The day finally came yesterday and I went back to work. The Japanese government has lifted the state of emergency, and students have returned to their schools, meaning that there is no ‘legitimate’ reason to be refusing to go into the company buildings, even if the coronavirus is of course present (since the lifting of certain restrictions in Tokyo, there have already been new spikes this week). In truth, I feel far more compromised in terms of safety – we were so much better off being isolated here at home in Kamakura! – but a person needs to make a living. I sense that it would be futile to argue. I have good instincts about these things – usually I know how far I can push it. I have already had three months off, paid, albeit at reduced salary – but I am extraordinarily lucky compare to all those millions of people laid off around the world worrying about how to put food on the table – and I am grateful that they were flexible enough to let me go my own way by recording lessons at home which, one of the Japanese managers told me yesterday, many students had found enjoyable. Phew.
The day yesterday was fraught, hectic, and exhausting, but I have woken up today feeling revitalised. Something about just mingling with people, interacting, laughing, communicating and sounding off each other is energising for the human spirit even when there is concurrently a constant possibility of infection from a horrendous disease. Speaking Japanese again stimulated the brain; young people are automatically refreshing with their eagerness and energy; both lessons (90/100 minutes) got off to slow starts but were relatively ok by the end, even if I rushed outside at the earliest opportunity in order to rip off my mask and take a full breath. Panting at the exertion and the reduced intake of oxygen.
- Precautions were definitely being taken. Although I do worry a lot about the proximity of students in some classrooms, they are still further apart than they usually would be. That aside, EVERYONE is wearing masks. Everyone. On the streets, in shops – all students must wear them, and teachers have to have THIS ensemble:
…obviously beyond uncool – try this with glasses; mine steamed up immediately; I couldn’t see, hear or respire at all and I had to rip it off like a panic stricken dork. Given the current circumstances, it is probably unwise to be talking about being unable to breathe – but – I literally couldn’t breathe. As a claustrophe, this get up is simply not possible for me; like some other teachers, I wore it more as a bib around the neck which defeats the purpose really, maybe better than nothing but unfortunately, I simply won’t be able to teach like this, possibly putting myself at risk.
Still, everyone’s temperature is checked, both teachers’ and students’, the moment they set foot in the school with a temperature gun – which looks very odd at first, like a horror movie; : who is that about to be shot in the head over there? but I was impressed that such a contraption can register your temperature so quickly (how?). Mine was 36.3. Normal (though warm for me – I tend to be more lizard-like, around 35.5). Anything 37 or over and you are not allowed to teach or attend lessons. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that there will not be asymptomatic carries, but thus far there have been no cases of any students or teachers being infected in the entire organisation – that is thousands of people if you think of all the schools – so it does at least give a small level of reassurance. Students disinfect their hands; there are plastic sheets over the teachers’ rooms windows where the students come to ask questions; no eating is now allowed in the school; lessons are temporarily slightly shorter.
2. I am delighted to have had my desk moved to its new location, which is a sociophobe self-isolator’s dream. I don’t have to stare uncomfortably into anyone’s face, awkwardly avoiding their gaze all day – Japanese workers are usually placed opposite each other at a common table- , something that for me is akin to mild torture – as I am sat in the corner facing the wall (honestly, that might sound weird, but I find personally that even if you like someone, if they are facing you all day it is incredibly exhausting to the human spirit; conspicuously avoiding looking at someone, trying to get exactly the right balance of politeness but not intruding on them, is more fatiguing to me than I can even express here; I am so relieved I can sit where I sit now). There are empty classrooms I can go off to in that newer building where I can go and prepare and eat with the windows open when the mask wearing gets too much (my god it really does, doesn’t it? very quickly). My colleagues there are people I like and who understand me ; no one was even slightly off with me among those I get on well with; I have a coterie of perhaps six or seven Japanese teachers I have socialised with in the past and got to know; we are all eccentric and actively like that aspect of each other so there is no pretending; I was having a laugh – thankfully, these people have a gallows humour so dark jokes about imminent death and so on are perfectly fine; my psychology needs that – I can’t do the ‘smile and pretend everything is happy’ thing as it alienates my consciousness- so that was a huge relief. . Admittedly, those people aside, some others in higher positions gave me a slightly condescending smile (Oh, you are back….), but who can blame them when I got special treatment and they had to toil at the height of the initial crisis trying to put lessons online and scrambling to make lessons there when I had the luxury of swanning about my bohemian house drenched in perfume in Kitakamakura.
