1. Awaji-Baikundo / Jihi – Most of us know hydrangea as the common garden bush with enormous flower clusters. It is sensitive to the pH of soil, blooming pink when alkaline and blue when acidic. Here it is mixed with the famous substance know simply as amber, an ancient Ayurvedic blend of benzoin resin and vanilla in a beeswax base, that elevates consciousness and opens the heart chakra. In Japan hydrangea is used in both celebrations and offerings, said to clear the mind of misfortune, relieve tension, and grant one courage and happiness. This very unusual incense is a blend of the two with a delicate, sweet and exquisite scent with just a hint of camphor to round it out. The heavy, earthiness of the amber is a perfect foil for the pale, airy nature of the hydrangea, resulting in a mind-blowing combination of cultures and aromas. The day I received my first box of this incense, I spent about an hour burning stick after stick, lying in savasana, with the burner placed mere inches from my nose so as not to miss a single molecule. Now it is one of my favorites to light at night; I find it helps me drift off into a most peaceful sleep. This incense is produced on Awaji, an island located off the coast of Osaka in the Seto Inland Sea, where 70% of Japan’s incense is manufactured.
2. Shoyeido / Premium Incense / Ohjya-koh (King’s Aroma) – Made by Shoyeido, a 12th generation incense manufacturer founded in 1705. This company is considered to produce some of the finest, most natural incense in the world. Burning traditional Japanese herbal incense is an incomparable experience, nothing like burning charcoal dipped in a synthetic perfume. The roots, barks, resins, oils, leaves, and flowers used have actual medicinal and psychotropic properties that are not replicated by artificial copies. King’s Aroma is from Shoyeido’s Premium Incense line, a collection with a price range that spans from $15.95 all the way up to $599.00. King’s Aroma is one of the less expensive options, and one that I find a lot more accessible to my western nose. The scent is very crisp, combining sandalwood with cloves and patchouli. It is refreshing and almost minty, but relaxing instead of being stimulating. Truly one to savor and best used on special occasions.
3. Shoyeido / Horin / Muro-machi (City of Culture) – Like their Xiang Do and Incense Road lines, Shoyeido’s Horin line comes in potent 2.75″ sticks. I truly enjoy this line as much for the clever packaging as for its unusual and unique scents. Each box contains 20 sticks in a clever paper puzzle box with a biodegradable burner tucked away into a separate compartment. City of Culture is my favorite of the five from this collection, a very unique blend that is not resinous or floral but decidedly herbal. There is an additional almost acrid overtone as well making this one of the most unusual incenses I have ever smelled. I find it complex and entrancing, perfect for meditation, with a deep and layered quality. Truly a masterpiece! Also available in coils, the Horin incenses are definitely one of the most remarkable and unique offering from Shoyeido’s extensive catalog.
4. Keigado / West Temple – Incense burning has a long and ancient history of use in asian cultures as a measure of time. Before mechanical clocks, incense blends were refined and calibrated as much for scent as for consistency of burn time. At 12 inches long, this extra thick, slow-burning blend smolders for an amazing 90 minutes! Designed specifically for meditation and prayer, the burning of this incense delineates the perfect length of a meditation session, allowing you to ignore time for a spell and focus inward. Delicious and rich, West Temple is an unadulterated stick of the finest sandalwood, with the true scent of the wood coming through. It is intended to be used in the evening, west being the direction of the setting sun. It’s perfect compliment is East Temple, also from Keigado, a spicier and more stimulating blend of sandalwood, ideal for morning meditations.
5. Shoyeido / Xiang Do / Peppermint – Coming in at a diminutive 2.75″ and with a total burning time of only 20 minutes, these short incense sticks are potent enough to fill even a large room. While most incense is extruded and cut to length, Shoyeido’s Xiang Do series is pressed into shape with an exclusive process. Each little box of sticks comes with a tiny biodegradable burner made of pressed paper tucked into a secret compartment on the underside of the package. This makes them perfectly portable for traveling or when going on a hike in the woods with the intent of having a little outdoor nature meditation. The Xiang Do series has 16 flavors in a rainbow of colors, each sparkling like jewels due to the inclusion of powdered mica in the blends. Flavors range from woods like Frankincense and Palo Santo, to florals like Rose and Lavender, and a few more cryptic flavors like Mixed Fruits and Marine. My most favorite of all is the Peppermint. Such an unusual variety of incense executed beautifully with just the right amount of peppermint coming through in the very last note of each waft. Peppermint is energetically cooling, used in herbal medicine to tame fevers, heartburn, sore throats, and the like. As an incense I find it most appropriate for hot summer afternoons.
