Mike’s Top Ten Incenses and Lines of 2021

So this is my first top 10 since ORS restarted and rather than doing a straight ten incenses, which would have been difficult in such a busy review year, I wanted this to be a mix of lines, companies and incenses that truly enchanted me in the last year and gave me the aromatic experiences I was hoping for. As such it isn’t really possible to throw in a photo with everything on this list (some of these companies and lines would fill a screen on their own), so all of the links will go to either reviews that will have specific photos or to the company categories which will be sorted for multiple reviews (with photos). If you’re interested in purchasing any of these either follow the links to the reviews/category searches or use the Reviews Index to find more specific lists from each particular outfit where you will also be able to find links to the sources. Oh and I should mention that Stephen will also be posting a top 10 soon as well! Please feel free to use the comments section here to post your own favorites for the year. Thank you to everyone I have talked to and collaborated with in 2021 and recently, new friends, people who pitched in samples from their own generosity, all who contributed incenses for reviews, everyone who took the time to provide their own reviews and comments of incenses this year, etc etc. Special thanks to new ORS staff writer and good friend Stephen as well! All of this goes to helping ORS become a better resource for the incense fan and you are all very much appreciated.

  1. Wara Monastery Incense. My number one incense of 2021 was literally a runaway. Honestly if I was to do an all-time incense list it would still be hard pressed to beat. I discovered this incense at incensetraditions.ca in 2021 and I am something like 4 sticks away from my fifth roll of this utterly mystifying and unique blend. I burn it nearly every night and it’s almost like an addiction now, I go up to the bedroom to read a bit before I settle down and nearly always light a stick. I am one of those people who are somewhat skeptical about the effects of incenses beyond smelling good, but this one is so vastly under my skin that I do indeed wonder if there’s some sort of secret Tibetan drug in the mix that screams “buuuurn me!!! BUUUUURN MEEEE” every time I sit down. I have been able to listen to it roll after roll and see each one changes slightly, I remember on my third roll wondering if it might have taken a bit of a dive only for the next one to come roaring back. What can I say about it? It’s just Wara really, I don’t even know if it has a subclass except that it has a resinous quality that is somewhat analogous to aloeswoods along with a mix of a million other things that created a wonderful tanginess and spiciness that I find endless fascinating and yes soothing as well. It is a bit of dangerous blend and it may not be to everyone’s tastes but there may be something in the impossibility of classifying it that makes me come back to it constantly.
  2. The Kourindo line. Japan Incense is still the marvelous and extraordinary #1 importer of Japanese incense into the US and one of their latest “gets” is this 11-flavor line of Kourindo’s incenses. In my opinion this line is gorgeous from top to bottom and as of a couple of days ago I finally gave myself the holiday treat of the KourindaiKyara, which may be the finest of kyara incenses along with Baieido’s Kyara Kokoh and not including the Nippon Kodos that noone can afford. I have been having this ongoing conversation with Josh Matthews on this particular line because where in other companies and lines one might immediately find out which ones you like the best, this is a very difficult line to choose from simply because they’re all fantastic. I might start with either of the two middle-high incenses, the Kodaikourin and Jinkourin, because they are startlingly complex in a way that stays at about the same level until you hit the kyara. But then there’s the Jyakourin Musk which is really like no other incense in any other line and one might also want to travel into the rather impressive low end before bouncing back to the near top and going for the spicy, square cut of the Saikourin. They’re all a bit thicker than the normal Japanese style, which seems to give them a little more power, which is always a good thing in my book. In the end, like me, you may want them all.
  3. Absolute Bliss/White Lotus Oudh Saffron. Corey of Absolute Bliss whipped out this variant of their Oudh Saffron incense when I least expected it and I was utterly bewitched by whatever is making up the floral component of it. It started this train in my mind of what happens when you “floralize” a woody stick. There’s something about the mix of this that adds a lot of complementary subnotes, no less this sort of minty vibe that threads its way through the middle like its sewing everything together. It is probably one of the most deluxe Indian sticks currently available at the time and it might be one of the best charcoal-based incenses I’ve ever sampled. As I implied with Wara, my main reasoning for inclusion on this chart is simply just how much I reach for a stick because I need this scent right now.
  4. Absolute Bliss/Natural Beauty. My brother Stephen spoke very highly of this one for quite a while before I got to try it, but in Corey’s first batch back the supplies of this were highly limited, so it wasn’t until his second that I got to stock up fully on this utterly wonderful scent. For one thing, I think this second batch might have used a bit more halmaddi than the first because it struck me as a bit softer. But even with that sweet middle what you come to this one for is the mix of woods that front an almost perfect cedarwood note. It is literally one of the best incenses on the market now, and if you like cedarwood in any way I strongly urge you to check it out. Like everything I discuss here it’s a “reach for it” classic. At any time it could move up a spot or two on this list.
  5. Temple of Incense/Absolute Sandalwood and so many others. While the British importer Temple of Incense opened their doors during ORS’s hibernation, we were not aware of their presence until reader Peter Bartlett alerted us. This sent ORS staff into a buying frenzy over culminating months to try everything in this gigantic stable of incenses (well over 50 I believe), which, in some ways feels like an expansion of the Happy Hari and Absolute Bliss imports. First of all, the Absolute Sandalwood absolutely took my breath away, being markedly the most accurate-to-scent sandalwood incense on the market at the moment, bringing back memories of the old days when it was not an endangered wood, meaning it was either duplicated rather well or someone came across old stores. But it wasn’t just this, but the three super thick stick glories of Shiv, Ganesha, and Shakti; the weird glories of the blue Electric Musk, and the gorgeous beauty of Tulsi among so many others that have made this company one of the best Indian incense importers in the world. And it doesn’t hurt that the service and great energy of the Aydee family make one feel very comfortable supporting such a fine outfit.
