July Top Ten

So really I burn a lot more then just these but ya got ta draw the line somewhere 🙂

Yamadamatsu Kouboku Senshu Sandalwood: This is straight up high-grade sandalwood and not much else. I think it is one of the very best sandalwood scents one can get, assuming, of course, that you are not interested in a sandalwood blend. Japanincense.com sells this, sometimes it comes in a box by itself and sometimes they stock it in a three-way combo pack with an aloeswood as well as a kyara blend. To me the other two are a bit much, but I know many people who would be very happy with them.

Baieido Byakudan (Sandalwood) Kobunboku: Recently got a new box of this and was very happy with it. I think it is one of the best sandalwood “woody blend” style sticks around, along with Shunkohdo’s. They are both relying on the wood and not oils, which makes for a very different experience.

Seijudo Kyara Seiran: All of the three kyara blends from Seijudo are very good and really it probably comes down to which day as to which one I like the most. These are loaded with the scents of kyara, musk and a number of other “secret ingredients” that make for  real show stoppers. I can think of at least three to four times where I have lit one of these for someone and literally watched them lock up in amazement, me being one of them.

Shunkohdo Ranjatai: Shunkohdo tends to make pretty traditional scents, when I light a stick of this I always get a sense of going back to a different era, it is sort of like instant time travel to Old Japan. It is very elegant and at the same time primeval with the scent of the musk wrapped around a very good aloeswood. As an added attraction there are a lot of sticks in the box. This is on many of our Top 10’s with good reason.

Daihatsu Chips or Slices: So if you really want to smell sandalwood and you have some sort of incense heater or even good quality Japanese coals, this is it. It does not get any better that I have found. I like the slices, if for no other reason that they look cool. Shunkohdo also makes these and they are very similar in scent.  Given the increase in sandalwood prices as well as it continuing decline in availability these are a great thing to have and hold onto.

Kunmeido Kyara Tenpyo: This is a beautiful kyara blend that is ultra refined and more or less the top of Kunmeido’s line. The woods really stand out with just a faint hint of the Reiryo Koh scent in the backround. It is very uplifting and refreshing and also makes for an interesting choice for meditation, especially during Summer. Not as expensive as the Seijudo’s and also probably not as much kyara.

Kunlha’s Lotus Pema & Loong Po: One of our readers wrote in about these (thanks IO) and I ordered a bunch recently. So far I have found myself using the Loong Po and Lotus Pema quite a lot. The sticks are much thinner then the standard Tibetan style and there are around 20 per box. They seem to be made without any animal ingredients (not 100% sure about this) but do use what seems to be very good quality materials. They may also be formulated with a more “Western” audience in mind. The Lotus Pema has a very nice clean juniper scent to it and is quite uplifting. The Loong Po has a subtle green herbal scent with a very light but noticeable clean floral/perfume-ish top note riding over the whole thing. This is a pretty unique combination (at least to me) and one that works for my nose. Both of these sticks have enough complexity to keep them interesting although they are lacking in the funk factor.

Mermade Magickal Frankincense: Mermade has a great line up of frankincense’s at the moment, and they are all different smelling. I am particularly fond of the Superior Hougary and the Black Frankincense, their lemon lime and orange smells are truly wonderful . At Christmas we burn frankincense for the 24 hours before Midnight Mass, I really am looking forward to this one.

Fred Soll’s Honey Amber: I do not know of another stick quite like this one. It is a great blend of scents that just work well together with a very deep and almost hypnotic scent quality that does a great job at scenting a room.  Great stuff at a good price.

Baieido Sawayka Kobunboku: I love cinnamon and this has lots. This is really good in the morning when getting up and getting it together enough to make it out the door to work. It also gives an interesting scent to ones clothing and/or hair. I got both this and the Koh at the same time and at this point am not to sure if they are the same thing, I am leaning towards two different mix’s but could be wrong. Maybe David Oller will chime in with some insight 🙂

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Natural Arogya Dhoop Incense/Bodhisatwo, Karmayogi, Mahadhup, Meditative, Vaidhyaraj

There isn’t a company associated with these five incenses that’s on the wrapper, but each has a full name that goes Natural Arogya-xxx Dhoop Incense, with each of the five specific names going where the xs go. These are fairly common Nepali blends you’ll likely find at most incense outlets, all of them packaged in paper wrappers and like most common Nepali blends, most of these really aren’t worth the cedarwood chips in the base.

