Lucky Tibetan Incense Co. / Green Tara, Kailash, Kalachakra, Mila, Paljor Healing

In the last couple weeks I’ve covered some of the best Tibetan incenses available, now it’s time to move over to the other end of the spectrum. In fact and in part, the incenses here had a delaying effect on my exploration into Tibetan incense as a group of several incenses I bought at a nearby store that did little to impress. All five of these incenses come in a “gift pack” which is basically a cardboard box that packages the five boxes. This article was updated on September 22, 2008 to amend the company name to Lucky Tibetan Incense Co.

The main issue with all five of these incenses is that there’s too great a commonality among them. It gives the, perhaps incorrect, impression that all five incenses share the same base and vary in terms of essential oils or some other ingredient that strikes me as “flavoring” of a sort. While I do get the impression that it’s possible I might have picked up a box that has aged to its detriment, the fact that several of these leave a grey-bluish ash gives me the impression these incenses are comprised mostly of cheaper woods with small fractions of other ingredients to distinguish them. Some of the incenses are colored as well, Kailash blue, Kalachakra red and Green Tara being self evident. In fact the incenses that give off the blueish ash happen to be these three colored sticks and they all happen to be the incenses in the “gift pack” that are the most inferior.

Green Tara, where the gift pack gets its name, is one of the incenses that seems to be a wood base with slight flavoring and perhaps even essential oils. The base seems heavily cedarwood and not particularly high quality, with light sandalwood or sandalwood oil content. The main difference between this and the other incenses other than the green color are hints of patchouli in the front. Overall, it lacks character and has a bit of unwelcome bitterness to the burn.

Kailash is blue and presents many of the same issues with the least amount of post-wood aromatics in the group. It also has a cedarwood or similar base and presents a very dull aroma. It’s possible the oils or other aromatics had volatized from this incense during the aging, to give it the benefit of the doubt, but even were that true it should leave more of a trace than my stick has. I can’t remember seeing a Tibetan stick that had a natural color like this, so I would think there would have to be additives of a kind. There may be a bit of resin in there somewhere, but overall I had the impression that this wasn’t much more than a cedarwood “blank.” To be honest I found the almost dozen-item long ingredients list to be surprising and difficult to believe (for instance there’s not even a hint of saffron that I can tell).

Kalachakra, while similar to the previous sticks, seems to have a slight bit of character to it. There’s, perhaps, some red sandalwood involved here that makes the the wood base differ slightly. But like Green Tara, it’s a bit bitter on the edges and seems to have very little aromatic impact over the central wood.

Mila is the first of the two tan sticks in the gift package and I believe the ash was a closer to the white/light grey you tend to get with most sticks. This is probably because the base seems to be more of a combination of sandalwood and benzoin and as such it’s slightly improved over the others. Unfortunately (and perhaps due to age) Mila’s an incredibly brittle stick, my box ended up being a container of various inch-long pieces. But at least in this case there’s some spice to liven up the aroma. And strangely enough, this appears to be the most expensive, singly, of the five incenses here.

Paljor Healing is probably the line’s incense the most akin to the typical Agar 31 blends, although I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking there’s too much agar here (aquilaria does seem to be an ingredient). It’s a bit too similar to Mila overall, but with a slight tangy background reminiscent of the general “healing incense” style which helps to make it marginally the most interest here. And it doesn’t appear to be quite as brittle.

Overall, the Paljor incenses easily fall into the 5% of Tibetan incenses at the bottom of the heap. They lack distinction and seem to go for cheaper materials, all of which make their incenses at worst a chore to burn and at best a generic experience.

Best Incense – August 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. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land

A quick note

Over the weekend, I revamped the (Japanese/Tibetan) Incense Hall of Fame page, which you can access on the left. I’d been a little concerned that there weren’t enough entries in the Bargain end of the section, so managed to tweak the system enough so I could add a number of incenses to this and the Standard section. There’s something of an explanation of how I did this on that page, but do let me know if I haven’t been clear enough. Or if you think I’m missing something!

Shoyeido / Premium / Go-Un, Myo-Ho, Sho-kaku

Ga-Ho, Misho, Kyo-jiman, Matsu-no-tomo
Nan-Kun, Shun-Yo, Ohjya-Koh

In approaching what are some of the most premium, costly and astounding incenses in the world, one realizes that a review isn’t really going to do them justice. After all if a signature aspect of a great incense is depth, then writing about that depth is fairly problematic, after all what can you say about an aroma that unveils itself continually over time, as if it taps into your subconscious. The three incenses at the top of the Shoyeido premium ladder (one will need to scroll down) have two things in common, the presence of the rare and most costly of aloeswoods, kyara, and a list cost that’s the equivalent of hunting for a new stereo component. Earlier this year, Shoyeido raised their prices on these and other premium incenses, charting Go-Un at (8 sticks, 35 sticks, and 135 sticks) $39.95, $299, and $899; Myo-Ho at $49.95, $399 and $1199, and Sho-kaku at $79.95, $599, and $1799. Only Baieido’s Kokoh series is more expensive per stick.