  6. Mermade Magickal Arts/Sweet Medicine and so many others. When ORS was in hibernation I often wonder what treasures I must have missed from Katlyn Breene and Mermade when my attention wasn’t turned their way. In a field where so many incense companies and creators come and go, vanishing into the mists of time, I can honestly say that I have been experiencing Mermade creations since some time in the late 90s and have experienced an overwhelming and bewildering array of incredible incenses with something like a 95%+ hit rate. Katlyn has never showed any signs of slowing down, not to mention continuously and steadily improving her sense of craft and prowess. She is now a mentor to so many other nascent incense creators and I am often just amazed at what her creative genius will dream up next. This year she not only found a cool shortcut to being able to increase and vary her kyphi incenses but she has also dipped into South American, Tibetan and other styles of incense, all bearing her creative stamp in all the best ways. Perhaps my favorite of the year and worth listing here because it has become one of her revolving staples, is the propolis and sweetgrass based Sweet Medicine, which is so lovely you might be able to replace candy with it.
  7. Espirit de la Nature/Mother’s – Ancient Winters Remembrance. Another wonderfully skilled magician of scent hails from Canada and often collaborates with Katlyn, selling some of her incenses through Mermade and many others through her own imprint Espirit de la Nature. It is one thing to find incense creators out there who create their own blends, another to find someone with as distinctive a creative stamp as the work of Bonnie (Be) Kerr. Incense from EdlN is not merely an experience of combinations but a presentation of the voices of botanics and fungi, with a quiet resolution encouraged by careful crafting and a number of ingredients that are not often common in incenses. I was first introduced a year or two back to Bonnie’s skill with larch resin, in an incense that had all the depth impact of a great agarwood stick, but this was only the first in a long series of amazing and bewitching scents that I eagerly grab when I have the opportunity (I will only add that at Mermade these fly off the shelves, so you need to get in early). I have two new ones sitting here that I haven’t even had the time to heat up yet but in the previous batch was the astonishing Mother’s incense which was an evergreen incense with a different slant to those you often find from Katlyn’s, all of which show Bonnie’s art as ever improving, becoming more impressive with further new creations. Oh and there was the incense cones, showing another wonderful innovation. I would guess like with Katlyn, Espirit de la Nature would be likely to be on every ORS top 10 from me going forward, she’s that good! Be sure to visit her own site and check in as she has all sorts of incenses I haven’t even been able to try yet, undoubtedly a veritable cornucopia of brilliance.
  8. Drigung Monastery / Drigung Fragrant Incense. – So if I was to have a potential follow up to my obsession with Wara Monastery incense it would probably be Drigung Fragrant Incense. This isn’t to say I haven’t tried and reviewed a cavalcade of great Tibetan incenses this year thanks to the wonderful incensetraditions.ca, but this is another in the “reach for it” category that I have tried restocking and storing as well. However, I am not sure of the viability of this stick moving forward, simply in that the sticks have apparently gotten a bit more fragile over the year and are not reaching North America in mostly one piece. So in terms of the availability of this I would definitely get in touch with Hart over at the store. But scent wise I think this a good example of the sort of vegetable imitating animal scent that seems to be the puzzle we often have over some Tibetans these days in that they have musk or civet sorts of tones while purportely not harming and of the animals in the production. I like this one’s overall sort of musk hit, it’s kind of like a tweak on Mindroling grade A incense in a direction I like more.
  9. Dimension 5 Line. I was pleased to watch Josh Matthews high end craft sticks start to reach a market this year. Josh has a creative urgency that combined with a deep aesthetic and understanding of fine woods and oils have begun several lines of incenses that actually DO use fine woods, ouds and other ingredients (rather than including these ingredients in descriptions and leaving us to guess over the provenance). While this undoubtedly puts a higher cost on the sticks, it is commensurate with the prices also put on the ingredients and so in some ways if it’s not something of a first, at least it is a first in terms of having them generally available (rather than being part of an operation that tends to be something of a rush to place an order in a small time frame like a few other really good small companies use as a model). I also have to say that I have learned an incredible amount about fine materials from Josh, which I’m sure will be trickling into my own reviewing as time goes on, and I have enjoyed our ongoing conversations. But I do think Josh and Dimension 5 are well worth keeping an eye on as time moves forward because as with Katlyn and Bonnie, he already has a fine sense of aesthetics that is only likely to keep improving with experience. If you want to try something that is remiscent of Japanese incenses but often just as high end or more, be sure to check his work out. Right now it’s hard to even pitch one as they’re all at the same consistent level and each new one I try is a marvel.
  10. Kida Jinseido/Ikuhokoh. The problem with doing a top 10 of a year is sometimes the front end gets away from you and I was actually confusing Kida Jinseido when trying to find a Kikijudo incense to put on here when I realized I had missed a biggie on my list that I haven’t burned in a little while simply since it’s out of rotation but nearly went through a large roll of it early in the year. This is something of an analog to Shunkohdo’s great Ranjatai a sort of mid to high end aloeswood blend with a lot of fine materials. If I had done this list halfway through the year it could have been a lot higher up the list.

