Best Incense – January 2008

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

  1. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Enkuu-Horizon, if only temporarily, bumps the venerable Sho-Ran-Ko on this list, mostly because almost all month I could not stop thinking about this incense and would have even burned it more had I known I wouldn’t decimate my stock. This is a truly complex, heavy, rich incense with an incredible aloeswood presence. Possibly too much at first, each burn reveals further layers. Tennendo is one incredible incense company and should have a profile as strong as Shoyeido or Baieido.
  2. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – One of the finest incenses available – sultry, playful and astonishing. Those dipping a toe into the high end sticks should start here.
  3. Kunmeido / Heian Koh – I can roughly exchange Kunmeido Asuka and Shunkohdo Yoshino No Haru with this stick. Heian Koh has the thicker, square cut stick and a bit more aroma, while Yoshino No Haru is probably not quite as deluxe as the other two, but all three seem to represent a particular green aloeswood style with a very distinctive oil note that gets more addictive the more it’s burned. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the packaging on the top three incenses here are as nice as the incense itself.
  4. Shoyeido / Floral World / Star / Violet – The short sticks that typify Shoyeido lines like Horin, 12 Month and Floral World get more and more addictive as you burn them due to the concentrated aromas and rich, spicy base. The high end floral violet in the Star collection could possibly be the finest floral I’ve tried with such a concentration of fine oil that it’s like the real flowers intensified. A truly awe inspiring incense that should be better known. The companions in the set are nearly as good.
  5. Shoyeido / Incense Road or Gourmet / Frankincense – Another short stick with intense, spicy, power, this frankincense gets more addictive as my Incense Road set dwindles to zero. This ought to appeal to anyone who likes a high content of spice in their incense, the resin is somewhat sublimated to that end with this stick with its cinnamon and clove content. A good bet for Horin / Hori-kawa fans as well.
  6. Shoyeido / Sakaki / (unknown) – It’s obviously been Shoyeido month at chez prattle and this little boutique item is one of Shoyeido’s pressed incense line. This is a style that has a feel and aroma all of its own and seems to be marketed more as objet d’art than for the incense itself. Sakaki is a set of four coils that I’ll go into more when I get a chance to review the set, but the white or beige coils in this set are particularly incredible. Burning (or heating for that matter) pressed incense makes me think of crystals of aroma releasing intense scented clouds in tiny bursts. It’s shame that the scents in here only come in twos as this could be the last time it makes a list like this.
  7. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-Machi – As I hoped and expected, this second to tops Horin aloeswood incense has improved with use, the combination of wood and intense caramel scent becoming more of a marriage for me as I get used to it. Its slight novelty over the rest of the series makes it come out slightly ahead this month.
  8. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – A perrenial top tenner with its kyara notes and strong, sweet wood presence. It’s also turning out to be even more complex than I had thought. I want coils really bad at this point.
  9. Shoyeido / Premium / Kyo-jiman – I don’t burn Shoyeido premium incenses as much mostly due to their cost, but every so often an old favorite will surprise. This green aloeswood stick has a nice minty note I’d almost forgotten about and I’d rate this just about even with the next scent above it. It’s also more of a low ender so I may break down and get a big box of this so I can burn it more often.
  10. Mandala Trading / Tibetan Monastery Incense (third down) – Still the Tibetan incense to beat for me, it has a complexity and level of spice that always makes it a friendly burn. And I probably use up more of this than almost any other stick per volume.
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15 Comments

  1. Mike said,

    February 18, 2008 at 10:34 am

    I’m in Sacramento, CA. There are a couple stores in town that sell incense, but it’s generally Nippon Kodo. Much better resources in the SF bay area. I do have the Kodo book, in fact there should be a review of it here in the archives. Definitely a nice introduction to the subject and thanks for letting us know about the discounted price, I’d definitely recommend the deal to readers. – Mike

