Shoyeido / Premium Daily / Sei-Fu

Ross wrote about Shoyeido’s Premium Daily En-Mei yesterday, and in one of those weird coincidences, I had notes written up for En-Mei’s partner Sei-Fu. There are only two Shoyeido Premium Daily incenses and rather than being the overlap between the Premium and Daily series, both of these incenses are more akin to the low-end premiums in price, Matsu-No-Tomo and Ohyja-Koh. However, both En-Mei and Sei-Fu strike me as possibly being modern/traditional hybrids and actually go for aromas that are more striking than their prices suggest.

Sei-Fu is slightly the most expensive of the two Premium Dailys. Despite the change in ingredients lists, leaving Sei-Fu seemingly bereft of the aloeswood ingredient, it’s still the incense’s most dominant scent and Sei-Fu is in fact surprising in that it emits quite the quality aloeswood aroma. I suspect there’s probably more aloeswood oil than wood in this case and that it scents the background of sandalwood, cinnamon, and clove. Overall it may be a bit thin in the aroma, probably due to price, but considering it’s aiming for an incense at two or three times the price, it’s quite successful. It’s also a bit on the sultry side, which reminds me of the 12 Months November a little. Overall it’s a great and addictive incense that’s also quite affordable.

Overall, both En-Mei and Sei-Fu are great introductions to that no-mans land between overtly sandalwood and overtly aloeswood blends, blurring the line between both. They’re both among the best value for money in incense and perhaps a counter to the generalization that Shoyeido incense is too highly priced.

Shoyeido / Premium Daily / Enmei

Enmei or Circle from Shoyeido is just a nice, spicy, somewhat sharp or tart Sandalwood. The spice note is very up front and teds to overshadow the wood. It is part of the “Premium Daily Incense” line, which means it’s a tad more expensive then the “Daily” line. This and Seifu (Fresh Breeze) are two of my favorite Sandalwoods from this company. They both have that certain distinctiveness that sets them apart enough so you can taste the difference. They are both very easy and calming and a joy to use. There is just enough play in the different notes to capture your interest, yet not take over the moment. A great stick for after the work day as you settle back into your home.

It never ceases to amaze me when reading the ingredients list that Shoyeido gives out, how many of them look very similar, yet their Incense Master is so good that somehow he juggles the components into different scents that all work.

Tennendo / Shingon

Shingon is an interesting and very good Sandalwood with musk like accents using plant based components rather the musk deer pods.

This is a really nice, sort of middle of the road Sandalwood. It’s not “wet” like the Minorien/Fu-in line, nor is it as dry as the Baiedo’s can get. Its spice note is fairly light and plays nicely with decent Sandalwood as the base. It really does have a mellow musky scent to it. I find that the more I try it the more I like it and will restock (says Ross lighting the forth stick of it in one night). I have given away some sticks to people just starting out in incense. One thing that everyone likes is that it sells for around $5.50 for a 40 stick bundle or 10 rolls for $49.00. It’s a great deal and makes a great gift that you can be happy giving because it will be appreciated. It’s one of those perfect everyday incenses that we all look for.

– Ross

Baieido / Black Coffee, Coffee, Green Tea, Honey, Hinoki, Izumi

Baieido are well known and highly praised for their traditional Japanese incense blends; however, they also have a number of incenses that aim at the modern end of the market. In most, if not all of these cases, Baieido use a special charcoal for the stick and oils for the scents, the type of incenses that are more likely to appeal to the casual user or those not interested in the tradirionals. In this group are a number of scents growing in popularity, such as Coffee, Green Tea, and a fresh cleansing floral called Izumi. All of these scents, except the Izumi, are smokeless. You can find the Hinoki here.

Even though Baieido appear to use a very user friendly charcoal base for these incenses, it’s a delievery method I’ll never be fond of because even in the best cases charcoal imparts certain qualities to the incense that detract from the actual scent. This is true for most of the incenses in this article as well, although I find in both the Hinoki and Izumi cases that it gets in the way the least. All of these are quite affordable incenses and now that Baieido are starting to break down some of the larger $20 packages (Honey, Green Tea and Coffee) into smaller 40 stick packages they should be even more accessible.

Both Black Coffee and Coffee are very similar yet slightly different incenses. I read something to the effect that the former’s more about the bean where the latter’s more like coffee with creamer. Perhaps due to the charcoal presence I only noticed a slight difference between them. The Black Coffee is very earthy with hints of clay, wet slate and soil among the coffee bean. At first this seems to be offputting but the smell does grow on you a little bit. The Coffee is still almost as penetrating and earthy, but reminds me more of a cup of coffee than the bean. Unfortunately I’ve never tried a coffee type incense that doesn’t remind me of the smell of a cafe rather than a fresh cup, so I’ve never found one that I find successful, but to my nose there’s lots of subtle differences between different kinds of gourmet coffee, while both of these seem to be going more for something like Folger’s. But it should be said that both of these seem to be fairly popular incenses and my reaction is definitely from a traditionally minded perspective.

The Green Tea I found to be a bit less sweet than those by other companies, almost as if it accentuates the slight floral nature of the aroma rather than the tea leaf aspects. Like most Green Teas this is an aroma that actually reduces or absorbs off odors, leaving a lingering freshness. My short experience with this actually seemed like it reduced the aroma of whatever traditional incense I was burning before it. You could compare this to the Shorindo Chabana I wrote about a few weeks ago, except this is a bit warmer and even has a summery vibe to it.

Baieido’s Honey appears to be kind of unusual for this style, or at least I can’t think of a comparable incense in another company off the top of my head. Those familiar with the durbar/champa blends Satya Natural or Honey Dust will have a rough idea of the type of scent here, except in this case the pesky charcoal base interferes with the aroma more than most in this line. The oil/aroma itself is quite pleasant and mildly sweet and it sort of split my experience, when I got more oil and less charcoal in the scent, I enjoyed it, when the charcoal was dominant I didn’t.

Baieido’s Hinoki isn’t a traditional stick, even if it’s definitely a traditional scent. I’ve tried woodier cypress incenses and have not really been fond of any, but this incense has a real clarity to the essential oil one that comes very close to the natural scent of Japanese cypress. At times this is quite sublime, very delicate and is quite reminiscent of higher end oils with a very distinct definition. Perhaps the charcoal works better with this oil as it didn’t interfere with my experience so much, in fact I found this to be one of the best smokeless incenses I’ve tried. Even traditional-minded users should give this one a sample.

However, I think my favorite in this group is the Izumi. While I believe I got the essentials of the previous five with just samples, I’ve had a little more experience with the Izumi. Like the Green Tea it seems to have freshening and perhaps odor reducing qualities. The aroma is described as “the essence of many flowers, mixing in the spring winds” and it has a fresh, cleansing and uplifting vibe about it. Like many multiflorals, this will be reminiscent of home fresheners or even suntan lotion and some perfumes, but there’s never a moment I think of Izumi as synthetic or offputting. It almost has a meadow-like aroma, and works nicely as a contrast to traditionals.

Overall this is a group of incenses that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of potential appreciators as it covers a wide spectrum of scents. I can imagine with many of these that leaving a stick burning in a corner somewhere will mitigate the effects of the otherwise decent quality charcoal format and a couple of them will help freshen up the home too. Indeed, both Hinoki and Izumi I’d have no problems recommending.

Best Incense – June 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Was a real close call between the one and the two this month, but I’ll give newness an edge. The quality of wood in this stick is really impressive, an occasionally green or menthol edge to the kyara. It’s a thin stick and kind of delicate, but the aroma, as the blurb says, is quite sharp. This one’s been a real addiction this month, I have to exercise discipline not to keep going in the box.
  2. Shoyeido / Ga-Ho – This could be my favorite overall incense of the moment, it has the deluxe nature of all the high end Shoyeidos but without the sweeter notes you get in the top three. It may be the driest incense around and the way the floral and spice notes come out is continually impressive.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – The very nature of the Baieido Kokoh series makes them pretty special, definitely for only certain occasions unless you can deal with half an inch at a time. The Jinko is the middle of the three and it’s a very complex incense and not only that but very different from any other line. This has a nice helping of camphor or borneol in the middle, but other than the strong wood hints, I get scents like cola, caramel or even cider in this one. The Kyara Kokoh just beggars the imagination with this as a promise.
  4. Encens du Monde / Kunjudo / Karin / Swallows in Flight – This has a such a strong musk scent to it that I’ve been pulling it out more and more, as I don’t have too many incenses that go in this sort of direction. I’d suspect there’s a lot of oil in this as it packs a punch, but it also has that interesting Kunjudo side note that I liken to hazelnut or something. Golden Waves also has this same note, in fact the two incenses aren’t all that far apart.
  5. Shoyeido / Premium – Sho-Kaku – Being the second most expensive incense in the Japanese Incense/American market means I’m continually playing with how I’d rate this. For most moods there are few other more perfect incenses and it’s one to stop your guests in their tracks (I love watching a table of people’s eyes start to light up when the aroma starts to spread out). Tastewise (and pocketbookwise) I prefer something like Ga-Ho most of the time, but when you start paying attention to how black the resin is on this one, how heavy the kyara is, it’s a hard incense to beat. Such a treasure this one…
  6. Baieido / Kobunboku – I’m still really hooked on this incense, it’s one of the most startling of the low enders in that even though it doesn’t have any aloeswood, it still seems so high quality. I’m curious about the Byakudan version of this because for an incense I’ve never been happier with the sandalwood content than I am with this one. No other plum blossom even comes close. I like it so much I have trouble even getting a bead on the Tokusen and Kaden versions.
  7. Tashi Lhunpo / Shin Kham Kun Khyab – I could have almost put Samye Monastery’s Samathabadhra here as my Tibetan of the month and maybe a few others, but this one is pretty fresh and new to my nose, and not only that but it’s quite high quality and very affordable. It has a really wet, almost cherry floral sort of scent that reminds me of some of the redder Indian durbars. Some really nice edges I’m still exploring as well.
  8. Shoyeido / Nan-Kun – Another Shoyeido aloeswood with a healthy spikenard note. If Misho matches up (roughly) to Horin’s Gen-Roku then Nan-Kun matches up to Muro-Machi. It’s got a lot of caramel and a very strong aloeswood presence. The sweetest of the earthy toned sticks in this series.
  9. Shunkodo / Haru No Kaori – My appreciation for Shunkodo continues to appreciate. 😀 In all of their incenses there’s a real quiet and subtle presence that gives them all long learning curves and even with their low enders they just seem to improve with experience. This one is probably the lowest end incense that uses aloeswood, but it’s sweet, evergreeny and very pleasant and I keep going back to it over and over. If this sold in smaller boxes over here Haru no Kaori would qualify for the hall of fame here easily.
  10. Encens du Monde / Kunjudo / Meditation / Guiding Light – Terribly addictive because there’s so much going on. I’m not always a long stick person, but it works the best for this aroma so that the cumulative effect of all the woods and oils. Quite the mosaic stick.

Your picks this month?

SAMPLER NOTES: Kunmeido / Tsukinowa / Blue Rose, Green Lily, Yellow Jasmine, Red Violet

If you scroll down just over half way here, you’ll see the four packages of Kunmeido Tsukinowa coils that come in four varieties, eight coils for $21.00. It should be said up front that like many traditionally minded incense appreciators, I don’t tend to go for floral aromas as much as woods or spices, so the four coils here aren’t really aimed at my tastes, except that I’m very fond of coils.

In terms of quality, I’d say these are definitely better than most under $10 floral incenses, but not quite up to, say, the Shoyeido Floral World Star line. Floral World Royal’s closer, but I’d say these are just under those in terms of quality. In the Shoyeido Floral World line, the better quality of aromatic oils seem to distinguish price and at the Star level you’re probably getting something very close to essential oil in the aroma, there’s actual specific definition of the aromas involved. When you move down to Royal the definition loses its specficity some while still being of very high quality. I imagine the Tsukinowas as another step down, where the aromatics aren’t quite up to Royal but have about the same amount of definition.

It’s fairly difficult to really describe these four coils outside of their base aromas, like many florals, it’s a matter of the top oils that set the tone for the scent. The Yellow Jasmine for example will be of little surprised to those familiar with Japanese Jasmine incenses. There’s definitely sandalwood in the base, but the overall aroma is driven by the powerful Jasmine oil. Like all the Tsukinowa coils, these almost have Indian incense-like strength and will have a room smelling like Jasmine in a matter of seconds. Perhaps, a little too strong at times, at least these are high quality enough not to have any noticeable off notes.

The Green Lily is also pretty definitive and while I prefer something like Encense du Monde’s Blissful Mountain, which combines a traditional Japanese sandalwood with Lily of the Valley essential oil, this comes pretty close in a more modern, perfumed sort of way. I’m not a huge fan of Lily to be honest, there’s a bit of bitterness or sharpness in the smell that I may just not be built to appreciate, but there are some sweeter notes in the base of this coil that help to make it somewhat user friendly.

The Blue Rose isn’t generally the most friendly of Roses, after all blue colored roses don’t appear in nature and as such a symbol around it has grown to mean an impossibility (think of the Red Rose symbol and the heart). I thought it was actually impossible I’d find a rose I’d like until I bought the Shoyeido Floral World Royal pack, but even then there’s an aspect of very red rose incense that’s a bit bitter or sharp for me, so I found this Blue Rose to be a bit mellower and more to my liking. It may not make a rose convert out of me, but I found the harsher notes to be muted here, so that you get the rose aroma but not in an overwhelming base. I found it to be the best of the four coils here, not something I would have bet on before sampling.

In fact I thought Red Violet would have been my #1 before checking the Tsukinowas out, but I’ve probably been ruined on the Shoyeido Floral World Star Violet, which is still my favorite floral. Very little compares favorably to it, but at least with the Tsukinowa you get a fairly definitive violet aroma. Here the aroma seems to be quite a bit different, at times reminiscent of violets, at others more like a general floral incense. I thought there was maybe a bit of tartness to this scent that didn’t make it work as well as I would have liked, but without a full box I’m not sure if that was an anomaly for this coil. Overall it may have been the most strongly perfumed of the four and as such approaching, if not getting to an off note.

Overall these four are a little above standard florals and those already prone to floral incenses are likely to enjoy at least one or two of these quite a bit. For me, so many florals have harsh or off notes, so it’s easy to celebrate incenses that don’t have those notes. And between $3 and $4 a coil isn’t too bad for this sort of quality. (Thanks to Ross for the samples) – Mike

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery / Himalayan Healing- Agar 31

It’s been awhile since I have used Tibetan style incense and as I rediscovered it is very different from the Japanese. This one, Himalayan Healing- Agar 31, from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery( third one from top) intrigued me because I saw it or the style (still not quite sure which from the way it was written) in a book I am reading called “Incense and Incense Rituals” by Thomas Kinkele.

He talks about the purity and general healing attributes of this one and I was so curious that when I saw it at Essence of the Ages I decided to find out how it worked for me.

Right off you can smell the Aloeswood/Agarwood as a major base note in the mix. It’s strong enough to make me wonder how they can charge so little for the box. After that I am sad to say I do not recognize too much else. But the ingredients list is huge which means things are going to be in small amounts per stick. The woods stand out, it’s not sweet or flowery, yet has a very clean and open quality to it.

Its interesting given the size of the stick (pretty near to a quarter inch, think club, not stick 🙂 ) that there is not that much smoke put out. However the room becomes rapidly refreshed in scent and “vibe” or how it feels. Given the write up at EoA this is what I was hoping for. I noticed in my own self that I felt calmer and more focused. Its not the kind of stick that would be an every day scent, well actually it might be depending on your lifestyle! It is however, something that I will have around for when needed.

-Ross

New Shoyeido Scentinel

Holy Transfiguration Monastery / Imperial Jasmine, Anatolian Rose, Damascus Rose, Mount Horeb, Sinai

This is what is known as Eastern Orthodox style resin incense or cakes. They come from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, It is based on ( at least in this case) high grade frankincense, with essential oils, spices or perfumes added in . It comes packed in unfired clay, probably to keep it from sticking together in its container, so when you first open the various containers you see these very small, square bricks somewhere between 1/8 to 3/16 inches across surrounded in powder. I must tell you that each one of these little guys pack quite a punch. Some are more potent then others but on the whole three to four in your heater or on a piece of charcoal or incense trail is plenty. A one ounce sampler is probably going to be more then enough for many months of use.

There are four price ranges to choice from, the difference, I believe being the cost of the raw materials (oils and spices). One thing that stands out right away is the quality of materials used in the blends.

They have a large number of blends to chose from of many different types and mixes.

I recommend starting with their one ounce samplers, they go a long way.

Imperial Jasmine

Very soon after turning on the heater you start to notice a very floral scent that has a subtle jasmine/flowery/ almost sweet note. As the cakes heat up more of the oil is released and at that point the “Imperial” part of the name makes sense. It is a very distinct jasmine smell, very much like putting your face into a large hedge of jasmine and taking a deep breath. To my mind it is one of the nicest florals I have yet experienced. The frankincense in the back round helps to even out the notes and it is here that you can get a sense of the quality of the resin. What more can I say other then it’s a really nice and clean smell.

Anatolian Rose:
A light, clean and very beautiful rose smell. Not at all heavy, yet still very floral and uplifting in nature. More white rose then red, far less demanding then the Damascus style.
This is something you could end up using a lot of and not being overwhelmed. I found myself classifying it as the rose of the garden rather then the bedroom.