At such a price, Shoyeido’s kyara incenses are likely only to be worth the prices with a considerable income, after all such prices put the high end Sho-kaku stick between $15 and $20 for one stick. For those familiar with the adage “watching money burn,” well this is probably as literal as such a statement gets. However, if you’re burning said item with company, not only will you be paying for one of the finest incenses known to humankind, but you will be paying for the reaction as one friend after another stops mid-sentence to attend to what is truly an astonishing incense, a marriage of traditional and (natural) perfume art that truly has no peer. And that’s generally what you’ll find in high-end incenses, aromas that really have no other analogs except other higher-end incenses. Read the rest of this entry »

Nu Essence Resin Mixes Part 1 (Neptune, Pluto, Moon, Uranus)

The Nu Essence Resin Mixes are completely unlike the Japanese loose mixtures I reviewed last week. They are based on a combination of ancient magical formulas as well as great scent combination’s.  I have a feeling many of our readers (not to mention Mike 🙂 ) might know much more then I about the esoteric aspects involved here. It is obvious that a lot of testing and study have gone into these blends. The musk, ambergris and civet are based on high quality synthetics that, unlike most synthetics seem to work well when heated. This could be because they are also pretty much surrounded in essential oils!
These mixes come in small metal tines. About an ounce’s worth of some very powerful scent. I used, at most, 1/8 teaspoons worth in a foil square on my heaters to try them out. Actually the first time I used one I piled it on and was pretty much overwhelmed. Really, these are very potent blends using natural herbs, resins and essential oils. Some of them use so much oil that they seem moist when opening the tin. One tin will last quite a while; it is a very good deal.There are over twenty (at the moment) different blends from this company. For this review I picked four of the planetary mixes. They use a great many different components, many of which I have not experienced before this. This, for me, makes it even more fun and interesting. I will be doing at least two more reviews on this line.
They seem to work best being gently heated, plus they will last longer that way also 🙂

Neptune:
Tonquin musk, benzoin, sandalwood, and rose.
Very deep, sultry rose and musk scent. Everything about this is powerful, almost overpowering. The sandalwood is like a low frequency carrier note way in the back round, the benzoin’s sweetness drifting through to catch your attention and then, once again, you are surrounded by the rose infused musk hues. This is not a light scent; there is almost, at times, a bite to it. This would, to me, be something to scent or flavor a room, as opposed to say taking a deep, close in, breath. It is very potent and takes the rose floral thyme into very sultry depths.

Pluto:
Sandalwood, benzoin, ambergris, amber, and bitter almond.
Upon heating gently one is immediately greeted with the sandalwood, closely followed by the bitter almond. The benzoin/amber/ambergris combination present themselves as a sort of soft yet potent ambery wave to my nose. There is a certain “stone” quality at work here (perhaps the amber is the actual crushed mineral rather then the resin spice blend usually found).
Again, not a light scent, a bit less forceful then the Neptune, but still for doing up an environment, not a Koh ceremony. The bitter almond adds many interesting, and to me, new scent qualities to the mix. The “bitter” aspect playing off the ambers and sandalwood/benzoin mixes. Great fun. I find myself more drawn to this one just because it is a bit more playful.

Moon:
Karaya gum, frankincense, wormwood, sandalwood, camphor, jasmine, and artemisia.
Spicy, camphorus, yet with a light floral (the jasmine) note. I guess uplifting or vibrant would be a good overall description. Not as strong scented as the two above but at the same time it holds its own in a very different manner.. As you heat it up and experience all the camphor tones the jasmine and frankincense keep drifting in. This would be great to set a very uplifting and at the same time, mellow vibe in a room. There almost seem to be many contradictions at play here as it shifts from an almost bitter( but not harsh) to sweet scent with the camphor tones playing through the middle. I am sure the other components play some subtle parts in this but I do not know them and the mix is so well combined that it is hard to separate things out. I could feel my head clearing up when this is going and at the same time a certain inner clearing going on also, which, given the wormwood and Artemisia, makes sense.

Uranus:
Jasmine, juniper, sandalwood, cinnamon, and benzoin.
At first heat the jasmine and cinnamon immediately start to drift up. This is a very interesting combination that somehow works really well. Alchemy in action! Think jasmine with a kick. The woods seem fairly muted at first, while the benzoin adds a little sweetness as a base note. As the upper notes fade into the back round the woods and benzoin come more into play and stay for quite awhile lending a certain grounded quality to the overall mix. I find myself very attracted to this one, probably because the jasmine and cinnamon blend really works for me. This is great to scent a room with just for the upbeat ambiance it gives. Very nice.