Here are a number of runners up, all of these were mostly new incenses I discovered and really enjoyed or old favorites that are still part of a heavier rotation. Please use the above-linked Reviews Index if you need to find any of these if and until when I find the time to link em up: Kikijudo/Kouboku Ginmi/Sandalwood India; Absolute Bliss – Floating Lotus Flower, Forbidden Fruit, Bholenath, Bengali Jungle Flora; Happy Hari – Oud Masala, Niyama Sutra; Pure Incense – Connoisseur Opium, Connoisseur Blue Lotus & Musk; Baieido – Kyara Kokoh; Kunmeido – Asuka; Kyukyodo – Fuyu No Yoru; Nippon Kodo – Kyara Heian; Seikado – Kyara Koh Hien; Shunkohdo – Kyara Houzan; Tennendo – Propolis; Yamadamatsu – Shuju series, Hojo “Kyara Firebird” line, Kumoyi, Ouju; Aba Prefecture – Agarwood Heart of Shambhala, Gang-Zi Nunnery Incense.

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Kida Jinseido / Byakudan Sandalwood, Ranjatai, Kodaikoh, Joyokoh, Kingyoku Koh, Hanakokonoe

I might have chosen to hold back on my Ikuhohkoh review and reviewed it with all of these incenses except that I wanted to get the word out on how good it was and also because my blog writing hadn’t gained the traction and momentum that it did weeks later. So it may be worth popping over to that review first because in terms of more recently imported incenses, that one is a real highlight in my book. In a world where the aloeswood profiles are changing at that end of the incense world, Ikuhohkoh is still a very satisfying incense.

