Ze Li Monastery Incense

It is great to see that incense-traditions.ca continues to expand their inventory to include the incenses from newly found monasteries as with every new monastery in the line up there’s a new treasure to check out. Ze Li Monastery incense is one of these new additions to the catalog, it contains white and red sandalwoods, cardamom, lilac, cloves, saffron and agarwood. It’s described as a milder incense, which is definitely fair in my book as it seems to have a very light wood base to it that I tend to find more in common with Nepali incenses. There’s a little bit of musk in it which I mostly notice due to the way it interacts with the cardamom and cloves mix. The agarwood is mixed in in a similar proportion to how you might find it in a relaxing or soothing blend (like Agar 31), which I often think is the point, it feels whether its low or high grade wood there is something that really kind of plugs into the calming side. There’s a light saltiness that you tend to find in a lot of monastery incenses and although not listed, it feels like there’s some cedar and juniper in the mix too. Maybe the closest scent I can think of might be Ganden Monastery’s main line incense since both have a similar level of strength, although Ganden might be a bit more deluxe than Ze Li. But what they both have in common is the way they can take a large ingredient profile and make that consonant as one incense. And like Ganden this incense has the ability to surprise you with the occasional subnote you may have missed. I keep noticing something subtle like licorice pop out at times even if I don’t always notice it.

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Kousaido / Sanshi-Suimei / Gion Koh; Waboku Set (3 scents); Koto koh, Take koh, Sumi-koh, and Ume koh

Kousaido is a Japanese company of a very modern bent, carrying many of the same sorts of lines you see with Nippon Kodo. So I’ll be straight up when I say that these styles aren’t usually to my taste and this review is of a few places I cast my net looking for some things I thought I might go for or to at least get some general overview of the company. Like in Nippon Kodo and even some of Shoyeido’s lines, some of these incenses are the sort of short 2 1/2 to 3/4 inch, slightly thicker sticks that tend to be machine produced and laden with perfumed aromas. They are perhaps not targeted at traditional incense fans, although one of the boxes here perhaps presents a slightly closer pitch to wood-based scents.

You usually don’t see moderns in pawlonia boxes, but Gion Koh is part of a series of five moderns in small little ones called Sanshi Suimei. Japan Incense sells a nice little sampler of 3 sticks each which you can find here. I received these close to the beginning of reopening ORS, so not only did I really not think to make notes of the other four, but none of them were really to my tastes. That’s not to say I disliked them all, but it was only Gion Koh that really stood out in a way that made me order a separate box. As I’ve probably gone on record elsewhere, I do tend to like amber themed incenses and a mix of that with sandalwood and ylang ylang ended up being quite a pleasant affair. Don’t mistake what this is, a perfumed modern, but it reminds me of the better aspects of some of the deluxe and discontinued Shoyeido Floral World sticks. The sandalwood is still pretty strong in the midst and while this doesn’t really smell much like the ylang ylang I remember from essential oils, as that’s a fairly gentle scent compared to the somewhat hair product level strength of this, the note doesn’t really overwhelm the wood or the base amber scent. And for me it’s that last piece that makes this something of a pleasant diversion for me. Other scents in the series just hit different areas within the same format, so if you think you might like the style I’d probably recommend the sampler first to see what you gravitate towards.

These next two boxes are actually made up of multiple scents and are sampler boxes whose contents don’t appear to be imported separately. So before we go back to the short stick format, we’re going to discuss the Kousaido Waboku set, which includes Kusunoki (Camphor), Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) and Keiyaki (Zelkova) at 25 sticks each. This set seems far and away the most traditionally minded series Kousaido exports to the US through Japan Incense. I was curious, not at all for the Cypress which tends not to deviate from either Baieido or Nippon Kodo versions, but for the other two incenses which actually seem to be fairly rare aromas on their own. And I do love me some camphor. First of all, I should say that the inserts each of the three series of incenses come in are less boxes than cardboard wrap arounds. As such it felt like a bit too much trouble to unwind and take separate pictures of the incenses as it feels like these wraparounds are likely to degrade with too much use. Besides the incenses themselves look almost exactly what you might expect from something in an inexpensive Nippon Kodo line.

And unfortunately the Kusnoki seems strangely contrived. It’s not difficult to tell what Kousaido was going for, just that it’s somewhat puzzling it doesn’t really hit the camphor sweet spot when expenses shouldn’t need to get in the way. It’s as if they dialed it back a bit on purpose which really kind of sets it a bit too close to what is a fairly, obviously, inexpensive wood base. Even that’s fairly mellow but matching this kind of light base with a dull note really doesn’t work all that well. But it’s a modern right? When you pitch woods as moderns this is often the sort of effect you get. The Hinoki is really little different, although inexpensive Japanese hinoki incenses tend to work out OK, even the smokeless Hinoki in the NK line isn’t a bad incense. But when I think of something like the Bosen Pythoncidere and that super green cypress scent in comparison, this just feels a bit lukewarm. It’s closer to the NK but even closer to the Camphor in that it’s got that thin wooden base with just a bit of the main scent sort of submerged in the middle. As such I think most will probably find this a bit more pleasant than the Camphor, but I’d still advise sticking to the Hinokis you already have as this one doesn’t have much to offer. And strangely the Zelkova tree, based on rummaging the internet a bit, seems like a shade tree and not something usually considered an aromatic source. But Keiyaki might be the most fascinating blend of the three here in that this incense has an aroma that’s fairly unique. And it’s not only that, but where the previous two incenses felt like mild aromas in lighter wood, this seems a bit stronger and more in your face, which might imply a greater level of perfume here. So even though I’ve never smelled a zelkova, nor could make any fair comparisons, it’s still the incense of the three I enjoy the most. Make no mistake, this one is still obviously perfumed, but at least its distinct.

The next Kousaido grouping falls under the name “Set of 4 Scents.” This artistically designed box set, where the four different boxes provide a nice little mosaic of tree branches, hides four different modern aromas with 2 and 3/4 inch sticks (I would guess this is a typo at the Japan Incense site as nearly all modern mini sticks are in this range). Koto Koh is described as including sandalwood, amber, ambergris, and oak moss and could almost be a cousin of Gion Koh because of the red-colored base and the amber. The oak moss element is surprisingly noticeable in the mix, although it blends into what is perhaps too much of a generic perfume. On the outside of the individual box, Sumi Koh also says “(Ink).” Along with borneol you essentially get a decent description of the purple stick’s bouquet. The borneol gives the aroma its piquant top end while the ink scent makes up the rest of it. I find ink scented incenses to perhaps not be the kind of aromas I’d burn all the time, but I do appreciate their originality and difference. And at least here the muskiness of it outweighs any sort of heavy floral note. I’m pretty sure Nippon Kodo has one or more bamboo themed incenses but from those or the Kousaido Take Koh, it’s difficult to tell what this is going for as the lily of the valley, cyclamen and bergamot notes sort of mix aqua like and citrus qualities up into one very muddy green floral. It’s honestly a bit of a mess and not a bad example of a modern that really doesn’t work. Finally there’s Ume Koh which intends to be a baika or plum blossom incense, but is so full of off and synthetic lilac notes that any hope of the plum and clove saving it is completely lost. It’s virtually impossible to find a sunny side up on this one as it has more in common with insect sprays than anything pleasant.

Overall, Kousaido moderns may not really be at all to the taste of most of the ORS readership. They are perhaps more tailor made for the causal browser who might stumble across the Koh Shi brick and mortar on a visit to the bay area and want something more in line with the types of modern air fresheners, perfumes and candles that tend to proliferate in modern stores.

Ba’er Qude Si Incense

This is probably the third Tibetan incense running I’ve reviewed that has a sort of mix of woods, spices and rhododendron-like autumn notes. All of these sticks kind of have an orange or red or ochre-ish color to them which really helps kind of cement that post-harvest feel in style. Ba’er Qude Si (long stick) incense might actually turn up the spice content a little higher than Gadong TLM which creates a very nice and balanced feel to the ingredients overall. There’s musk, as usual, but not too sweet. In fact a personal observation for my own tastes is when the spice (roughly cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, cardamom – that sort of thing) is a bit elevated in the mix it actually kind of substitutes in for sweetness and I crave the latter less. The ingredients as listed include white and red sandalwood, stigma croci (saffron), cardamom, lilac, musk and “30 medicinal crops” which is also a bit different than the usual line up you see due to the lilac. The high-altitude feel comes into it in a powerful way, not unlike Samye Monastery’s stick, the whole atmosphere is really redolent of the whole Himalayan mystique. Overall this is a really gorgeous and full Tibetan incense and at $10 it is really perfectly price pointed and well worth it.

Shroff Channabasappa / Jaji, Kasturi, Kewada, Lilac, Lily 1938, Monica, Night Rose

Shroff Channabasappa Part 1
Shroff Channabasappa Part 2
Shroff Channabasappa Part 3
Shroff Channabasappa Part 4
Shroff Channabasappa Part 5
Shroff Channabasappa Part 6
Shroff Channabasappa Part 7
Shroff Channabasappa Part 8
Shroff Channabasappa Part 9
Shroff Channabasappa Part 10

This batch of Shroff Channabasappa‘s Masala Base incenses, which happens to be in a completely different style to the others in the same grouping, is particularly problematic from a review standpoint. All are different florals in a style that isn’t quite pure charcoal given they all have various flecks of other materials in them, but are definitely pretty close given the scents seem to be almost entirely oil based. Second, a couple of these florals are given in their regional name which makes them particularly difficult to research, so I have to admit crossing my fingers a little and hoping I got the general aromas correct.

This type of incense is among the most intense out there and despite that many of these are gentle florals, they all burn pretty loud like most charcoals, although the slightly hybrid like nature means they’re a little more restrained than most. They’re very difficult to discuss because the name is pretty indicative of the scent you’re going to get, it’s almost as if you could just indicate the original flower and say this is a charcoal and perfume based version of that scent. But with that said there really is some nice definition on these and while there are definitely times I have trouble with charcoals (sometimes even with the company’s high enders), I’ve found these to be quite good when the mood hits.

Jaji is an incense of a specific class of jasmine flowers, in this case possibly Jasminium Grandiflorium, and while this is sometimes called Jaji, the scent will still be familiar to most as a jasmine incense. Like all jasmine incenses, they’re often overkill in a charcoal format, so one should probably use this stick in larger rooms where the scent can dissipate to the sweltery, exotic floral aroma one may be familiar with. When the scent is light, the scent is lilting and very pretty. It’s difficult with my nose to say if this departs radically from any other general jasmine incenses, as it’s always been my experience that jasmine incenses can be wildly different (even check out the other jasmine incenses in the Shroff line for an example of this), but it’s quite possible this will still end up being new enough for those who love this type of scent.

Kasturi is a word used in some area of India to refer to musk and in particular it tends to be part of the species names of several aromatic plants in the turmeric family, often used in incense as an herbal musk. Certainly this is the sort of aroma you get with Shroff’s Kasturi stick, a sweet and dry musk scent that seems to capture the scent quite nicely. In fact I’d suggest this wouldn’t be a bad incense to consider an almost ground zero herbal musk oil scent. As a musk this is basically the least floral incense of these seven, but don’t take that to mean there aren’t floral-like elements in the bouquet as this actually fits quite nicely with the others.

Kewada is yet another English transliteration of a name for screwpine which you’ll see as Kewda, Kewra and Pandanus elsewhere. This is a scent widely used in Indian incenses, such as in many of the Mother’s Nagchampas I recently reviewed. The reason why is it has an unusual rose-like scent to it, along with its foresty lower notes, so I can imagine it’s an effective and relatively inexpensive way to create rose-like subscents in incense. Here I would suspect you’re mostly getting the real deal, so there’s also notes of mint, fruitiness (like raisins perhaps), and molasses in the mix. The results sort of put this on the fence in terms of its floral nature, and given the girth of the entire bouquet it’s quite loud on the charcoal stick.

Kewada is quite difficult to describe in a way, but when you get to an incense like Lilac it’s very hard to do anything but call the Lilac a Lilac as that’s what you’re getting on this stick. I’d put the scent among the softest and most feminine of floral aromas, a gentle and distinct perfume that evokes pink and white for me, very pretty and not terribly intricate, but on the other hand it’s not a floral one will mistake for a rose or jasmine incense. I’ve found that this incense has matured quite a bit since I first bought it and I’m surprised that the charcoal hasn’t quite overwhelmed the oils here, but make no mistake the base plays a part here.

The Lily 1938 scent is also quite distinctive from other florals and it comes off as a wilder, more fecund sort of perfume. Perhaps due to the order in which I sampled these, I saw some similarities to both the Kewada and the Lilac as well it having a musky middle. Perhaps its almost sickly-sweet characteristics make it a bit tough to bear in a charcoal format, or at least I don’t always find a stick to my taste, but at the same time I’m still fairly convinced they’re getting the scent close to correct. But this is another I’d probably suggest applying to a larger room as there’s no doubt the scent here is very perfumey.

I couldn’t find a lot on Monica as the commonality of the name and place (Santa Monica) make searching a bit problematic for any sort of taxonomic connection. Incense-wise it’s a very fruity floral, although the fruitiness comes out more in the way it would in an alcohol drink or wine. And it’s an incredibly sweet scent which manages to actually make the overall scent a bit less floral than you might imagine, in fact I’d say this might fall just ahead of Kasturi on that scale. It’s perhaps closest to the Lilac in its beauty and it might even be just a bit more accessible.

Night Rose is the last of this group and obviously not your common rose scent, even if they share some characteristics. For one thing the oils here are very intense, even cloying. I’ve personally got to have a rose pretty close to the real thing to enjoy it and having not personally experienced the true night blooming rose this appears to be portraying, my only comparison is the usual and it’s just not a very gentle scent due to the combination of loud perfume and charcoal base.

