again. This is spot on. Now in general, I have always maintained that Malaysian ouds are the most ‘oudy’ and fyi, the most loved, most popular, and fastest selling oud oils on Agar Aura are Malaysian oils. But west-coast Malaysian agarwood takes the cake. Everything is perfectly balanced. From other regions of Malaysia, agarwood can have strong suggestions of spices, or florals, or fruits, and so on. But west-coast agarwood, no sirree, its straight oudy goudness (see what I did there).
3- Agar Aura’s plans: Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. Okay, so instead of using wood from Melaka, we used wood from another west-coast State: Perak. Now before you condemn me, allow me to make my case:
You see, with all due respect to the great noses of the Japanese masters, the whole Rikkoku-Gomi classification is frankly not very precise. For example, when they classify ‘Rakoku’ as Thai agarwood… ask yourself, does all Thai agarwood smell the same? Of course the answer is, no. Is all Vietnamese agarwood kyara? Of course not.
Getting back to Manaka… Actually, before that, let’s go to Japan first. Once upon a time, a back-broken agarwood merchant walked into Kyoto. He unravelled his wares. The Japanese incense master tested the wood, and was impressed. When inquired, the merchant told the master that the wood was from Manaka (Melaka, Malaysia).
Okay so NOW let’s go to Malaysia. Within Malaysia, there are various regions, and within the different regions there are agarwood trees yielding different aromas. These trees obviously do not conform to man-made State borders. So its very likely (in fact, probability = 100%) that trees of the same scent profile can be and are found in different states of Malaysia.
We used our fantastic haul from the Royal Belum jungle of Perak State (see the wood close up here). The aroma of this wood and the Rikkoku-Gomi description match perfectly. I mean, just see my thoughts on the aroma of the agarwood in this video (and skip to 4:40 if you’ve already watched this before). Its a dry woody perfectly-balanced aroma, quite unlike any of our previous Malay oils. I even make a reference to Sumatran agarwood, which is salty (but we’ll get to that later, below). Which is EXACTLY what you get, when you combine the two descriptions of the Japanese tradition: (1) a perfect balance of all 5 tastes, and (2) some suggesting a slight salty tinge.
Distilled 100% Berkilau style, because everything is so perfectly balanced, it was worth it to amplify everything to the point of bust, without making it smell weird. But we did one thing different: unlike Berkilau which was hybrid copper+steel extracted, this is a pure copper extraction, to really makes the oil ‘bloom’, and to eliminate any possibility of saltiness in the scent profile.
The result: OUFFFFFFFFF!
You do not wanna miss Manaka Jinkoh!
1- Japanese tradition: Unanimously accepted to be from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Identified as sour (i.e. fruity), salty (i.e. oceanic), and bitter (i.e. medicinal).
2- My thoughts: Okay, I completely agree with salty. Bitter (i.e. medicinal), sure, somewhat. But sour (i.e. fruity), no way. That’s where little ol’ me has to humbly disagree with the Japanese masters. To date, I have never, ever, ever smelled fruity Sumatran agarwood – neither in Rikkoku-Gomi sets, nor otherwise. To me, Sumatran agarwood is primarily sweet, with dominant notes of honey, sugarcane juice, and a dry woody/papyrus character – almost like Cypriol. Auxiliary notes include oceanic/ambergris, silky resin, and sometimes (rarely) a subtle suggestion of grapeskin – the only thing that could qualify as ‘sour’/fruity, but certainly not the dominant character of the aroma that the Japanese descriptions make it out to be.
3- Agar Aura’s plans: The best Sumatran agarwood comes from North Sumatra, most notably the jungles of Aceh, Sidikalang, and Barus. They have the finest balance of scent notes, very rich and concentrated, but smooth and refined.
So we decided on North Sumatra, and using a hybrid copper + steel setup. Straight steel would have produced a more accurate scent profile according to my nose, but I wanted to pay tribute to the nearly-unanimous agreement in Japanese texts on the presence of fruity notes, hence the inclusion of copper to amplify the more colorful, fruity nuances.
Stay tuned for Sumatora Jinkoh…
1- Japanese tradition: there is a lot of confusion around the source of this one, but most suggest the south-western Indian region of Malabar. There is a lot of conflict in the scent description as well, being identified by different experts with all flavors except sour (i.e. fruity).
2- My thoughts: I too have a hard time with this one. My personal conviction is that when it was first canonized in the Rikkoku-Gomi classification, it must have been a unique south Indian Gyrinops specimen from Malabar. However, I once had an agarwood supplier from that region over at my home, and he informed me that he himself has seen at least 5 different varieties of agarwood, all being very different from one another. Geographically, its a small region, but its packed with all these various species and sub-species. My gut feeling is that this large variety of species is the reason for the inconsistency of the scent profile of Manaban wood in Rikkoku-Gomi sets obtained from different Japanese incense houses, and also the conflicts found in the scent descriptions in different Japanese sources.
And why do I think the original Manaban was Gyrinops? If you’ve smelled the aroma of burning Gyrinops agarwood chips (e.g. from Papua, Sri Lanka, Sumbawa, or elsewhere), you’ll realize its THE most vibrant, richest, and most ‘explosive’ of all the agarwood types. Gyrinops is to Aquilaria, what Indian cuisine is to Japanese cuisine. Does that make sense? Japanese cuisine (and in fact, virtually anything Japanese) is all about tasteful minimalism. Indian cuisine is the opposite for most folks, its a whole lot of everything. To non-Indians, for example, Indian food has too much coriander, too much cumin, too much garlic, and is too hot… basically too much of everything.
Getting back to agarwood now… so perhaps you can now see why I think the original Manaban was south-Indian Gyrinops. Its packed with a ton of flavors. And this theory is further strengthened by the fact that the Japanese texts pretty much unanimously criticize Manaban as being course and unrefined. Make sense now? Think Sushi, now think Biryani. Think Mochi, and then think Ras Malai. The ‘taste’ (i.e. the scent) of Gyrinops is caloric overload. So it makes sense that it caught the Japanese masters by surprise, and it was too much for their minimalistic sensibilities.
As a side note: I *LOVE* Gyrinops, it is probably the favorite species of agarwood for distillers who love to make oud oils in an artistic manner, because its like oil paints: the possibilities of genres and the effects you can achieve are limitless. On the flip side, its the most nightmarish species for typical distillers because it takes skill to harness the potential, and its very sensitive to changes in the distillation parameters. Bad Gyrinops oil can smell like any of the following: rancid butter, rancid olive oil, a chicken coop, wet dog fur, rotten seaweed, and the list goes on…
3- Agar Aura’s plan: Sadly, none at the moment. Aside from the fact that its impossible for me to know with certainty what the original Manaban was supposed to be, its also quite difficult to obtain wood from this region. The trees are there, no doubt, but hard to acquire.
Who knows… maybe one day.
As a side note: Malabar agarwood was one of the most prized varieties in the medieval Arabian perfume tradition. It was called Samandari (most likely from the Sanskrit word ‘Samudra’), meaning ‘from the land by the sea’. And as an additional side note, I’m sure the name of Sumatra island is also derived from the same Sanskrit root.
So there you have it folks.
Agar Aura will be presenting 4 of the 6 scents of the Rikkoku-Gomi, and now you can see why I had said ‘almost’ above. No kyara (but we will try to get as close as possible to the aroma), and no Manaban.
But I’m sure you are all as excited as I am about the other 4 (+1).