Japan Incense started importing Kida Jinseido incenses somewhere during the ORS hiatus, but relatively speaking they’re one of the more recent companies to gain a profile through the webstore. For traditional incense lovers this is a great thing as there’s a nice selection of different scents at all sorts of price points and Kida Jinseido play both in woodier and more perfumed incenses. My experiences with many of their incenses is that increased use tends to show up the complexities of what they are doing more, their aromatic profiles are often as compressed and complex to listen to as some of the Baieido incenses made from natural materials. Stick counts are quite high too, so it’s good to take that into consideration, that the price points you’re seeing are often approaching 100 sticks. Which is a good thing when you can burn through a third of those very quickly if you like them.

So of course first let’s start with the ubiquitously named Byakudan Sandalwood. It’s worth noting at this point that there are two on the Kida Jinseido page with different labels but I was told the $12 roll is (or may be) no longer available. The $10 box presents a very typical baseline, inexpensive sandalwood scent. Other incenses in the same ballpark would be Yamadamatsu’s Kayo or Kagetsu, Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku, Tennendo’s Kohrokan Sandalwood, and Shunkohdo’s Sarasoju. Incenses like this often tend to diverge a bit off a purer sandalwood scent and often add a bit of sweetness or balancing spice to create a slightly more distinctive incenses, but the range of these types of sticks tends to remain pretty narrow. Lately I’m probably more fond of the Yamadamatsus than anything else, but I definitely think taste will make this different from individual perspectives (and by all means feel free to drop your favorites in comments if you like!) I like the Kida Jinseido stick here too, although I feel like the additives are a bit more noticeable than the wood itself. You’re not really getting any sort of noticeable sandalwood profile, just a decent inexpensive stick that is built on that platform. For me incenses like this feel like deep Japanese tradition; you may not need to own every company’s but having one or two makes a nice change to switch back to for something lighter.

I would probably classify Kida Jinseido’s Ranjatai more as a modern than a traditional. I do find it slightly amusing when incense creators name one of their incenses after the iconic piece of aloeswood call Ranjatai (and more on that here) as it seems highly unlikely a $12 box of aloeswood is going to smell like a rare chunk of aloeswood kept in a museum. I recently covered a couple moderns in the Seikado line that this incense is far more akin to. Like the Hitori Sizuka aloeswood, Ranjatai is more of a polished, audience-friendly sort of approximation of a real aloeswood scent, leaning a bit to the sweet. It’s actually surprisingly soapy, betraying its more perfumed approach even without a hint of floral in the mix. This is the kind of blend I think is likely to be more appreciated by those coming from a more Nippon Kodo-style as it will have that dual effect of aloeswood appreciators hoping for the real thing and modern incense appreciators maybe not going for as much for the sorts of deeper notes aloeswood appreciators like. I’ll also add that the aroma isn’t purely an aloeswood either and that the sandalwood also in the mix feels maybe a bit more authentic. It feels a bit like the odd duck in the Kida Jinseido line.

Kodaikoh is a square-cut stick very much in the traditional mold of combining aloeswood, sandalwood and camphor. I don’t think camphor is to everyone’s tastes but I have loved it in every form from medicines to campfire wood to all the refined variations found in Japanese incense and I really dig the balance of it with the other woods here. And I should also mention that this feels more camphor than its more refined cousin borneol. It’s just noticeable enough to sense it without overpowering anything. I would hesitate to really call this an aloeswood incense, so much as a blend, but I think this is a really nice incense at the $15 for 70 stick price point. It has a level of definition with all three main ingredients, everything feels fresh, and there’s a touch of sweet spice in the mix to bind everything together in a way that gives it unity while still having a surprising amount of complexity for such an inexpensive incense. If you love Japanese incense but struggle to afford more expensive incenses, I would definitely recommend this one for an entry point.

