Best Incense – March 2008

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

  1. Tennendo / Enkuu-Horizon – Enkuu is the incense that is making me wonder if aloeswood has actual addictive properties. For the time being it’s the one I’d pick as my favorite incense, I just can’t get enough of its complexity or sophistication.
  2. Shoyeido / Horin / Ten-Pyo – There’s a mellowness and smoothness to this kyara-infused Horin classic that initially belies the fact that it is indeed a very involved incense. I notice more and more that the kyara is just one note in a symphony of other spices that all sit comfortably next to each other. This makes me wonder why Shoyeido haven’t offered other incenses in this style that have such a fine class of ingredients other than in the Horin line.
  3. Mandala Trading / Himalayan Herbal Incense (second down) – I was thinking about this incense and its partner recently and realized that to some extent both of the aromas were almost exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to find when I first started becoming interested in incense. I’ve tried lots of minty incenses but I don’t think any of them hold a candle to this one which has a number of other spices and woods that gives the basic evergreen/spearmint the type of breadth that makes it near perfect.
  4. Shoyeido / Premium / Misho – This is one of the best intros to the Shoyeido premium lines. It’s not as expensive as five other premium incenses, yet it has a quality aloeswood presence that makes it very woody, combined with a green sort of spice scent. And like many Shoyeido blends there’s a sophistication or quality to it that I just started noticing, months after I burned my first stick. Next time I order this, I’m going for a luxury bundle as I’d burn it more frequently. Although the regular bundle comes in a very attractive box.
  5. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-Machi – I’m noticing a quality in common that this incense, Enkuu and an unknown Kyukyodo incense a friend of this blog just sent me have, a very high quality aloeswood presence with a number of complementary spices that give it somewhat of a caramel-like sweetness. At first, particularly with Muro-Machi, I found this element to be a bit cloying, but over time I’ve come to crave it. Here it’s the dominant scent, in Enkuu and the other stick, part of the overall scent.
  6. Kunmeido / Asuka – It seems that every Top Ten list is likely to have Asuka, Heian Koh or Shunkodo’s Yoshino No Haru on it, it’s become a standard around here. Asuka gets the spotlight this time as I’m notice the subtle complexities here that are absent in the other stick, a certain slight mint note that really puts this one over the top.
  7. Baieido / Tokusen Syukohkoku – This is one of my favorite incenses for a clean palate. What I mean by that is after a long day of being nowhere near incense, I tend to be at my highest sensitivity level. This makes it perfect for incenses as subtle as some of Baieido’s higher end sticks. I think this is a triumph for Baieido, it’s about as perfectly balanced an incenses as exists. I love the aloeswood used in this stick.
  8. Kyukyodo / Sho Ran Ko – For some reason I’m not burning this as much lately, but its position down here doesn’t indicate that I feel less about it by any means. I still think this is one of the most clever incenses available.
  9. Shoyeido / Xiang Do / Forest – I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this one much. I started with the one stick Xiang Do sampler and while there were a few I liked quite a bit, Forest is the triumph of this line. I think it’s partially because I think the piney, evergreen qualities here are tailor made for this intense, pressed style of incense. As I burn it it’s like an entire forest of various resins letting loose as if crystals of scent were evaporating. It’s another that friends really go for as well.
  10. Nado Poizokhang / Grade A – I reviewed this one yesterday, so not much more to say other than it’s really grabbed my attention of late.

Incense Hall of Fame page added

I’ve added a new page that lists, by price category, what I consider to be the very best incenses available in the US market. I have not added links or comments to these yet, but expect to as I find time.

Nado Poizokhang / Grades A-C

Nado Poizokhang claims to be the the oldest and largest hand-made incense stick manufacturer in Bhutan. The company’s main incense, if you will, actually exists in seven different grades, from A to G. The ingredients in all of these incenses includes sandalwood, clove, red sandalwood, major cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, and a dozen or so other herbs and spices. The difference among the grades appears to be the amount of juniper used, the amount increasing as the grade of incense gets lower.

