These are granulated incenses, made from “sandalwood, clove, ginger and other high-quality herbs.” They are sort of like potpourri, loose mixtures of camphor crystals, wood chips, and chunks of ground herbs (curiously, no chunks of resins that I can find). This form of incense predates sticks and cones and is definitely the purest way to enjoy the medicinal properties and volatile ingredients of incense plants. There are no binders or fillers, even the natural ones like tabu no ki that you find in high quality Japanese sticks, to dilute or alter the pure aromatic experience. Because of this there is something very earthy about this style and these granulated incenses really do smell quite unique as a class.
Please note that granulated incenses are intended to be burned over charcoal or in an electric incense burner, so you need to have one or the other on hand in order to use them. I find that it is much easier to control the temperature with an electric heater. Incense charcoal tabs tend to burn a bit too hot, scorching the raw ingredients. The general idea is to heat the mixture just enough to release the essential oils, but not so much that the mixture burns and smokes a lot. What you want is a slow, even heating, more like a toasting than a full-on flambé.
These four offerings from Shoyeido are essentially different grades of the same basic formulation. They smell almost identical before they are burned, with subtle differences in quality revealed upon ignition. The price range of these four is $4.95 (Rendai-koh) to $29.95 (Ranjya-koh), with other selections in this line going all the way up to $99.95. This span reflects both the superiority of the raw materials used and the percentage of aloeswood included in the blend. Ross has reviewed Reihai-koh/Prayer ($9.95) and Hoetsu/Rapture ($99.95) here. Please see his post for another perspective on the incenses in this line.
With Rendai-koh (Lotus Leaf) chunks of camphor burn off first, revealing ginger and clove undertones. Unrefined and a bit harsh due to the predominant clove note. I find this herb to be too sweet when used in large amounts, making this blend a bit too saccharin for my tastes.
Bodai-koh (Satori) is smoother, still with a strong initial camphor scent. This is followed by an heavy ginger-cinnamon aroma. Definitely a step above Rendai-koh, but still too spicy for my tastes. There are some sandalwood notes in there too but they get lost under the spice blend.
Kyanan-koh (Offering) is more complex. Patchouli and camphor come out at first, then a warm sandalwood and ginger blend. This is the most enjoyable blend so far, though it is still too spicy.
Ranjya-koh (Imperial) is by far the nicest yet. Here, the sweet sandalwood dominates. There is cinnamon, ginger, and even some floral notes in there as well, but the wood takes the center stage. More subtle that the other three blends and not as spicy, with many levels of scent revealed as the mixture is heated.
Though I generally really love their stuff, I would say that these are not my favorite from Shoyeido. It’s been interesting to try them but there is just too much spice for my taste. These blends focus on cloves, cinnamon, and ginger so if you like these herbs you should check these granulated incenses out for sure. Otherwise, I would recommend either passing these over or choosing selections from the higher end of the line since those are blended more evenly with woods and other herbs.