Damascus Rose:
This is the really deep, rich and complex rose smell that makes me think of “A Thousand And One Nights”. It’s the classic red rose scent with a slight lemon-ish note in the back round, possibly helped along by the same qualities in the frankincense. It smells pretty much like a full blown red rose. Again, the scent grows the longer it is on the heater and also the scent tends to linger in the room for quite awhile. It’s a classic.

Mount Horeb:
Biblically this is where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, it also means Mountain of the Sun, so I was not to sure what to expect. It is quite different from the three florals above. There seem to be quite a lot of different spices in this mix, many of them I am not recognizing. Either because of the way the blend is put together (in other words, a very even mix) or because they are very particular to the Middle East. Ok, there might be a touch of cinnamon/cassis in there, but really a part of its charm is the learning curve on this one. It will take quite awhile to understand what is going on here. In the mean time it is very pleasant and refreshing, much like a cool breeze at sunset after the heat of the day. This is becoming one of my favorite things to burn.

Sinai:
This is their high end mix which they characterize as “A rich and heady fragrance developed by the monastery, compounded of essential oils imported from the deserts of northern Africa”. Like the Mount Horeb above there is a lot going on in this mix, much of which is not familiar to my nose. It brings to mind the idea of Kyara, not the scent, but the concept or ranking of Kyara in the Aloes. It smells great but at the same time you would not want to use this all the time because it would lose its special quality. They say it is “A pure and lingering fragrance suitable for important feast days.” It’s deep, sort of floral, yet dry at the same time and then all these other scents come drifting by. To say complex would be just the tip of it. It is also really hard to describe in a western mind set, nailed down manner. If you use a heater or even coals, then start at a very low setting and gently work your way up because there are different things going on at different temperatures. Fascinating.

One last little thing. They sell the frankincense they use for their blends. They have three kinds. I got a pound of the “Eden Frankincense”, I do not think it is made there :). But they will not say where it is from. It is very small, translucent tears that burn with a very clean, light lemony/citrus scent. Really, really nice. I plan on trying the other two kinds soon. All of them are a great price, especially since high grade frankincense is not always easy to find.

There are many monastery’s that make incense and I can see that there is going to be quite a lot of sampling going on for me, I find this to be a nice side trip from my love of Japanese incense. Gives me a little perspective and I also find it interesting how so many different scents can be put together from many of the same building blocks

-Ross

Joyoko Temple, Kinjo Koh

The companies who produce these two incenses (third from top and second from bottom) are currently unknown to me, although I’m hoping to find out soon, but I bring these two up together as they’re currently the only imports I’m not sure about. About the only thing the two have in common is they’re both long sticks.

Kinjo Koh is the least of the two, about as traditional and inexpensive an incense as you’re going to find. I’d almost describe it as sub-sandalwood in that it’s more of a general woody blend (the unimported Kyukodo stick Daitenko is not far off), probably with some inexpensive woods used like cedar. It’s basically nondescript and mellow, with a slight hint of forest and evergreens involved. There’s no question you’ll get a lot of incense for the price, 55+ 9 inch sticks for $2.50, and although this isn’t a high quality incense stick by any means, I’ve found that it works quite well with a lot of ventilation, where the slighty sweet notes give it a bit of its own character. Overall it’s a bit of a bubble incense, for me, I’m not sure I’d buy it again but tend to enjoy it when it’s going. Of course with the amount of incense you’re getting even with a single roll, it’s a question one won’t need to answer for some time.

Joyoko Temple is a long stick premium meditation blend that doesn’t come listed with ingredients, but seems to be multi-ingredient blend, heavy on the spice and wood. In the interest of full disclosure, I found this stick to be one of my early favorites until a moving accident caused me to break the entire long roll at about the third mark. I mention this because Joyoko strikes me as an incense with an excellent cumulative effect. Where the blend might strike one as a minor Sho-Ran-Ko in style (without the high end qualities), a full long stick of this becomes quite startling as the smoke builds up the spice character. There appears to be a healthy amount of cinnamon and clove in this one, perhaps equal or greater in quantity than the sandalwood and aloeswood on display. To mitigate my accident I separated the shorter thirds from the remainder and since I’ve been burning these it’s usually right at the end of the fragment where I start to notice it. I’m thinking the larger fragments will move me closer to my original opinion.

Overall, both of these are priced quite nicely, the Kinjo Koh about as affordable a traditional Japanese incense stick as exists and the Joyoko Temple a fairly priced temple blend. While I’d have trouble wholeheartedly recommending the former, the latter’s definitely quite nice and is likely a perfect companion for a long meditation.

« Older entries