3. It is bizarre. The strict environment you probably imagined Japan might have created straight away after the realisation that a pandemic was coming -: stringent controls, social distancing, all those drastic countermeasures, HAS come into effect, yet only now. ‘Social distance’ has become a word that everyone suddenly knows. At the beginning of June. There is plastic everywhere, alcohol sanitiser. The streets, I would say, are 80-90% reduced in foot traffic compared to usual. Coming back to Ofuna station last night I was amazed by how empty it was. It felt like the aftermath of the earthquake again, most shops and restaurants already closed. This does make me feel less nervous in many ways, as at least the policy of ‘jishuku’,or self restraint, is obviously being taken up by the people, which should help to keep huge levels of new infections at bay, and hopefully it also means that more of the students’ parents are telecommuting from home and the population generally is being very cautious (what is weird is: both the UK and the US took measures like these earlier, with much more strictly enforced lockdowns, and yet the deaths are incomparable. Japan has about a fiftieth of the number of deaths as the UK, with twice the population). Yes, I am naturally skeptical about all ‘facts and figures’ from any official governmental organisation, and there are different theories about possible cover ups and so on as there seem to be in every country, but the mortality rate has not increased; in fact some sources say it has decreased because the almost mandatory usage of masks has even had an effect on other illnesses such as seasonal influenza. Why then, are the numbers so much worse in the UK? I think we will be pondering this for some time. As for America……..I don’t know where to start and don’t even know whether I should. The Devil is obviously trying to start a civil war in his own country. His response to every crisis, particularly the coronavirus, has been disastrous. He has policitized a virus. The last thing the country needed, with all the mortalities and the rising risk of new infections was riots on the streets, but when people are so incensed by injustice they will react. He has made no effort to calm the country but has deliberately gone out of his way to do precisely the opposite. To deliberately pour gasoline onto the fire. All he had to do was say that the death of George Floyd was wrong and unacceptable (because it was; there is no excuse for a person being treated like that; I thought of him yesterday when I felt I couldn’t breathe; what if you literally couldn’t) ; that he understood the pain of the people, that measures would be taken to prevent this from happening any more and then you would not have the horrific conflagrations that are currently taking place. And what is all of it going to do for the coronavirus?….I will leave it there, suffice it to say that the situation is desperately worrying. It also made me realise yesterday that, yes, while Japanese people do suppress things for the greater good – the harmony of the whole – and that can definitely have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health at times, in other ways, the wonderfully civilized nature of the society; the graciousness, means that you are never going to have human rottweilers barking and gnashing their teeth and refusing to wear masks because they want to be ‘free’; people are extremely cooperative generally here right now; everyone has their mask on, head down, and is trying to get through the situation. America seems to just want to burn itself to the ground. Or at least a certain individual wants it to. There are no words.
- Despite all the extra precautions, the fact is, students are physically coming together again after three months stuck at home. This is guaranteed to bring more virus into the shared space. I felt worried for them. I felt worried for me.
2. The classroom I was in yesterday was in the biggest one in the entire company because I wanted the students to be able to talk to each other, but safely, so I was given the ‘VIP’ treatment with the biggest conference room upstairs. . We had all the windows open (plus air conditioning; not good environmentally but at this stage it can’t be helped). I was at an acceptable distance from the students, and they from each other.
3. The school I am in today, however, has no windows. Teachers are cheek by jowl in the teachers’ room. It is an epidemiological disaster zone. I am going to go there as late as possible to avoid having to be overly doused in the shared air, but god knows what is going to happen in the classroom today. I then have to get a guaranteed-to-be crowded – even if less so than usual – train back, commuters returning to their houses from downtown Tokyo in the direction of Kamakura. I have decided to go back home up the hill by bike, because I just can’t then face a crowded bus (last night I took a taxi, but it won’t be financially viable every night), even if my knee situation may not be able to take pushing my bike up the very steep part of hill after an exhausting day on a regular basis.
4. If I am honest with you, having read about how horrific some of the symptoms of this illness are, and that it is not ‘merely’ a respiratory disease but also a vascular disease that affects blood flow, vessels and veins, from head to toe, destroying internal organs, and having heard about how long it can take to recover from it – a friend of mine who always works in Fujisawa has had it and is now recuperating at home, very slowly (his university allows him to teache his lessons online – on the train coming home last night, though slightly exhilarated by the sheer energy required on my part to get lessons going – I felt all revved up -this is always the good part of teaching for me, the mutually energizing currents – I also thought to myself: I am guaranteed to get this virus now. Am I going to die? Unless I just refuse to go to work and give up my job. And have no money (there are no jobs available here). And then what?
So, despite my renewed sense of vigour, a feeling of coming back into the world again, a reconnection, I can’t deny that at the same time, in truth I also feel an apprehensive, quite fatalistic sense of pure terror.
LE LABO SANTAL 33 (2011) + CONCRETE by COMME DES GARCONS (2017) + ASPHALT NOIR(E) by THE SOCIETY OF SCENT (2020)
Le Labo’s niche, omnipresent global blockbuster Santal 33 has had a big impact on the world of perfumery. Warm, synthesized sandalwood notes have become a legible handle for the person unsure of what non-mainstream perfume to buy while still wanting a product that is considered modish, and this scent is now the go to for many people for its ability to mould itself differently on the individual – the freshness of its papyrus and green fig milk iris contrasted cleverly with the fluidity of its Australian sandalwood. I would never wear it myself, but I did experience this scent on a friend at our 25th anniversary a couple of years ago; Yuta, a sculptor with a cheeky Scottish accent having lived in Glasgow when he was a student and picking up the dialect quite convincingly, sidled up to me at the party in some kind of hessian tunic and he smelled quite amazing.
Many budding independent perfumeries as well as mainstream cosmetic companies have followed suit with rivers of wood perfumes that now exist, many of which I find dull as dishwater personally – about as exciting as chopping a log – and I don’t really know why I bought Comme Des Garçons’ Concrete when I know that neither of us likes buttery sandalwood (which this basically is, despite its concept of ‘cracked santal’ : getting into the heart of the sandalwood subject and reconstructing it olfactorily from the inside. (or something)).
But I do love the bottle. And I bought this, along with Black Pepper, in the same shaped flacon as a thank you to D for helping me with the book during the mad rush of editing and writing in the summer of 2018 : liberated, we had gone to Tokyo to let loose one Saturday afternoon and he had sprayed them both on together, at the Aoyama boutique, one on each arm, and we were enjoying the combined smells as we walked along, mingling with the perfume of the city. Black Pepper – which is intensely strong, and smells so completely of black peppercorns it blows people away, is still used on rotation, but Concrete now just sits on my desk. Sometimes I spray it into the lid as I quite like the scent that it leaves in the room, but in essence, this was a mistaken purchase (how many of those have you had yourselves, I wonder? And would be so profligate again now? …)
Asphalt Noire – I can’t be bothered to look into the reasons for the optional ‘e’ on the end of the name – but presumably to make the noun either masculine or feminine and therefore ‘unisex’, is quite a nice addition to these warming, sawdusty sensations that everyone seems to love so much. With its notes of cedar, tonk, amber, birch tar and narcissus, this is an airtight but soft woody scent with a certain je ne sais quoi, vaguely reminiscent of the sweet wood of L’Artisan Perfumer’s Bois Farine, which I always quite liked (the absorbency of wood can be quite fortifying when all you want to do is cry bitter tears) ; with its the musky, sandalwoodish base, I was reminded a little of Bulgari’s cult classic Black. The perfume is pitched at just the right octave – a little higher than boisés of late – is easy to wear, and might be worth a sniff if you like these blonde-wooded confections that in fashion terms you can’t really go wrong with.
