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.