Joyokoh presents a similar level blend without the camphor. This also feels like a minute push more in the sandalwood dominant direction than the Kodaikoh and also like it leans more to a spicy, Reiryo-Koh like blend. Just now it triggered a reminder of an incense I reviewed many years ago called the Joyoko Temple Blend. I can’t remember if I ever found out which company was responsible for that incense but in thinking of it, I was definitely reminded that this has a similar scent profile. Reiryo-Koh too is also a temple blend sort of scent, so there may be some tradition to this I’m only peripherally aware of. I do like the whole idea of this sort of traditional blend in that it hits a specific area of its own and although it verges a little in a spice direction not to my taste (it’s like spice-peppery), I’d certainly remember checking either one of these incenses out and making your own decision on it, as it does have a specific level of popularity to it. It’s not just a sandalwood/aloeswood low end blend so much as it uses those ingredients for a different purpose.

Kingyoku Koh moves out of this range to a bit more of a low- to mid-end aloeswood level. This was a scent that took me a few sticks to warm up to, in fact I came fairly close to not pulling a trigger on it after sampling it. I don’t think that would have been a particularly good move. Burning one now, I’m reminded this is a very nice aloeswood stick. It feels just on the edge of starting to reveal the wood’s more high end qualities but certainly its well within range of being a legitimate aloeswood stick rather than a blend. For a long time I actually was thinking about this more like a Baieido incense with a mix of sandalwood and spices but listening to it from the current angle shows that it’s actually quite akin to the Hanakokone and Ikuhokoh, each of which ups the quality of aloeswood and other ingredients. All of this I really want to press is that this is a surprisingly complex and involved incense with enough going on that it feels a little different with every burn. There is a bit of a faint play of spice in the mix, a bit more of a cinnamon and clove presence, perhaps, but certainly enough to contrast with the woods to a greater level of interest. Honestly if this was going for $18 at 50 sticks I’d be raving about it for sure, so even if you have to start with twice the stock it’s well worth it for its price range.

I’ve had a bit of difficulty really trying to differentiate between the Hanakokone and the Ikuhohkoh because they are so, so close in style and scent that even in talking about the $10 difference in price, I really wonder if my impression that Hanakokone isn’t quite as deluxe is just that price difference and its influencing my head more than the scent is. I feel like maybe the musk isn’t quite as sweet on this one or perhaps the aloeswood quality isn’t quite the same, but each time I consider it I feel like I’m splitting hairs. Hanakokone might be a little drier, a little less concentrated, and certainly less sweet, but it hits a lot of the same notes. It’s a wonderful aloeswood, and just like Ikuhokoh I think it’s an excellent deal for the money and the scent profile still feels like its wood taken from wild stock. And to recapitulate from the beginning of my review, if you haven’t read my Ikuhohkoh review, then it would be the next logical step as it appears to be the top of the line. The listed kyara (Kyarakunko) is really a much lower level incense without any noticeable sort of kyara note and I wasn’t convinced to grab a box after the sample, so a review of it doesn’t appear here.

Notes on Kida Jinseido

Following up on mikes post, I would like to add my notes on some of kida jinseido’s lineup below, as well as including my own  “John Score” on a scale of 0 to 10 based on my own personal preference, with 0 being keep it as far away from me as possible, and 10 being just shove it inside my nose and leave it there:

+6 Joyokoh – stick has a sweet spiced aroma, gourmand, sandal and nutmeg, with a hint of benzoin? aroma of dry sandal, hint of hot agarwood remeniscent of burning peppers.
+7 Kingyoku koh – stick smells of cassia, sweet sandal an spices, almost floral.aroma is dry, tarry agarwood, cinnamon, spices. hint of a plum like scent.
+7 Hanakokone – stick smells of aloeswood, camphor, musk, clove, sandal, almost exactly like baika nerikoh. light aroma of sour agarwood like sour plum and dry sandal.
+8 Ikuhokoh – stick smells of plums, sandalwood, musk, sandal, smells of nerikoh. aroma of sour and bitter aloeswood with some sweet sandal,and an almost floral nerikoh note.

