Dhoop Factory / Lawudo, Abhisek, Ganden, Alpine, Sauna Sticks (Vajrapani), Lhasa, Medicine Buddha, Agar 31, Akanishta

More than any other, Tibetan or Nepalese incense is probably one of the most difficult areas to explore. The cheaper brands are analagous to charcoal punks, although usually with incense like this it’s usually cheap cedarwood that acts as the blank and I’ve encountered companies (Sonam for instance) whose different incenses seem like slight variations on the same stick. Sticks like this are generally a waste of money, although not much fortunately.

Essence of the Ages (link on left) probably has the largest variety of Tibetan and Nepalese incense in the US and as far as I can tell by a quick browse, appear to be the only online US company that sells Kathmandu’s Dhoop Factory incense. This line of eight incenses, three of which only slightly vary from another scent, is, in my so-far, limited Nepalese experience, my favorite.

Dhoop Factory incenses can be sampled in a gift box or purchased in two sizes, except for Agar 31 in one size. I’ve owned the gift box and large boxes of all scents except for Lhasa. It has to be said that the packaging on most if not all of these boxes is exquisite and eye catching. The gift box follows the Lhasa motif with blue paper and swirling drawings of dragons (?) and such. Ganden uses a Bhutanese fabric-covered box that strikes me as somewhat reggae in colors (and is very nice to look at). Medicine Buddha is packaged roughly similar to Lhasa but with longer sticks and a midnight blue motif, very beautiful.

The one thing I can’t state for sure is whether sticks vary in size between small and large boxes. Medicine Buddha, Agar 31 and Ganden are all longer outside of the gift box then in. The others are all fairly short, especially for Tibetan or Nepalese sticks.

Lawudo is primarily created from rhododendron and juniper and I am unfamiliar with the scent of rhododendron, but whatever it does to this incense is rather magical. This is a perfect example of how herbal the Dhoop Factory incenses are, that is, this is incense that is probably the closest to smell a combination of fresh herbs. I don’t get the peaty aroma that’s part of the catalog description, but I generally think of Islay single malts when I think peat, but that’s probably as much the iodine as anything else. Nothing like that here, just a very fresh multi-herbal scent that’s rather delightful, if comparatively generic to some of the other lines.

What I consider Lawudo’s “partner” is Abhishek, which is apparently similar to Lawudo but adds gugul. The description mentions gugul as being frankincense, but I always thought it was closer to myrrh and an entity in its own right (like raw or cheaper myrrh, gum gugul can strike me as very off at times). In any case its presence here enhances the “Lawudo base” with those somewhat sweet resiny notes, an almost perfect blend with the herbs. Abhisek and Lawudo are both very relaxing and while I wouldn’t say burning incense is equivalent to medical assistance, the claim that Abhisek reduces stress and anxiety is something I can sympathize with, it’s one of several in this line I burn regularly late at night when cooling down.

Ganden I’ve mentioned in my best incense lists recently, it might be the finest incense in the line. Many Tibetan incenses can be smoke heavy and almost suffocating in presence, Ganden is on the other end, light, airy, sagey and subtly complex, leaving a bright fresh energy in its wake. Ganden is supposedly a sage or sage relative, but it’s a lighter and airier sage than one finds in cooking. Definitely of the “air” element.

Alpine was the first Dhoop Factory line I tried, being at the left end of the gift box. It won me over with its similarity to the scents found up in the Sierra Nevadas with all the evergreen resins and herbs involved. It instantly says “campfire.” And like the small print it is indeed invigorating, I tried burning this at night once and found it too stimulating. In the morning it’s perfect, an effect I can imagine even stronger when the seasons turn to fall and winter.

Given a mix up, I doubt I could tell the difference between Alpine and Sauna Sticks, the only difference, apparently, being the addition of eucalyptus oil. I’m familiar with eucalyptus but it strikes me as faint in Sauna. I tend to lean more to Alpine than Sauna and I’m not sure if it’s the light blue box of Alpine that does it or if intuitively the eucayptus note in Sauna isn’t as inviting. I know that when friends of mine tried this they said it reminded them of barbeque along with the campfire and since this is an incense created mostly for larger rooms it’s possible it’s just a little more intense than Alpine. The catalog description says it’s the strongest smelling incense in the range and that strikes me as right on, if barely.

Lhasa is the blend I had the most trouble with. It’s a reddish stick with an herbal element that I can’t place and may remind noses of rather off scents like old laundry or worse. I haven’t decided to this point if there’s just an adjustment for the western nose to what this herb is, but in Lhasa I can barely deal with it. Essence of the Ages also distribute a Tibetan incense called White Pigeon that shares the same herb, but in that case it works better with some of the other notes. I thought it might be asafoetida, but I think that’s probably even worse.

If it wasn’t for the thicker stick, Medicine Buddha would be pretty difficult to tell from its obvious cousin Agar 31. Both of these really do seem to have some agar resin in there somewhere, or at least I pick up a tangy, slightly spicy note that reminds me of other Japanese and Korean aloeswood incenses. Like Lawudo and Abhishek, these also claim to have insomnia-reducing qualities and like those two (and Ganden for that matter) I find these perfect for a late nighter, although since they’re a bit pricier (especially Medicine Buddha) I burn them less often. I go back and forth on whether I prefer Agar 31 or Medicine Buddha, their qualities are so similar. At times they seem insular and quiet, but at others the aroma can be really impressive and distracting in a good way.

[10/5] I was pleasantly surprised to find Dhoop Factory’s Akanishta incense as a gift in my last Essence order, especially as I found out about it only days after the rest of this article. Fortunately it’s rather simple to describe and does just what it says on the cover, a mixture of sandalwood and cypress with very little else. I get both ingredients at the same strength, almost like a Tibetan version of a Japanese hinoka incense. Not a complex stick, but the ingredients are definitely quality.

Fortunately Dhoop Factory have a very nice gift set to try the full range, otherwise I’d probably recommend Alpine, Ganden, Abhisek and either Agar 31 or Medicine Buddha as starters. If you’re new to the Nepalese, this is the place to start. All ranges are maybe slightly more expensive than your average roll of Tibetan/Nepalese/Bhutanese incense, but the quality is much better.


New Incense Review Index Page

Right next to the About link above, I’ve added an index to various incense reviews that I’ll update and add to over time. It’s pretty small at the moment, as I’ve only added pages that featured more indepth and focused appraisals. I’ll still post informally about various new items and such, but only when I tackle a full line or company, will they go there. Feedback welcome as always, if there’s anything else you’d like to see on that page for ease of access, please let me know.

Wood Chip Heaters – A Comparison

I’m working on moving part of my incense appreciation to heating wood chips and resins rather than using straight charcoal or makko trails, so I’ve been doing a bit of shopping on heaters. Beth at Essence of the Ages gave me this information, which clarified the issues very quickly and she kindly agreed to let me share it here. All three heaters in discussion can be found here.

The Shoyeido portable heater is nice. As the name states, very portable, no mess, and allows for an intimate meditation. Always stays cool on the outside, to the touch. Drawbacks are the heat up time for the charcoal, cannot be used with resins or raw herbs ( both will fall/melt through the screen as is) and temperature is unadjustable. Works well for pressed incense and wood. 

Electric Udd Warmer: Very nice but gets VERY hot. Resins tend to get too hot and smoke. Works well for wood chips. Some of my customers have told me that they have purchased or made, a dimmer switch for the warmer so that the heat becomes adjustable. As is, it is either on or off. Hot or cold. Has a red indicator light to let you know the unit is on. 

Shoyeido electric warmer: Drawback is that it is very pricey but pretty much comes with a lifetime warranty. Sorry if this comes across as my favorite, but it really is. Temperature is adjustable so it works beautifully with woods or resins. Comes with a mica plate for the woods and a small silver bowl for the resins. Has a red indicator light to let you know the unit is on. Also has a ‘tip switch’ so the unit will shut off if tipped over (very stable and I have never had a problem with a roll over.) I have one on my desk and I love it! Well worth the price, in my opinion.

Nippon Kodo / Yume-No-Yume (Dream of Dream) / Bamboo Leaf, Butterfly, Fern (Discontinued), Fiddlehead Fern, Goldfish, Horse-Tail Plant (Discontinued), Japanese Morning Glory, Maple Leaf, Pink Plum Flower, Whooping Crane)

Nippon Kodo seem to be the largest Japanese incense company, especially when looking at all their various lines and collaborations. From their very inexpensive Morning Star Line all the way to the Most Exceptional Quality kyara line, the company has a wealth of different incenses, being one of the few Japanese companies to also have a bamboo stick line. In fact only Shoyeido has a similar wide range in styles and tastes.

As incense is generally a niche interest in the United States and usually allied with new age shops, there tends to be strong trends towards smokeless incense and all natural incense. From research, I think it’s very difficult to tell where a company diverges from using all natural ingredients to using organic if not entirely natural ingredients all the way to the art of perfumery where synthetic oils and ingredients are often taken for granted. Having wandered too often into the wake of mainstream and heavily synthetic colognes and perfumes, it’s easy to get turned off by the idea.

As far as I can tell one of the identifying features of an incense that has a healthy share of synthetic ingredients is how strong a stick smells without burning it. Natural ingredients by their lonesome don’t stand out very often from Japanese sticks, especially sandalwood and aloeswood heavy sticks, which is a far cry from sampling fresh Indian masalas. Nippon Kodo’s Yume-No-Yume line is a good example of an incense whose fresh stick could nearly scent a room without lighting it.

This line is rather elegantly presented for the modern consumer. The gift packs come with incense and a porcelain holder (both also sold separately) that mirrors the packaging art, usually a white background with slight Japanese art that reflects the nature of the incense. Yume-no-yume also comes in both stick and coil form, and while I haven’t tried the coils yet, the scents do seem eminently suited to that form (if maybe too much for smaller rooms). The only thing to watch out for in the packaging is the plastic holder that contains the incense and mini burner, it’s far too easy to cause a spill opening the holder (counterintuitively) the wrong way. Other than that bit of warning that becomes mitigated once you get used to it, I actually really like the packaging.

If I remember correctly, Nippon Kodo’s Fragrance Memories phases certain incenses in and out every so often and I believe they do something similar with this Yume-No-Yume line as I’ve happened across one incense that seems deleted (for now). Currently the line has nine different blends and the least impressive of these incenses is fine indeed.

Pink Plum Flower contains key notes of white plum, red plum and willow leaf bud. This listing of the ingredients will automatically give one the impression there’s something different at work here, as I don’t have a clear idea of what each of these three notes might be like. Like the whole line, the stick is strong and pungent, far more so than any natural Japanese plum flower incenses, most of which I’ve tried have been very mellow and light. In fact that sort of subtlety is what prevents me from being totally behind this blend, it may be the least distinctive blend in the range.

Goldfish is the other incense in the line that doesn’t quite come up the rest. While I’m generally very impressed at the way certain notes are blended for effect, I find it pretty hard to get used to the mint/watermelon/jasmine blend, especially with the whole water motif at work here. I’d almost forgotten jasmine was involved but the other two are quite strong. It’s definitely unusual, but a bit like a symphony not quite in synch.

Butterfly was the first blend I tried and won me over fairly quickly. Here, the key notes, geranium, vanilla and cinnamon all blend almost flawlessly into a scent that reminds me more of amber than any of the other blends. Part of it is not terribly far from Shoyeido’s Horin/Nijo scent, but as a far more perfumed scent this is much stronger in impact and not as subtle.

Bamboo Leaf might be my favorite of the whole line, it appeals to my taste for sweet/green and patchouli-esque hints, despite the fact it doesn’t appear to have patchouli as an ingredient. The green tea is way out in front and surprisingly the yuzu citrus and lemon flower notes don’t really give that much of an impression of a lemon tang to the tea, I get the impression they mostly add to the complexity. This is probably the one I’d start with first if you’re new to the line.

Maple Leaf is another favorite in the line, its hints of persimmon, tonka bean (think vanilla), and ambergris blend perfectly into a rich and somewhat fresh scent. While this doesn’t strike me as quite as amber-like as Butterfly, it’s obviously by ingredient in that general class, but the name of the incense isn’t misleading either, with some hints that will likely remind you of a pancake breakfast, partially due to just how sweet it is.

Whooping Crane might be the least intense blend in the line and you can see why the choice is made. With a winter/snow motif, there’s a very slight mint hint to what is a rather perfectly blended combo of camellia, musk and frankincense. I detect the musk at times, but frankincense can often be a tough call since quality can vary so much. As far as a packaging theme to incense scent relationship, this is about as spot on in the line as it can get. Very sultry.

