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.

For my nose, the highest end Shoyeido without kyara, Ga-Ho, may very well be my favorite incense of the ten as it presents a very dry and refined aloeswood that never trends sweet, like most kyara incenses do. It’s an important comparison to bring up as incense tastes often tend to the sweet or dry and those who gravitate to the latter will likely, at least at times, find the Shoyeido premium kyaras far into the sweet side. Like truffles and chocolate mousse, these incenses are concentrated and decadent, with a little going a long way. This is largely due to what seems to be a very concentrated natural perfume or wood oil, a characteristic particularly common for My-Ho and Sho-kaku.

Go-Un acts very much as the bridge from the lower seven premiums to the top three kyaras, crossing the abyss to the supernals. It has a cornucopia of ingredients including the sandalwood of the early premiums, the aloeswood of Ga-Ho and the hints of kyara that predict Myo-Ho and Sho-kaku. What strikes me about Go-Un is that the oil is probably at its least powerful for the first five premiums, which tends to let the woods do more of the talking. At first, this three way play among the kyara, high end aloeswood and sandalwood seems to be a little confusing, like a number of voices speaking at once, all of them demanding your attention. This play sits among an almost black currant wine-like base, in fact the strength and concentration of aromatics in these three incenses will undoubtedly remind one of various liqueurs or spirits. All of this depth makes Go-Un a very difficult incense to discuss. When I first sampled it in the Shoyeido Premium Sampler, it did not seem all that different from the other two kyaras, but over time it actually seems the most different of the three. Part of this is the element of sandalwood which seems almost exotic at such a premium level and very high quality. The other is related to the learning curve which leaves me trying to find the consonance among all the ingredients, a merging I seem to get closer to with every stick, but haven’t quite reached yet. Overall it’s a difficult incense to call because while almost any scent with these ingredients will benefit from them aromatically, making Go-Un undeniably brilliant, I find it hard to class with the other four Shoyeido premiums at the top half, all of which are classically consonant. As Go-Un is the premium I’m least familiar with, it may just imply I haven’t reached full understanding yet on an undertaking without much of a down side.

The ten Shoyeido premium incenses match up surprisingly well to the ten sephiroth of the kabbalistic tree of life, particularly the three incenses in question here, which map very nicely to the “supernal trio” of Binah (3), Chokmah (2) and Kether (1). If Go-Un, in Binah-like fashion, implies a trinity of woods and creates the bridge from the supernal trio to the lower seven spheres; Myo-Ho reflects the duality of Chokmah, its ingredients list even shows kyara as taking up nearly 50% of the incense blend. If ever an incense captured the contradictory and transcedent culmination of duality, it’s Myo-Ho. Myo-Ho seems to operate half on a very traditional, woody level and half on the decadence of the top oil. As with duality, these two elements create the opposite poles, where Myo-Ho operates between, with one’s attention constantly varying between the two aspects. Myo-Ho is like electric muscat, sweet and liqueur-like on top, almost penetratingly sweet and exotic. It tops a decidedly kyara-like wood presence. Where the black and resinous sub-kyara aloeswood was dominant in both Ga-Ho and Go-Un, it’s fairly submerged here, accentuating the kyara base rather than being an element in its own right. This continual play between perfume and wood is the defining motif of Myo-Ho and when it occasionally resolves into unity as the two sides balance out, the brilliance of this work of art comes out in a wholly ineffable way. Like Sho-kaku itself, Myo-Ho is indulgently rich and sweet, but given its price such a confectionary-like richness makes it a treat worth keeping rare. Shoyeido describe this as a best-selling incense and it’s quite easy to see why.

If Go-Un described trinity and Myo-Ho the resolution of duality, Sho-kaku‘s wood presence is that of the unity of kyara and that very change is a difference of $200 for a $35 stick package. As such this will be a difficult price threshold to cross, as I can’t imagine many that won’t find Myo-Ho entirely satisfying as a kyara incense. However, no expense was reserved for Sho-kaku, which is quite simply one of the most startling and powerful incenses ever made. I liken the effect to someone standing at a mixing deck and cranking all the levels up into the red. Sho-kaku’s premium kyara presence is so strong on both wood and oils levels that it’s literally unforgettable upon first sample, a blend with so many aromatics that it’s impossible to get them not only after a sample but after numerous sticks. Possibly most memorable are the anise or licorice elements of the wood, aromatics that seem common with high quality kyara and are emphasized here. Sho-kaku veritably etches the atmosphere with its smoke, a scent so sweet and resinous that it’s like a mirror and playground for one’s collective unconscious. It’s as if one took a boling tarpit and transmuted the aroma into ambrosia, each bubble popping and giving up a cloud of euphoric, memory-triggering fragrance. And as such it reflects the diversity within unity, a trasncendent coherence as an overall incense, with all the reflections facets of the overall scent. If Myo-Ho was a glass of extraordinary muscat, Sho-kaku’s like an expensive cognac made from kyara pitch.

As with all the Shoyeido premiums, it is recommended that one start with the $24.95 Shoyeido Premium Sampler for tasters. However, one (slightly shorter) stick is not likely to give one a particularly experienced viewpoint of these incenses, all of which one will develop personal relationships with over time. It’s likely given the costs that one’s learning curve on these will be long, as of today I still feel like I’m on one with all three incenses. With both Myo-Ho and Sho-kaku I often find myself snuffing a stick after an inch or so, not only due to the price but also due to the aromatic strength, which will linger long after burning.

Shoyeido premiums, as what are basically incenses at the high end of traditional and perfume/oil art, will also be nice contrasts with the Baieido high ends, which eschew the oils for a more natural approach. This tends to make the Shoyeido premiums very immediate out of the box, while the Baieidos have a much longer learning curve overall. I’ve wondered if the oil work at the front of these Shoyeidos accentuates the natural qualities or dominates them. And perhaps it’s appropriate to end this review with such a question, to demonstrate at the very least that one aspect of these long learning curves found with high end premium incenses is the reflectiveness they bring.

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15 Comments

  1. italiano215 said,

    July 11, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Anyone try Shoyeido’s Vibrant Cloud / Ga-un

  2. greg said,

    October 17, 2010 at 11:04 am

    i find people’s often differing perceptions of the qualities of kyara fascinating – a ”japanese nose’ is attuned to qualities quite different than a ‘western nose’ – neither is superior to the other – it’s just a sort of genomic difference in perspective. it’s important to understand, however, that the ‘japanese nose’ is the one setting the price on incenses and so the old adage seems to apply here, ” if you can’t tell the difference, why pay the difference?” i made the fortunate accident of acquiring a small packet of kyara woods from shoyeido a few decades back (when kyara wood was simply astronomically priced and not “crazily priced” as it seems to be now )- foolishly thinking that it would be a key ingredient in a resin based incense for liturgical use. one thing i noticed is that when burning kyara on a heater, a sweetish, almost bourbon vanilla-like aroma emerges over quite some time. it is like entering into an old, wooden floored/paneled room where ancient, musty odors mix with the newly introduced fresh air. however, when burned over charcoal, the darkly-sweet aroma quickly reveals bitter undertones that transform into an acrid afterburn scent. it’s as if turning up the heat angers the kyara and it tries to bite back with a very different fragrance profile. so i guess that there really is no one ‘kyara fragrance’ but depending on the method of aroma release and the contents of the admixture, kyara means different things at any given burning. to use an analogy, kyara is the main actor, the masks it may wear represent the various additives that give a ‘face’ to the kyara. my advice is to go with your preferences and not cost. nokiba, for me, can be just as satisfying as shokaku – just as a napa valley 20 dollar pinot can be as good (or even better) than a french, outrageously priced pinot!

  3. September 2, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    […] Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles. […]

  4. Bjorn said,

    December 16, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Hi,

    I am curious, what is the most expensive incense in the world?

    Regards,
    Bjorn

    • Mike said,

      December 16, 2009 at 10:04 am

      Have no idea Bjorn, but it’s likely to be part of the Japanese market. In the US market I believe the most expensive incense per inch is Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh (although Rikkoku aloeswood sets are more expensive as a unit).

  5. August 27, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    hello, I have been gathering information and am acquiring resin type incense from all over the world. I have not ventured into the Japanese type incense.
    who can I contact about ordering samples so I can determine what I would like to carry in my store to sell?

    I came across your site while looking for top quality omani resins.

    Can please direct me to a distributor preferably in USA ?

    your help, expertise, and time is appreciated.

    • Mike said,

      August 27, 2009 at 3:13 pm

      Hi. I would contact, using the links on the left, Baieido, Shoyeido, Nippon Kodo and Japan Incense for a number of different companies, all have offices located in the US. If they can’t be found using the links on the left, a quick Google search should pull the companies up for you and if you have any specific trouble do ask again.

  6. April 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

    […] Shoyeido/Premium/Myo-Ho – The deep purple coloring of this stick kind of sums it up. It seems to have a rather transformational and mysterious quality to it. It’s also a good bit less money then the top of the line Sho-Kaku, but to me every bit as deep and rich in taste. Top notch kyara, quite wonderful. (Ross) […]

  7. Mike said,

    August 27, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Hi Bernd, could you e-mail me with your new address? I tried reaching you at the old one and no luck. Thanks. – Mike

  8. Bernd Sandner said,

    August 27, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Ross,
    I’m interested in the high end kyaras, that you mentioned in your comment above.
    Could you please give me some information!

    Best to you! Bernd

    p.s.: Thanks for your articles.
    I am happy about the good teamwork of you and Mike!

  9. clairsight said,

    August 26, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Yes, they do indeed look just about the same as the street stuff I see on Telegraph Ave In Berkeley as I walk home. It is pretty funny at first glance. I think very soon now I am going to break down and go for the high end Baieido. I bet, given the rest of the line, that it is pretty much on the dry side of Kyara.
    Wanting to try out the Shoyeido’s was a huge driving force ffor me to really get into incense. To my nose they are truly wondeful and yes, a treasure for sure.
    If you look at the price of raw kyara chips or wood ( ~$200-300/gram ) and then at the price and weight of a roll of the high end’s it makes you wonder at how powerful the good kyara plus extras really must be. In the Sho-Kaku there can not be more then a couple of grams of kyara given the price to weight ratio’s involved. There are apparently, differnt levels of whats considered kyara but none of it is at what would be considered bargin basement levels ( unless, of course, one has no messin around deep pockets 🙂 ). So to my way of thinking there has to be a lot of very adept blending going on to get the scents we crave.

  10. Mike said,

    August 26, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Hello Bernd!

    Shoyeido seems to differ from the other premium incenses you mentioned just by their concentration. While the secret recipes are closed to us, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if half of the magic of these sticks is the perfume art. The difference with Shoyeido, who claim they use natural materials for their incense, is that this perfume art probably uses oils that may have a very high concentration of aloeswood oil. I think this might account for why Shoyeido prices are also quite a bit higher than any other comparable stick. It might also account for the mind focusing qualities, given that an aloeswood or kyara incense plus a similar oil or perfume might give these sticks more of the psychoactive potential that aloeswood brings along with it. That’s sort of what I was getting at with my mixer deck metaphor, you’ve got the signal really cranked up, perhaps it acts as something of a brain override.

    Of course, I’m mostly guessing here, which is always part of our battle. I often think of some venerable old incense maker chuckling like mad at the misconceptions I probably make over ingredients or whatever. 😀 But you see similar wood oil concentrations with Tennendo Kuukai and Tensei as well and it seems every time you can get a strong whiff of an unlit stick, you have to be dealing with oil or perfume of some kind. With Shoyeido it seems like a marriage of high end natural and high end natural oil ingredients and thus the high enders are soo rich.

    PS: Ross sent me a sample of one of these Sho-kaku “clones” and my first reaction was that it must be the same incense as Sho-kaku. With a little more time, it did seem subtly different due to the oil, but I’d still have trouble telling them apart in a blind test. The funny thing is both of these sticks *look* like they could be some sort of charcoal stick dipped in a really expensive oil, except you never get any hint of such a base.

  11. Bernd Sandner said,

    August 26, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Hello Mike,
    again it is good to read your articles.
    For me, as I mentioned before, it is difficult, maybe impossible to write, talk and even think about incense in a way that would provide beneficial impulses for others.
    When i read your words, I always find them in line with my own experiences.
    You do try to hypnotize.

    What do you think, why are premium incenses premium?
    No doubt they are.
    Especially the Shoyeido top three.
    I only had the premium sampler, one 8-stick sampler of Go-Un and one 8-stick Sho-kaku. I burn them inch by inch. They are my treasure.
    You know, I have all the premium Kyukyodos, the Tennendo Enkuu-Horizon, Baieido Ho-Ryu-Koh, Minorien Fuuin Kyara, and others. They are heaven to me.
    But still the Shoyeido premiums are different. They catch me in a different way.
    I do not know what it is.
    They are complex, presenting new facets all the time, like others also.
    But there is an inexplicable clarity, and mind focusing quality, that is hard to find in other incenses.

    That is, why i am interested, Ross, in the incenses, you mentioned above. The ones, that remind you of Sho-kaku. Do they also have this quality.

    Maybe it is only my imagination. What do you think?

    Best! Bernd

  12. Mike said,

    August 25, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Yeah, I’ve seen that happen dozens of times, to the point where I almost expect it. Take one stick of Sho-kaku and light it casually while your friend/s are talking and watch the entire conversation come to a halt as soon as the front wave of the aroma hits. Profanity or a paeon to the deity of choice follows. I’m getting the same thing from the musky Tibetans as well, “I’ve never smelled anything quite like that before.”

    In a way I’m glad these are as dense as they are, I rarely need to burn one full stick before a room is fragranced. You can chalk that up to these sticks being about an inch longer than the average as well.

  13. Ross Urrere said,

    August 25, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Nice review Mike on what is really a very tough grouping to explain. How does one explain the color red to a person with no sight? Its rather intangible. To me it comes down to how they effect you and others as to the worth. I know many people who are totally put off by the price who drink very expensive wine or something similar. I have also seen peoples entire thought process come to a halt upon smelling the scent of any of the three above. They are so completely a work of art in their field.
    I have tried some other high end kyara’s that are not available in the US that smell ( at least to my nose) remarkably like Sho-kaku that it makes me think that that set or quality of scent is considered the mark to go for. Which maker got there first is unknown to me, but there does seem to be that similarity in focus. I am just glad I have had the experience 🙂
    -ross


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