Kida Jinseido / Ikuhokoh

I was reminded by the Reddit article I linked to yesterday that there was another recent favorite incense I had not reviewed yet. When ORS originally closed I don’t believe that Japan Incense was importing the Kida Jinseido line, or maybe we had just not gotten to them yet. Ikuhokoh is the brand’s top line aloeswood incense (at least imported to the US) and it’s a marvel. I was pleased to see I was not the only person reminded of Shunkohdo’s Ranjatai, as it seems to be at about that price range, level of wood, and scent profile. But it actually reminds me a bit more of the earliest formulation of Ranjatai that I had tried and not quite as much my current box, which seems to have lost a little bit of what made it special to me. Only a little bit, mind you, I’m sure the new formulation is mostly wood-dependent and it’s still great, there’s just a bit of depth missing now.

Ikuhokoh is a much sweeter incense, a blending with a really beautiful musk note that seems about as important as the woodiness. I also detect a bit of spikenard in the mix in a way that’s reminiscent to Shoyeido’s Nan-Kun. In an era where depleting aloeswood stocks have been depriving blends of aloeswood with this kind of scent profile, this really has a strong level of old school high-end aloeswood that manages to mix and interplay perfectly with the musk, to the credit of the recipe and creator. A lot of the down line Kida Jinseido incenses rely on spices in a manner that is kind of similar to Baieido incenses in some ways and there’s a little bit of complexity in the mix from that here too. It’s a surprisingly low key incense in many ways from having such a fine level of ingredients in it, but I would guess this is the kind of incense that is likely to disappear from the market at some point. I stocked a roll deep on it as it’s one of those scents that I tend to find compulsory for a period. It’s worth noting that even though this has a fairly high initial cost, the number of sticks is high and the quality even higher, so at an average I still think this is an excellent buy for the cost. The next in line, Hanakokonoe, is also somewhat similar to it, just a bit less deluxe and deep.

Kida Jinseido / Joyoko Temple; Unknown / Kinjo Koh (Discontinued)

The companies who produce these two incenses are currently unknown to me (see note below), although I’m hoping to find out soon, but I bring these two up together as they’re currently the only imports I’m not sure about. About the only thing the two have in common is they’re both long sticks.

Kinjo Koh is the least of the two, about as traditional and inexpensive an incense as you’re going to find. I’d almost describe it as sub-sandalwood in that it’s more of a general woody blend (the unimported Kyukodo stick Daitenko is not far off), probably with some inexpensive woods used like cedar. It’s basically nondescript and mellow, with a slight hint of forest and evergreens involved. There’s no question you’ll get a lot of incense for the price, 55+ 9 inch sticks for $2.50, and although this isn’t a high quality incense stick by any means, I’ve found that it works quite well with a lot of ventilation, where the slighty sweet notes give it a bit of its own character. Overall it’s a bit of a bubble incense, for me, I’m not sure I’d buy it again but tend to enjoy it when it’s going. Of course with the amount of incense you’re getting even with a single roll, it’s a question one won’t need to answer for some time.

Joyoko Temple is a long stick premium meditation blend that doesn’t come listed with ingredients, but seems to be multi-ingredient blend, heavy on the spice and wood. In the interest of full disclosure, I found this stick to be one of my early favorites until a moving accident caused me to break the entire long roll at about the third mark. I mention this because Joyoko strikes me as an incense with an excellent cumulative effect. Where the blend might strike one as a minor Sho-Ran-Ko in style (without the high end qualities), a full long stick of this becomes quite startling as the smoke builds up the spice character. There appears to be a healthy amount of cinnamon and clove in this one, perhaps equal or greater in quantity than the sandalwood and aloeswood on display. To mitigate my accident I separated the shorter thirds from the remainder and since I’ve been burning these it’s usually right at the end of the fragment where I start to notice it. I’m thinking the larger fragments will move me closer to my original opinion. [NOTE 9/29/21: Please note that this appears to be a previously imported, long-stick version of Kida Jinseido’s Joyokoh. While it has been discontinued, the short stick version still remains available.]

Overall, both of these are priced quite nicely, the Kinjo Koh about as affordable a traditional Japanese incense stick as exists and the Joyoko Temple a fairly priced temple blend. While I’d have trouble wholeheartedly recommending the former, the latter’s definitely quite nice and is likely a perfect companion for a long meditation.