  2. Kohdude said,

    February 17, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    I was wondering what state and city you reside in because I am in L.A. and know of nowhere here local that has alot of Japanese incense. It is weird because there is alot of Japanese people here.I have even gone to Little Tokyo in L.A., and nothing except really cheap stuff.I wonder how much Japanese Americans even burn good stuff or even burn it at all. I know the Japanese younger crowd burn it because it has be come a newer Japanese fade in Japan. they burn these weird floral cheap stuff marketed at the 20 something crowd. that is why there is so much newer Nippon Kodo and Shoyeido stuff in small packagings with rip off prices.packaging is a real racket ,especially Shoyeido with their tiny amount packaging in the trend lines. when you can get a larger amount in alot of ther less fansied packaged stuff. what a marketing gimmick they have got going. I’m glad I’m aware of it. Baieido on the other hand seems a little classier about putting out incense even though they have come up with some of the same tricks recently. I have heard this all has to do with this new Japanese youth movement and companies are cashing in on making stuff in modernized look packaging. do you have the book Kodo the way of incense? if not Amazon has it for under $4 brand new and it comes with a couple holders and some incense. it is about 100 pages with lots of color pictures and originally retailed for around $20. a great deal and makes great gifts at that price. with shiping it comes to about $8. it is hard to go wrong with that. the holders alone would cost you over $8. I have bought many and given them away. the book is also not bad. the guy who wrote it was affiliated with Baieido so it makes it a little more valid as opposed to someone just doing there research and writing a book. I found the incense to be lame ,but at that price you can’t expect to be getting premium sticks. Thanks…… Kohdude

  3. Mike said,

    February 17, 2008 at 4:32 am

    Hi Kohdude. If you go over to Essence of the Ages (link to right), you’ll be able to find samplers of these incenses (at least the Ranjatai) at very affordable prices. I think you can get a small box of Heian Koh for around $28, so that shouldn’t be too steep for the quality. I’d have to be held at gunpoint to give up my Enkuu. 🙂

    It’s complicated to say whether or not these incenses are in the same league as Baieido or Shoyeido given both these companies have high end kyara incenses in the market over here, while the other companies don’t. Kyara aside, I’d say yes, although I like to think of the companies as all having their strengths in various ways.

    I think Baieido may have a Kokoh sampler of some sort, but it’s probably still quite pricey. Might try contacting them…

    Mike

  4. Kohdude said,

    February 17, 2008 at 1:17 am

    do you find Tennendo Enkuu-Horizon,Kunmeido Heian Koh or Shunkodo Ranjatai are as great as as Baieido or Shoyeido premiums? I have not tried these yet and I am wanting to sample them because these are the highest end of these companies.do you have boxes of these brands? it has seemed as if you do because you have reviewed them.are you willing to trade or sell me a stick or two of each one that I have mentioned. I am willing to trade you some Baieido Koh En for some. say two sticks of Koh En for for one stick of each that I mentioned .that seems to equall out to about the same price because Koh En is $2 a stick and Enkuu is about the same and the other two are about $1 each a stick.let me know either way or can I just buy a stick of each from you if you have it. I have really wanted to try those brands but didn’t want to have to get big samplers on something that is kind of a risk. I wish Baieido would make a Kyara Kokoh five stick sampler like they do with the Koh Shi Boku which comes out to be $6 a stick.the Kyara Kokoh same size stick is $24 a stick ,so they could do a $100 five stick sampler and probably end up selling more boxes because more people would get to try it even though it is so high priced.I’m hoping it happens some day because I have wanted to try it for years and I would be willing to pay that price. Thank You…… Kohdude

  5. Mike said,

    February 15, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Hi Kohdude, thanks for your comments.

    >how on your top ten list’s have you never had Baieido premium’s like Koh En or Koh Shi Boku they are sensational?

    My top ten list is just a bit of fun, it’s more reflective of what I’m enjoying in the current month than what I think a universal top 10 would be. I’ve tried both of the incenses you mention in samplers and could easily see them in a monthly top 10, but given their cost, I haven’t had enough of the sticks for either scent to make a list. I think if I was to do a universal top 10 it would have less movement and be more static, which would probably get old.

    >have you tried ecclecstacy’s pure aloeswood highend stuff like the pv73 or the one in small red tubes with the open end on it.

    Yes I’ve tried most of these and while they’re decent standard aloeswood sticks, I tend to prefer sticking with higher end sticks or heating aloeswood pieces like Baieido’s Hakusui.

    >I don’t know if incense is worth that price that Kyara Kokoh is. have you tried it?

    No, but would love to some day. I think Baieido is one of the best of the incenses companies so my expectations would be very high for the Kokoh.

    -I am not saying everyone should burn $100 incense but you can get great stuff under $20 like Baieido’s Kaiunko which I love.

    I agree very much on this incense, it’s on the same level as many other incenses 2 or 3 times its price.

    As for cost, it’s definitely a real factor, but you really do tend to get what you pay for and the pleasure of high end incenses really does outweigh the much cheaper brands, especially if one has a taste for aloeswood, which I’m not sure is always friendly to western noses. I’ve found with incense over time that the best deals even if you do have to put out cash tend to be the larger rolls, anything from Kyukyodo Sho-Ran-Ko to the high end Shunkodo rolls might cost you $100-$150, but once you get that stock, the rolls last for a very long time and you’re not holding back as much as you might for the 35 stick Shoyeido rolls.

    As for the mark ups, it would definitely be interesting to know how much of that goes on, given the new (for the US) lines that have come through Scents of Japan which are not only significantly less expensive than some of the major companies but of similar quality.

    Thanks for the kinds words. – Mike

  6. Kohdude said,

    February 15, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    how on your top ten list’s have you never had Baieido premium’s like Koh En or Koh Shi Boku they are sensational? they are pricey , but no more than Shoyeido premium’s, stick for stick and I find them somewhat higher end. have you tried ecclecstacy’s pure aloeswood highend stuff like the pv73 or the one in small red tubes with the open end on it. they are great and only about $10 to $12 a tube for ten to fifteen sticks. they are probably the best Vietnamese pure sticks on the market but I have only seen it at Ecclecstacy.if this stuff came from Japan it would be twice the price. I some times question some of your top ten selections,but some selections seem on point.I know you have tried Baieido premiums , but what is your reasoning for not giving them top ten recognition? is it that you have not burned much of it , I understand by the price? I still have not had a chance to experince Kyara Kokoh. I don’t know if incense is worth that price that Kyara Kokoh is. have you tried it? definately give Ecclecstacy a chance because they have stuff nobody else does. calling them is the best thing to do. David is a really nice guy and knows incense. they have sampled me almost anything I wanted to try and have been very generace when other place’s would only sample this or that kind of stuff. yes they do sometimes take a little while on orders but it has been well worth it. the selection is the best going and the prices are good. I look forward to your next review ,I am going to try Tennendo’s Enkuu-Horizon ,Shunkodo’s Ranjatai,Kunmeido’s Hein Koh and Minorien’s Fuuin Kyara.I pretty much only burn high end stuff and that is why I want to try these high end brand’s.I couldn’t see any of them surpassing Koh En or Koh Shi Boku but I would like to see if there is something out there as extraordinary,I doubt that there is but it is worth sampling different brand’s. thank you for your review’s on the newer availible high end brand’s . I am curious to see if they match up to the old standard’s like Baieido and Shoyeido. you seem to know your incense,so I look forward to future reviews. It is nice to come across someone who appreciates high end incense and not just another person I meet that feels Nag Champa is supreme and scoffs at the prices I will pay for incense. I guess it is like people who drink orange juice from concentrate and think it is good even though they have had fresh squeezed ,because they usually rationalize with price still knowing the fresh squeeze is more pleasing,but they are too cheap and they depribe them selve’s of the pleasure. I have found some people very much this way with incense. They love what I have burned but unwilling to not be cheap. I am not saying everyone should burn $100 incense but you can get great stuff under $20 like Baieido’s Kaiunko which I love. I am sure you would agree about this , with the regard to price. My favorite sandalwood is Shoyeido’s Kyo Nishiki and it is very inexpensive and it took me years of testing sandalwoods to conclude that.I find bang for your buck Ecclecstay’s pure aloeswood stuff would be hard to beat for pure aloeswood incense and I have tried many. A dollar a stick for that kind of quality is well worth it,being if it was Japanese it could be alot more money,and buying boxes of it makes it even less expensive. a lot of Japanese things are a prestige racket especially incense, but it is difficult to not acknowledge quality. it is the price that is questionable because they gear it toward wealthy people, just like overpriced wine. it’s trying to milk the wealthy with something that has been deemed prestigous and the product gets majorly marked up. most Japanese high end premium lines should be at least half their price, but alot of wealthy people believe if something is not pricey it is not that great, so the people buy into the scam.I worked in Beverly Hills so I know what I am talking about. you could mark up anything and tell them this is great and they would buy it because if it was expensive they would believe it must be great because it is expensive. so it just goes to show you price isn’t always a strong determiner even though some incense is magnificant that is pricey. it mostly is price gouging even though the ingredients are good, it is taking advantage of people if they are aware of it or not. keep it up with the reviews…. nice job!!!!!

  7. Mike said,

    February 12, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Hey Steve, thanks for the comments on the Minorien and Horin lines. I agree with you that really the only indication of cost would have to be by inch. The only thing it leaves out is the relative thickness of a stick (compare the very skinny Baieido aloeswood lines to the Horin sticks for example), but that would be more math than I would be capable of.

    I’m really into the Muro-Machi this month, it’s likely to be very high in my Feb top 10 list. That whole Horin line is good from top to bottom, and am curious as to what you thought of the Gen-roku and Ten-Pyo. The Hori-Kawa seems to be popular with almost anyone who tries it, it really is one of the best sandalwood based incenses on the market, in fact I’ve got a coil out for today…

    Best, Mike

  8. steveski said,

    February 11, 2008 at 5:52 am

    In terms of price, since stick bundles/boxes and stick lengths tend to vary, since stick lengths and bundle/boxes vary so widely, I like to think of it as $$$ per INCH of stick. That way if it’s a 3” stick, 5” stick, 9” stick or whatever, you can get a feeling for what a 100 stick box of 5” sticks would cost, for example. So maybe a scale of $$$ per inch of stick would work. Just a thought.

    FYI, the Shoyeido Horin Muro-Machi is indeed an amazing stick. I recently picked up the Horin sampler and I’m also quite impressed with the Nijo and the Hori-Kawa as well. The Nijo is very clean and fresh, a very unique scent, and the Hori-Kawa is also a nice fresh blend, do I note a hint of cinnamon in there. I need to get more of these 🙂 Have not burned the Ten-Pyo yet but that’s next.

  9. Mike said,

    February 6, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Hey Bernd,

    Beth (from Essence) let me post an e-mail here that she sent me when I asked a similar question about heaters. You can find it here:

    http://mikesprattle.wordpress.com/2007/09/25/wood-chip-heaters-a-comparison/

    I ended up getting one of the ceramic heaters and never regretted it. It’s a great way to turn people onto incense who have trouble with smoke. Since that list Shoyeido have some even more expensive wood based heaters that also look really nice.

    Appreciate your suggestion on the Xiang Do Frankincense. I tried a stick of it in the sampler a while back and do remember liking it, so I think I’ll have to grab a box. My favorite in that line is the Forest, I can never get enough of it. It reminds me of an incense I loved as a teenager whose name I long forgot.

    Mike

  10. Bernd Sandner said,

    February 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    P.P.S.
    Since you write about the Himenoka incense ( by the way, this has got the same name in my catalogue)
    I Have been thinking about a chip heater for quite some time. Maybe the time has come to get one.
    Any suggestions?

    Best! Bernd

  11. Bernd Sandner said,

    February 6, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    P.S. from Bernd.
    Since you mentioned to like especially the white/beige coil. Did you ever try the Xiang Do Francincense?
    There is some element in this white/beige coil that reminds me a lot of the Xiang Do Francincense.

  12. Mike said,

    February 6, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Hey Bernd, good to hear from you. I may have forgotten to mention it in the Sakaki review, but one thing the coils in that set remind me of is Shoyeido’s Himenoka/Princess Fragrance set (perhaps this too is a different name in Germany). With the four incenses in the Himenoka set you’d have to own a heater of some sort to use them, but they all are similar to the Sakaki coils. Perhaps it’s just the style that creates the similarity, but I would think you’d like these just as much. They’re all pressed in all these wonderful little shapes like leaves and flowers. But like with Sakaki there’s no way besides knowing the language to identify what sort of scent they are going for. And I’m never quite sure when to remove the incense from the heater, it often seems like the aroma will go for hours.

