When people decide to experience Japanese incense for the first time, one of the most common questions we receive goes something like this:
"I'm new to the world of Japanese incense. Which incenses should I start with?"
This is a wonderful question, and a great place to begin one's journey along the fragrant path. Before any recommendations are made however, let's establish some parameters. First, lists of recommendations such as this are intended to represent the wide range of fragrance available across Japanese incense brands and products. Second, any recommendations should be accessible incenses that are high quality, good value, and budget conscious - so we'll keep recommendation to incense available to experience for $25 or often less.
Disclaimer: No list is ever perfect, and picking just 10 Japanese incenses as a representative sample is quite a challenge. We have favorites that didn't make the list too! And although sample packs are a great introduction to various Japanese incense product lines, for this list we have recommended incenses to sit with for more than the limited number of sticks a sampler would provide.
With the above in mind, the following is a list of ten Japanese incenses to start with for those beginning their journey along the fragrant path:
Minorien Byakudan Fu-In
Sandalwood is not unique to Japanese incense. But it does often have a prominent role, finding its way into the majority Japanese incense. So when first experiencing Japanese incense, it would be good to listen to a pure high quality Sandalwood.
Minorien Byakudan Fu-in is a great example of high quality Byakudan (Sandalwood) that often receives high praise. Tantalizing sweet, soft, and refreshing, Byakudan Fu-In uses generous amounts of pure Mysore Sandalwood from southern India. Byakudan Fu-in combines the signature deep, rich,“wet” impression Minorien is known for in the exquisite soft sweet timeless fragrance of “Old Mountain” Sandalwood.
Sandalwood blends are a common type of Japanese incense, and they come in many different expressions. A very popular meditation incense, Kobunboku is an expression of the "flower of peace" - the Plum blossom, and is a great example of a cool-tart Sandalwood blend. A combination of Sandalwood, Borneol, Clove, Cinnamon, and other traditional spices, Kobunboku was Introduced 100 years ago, is a best selling incense in Japan, and Baieido's signature fragrance.
Shoyeido First Light
One of the most quintessential Japanese fragrance blends is warm-sweet Sandalwood. Very popular for a variety of uses from meditation to scenting a space, warm-sweet Sandalwood blends are very common. Shoyeido's First Light is a delightfully warm and sweet Cinnamon, Benzoin, and Sandalwood combination that creates a refreshing fragrance appropriate for everyday use or special occasions.
Sharp and spicy is another direction for Sandalwood blends, although less common than its sweeter cousins. Suzaku’s graceful blending of Indian Sandalwood, cinnamon and traditional spices creates a fabulously indulgent fragrance that is a favorite at Kikoh. Spicy and traditional, Suzaku is a graceful fragrance that is one of the most popular incenses of Gyokushodo’s daily incense line. Wonderfully tranquil, addictive, and with a superbly long lasting after-note, Suzaku is a perfect choice for you daily rituals.
Japanese traditional blends tend to focus more on a variety of earthy aromatic ingredients such as Clove or Patchouli within their wood base. Strongly traditional, Kunmeido’s Reiryokoh is well known due to its use at Daihonzan Eiheiji 永平寺, the “Temple of Eternal Peace”. Reiryokoh is filled with traditional natural spices such as Clove, Fenugreek, Patchouli, Turmeric, and Borneol in a Sandalwood base. Sweet, spicy, and traditional with a mellow after-note, Reiryokoh is Kunmeido's signature fragrance.
Gyokushodo Jinko Kojurin
No journey into Japanese incense would be complete without Jinko - Aloeswood. Sandalwood-Aloeswood blended incenses are quite common, and usually feature their wood bases prominently. Jinko Kojurin blends a spicy Vietnamese Aloeswood with a smooth Indian Sandalwood, resulting in a fragrance that is refined, elegant, and thoroughly approachable - even for those new to Aloeswood. With a firm foundation in its wood base, Jinko Kojurin is deep, reserved, salty and sweet, possessing a satisfying blend of wood, spices and tradition.
High quality Aloeswood is a staple of Japanese incense. Increasingly rare and costly, finding a representative of pure Aloeswood that fit this list's budget was a challenge. Of all the incenses listed, Tennendo Tensei is by far the most premium, complex, and decadent, not to mention a budget buster at over $100 a box. Yet Tennendo Tensei is an excellent example of superior Aloeswood, and thanks to smaller NEI Packs, an enjoyable extended experience can be had for under $20.
A blend of multiple premium select Aloeswoods with warm woody-floral notes reminiscent of Kyara (the highest most rare grade of Aloeswood), Tennendo’s Tensei is elegant and smooth with a refreshing Aloeswood sweet-floral note. A premium Aloeswood blend of the highest quality, Tensei produces a wide range of beautifully balanced notes, from lightly floral, to sweet, to mellow tartness that gives it a unique and rich fragrance. Take your time with this one and enjoy the journey it will take you on.
Unique to Japanese incense is a third fragrant wood: Japanese Cypress. Used widely for purifying spaces thanks to its clean, crisp, and evergreen key notes, Japanese Cypress (Hinoki) has been used for centuries to build imperial palaces, temples and Shinto shrines, and is considered sacred to the Japanese. The sweet evergreen note of Hinoki is an ideal natural air freshener, and the fragrance released is believed to both stimulate and relax the mind, calming and focusing the intellect while reducing stress and fatigue. Baieido's Imagine Series Hinoki features a superbly subtle and light example of a Cypress fragrance created from 100% natural Hinoki essential oil.
Daihatsu Plum Tanka
Although fragrant woods and wood blends take center stage in Japanese incense, modern Japanese floral incenses possess a unique softly sweet and powdery character, and deserve representation on any list of Japanese fragrances. Daihatsu's Poem of the Four Sisters (Tanka 4 Shimai) series of floral incenses are fragrances of a beautiful era where perfumes imported directly from France blend with ancient Japanese incense culture. Elegant, powdery, and semi-sweet, this plum blossom incense is an wonderful example of a premium Japanese modern floral incense.
Classic fragrant incense ingredients are commonly available in Japanese incense form, and no fragrant material is more classic or well known than Frankincense. Refreshingly sweet with fruity citrus top notes, Tennendo Frankincense has earned renown for being one of the highest quality Frankincense incense available. Sourced under the exclusive permission of the sultanate of Oman, Tennendo’s Frankincense of Dhofar is as close to the noble fragrance of premium Frankincense resin as possible.
So there you have it. Ten Japanese incenses to start any journey along the fragrant path. However, a word of note. Take your time with any of these that you chose. Sit with them and have a cup of tea. Enjoy their company. Listen to them with more than just your sense of smell. Above all, don't worry about what is right or wrong or better or try identifying every fragrant note you hear. Just enjoy the wonderful gifts nature has provided in its fragrant woods and aromatic spices and resins. After all, such enjoyment is the greatest gift found upon the fragrant path.
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...