6. Baiyeido / Bayakudan Kobunboku – A delicious, light mix of sandalwood and aloeswood. The perfect blend of two of the most famous incense woods, suitable for daily use. Sandalwood is so valued for its aroma and healing properties that all of the trees in India and Nepal are officially owned by the government, its sale being heavily regulated by CITES and other trade agreements. It is used extensively in churches and temples because it induces a meditative state of mind. Aloeswood, even more rare, is an aged wood formed when injured trees produce an abundance of resin, then fall to rest on the forest floor, sometimes for hundreds of years. In this incense, neither wood dominates the other, blending together perfectly to form yet another scent, one that strongly imparts a sense of peace and relaxation. I burn this one 5 sticks at a time, practically smudging my house. This incense is very woodsy without being heavy, harsh, or too smoky. A nice blend devoid of distraction or ornamentation, pure and simple and reminiscent of the warm burn of an open campfire.
7. Baiyeido / Kai un Koh – An unusual square stick of incense with the pronounced aroma of cloves. Traded heavily since the middle ages, this common spice was once worth its weight in gold. Actually the bud of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, cloves contain about 15% essential oil, the highest percentage of any plant. Because of this high oil content cloves are always used sparingly, whether to flavor tobacco, curries, chai, or incense. Unlike most blends, this one is motivating and energizing, pungent and even slightly bitter, but still with a high note of sweetness. Cloves are energetically warming with a heavy spiciness, so this incense is best suited for cooler seasons or chilly mornings. Sharp and aromatic, I find Kai un Koh to be mentally stimulating as well, making it an ideal choice to enjoy during philosophical conversations.
8. Keigado / Kaori – Smooth and mellow, burning this incense is like floating on a fluffy cloud. The honey gives this stick a warmth and sweetness, while the sandalwood adds depth and weight. This blend reminds me of toasted marshmallows or honey wine aged to perfection. Along with Awaji-Baikundo’s Jihi, this is one of my favorites to burn when I go to sleep at night. Far from being cloying and sticky, this honey incense is light and airy. Like Nag Champa, this incense works well for covering heavy cooking odors, but distinguishes itself from the Indian blend by avoiding an perfumey overtones. Very clean and natural and beautifully packaged in a colorful six-sided box.
9. Shoyeido / Aesthetics Series / Shino-nome (First Light) – A light blend of sandalwood and cinnamon from Shoyeido’s Aesthetic Series, a line designed to produce less smoke than their traditional blends. I burn this one at my acupuncture practice and everyone who walks through the door comments that they love it. Also, it is less smoky so it doesn’t irritate those with sensitive lungs or eyes. I burn only half a stick at a time and find it enough to clear the air. (The other half I usually burn in the planter outside for those passing by to enjoy.) This incense is rich and uplifting. It is universally loved and is one of my favorites for gift giving. For the true addicts, Shoyeido even offers a 10-bundle gift box!
10. Minorien / Frankincense – Minorien produces only five kinds of incense: Sandalwood, Frankincense, Aloeswood, Kyara, and Kyara Ryugen. If you appreciate frankincense, this is a great way to experience it in its pure form! I love this wood, but find most other varieties to either be too strong or combined with too many other ingredients, hiding the pure scent. Frankincense is very resinous and can be overpowering, so skilled preparation is essential. The smell is definitely heavy and woody, with a deep aromatic quality like cinnamon or cloves. First mentioned in the Chinese literature in 500 AD it was then referred to as fan hun my or “calling back the soul fragrance,” a reference to its use in funerary rites. It has also been used for prayer, meditation, anointing, and even medicine, both topically and internally for pain. It is related to myrrh and both species of tree grow primarily Somalia and the southern Arabian peninsula. Like sugar maples, the trees are tapped for their sap, which is harvested and hardens into “tears” over the course of a few months. This wood and its resin has been so valuable and important to human civilization that The Frankincense Trail in Oman, which includes ancient trees and the remains of a medieval caravan oasis, has been registered with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 2000.