The next group, which also falls under this Masala Base category, seem to be completely different incenses that remind me far more of the original and larger dry masala group. For the seven in this review, you’ll want to be sure you’re at least tolerant of charcoal incenses before sampling as these can be very loud and overwhelming at times. However, to my surprise I’ve also come to appreciate them more, if not for helping to vary up the usual floral scents.

SAMPLER NOTES: Awajishima Senko, (Nihon Senko Seizo), Saraike Kunbutsudo (both incenses Discontinued), Keigado (Kaori Discontinued), Kunmeido

Time for another batch of samples, four relatively new imports and a couple old scents I’m managing to get around to now…

Two scents have arrived from Nihon Senko Seizo (now Awajishima Senko), the first a cedar incense called Momiji Koh that comes in a ten roll set with single rolls sold individually. This does what it says on the box, however unlike cheaper cedar incenses, Momiji Koh manages to exhibit some of the wood’s finer qualities, with notes of evergreen and especially conifers floating lightly on the top. Undoubtedly this is an inexpensive incense that could easily be filed with daily sandalwoods and there are some interesting subtleties that imply there may be a bit of sandalwood in the mix, but overall this tends to hit a sort of generic cedarwood in the middle. It’s definitely more pleasant than the cedarwood you might find in Tibetan incenses, on the other hand Indian masalas and some American red cedarwood is perhaps a bit more overtly aromatic.

Tsukiyama is also a very evergreen incense, this time going for a pine scent, however where Momiji-Koh is decidedly cedarwood, Tsukiyama seems decidedly more complex. There’s definitely the evergreen notes you’d expect for a pine incense but there seems to be something of a less traditional oil mix on top that modernizes the scent to some extent, making the finish fruity, bright and attractive. At times I’ve detected hints of patchouli, apple, spearmint and berry in the mix, all of which I assume are less notes and more attributes of a certain intricacy in the mix.

Saraike Kunbutsudo also now exports two modern incenses  to the United States via Kohshi. Mt. Fuji is an incense somewhat similar to Shorindo’s Wayko discussed last installment, with sandalwood and cinnamon listed as the two main ingredients, however Mt. Fuji is a more traditional mix even with the spice blended with some unidentifiable light floral qualities. As such the cinnamon doesn’t cut through so much and make the incense stands out and the result is actually quite mild and mellow which I can imagine are likely to be attractive qualities to some purchasers. It has a very restrained feel to it. [This appears to have been discontinued. – Mike 7/6/21]

Shizuka-No-Sato comes in a huge 500+ stick box making it necessary to get a sample to see if it will have such lasting power for you. I found it to be not terribly different from the previously mentioned Tsukiyama incense, although as shown in the ingredients the jasmine/floral mix is certainly prominent. I found it to be just as mild and smooth as the Mt. Fuji overall, as if the characteristics of the company were an elegant restraint, but such a quality makes it difficult to discuss from a sample. It is quite pretty with no offputting qualities found in relatively inexpensive florals (per stick here of course) with a mix of slight woodiness, a light spice and berry along with the jasmine and likely rose mix. [This appears to have been discontinued. – Mike 7/6/21]

I forgot to mention Keigado’s Kaori when last discussing the two Magnolias but I didn’t want to forget it as it’s a very nice affordable sandalwood with a slighty minty tone as well as hints of cedar, pine and patchouli in it – a very green incense overall. Like several of the Keigado traditionals there’s something of an oil strength to it and as such it also has a touch of something reminiscent of the line’s Full Moon, perhaps a slight touch of whatever it is that creates the amber in that incense. Overall though the  middle is somewhat airy, giving the whole incense a fleeting smell and as such it’s one of the lightest incenses in the Keigado catalog. [This appears to have been discontinued. – Mike 7/6/21]

Had good luck with Kunmeido’s wonderful Hosen incense, but the sandalwood, lilac and cedar mix of Unjo Koh isn’t nearly as immediate. By proximity, it did remind me a bit of the Kaori, but without the amber-like depth to it and a much woodier middle. Strangely I didn’t detect lilac much at all, but I can imagine it’s the sort of scent that could get buried among the ingredients and here the woodiness is probably responsible for that. It’s slightly sweet and evergreen and perhaps the cedar is the most dominant note. Certainly pleasant, but fairly dull especially for a Kunmeido scent.

Next up in the sampler notes series, a pentad of scents from American company Ancient Forest. I’ll be out and away for about a week at this point so bear with me if comments or questions addressed after today aren’t attended to until next week. Thanks!

Shunkohdo / Matsuba Pine, Sarasoju, Shuhou

This write up covers the last three Shunkohdo scents we haven’t covered to date and that are currently available in the United States. All three are wood-based, the Matsuba Pine described as mixing pine scent with spices, the Sarasoju a traditional sandalwood incense and the Shuhou a mix of cedar and sandalwood with a touch of lilac.

The Matsuba Pine could roughly be compared to one or two incenses in the Nippon Kodo Scents of Forest box set, although the Matsuba is a traditional incense in terms of stick thinness and size. While it shares the light pine scent found in the Scents of Forest Conifer stick, it likely has a fair share of cedar and/or sandalwood in the base, as there’s a certain similarity in the base of this incense to the Shuhou. Like the few Japanese pines out there, the scent concentrates more on the wood or tree than the more pungent resin and is lightly rendered here with a very nice and sublime top note that could easily get lost with aromatic fatigue. It also shares some slight similarities to the lower end woody incenses found in the Encens du Monde range and made by Kokando.

The Sarasoju is quite simply a terrific sandalwood and one I’ve found a little difficult to describe as I went from seeing it as standard to truly appreciating its finer more “Old Mountain” like tendencies over several sticks. At first I noticed what seemed like an almost sawdust like sandalwood scent, but the more crystalline resin “interior” is quite present, just not as obvious as it tends to be in the better Baieido incenses and the pure wood on a heater. When you consider you get 70 sticks of this for around $10 bill, it’s a tremendously good deal and one I’d recommend taking advantage of given that some of the sandalwood products coming from Japan are taking gigantic leaps in price. In fact only Baieido’s Byakudan Kobunboku is comparable and that’s not quite as pure a sandalwood as this one. And it acts as a nice contrast to some of the heavily oiled while still superb sandalwood incenses being exported from India.

Shuhou could very well be the only floral incense currently exported by Shunkohdo, with the pink color of the stick more than pointing at this incense’s direction. While the scent is quite overtly floral, the description of the light touch of lilac is probably only found in the incense’s top note where it takes a place quite similar to the overt pine scent found in the Matsuba. But even with that light note, the cedarwood and sandalwood seem close to being balanced out by the scent’s floral nature and due to this the scent moves closer to a more modern direction, especially for Shunkohdo. It’s an interesting scent, but I’d assume this will appeal far more to floral lovers than those eyeing the woods in the description.

More Shunkohdo reviews can be found by clicking the company name on the left and it’s worth a reminder here that this is by far one of the finest incense companies whose work is being imported to the US, not only are the wide range of scents excellent but in most cases you’re getting as good a deal for the money as you can find in Japanese incense.

Best Incense – September 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – The price on Shoyeido premiums necessitates some discipline in terms of frequency of burning, but despite all attempts at restraint, I’m closing in on the halfway point of my “silk box” and eyeing the bigger roll and wondering how I can afford one in this sinking economy. I just can’t get enough of what may be my very favorite incense. This one’s dry, unlike any other incense, heavy with high quality aloeswood, and the oil/perfume is stupendous. Just can’t get enough of this one. Extremely exotic and not nearly as immediate as the rest of the line.
  2. Shoyeido / Premium / Nan-Kun – And almost for a different reason, Nan-Kun is nearly as addictive. I think my appreciation for musk is higher of late due to all the Tibetans and while Nan-Kun gets its muskiness likely from the very high quality and heavy use of spikenard, it still itches that same spot while hitting the aloeswood and spice buttons at the same time. This one is very animal and rich, with an almost poignant sweetness to it. Possibly the best buy for money in the Shoyeido Premium line. To my nose, I enjoy Ga-Ho and Nan-Kun as much as the expensive kyaras in the line.
  3. Shunkohdo / Kyara Seikan – Seikan sticks are thin enough to look like they’d break in a strong wind, but their aromatic power for such a size is always startling, even if one does have to quiet down to “hear” it. In many ways this is the kyara incense that really focuses on the wood and while there are obvious ingredients that bolster the aroma, the sweet, sultry smell of the wood is central. A superlatively brilliant incense that I can barely get enough of.
  4. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – Down to about 15 sticks left in my box and I practically need disciplined meditation to stay away from it given the wait for a restock (when I go nuts). The very apex of Tibetan incense, a stick that rivals any country’s best work.
  5. Highland Incense – Highland’s the trusty #2 Tibetan brand for me as I wait for more Holy Land, a combination of animal (musk, civet?) and herbal spice that is incredibly comforting and relaxing right before sleep (I often burn about 2 inches of a stick as I drift off). Becoming a standard around here, don’t let this one go out of stock before you try it!
  6. Baieido / Kunsho – My recent musing is wondering whether Kunsho, the third most premium of five in Baieido’s Pawlonia box line, might be equal or better than the fourth, Koh En. As I get to know Baieido incense, more and more do I think you’re getting your best value for money from their products. I could see Kunsho at almost twice the price and still be worth it. Slightly cherry-esque with a very balanced and noble wood to it, this is truly impressive incense.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Myo-Ho – Definitely my favorite among the supernal trio heading Shoyeido’s premium line. It still strikes me like an electric muscat, deep, aromatic and sweet with an aloeswood strength that constantly reminds you of the incense’s depth. Another scent that’s painful to watch as your supply dwindles.
  8. Lung Ta / Drib Poi – I am returning to this Tibetan stick fairly often even though in doing so I keep sampling the rest of the line and wonder why I like this one so much more. I think it must be the curry-ish spice to it which seems missing in the others, a green-ish , exotic tinge that brings out the ingredient complexity.
  9. Minorien / Aloeswood – As I cycle through various incenses I often come across this one and am impressed all over again, particularly surprising as the two above it in the Minorien line are more refined and impressive. But there’s something so ancient and hoary about this aloeswood that it tends to scratch that itch I have with aloeswoods that aren’t too sweet. Like Baieido, Minorien’s products have a way of continuing to impress long after one’s initial purchase.
  10. The Direct Help Foundation / The Druid – I’m not sure this incense is still available, it was originally part of the Magic Tantra set and maybe one other, but perhaps it will show up again in the future. It’s actually somewhat similar in its salty herbalness to the Tibetan Medical College incenses, although not at all musky or dense like those. I’m not sure what the active ingredients is here, the mosses or something else, but the results are a very pleasant blend I hope comes back in the future. Because when TDHF get it right like they do here, they’re among the best.

