Incense during flu season

I’ve had an icky bug since about Saturday, which has put something of a damper on burning incense thanks to the coughing and sinus irritation. For me the flu puts a pretty ugly lens over everything and incense is no different. Everything that aromatic fatigue knocks out is gone with a cold, leaving often the most astringent qualities of the incense and not much of the subtlety, which means it’s impossible to evaluate anything fairly. So although I’ve got an article or two ready to write up when I am, it’ll be slow going in this area for another week or so.

So I figured it might be a good idea during the pause to say that if any readers have any particular incenses they’d like to hear about, to feel free to let me know here and I’ll see what I can do once the flu goes byebye.


Notes on Incense 2

That seven roll Tennendo sampler Essence of the Ages is selling is extremely impressive. I mentioned the Kuukai yesterday but found the Tensei to be even better, an incredible aloeswood with a very smooth wood finish, just how I like them. The Renzan appears to be their version of Kyukyudo Shiun or Nippon Kodo’s Zuin, a dark, slightly cherry-scented sweet aloeswood, very nice.

Also still trying out the ropes. Part of it is getting used to the aroma of the rice paper which isn’t far from tobacco paper. The one I like the most so far, but which puts out smoke like a fire is the Aajudyo Dyupayan incense with the scary looking sky god on the front. They’re big ropes and smell like spiced up camphor wood, but burn almost like vanilla. Very different and very intuition stimulating.

I’m finding the savory, tangy nature that attracted me to the Chui Woon stick to be common to many of the Korean incenses. It almost seems as if several of them are graded so that the more inexpensive the incense the less panoramic the scent with Bo Rim being the most premium and then, ramping down, Ja Kum, Jing-Gwan, Chiu Woon, Dabo and Chung-Shim. I only sampled the last few of these very quickly but Dabo was almost so tangy it was tart (and losing the balance a little) and Chung-Shim was just a little too standard in the end, but the rest of these are all very nice. Unlike this group, there’s also Ilgakmun, which is a very complex and impressive woody incense, perhaps the closest to Japanese incense here and Seok-Hyang which is a very dry sandalwood heavy incense with a bit of pepper and spice to it.

I’ll also confirm Bernd’s comment from a prior thread that the Minorien Frankincense is extremely impressive. It actually reminded me of the Fred Soll sticks due to the very high resin content, but more so it reminded me of a spicier pontifical resin blend that you might find at a Catholic church. In fact I have a Matchless Gifts incense blend I’ve had forever called Kashmiri which this is very close to, the usual frankincense and benzoin combination except a little hotter via cinnamon or spice. Beautiful, impressive stuff with that very earthy feel the Minorien line has throughout. That quality may be why I like this line so much, it’s very different from all other companies.

What else? I mentioned Kunmeido Heian Koh yesterday. This strikes me, now that I’ve finished a stick, as being a bit overpriced in that for an aloeswood stick you don’t tend to get a lot of depth. It smells very similar to Shoyeido’s Kyo-Nishiki, which I’d have considered distinctive prior to this, but unfortunately (or at least so far) Heian Koh doesn’t strike me as justifying its cost. On the other hand it does strike me as a meditation or temple stick, so it may be more friendly for that purpose. I don’t like to pick on Kunmeido’s incenses though, especially as they have some of the best lower end sticks around like the Reiryo-koh, Onkun-koh and Shoryu-koh. Of course, I get the impression we haven’t seen half of this companies incenses yet, especially in the higher ranges.

Also lots of Tibetans. So many of the ones I’ve gotten are as mellow as the ropes are smoky. They’re all quite good, but I think my running favorite would be the Maya Devi Salvia Officinalis stick. As I’ve mentioned with the Dhoop Factory Ganden incense, there’s this wonderful sweet, sage related, grassy herb they use that I find really pleasant and this has it with a touch of citrus or something. Very clean and refreshing.

Notes on Incense

The fruits of the Essence of the Ages sale showed up last night, very fast especially for the time of the year, although I was in the middle of various errands (including getting the stuffing knocked out of me by my nephews), I had a chance to check out a few things and since I’m possibly the holidays away from more reviews (I’ll manage a top 10 in a week or so), I figured I’d mention a few things in brief.

I tried Baieido’s Tokusen Syokohkoku incense in a sampler a while back and while I remember it being great, my appreciation for it has been enhanced. I think it’s partially because I’ve been heating Baieido Hauksui aloeswood which is a real gourmet experience, and it’s the aloeswood used in the TS. You actually get this experience in the stick, although considerably spiced up and I’m hard pressed not to call this one of the world’s great incenses. Don’t settle with a sampler or roll on this one, even though the box is very pricy I get the impression I’ll be going through this fast. On the other hand, for the quality you’re getting I consider it a deal.