The general Nado Poizokhang scent is like many Tibetan and Bhutanese incense sticks, it’s composed of so many different herbs and spices that it takes quite a while to get used to the scent and realize how complex the incense is. I have the same experience with almost all Tibetan blends that have a large list of ingredients, an initial feeling of disappointment and bewilderment, only to find as I get used to the scent that I was actually quite off in my initial assessment. In fact, all three of the grades in question have been getting quite a bit of “air time” lately, and the more I burn them, the more I enjoy them.

However, the quality level, at least between Nado Poizokhang Grade A and C is quite significant in that the amount of juniper used changes the color of the stick from a deep, almost cherry red color to a sort of pink-tinged beige. It begs the question of just how much difference there could be in scent among the lower grades from D to F, if the change is this significant in the higher grades. The consistency of the stick is sort of unusual as well in that they’re very strong and almost have a sort of plastic feel to them, which is a bit of a change considering how many broken pieces of various Tibetan sticks show up.

Grade A appears to be the only one to come in a sort of weird paper-ended bamboo tube, the others seem to come in boxes that differ mostly in the color or “wrappers” for the two lowest grades. Honestly I’d rather have them all in boxes, the tube can not be opened without it being opened permanently, with a hole in one of the ends. Like many multi-ingredient incenses, there’s a hell of a lot going on here, but initially one’s likely to get some berry hints and stronger tobacco/sage like characteristics. In fact it’s tribute to the blenders that it’s only with experience that one starts to notice the individual players in the orchestra, all sort of popping up in random variations as your stick burns. Of course, with Grade A these characteristics are the strongest. Grade B is still very close, but the presence of juniper mellows out the intensity some, and in Grade C it almost seems like the juniper presence is on an even par with the other ingredients. After burning A and B, I still get strong hints of it with C, but I do wonder how much presence the lower grades could possibly have.

Overall, like a lot of these central Asian incenses that use lots of ingredients, it takes a while to suss out the central scent and this sort of longevity is definitely a plus, one generally finds that you kind of grow with it and that the familiarity starts to make it a bit addictive. The prices are close to Tibetan premium prices (around the $20 mark and descending per grade), but honestly one should definitely start with A or B first in order to a get a grip on this company’s central scent (B being $5 less than A is probably the best bet). I might eventually find Grade C a decent substitute, it’s certainly pleasant, but the juniper kind of obscures some of the stronger more energetic herbs, making it a bit slower to “get.”

Tennendo / Karafune / Johin (Bronze), Yuhin (Silver), Kahin (Gold)

If Enkuu-Horizon is the current top line being exported to the US via Tennendo, then this series of three aloeswood incenses might be the next highest group in terms of quality and pricing. However, all three of these scents are quite different than the rest of the company’s lines. If Enkuu is notable due to its high resin content and the series that includes Kuukai, Tensei et al. is notable due to the quality of oil notes in the incense, the Karafune series (I’m using this loosely as Tennendo also have a single incense under the same name) is surely notable due to the quality of wood involved. That is, all three of these incenses are not the sort of intense, resinous, almost ancient scents you’d expect of many high end aloeswood incenses, but something quite a bit more user friendly and light hearted.

The incenses are actually not all that difficult to describe and in many ways it’s their single note scents and lack of complexity that makes them, perhaps, a bit less notable than other incenses at similar price ranges. The breakdown is like this: Johin uses spicy aloeswood. Kahin uses sweet aloeswood. Yuhin combines the two and to say that it’s almost like a direct hybird of Johin and Yuhin would not be far from the truth at all (and in saying so it’s the most complex of the three incenses).

All three incenses are packaged in beautiful Kiri/Paulownia boxes, with catching labels and what looks like a bit of stain or something to bring the wood closer to the particular gold, silver or bronze motif. The incenses themselves, as close as possible with the ingredients, also resemble these colors. All  three incenses are very mellow and woody and even the two that use spicy aloeswood have a bit of sweetness to them. All three give the impression of cool wood, nothing fancy or spectacular, but obviously of good quality. The spicy aloeswood, if not up to Baieido’s Hakusui level, shares some similarities with that quality of wood. The sweet aloeswood loses the tang, but doesn’t generally have the sort of richness that higher end sweet aloeswoods often do. And as I previously mentioned, only the Silver has any sort of complexity, the two woods being used kind of playing off of each other.