Best Incense – August 2008

[For previous Top 10 lists, please click on the Incense Review Index tab above or the Top Ten Lists category on the left.]

  1. Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land – The question du jour: When is Essence going to restock this? Yes, I know I haven’t come close to finishing up the box yet. Yes, it’s probably a waste to burn 50 sticks of this at once, but I won’t know for sure until I try. Anyway, while the answer is certainly ASAP, I hope my (mild) anxiety over this reflects just how totally and completely crushed over Holy Land I am. It’s quite likely to be my favorite incense for quite a while as only…
  2. Highland Incense – …is anywhere close to how I feel about it. In fact Highland here comes pretty darn close as a #2 and as the product of a retired Tibetan Medical College doctor, it’s not difficult to think about these two in the same breath. But where Holy Land gets the step due to its unbelieavable floral middle, which comes out the most when you’re not looking for it, Highland has such a balanced muskiness with a nice sweetness that it also constantly compels me to return to the box.
  3. Baieido / Jinko Kokoh – Every premium series seems to have its own character and style and the kokohs aren’t any different. In fact the defining aspect, at least of the Byukaden and Jinko Kokohs, is more so the ingredients other than the woods. Particularly the borneol and spices which seem to be at about the highest, natural level available in these incenses. They help to make these among the most penetrating incenses available. Would love to see these in long stick form.
  4. Baieido / Kunsho – I think it dawns on anyone using any one of the five Baieido aloeswoods (in Pawlonia boxes) that the series is strong from top to bottom, but it really takes a good half a box to realize just how great they really are. I’d been a little late grabbing a Kunsho box, but so glad I did as every stick is an exercise in reflection. Sweet, deep, classy, refined, this one may be just as good as the next step up Koh En. Or at least I think so this week.
  5. Shunkodo / Kyara Aioi no Matsu – I’m so enamored with Kyara Seikan that it occludes my view on the Aioi no Matsu. The other issue is the AnM suffers pretty hard with aromatic fatigue, given that so much of its majesty is in the very top spice notes. But when you get everything, it’s truly extraordinary with a dozen or so different aspects going on. A tremendously complicated blend.
  6. Samye Monastery / Samathabadra – This would have been a little higher earlier in the month when I was finding it difficult not to burn it a bunch. It’s an unusual incense, more consonant when you’re not paying too much attention but extremely diverse when you are, as you notice all the aspects to it. And there’s really no other incense quite like it, dark, rich, mysterious and ambrosial.
  7. Shoyeido / Premium / Ga-Ho – I just can never get enough of this one, an easy all-time top 5 pick and my favorite Shoyeido premium. It’s dry and spicy/heavily resinated wood one-two attack gets me every time. The day I buy 135 sticks is the day it becomes a #1 pick for a few months.
  8. Encens du Monde / Meditation / Guiding Light – Probably because it’s fairly essential oil heavy, this incense does a fantastic job scenting a larger area over time. I really adore the smell of this one, especially after about half a long stick has burned. Even with all the oils this is at essence a very complex, very woody incense. Just one or two sticks a month tends to push it into my monthly best.
  9. Tennendo / Karafune Kahin-Gold – It took me a while to come around to this series, in fact had I written the review today I’d have compared them to the above-mentioned Baieido aloeswood series as they’re really that difficult to parse. Over time I’ve been noticing just how quality the aloeswood is in this and (in lesser quantity) the Silver. But now these are starting to really grow on me and I’m starting to notice more of the woody qualities. Sleeper hits for sure.
  10. Tibetan Medical College / Nectar – This one has fallen due to the Holy Land, which seems in comparison to be more of a B grade, but this is a B grade better than most A grades. The intensity of the spices isn’t as high and I suspect that’s due to juniper berry. But it’s still one of those incenses you can smell the musk straight off the stick and it only suffers in comparison to Holy Land