I’ve been wanting to do a write up on Shoyeido’s Horin series as I love most of them. Up to now I’ve been missing the Muromachi, which I liked but don’t remember rating over any of the others. I was surprised it never made a big impression on me because it’s very rich and almost like a caramel incense if you can imagine except with all sorts of wood aromas playing off of it. May take me a few to get used to it, so when I do I’ll write about one of the best incense lines out there. I usually have at least one in my changing top 10.

I burned about an inch of Kunmeido’s Heian Koh, which is a thick, square cut, green, higher end aloeswood. As I’d already tried the Asuka, it seemed a little like a variant version, but I’ll need a little more time to eke out the differences. Quite nice and very woody, I was reminded a little by one of Shoyeido’s Zen incenses in style (although which one I can’t remember) and it may have been this stick that reminded me a great deal of one of Shoyeido’s Daily incenses I recently called distinctive.

One of the best parts of the night was finally discovering what my mystery incense stick was. This was originally given to me as a sampler in an order from a company I had trouble with and I immediately fell in love with it. As it turns out it’s a Korean stick called Chui-Woon and fortunately for me it’s very affordable. In fact several of the Korean incenses I tried all share similar qualities which made me feel like my nose was probably going as it tends to with new hauls. But I was very pleased to finally figure this one out. I’ll be writing many of these up eventually, there’s really a wealth of Korean incense to discover.

I went for that sampler of seven Tennendo rolls all of which I think I’ll be very pleased with. The Frankincense I already know and love, but I tried the Kuukai as well which was very nice. Tennendo seems to differ quite a bit from other companies in the style of their incenses, I’m not sure I could describe it, but there’s a real spice presence at work and a lightness to the aromas.

The Tibetan incense Ribo Sangtsheo was created by Mandala Trading company like two of my favorite Tibetans, I could instantly tell when seeing the ingredients list on the inside wrapper. It makes me wonder what else they do. This is a thinner stick than the other two but still looks like a natural combo of various herbs, including 20% spikenard, which is always nice.

I also tried my first rope incense, which I believe was Naga Durva. I’m glad I picked one of the smaller ones as this is a very smoky sort of incense that reminds me of when I used to buy Indian incense powders. It burns pretty quickly and I’d say the smoke is too dense except I believe I’m probably just not used to the style yet. I was pleased with the free rope burner as well, it’s a lot more deluxe than it looked in the picture and I look forward to hanging a coil on it too.

Tried bits of a couple other Tibetans, and by the end of the night I realized there wasn’t anything I didn’t really like, which is always good. But it’s definitely that Tokusen Syukohkoku that will be on my mind for a while, along with Kunmeido Asuka.

I should also mention that Keigado’s Full Moon incense is a fantastic little, inexpensive daily incense – more amber than sandalwood, and definitely up there with Kyukyodo’s Shirohato and Ikaruga.

Heating Incense

Since I’ve obtained an incense heater, it’s almost felt like I’ve doubled my incense supply. Every resin, wood chip and even incense stick has a totally different quality to it than burning. This difference usually varies from significant to startling.

I haven’t gotten around to trying everything by this method, in particular anything resinous usually needs a small bit of aluminum foil to protect your dish. I’m also not quite sure just when a heated aromatic loses its potency as without combusting the rest of the material, the aroma seems to just kind of slightly fade. Aloeswood chips usually end up looking charred, probably because the (black) resin in the wood tends to bubble.

The biggest surprise for me had to be myrrh. I’ve always found myrrh not only to be extremely variable in quality but often kind of gnarly smelling straight on a piece of charcoal. But in heating it you can be immediately convinced over why this material has been so prized over the ages. Whatever impurities or off notes I noticed on charcoal just don’t pop up here and even at a rather high heat it dissipates very slowly. The myrrh I’m using is a golden color rather than the darker brown stuff usually found in US stores and it’s sweet, sultry and has a depth of character many other resins don’t. Now I know I really want to try what’s considered high end.

I’ve also been experimenting with various aloeswood chips, which was my primary reason for wanting a heater. I’ve got about five or six different types/grades of aloeswood and they all have very different characteristics. I probably enjoy Baieido’s Hakusui aloeswood the best, and it is their highest grade barring kyara. Slightly spicy, deep rich and expansive, Hakusui had major impact for me. At the other Baieido end, the Indonesian Kokonoe no kumo doesn’t actually even seem to dissipate all that much on a heater or has such a mild aroma it’s difficult to detect.

I mentioned Shoyeido’s “seasonal” wood chip box a few weeks ago, containing aloeswood, sandalwood, and kyara chips as well as some kneaded incense. I believe the aloeswood is Shoyeido’s take grade, which is quite nice for being their lowest graded woodchip, similar, but richer than other low end chips. The kyara, of course, is lovely, but the chips are so small the impact seems to be over fairly fast. The sandalwood chips do seem very fine though and heating them reminds me of old mountain wood and other sandalwood sticks that accentuate the oil quality of the wood.

A mild warning that should have been less mild

A few months ago, I wrote this entry on what I thought was rather poor business on Capricorn’s Lair’s part. Especially in the last month, I’ve noticed that this article tends to get hits from searches like “capricorns lair complaints” so I went and did the search myself and was astonished at the number of complaints leveled at this company. This page in particular really delivers the scoop, so whatever you do, avoid this company at all costs, especially when there are much more positive experiences to be had (see links on right).

They also have an unsatisfactory rating with Better Business Bureau.

More incense notes…

Had my first hands on experience with the Shoyeido electric chip heater last night and am finding it well worth the expenditure. It’s really a work of art in its own right (I bought a green one which has a nice earthy color to it) and seems quite sturdy, but, of course, what it does to aromatic raw materials is a real draw, kind of like burning scented candles or heating essential oils but better. I christened my heater with a small piece of Baieido’s Hakusui aloeswood, which other than kyara, is their top aloeswood grade. Extraordinary, really, the resin without the wood notes gives a far purer experience, even straight aloeswood sticks don’t have the same sort of presence. I also tried a couple pieces of Shoyeido Himenoka Princess Fragrance, in-koh pressed incense designed for heating rather than burning and found the experience extremely sublime. The pieces in the bottom segment have not only a nice and woody vibe, but a strong bitter almond type of scent, really quite nice (and the presentation and shapes of the pieces is really impressive and gorgeously rendered). Then I tried a different style altogether, a Swiss Arabian bakhoor called Bait Al-Arab. A piece of this incense is about as big as self-igniting charcoal but fortunately small enough to sit comfortably in the metal bowl that came with the heater. One of the most floral things I’ve experiences, almost like a bouquet of rose and carnations in the room. The heater probably could have kept releasing the fragrance for hours. It’s a scent you don’t have to be an incense person to appreciate. I’m very much looking forward to experiencing everything from sticks to resins on this thing, it will be like starting from scratch in a way.

Tried a number of sticks last night as well, although at some point my nose gave up the ghost, so I couldn’t really tell on a number of Japanese sticks (except they’re all nice). High line Shunkodo Ranjatai was my first try and it’s a fabulous deluxe aloeswood incense, different but in the same realms as Kyukyodo Sho-Ran-Ko. Tennendo Frankincense uses a very intense, high quality Omani Frankincense that’s very close to burning resin (especially doing so on a makko trail), definitely not your garden variety Frankincense incense. Korean Bo Rim sticks are going to be a big favorite and probably a top 10 pick this month, they’re tangy and a great alternate to Japanese incense. The wooden container is really nice. Kyukyodo Ryuhinko is another of that company’s extremely distinctive incenses and probably beyond my ability to describe at the moment, it’s very dry, yet more complex than that sounds, with an incredible subtle back note that fatigue dropped after an inch or two.

The two Mandala Tibetan incenses were very impressive as well, called Tibetan Monastery Incense and Himalayan Herbal Incense. There’s something about the high quality tibetan stuff that really draws my intuitive attention, both of these were intense with quality aromatics.  The HHI was actually similar to Yog Sadhana with the strong clove notes, but a mellower incense overall. The TMI has a hotter, reddish spicy vibe that was similar but equal in quality. These boxes are both long and huge, meaning that the 40 sticks could easily be broken down into 120 shorter ones. And unlike most incenses there’s a nice rendering of the ingredients involves and with both of these blends it often feels like they’re all clamoring for attention.

I’ll link to many of these when I absorb and consider them a little more, but everything can be found at Essence of the Ages (link on right) who just completely impressed me on every level with this order. I’m finding loads of “hits” from their recommendations and highly recommend the incense enthusiast establishing a relationship with the company as they’ll help you discover some things you might not have on your own.

Yog-Sadhana +

[EDIT 1/29/2022: Got in a new batch of this old favorite. While it has travelled a bit in all these years with expected recipe shifts, it still seems roughly in the same ballpark as the below description. The incense still strikes me as being fairly high quality, especially for the price. The biggest difference however, is one of the things I distinctly remember about the old sticks is that they poured off smoke, like enough you’d worry about triggering a smoke detector. This new batch no longer does this and it feels a bit less dense than it used to be. I am still finding it enjoyable for sure, but it may be missing some ingredients that made it a bit deeper once. Still a recommended Nepali incense though. Link changed below to the most recent source, Hither & Yon. But expect it to possibly be intermittent in sourcing.]

