A Beginner's Guide to Incense Sticks

The Art Of Fragrance

Welcome to our quick incense sticks guide! Incense is the art of fragrance and incense sticks have been used all over the world, in different religious and spiritual contexts for thousands of years. Incense 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 beginners 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 people, there is such a wide range of incense sticks beyond the low quality market-stall varieties. 

We supply two main types of incense sticks: Japanese and Indian. Both types of incense sticks are sourced from well respected brands of high quality incense (at very accessible prices). Customers like both types of incense sticks for different reasons. Indian incense sticks are potent, rich and can easily fill a room within a short space of time. Japanese incense sticks are subtler, nuanced and produce comparatively lower amounts of smoke.

No matter what your preference, high quality incense sticks of any type have to be experienced to really understand the hype. 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 sticks, it's easy to see why this olfactory art has been around for thousands of years.

Japanese Incense Sticks

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

The subtlety of these incense sticks is incredible. It can take years of experiencing the same incense stick 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 sticks are all based around sandalwood, aloeswood (also known as oud or agarwood), cinnamon, camphor and traditional herbs/spices. Baieido produces traditional incense sticks based on these ingredients and formulas that have been passed down through generations. Modern incense stick varieties consist of more floral and fruity fragrances, though still use a traditional Sandalwood/Aloeswood base. For more contemporary incense sticks, 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's Nokiba (Moss Garden) and Baieido's Original Kobunboku.

Indian Incense Sticks

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, these incense sticks are known for their 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 incense 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. The quality depends on the mix and ratio of base materials to aromatic ingredients. Hand-rolled incense sticks are almost always better than dipped. Champas are a sub-type of Masala incense 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 incense 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 incense sticks and we urge hesitant customers to explore our full range of Indian incense sticks which offer such superb quality at accessible prices.

Tips on Burning Incense Sticks

Take a fresh incense stick, fire up a lighter (a candle flame, match or even cooker hob will do) and wait until the incense 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 sticks you have, you'll need a different holder to burn your incense. Indian incense sticks contain a bamboo core and so easily fit into most wooden holders. Japanese incense sticks 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 stick holders.

The Journey Begins

Now that you know a little more about incense sticks, start your journey and discover your favourite scent! We realise the world of incense can be overwhelming with such a wide variety of incense sticks to choose from, but we hope this little guide helps you on your way. And of course, if you'd like help choosing which incense sticks are best for you, feel free to contact us and we'll get back to you with recommendations. For now, here's some of the incense sticks featured in this article: