The Shoyeido Premium series is arguably the finest and most expensive collection of incenses available in the US market. It consists of ten different incenses that I’ve decided to break down into three groups for review based on the color of stick. The four in question here are all green sticks, the color deepening (roughly) as the sticks get pricier. There are also three earth/brown/tan sticks (Ohyja-Koh, Shun-Yo, Nan-Kun) and three black or purple sticks (Go-Un, Myo-Ho, Sho-kaku).
There’s a great deal of mystery surrounding this line and perhaps the most rumors as well. All of these incenses come with a small paper insert that has changed through the years. The most recent version, copyright 2005, only has the list of the incenses and their translations or names. The previous version, copyright 2002, has the list of incenses and their ingredients lists. When this change was made it generated quite a bit of controversy that still seems unresolved. New CITES regulations have had a major impact on the availability and pricing of aloeswood in the US and as of May 2008, the top seven Premium incenses all had significant price increases. It should be noted that the linked list of ingredients differs to the lists on the 2002 inserts, however it’s the insert I’ll be using as word from the company is that the aromas for this entire line have not changed. It should also be said that there’s a variant top oil note in most of these that imply a certain amount of perfumery, but it’s virtually the apex of this art and in many ways its justification. It is recommended that one try the Shoyeido Premium Sampler as an affordable introduction to this line given the increasing costs of these incenses. The more expensive the ingredients, the higher the price and in the top spots these prices are very significant (including Ga-Ho here).
The ingredients lists for these four incenses are particularly important as in the original list of ingredients, all four incenses shared three ingredients: aloeswood, clove and spikenard. Spikenard is absent from the current ingredients list, but whether it or a perfume equivalent is still used under “and spice,” it appears to impart a dominant sweet spice tone that partially goes into giving these incenses certain masala like qualities. And in this case I mean masala as a collection of spices rather than an Indian incense style. For the Shoyeido premiums its often this base that imparts qualities you’re unlikely to find outside the line.
Matsu-no-tomo (Friend of Pine) is the first incense in the Premium line. It had an original ingredients list of aloeswood, sandalwood, clove and spikenard and definitely falls into the blend category with noticeable aloes and sandal notes, just about equally mixed. Unsurprisingly it’s the mellowest incense in the line, with typical Shoyeido softness and gentleness. The clove, spikenard and spice mix gives this a sweetness that will seem like a more deluxe version of many sweeter green sandalwoods, but it’s of the same kind, sweet and verdant with an almost evergreen or minty fresh feel.
Kyo-jiman (Pride of Kyoto) seems like a more deluxe version of Matsu-no-tomo in many ways. The sweet, minty, green and fresh qualities are all intensified here and the switch out of the sandalwood ingredient with benzoin accentuates the stick’s aloeswood notes, which at this level are still rather low key and blend-oriented without the quality to arrest one’s attention. However this is a stick I found instantly friendly and affordable enough to use frequently among a number of higher end blends that were either immediately startling in both aroma and price or took some time to grow into. In particular with an unfatigued nose, Kyo-jiman has a top level oil that’s spicy minty and very fresh. It’s really not a stretch to think of it as the high end for incenses that pay tribute to Kyoto, in Shoyeido’s case starting as early as the Daily Kyo-Nishiki. Overall this is a personal favorite of mine I continually return to and maybe the finest of the line’s first and most affordable four.
Misho (Gentle Smile) is the first of the line’s classic top six and maybe the last incense before the quality of the wood really starts to dominate the proceedings. That’s said not to detract from the experience but to note the strong, dry while not too resinated wood in the Misho from the significantly heady and pungent wood used in Nan-Kun. Misho’s one of the line’s classics and one of the finest, most reusable of the Shoyeido premiums. The almost curry-like masala qualities of the Shoyeido wood and spice base are the strongest here (again because the wood starts to really take over in the higher end incenses). Here the wood’s mostly balanced giving the aroma a nice background presence for the greener spice to play on top of. The results are striking, classy and full of green herbs. The minty freshness of Matsu-no-tomo and Kyo-jiman is basically gone now or at least part of a variety of notes, moving this from a fresh evergreen smell to something a bit more exotic.
Ga-Ho (Refinement) is not only one of the triumphs of the Shoyeido Premium Incense line but of the entire world of Japanese incense. This is a barely sub-Kyara aloeswood incense of extraordinary properties. It’s most noticeable quality is another level of the aloeswood, spikenard and clove blend that characterizes all of the green premiums, here it’s so refined and sublime that there are almost cumin or celery notes on the perfume. But this almost arid dryness is only one level of the incense. The aloeswood here is typical of the finest in wood you’re to find outside kyara, so resinated that the aroma seems initially lost in the blend, but once the heavy intensity hits you it’s as if it makes the incense. I tend to think of highly resinated aloeswood to be something of a palette your memory draws on and here the head space is gigantic. And that’s not all as the third element is a floral perfume that compliments everything perfectly, not always showing up obviously but mostly when it needs to be there as the climax of the symphony. As great as the top three incenses in this line are, I honestly don’t see Ga-Ho as any less impressive, particularly if dry aloeswood incenses are to your tastes. It’s certainly quite a bit less expensive than its kyara sisters.
With the Shoyeido Premium series, it can be said that the experience is more impressive with the costs you pay, but as the costs increase so does one’s opinion on whether such art is worth it, a question that can only be answered by the user. But it should be said, as great as so many Japanese incenses are, that when it comes to the top 5 or 6 blends in this line, Shoyeido doesn’t really have much competition in terms of high end ingredients and what appears to be perfumery art in some of the oils. These are unquestionably among the finest incenses in the world and while other companies do have incenses with the same sort of level and care given to the low three in this group, Ga-Ho remains without peer, at least of the exports we can access here.