These are available at many of the Incense Suppliers we have listed in the side bar to the left.

Enjoy and Happy heating…Ross

Coming soon…

Next week I’ll be taking a look at the cream of Shoyeido’s premium lines, Sho-kaku, Myo-ho and Go-Un; 5 Tibetan incenses by Paljor, and, finally, a few Indian champas in the Rare Essence collection. After this, the Nepali incenses Heritage and Pilgrim (two others by the same company who did Yog Sadhana), three Encense du Monde overviews (Ikebana and Jade Orchid (Kokando Rangetsu); Prince of Awaji and the other three Karin incenses; Imperial Palace); two Nippon Kodo overviews (8 Cafe Time cones; Morning Star Lotus, Fig + East Meets West coil Thai Memory); three Mandala Trading incenses (Tibetan Peace, Tibetan Earth, Ribo Sangtseo), Mentsi Khang Bhutanese Incense (Mih), Baieido’s Byukaden and Jinko Kokoh, and Kuenzang Chodtin incense. After this, more Shrinivas Sugandhalaya incenses, Gyokushodo, Snowland, and a few of Shoyeido’s limited edition Genji series (assuming you can still buy these by then: Otome, Mio-Tsukushi, Momiji-Noha).

Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra

I’ve written about this venerable monastery’s amazing incense in the past, but never really tried for a more descriptive review as my relationship with this incense has really developed since I tried my first sample 6 months ago or so. It was really my first encounter with a high end Tibetan incense and my first reaction was how strange and unusual it was, with an aromatic strength that was perhaps a little unsettling. But since then it’s grown on me to the point where I see it as one of the three Tibetan supernals, along with Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Highland Incense.

Unlike these others incense, the musk content of Samathabadra is a little more muted and more like an instrumentalist in a symphony than the conductor. In fact the entire incense is a blend of various ingredients that all show their faces during various sessions. My first encounter accentuated the rich nature of any incense blended with nagi/pangolin scales, a certain ineffable spice characteristic. While I’ve noticed its presence in any nagi-infused incense, I probably couldn’t describe it too easily as I’ve never smelled the pure aroma.

Over time, the variety of spices really comes out and with further use the combination becomes more and more addictive. Now I notice spices and aromas like cinnamon and clove, orange, chocolate, coffee and gingerbread. Anyone who has tried the estimable English barleywine, Young’s Old Nick, will also recognize a sort of banana-tinged, hoppy scent (and ironically in finding that link, the second review down says that Old Nick reminds the writer of burning incense :D) in Samanthabadra. The combination of all these scents is kaleidoscopic, each new stick turning up variations that are often surprising, sometimes arresting.

I pulled Samanthabadra out at a dinner party last weekend, along with a number of higher-end Shoyeido and Shunkodo sticks, just as the sun was going down. It’s reflective of how good Samanthabadra is that it inspired as many or more positive comments than Sho-kaku or Ga-Ho. For an incense made in very cool weather it seems remarkably adaptable to a California summer, filling the surrounding area with spices similar to those found in cider and spiced tea. Undoubtedly one of the great Tibetan works of art.

Kyukyodo / Shiun, Yumemachi (Discontinued), Ryuhinko

[Kyukyodo have discontinued Shiun & Yumemachi; Ryuhinko no longer is imported]

As this review will imply, Kyukyodo are perhaps the most underrepresented Japanese incense company in the US market, with a contract that has tied up a number of incenses and prevented them from being sold here, at least to date. It’s particularly a shame, given the numerous, high quality incenses available in Japan and even Europe, that for the time being this will be my last review of Kyukyodo incenses. The previous reviews can be found here and here.

The incenses in question here include two brands that come in large boxes, 400 sticks for Shiun and 550 for Yumemachi. While the quantity does put both incenses in a higher price bracket, many incenses suppliers break these boxes down into smaller bundles that make them quite affordable, although given the quality of both incenses, it’s possible one will immediately wish one had gone for the full boxes.

In particular, Shiun is an extremely good buy for the money, even at a slightly raised per-stick price for a smaller bundle from the box. It’s an incense that could almost fit into the Baieido catalog, its combination of aloeswood and other spices creating a very natural blend. Like many premium incenses, even the slightest aromatic fatigue is likely to cut off the more sublime notes in this incense that give it a slight richness at the top, but even without that crescendo, Shiun works well as a friendly, slighty sweet and even cherry-like aloeswood, a tradition that has similarities in Tennendo Renzan, Nippon Kodo Zuiun and Baieido’s Kobunboku series. I’ve found Shiun to be fairly unusual and quite mutable like many Kyukyodo incenses in that one still learns about them with continued use. And it’s really nothing at all like Kyukoyodos many green stick incenses that all seem to bear a certain Kyukyodo trademark.

