Shoyeido / Granulated / Rendai-koh (Lotus Leaf), Bodai-koh (Satori), Kyanan-koh (Offering), Ranjya-koh (Imperial)

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 $10.50 (Rendai-koh) to $39.95 (Ranjya-koh), with other selections in this line going all the way up to $130.95. 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 ($13.50) and Hoetsu/Rapture ($130.95) 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.


Shoyeido / Kyoto Moon Series / Tranquility, Abundance (Discontinued), Creativity

Ah, Shoyeido, one of the first Japanese incense companies to establish a formal presence in the US. When they originally came over here and opened their distribution center in Boulder, Colorado, they brought with them an extensive catalog of traditional incenses. Most of their offerings, however, were out of range for their American audience, both in price and in formulation. Up until then most of the incense that were available here were of the single-note, inexpensive variety, imported from India or manufactured in the USA by companies that rely on synthetic petroleum ingredients for scent. Americans had come to expect their incense to be cheap and perfumey so the traditional Japanese incenses offered by Shoyeido were, literally, foreign.

Shoyeido quickly became aware of this challenge and began putting out some new lines specifically targeted at the American audience. All of these still rely on natural ingredients, yet offer an introduction into the Japanese style that doesn’t put such a dent in the wallet.  Like Angelic, Jewel, and these other new series, Kyoto Moon is very affordable and is becoming more and more widely available at health food stores and new age shops as Shoyeido‘s presence in the states grows.  You can even pick up a sampler [NOTE 9/28/21: Nancy’s review pointed to the old sampler, with only two aromas remaining you can still find a two stick sampler here.] According to Shoyeido, “the moon symbolizes the dynamic, eternal, cyclic nature of life” and this series “celebrates the subtle influence of the moon in its three phases, Kyoto Moon awakens our senses of Creativity, Tranquility and Abundance.”

Tranquility: Sandalwood, Cedarwood, and spices. A mild wood blend, sweet and light. Uncomplicated, perhaps with a hint of musk. If you enjoy woods this is a lovely everyday incense to burn.
Creativity: Cinnamon, Cloves, and spices. Another nice, simple wood blend with a hint of spice. Slight floral notes round this one out without being overpowering or perfumey.
Abundance: Benzoin, Sandalwood, Cinnamon, and spices. My favorite of the three. Up front is the Benzoin, a sweet, sticky tree resin that has a kind of marshmallow aroma. One of my absolute favorite resins and, along with beeswax and vanilla, a primary ingredient in amber.

This series is a fine introduction into the world of traditional herbal incense, natural yet accessible and definitely worth checking out.  For the price you just can’t beat the Kyoto Moon series! Coming in at less than $4 a box this is a very nice grouping, with a wood, a spice, and a resin to choose from. The formulations are uncomplicated and thoroughly enjoyable, natural, light and aromatic. They are perfect for ambiance without being overpowering, just as one would expect from the master blenders at this 300 year old company. If you like these you really owe it to yourself to try some of Shoyeido’s other offerings. In general, as the prices increase the quality of ingredients goes up and the scents become more powerful and complex. Totally worth it!

Incense Body Powders / Shoyeido Johin, Gokuhin, Tokusen; Baieido Zukoh; Scent of Samadhi

Incense body powders are an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable way to expand the scope of your incense experience. Like high quality Japanese sticks, these powders are deliciously aromatic, relaxing and grounding. Wearing them is like traveling in a delicate mist of fine incense all day long. One of the more interesting qualities of these powders is that their smell is enhanced by perspiration. Just like the heat of cooking releases the flavors of culinary herbs, body heat and moisture amplifies the aroma of the powders. These powders are also a viable option for those who are sensitive to commercial perfumes, 95% of which are derived from synthetic petroleum sources. They contain nothing artificial, consisting only of essential oils and finely ground medicinal-grade herbs.

Incense body powders have their roots in ancient India where they were originally rubbed on the hands and sprinkled on temple floors to prevent the spread of disease. Over time the use of the powders expanded, and applying them became a more symbolic way to attain spiritual purification before ceremonies, meditation, or yoga. By spreading the powder on the palms and then lightly dusting it all over the hair and clothing, one could effectively smudge or cleanse the aura. According to Shoyeido, Buddhists monks would sometimes even put a small amount of these powders directly under their tongue to enhance mental clarity during meditation.

