What makes one Japanese incense cost so much more than another? Is the difference really that noticeable? Is there really that big of a difference between an economical fragrance and a premium fragrance? Which is better? When it comes to the variety of price points Japanese incense can be found in, knowing the often subtle and mutable differences between a premium incense and an economical one is a common question along the fragrant path.
To generalize for discussion purposes, Japanese incense can be sorted into roughly three often overlapping categories we'll call Mainichikoh, Tokusen, and Superior. Each of these generalized categories varies a great deal between manufacturer, has different fragrant characteristics, features different amounts of fragrant woods and aromatics, and has varying portions of rare ingredients. Much like fine wine, each of these categories will present different tastes and uses, and appeal to different personal olfactory palettes. As such, these categories should be thought of as "general" divisions based upon fragrance composition, rather than a value judgement of good, better, best.
Mainichi-koh in Japanese means "everyday" or "daily" incense. It is the most economical Japanese incense for a reason: it is intended to be used multiple times a day. With it's roots in the everyday use of incense in Buddhist alters found in many Japanese homes, Mainichikoh is meant to be incense that lends itself to burning multiple sticks daily. As such, Mainichikoh is generally inexpensive, has the most common ingredients, and the lowest ratios of fragrant materials (often in oil form) to binders. Some brands will include perfumes or man-made ingredients to embellish the small quantities of natural oils and fragrant materials used.
Generally, Mainichikoh's fragrant notes will be more uniform and consistent or feature fewer fragrant notes overall, with little of the variation in notes often seen in more expensive incenses. Often these are "one note" type of fragrances, built for the purpose their one note is intended. Additionally, a shorter duration afternote - the fragrance that remains after the incense has extinguished - is most common.
But this is not to say that Mainichikoh is not without its beauty and appeal. Many daily incenses are highly regarded and are often some of the best selling product lines found in Japanese incense. They are a great way to begin the journey into Japanese incense and to learn various fragrant notes as they will often offer more straightforward fragrant landscapes. They are great for background fragrance or setting a mood or for when a long lasting fragrance is not desired.
Meaning "special" of "select" in Japanese, Tokusen incense can generally be thought of as mid or upper mid-range incense depending upon the manufacturer. The key difference in Tokusen incense is its increased amounts of high quality ingredients, select fragrant woods, and a higher ratio of fragrant materials to binders. Tokusen incenses tend to more closely focus on the fragrant woods and aromatics ingredients, and generally see fewer oils or man made ingredients.
High quality Sandalwoods, Aloeswoods, and hints of Kyara are often featured in Tokusen recipes. Where Mainichikoh will have a more stable or single note presentation, Tokusen incenses will offer a increasingly rich fragrance score with more depth and life, with notes that vary in strength and potency throughout the burn, and often with long lasting afternotes that can be quite changeable as they die off.
As Japanese incense is predominately made from high quality natural ingredients, these ingredients posses a natural ebb and flow of fragrance intensity and consistency. With a Tokusen product, this ebb and flow produces a life to the fragrance that highlights the quality and rarity of the ingredients used, and that creates an often exquisitely complex fragrance. In this way, a single fragrance can present a variety of subtle fragrance differences throughout the burn, or over a range of sticks. It is this dance of fragrant notes within Tokusen incense that sets it apart from more economical incenses. However, many Tokusen fragrances will often require more active listening to fully appreciate, as the dance of fragrant notes can often be content to present through a subtle elegance that can be easily overlooked.
Used here as an encompassing term, Superior incense is generally made from the most rare and select fragrant woods, often combined with small amounts of the most precious and highest quality fragrant ingredients, and features the highest ratio of fragrant materials to binders available. These are usually the flagship incense lines of manufacturers which often can trace their recipes back centuries, with many of them still prepared as they have been for many years. As such, these are also the most expensive of incenses, with their rare ingredients often competing with the cost per gram of gold. Superior incense may feature rare Sandalwoods, but more often contain the highest quality Aloeswoods and the highest concentration of the rarest and most prized fragrant wood on the planet: Kyara.
Superior incenses are often some of the most subtle, complex, and elegant fragrances available. Often producing multiple notes dancing together in an exquisite complexity of various rhythms, Superior incenses highlight the very best of these rare fragrant ingredients in some of the most stunning and complex fragrances available. It is also the rarity of these ingredients that make Superior incenses increasingly in short supply, with several manufacturers eliminating their highest-end products due to the increasing lack of availability of their rare fragrant woods.
Superior incenses are sought after for their ability to create a desired mental state and their exquisite fragrance, and will often produce the most intricate of fragrances filled with notes active with life, as well as the longest after note available in Japanese incense. Often the afternotes of these Superior incenses are a key feature of the fragrance, and highly desirable for their long lasting and mutable effect.
So Which is "Best"?
When it comes to Japanese incense appreciation, there really is a clear corollary to the appreciation of fine wines. Just as fine wines come in many different price points, appeal to different palettes, and often require a level of appreciation, Japanese incense has a similar experience and learning curve for many. However, just because a fragrance is intended to be Mainichikoh doesn't mean that one can't appreciate it as a favorite fragrance used in regular rotation. Conversely, just because an incense falls within the Superior category doesn't mean that one will appreciate it fully or even enjoy it.
That is the beauty of Japanese incense. The development of the olfactory palette is part of the enjoyment of the journey along its fragrant path. Finding fragrances that resonate and are enjoyable to each individual is more important than becoming a connoisseur of the most expensive and rare. Most will find fragrances in all three categories that are enjoyed for different reasons and different occasions.
As a general rule however, as an incense approaches the Superior end of the spectrum, more rare and high quality ingredients in higher quantities are used. Accordingly, the price of such incenses also increase. Additionally, as fragrances approach this end of the spectrum, they require more direct listening to fully appreciate as opposed to fragrances of single-note incenses intended for a supporting role in background use. Finally, as incenses approach the Superior category, they are capable of producing more pronounced effects upon mood and mental state, intricate and subtle fragrances, and longer lasting afternotes that are often just as pleasant and surprising as when first burned.
These categories are not static however, as thanks to their natural ingredients and centuries of development by Japanese manufacturers, these loose categories are often quite fluid. One manufacturer's Tokusen product may overlap another's Superior product. There are manufacturers whose daily fragrances rival Tokusen fragrances and are highly regarded. In the other direction, some manufacturers actually produce Kyara Mainichikoh! - although it is unclear how much Kyara could actually be included at a Mainichikoh price point.
In the end and regardless of category, an individual's experience and personal taste should be used to determine which fragrances are the most enjoyable for that individual. The goal should be to enjoy the fragrant path through the unique gift nature has provided in its fragrant woods, enhanced through centuries of the Japanese perfecting the art of incense.
This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...