Oddly enough I might prefer the Johin best of all, if only because I prefer drier, spicier, tangier woods to the sweeter ones. I don’t notice gigantic upgrades in quality from one style to the next, which to my nose, makes the Kahin a bit overpriced for the level of quality. While all three have a certain smoothness and elegance to them that is quite attractive, I often find myself craving something with a bit more overt resin content to it. However, I conversely think that these could be ideal high/middle end aloeswood incenses for the newcomer. And they look awful pretty among the rest of your incense boxes.

Shunkodo / Yae No Hana, Haru No Kaori, Yoshino No Haru

Those of you who have tried Shunkodo’s incenses are aware that one of the best parts about buying a box, is that it’s likely to last you a long time. While the company does have some smaller rolls with different fragrances, their central line comes in these boxes with double flaps which generally contain well over 100 sticks. This means if you like a scent, you’ll be set for a long time with any of these boxes, and I’ve found over time that in terms of Japanese incense, the Shunkodo lines from top to bottom are among some of my most commonly burned incenses.

I’ve reviewed both Zuika and Ranjatai in the past, which are two of three highest end Shunkodo incenses currently exported from Japan. The three under review here contain the other of those three high line incenses and two you’d describe as being right in the middle. All three of these have become standards in my home and are extremely affordable for the quality. Yes, in most Shunkodo cases you’re going to be spending some money to get a box (although not all that much in two cases here), but once you do you’ll be glad you did.

The most expensive in the bunch is the Yoshino No Haru, which is Shunkodo’s second most premium incense, at least of those currently exported to the US. I’ve mentioned this incense frequently in top 10 lists because it is an exponent of what appears to be a fairly common high end Japanese aloeswood blend, a green stick whose woody qualities are sublimated for what is generally an incredible oil or spice presence. I’ve mentioned this in context with Kunmeido’s Asuka and Heian Koh blends. Asuka is the normal Japanese incense stick, Heian Koh a thicker, square cut and like these, Yoshino No Haru also comes in both of these formats. In the Kunmeido case and after some deliberation, I’ve come to think of the Asuka as the most premium quality in this style (and the price speaks to that as well), but certainly Yoshino No Haru is the most affordable exponent and a $60 roll will get you at least 110 sticks in the thin form. The thing is, I’ve found the Heian Koh’s thicker stick and more prevalent aromatic delivery to be the one I reach for the most, so i can imagine the thicker stick in this format is likely to be just as satisfying if not more so. The description of the incense with the quote about 30,000 cherry blossoms also hints at the scent here, getting a bit closer to what is a difficult aroma to describe. It’s sweet, rich, powerful and quite user friendly. You might be able to tell by now that I love all of these blends to bits.

Yae No Hana and Haru no Kaori both have one noticeable thing in common, they’re an attempt to harmonize or combine floral scents with woods and spices, sandalwood for Yae No Hana and aloeswood and Chinese medicine spices for Haru no Kaori. I’ve found both of these to be wonderful, relatively inexpensive blends that are both quite user friendly. Yae No Hana is both a purple stick and in a purple box and in some ways it’s sort of an every day style of incense, except the floral notes (rose? violet?) are more on top. Incenses like this often tend to show off notes due to the quality of floral oils used, but in this case Yae No Hana strikes me as a perfectly balanced incense. It’s strange but certain incense scents remind me of being very young and using Crayola crayons and this is one of them. For around $18, you’ll be set for a long time with a big roll of this stuff and quite happy too.

Haru No Kaori may be the most user friendly scent in the line, in fact it’s not all that far from Kyukyodo’s Azusa, except not nearly that distinctive or classic. It just has a bit of aloeswood that kind of quietly sits behind a very friendly, sweet floral smell. It’s not a particularly loud incense and took me maybe 10-15 sticks to really start noticing that it has the same sort of quiet sublimity that Shunkodo’s Zuika has. It’s really a charming part of the line that so many of the positive qualities of these incenses are on such a quiet and finely attuned level. I could really find myself having this particular scent become one of my standards as it does itch some of my high end sympathies while not being quite in that price range.

Overall, all three of these are well worth adding to your incense supply. Not only will they increase your stock significantly, but you’ll find yourself wanting to burn them more frequently as you get used to them. I should also mentioned that both Haru No Kaori and Yoshino No Haru also come in long stick forms via Japan Incense (link on right).