Tibetan Medical College / Holy Land, Traditional Tibetan Medicine Pharmaceutical Factory/Nectar

[This post was edited June 3, 2021. Both incenses are still quite similar to the scents described in this review and so I am leaving it unchanged. However I have changed the links to incense-traditions.ca, as Essence of the Ages has gone out of business and the incenses are available and cheaper at IT.CA. I also have added the company name and category for Nectar as apparently it is made by a different company than we originally noted.]

I’m so used to seeing Tibetan incense packages from $5 to $10 that when I started coming across packages more in the $15-20 range and even higher, I was very curious. Perhaps in the incense world more than anywhere else, the cost of an incense is quite reflective of its (rare, precious) contents and although there are a few exceptions, I’ve rarely been disappointed with high end Japanese incenses, so I wondered if the same theme would carry over with high end Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese incenses.

I’ve noticed that with some of the lower end Tibetan incenses that seem to have a large content of inexpensive wood, the ash is almost a dark, bluish gray. Many of these incenses smell like wood with flavoring in a manner that implies that the percentage of original aromatic ingredients is actually fairly low. While this type of ash isn’t particularly common overall (the Paljor incenses, Sonam and the Drepul Loseling incenses are three brands that do leave this sort of ash), it does seem to indicate what I’m calling a “leavened” incense and if it doesn’t imply a low quality base, it does imply a small portion of quality ingredients.

Moving to high-end Tibetan incenses is as shocking and revelationary as moving to high-end Japanese incenses, although the effects on the pocket book will fortunately be less severe. Even if you’re familiar with Mandala Trading, Dhoop Factory, Himalayan Herbal Company and other excellent and affordable Tibetan incense companies, moving to some of the more independent monastery incenses with price tags well into the $15-$40 range, will be a big surprise. Not only are the contents relatively unleavened, but you’re also dealing with ingredients that are likely to be considered transgressive from a Western green-minded perspective. It’s perhaps fortunate that these ingredients, generally real musk and real nagi/pangolin scales, are left obscure. For example if you list nagi, most Westerners are likely to consider it one of a number of unidentified, transliterated ingredients that are basically unknown. And if you list musk, the reader’s likely going to be trained to assume it’s vegetable musk. In many of these high end Tibetan blends, at the very least your nose is going to be telling you quite a bit more. There’s an unparalleled intensity in incenses from Tibetan Medical College, Highland Monastery, Samye Monastery and others that likely can be both accounted for by these ingredients as well as concentration.

As discussed here, there’s an intuitive aspect to burning incense. As with anything intuitive, approaching the subject with words is somewhat counterproductive as words can really never broach this area with any ease. From a personal perspective, the first time I lit a stick of Tibetan Medical College Nectar, the effect was like electricity, a charge of energy similar to the first time one experiences a quality aloeswood. The aroma penetrates like a knife, a combination of woods, herbs and spices that’s almost difficult to discuss due to the aromatic power and consistency. And like any great intuitive experiences, it was followed by a passionate response, an almost disbelief that a scent like this exists. It was as if the coils of smoke totally arrested me. I’ve since started calling this effect Tibetan or incense juju (a creative license) and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying these incenses have medical efficacy in the way Westerners consider it, there’s no question that these scents have an intuitive power that really sets them apart from 95% of the available imported Tibetan incenses.

Holy Land is Tibetan Medical College’s top grade incense and it very well might be the finest Tibetan-style incense available. Having started with the Nectar and moved to this one, I found this to be a step up and I was already over the moon with the Nectar. The central scent to this incense (and very close to the central scent for Nectar) is one of a big bowl of salted pistachio nuts, particularly the ones that used to be more frequently available that were red-dyed. But this is only the beginning. This intensity is mixed through out with a plethora of woods, florals, herbs and spices, not to mention a distinct musk that while not a central aspect to the overall scent, creates a give and take in the aroma that affords it greater complexity. The floral thread is like lily or jasmine, very subtle, but it manifests in the most incredible ways. Outside of aloeswood, I’ve experienced no other incense other than the Highland to continue to invoke scent memories no matter where I am. An experience like no other, this is a hall of fame incense whose relative affordability compared to Japanese sticks makes it an excellent buy.

DSC00622 (2)One session I decided to light a stick of Nectar after the Holy Land and realized I could actually barely smell it. But that’s an observation more on the strength of Holy Land, as Nectar’s as likely to do the same to other Tibetan incenses even if the central pistachio-like center has been leavened with even more floral notes. The reddish color does imply this may be Tibetan Medical College’s “B” grade in some way, with the addition of juniper berries being fairly obvious. But like with the Mindroling Grade B this move doesn’t create a B grade so much as a different incense, with the berries and floral notes imparting rose-like scents to the mix. The ingredients noted in the Holy Land do seem to be here in smaller quantities but that mix was so powerful that it’s still heavily aromatic even here and thus I’d suggest starting here with the College incenses as Holy Land will only seem like another step up in comparison.

Overall these two blends are at the apex of Tibetan incense art. The ingredients are top class, the blends totally original and unlike no other company’s incenses and the intuitive impact, possibly as a result, is heavily subconscious. There be magic here…

Sampler Notes: Daihatsu Tanka Range

Daihatsu are a Japanese company marrying the art of incense with French perfumery. Very few of their incenses currently imported into the US could be considered traditional. The incenses in question here, more so than the line represented by the black boxes, represent a modern vision that while working with some common ingredients, end up creating entirely new bouquets. These are rather unlikely to appeal to traditionalists or ingredient purists, but in most cases Daihatsu manage to create partially synthetic incenses that don’t usually have harsh or offputting notes and could be considered superior to lower quality incenses that do the same thing. The following are notes on this range based on partial sticks.

Young Leaves is an incense with a sweet, autumnal aroma. It has hints of musk, new carpet and mint and is overall a bit on the sharp side. Like most of these aromas the scent is pretty powerful and perfumed. At times it reminded me of the mintier Shoyeido 12 months incenses, except not quite as refined. Overall, quite nice.

Plum Tanka isn’t all that similar to your traditional plum blossom incense, it’s more of a floral bouquet. Due to the perfume the scent is much more up front and distinct, but you actually get more fruit than blossom, with what reminds me of rose on top. I liked the fact the overall scent tended to the dry side rather than sweet.

Violet Tanka is a rather picture perfect inexpensive violet perfume, well rounded, but a bit on the soapy side at times, which I think is more of an indicator of my relationship to floral incenses than anything else. Like the whole range it has an unsual aromatic strength and in many ways it feels like an alternate version of the Plum Tanka.

Daihatsu’s Sandalwood is so close to a traditional sandalwood that it either is or they’ve downplayed the perfumey elements on this one and as such it stands out like a sore thumb in the line. It has a very contoured sandalwood aroma, definitely aiming for the heartwood sort of scent, but with a bit of spice giving it a bit of richness. Perhaps as this is closer to my tastes than the florals, I found it fairly impressive for hitting the right notes, although overall it doesn’t differ that much from most heartwood sandalwoods.

The best of the line, unsurprisingly, is the Tokusen Tanka. We’re definitely flat into perfume ranges here, there’s almost nothing about this incense that will remind you of the traditional, rather it smells like someone’s fantastic, sultry perfume and as such may be a bit too much for an incense. It’s by far the boldest scent in the line, minty, sultry and modern like some of Shoyeido’s LISN line. Roughly it falls into a green tea/patchouli sort of area, without really being too strong on either note.

Lilac Tanka is by far the most synthetic smelling in this range, but that’s an opinion I almost always get with florals such as this, there’s a real soapy feel to this that reminds me of Indian incenses at times. Overall it’s about what you’d expect, lilac perfume, something not really all that attuned to my tastes.

There’s also another four boxes, mentioned above, that Daihatsu create that still work with perfume but end up in much more traditional areas. Of these I liked the Myo-jyou and Kaizan enough to buy boxes, but found over time that the perfumy nature made it so that I wasn’t reaching for them quite so much. I do wonder if I’d take a similar track with any of the Tankas, but I’d take that as a more traditionalist opinion. If you like modern scents, a sampler might be worth a look as I definitely think this line is more superior to, say, similar Nippon Kodo incenses.