I find Japanese Incense far superior to most commercial stick incense. I believe it starts with the fact that there is no “stick” and the fragrance is pure. The traditional incense starts as high quality wood powders of either fine Sandalwood or Aloes wood. Then an array of other pure and natural ingredients such as pure gum resins, herbs, flower blossoms, frankincense, star anise, cinnamon and other spices can be added. The creation of this incense is an extraordinarily delicate process and performed in time-honored methods for over 300 years. The method and recipes have been handed down from generation to generation in an unbroken secret oral tradition. The mixtures is carefully combined is then extruded to make a wonderfully pure burning medium. There are a variety of newer formula mixtures that do not contain the fragrant woods just the resins, spices and herbs and other aromatics.
Most other types of incense are made around a core. The first type has ingredients such as wood powders, resins, herbs and oils are mixed together in a paste, rolled and formed around a bamboo stick. With this method the smell of the burning bamboo is present. The second method which is far worse, the incense starts as a punt blank, which is what is used to light fireworks. The punt often is manufactured in China or third world countries where its contents can be questionable. This “punt” is then dipped into fragrance oils which can be natural or synthetic or a combination of both. The fragrance oils are cut with a chemical extender such as DPT – Dipropylene Glycol before the punt is soaked in the mixture. Then it is dried for you dried and packaged.
To be fair, there a handful of the quality “Bamboo Stick” type incense manufacturers that do produce premium quality goods and there fragrance is delightful. These companies use very high quality ingredients and are carefully formulated as not to contain any artificial fragrance and / or harmful chemicals. This type incense is usually a bit more economical and usually easier to find.
However, there is still the issue of the burning stick. For the purest, I highly recommend trying the Japanese type.
Give this wonderful gift from the Japanese a try. The premier manufactures in Japan have been perfecting the craft of incense making for centuries. As soon as you burn some you will transcend into an aroma heaven, and you will never go back to your department store commercial incense again.