Mandala Trading Incense / Himalayan Herbal, Tibetan Monastery

I’m not sure if this company does more than two incenses (second and third on page), but if not, they definitely should. These are two of the finest incenses I’ve tried from Nepal and are becoming fast favorites. Both are rich, complex and affordable, and surprisingly have the ingredients written on the paper wrapping the incense inside the box.

The green box, Himalayan Herbal Incense consists of Ambergris (Sal Dhoop) 20%, Other Medicinal Herbs 25%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Sandalwood 15%, Artemesia 10%, Red Sandalwood 5%, and Spices (Cloves, Nutmeg, Kusum Flower) 5%. It’s a close cousin to the Yog Sadhana I’ve discussed before and the cloves and nutmeg definitely seem stronger than the percentage, but unlike that stick it is not as thick or as smokey. The color of the stick is like the box, however there are threads of red through it that are likely at least the Red Sandalwood. It’s got a mellow spiciness while still having a bit of complexity that both help to make it a rather friendly Nepalese-Tibetan incense.

The best of the two is the red box, Tibetan Monastery Incense.  This consists of Juniper Berry (Sang) 25%, Natural Glue (Lac) 20%, Other Medicinal Herbs 15%, Cedarwood (Devdar) 15%, Agarwood 10%, Liquorice (Jethi Madhu) 5%, Harrow + Batrow 5%, Spices (Jaypatri, Cinnamon, Cardamom) 5%, and Rauwlfia Serpentina (Sarpaghanda) 5%. It’s the most complex of the two and while the Juniper berry content can be offputting to some western noses, the overall tang of it is both peppery and spicy, with a top note that is just brilliant and kind of tangy. It has that type of composition that sets off a number of aromas, with a very subtle agarwood backing. Start with this one first.

Minorien / Fuuin Aloeswood

I had originally wanted to write a little about heating incense and my trials at doing so over the last two weeks, but strange WordPress screw ups have gone and deleted my draft, after, of course, posting it incomplete first (although, who knows, maybe unposted drafts with the right tag show up there as private).

Minorien only seem to import four incenses to the United States: Frankincense, Sandalwood, Aloeswood, and Kyara. Based on the Aloeswood incense, I’m going to end up having to try the rest of the line, as this is very good indeed. The first comparison that leapt to mind was to Shunkodo Ranjatai in that both scents have a very up front, quality aloeswood presence, that type of resinous aroma that seems almost psychoactively rich. Pricewise they’re actually quite similar by stick, except that you’d have to buy 100++ stick rolls of Ranjatai to purchase, while Minorien have both small and large boxes, meaning you only have to pay about $30 to give it a try, which is very good for an incense of this quality (and when they mean 45++ sticks, they definitely mean ++).

Fuuin Aloeswood sticks are very thin, but the aroma is intense. The wood note is subsumed for the resinous note and as Minorien claims, there really is a sort of “wet” vibe to it. Supposedly Indonesian and Thai aloeswoods are used, but the aroma strikes me more as high end Vietnamese aloeswood. If there is more than wood and binder here, it’s difficult to detect and only exists to bring out the wood. Overall I’d say you’re getting both excellent quality and a good price for this incense, and I’m definitely inspired to check out the rest of the company’s line.

Heating Incense

Since I’ve obtained an incense heater, it’s almost felt like I’ve doubled my incense supply. Every resin, wood chip and even incense stick has a totally different quality to it than burning. This difference usually varies from significant to startling.

I haven’t gotten around to trying everything by this method, in particular anything resinous usually needs a small bit of aluminum foil to protect your dish. I’m also not quite sure just when a heated aromatic loses its potency as without combusting the rest of the material, the aroma seems to just kind of slightly fade. Aloeswood chips usually end up looking charred, probably because the (black) resin in the wood tends to bubble.

The biggest surprise for me had to be myrrh. I’ve always found myrrh not only to be extremely variable in quality but often kind of gnarly smelling straight on a piece of charcoal. But in heating it you can be immediately convinced over why this material has been so prized over the ages. Whatever impurities or off notes I noticed on charcoal just don’t pop up here and even at a rather high heat it dissipates very slowly. The myrrh I’m using is a golden color rather than the darker brown stuff usually found in US stores and it’s sweet, sultry and has a depth of character many other resins don’t. Now I know I really want to try what’s considered high end.

I’ve also been experimenting with various aloeswood chips, which was my primary reason for wanting a heater. I’ve got about five or six different types/grades of aloeswood and they all have very different characteristics. I probably enjoy Baieido’s Hakusui aloeswood the best, and it is their highest grade barring kyara. Slightly spicy, deep rich and expansive, Hakusui had major impact for me. At the other Baieido end, the Indonesian Kokonoe no kumo doesn’t actually even seem to dissipate all that much on a heater or has such a mild aroma it’s difficult to detect.

I mentioned Shoyeido’s “seasonal” wood chip box a few weeks ago, containing aloeswood, sandalwood, and kyara chips as well as some kneaded incense. I believe the aloeswood is Shoyeido’s take grade, which is quite nice for being their lowest graded woodchip, similar, but richer than other low end chips. The kyara, of course, is lovely, but the chips are so small the impact seems to be over fairly fast. The sandalwood chips do seem very fine though and heating them reminds me of old mountain wood and other sandalwood sticks that accentuate the oil quality of the wood.

Best Incense – October 2007

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above]

  1. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – Sho-Ran-Ko has emerged for me as the reigning best incense I’ve ever experienced. One would have to put out a considerable amount of money (and the price on this is considerable in its own right) to experience an incense with such high quality and aromatic depth. It’s an explosion of scent with an alluring and sultry top note, the spices constantly interacting with the very highly quality aloeswood base to make each and every stick a new experience, one that makes it very difficult to nail down a description. Last month I described that quality as “great jazz musicians jamming.” I wonder a little if this incense is sold in smaller quantities in Japan as even though you’re paying over a dollar a stick that adds up to quite a chunk at 150 sticks. But then you’d be missing out on the outstanding packaging and artwork.
  2. Bo Rim (Dan) Sticks (bottom of page) – Running through some pages of Mike’s Prattle is something of a saga in terms of trying to identify a mystery stick. While I’ve never figured out what that was, this Korean incense has a lot of similar qualities, namely a very tangy wood and spice that I’d best describe as addictive. Essence of the Ages sells this both in a wood container (which contains 40 sticks or so) and a much larger box and I’m thinking I need the box, even if you wish most incense came in the nice wooden containers. I’ll probably get to this one in a bit more detail later, but this is well worth it.
  3. Shunkodo / Ranjatai (second to last on page) – I rarely see Shunkodo incenses in the US market, so it’s nice Essence of the Ages is carrying several of their sticks. Ranjatai appears to be the most premium of their several lines and like most of their sticks comes with packagaging, one page of which has a photo of a couple rather impressive pieces of pure, heavily resinated aloeswood. I guess that’s the picture that will stick with me in thinking of this incense, which is a really deluxe aloeswood scent which at times will remind you of the pure wood. The company does claim that this incense has extraordinary depth and after a number of sticks, I’m starting to see why. A description of which will have to wait until I catch up. But so far I’ve never tried, even in a sample pack, an aloeswood incense with this type of wood presence.
  4. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – It took me a while to come around on this incense, which surprises me a little given the obvious kyara presence. At first, for about 5-10 sticks I got a much woodier aroma, an almost bitter tang to the wood, but since then I’d describe this as sweeter and even candy-like. It’s a really gorgeous incense that now makes me want to splurge for the coil version just to see the differences. It’s almost the perfect blend of an expensive traditional kyara incense with a modern sensibility.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium / Misho  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.” It’s mostly been dropping due to its cost and the fact I’m not burning it as frequently, not to say it’s wearing off on me at all. Although I more and more note its similarity with the Horin line Gen-roku (below).
  6. Kyukyodo / Azusa – From September, Azusa “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.” As I may have mentioned, despite that on the surface this is one incredible and distinctive incense, it doesn’t share the depth of some of its company’s other sticks, meaning I feel I’ve got the scent somewhat absorbed.
  7. Shoyeido / Horin / Gen-roku – One day I’ll end up writing rather enthusiastically about Shoyeido’s Horin line and probably would have by now except one of the five fragrances is becoming a distant memory. The third in the line, Gen-roku, as mentioned before, is a very green aloeswood incense with similarities to Misho, but with a slightly more modern edge. Both incenses strike me as being excellent blends of wood with spice, penetrating and cleansing.
  8. Joyoko Temple (second to last on page) – Hailed as a premium meditation blend, Joyoko Temple is a blend I expected to fall off this list after a month, but instead I’ve just grown to like it more and more. However inaccurately, I’m starting to see this as a more affordable alternate to the Sho-Ran-Ko and while this doesn’t have quite the premium essence of that incense, it does have a number of ingredients and a strong aloeswood presence that makes this similar in the way the ingredients interact. And since you can buy a roll of this for under $20, it’s easy to recommend as an affordable yet brilliant incense.
  9. Baieido / Kai Un Koh (bottom of page) – Becoming a Mikesprattle Top 10 standard. As I wrote earlier, “I tend to think of [Kai Un Koh] like some beautiful antique wood with finish, something you could lose yourself in.” One of the best price to quality ratios you can find in incense.
  10. Tennendo / Frankincense (third and fourth items on page) – I just reviewed this one before the weekend and don’t have much more to say than this is probably the best Frankincense resin aroma I’ve ever encountered in a stick.

Book / David Pybus – Kodo The Way of Incense

Given that so much incense culture belongs to the east, it’s difficult to find good information on it, not only for the language barrier, but also due to the secrecy surrounding incense formulas and kodo. A lot of what can be found in David Pybus’ book is available on the internet, however not much of it comes in such an easy to use format as this. It basically introduces incense, then kodo and ends with a mini encyclopedia of incense ingredients. With so many illustrations it’s a quick read and what pulled me along were various anecdotes I didn’t know about, as well as the history of incense and the Asian trade routes. It’s likely this would be a good introduction to the new incense appreciator and some versions of this book also come in a box set with two incense holders and two small bundles of incense, neither of which really adds much to the experience (it really felt like one of the bundles had totally lost its aromatic efficacy). I can’t wait for the day a solid book on the subject from Japan, translated into English shows up, otherwise it’s unlikely a book like this will be superseded.

Bait Al Arab

Bait Al Arab is my first experience with bakhoors, several of which can be found on this page (the bakhoor in question is at the bottom). Bakhoors are generally oil-scented chips or bricks that usually originate from the Middle East; Bait Al Arab is made by the Swiss Arabian company in UAE. While they’re made for heating or burning on charcoal, they’re slightly similar to several Japanese companies that use perfumery art in incense and like those sticks, the aroma of Bait Al Arab is noticeable without burning or heating.

These “bricks” are about the same size as a self-burning piece of charcoal and can easily be broken down or crumbled, in fact I recommend doing so as Bait Al Arab is heavily fragranced. But what an incredible fragrance it is. I haven’t burned anything on charcoal since I got my Shoyeido heater, but Bait Al Arab, broken into quarters for this use, is absolutely gorgeous on the heater. As the description states, Bait al Arab has “perfume oil rich in rose, amber, saffron, agarwood and cardamom in the middle, with notes of agarwood, amber and musk at the base.”

It’s the floral perfume note that comes out first, like an intense bouquet of rose and carnation. The scent is exquisite and about the time you’re used to it, many of the other ingredients come in. The agarwood is generally buried in this mix but it does seem to provide the amber and cardamom notes that give the scent such a sweetness a little depth. With this incense, I tend to leave the top off the heater as the perfume oil is so rich and tends to condense and get the inside of the lid messy.

And almost as a little bonus, if you leave the crumbled bakhoor heating for a while, the incense forms crystalline structures on the top as if it was the end product of some alchemic experiment.

Exquisite is an understatement with this one.

Shoyeido Daily Incense Series (Long Boxes, Uncolored Sticks)

[NOTE 2/2/10: These reviews reflect only the long box versions of the Daily incenses. Please note comments below as short rolls are different if slightly similar aromas]

I have this old memory that many years ago I sampled a few of Shoyeido’s Daily incenses, years before I had any strong interest in Japanese incense. While it could be said in the US market that Shoyeido’s Angelic and Jewel series might have a higher profile, the Daily series seems to be the company’s standard line of traditional incenses.

If you add the Premium and Premium Daily Series to the subject at hand, you can see a general arc starting with the high line Premium Sho-kaku and getting more and more inexpensive all the way down to what at first seems like the line’s most inexpensive blend, Daigen-koh. For the most part the whole Daily line includes 35 sticks in a standard package, but Daigen Koh stops at 30 making it per stick the second least expensive incense in the line.

Daigen-koh/Great Origin is basically a standard rosewood incense, a slightly floral sandalwood incense that doesn’t strike me as having much of its own character. This could just be because I’ve never gravitated much to rosewood incenses, but also because in comparison to other Shoyeido incenses this has very little complexity and depth. But given the way Shoyeido potray these series as arcing from the inexpensive to the deluxe, it’s easy to understand why they put it first rather than second.

Hoyei-Koh/Eternal Treasure is also sandalwood dominant. One thing that becomes quickly apparently about the Daily line is how difficult it can be to put the listed ingredients in context with what you’re expecting. With clove and cinnamon involved you’d expect a very spicy sandalwood blend, but with Hoyei-Koh I get more of a slight citrus hint, making the spice back this quality up rather than dominating it. And like Daigen-Koh, this is a very subtle and quiet scent, one that doesn’t really stand out among others.

Nokiba/Moss Garden is a bit spicier and at times reminds me of some of the spicy Indian sandalwoods. It’s the first in the line that doesn’t have me straining to detect a scent, or perhaps it’s some sort of distinctive quality that may be lacking. While it can be difficult lining up the ingredients listed with what you’re experiencing, you really can detect the hints of patchouli and benzoin in the mix, although the benzoin seems to mix with the sandalwood at the base, while the patchouli comes more out in the spice or oil. Strangely enough, Nokiba starts at $3.50 making it more expensive than the next scent in the line.

Kyo-Nishiki/Kyoto Autumn Leaves is the first incense in the Daily series that really raises the game and is a rather unique incense in that it’s very difficult to detect specific ingredients. I do often wonder whether the hint of the fragrance defines the name or if the name just brings out an impression of the incense, as Kyo-Nishiki definitely strikes me as having a very autumnal quality. It also has cinnamon at base, which makes me think that this is what keeps the price lower than Nokiba. Shoyeido claim this as one of their best sellers, and it’s easy to see why as it’s the first incense in this line that has true distinction, I can’t think of another scent by any company that reminds me of this one.

As if the’re just adding a new ingredient to each line, Kin-kaku/Golden Pavilion takes the sandalwood, benzoin, patchouli and cinnamon base of the previous line and adds clove. To my nose, Kin-Kaku is the first incense in the Daily line that is truly impressive. Certain Shoyeido incenses really impress me with what I’d call the oil fragrance, the part of the scent above the wood base (for example, Ai-Shin really excels on this part of the stick) and Kin-kaku is definitely one of them, an elegant blend of various spices and woods with a distinctive top fragrance that is a tad sweet and very “bright” for lack of a better word. It’s not a bad place to start in this series.

Kyo-zakura/Kyoto Cherry Blossom is a particularly interesting incense in that it resembles, if not imitates much more expensive cherry-scented aloeswood incenses such as Kyukyodo’s Shiun or Nippon Kodo’s Zuiun, but with a sandalwood base. This is a very nice and inexpensive stick even at a dollar more expensive (or more) than previous Daily incenses, it’s clean, dry and sweet with a sandalwood base and plenty of cherry fragrance in the oil topnote. The sandalwood base gives it a more immediate feel, if lacking the depth any incense with good aloeswood will have. It may be the most user-friendly incense in the Daily series.

The last two incenses in the Daily series come with corresponding hikes in the price of a 35 stick box. Go-zan/Five Hills is a very spicy sandalwood with a strong spice hint, the clove and patchouli a bit more dominant than in previous Daily incenses. Unfortunately Go-zan doesn’t strike me as being particularly distinctive, it’s taken me probably a dozen sticks or more just to be able to describe it. It’s definitely a bit richer and denser than, say, the Hoyei-Koh, but like most of the line, it lacks a bit of depth.

The crown jewel of the Daily series is Haku-un/White Cloud, which is twice as expensive as most of the others. It should be noted that a few years ago, Shoyeido changed their ingredients list on many incenses, probably due to changes in CITES aloeswood regulations, the result of which is that some of the incenses with lower quality aloeswood lost that from the ingredients list. Haku-Un is one of those incenses, perhaps the only one in this line where you can detect a possible hint of aloeswood. Haku-un has musky and woody qualities and amazing depth for its price. Years ago I had a woodchip blend by a different company called Buddhist Temple Blend that is almost identical in scent to the Haku-un and had the same ingredients, a strong Benzoin base (which always gives me the impression of something aged), sandalwood, clove and Borneo camphor. Overall Haku-un is a fantastic blend and one of the best incenses per price you’re likely to get from Shoyeido.

While the Daily series certainly doesn’t compare in quality to finer lines even in Shoyeido’s catalog, they do provide a few rather excellent incenses for the price and importantly give one a few affordable options for frequent use. If you’re new to the line, I’d probably give Kin-kaku or Kyo-zakura a try first before moving up the line or if you want to examine the whole lot, Shoyeido provides samplers. Or you could do what I did and grab the whole lot at a slight discount (at the bottom of the page) here.

A mild warning that should have been less mild

http://mikesprattle.wordpress.com/2007/06/05/a-mild-warning/

A few months ago, I wrote this entry on what I thought was rather poor business on Capricorn’s Lair’s part. Especially in the last month, I’ve noticed that this article tends to get hits from searches like “capricorns lair complaints” so I went and did the search myself and was astonished at the number of complaints leveled at this company. This page in particular really delivers the scoop, so whatever you do, avoid this company at all costs, especially when there are much more positive experiences to be had (see links on right).

They also have an unsatisfactory rating with Better Business Bureau.

Tennendo / Frankincense

I’m still absorbing a rather large order of late and in this case several of the new sticks (mostly Shunkodo) are a lot more subtle and mellow than I expected. Along with reduced time to write, it’s probably going to be a little while before I can finish several articles, but I wanted to bring one stick to attention that was instantly absorbable.

I love frankincense, but just like many aromatic ingredients, it varies in quality quite a bit. On the low end I have a large jar full of frankincense that I never go back to, bought the resin in a local herbal store and found it weak overall. And on the other end there’s the gorgeous Omani frankincense, which appears to be, if such a thing could be said, the kyara of frankincense, a much richer and deeper aroma, beyond even the great citrusy notes you expect.

Tennendo Frankincense (third and fourth item on page) uses that very type of Frankincense for this stick and has released it in both regular and deluxe “Black Box” packaging, which means for the latter you’re largely paying for presentation. Frankincense sticks vary as much as incense does, but this is probably the closest I’ve come in stick form to smelling the pure thing. In fact I’d a hazard a guess and say this is basically the resin and enough binder to make a stick of it. The smell is as rich and expansive as just about any pure resin Frankincense I’ve had and the stick is quite affordable. It’s an essential purchase for the frankincense appreciator, assuming you’re OK without the pretty box.

Baieido / Kai Un Koh

I’ve been thinking of a couple ideas I’ll probably be working on soon for the site, the first a simple guide to introducing oneself to Japanese premium incense, the other a page that will introduce incenses that combine high quality with affordability. It’s pretty much a given that if you spend over $100 on a box of incense that you’re going to find something outstanding, but finding something affordable and outstanding is more difficult.

Baieido’s Kai Un Koh incense would (or will) definitely be on this list. For about $15, one can pick up a good 35 grams of this incense (I didn’t count the sticks, but it was approximately in the 50s), one I’d consider on par with incenses of a much higher cost, including some in Baieido’s own range. Kai Un Koh is unusual in that it’s one of the rare “square” cut Japanese incenses, meaning it’s a bit thicker than most. Many Baieido incenses, including their rather outstanding aloeswood lines, are very thin and mild in terms of aroma, Kai Un Koh is definitely more up front, in fact it might be the smokiest Baieido incense, although that’s not saying much.

The ingredients for this incense are sandalwood, Vietnamese aloeswood, borneol camphor, clove and other Chinese spices. The price is definitely on the high side for a sandalwood incense, but really the aloeswood content strikes me as being as up front as any ingredient and so I tend to think of it more as that type of blend. Baieido are probably the most successful company at doing woody incenses and Kai Un Koh is a triumph, it’s smooth, elegant and slightly spicy. The best metaphor I can use to describe this would be an elegantly designed office with wood panelling put up by a craftsman. It’s a perfectly balanced blend, the borneol just a touch, the clove complementing the wood. With Kai Un Koh, one can burn it without the feeling that one will need to throw down a big chunk to restock. And it’s also a perfect place to start in checking out aloeswood blends.

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