Like Shiun, Yumemachi is also quite different compared to the rest of the Kyukyodo line, one which actually has a number of subtly different sandalwood-based incenses. Yumemachi is going for a higher class, old-mountain style sandalwood, except that it’s a bit more than that, with spices and perhaps oil that really lean the central sandalwood aroma in a different direction. I liked this one immediately on first stick due to its balance and quality wood. It actually reminds me a little of a Corona with lime, the incense has a noticeable citrus element and is quite smooth overall. Undoubtedly this is an excellent incense to start with if you want a purer sandalwood, it’s free from the slight, sharp notes you find in, say, Tennendo Kohrokan Sandalwood. In some ways it’s not far off some of the lower end Korean sandalwoods.

Where Shiun and Yumemachi diverge from the Kyukyodo playbook, Ryuhinko might be the best example of it. It’s possibly the driest aloeswood available, like the Cabernet Sauvignon of incense. Like Sho-Ran-Koh and Shiun, Ryuhinko has a lot of mutable qualities that make it difficult to pin down. There is some mint and other greenish spice notes that operate at a very subtle level, while never impinging on the incense’s dry qualities. The aloeswood is almost equally subtle and due to the restraint of all the ingredients, it keeps the overall impact on a very sublime level, one perhaps not possible to pick up with every stick and which tends to fade quickly with fatigue. I’ve had sticks that were lost on me and others that made me full to the brim with hyperbole, as if I can never make up my mind about it. It’s also quite the contrast to the sweet, floral Azusa while being in the same price range. Overall, perhaps another “expert” stick in terms of its longevity and learning curve and certainly a gem, hinting at some of the sticks that haven’t managed to enter the US market yet.

As you can imagine, I await the day we see more of this company’s amazing incenses on these shores, they’re too fine to ever give up hope on.

Highland Incense

Incense enthusiasts will undoubtedly have come across Tibetan Musk incenses, however if you’re like me most of them don’t really come up to snuff, particularly given how variant musk can be. With today’s ecological concerns, most musky incenses are created by the use of plants or even synthetic materials, and they vary widely in scent, but one aspect they don’t vary all that widely on is depth. And that’s really the major aspect of real musk that can not be imitated, an organic scent that is much a stamp on the nearby environment as it is an aroma. Moving from incenses with herbal musk to those with the real thing means you really don’t even need an ingredient list to tell. That is, when it comes to the description, you’re rarely if ever going to be told your incense has animal-derived musk, but an incense like Highland, even without the word musk brought up, will make the issue really clear.

Ecological issues aside, musk is the dominant aroma of Highland incense stick and it’s an astonishing musk, with the staying power of a skunk spray but with the aroma of paradise. From the ingredients list you also get white sandalwood, purple sandalwood, agarwood, saffron and pangolin scales along with 20 other medicinal ingredients. All of these ingredients are among the most pricy in incense and they make Highland one of the most richest, indulgent incense experiences available. Fragments of sticks will not only scent your living space but your memory as well, and I’ve carried this deep, musky, aroma in my mind to places far away from an incense burner.

As much as I can talk about this being a prime example of a great Tibetan musk incense, part of the reason is the richness of materials being used, a spicy and multi-faceted base that plays behind the initial aromatic impact and adds character and definition. It’s a great incense from top to bottom, the musk hitting you first, the spices through much of the middle (the musk lingering along; possibly some benzoin or amber) and then slight woody hints that lift it even more. Like the Tibetan Medical College scents (apparently Highland is created by a retired doctor from this college) and Samye Monastery Samathabadra, Highland sits in the very top echelon of world incenses. If you ever wondered why companys go to such ends to imitate this sort of musk, this is the incense to try. I can’t say if it will eliminate bacteria or cure the flu, but based on my mood after a burn, there probably won’t be any evil spirits left when you’re done.

New Champa Hall of Fame Page

I added a new page yesterday, which you can access just to your left or here, that’s sort of a starter page to recommend the best incenses in the Indian champa, durbar or darbari style. It’s very incomplete at the moment as I can think of several ranges I’ve not full explored, so if you’re a fan of the style do hop on over and if I’ve missed anything important, let us know. This is part of an attempt to help bolster information on Indian incense, which is a little weak here so far as I’ve managed to miss a lot of new incenses while exploring Japanese and Tibetan scents.

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