One thing I’ve noticed really frequently when it comes to many inexpensive Nepali incenses is just how many ingredients can add up to zero. All of these incenses have long lists of ingredients, but when the full list really only makes up a small spot on the roster next to filler and binder wood, the list starts to feel less than trustworthy. It does me little good to know, for instance, if there’s agarwood or sandalwood in the incense if the quantity is microscopic. It’s almost like someone telling you they’re friends with a famous celebrity only to realize they just waved at them at an airport.

The first of these incenses, Natural Arogya-Bodhisatwo Dhoop Incense, smells of pencil shavings and juniper with a sour or bitter tang in the mix. Naturally, the list of ingredients includes solukhumbu, gosaikund, himla, jimla & mustang along with haro, barro, aguri, krishagur, gokul (one of the few I recognized), cinnamon and others. A teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee makes a difference, but that same teaspoon in a swimming pool full of coffee isn’t going to make much of an impression. None of the ingredients in the list do anything to distract you from the cheap, irritating smell. The list, however, does make me curious as to what it would smell like to burn a pencil fire.

Natural Arogya-Karmayogi Dhoop Incense is a resin heavy Tibetan stick in a style you’ll come across in other Nepali lines. I’m assuming from the ingredients most of what I’m smelling is the saldhup embedded in the red and white sandalwood mix. The somewhat marshmallow-like astasugandha is also fairly prominent, helping to give it some herbal depth. This isn’t a rare scent overall, but it’s one I usually like and so I’ve always considered this the best in this group. This is largely because the resins have the presence to make you forget about the binder wood, and not so much a judgment of its quality, which is still relatively low.

Natural Arogya-Mahadhup Incense (see how they did that?) lists sandalwood, gurgum, sunpati, jattamansi, rupkeshar, and dhupi. The jattamansi is fairly noticeable as the soft element in the front, to help make the overall bouquet somewhere between floral and woody, but this is largely because the florals are competing with the cheap woods dominating the whole stick. At least in this case the woods give off a little bit more than pencil shavings with some hints of Himalayan evergreen, but overall the incense still lacks too much personality.

The Natural Arogya-Meditative Dhoop Incense lists sugandhabal, bakchi, kut, ambergris, cloves, and cardomom, all of which seem to promise a rather excellent incense. The intensity of this stick lies somewhere between the Bodhisatwo/Mahadhup and the Karmayogi, in fact it shares a certain swankiness with the latter. It has a nice spiciness in the middle, a combination not very far from Mandala Trading’s Tibetan Monastery incense. This is a good example of where ingredients can transcend the base and not make you feel like you’re burning cheap stuff (relatively speaking). This has a nice clove burn to it and a genuine firey atmosphere I quite like.

The ingredients for Natural Aroga-Vajdhyaraj Dhoop Incense include kapur, dhupi, kumkum, saffron, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The black color of the stick makes me wonder if this is an Agar 31 attempt, but again, like with the Karmayogi and Meditative, the herbs are pretty swanky. Here you get that with the wood center, and the reuslts will remind most of tires and campfire wood. This is a good example, I think, of how certain Tibetan herbs aren’t likely to go down as aromatics with most westerners. And after so many sticks, this is one I feel like I can do without. The only ingredient that really comes out for me is the nutmeg.

Overall this is more or less your standard Nepali line, almost typical of what you’d get from a surface overview of the style. Like many inexpensive Tibetan incenses, these are heavy in cheap materials and rarely reach the promise found in their ingredient lists. Both the Karmayogi and Meditative will do in a pinch, but generally speaking you’ll find better incense elsewhere.

Shechen / Red, Blue, Riwo Sangchoe, Surpo

Shechen monasteries are apparently located in Tibet, India and Bhutan but it seems their incenses hail from Nepal, based on recipes from Mindroling monastery. Essence of the Ages carries four scents from Shechen, two in boxes indicated by their color, and two roll incenses. By price the two boxes seem to be the most premium items.

The Red box incense is slightly the premium of the two colored boxed and it’s actually no surprise that the recipe originally came from Mindroling as the incense here is very similar to Mindroling’s Grade 3 incense. It has that almost common mix of woods and berry found in many Nepalese incenses with some musky/dusty tones that are similar to the Mindroling, but I suspect the difference here is that Shechen probably uses herbal ingredients to get this layering. Overall this is a very common type of incense, but more or less a superior form of it, so well worth starting with here if you haven’t tried it.

If you have the Red it’s unlikely you’ll need the Blue which definitely seems to be sort of a Grade 2 version of the Red with a little more in the way of that filler wood/campfire scent. Given that the two boxes are only separated by less than $1, there’s really no reason to not go for the Red. The Blue’s rather nice on its own merits, but since the musky sorts of tones are more subdued (by replacing some of the red sandalwood content with juniper) it’s less interesting as a result.

The two roll incenses are much less impressive, both have very heavy amounts of cheap wood and little in the way of character, in fact both seem more ceremonial based than aromatic. The Riwo Sangchoe states the inclusion of red and white sandalwood on the wrapper, but I find it difficult to detect either. It does have maybe some slight musky/musty tones that are reminiscent of the Red and Blue boxes, but these tones leaven the rather dull woodiness very little. The Surpo isn’t much different, mostly made from filler wood material (probably cedar and juniper) but having some slight floral notes in the mix. The wrapper mentions ingredients like yoghurt, milk, butter, molasses, honey and sugar but I couldn’t really tell where any of these sat in the aroma.

There’s really not a lot new here if you’re already well stocked in Tibetan incense. I think I liked the Shechen Red more when I first purchased it, over time, it’s struck me as fairly static, but it’s a nice incense (although I’d guess you might find something similar in, say, the Stupa line at a more inexpensive price. Unfortunately the two rolls aren’t likely to do much more than irritate your sinuses.

Stupa / Spikenard, Dorjee Samba, Healing (Agar 31), Austa Suganda, Champabati

Stupa Incense Industry creates a number of incenses under the hand of Lama Dorjee, several of which I’d count in the upper class of Nepali incenses, in that the quality ingredients in any of the scents is always of a high enough content to push past the bland. I’ve reviewed several of these in the past (which you can access by scrolling down this page). As I mentioned in one of the previous reviews (the Buddha set), there are a couple boxes that actually include more than one incense and there is one of those sets here as well.

Spikenard is a pretty rare scent to be found in Tibetan style catalogs, perhaps due to its cost. In Japanese incense kansho’s musky caramel sweetness is a pivotal player in high end incenses and in my opinion is often just as important in the bouquet as the woods. On the other end of the spectrum you have this rough and ready Stupa version which is actually quite impressive for its cost. Yes, there’s definitely a lot of base wood in this (Himalayan pencil cedar) incense, but it manages only to seat the general spikenard scent, which here has a bit of coppery or brassy vibe to it, and doesn’t have the refined sweetness you find in the Japanese incenses. Otherwise the muskiness and slight caramel aroma still manages to more or less get the aroma right. In the end this is a solid incense for the price and unlikely to duplicate what you might own.

The Dorjee Samba blend gets top billing by Lama Dorjee and consists of an impressive blend of saldhoop, kud, agar, holibasil, nutmeg, cardamom and other hebs and spices. Despite this list of ingredients the most notable part of this bouquet is a strong, green, pungent evergreen scent that has similarities to Bosen’s Pythoncidere as well as the high altitude campfire like scent you’d find with the Dhoop Factory’s Alpine. And as such this is an incense I like very much with the sort of tire-like elements you tend to find with heavier woods reduced to a reasonable amount. In fact I’d wager a guess that the balancing sweetness here is the saldhoop (often considered an amber). In a list of good Nepalis this is definitely one that would be high up the list for me.

If the Spikenard and Dorjee Samba are fairly unique Nepalis, the Stupa Healing Incense (Agar 31) is in a pretty common class of Tibetan incenses. Here there are three kinds of black aloeswood, various herbal flowers, cloves, saffron and red and white sandalwood listed as ingredients but like all Healing/Agar 31 incenses the result doesn’t evince so much complexity and is somewhat nondescript (that is, if you’re looking for the Tibetan equivalent of a Japanese aloeswood, this and any of its brethren come nowhere close). It’s even difficult to describe as a scent as it doesn’t have the same woody/campfire qualities of high juniper and cedar levels nor the subtleties usually found in incenses with aloeswood, sandalwood or saffron. Of course incenses like this one seem less designed with aroma in mind rather than the supposed healing properties they may or may not have, in fact this one claims it will alleviate flatulences. Duh, right?

The final two incenses here come in one box, with a roll of Lama Dorjee/Stupa Austa Suganda and another of Champabati. The former contains pencil cedar, valerian, holy basil, gum-guggul and sandalwood, along with, I’d assume, the key ingredient in the name. The result is a very tangy sort of Tibetan that has an aroma fairly close to the paper on many ropes and a bit like toasting marshmallows over a fire. It’s a fairly static scent and probably only likely to appeal to some. Overall I find it a bit plastic-like in this form and that almost every ingredient listed can’t be detected over the austa sugandha.

The Champabati definitely has a strong campfire/tire/rubber-like base, which is somewhat uncommon for a Stupa, it also does a fair job at imparting a champa-like aroma on top. Unfortunately the competition of such a gentle floral scent with all the strong woods doesn’t create a particularly memorable incense and I’m once again fairly convinced the champa scent doesn’t work particularly well in a Tibetan style incense. If you’re experiencing even a hint of aromatic fatigue this will come off probably more bitter than intended. Rare are the good Nepali florals…

Stupa has some other incenses in their catalog including sandalwood, juniper and jasmine, although I’ve foregone checking these out for fear of duplication. But I’d think eventually this would be one of the catalogs I’d revisit as I’m fairly confident that the quality will be high.

Kuenzang Chodtin Tibetan Incense

[This incense has either been discontinued or repackaged.]

Having had so much success with various high end Tibetans costing anywhere from the teens to the 40s, I thought, like Japanese incense, that you’d generally be safe with anything relatively expensive. While price is still often a good indicator of an incense worth buying, Kuenzang Chodtin (scroll down, second from bottom) incense appears to be one of those land mines worth detouring around.

There are a number of Tibetan incenses that use aromatics that Westerners are likely going to identify with tire rubber or other acrid and/or bitter offnotes. Despite a number of herbs and ingredients that give the impression that Kuenzang Chodtin incense is likely to be superb and an initially positive first two or three seconds for the light, my experience was blindsided when after relighting the stick later, a strange black bubbling tar erupted from part of the incense leaving a strange, ashy foamy deposit on the incense. The smell at this point was so chemical that it evoked for me those incense urban legends of companies who say a particular incense is made of natural ingredients, but aren’t actually giving full disclosure. It’s as if the the resins were switched out with asphalt.

Stickwise, Kuenzang Chodtin is pink in a similar manner to the higher grade Nado Poizokhang sticks. I didn’t have quite the same experience with subsequent KC sticks, but the incense has a number of ingredients that will largely be unpleasant to the Western nose, and I don’t mean that in an acquired taste sense. It’s possible the incense was meant to be a more floral Tibetan derivative in that some of the incense’s top notes seem to have a very harsh, almost Indian masala-like rose scent, which when mixed with the incense’s noxious base gives off very harsh notes.

It’s strange because there seem to be some pleasant elements. That richness when nagi is involved seems to be there in the top, but the base overwhelms this quickly. Sometimes the bitterness is so penetrating it’s like the aroma from a bottle of cheap, charcoal filtered vodka. I did some labwork in an organic chemistry lab a decade ago or so, and that’s always the smell chemicals like this evoke for me. There are incenses that are dull and average, not worth picking up because they have little to offer. Kuenzang Chodtin goes past this to where burning a stick is actually fairly unpleasant at times. Less a pleasant aroma than a chemistry experiment.

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

Samye Monastery / Samanthabadra

I’ve written about this venerable monastery’s amazing incense in the past, but never really tried for a more descriptive review as my relationship with this incense has really developed since I tried my first sample 6 months ago or so. It was really my first encounter with a high end Tibetan incense and my first reaction was how strange and unusual it was, with an aromatic strength that was perhaps a little unsettling. But since then it’s grown on me to the point where I see it as one of the three Tibetan supernals, along with Tibetan Medical College Holy Land and Highland Incense.

Unlike these others incense, the musk content of Samathabadra is a little more muted and more like an instrumentalist in a symphony than the conductor. In fact the entire incense is a blend of various ingredients that all show their faces during various sessions. My first encounter accentuated the rich nature of any incense blended with nagi/pangolin scales, a certain ineffable spice characteristic. While I’ve noticed its presence in any nagi-infused incense, I probably couldn’t describe it too easily as I’ve never smelled the pure aroma.

Over time, the variety of spices really comes out and with further use the combination becomes more and more addictive. Now I notice spices and aromas like cinnamon and clove, orange, chocolate, coffee and gingerbread. Anyone who has tried the estimable English barleywine, Young’s Old Nick, will also recognize a sort of banana-tinged, hoppy scent (and ironically in finding that link, the second review down says that Old Nick reminds the writer of burning incense :D) in Samanthabadra. The combination of all these scents is kaleidoscopic, each new stick turning up variations that are often surprising, sometimes arresting.

I pulled Samanthabadra out at a dinner party last weekend, along with a number of higher-end Shoyeido and Shunkodo sticks, just as the sun was going down. It’s reflective of how good Samanthabadra is that it inspired as many or more positive comments than Sho-kaku or Ga-Ho. For an incense made in very cool weather it seems remarkably adaptable to a California summer, filling the surrounding area with spices similar to those found in cider and spiced tea. Undoubtedly one of the great Tibetan works of art.

Sam-Sung / Bo Rim, Ja-Kum, Seok-Hyang, Il-gakmun

It’s something of a convenience, but I tend to think of Korean incense as a hybrid of the Japanese style with Tibetan-like aromas. But ultimately they’re really a unique style with threads of similarity that run through almost 80% or more of what’s available. Korean incense tends to use ingredients both familiar and unfamilar to those found in other incenses. In particular, red sandalwood tends to show up quite frequently, and to a lesser extent elecampane, pine, along with the more familiar elements of frankincense, sandalwood, clove, and cinnamon.

Overall the description I could use for most of Korea’s incenses would be tangy. This in itself can be reminiscent of some of Japan’s less sweet aloeswoods and can approach similar elements in Kunmeido and Shunkohdo incenses. While the four incenses in review here are basically Korea’s finest and highest end incenses, lower end Korean sticks become a bit coarser with this tangy sort of aroma, and include what I’d almost describe as a mesquite/lime tinge. These qualities make it fairly difficult to differentiate the lower end sticks from one another, and it’s a pattern that follows Korean incenses from the most to least expensive. That is, while the style of incense is quite distinctive compared to incenses from other countries, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between similar Korean aromas. This is even the case with the two top line Korean incenses, Bo Rim and Ja-Kum.

Bo Rim means “treasure woods” in Korean and is the gem of Korean incense, a stick fine enough to compare to similarly priced Japanese aloeswood incenses. Described as a combination of pine and red sandalwood, other ingredient lists have Bo Rim containing aloeswood and while it’s not the particularly expensive, mind-expanding class of wood, it complements the rest of the ingredients nicely. The previously mentioned tanginess is almost perfect here, while in the less expensive sticks it can occasionally become cloying. Part of this is the high quality of wood used which imparts a smoothness that helps to bolster the more intense herbal content. The ingredients really help in making this a refined, world-class incense, one apparently enjoyed by the Dalai Lama himself. But be warned, if you start here you do run the risk of many other incenses from the country not being able to compete.

Ja-Kum (or Ja-Keum depending on transliteration, I’m using the spelling on the wooden tube) is an incense very close to Bo-Rim. The ingredients list is likely to be unfamiliar to most, including teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos. With all these new and unfamiliar ingredients, I found it to be surprising that it’s not particularly unlike Bo Rim, but with the herbal content starting to win out over the background woods. The tanginess is more pronounced and a little less balanced, but not so much as it is in the lower end sticks where it can be a little overbearing. Other than the Il-gakumun, this is one of the incenses that can be considered a high end version of many of the more inexpensive Koreans. Ja-Kum still has a slight alkaline edge, but it’s only a slight note here.

Given how similar so many of these Korean incenses can be, Seok-Hyang actually sticks out like a sore thumb, being very different to the tangier varieties of Korean incense. It’s basically a rather high quality sandalwood incense that can be reminiscent of Tibetan sandalwoods due to the occasionaly unusual spice involved. The stick itself is colored slightly pinkish intimating that there’s probably as much red as there is white sandalwood involved and the stick is also a bit thicker than most Koreans. Overall it’s similar to old mountain sandalwoods with a little kick added, one that can really hit the spot at times. Overall it’s a bit coarser than most Japanese sandalwoods and not quite as refined, but it’s unquestionably of good quality. It’s also reminiscent of the Essence of the Ages rope incense Nava Durga.

Il-gakmun‘s probably the least of these four (click to page 2 and scroll down to find it), the crossover incense into the multitude of lower end Korean incenses. In a way it does represent a step sideways from Ja-Kum. The main ingredients appear to be aloeswood, Japanese cedar and gardenia seeds, but there’s a large unknown herbal content that tends to dominate the wood. The tangy, mesquite qualities mentioned earlier are the most prevalent of the four in Il-gakmun, with a spice content that always reminds me of the oregano found in pizza sauce. It’s a difficult incense overall, with so many unfamiliar and possibly clashing elements that I’ve never been able to get comfortable with it, despite the quality of ingredients involved.

Coming up in a moment, a small series of notes on seven other Korean incenses that I wrote down so long ago I’ve almost forgotten, but might as well share while there’s a sale on.

Drepung Loseling Monastery / Gold Seal, Zin-Poe

Drepung Loseling is a Tibetan monastery based in Karnataka State, South India, established there after the Chinese government forced many monasteries out of Tibet in 1959. Previously it had existed near Lhasa, where it was established in the 15th Century. Among several small cottage industries that support the students of the monastery is a small incense making project that produces these two exports, Gold Seal and Zin-Poe.

Both incenses are made from similar ingredients, over 40 different substances that include saffron, white and red sandalwood, juniper, cedar, fragrant arborescent and medicinal plants, ground conch and musk. Like many Tibetan incenses, the use of faunal ingredients may clash with Western ecological philosophies, although in the case of the Drepung Loseling incenses, the ingredients do tend to be leavened by the woody bases of the incense, meaning that the overt aromas these elements bring are quite mild. Despite the $16 price on the boxes, both contain enough sticks of incense to last you for a long time – in fact I’d say nearly every corner of each box was full with the reddish tones of the incenses.

Like other Tibetan incenses with grades, one gets the impression that the Gold Seal incense is Drepung Loseling’s A grade. The color of the stick is a darker, burgundy-ish red and the sticks are definitely quite thin. The aroma is more concentrated, tarter, crisper and more on the cherry or berry side. It’s a surprisingly gentle incense for a Tibetan high ender, definitely pleasant but not replete with the types of complex notes high enders often have. It’s even difficult with the ingredients list to call which notes are more in evidence.

On the other hand, Zin-Poe almost seems like a more leavened version of the same incense. It seems clear there’s a greater content of cedar and/or juniper wood along with the rest of the ingredients, not only are the sticks thicker but the color is definitely pinker and not quite as dense. The aroma is definitely quite a bit lighter and not terribly distinctive, although the red berry notes are still the dominant scent. In particular, the black ash left ofter does seem rather typical of incenses that have high quantities of cedar. However there are some interesting notes that comes out, including slight tobacco/herbaceous hints and a little bit of caramel (spikenard?). Overall it seems a bit watered down (I’d suggest starting with the Gold Seal) but it’s quite sweet and pleasant and not at all a difficult incense.

Tibetan incenses do generally become quite impressive when the prices start closing in on the $20 mark, however the price here also seems to reflect the quantity of incense in the box, which is quite considerable. For example Zin-Poe contains 50 10″ sticks, but it’s likely that is the count on the unbroken sticks; you’re as likely to get a number of extra sticks or fragments as well, given how full the boxes are.

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery / Himalayan Healing- Agar 31

It’s been awhile since I have used Tibetan style incense and as I rediscovered it is very different from the Japanese. This one, Himalayan Healing- Agar 31, from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery( third one from top) intrigued me because I saw it or the style (still not quite sure which from the way it was written) in a book I am reading called “Incense and Incense Rituals” by Thomas Kinkele.

He talks about the purity and general healing attributes of this one and I was so curious that when I saw it at Essence of the Ages I decided to find out how it worked for me.

Right off you can smell the Aloeswood/Agarwood as a major base note in the mix. It’s strong enough to make me wonder how they can charge so little for the box. After that I am sad to say I do not recognize too much else. But the ingredients list is huge which means things are going to be in small amounts per stick. The woods stand out, it’s not sweet or flowery, yet has a very clean and open quality to it.

Its interesting given the size of the stick (pretty near to a quarter inch, think club, not stick 🙂 ) that there is not that much smoke put out. However the room becomes rapidly refreshed in scent and “vibe” or how it feels. Given the write up at EoA this is what I was hoping for. I noticed in my own self that I felt calmer and more focused. Its not the kind of stick that would be an every day scent, well actually it might be depending on your lifestyle! It is however, something that I will have around for when needed.

-Ross