For fans of fruit scents, you can probably do no better than Fiddlehead Fern, which takes berry intensity into its own level. Lots of fruity incenses strike me as pretty synthetic or unsatisfying, so it’s kind of a jolt to find out that the one I like the best might be the most synthetic in the bunch. Very fruity and rich with the raspberry middle almost, if not quite obliterating the black currant and leaf bud of peach notes. Quite impressive overall.

My second favorite in the line is probably the Morning Glory, partially as it strikes me as YNY’s most exotic blend. The green banana in particular is fabulous and the vetivert gives it most of its Eastern tinge, almost musky and dense. I’m used to bergamot as being slightly citrus-y, but it’s kind of hard to detect here. Above all, the oil scent is just a little unusual and it really adds quite a bit of character, although at the odd time it might seem like everything clashes – only for a moment.

The strangely named Horse-Tail Plant is not likely to win over the western consumer, but it ought to as it’s the weirdest incense in the line. For one thing, it’s the only incense with only two named notes, strawberry flower and oil-seed rape blossoms. Neither name gives any hint to the blend involved here which is almost beyond description. The small print says “Fruity-green. The refreshingly bitter scent of new leaf buds in the moning dew.” Bitter might be the only descriptor that resonates with me, but again it’s a bitter I’ve not quite experienced before.

The deleted line is called Fern, and I assume Fiddlehead Fern was its replacement. You can see why in some ways as other incences in the line capture similar qualities better. The notes are maple leaf, yuzu-citrus and bitter orange and if you scroll up you can see all but the latter note in other blends. Here they don’t seem to blend quite as well, although I may think differently after another sample or two.

Overall, this is a really neat line. Whatever you might consider synthetic, the scents here are clean, smooth and not headache inducing in any way, they’ve certainly changed my mind about the potential of the meeting of perfumery and blending arts. And they’re also very affordable, a package of 12 sticks or 5 coils (without holder) running you about $6-$7. I’m actually looking forward to the next switch out to see what they come up with next.

Best Incense – September 2007

  1. Shoyeido / Premium / Misho – I almost bumped this one from the #1 spot this month – as the incense stock grows, more competition to choose from. Although I’m still a bit fuzzy thinking about this, for me a truly great, premium incense is one that interacts with one’s memory and imagination, it literally reminds one of earlier times, in fact this sort of connection is often part of esoteric work, creating an environment that helps inspire one to get certain results. Misho is still the primary example of an incense that does this to me every time, it reminds me of a lot of earlier trans-consciousness experiences, fires off endorphins, releases serotonin, and brings greater depth to the experience (and I mean all this metaphorically, not literally).  As I wrote in August, “While burning this it’s hard to imagine that there are five other premium incenses in the line that are more expensive and high quality, as this is every bit an incredible and formidable aloeswood blend, extremely heavy on the wood. In fact there’s not a stick in this line that doesn’t grow on you over time. It could be the green color to the stick, but that’s the color I associate with this scent, simply one of the most panoramic and intuition-heavy incenses I’ve ever encountered. “
  2. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko (appears to be the best price) – While the #3 below, Azusa, is in some ways the more immediate and compelling incense, Sho Ran Ko, being Kyukyodo’s most premium scent, has a depth one can only associate with expensive aloeswood incenses, in fact it took me to my third stick to realize just how much aloeswood dominates the scent – in a previous post I thought of it more as a blend. In part it’s because this has quite a bit of floral punch of its own, a sultry, almost musky oil note that interacts with the aloeswood like great jazz musicians jamming. It’s as if in listening to this, one realizes it hasn’t shown all its chops yet and in many ways that’s about the highest praise I can give to an incense (and it does, every stick makes me appreciate it more). It’s a lot of money to put down at once, but at 150 long sticks or so, it’s likely to last a long while with a little self discipline. As it’s new for me, it’s hard not to go for it every time.
  3. Kyukyodo / Azusa – A friend of mine was over the other night and after about an inch of the stick he started saying that it reminded him of something and at the same moment it hit me what it was as well, the now discontinued Mermaid Magickal Arts Dream Snake blend, which was an old resin incense with some slightly psychoactive ingredients in it, but one esoterically intended to trigger higher dreaming. I’m not sure which part of the blend reminded me of the Azusa, but this long and rather thin floral incense stick, as I’ve enthused about in recent posts, is a truly individual and unique blend like no other, reminding me more of a natural floral smell than a 1000 jasmine and rose sticks. It’s got an alluring sweetness to it that reminds me of some of the sweet green patchouli masalas, but this is far more refined and tantalizing. For a stick this thin, it’s surprisingly smoky, but in this case you want every bit of it. And I believe this to be one of the best “good value for the money” incenses out there.
  4. Dhoop Factory / Ganden – I’ve got a big box of almost every line the Dhoop Factory carries and I can’t resist burning at least one stick every night before going to sleep. Tibetan incenses are teaming with medicinal descriptions of what various blends do and while I’m sure none of them would pass muster in American medical journals, I do feel a lot more relaxed buring this one, Lawudo, Abhisek, Agar 31 or Medicine Buddha sticks, while the two foresty blends Sauna Sticks and Alpine are way too invigorating to do the same to, while being perfect for an early morning weekend wake up call. Ganden, if I have this right, is a certain monastery around which grows an herb also called Ganden that has some very sage-like characteristics, while not being quite as intense as most smudging or cooking sage is. It gives the incense a kind of light and almost anxiety reducing aroma and I really can’t get enough of it.
  5. Yog-Sadhana – This one is fast becoming a big favorite, as I mentioned in a recent blog entry. I take the long sticks and break them in half as this is a very intense blend of clove-like spices and resin hints that penetrates your environment in several seconds. It’s really unlike any other incense that I can name in that the clove and nutmeg spices are way out in front. It also seems to have a regenerative effect on the environment, as if it acts as a purifier as well, something surprising for as smoky as a stick as this one is.
  6. Baieido / Kai Un Koh (bottom of page) – Like Azusa, I think it’s probable that a lot of my “best incenses” are those that are great while still remaining very affordable, meaning I can freely burn them without that pang of guilt one might get burning high end aloeswood incenses. Kai Un Koh is the classic example of being an incense much more quality than the price denotes and while I didn’t burn as many in the last month as I did previously, it’s mostly because I’ll be needing a restock. As I wrote last month, “… this … I tend to think of like some beautiful antique wood with finish, something you could lose yourself in.”
  7. Nippon Kodo / Yume-No-Yume / Various – Because of the utterly atrocious “visual” editing tool on wordpress, I can’t cut and paste or drag a paragraph to a different spot without it ending up in the middle of my first paragraph, and I was hoping to do so with the Yume-No-Yume Bamboo Leaf from last month, which still remains my favorite in the line, but since I couldn’t I figure I’d just mention the whole line, which I hope to go into a bit more detail on later now that I’ve sampled all the varieties. I’m really impressed with the scents in this line, particularly as for an incense I might call partially synthetic (after all, it would have to be more of a perfumery art to have the scent this strong on the fresh stick), it trumps other NK lines that are similar like Fragrance Memories or what I’ve tried of their “No.” series. Some new scents I was really impressed with was the super fruity Fiddlehead Fern, which is the first incense with a heavy berry note that didn’t strike me as being off in some way; the Camellia/Musk blend of Whooping Crane, a bit mellower than most of the line; and the very different and unusual Horse Tail Plant. Any of these could be on this list next month.
  8. Joyoko Temple (second to last on page) – Don’t think I’ve mentioned this long stick yet, I’ve been meaning to write on some new things but haven’t found the time yet and this one feels like it’s gone ahead in the final innings so to speak. Hailed as a premium meditation blend, I’d still peg this as a rather aloeswood-heavy stick, although it’s a good case of a number of ingredients working together. When I first tried Sho-Ran-Ko, I noticed some similarities between that and Joyoko, mostly in the way that there seems to be a lot going on. Of course Joyoko isn’t really quite that premium, and doesn’t have that heady floral intensity, but it does have a very nice interaction between wood and spice, in fact I wonder if this stick is too nice to not be distracted by it during meditation.
  9. Shoyeido / Horin / Gen-roku – I’ll be changing my mind routinely on what my favorite Horin incense of the month is and Gen-roku is this month’s choice (by a hair over Ten-Pyo), mostly because I now have a box in stick and in some ways I think stick is preferable to coils with this scent, it’s just a little more open ended and a bit closer to Misho (like this one it’s a very “green” aloeswood). In fact this reminds me a lot of that incense, although it’s not quite as premium. But after seeing one of these almost three inch sticks, it’s hard to believe they put off as rich a scent as this one does. In many ways it’s also a good bang for the buck at its price range, being favorably comparable to other aloeswoods in the same price range.
  10. Baieido / Kokonoe (third item down) – I recently restocked the second incense in Baieido’s premium line, the Thai Ho-Ryu aloeswood and while I wouldn’t complain about it in the slightest, I still think I like Kokonoe a little better due to its spicier nature. As I wrote last month, “Kokonoe is the least expensive in the line, created with Indonesian incense, but as formidable and complex as anything I’ve mentioned in this list. It’s a bit dry and tangy but full of depth with one of the best after scents of any incense.”

Yog-Sadhana +

[EDIT 1/29/2022: Got in a new batch of this old favorite. While it has travelled a bit in all these years with expected recipe shifts, it still seems roughly in the same ballpark as the below description. The incense still strikes me as being fairly high quality, especially for the price. The biggest difference however, is one of the things I distinctly remember about the old sticks is that they poured off smoke, like enough you’d worry about triggering a smoke detector. This new batch no longer does this and it feels a bit less dense than it used to be. I am still finding it enjoyable for sure, but it may be missing some ingredients that made it a bit deeper once. Still a recommended Nepali incense though. Link changed below to the most recent source, Hither & Yon. But expect it to possibly be intermittent in sourcing.]

I asked Beth at Essence of the Ages for a few recommendations and one of them was this Nepalese Yog-Sadhana stick. I’m sure I’ll talk about the others later, but this one stands out to me in particular as being unlike anything else I’ve tried. They’re 8 1/2 inch sticks and put out quite a bit of smoke, but what a scent it is, somewhere between a clove/nutmeg sort of blend and a heavy resin note. The description says woody and cooling, although I don’t get the former so much as the latter, cooling is the perfect word for it. Clove often reminds people of the accompanying cigarettes, but here’s a nice clove content without that sort of distracting comparison.

And just another comment on the Kyukyodo Azusa, that is one extremely incredible incense, probably amazing me more than the Sho Ran Ko only as it’s so much more affordable. Will likely be a favorite for a long time, but again it’s about as highly recommended an incense at that price as I can name.

Coming soon, hopefully, a September top 10, a look into the full Nippon Kodo Yume No Yume (including one deleted item), New Morning Star and (brand new) Kohden lines, a couple of temple blends, a few color-coded Nitiraj Nag Champas, and a couple more Tibetans.

Kyukyodo / Sho-Ran-Koh, Azusa (Obsolete Reviews)

[9/1/2021: Please note that both of the recipes in these two incenses have changed. There is a new review of Sho-Ran-Koh available here. A new review of Azusa is available here. Please see these reviews for links to available sources for these incenses.]

Kyukyodo has been around a little while, but doesn’t have the same sort of profile that Nippon Kodo, Shoyeido or Baieido has and it’s something of a shame because this company gives you some of the best value for money incense out there. For instance, their Shiun incense, a tart, cherry-like aloeswood is an extremely good buy, even when a company has to break down the 400 stick box into smaller bundles. Their two low line sandalwood incenses, Ikaruga and Shirohato, are both among the best in the “every day,” green, sandalwood style, both a bit richer than similar scents from NK, Kunmeido etc.

If Shiun points to how good a brand Kyukyodo is, the line’s top two incenses are the clinchers. While their aloeswood incense Ryuhinko actually sells more for a bundle, Azusa is a bit more expensive per stick. Described as the best floral incense in the world and not being the biggest floral fan myself, I still bought the praise immediately. This is an incredible, sweet, complex incense that is in a class of its own, very green, with a floral oil that is unparalleled. The kind of new incense you get that provokes a passionate response, it’s actually too bad they only seem to come in 40 stick rolls, as I can see wanting bulk of this.

But as impressive as Azusa is, the brand’s premium line, Sho Ran Koh or Laughing Orchids, is a truly astonishing incense, and yes you’d need to spend a bundle for a bundle, or, if you’re like me, ask for it for a gift. Everything from the presentation to the incense is amazing, the roll is housed in a rather large Pawlonia box, the label seeming to have gold flakes embedded in the paper. The roll of 150 sticks is gorgeously presented in a red roll with fabulous artwork, obviously no expense spared. The incense is almost beyond description, an aloeswood that strikes you as an almost perfectly balanced blend, and one that strikes me as yellow in an esoteric way, in the same way Shoyeido’s Misho struck me as green. Like Azusa, Sho Ran Koh has a dominant floral note, but it washes back into all sorts of various spices, occasionally the aloeswood comes out, a bit of clove and then a sandalwood presence that reminds me of the best chandan woods or saffron sandalwoods from Indian incense. Burning the first stick with company, I was repeatedly distracted by it.

I suspect both the Azusa and Sho Ran Ko will be in the top ten this month, they’re that good.

Some initial thoughts on Korean premium incense

One item I received from Essence of the Ages is a four stick premium sampler of four different Korean sticks (second down). Korean incense is similar to Japanese in style but often uses very different ingredients. The biggest surprise to me was the Bo Rim Dan stick which reminded me very much of a mystery stick I’d been wondering about, so close it scratches a similar itch. Apparently the main ingredients are red sandalwood and pine, but the blend actually reminds me more of aloeswood, very tangy and rich, it’ll be the first item I restock next time I order. I lit it for a minute in two different rooms with rather different results, so it seems quite intricate a blend. Ja Kum is actually pretty similar, but with ingredients such as teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos, I’m left without a lot of words to describe it except intense and rich. Ilgakmun is described as an aloeswood incense but actually reminds me heavily of old mountain sandalwood, very light and slightly resiny. Seok-hyang, a very thick reddish stick is also very strong in sandalwood but not so much with the old mountain freshness. Overall all were well worth trying out, but I preferred the former two the most.

A few quick incense notes

  • Shoyeido’s Horin/Gen-roku in stick form seems even closer to the premium line Misho than the coil form. Maybe a little more depth. Incredible stuff.
  • I checked out the limited edition Heart gift set by Shoyeido and was pleasantly surprised by how good both the Ai-shin and Do-shin blends were, especially the former which has a really unique sandalwood base with floral oil. Do-shin’s a little darker although I’ll need more time with both to describe better. But as they’re limited, you’ll want to act pretty fast.
  • Shoyeido’s Ki-No-Ka set is a seasonally themed set of pure aloeswood, sandalwood, kyara and some kneaded incense. It’s funny when you get it just how small the kyara pieces are, five tiny chips of wood (much less than it looks in the promo picture). The aloeswood seems very high quality, certainly better than anything I owned before, and the kneaded incense was also very interesting, but it became almost instantly clear that one’s value increases by not buring any of these directly on charcoal or makko trails, but by traditional Japanese methods. I think I really want a wood chip heater now.

Essence of the Ages Specials etc.

If you notice all the red “NEW!” tags on the left here, you’ll realize Essence of the Ages has expanded their stock of Japanese incense significantly, making me feel like I’m practically starting over again. So much to explore, and it probably makes this place the seller with the largest stock of Japanese incense in the country now. Also of note, is the discounted prices on various higher line Nippon Kodo pawlonia gift box incenses. Given their high line kyara incenses are disappearing about as fast as they’re being stocked, you can at least check out Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan gift sets at a severely discounted price. They’re both probably the most affordable incenses with kyara (or a note thereof) in them, so are well worth exploring (although keep in mind they’re not quite the experience the expensive ones are). Although it must be said that while the sets are beautiful, their utility is a bit poor, I’ve broken several sticks just opening and closing these sets.

I also had the chance to introduce a couple friends to a number of various lines over the long labor day weekend. While just about all of the samples went over well, it didn’t surprise me to see that it’s generally the modern lines and more user friendly incenses that get the attention over the more expensive aloewood lines. The place where both met was the Horin lines, which, especially Hori-kawa, went over extremely well as they’re genuinely impressive, in fact it’s one of the few lines where the sandalwood incenses are as good as the aloeswood ones. Also went over (very) well: Yume-No-Yume bamboo leaf, Fragrance Memories Siesta Siesta and, of course, anything with kyara in it (well let’s be honest, I leap about with enthusiasm when it comes to kyara).

More to come this week as I’ll be trying out a lot of new brands as they come in. But do go over and say hi to Beth at Essence if you haven’t, she makes the whole incense experience that much better.