A Beginner's Guide to Incense

Welcome to our quick incense guide! Incense is the art of fragrance and has been used all over the world, in different religious and spiritual contexts for thousands of years. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from wood chips and resins to incense sticks and cones. (You can read our other guides on Resins, Sage & Palo Santo here)

When most beginner's think of incense sticks, they think of typical well-known brands like Satya, HEM and other cheap Indian varieties. Although these are a great starting point for many, the world of incense is incredibly rich - it has so much more to offer beyond the lower quality market-stall varieties. 

We supply two main types of incense sticks: Japanese and Indian. Both from well respected manufacturers of high quality incense (at very accessible prices). Customers like both types for different reasons. Indian incense is potent, rich and easily fills a room within a short space of time. Japanese incense is subtler, nuanced and produces comparatively low smoke.

No matter what your preference, high quality incense of any type has to be tried. We've seen die-hard Japanese incense enthusiasts fall in love with our Indian incense range and vice-versa! When you step into the world of good quality incense, it's easy to see why this art has been around for thousands of years.

Japanese Incense

The art and appreciation for Japanese incense is known as Koh-do or ‘listening to incense’. Japanese incense doesn’t contain a bamboo core and so is much subtler and less potent than Indian varieties.

The subtlety of this incense is phenomenal. It can take years of experiencing the same incense to fully appreciate and 'get' its artistic nuance and complexity. There is a communication between the incense artisan and the user, a communication through fragrance. Traditionally, the art of Japanese incense is considered on the same level as Japanese Calligraphy (Shodo), Flower Arranging (Ikebana) and Tea Ceremony (Sado).

Traditional incense is all based around Sandalwood, Aloeswood (also known as Oud or Agarwood), Cinnamon, Camphor and traditional herbs/spices. Baieido produces traditional incense based on these ingredients and formulas that have been passed down through generations. Modern incense varieties consist of more floral and fruity fragrances, though still use a traditional Sandalwood/Aloeswood base. For contemporary incense, try some of Nippon Kodo and Les Encens du Monde's Karin range.

Japanese incense ranges from low to high end and the quality is often reflected in the price. However, the brands we use offer excellent quality even at the lowest price points. Some of our favourite high quality, low price sticks include Shoyeido - Nokiba (Moss Garden) and Baieido - Original Kobunboku.

Indian Incense

Indian incense, also known as Agarbathi, has been used for religious and spiritual practices in India for thousands of years and still used today. Devotional, potent and rich, this incense is known for its power! One of the key differences between Indian and Japanese incense, is that Indian types have a bamboo stick running through the middle. White bamboo is used by most good quality suppliers as it doesn't affect the aromatic experience or produce too much unnecessary smoke.

The most popular type of Indian incense sticks are Masala sticks. Masala sticks consist of a bamboo stick coated with a thick paste of base and aromatic ingredients. Base materials include Charcoal, Amber resins, Sandalwood, Cedarwood, Vanilla and some gums, which act as binding agents. Quality depends on the mix and ratio of base materials to aromatic ingredients. Hand rolled incense is always better than dipped. Champas are a sub-type of Masala sticks and contain Halmaddi. This is a fragrant resinous binding ingredient, renowned for its floral scent. The Mother's India Fragrances use Champa for all their sticks. 

Even at higher qualities, Indian incense is generally cheaper than Japanese varieties (see our Mother's Fragrances range for example) and this is probably why most people start off their incense journey with Indian sticks. For those worried about smoke levels, be assured that good quality Indian incense is totally different from the cheap market stuff and we urge hesitant users to try out the Mother's Fragrances range which offers such great quality for the price.

Tips on Burning Incense

Take a fresh incense stick, fire up a lighter (a candle flame, match or even cooker hob will do) and wait until the stick starts to flame. Wave the stick to blow out the flame and place the unlit end into the hole (or sand) of your holder. Then, let the smoke and fragrance be carried by the natural air currents running through the house. 

Depending on the type of incense you have, you'll need a different holder to burn your incense. Indian sticks contain a bamboo core and so easily fit into most wooden holders. Japanese incense requires a specific holder or you can create a makeshift one using a bowl with sand (just place the stick upright). Click here to shop our incense holders.

The Journey Begins...

Now you know a little more about the stuff, start your journey and dive into our range of Japanese and Indian incense. Here's a list of the incense featured in this article: