Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon

It may be even more true for incense than anything else that you get what you pay for, at least if you have an appreciation for aloeswood. The higher the quality of the wood in the incense, the better the opportunity for a more complex and sophisticated incense. Aloeswood, depending on quality and variety, can impart widely divergent qualities to the aroma from resinous, hoary age to tantalizing sweetness, from spice to qualities best described as lacquer/turpentine like in their intensity. Tennendo’s high end, long stick Enkuu-Horizon covers nearly all of these qualities in one very intense and complex incense.

I’d only recommend this to those who don’t mind some of the stronger aspects of aloeswood, particularly the resinous qualities that might bring to mind turpentine or other wood resin-based chemicals. Not that this incense is unrefined by any means, but it will wallop you with its intensity. The closest scent that reminds me of Enkuu is Shoyeido/Horin’s Muro-machi incense, which combined the heavy aloeswood scent with a thicker, almost swelteringly sweet top note. However, where Muro-Machi plays between these two notes, Enkuu is far more complex. For one thing, Enkuu has some of the qualities of greener aloeswood sticks as quieter notes, such a menthol and mint. The wood quality is very high and occasionally it seems that the mix may be leavened with a slight amount of kyara; at the very least it has that sort of smoothness combined with ancient resinous depth.

All these various elements play off each other in an analagous way to Kyuykodo’s Sho-Ran-Ko and make me feel this will always be a surprising and excellent incense, although where Sho-Ran-Ko has a sort of a Mercurian gentleness and humor to it, Enkuu is more like Pan in its ancient, pagan splendor. At first Enkuu is likely to be overwhelming, but with each stick its careful and complex composition reveals itself, making it a taste worth acquiring.

Best Incense – December 2007

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

  1. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – I’ve been finding it almost impossible to bump this from the number one slot for the last few months, it’s truly the most complex and playful incense on the market with an aroma that never seems to become static and predictable. A true work of art that gets it right on every level.
  2. Bo Rim (Dan) Sticks (bottom of page) – The most premium of Korean incenses and very addictive, these are rich and tangy sticks that contrast nicely with other aromas. Although if you’re new to Korean incense it might be worth starting out less premium and working up from there, before this one trumps em all.
  3. Baieido / Tokusen Syukohkoku – I just read somewhere that Syukohkoku, as a reference to the Silk Road, means “gathering of incense nations.” This deluxe, spicy, high quality aloeswood incense is a triumph and something I’ve burned quite a bit over the holidays. Hakusui goodness.
  4. Mandala Trading / Tibetan Monastery Incense (third down) – Absolutely one of my all time favorite Tibetan incenses, this spicy, woody stick has, if only temporarily, become the choice of the last burn of the night. Despite how spicy this is, I find it quite relaxing and introspective and it’s not only accessible but has a few layers of complexity that evince a careful composition.
  5. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Tennendo make a lot of great aloeswood incense sticks, but this rich, indulgent, powerful long stick appears to be one of their top lines. I won’t say more as I want to review this one soon. It’s one of the few incenses with the complexity level of Sho-Ran-Ko.
  6. Tennendo / Kuukai – On the home page of Essence of the Ages, at least for December, is a seven roll sampler that includes this as the top line. I can’t recommend that sampler enough as an introduction to a number of different aloeswood and sandalwood styles, most of which I had a hard time keeping off this list. Kuukai’s the most premium in this sampler, an incense I like more every time I burn a stick, it’s very woody and spicy enough to make it rich. Another in a series I hope to getting back to sooner rather than later.
  7. Kunmeido / Asuka – The most deluxe of the Kunmeido incenses I’ve seen so far, this appears to be the culmination of a rather distinctive line, due, I believe, to a certain root they use in most of their incenses. This is a very green aloeswood that has a top minty note that is quite refreshing. Not far from their Heian-Koh, which is a thicker stick.
  8. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – I could just as easily include the whole Horin line on my top 10 list as an entry, as I frequently burn all five of them. This is the top line, kyara-infused stick and it’s always a delightful incense. If it was less expensive due to the ingredients I’d probably have it higher on this list.
  9. Baieido / Kai un Koh (bottom of page) – One of the best incenses you can buy for the money, this will periodically come back to this list depending on how frequently I burn it. This incense demonstrates to my nose why Baieido is one of the great incense companies. Plonk $15 down for a roll and see if you don’t agree.
  10. Minorien / Frankincense – One of the only stick incenses that captures the essence of a Catholic frankincense-based blend. Spicy, resiny and just a little raw like the whole Minorien line.

Baieido / Tokusen Syukohkoku

The Baieido catalog is not set up like those of other incense companies where lines of incense are ordered by quality from the expensive to the affordable. Not only that, but Baieido’s incenses are often higher quality than their corresponding prices, which might be as positive a comment as I could make for a company as a whole. You’re basically guaranteed good, natural incense from them and I get the impression that they rarely if ever use synthetics or nonnatural organics in their blends.

Baieido also know their aloeswood, perhaps better than any other company and they offer four kinds of aloeswood from inexpensive Indonesian Kokonoe No Kumo to Vietnamese Hakusui, as well as an entire Rikkoku set with six different aloeswoods. Hakusui aloeswood is about as fine a wood as you can imagine outside kyara, it’s warm, spicy and devoid of the off hints you’d find in lower quality wood. And in Baieido’s premium Tokusen Syukohkoku (second down), it’s the basis of one of the most incredible, well rounded incenses available.

If you’ve sampled enough incense, you’ve probably run across what would be called spice blends. When I think of these, particularly in terms of “hot and spicy,” you’re usually in the realms of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. These are difficult incenses to get right because the aromatics are always intense, sometimes too intense, so I find it difficult to find one with the right balance. While the ingredients list for this incense doesn’t include any of those spices overtly, relying more on the interplay among the aloeswood, sandalwood and “Chinese herbs and spices,” the stick definitely seems to have the perfect spice blend in front, one that interacts with the high quality wood.

While Tokusen Syukohkoku is certainly a premium incense and will have an associated start up cost (usually $84 for a 50 gram box, but some companies break the boxes down into starter rolls), you’re getting as much bang for the buck as you can possibly get for this sort of incense (130 sticks for $84 means you’re paying (very approx.) $o.75 a stick which is a tremendous deal for this sort of quality level. In fact with all the changes in aloeswood regs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the price come up a bit – and it would still be worth it.

I hesitate to come up with an all time top 10 incense list, given cost plays such an enormous factor in what’s good, but if I did, I’d be hard pressed not to have this one on the list. It’s that good, perhaps the perfect spicy incense.

Aajudyo Dhupayan Rope Incense

You can find this incense as the seventh item on this page.

Rope incense is as new to me as a week or two and like any different style, it takes a bit of time to get used to it. This is especially so with rope incense, which is basically powdered aromatic materials in rice paper braided together so that the top loop can hang on a rope incense burner hook. It takes a bare spark to get the whole thing going and when it does it burns fast and very smoky, especially the bigger your rope.

And of all the ropes I tried out in my starter package, so to speak, these Aajudyo Dhupayan ropes are probably twice as large as the rest. They put off almost enough smoke to trigger my smoke alarm, although not quite. They come packaged with the terrifying visage of the sky god himself, fangs and all, and it all exudes power, not least of all the unburnt ropes themselves which smell delightfully of camphor wood.

Burning, the camphor smell isn’t dominant but one note in a symphony of aromatics. I get quite a bit of vanilla mixed in with what smells like tobacco or sagey characteristics and the whole incense is so overwhelmingly potent that it started setting off little intuitive impressions. The vanilla/camphor in front it gives it a somewhat stately presence, although the predominant smoke often works to cloud the overall aroma, and it’s recommended one make sure your space is ventilated appropriately first, as there’s quite a bit of play beneath the surface with the extra herbs.

If you’re new to ropes, you might want to try a smaller and mellower one first, but if you can handle a lot of smoke, this is well worth trying as it seems to have both aromatic and energetic qualities in abundance.

Bo Rim + Burn Times

This page states that Bo Rim sticks are used by the Dalai Lama, which I’d have to say is a rather strong recommendation no? It is interesting how the descriptions change from page to page as well. The same page mentions aloeswood and Chinese juniper, where Essence of the Ages has it described as red sandalwood and pine. Personally I’d believe all four, although none of them satisfy what makes it so tangy/savory.

And again, on the same linked page, it says Bo Rim burns for 40 minutes, which is a lot longer than they do when it’s me doing the lighting. While I’d guess that altitude probably alters the burn time, I’m pretty near sea level, so I’m always surprised at how much faster every thing burns than what’s on the label.

Anyway, Bo Rim = goodness, although it is a bit expensive at the above link – try EofA.

Notes on Incense 2

That seven roll Tennendo sampler Essence of the Ages is selling is extremely impressive. I mentioned the Kuukai yesterday but found the Tensei to be even better, an incredible aloeswood with a very smooth wood finish, just how I like them. The Renzan appears to be their version of Kyukyudo Shiun or Nippon Kodo’s Zuin, a dark, slightly cherry-scented sweet aloeswood, very nice.

Also still trying out the ropes. Part of it is getting used to the aroma of the rice paper which isn’t far from tobacco paper. The one I like the most so far, but which puts out smoke like a fire is the Aajudyo Dyupayan incense with the scary looking sky god on the front. They’re big ropes and smell like spiced up camphor wood, but burn almost like vanilla. Very different and very intuition stimulating.

I’m finding the savory, tangy nature that attracted me to the Chui Woon stick to be common to many of the Korean incenses. It almost seems as if several of them are graded so that the more inexpensive the incense the less panoramic the scent with Bo Rim being the most premium and then, ramping down, Ja Kum, Jing-Gwan, Chiu Woon, Dabo and Chung-Shim. I only sampled the last few of these very quickly but Dabo was almost so tangy it was tart (and losing the balance a little) and Chung-Shim was just a little too standard in the end, but the rest of these are all very nice. Unlike this group, there’s also Ilgakmun, which is a very complex and impressive woody incense, perhaps the closest to Japanese incense here and Seok-Hyang which is a very dry sandalwood heavy incense with a bit of pepper and spice to it.

I’ll also confirm Bernd’s comment from a prior thread that the Minorien Frankincense is extremely impressive. It actually reminded me of the Fred Soll sticks due to the very high resin content, but more so it reminded me of a spicier pontifical resin blend that you might find at a Catholic church. In fact I have a Matchless Gifts incense blend I’ve had forever called Kashmiri which this is very close to, the usual frankincense and benzoin combination except a little hotter via cinnamon or spice. Beautiful, impressive stuff with that very earthy feel the Minorien line has throughout. That quality may be why I like this line so much, it’s very different from all other companies.

What else? I mentioned Kunmeido Heian Koh yesterday. This strikes me, now that I’ve finished a stick, as being a bit overpriced in that for an aloeswood stick you don’t tend to get a lot of depth. It smells very similar to Shoyeido’s Kyo-Nishiki, which I’d have considered distinctive prior to this, but unfortunately (or at least so far) Heian Koh doesn’t strike me as justifying its cost. On the other hand it does strike me as a meditation or temple stick, so it may be more friendly for that purpose. I don’t like to pick on Kunmeido’s incenses though, especially as they have some of the best lower end sticks around like the Reiryo-koh, Onkun-koh and Shoryu-koh. Of course, I get the impression we haven’t seen half of this companies incenses yet, especially in the higher ranges.

Also lots of Tibetans. So many of the ones I’ve gotten are as mellow as the ropes are smoky. They’re all quite good, but I think my running favorite would be the Maya Devi Salvia Officinalis stick. As I’ve mentioned with the Dhoop Factory Ganden incense, there’s this wonderful sweet, sage related, grassy herb they use that I find really pleasant and this has it with a touch of citrus or something. Very clean and refreshing.

Notes on Incense

The fruits of the Essence of the Ages sale showed up last night, very fast especially for the time of the year, although I was in the middle of various errands (including getting the stuffing knocked out of me by my nephews), I had a chance to check out a few things and since I’m possibly the holidays away from more reviews (I’ll manage a top 10 in a week or so), I figured I’d mention a few things in brief.

I tried Baieido’s Tokusen Syokohkoku incense in a sampler a while back and while I remember it being great, my appreciation for it has been enhanced. I think it’s partially because I’ve been heating Baieido Hauksui aloeswood which is a real gourmet experience, and it’s the aloeswood used in the TS. You actually get this experience in the stick, although considerably spiced up and I’m hard pressed not to call this one of the world’s great incenses. Don’t settle with a sampler or roll on this one, even though the box is very pricy I get the impression I’ll be going through this fast. On the other hand, for the quality you’re getting I consider it a deal.

I’ve been wanting to do a write up on Shoyeido’s Horin series as I love most of them. Up to now I’ve been missing the Muromachi, which I liked but don’t remember rating over any of the others. I was surprised it never made a big impression on me because it’s very rich and almost like a caramel incense if you can imagine except with all sorts of wood aromas playing off of it. May take me a few to get used to it, so when I do I’ll write about one of the best incense lines out there. I usually have at least one in my changing top 10.

I burned about an inch of Kunmeido’s Heian Koh, which is a thick, square cut, green, higher end aloeswood. As I’d already tried the Asuka, it seemed a little like a variant version, but I’ll need a little more time to eke out the differences. Quite nice and very woody, I was reminded a little by one of Shoyeido’s Zen incenses in style (although which one I can’t remember) and it may have been this stick that reminded me a great deal of one of Shoyeido’s Daily incenses I recently called distinctive.

One of the best parts of the night was finally discovering what my mystery incense stick was. This was originally given to me as a sampler in an order from a company I had trouble with and I immediately fell in love with it. As it turns out it’s a Korean stick called Chui-Woon and fortunately for me it’s very affordable. In fact several of the Korean incenses I tried all share similar qualities which made me feel like my nose was probably going as it tends to with new hauls. But I was very pleased to finally figure this one out. I’ll be writing many of these up eventually, there’s really a wealth of Korean incense to discover.

I went for that sampler of seven Tennendo rolls all of which I think I’ll be very pleased with. The Frankincense I already know and love, but I tried the Kuukai as well which was very nice. Tennendo seems to differ quite a bit from other companies in the style of their incenses, I’m not sure I could describe it, but there’s a real spice presence at work and a lightness to the aromas.

The Tibetan incense Ribo Sangtsheo was created by Mandala Trading company like two of my favorite Tibetans, I could instantly tell when seeing the ingredients list on the inside wrapper. It makes me wonder what else they do. This is a thinner stick than the other two but still looks like a natural combo of various herbs, including 20% spikenard, which is always nice.

I also tried my first rope incense, which I believe was Naga Durva. I’m glad I picked one of the smaller ones as this is a very smoky sort of incense that reminds me of when I used to buy Indian incense powders. It burns pretty quickly and I’d say the smoke is too dense except I believe I’m probably just not used to the style yet. I was pleased with the free rope burner as well, it’s a lot more deluxe than it looked in the picture and I look forward to hanging a coil on it too.

Tried bits of a couple other Tibetans, and by the end of the night I realized there wasn’t anything I didn’t really like, which is always good. But it’s definitely that Tokusen Syukohkoku that will be on my mind for a while, along with Kunmeido Asuka.

I should also mention that Keigado’s Full Moon incense is a fantastic little, inexpensive daily incense – more amber than sandalwood, and definitely up there with Kyukyodo’s Shirohato and Ikaruga.

Shoyeido / Incense Road + Gourmet

Shoyeido market this line of three different incenses under two categories, Incense Road and Gourmet, yet from all appearances the two lines appear to be identical except for packaging and presentation. At the very least, this means you can sample all three lines for as low as $9.95 (12 sticks) in the Gourmet range to $29.95 (60 sticks) in the Incense Road range. Unfortunately, however, there doesn’t appear to be a 60 stick box of the Chai incense stick, which is a bit disappointing as it, like everything in this line is a rich and attractive blend.

I suppose in some ways this series is analagous to Nippon Kodo’s No. line, in specific the No. 6 which covers woods as well as a packaging presentation (at least on the Incense Road side) that evokes the old Silk Road and  ancestors moving spices from country to country. However, both lines seem to use a less traditional method of creating the incense, going for what are strongly perfumed, short sticks that like many other lines that are similar (Shoyeido Xiang-Do, NK Yume No Yume etc) are fairly expensive per stick (usually in the $.35-.50 per stick range). And like the great Yume No Yume line, whatever non-natural (unnatural seems harsh) means have been used to create the incense enhance rather than detract from the experience.

If you’re working from an Incense Road sampler it’s not immediately obvious which stick is what, but generally the color coding is a reddish brown (sienna?) stick for Frankincense, tan for (Spicy) Chai, and green for Sandalwood. Unlike the Tennendo Frankincense I reviewed earlier, which is as close to the pure resin as possible on a stick, Incense Road Frankincense is much spicier and even hot, so fragrant that times it reminds me of a chunk of perfumed amber. While not quite at Yume no Yume strength on the fresh stick, when burned the aroma comes off in rich waves, a very indulgent and impressive experience. I’m tempted and even likely to eventually purchase a decent amount of stock on this one.