    Anyway it seems like a pretty pricy incense overall, but the Japanese artistic aesthetic these sets come packaged in are almost worth the incense itself. I only have half of one Sakaki coil left now and I still can’t imagine getting rid of the packaging!

    Also glad you enjoyed the Floral World sets. Like yourself, the Azusa was the only one I really liked before getting the Star set, so it was such a pleasant surprise, enough that when I do some more ordering again I’ll have to get the next box down (I really want to see what the Rose is like given I’ve never liked any rose masalas in the past).

    Best,

    Mike

  13. Bernd Sandner said,

    February 6, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Dear Mike,

    I am happy to see, you are able to smell again after your cold.
    Thanks for suggesting “Floral World” and “Sakaki”! I tried them, and, as you already said, they are really unique. I never liked floral incences too much (exept, of course “Azusa” from Kyukyodo”).
    Now, after I read your review, I also tried the Star selection. Although the floral element is strong, it is never too much, and in a perfect balance. Smooth, soft, and strong at the same time. Excellent!
    The Sakaki, for some reason is called Yomono-mizu in my German catalogue. In this catalogue there is another pressed incense called Sakaki (silver tree), which on the US Shoyeido page is called Wakana.You can find it on the page “In-koh Pressed incense”. I do not know why they use different names in Germany. But anyway I found the right incense, that is the pressed coils, coming in four pairs.
    They are really special, and each type so different. Too bad they only come in this kind of small package.
    I am not yet very familiar with them, so I cannot say much. But as all the excellent incenses, these also have the broad spectrum of different scents within them, that keep changing constantly. Especially the red one it seems. A very nice discovery of yours. If you had not written about them, I probably would never have had the idea to get them! So thanks again and greetings fom Bernd!

  14. Mike said,

    January 28, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Hi Julia, thanks for sharing your thoughts about the site and the reviews, always appreciate any feedback.

    I’ve been giving incense cost a lot of thought in terms of how I want to present it here. I’m trying to get some kind of good idea of exactly what sort of tiers would be useful to people. So far I’m thinking along the lines of Under $10, $10-$25, $26-$100 and $100+. There are a couple issues that complicate this though, primarily the fact that what a “roll” might be can vary from 35 sticks to 150 and more and the stick length. For example, with most of the Shunkodo incenses, you get large rolls of 140-160 sticks and while you might be putting out significant money for an initial buy, on a stick to stick basis this is very affordable, high quality incense. In fact it seems like a lot of Japanese incense is priced so that smaller quantities will cost you, per stick, much more (especially with Shoyeido). So these are all issues that I’m considering in terms of categorizing incense by price.

    With all this said, I’ll definitely make it a point to mentioning these prices more in the initial part of upcoming reviews. I’d probably feel the same reading about some high end kyara incense I can’t currently afford (just how many of us wish we could try Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh eh?). And by all means, let me know if you have any other ideas that might help. – Mike

  15. Julia said,

    January 27, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Hello Mike,

    I discovered your incense blog a couple of weeks ago, and have been happily devouring (inhaling) it ever since. Thank you for sharing your impressions of incense so generously. Your way of describing scent is very evocative, and is already pointing me to some wonderful new finds.

    I do have a tentative suggestion. In your reviews, might you consider posting the ballpark cost of the incense? Obviously the price will vary from one seller to another, but nonetheless they do tend to sell incenses within a fairly close price range.

    The reason I’m asking is that while I spend more money on incense than anyone else I know, I am still not in a position to buy the more expensive lines. Therefore, providing an approximate cost at the beginning of an incense review would help me and other readers know instantly whether or not the incense in question is within reach. The one downside to reading your blog (for me) is the sinking feeling that comes from reading a glowing review, getting very excited, clicking the link to the seller webpage, and discovering that the incense is financially far beyond my means. (Of course, I could just investigate the link first, but frankly I’d rather read your review!)

    Alternatively (if you decide to do this – and I appreciate that you might not!), you could have a “star system” where one star = inexpensive (between $5 and $15 per roll, say), two stars = moderate, and so forth.

    I hope I am not being too cheeky in suggesting this. And just so that you know – nothing will stop me from reading your reviews of the pricier lines, as I do hope some day to manage a splurge 🙂 Or perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to find another local incense enthusiast or two, so that we can get an incense club going. Wouldn’t that be fun!


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