I asked Beth at Essence of the Ages for a few recommendations and one of them was this Nepalese Yog-Sadhana stick. I’m sure I’ll talk about the others later, but this one stands out to me in particular as being unlike anything else I’ve tried. They’re 8 1/2 inch sticks and put out quite a bit of smoke, but what a scent it is, somewhere between a clove/nutmeg sort of blend and a heavy resin note. The description says woody and cooling, although I don’t get the former so much as the latter, cooling is the perfect word for it. Clove often reminds people of the accompanying cigarettes, but here’s a nice clove content without that sort of distracting comparison.

And just another comment on the Kyukyodo Azusa, that is one extremely incredible incense, probably amazing me more than the Sho Ran Ko only as it’s so much more affordable. Will likely be a favorite for a long time, but again it’s about as highly recommended an incense at that price as I can name.

Coming soon, hopefully, a September top 10, a look into the full Nippon Kodo Yume No Yume (including one deleted item), New Morning Star and (brand new) Kohden lines, a couple of temple blends, a few color-coded Nitiraj Nag Champas, and a couple more Tibetans.

Some initial thoughts on Korean premium incense

One item I received from Essence of the Ages is a four stick premium sampler of four different Korean sticks (second down). Korean incense is similar to Japanese in style but often uses very different ingredients. The biggest surprise to me was the Bo Rim Dan stick which reminded me very much of a mystery stick I’d been wondering about, so close it scratches a similar itch. Apparently the main ingredients are red sandalwood and pine, but the blend actually reminds me more of aloeswood, very tangy and rich, it’ll be the first item I restock next time I order. I lit it for a minute in two different rooms with rather different results, so it seems quite intricate a blend. Ja Kum is actually pretty similar, but with ingredients such as teucrium veronicoides and white poria cocos, I’m left without a lot of words to describe it except intense and rich. Ilgakmun is described as an aloeswood incense but actually reminds me heavily of old mountain sandalwood, very light and slightly resiny. Seok-hyang, a very thick reddish stick is also very strong in sandalwood but not so much with the old mountain freshness. Overall all were well worth trying out, but I preferred the former two the most.

A few quick incense notes

  • Shoyeido’s Horin/Gen-roku in stick form seems even closer to the premium line Misho than the coil form. Maybe a little more depth. Incredible stuff.
  • I checked out the limited edition Heart gift set by Shoyeido and was pleasantly surprised by how good both the Ai-shin and Do-shin blends were, especially the former which has a really unique sandalwood base with floral oil. Do-shin’s a little darker although I’ll need more time with both to describe better. But as they’re limited, you’ll want to act pretty fast.
  • Shoyeido’s Ki-No-Ka set is a seasonally themed set of pure aloeswood, sandalwood, kyara and some kneaded incense. It’s funny when you get it just how small the kyara pieces are, five tiny chips of wood (much less than it looks in the promo picture). The aloeswood seems very high quality, certainly better than anything I owned before, and the kneaded incense was also very interesting, but it became almost instantly clear that one’s value increases by not buring any of these directly on charcoal or makko trails, but by traditional Japanese methods. I think I really want a wood chip heater now.

Essence of the Ages Specials etc.

If you notice all the red “NEW!” tags on the left here, you’ll realize Essence of the Ages has expanded their stock of Japanese incense significantly, making me feel like I’m practically starting over again. So much to explore, and it probably makes this place the seller with the largest stock of Japanese incense in the country now. Also of note, is the discounted prices on various higher line Nippon Kodo pawlonia gift box incenses. Given their high line kyara incenses are disappearing about as fast as they’re being stocked, you can at least check out Kyara Kongo and Kyara Taikan gift sets at a severely discounted price. They’re both probably the most affordable incenses with kyara (or a note thereof) in them, so are well worth exploring (although keep in mind they’re not quite the experience the expensive ones are). Although it must be said that while the sets are beautiful, their utility is a bit poor, I’ve broken several sticks just opening and closing these sets.

I also had the chance to introduce a couple friends to a number of various lines over the long labor day weekend. While just about all of the samples went over well, it didn’t surprise me to see that it’s generally the modern lines and more user friendly incenses that get the attention over the more expensive aloewood lines. The place where both met was the Horin lines, which, especially Hori-kawa, went over extremely well as they’re genuinely impressive, in fact it’s one of the few lines where the sandalwood incenses are as good as the aloeswood ones. Also went over (very) well: Yume-No-Yume bamboo leaf, Fragrance Memories Siesta Siesta and, of course, anything with kyara in it (well let’s be honest, I leap about with enthusiasm when it comes to kyara).

More to come this week as I’ll be trying out a lot of new brands as they come in. But do go over and say hi to Beth at Essence if you haven’t, she makes the whole incense experience that much better.

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