Chai also brings to mind a certain kind of spice and Shoyeido have nailed this one in that it has that spice, if not at the strength level of the Frankincense, with a creamy background that will be reminiscent to some of Chai itself. The only difference is that there’s a notable sandalwood presence in back which helps to remind you that this is incense rather than tea, in fact this element of the balance is quite brilliant and I can imagine the artisans were pleased when they got this one perfect. But, please, 60 stick packages of this would likely be welcome.

The green Sandalwood stick completes an excellent line. Like the Frankincense, this isn’t likely to hit anyone as being close to a pure sandalwood stick, but it does take the best aspects of the wood and mix it with a very sultry musk hint that helps to ground the stick’s inherent dry qualities. As a contrast to the other two scents it’s also very close to perfect.

Shoyeido do tend to do really well with their modern lines, all of which tend to use a high level of ingredients similar to their traditional lines. Of the modern lines I’ve tried to date, these three sticks are among my favorites as the resins, woods and prominent spices are perfect for deep, aromatic experiences in a more modern, perfumed style.

Nippon Kodo / Kohden (brief thoughts)

This isn’t going to be a review of the Kohden line exactly, but there are quite a few people who hit this blog searching on this new incense line so I thought I’d briefly go over the six aromas. This is particularly important in that this appears to be a somewhat overpriced line – not that the incenses aren’t good, they are, but because they all strike me as being sandalwood based incenses in an aloeswood price range.

Before that gets too confusing, I’ll bring up the first two aromas, Sweet Aloeswood and Spicy Aloeswood. Both these bring to mind Baieido’s Ensei line that also have similar incenses, but in that line, they both still strike me as aloeswood sticks and are priced accordingly. The two Kohden aloeswoods seem to be to be sandalwood incenses with aloeswood oils and thus don’t strike me as having the depth and richness of most aloeswood incenses. The Sweet Aloeswood is pretty smooth and does have a bit of spice but the sandalwood base is strong and gives it the aroma of a blend. The Spicy Aloeswood has a rich, spicy oil in front but has the same issues.

When moving to the other four incenses, the price is a little cheaper and the fact that aloeswood is not a concern makes it a little more comfortable to talk about them on their own merits. The Kohden Sandalwood is quite nice, very dry and smooth with a bit of a weird aromatic contour I can’t place with just a sampler. I do like the Kohden sandalwood base on most of these sticks, although it would not surprise me if the wood was intensified by essential oil.

Kohden Musk Note starts with the same base but adds a very alluring, sweltery musk and a bit of sweet and spice to the mix. I like my musks to be a little dangerous and dense and this comes only about half way there, but seems like it would be very user friendly to those who like the style.

Kohden’s most impressive incenses are probably the last two. The Japanese Mint really benefits from the smooth sandalwood base and seems a rather broadreaching mint in aroma with a cool peppermint background that the wood brings out. This may be the one I’d pick up first. The Kohden Star Anise shows equal balance, which is good because Anise always strikes me best as part of a blend and can be overwhelming at times.

In summary this seems like quite the user friendly line. The incenses may not be totally natural but at least there are no off hints like in some of NK’s cheaper lines. There’s kind of a smooth mellowness to all of them that I credit the base for, but one would have to be a sandalwood appreciator to get fully behind them. However, at prices like $16.50 and $18.50 (for 40 sticks) I find it hard to justify their purchase over other wood incenses in the same price range, so I’m not sure when I’ll visit these again.

Kunmeido / Byakudankoh

Kunmeido look to be one of the more interesting Japanese incense companies. Their Reiryo Koh is considered an affordable and distinguished classic, their Shoryu Koh is a fantastic spicy blend and one I’m still absorbing, and they also do fine aloeswood blends like their high end Heian Koh and Azusa sticks.

Unlike many Japanese incense companies, Kunmeido’s low end “every day” incense is not a green sandalwood, but is instead pink/red and appears to be more of a floral blend. I found the stick initially intriguing, but the more I burned the more the aroma started reminding me of rather offputting Indian rose masalas, with a bit of a soapy smell. This element became more and more noticeable and I realized after a while I wasn’t finding it very pleasant, particularly when it’s a long stick. While it’s not really comparable to lower end green sandalwoods, being more of a rosewood (with most of the wood subsumed by the oil), I’d still find it hard to recommend, unless you don’t mind the sort of bittter note imparted by dry Indian rose masalas. On the other hand it’s a very inexpensive stick and not much of a risk to try.