Here is a listing of the ingredients of the 5 incense body powders I am reviewing:
Shoyeido / Johin: Cinnamon, Sandalwood, Clove, Camphor
Shoyeido / Gokuhin: Cinnamon, Patchouli, Camphor
Shoyeido / Tokusen: Cinnamon, Clove, Camphor, Sandalwood
Baieido / Zukoh: Cinnamon, Cassia, Clove, Sandalwood, Camphor, Star Anise
Scent of Samadhi: Clove Oil, Red Sandalwood, Tulsi Oil, Rose Oil, Cardamom Oil

The offerings from Shoyeido and Baieido differ in smell, but only subtly. As you can see, all contain very similar ingredients. The effect of the blends in general is reminiscent of oatmeal cookies, 5 Spice, mulled cider, pumpkin pie, or even chai tea. The camphor note does come out as well, making for a really nice earthy, spicy blend, appropriate for men or women. Shoyeido offers three different grades of their body incense and what distinguishes them the most is the quality of the ingredients used in each one more than the smell. Tokusen is the highest grade and it definitely has more staying power, depth and richness. Baieido’s Zukoh is comparable in quality to Tokusen with the main difference being that it is slightly more woody. If you would like to try the Japanese powders I recommend going straight for Tokusen or Zukoh because their scent is more refined and longer lasting.

Scent of Samadhi [NOTE 9/28/21: I can’t easily find a home source for this body incense, but it still seems to be available if you look around a bit, so I’m not ready to mark this as discontinued yet. – Mike] is a totally different experience all together. Comparing this to the Japanese varieties is very much like comparing Japanese incense to Indian incense overall. The Japanese powders are drier, woodier, and spicier while Scent of Samadhi is moister and more floral. Yes, Scent of Samadhi contains clove, but there the similarity ends. The powder is stickier, obviously heavier with oils when you compare ingredients, and sort of reminds me of the masala-type incenses. Because of its high oil content even less is required for application as compared to the Japanese powders and it’s aroma last the longest of all. I really do like this one for its uniqueness. The blend is dominated by the rose oil, making this one a more feminine experience. It also mixes really well with the Japanese powders, resulting in a delicious blend where the floral and the spice balance each other out quite nicely.

The powders come in small packets, about ½ oz. Because so little is needed for the desired effect this is certainly enough to last for months. Shoyeido also makes a nifty ebony holder [NOTE 9/28/21: This is still in the Shoyeido catalog but it shows out of stock] for the Japanese incense powders that I would recommend picking up. It’s perfect for shaking out just the right amount of powder for application and makes a very convenient, portable container. I really love these powders, especially Tokusen and Zukoh, and would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in expanding their incense repertoire.

Zambala Tibetan Incense / Single Powder Packs (Discontinued Line)

This incense line is named after Zambala, the Buddhist guardian of the north and bestower of posterity. He is also keeper of the yakshas, nature spirits who live with him on Sumeru, a mythological mountain central to Buddhist cosmology. All of the herbs in these blends are wild crafted in Tibet, formulated according to ancient scriptures, and blessed with sacred prayers for 49 days. From harvest to packaging this line is infused with great care and intention, giving these incenses a tangible spiritual weight.

There are six selections in this line and each is available as sticks, loose powder, or single powder packs. The single powder packs are a great introduction to this line, and I decided to pick some up as a low cost way to do some sampling. They are individually wrapped to preserved the aromatic oils and look like little paper sachets with crimped edges. Each one is filled with about a tablespoon of loose, granulated herbs. To use them you basically light the whole thing and let it smolder. The packs burn best if upright so I recommend using a traditional incense burner filled with sand or ash for support. The whole thing goes up, paper and all, in less than ten minutes, releasing copious amounts of smoke and fragrance as it goes. These are purifying incenses so their fumigating quality is more like a smudging than like burning incense sticks. The sachets can also be carried in your pocket or purse as a charm or amulet.

These formulas are intended to be used as offerings to specific deities and each comes with a unique set of protections and benefits as listed on the outer wrapper.
Kurukulle (red): win over men and gods, remove obstacles, gain power and prestige, bring familial harmony, fulfill wishes.
Manjushree (orange): remove obstacles, attain a sharp and powerful mind, subdue fears, perfect wishes.
Zambala (yellow): accumulate merits of wealth, receive protection, remove obstacles, fulfill wishes.
Green Tara (green): bring protection, satisfy those you owe from previous lives, fulfill wishes, overcome obstacles and disasters, brighten your inner power, increase positive merits, obtain riches and auspiciousness, bring wealth.
Medicine Buddha (blue): subdue physical and mental disease, brighten your inner power, fulfill wishes.
Vajrakilaya (indigo): remove obstacles, disasters of inauspicious nature, and local evil spirits.

Unlike Japanese incense or other more refined styles, these blends have an assertive rustic quality. Their general scent is decidedly earthy and herbal, a sort of sage and cedar with hints of chamomile, juniper berry, and camphor. Thought there are some subtle differences between the six blends, each packet states the same ingredients: “countless precious and rare fragrant medicinal plants, the precious nectar of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and other blessed materials.” The complexity of the formulations tends to muddle the scents a bit, making it hard to distinguish individual ingredients or to compare one blend effectively with any other.

Keep in mind that these blends have been designed primarily for their spiritual qualities and not for olfactory enjoyment per say, so they are not as individualized as other lines would be. Though highly aromatic, the herbs in these blends have been chosen more for their spiritual and religious significance than their smell. With incense like this it is more about the intention and offering than the aesthetic enjoyment of the bouquet. I would recommend these if you are interested in trying a very traditional incense that has been designed for its spiritual connotations. For ease of burn and intensity of smoke the straight powder is probably easier to manoeuvre, though these single packs offer a good sampling without a large initial investment.

Keigado / East Temple, West Temple

There are many categories of incense. There is the synthetic vs. the natural, the floral, woody, spicy, herbal, fruity, and the resinous. There are sticks for daily use and rare woods to be savored only on special occasions. Then there is temple incense, a variety that tends to be longer and thicker with an extended burning time, specifically designed to be used for prayer and meditation. East Temple and West Temple fall into this category, measuring in at 12” long with a burning time of 90 minutes. Sticks like these are conducive to meditation not only because of their physiological effects, but because they provide a non-linear way to measure time. This permits us to detach ourselves from the material world of schedules and mechanical clocks and slip into a suspended peace measured only by the graceful wafting of the incense smoke.

East Temple and West Temple are both sandalwood blends. Sandalwood is grown primarily in Asia. Mysore (a.k.a. “Sandalwood City”) is the focus of sandalwood production in India. Here you will find thousands of people transforming sandalwood into incense, perfumes, lotions, soaps, candles, medicine, and devotional statues. This plant is so valued in India that the Sultan of Mysore declared it a royal tree in 1792. Even today all sandalwood in India and Nepal is property of the government and no individual may own a single tree, even if it is on private land. Sandalwood is an evergreen with the aromatic oils residing in the hardwood and root system, and it takes at least 40 years for the plant to mature. Since all parts of the wood are valuable, the tree is not cut down when harvest time comes, but rather is pulled up from the roots during the rainy season when the ground is soft. Current market value of the essential oil is $1,500 per kilogram! Sandalwood incense is considered to be the most calming type of incense and is used extensively in ceremonies by people in many religions from all over the world.

The aroma of sandalwood is very enjoyable. It is rich, balsamic, and sweet, with a woody undertone. East Temple incense mixes this wood with spices, making for an invigorating blend. This stick is named after the cardinal direction of the rising sun and is intended to be used in the morning as you prepare for the day and get your energy going. It definitely stimulates the mind so I would recommend it for contemplative meditation or study, or just to rev you up as you go about your morning rituals. The predominant note is more like sandalwood essential oil or the resin, and not so much the wood. I also detect in there hints of leather and campfire, and the blend is so masterful that I am having a hard time identifying the included spices individually. Very smooth, like a fine aged wine. West Temple, named for the direction of the setting sun, is for evening use when our energies are naturally declining and we are preparing for sleep. It is definitely the more subtle of the two and is almost smokeless due to its high wood-low oil content. This stick is truer to the wood, sweet and sublime, pure and utterly relaxing. It has a sort of slow, permeating quality about it that will gradually fill even a large space with its subtle effect, gently shifting the energy to peace and relaxation.