Talking of appearance, I am about to iron my work clothes and get in the shower, put on my face mask ,and go back to work. At my new desk. Not knowing what it is going to be like; whether I will panicked in some corner trying to keep a lid on things; whether my co-workers will be cold or just as normal; what the lessons will be like, how they will pan out – it is all rather daunting. I am nervous. Even the city I work in itself, Fujisawa : I find it so dull. I was so glad to be away from it. Because of its location, educational establishments, convenience, (very plain) beach, and restaurants – the place is thought of as an ideal place to live, especially for families (personally if I could never see it again I would be happy. Maybe in twenty years or thirty I might have a flicker of nostalgia, if I am still alive – but I would so much rather be staying here in Kitakamakura. At least I know that Kamakura is still here, though, to come back to each evening; cracked roads with plants and weeds and wild flowers everywhere; overgrown grass, magnolia trees, the woods; the temples..). Constructed just in time for the cancelled Olympics – the island of Enoshima is close by and was going to be the host place of the sailing events – Fujisawa City recently decided to redo the ‘park’ in the centre, by the station, and every time I see it I feel angry. Aesthetically. Aesthetically furious.There was too much asphalt and stone there before as it was: now, although it has been expanded and has a lot of useful seating areas for citizens – old people, students, the unemployed, the crazy – to lounge around on – they are done in a hideous, flecked fake marble effect, the rest of the ‘recreational area’ made out of plastic, stone, brick – a hideous hodge podge of failed design ideas, with a proudly presented centrepiece of newly brushed astroturf. Not even grass. My old/new ‘concrete’ reality.
Impermanence, up for an artisan category nomination at the upcoming 2020 Art & Olfaction awards, is a perfume with a name for the times. Like everyone around the world, I have been thinking a lot about how much the coronavirus situation has changed, and will continue to change, people’s lives; shaping their choice of career (how lucky D and I are to be in education, relatively unscathed compared to so many other industries), how they travel, interact, have relationships…..so much has been upended. We started 2020 wishing each other good luck for the new decade, and within weeks were plunged into profound anxiety and uncertainty. Who could have predicted it all (except the epidemiologists?) The impermanent nature of everything – the insecurity, the swift severing of ‘now’ from ‘before’, in a moment, was profoundly revealed – or highlighted, depending on your own previous philosophy of life: we feel more mortal, vulnerable, but at the same time , if we are lucky, happy to be alive.
Christele Jacquemin is a French photographer/ visual artist who makes natural perfumes based on her experiences of travel; Impermanence was apparently inspired by the artist’s residence in the village of Jin Ze, a suburb of Shanghai, where she spent a month walking around contentedly, along the canals, photographing an unfamiliar ancient place, preserved from tourism, where everything was new and stimulating to the senses; that sense of ‘harmony and tranquillity’ I also yearn for again when you forget yourself for a while; visit a new place with a totally different culture that lets you see things through a momentarily ‘enlightening’ prism; I had very similar feelings when we spent a day on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 2018 visiting some ancient ruins, and then spent the afternoon wandering around a vast deserted temple complex by the river, smelling strange looking tropical flowers and the hot, dry air – the soft swaying reeds by the water. I don’t think I could have been happier.
Such happiness is always transitory, of course – and is based on your own projections onto a place, not its reality. You always go back home (if you even can at this time….) to face what is ‘real’, and so Ms Jacquemin set about recreating the sensations of positivity and tranquillity she had felt while at the village in a perfume that is uplifting, gentle, and pensive. I quite like it: rosemary, a note that is underused in my opinion, is here distilled cleanly to be very green and pure, without the rough,harsh ‘milkiness’ it can sometimes exhibit, combined with blue ginger, hinoki leaves and citric freshness of bergamot (which, linked to the vetiver in the base, briefly reminded me of my beloved Caron Eau Fraiche, a perfume that always makes me smile in summer) before ceding to a very pure rose absolute enveloped in the geranium/lemongrass related note of palmarosa – also a material not often featured in perfumes (I have made great skin preparations with this essential oil; it has an incredibly positive energy to it that lifts the spirits, and rejuvenates the skin) – over a light touch of vetiver and maté tea.
As with many natural perfumes, when I smell this, I feel that sense sharpening relaxation of the autonomic system I have when I walk into my favourite aromatherapy shop in Tokyo, Tree Of Life – a place with a wonderful selection of essential oils of every description; some obscure and ultra expensive: distilled flower oils like broom and osmanthus, natural tuberose, violet, varieties of Japanese tree wood oils I have never heard of, whole ranges of lavenders from across the globe, with diffusers and mists of mint and geranium and rose hissing quietly into the surrounding air (rose otto, rose absolute, always at the heart of it all, as it is in this perfume; always rose, for some reason…………… is the rose the centre of the universe?) It is an unusual combination of notes that is perhaps too cheerful, ultimately, to capture the more wistful and sad concept of impermanence, at least as I see it; the Japanese fatalistic attitude of ‘oh well, it’s my time’, the cherry blossoms being blown from the boughs by the rain and the winds when they have only just bloomed, short lived, like the young samurai ready to die at any moment with the sword, while the stubborn Englishman clings to life like the dying rose with its thorns on the stem – a metaphor that can be seen in reality through my own attitude in categorically refusing to go in to work during the worst part of this crisis while my compatriots went into the headquarters unquestioningly everyday, prepared for sacrifice, come what may – but I think that this subtle composition will still definitely find its own unique place in my collection. I can imagine picking this up at certain moments; when at home, in a simpler, more serene mood; mind uncluttered, ready to get on with my day.
Etro Royal Pavilion is a strange perfume. This morning it was perfect. Waiting for a phone call from Rhode Island for an interview with the lovely John Biebel of Fragrantica, I had decided upon the pure vetiver essential oil bought yesterday on my first foray into the outside world. It was nice – but felt too dressed down. Too natural. Surveying the collection, my inner water diviner moved of its own accord towards Etro’s Royal Pavilion, an outlier in the floral world and probably even that of Etro, that went magnificently with the vetiver – and before you knew it I was spraying rapidly. Most pleasing. A flight of fancy: Royal Pavilion, in this vintage, is a really bone dry, vetiver/sandalwoody, luminously appointed leather : airy, fresh, with no fattiness or butteriness (my nemeses in perfumery),\; almost tar-like initially in its quinolic, darkest layer, yet also, with the careful air placed in between, akin to being placed in a keen primordial forest of the imagination – overlain with mimosa, ylang ylang, violet and jasmine, over a reduced porcelain of civet and oakmoss somewhere clandestine beneath the roots of the trees…… ………..an inherent contradiction that you would think wouldn’t work – but somehow does. I find this perfume consolidating to the spirits. Uplifting, but with restraint. Stately. We had a great conversation. I was myself. And on the topic of royal pavilions, one day I must incidentally also visit the interior of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton on the south coast of England (pictured) : I have been to that city by the sea so many times, with its beautiful white, crumbling buildings – but have never ventured inside.
I can’t really put it off any longer: my iPhone has been at Fujisawa station for three months and it is time for me go and collect it. The deadline for collection is approaching, and then it will be sent to be crushed in a landfill, or disappear in electronics purgatory somewhere irretrievable.
I lost it when I lost it: regular readers will remember the incident at the beginning of the shut down when only I had to teach – it didn’t go down well. I have no memory of how I could have mislaid it ( I blame pure rage ), but let’s face it: this isn’t the first time. I have lost my phone at least six times now and it always comes back : this is Japan.
If Tuesday was the first time we went back into a restaurant, today will be the first time going back on public transport. We are both quite leery; will be masked and seeking out the most sparsely populated areas of the train, but it can’t be avoided. It is only a few minutes on each ride, if three different trains. I will be careful.
Police stations are naturally intimidating places – even if in this country they are usually very courteous and helpful (though god help you if you are suspected of committing a crime…, you might never see the light of day again). It is going to be strange indeed going inside a packed office full of clerical staff and pokey administrators after avoiding offices and institutions for so long. I need to narcissistically differentiate myself from the guaranteed murk and mental mould that is going to present itself. What scent to wear?
Last time I went to a police station in Tokyo, (see this piece, here), I wore Loulou (!). I am not in the mood for wearing Loulou today, but I was wearing a bit of it last night on the back of my hand, I must confess (I swoon when I smell the vintage). Obviously, the uninterested officers will be masked, but I like – for me – just to wear enough scent to osmose through such material to make my presence felt and ground me in (un)reality.
So what are today’s contenders? I briefly considered Ungaro Pour Homme I, but it might make me feel like a sleaze. Eau D’Ikar? I don’t want to waste it on them. Ermenigildo’s Haitian Vetiver? I can’t bear to appear so respectable. I flirted with the idea of Zoologist Dragonfly, which has alit on the back on the hand as I write this, a peculiarly translucent rice and cherry blossom, heliotropic lotus, ‘rain notes’ and peony-flitting little fragrance that is aquatic, pleasant, and quite realm-transporting to a higher plane for those that are frightened by life – but no : I fear I might come over to them as pathetic.
No. Something bolder. How about Almah Perfume’s Way To Wakatobi? An extrait strength Indonesian patchouli, dark, sinewy with a touch of agarwood and myrrh and just a lick of alleged chocolate that is quite grounding and very dry, this might give me the gravitas I need. Darkness I can settle into if the fluorescent lighting is too bright. Nuzzle myself into a deep and woody place. Or will the patchouliness start to irritate me? Sometimes I need to be in the really right mood for that note or it can get too insistent. Mmm……. (I am definitely going to buy some patchouli essential oil, though today, a few bottles if possible – I need it to make my homemade incense; I always like to dip Japanese incense sticks – camphor and patchouli- dominated already, in the thick essential oil; coat them, dry them, burn them – the smell is headspinningly dense and pitch black, a smell I really love). I really want some vetiver too, some grapefruit and lemon. Some bergamot. My god ………………………shopping. )
Rogue’s Chypre Siam is another possibility I have mulled over this morning- a nice, leaf-filtered warm green and yellow oakmossy ode to perfumes like my beloved Chanel Pour Monsieur – but I know prefer the latter; definitely cardamom over kaffir lime. Still, this is relaxing, sheltering and centred and I will probably come back to it. Too comfortable for a police station though.
So how about a Japanese Japanese scent?
Di Ser is a Hokkaido based all natural perfumery that creates very aromatherapeutic, air and light-filled fragrances. I have only recently become aware of the brand: D – who I am meeting in a couple of hours – is wearing Di Ser’s Mizu today: he has a bottle in his work bag – a very light, refreshing yuzu, rosemary, lemon and tonka scent that is reminiscent of Terre D’Hermès but less nailed : a delicate and refined composition that gives you room to breathe.
As does Kazehikaru, a cheerfully serene and delightful aromatic lavender, with shiso, Japanese rose (hamanasu), neroli and vetiver that takes me back to the days when I used to get through huge bottles of Roger & Gallet’s Lavande Imperiale when I was living in London: I love lavenders when they are remixed a bit into something else (in the case of the latter, a delicious addition of nutmeg, which is a note I am naturally drawn to); Kazehikaru (‘glowing wind’) is also so uplifting and tranquillising it almost reaches spiritual territory – as does the range as a whole, which I am thinking of reviewing at a later date.
Do I really want to smell like a purified Shinto priest at a grubby, municipal police station, though?