These two incenses are certainly enjoyable on their own, but are even better experienced as a pair, burned one in the morning and one in the evening as intended. They definitely have completely different scents, with noticeably different affects on energy levels and the mind. Two interesting takes on a classic wood and a very good deal given the length and duration of each stick. These are some of my all time favorites and I highly recommend them to anyone who loves the aroma of sandalwood and is interested in trying some very pure examples from a skilled and revered incense company.

Awaji-Baikundo / Nyuwa, Byakudan, Wabi-Sabi

This esteemed company was founded in 1885. It is located on Awaji, an island in the Seto Inland Sea near Osaka, where about 70% of Japan‘s incense is currently manufactured. Here you will find burial mounds thousands of years old, and this may be the first island to have been settled in the Japanese archipelago. Legend identifies it as the landing place of the first pieces of aloeswood, arriving via ocean currents from Southeast Asia around 595 AD. As the story goes, the locals burned this driftwood and, realizing its amazing aromatic properties, immediately extinguished the chunk of wood and presented it to the Empress.

Awaji-Baikundo’s incense is unique because the base of their blends is not the typical sandalwood or aloeswood, but hydrangea flowers. This is a very important and historically symbolic plant in Japanese culture, used in celebrations and offerings, to clear the mind of misfortune, relieve tension, and grant one courage and happiness. This base lends Awaji-Baikundo’s incenses an overall light and uplifting quality, with a noticeable mood-enhancing effect. They currently have only five incenses available in the US with a much larger catalog available in Japan. Ross has reviewed Jihi here and Shoujou here. Every one of these incenses is unique, amazing, and well worth sampling. It is rare to find an incense company with a product so consistently high in quality. I have tried all five of their US offerings and enjoyed each one immensely.

Nyuwa is a hydrangea-fruit incense. Fruits are an unusual category and one I find myself really getting into these days! It is rare to find a predominantly fruit blend, especially one that avoids the use of synthetic aromas, so this is a treat for sure. At first I was going to say that this was like a peach, but no, on further contemplation I would say it is more like an apricot. Being a fruit incense it is very peaceful and, unlike some of the wood-heavy blends, achieves this without being too sedating. Fruits in general are energetically lighter than woods and this characteristic certainly comes through, with the apricot lending this incense a pleasant sunny disposition.

Byakudan is a blend of sandalwood and hydrangea. There is a lemony note in there and just a touch of amber. The play of the ingredients is balanced just so; no one ingredient dominates the other and each inhalation give a new angle on the complexity. If you like sandalwood incenses you should definitely try this one. What an unusual take on this traditional wood! Just beautiful! I am forever amazed at the adaptability of sandalwood, and here is yet another example. It is capable of blending flawlessly with an astounding range of aromas, from herbs and spices to resins and flowers. This is absolutely one of the most unusual and elegant sandalwood incenses I have ever tried. {NOTE: 7/2/21: This blend has been discontinued.]

Wabi-Sabi was a tough one for me to figure out at first. It was so strange and unusual, unlike any incense I had ever tried before. After burning quite a few sticks, however, I finally got it – coffee! There are other Japanese companies that make coffee incense, including Shoyeido and Baieido, a testament to the popularity of this style. As someone who does not drink this beverage, however, this incense was initially difficult to interpret. Still, I have always loved the rich and roasty smell of this bean. It is intensely aromatic, with a high quantity of volatile oils, making it the perfect ingredient for incense. It is the predominate note in this blend, rounded out with some sort of delicious caramel note and just a hint of herbs and wood. Just like the beverage, I find this blend to be subtly stimulating and a natural choice for social gatherings and casual conversation. Recommended!

Shoyeido / Genji Series / Enishi (Proposals)

The Tale of Genji is a 1,000 page book written in 11th century Japan by a Heian court lady known as Murasaki Shikibu. It is considered to be the oldest Japanese novel and a national treasure, chronicling the life of Genji, or Shining Prince. For Genji life is a bittersweet mix of aristocratic privilege and leisure, coupled with the frustration of multiple failed romances and a forbidden love affair with his stepmother. The novel is notable for its consistency, containing a remarkable four hundred characters that all age in step and maintain accurate relationships throughout all 54 chapters. It is studied extensively today not only for its literary value, but because of its description of Japanese court life, with over 80 current editions in print in a multitude of languages. 2008 marks the 1,000-year anniversary of this book.

So what on earth does all of this have to do with incense? Well, the chapter entitled “A Branch of Plum” describes kneaded incense, an ancient variety in which plum pulp is spiced with honey and herbs and left to mature underground in ceramic vessels for three to five years. This traditional incense is still produced today in small batches, especially for use in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is not burned like incense sticks, but rolled into small balls that are warmed over charcoal or in a wood chip heater. There is also a contest in this chapter judging different incense blends, including some that Genji himself has made, which is found to be the finest of all. Later on in history these contests became more like guessing games. In one, now affectionately called “Genji-ko” (Genji Incense), participants attempt to figure out which of a handful of incenses are similar or different. They then write their answers secretly on pieces of paper, using symbols called Genji-man (Genji Crests), which correspond with symbols from the book’s chapter headings, to denote their findings.

Tamakazura (pink) is named after Genji’s adoptive daughter. In Japanese culture pink symbolizes purity and childhood innocence, two characteristics embodied by this young girl. This is a delicious fruit bowl of an incense. It is not citrusy like oranges, lemons, or grapefruits, which all have a bitterness to them, but more like cherries, apples, or apricots. There is a bit of sweet wood that comes out in the top note, and I also detect a touch of floral or fine dusting powder, reminiscent of the Floral World series. Just scrumptious! If you like Mixed Fruits from Shoyeido’s Xiang Do line, then you will certainly love this one.

Hotarunomiya (purple) is named after Genji’s half-brother. Hotarunomiya is the eldest son of the emperor and next in line for the throne so he is associated with the color of royalty. This stick has a fresh aloeswood-cinnamon aroma with a bitter earthy finish like barks and roots. For me it conjures up images of ancient courtly ceremonies. Masculine and regal in scent, as befits a prince.  Definitely a blend that has the power to transport me back in time!

Kashiwagi (yellow) is named after Genji’s nephew, one of Tamakazura‘s suitors. He also has an affair with Genji‘s third wife, attributing the color of dishonesty and deceit to these sticks. This one has a distinct aloeswood flavor blended with a scent like lemongrass. There is a dark wood note at the base with a bit of the bitterness of lemon peel coming through as well. I’m not sure if the color of the sticks is just influencing my nose, but for me this one evokes lemon bars, those delicious little treats with the shortbread crust.

Kurohige (green) is named after a Royal Army General. This General pursues and kidnaps Tamakazura, earning these sticks the color of envy and jealousy. This formula is very complex: bitter, sweet, pungent, sour, and herbal all at once, with a hint of black pepper. The predominant scent is elusive, and the closest analog I can think of to describe it is the flavor of key-lime. It reminds me a great deal of Ten-pyo (Peaceful Sky), the most expensive and elegant of the offerings from Shoyeido’s Horin line.

It is in honor of The Tale of Genji and its 1,000-year anniversary that Shoyeido has created this series. These are totally new formulas, specially designed, not just familiar incenses repackaged. It has been a long time since Shoyeido has come out with a new high-end line, especially in the US, so this is a real treat! These are all fine, high quality blends, very complex and meant to be savored for sure. The four scents represent a very interesting mix of incense styles which I would compare overall to the Horin line, one of my favorites from Shoyeido. I am very excited that Shoyeido has developed a new line that is so exquisite. Based on my samplings in Enishi (Proposals) I look forward to trying more from the Genji series!

Shoyeido / Floral World / Echo (Discontinued Line)

There are four sets in Shoyeido’s Floral World series. They are available as short sticks or cones and range in price from $20 to $60. Mike has reviewed Star here, which is the most expensive of the four, and Royal here, the second most expensive. Echo is next, with Gold as the least expensive. The sticks are packaged 20 of each variety, in a tray that slides out of the box and includes a biodegradable burner. The cones are available in three packaging configurations, the newest being an affordable box of 8, each wrapped in colored paper folded like petals and arranged beautifully to resemble a crepe paper blossom. A lovely presentation for gift giving and the perfect amount for sampling.

The three scents in the Echo set include Lavender, Violet, and Sandalwood. What’s confusing about the Floral World series is that many of the scents overlap. Three of the sets include Jasmine, three include Violet, and three include Sandalwood. The sticks are colored differently depending on the set, presumably indicating a difference in quality. Furthermore, I am not sure how this grading system applies to the single-scent boxes of cones, with only one version of each scent available in this form.

The Lavender definitely has a floral scent, though I wouldn’t say that it distinctly reminds me of this plant. Lavender is in the lamiaceae (mint) family which includes basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano. Like its cousins, it has a distinct pungency, even bitterness, that I do not detect in this incense. Not to detract from this fine creation, but it seems to focus more on the sweet top notes of the plant. To me is smells less like lavender and more like a combination of rose and fine dusting powder. The Violet, again, has that note of dusting powder and resembles the actual scent of the plant much more accurately. Restrained and elegant, cool like the plant, and with a hint of what I can only describe as green. (Can a smell be a color?)* The final scent in the set is Sandalwood, a perplexing inclusion in a floral set for sure. However, this wood is the base of so many incenses, a testament to its ability to combine so well with a amazing range of other aromatic plants. Here it is combined with a floral scent, bringing out the sweetness of the wood, though the floral note is the predominant one. I would say of the three that this is the most interesting and complex, and the one I am having the most difficulty describing. The aroma is more like a bouquet or a mix of different flowers than like any one specific flower. Either way, the smell is quite enticing and long-lasting, continuing to scent the room hours after it finished burning.

These are certainly some of the best florals I have ever encountered. If you like the dipped charcoal perfume incenses then I guarantee that you will enjoy these! Really just lovely and a totally different experience than most other florals I have tried. Very fine and feminine and obviously of the highest quality.  Kudos to Shoyeido for creating a range of florals that are elegant and well-balanced.

*12/3/08  Well, turns out smells can be green!  Apparently it’s the hexenes that smell like cut grass, referred to as “green notes” in the science of scent.  Thanks to Steve Schaffer for the link to Luca Turin’s TED talk on this and how smell is more about the vibration of the molecule than the shape.  Interesting!

Four Florals: Shoyeido’s Ranka (Discontinued) and Baika-ju; Baieido’s Kokonoe Floral and Izumi (Both Discontinued)

There is a long tradition of floral scents in Japanese incense making, especially variations on Plum Blossom. Like the crane and the fan, the plum blossom is one of the most important symbols identified with asian cultures and is considered to be auspicious for many reasons. Being very frost-hearty, the plum is one of the only plants that will bloom even in severe winter snowstorms, usually flowering in January-February, in the earliest part of Spring. Because of this, the plum is a metaphor for rebirth as well as resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. It is also a protective charm against evil and misfortune.

Shoyeido / Baika-ju (Plum Blossom) This is the floral incense that I burn most regularity. It is akin to one of my top 10 favorites, Shino-nome (First Light) from Shoyeido’s Aesthetic Series. Like Shino-nome it is definitely a sandalwood base. There is a distinctive floral note but it is very light, not overpowering or synthetic smelling at all. The aroma is delicate and airy, just like the beautiful plum blossom, and reminds me of a combination of hyacinth and cinnamon. Very nice! This is a totally different experience than your typical florals, most of which are charcoal dipped in synthetic oils and come with unpleasant side-effects like headaches, a testament to their chemical origins. Baika-ju is a fantastic deal, coming in at under $12 for a box of 150 sticks! It is also available as a gift set, in an gold organza pouch accompanied by a cute ceramic boat-shaped celadon burner. This is one of the lightest florals I know of, with a proportionate balance of sandalwood, making it a great introduction into this category for those who favor the herbals or woods.

Shoyeido / Ranka (Orchid) Compared to Baika-ju, Ranka has a more pungent floral aroma. The sticks are a beautiful shade of antique rose and come in a gorgeous watercolor box. They are thinner than average, presumably due to their potency. The smell is stunning, like a combination of jasmine and lilac, with undertones of sandalwood. At under $6 for 300 sticks, this incense is definitely a deal! It will satisfy your craving for floral incense without being too thick or cloying. A fine example of Shoyeido’s mastery of perfume.

Baieido / Kokonoe Floral (Imperial Palace Floral) Stated as a combination of aloeswood and flowers from Indonesia. Definitely more woodsy compared to the Shoyeido florals, thought I find this to be true when comparing these two lines in general. The aroma of this incense is more like rose, typically captured in Indian incenses, making this an unusual floral for a Japanese company. There is also a sharp note in the last second of the inhalation that hits me in the back of my throat that has almost a soapy taste. I do not detect the aloeswood. I think it must get lost beneath the perfume, which is kind of incredible considering how potent aloeswood can be even in small amounts. I actually had to put this stick out in the midst of writing this review because I was starting to get a frontal headache. I usually prefer herbal- or wood-predominant incenses anyway, and this floral seems a bit too strong for me.

Baieido / Izumi (Garden Springs) Described as the essence of many flowers blowing in the spring wind. Such a description conjures for me an image of a blooming meadow in full sun. The smell of even this unburned stick, however, inspires associations with detergent soap. After lighting the stick it is no different. I am afraid that this incense is just not for me. I truly love Baieido’s traditional blends and admit a personal preference against florals, but this one is by far one of the most synthetic florals I have sampled. I couldn’t even burn a whole stick. My sincere apologies, Baieido.

Shoyeido Aesthetic Series / Kasumi, Oboro (Discontinued Line); Selects / Shino-nome, Miyako-gusa

[NOTE 9/28/21: As of 7/31/09, Shino-nome and Miyako-gusa were discontinued; however, both were later resurrected as part of the Select line and are linked to below, even if have not confirmed if the recipes have changed or not. Shoyeido lists a Kasumi and an Oboro (links below), but both are listed as less smoke incenses and the descriptions and ingredients don’t match, so we believe they are reformulated and not the incenses reviewed by Nancy. – Mike]

This series from Shoyeido was designed to produce 70% less smoke than their traditional incenses and definitely succeeds in doing so without sacrificing any olfactory enjoyment. Burning incense usually produces a lot of airborne particles which can irritate the respiratory system and eyes, making this series perfect for those with allergies or other sensitivities. Another unfortunate side effect of regular incense burning is the copious amounts of dust that is produced. Because this series burns cleaner, it also produces less dust by default. In general, the scents in this series not only burn lighter, but have more delicate aromas as well, almost ambient in quality. They tend toward the sweet and floral side of the spectrum more than the woodsy or spicy side. This line is very affordable for the quality making it a great introduction into the world of Japanese incense and each box of 40 sticks comes with it’s own ceramic burner tucked into a compartment under the top flap.

So far I have sampled four of the five selections offered in this line, including Gossamer, Illusions, First Light, and Botanica. Kasumi (Gossamer) is sweet like vanilla bean with a slight hint of cinnamon. Patchouli is also listed as an ingredient but I do not detect any of this herb’s distinct muskiness in the mix at all so it‘s probably more of a minor player. Described by Shoyeido as being “For any setting or occasion with a spirited and balanced nuance of fragrances,“ it is overall very enjoyable!   Oboro (Illusions) is the most resinous of all, with a definite aloeswood edge that lends an acrid or sour quality. It has a sweet note too, probably from the benzoin resin, and a high, almost imperceptible note of camphor. Compared to Kasumi, this blend is more complex, better for contemplation than atmosphere and perfect if you‘re in a more meditative state. [NOTE 9/28/21: There are both Kasumi and Oboro low smoke incense avaiable at Shoyeido, but as stated above we believe they are different incenses than the ones reviewed here.]

It is in Shino-Nome (First Light) that the sandalwood base common to all the blends in this series really comes out. Blended with cinnamon and benzoin, this incense has been one of my top ten picks for the past year. I even invested in the 10-bundle gift box! I burn this one at my acupuncture practice and everyone who walks through the door comments that they love it.  The scent is rich and uplifting and universally loved, making it a favorite of mine for gift giving. Recently, however, Miyako-gusa (Botanica) has eclipsed them all! Contrary to what you’d think based on the name, this blend is not strictly floral. It is by far the most complex of the four that I’ve sampled from this line, with distinct base, middle and top notes. There is a floral quality, but there is so much more! I also detect aloes wood, cloves and maybe even a citrus scent (orange peel?). This makes for a very unique and thoroughly enjoyable mix! Overall, a great series of incense, each blend distinct and light enough to be burned on a regular basis.