ON THE ART OF JAPANESE INCENSE, AND ZEN BY SHISEIDO (2001)

 

 

In ‘Japanese Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behaviour of the Japanese’, author Boye Lafayette de Mente talks of the ‘grave beauty’ of Japan and its effect on blundering westerners encountering it for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Foreigners are often left speechless…They know they are in the presence of extraordinary beauty, but generally they do not have the experience – or the vocabulary – to describe it.

 

 

It is difficult to argue with this. The austere, filtering light of incense smoke unfurling slowly above a Zen temple in December; the strict symmetry of the Japanese interior; or the tranquillity of a Zen garden in spring, can be astounding in their otherworldliness, yet still of the utmost simplicity. Whatever the chosen ‘path’- be it zen, tea, kimono, haiku, calligraphy – the Japanese are surely unsurpassed in their almost fanatical dedication to perfecting an art, paring it down, revealing its ‘essence.’

 

 

 

 

Of the traditional arts, kodo, or ‘way of incense’, has perhaps faded the most into obscurity, practiced only by a select (high class) few. Morbid associations with the Buddhist wake and funeral rites, where incense is continually burnt, are enough to prevent your average Nihon-jin from lighting up a stick on a Saturday afternoon. So while every large town will have a Buddhist shop stocked with a wide selection of incense, the main products on display are the dark, polished, expensive household shrines bought for the worship of ancestors: incense is just an accessory for this. (Japan is not a religious country as such; it’s usual to pick and mix – you have a ‘Christian’ wedding, a Shinto new year, and a Buddhist funeral – but it is a stickler for tradition.)

Kodo, probably a dying art, does persist in pockets of Japan however, and I was lucky once to be invited to an incense ceremony in the strictly-no-admittance third floor of zen capital Kamakura’s premier incense establishment. The first floor of the shop sells exquisite boxes of incense, from soft floral blends (iris, rose) to the finest kyara and jinko (agarwood): powdered, musky sandalwoods blended with the strange, dark resins and spices (clove, camphor, among others) that make Japanese incense so unique. I was very excited to get an invitation. Not equipped, though, with the requisite dignity, linguistic skills, or social status even, to blend successfully into the background of the ceremony (what were foreigners doing there?!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact my friend Claire and I were late, which was truly unthinkable. Going up the dark, carpeted, airless stairs to the second, then hallowed third floor – social climbing with the gentry of Kamakura – we arrived twenty minutes after the ladies had begun: standing with trepidation before a closed, silent shoji screen.

The door was opened: and there we stood, flustered and embarrassed, then horribly hot-under-collar as Claire’s thigh-boot zip stuck, and we stumbled, almost falling over as we tried to wrench it off. Total buffoons. We were not a class act, and there they sat, in the incense room – purse-lipped, barely blinking, immaculately turned out Kamakura ladies with not a hair out of place; staring, concealing whatever pity/irritation they felt for these coarse intruders under the blank, expressionless Noh mask that every Japanese learns to perfect.

Once perched on our mats in the Japanese style, an embroidered cloth over Claire’s knees (“there are gentlemen present”) we did our utmost to blend as well as we could into invisibility and watch what was taking place. Which, though snobbish and somewhat self-congratulatory, was in fact fascinating – so esoteric and removed from daily life as to be astonishing.

The incense master gently passed round, on a small plate for the purpose, a tiny, smouldering piece of the finest kyara (the most prized wood in the world); a scent that is part patchouli, part vetiver, part cannabis, part pepper – but drier, more sinewy and powerful than all: true opiate.

With eyes closed, each ‘listener’ (you ‘listen’ to incense) would have to try to guess the ‘name’ of the piece of wood the fragment came from: ‘Moon in the grove’, ‘Still waters at Izu’ and so on (each is subtlely different; particularly prized specimens are in fact priceless, and stored as investments by banks and other institutions). But name guessing, difficult even in English, was only the beginning. The bearer of the kyara would then, in elegant, calligraphic kanji, compose a haiku, an ode to the incense, while the others looked on.

Such excruciating refinement was clearly beyond such mortals as ourselves; we fumbled, mumbling – and couldn’t begin to perfect the slow, beckoning motion of smoke to bearer that to the ladies was second nature (you don’t just stick your nose in). And with the unbearable pins and needles from the sitting pose, the torturous, pained, poetic silences; the grim-lipped patience of the ladies, the forbidding circular zen window that gave only glimpses of the world outside (“let us out!”) it took great stamina not to burst out with hysterical laughter (we did, in great gusts, as soon as we fell out into the sunshine). Yet the scent in the room, as precious perfumed materials gave off their spirit, was extraordinary.

The above scene illustrates fairly well I think the Japanese attitude to scent. These ladies were unscented themselves; the smell of the burning wood strictly exterior to the body, to be ‘listened to’, a communing with hidden ghosts. The body itself should be kept clean: at a Japanese hot spring, the length of time spent soaping down – everyone naked, together, child-like almost – before thoroughly rinsing with water, can seem bizarre to foreigners. Some people spend the whole day washing, then entering the waters, then washing again. This goes far beyond mere bodily hygiene: it is ritualistic, has been this way since antiquity. In fact, hot springs (onsen) are not only a way to relax, but a form of purification and spiritual reflection.  Having sat in pools under trees in the light of the moon, listening to the night, you feel cleaner, more serene than you can possibly imagine. You smell of nothing but water.

Yet Japan is of course also a nation much influenced by the West: ideas, goods flow in, are transmuted to the Japanese ideal, incorporated in the culture. It is a society of appearance, and thus of status symbols. Look at the success of Vuitton, Gucci, Dior here: status is big, and perfume (though a relatively small market in Japan) is an inevitable consequence of a desire for conspicuous consumption. Pass a group of old ladies dressed in their finest and you may catch a drift of Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Vol de Nuit – two well established classics; walk by some twenty somethings, a whiff of the latest pinky Dior. But it is still possible, probable even, to ride a crowded train packed with hundreds of people and smell no perfume. Kosui hasn’t really caught on: not deep down, and I doubt it ever will. The recent rush of incense perfumes on the market, some Japanese themed such as Comme des Garcons Incense Kyoto, Santa Maria Novella’s ‘Citta di Kyoto’, are strictly for westerners chasing the exotic – such perfumes would rarely, if ever, be worn by Japanese themselves. You never smell an oriental here.

 

 

 

 

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What, then, is Japanese perfume?

 

 

 

Well it has to be light. It has to be airy. And it has to be subtle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the ‘smell’ of Zen? In a Kamakura zen temple, the scents that fill the air: incense, fresh water, wood: blue breath of hydrangeas; wind in bamboo; osmanthus; pine, stone.

 

 

 

With Zen: Perfumed Essence, Shiseido is therefore attempting the impossible. Trying to incorporate this Japaneseness, this purity, in a fresh, floral, commercial blend designed to appeal to the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the fashion conscious on both sides of the east/west divide. Really it is a contradiction in terms. But the company apparently employed the latest research in aromachology to find scents that would relax and transport the wearer to a nicer place than stress; a neatly packaged product- zen for the twenty first century. And you might say that Shiseido does a good job here, providing you don’t take too seriously the words inscribed on the box.

 

 

 

 

“ A soul enlightened.

A world anew.”

 

 

 

 

The perfume begins with ‘fresh budding florals’ (a shining, translucent rose) ‘spiritualized by the peaceful influence of rare Eastern moss, bamboo, and Kyara wood.’

 

 

 

The possibility of this perfume being the source of an enlightenment is, I would say, fairly low, but the composition is very pleasant: clean, fragrant – a calmer, purer version of Eternity and other white woody florals. The green of the bamboo leaf lingers intriguingly, momentarily, over fresh laboratory flowers and perfectly controlled, light woody essences that give the scent a certain grace. A hint, just a hint, of kyara underlines the whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essentially a pleasant perfume to wear to the office (not really a fragrance ‘to inspire moments of quiet meditation’), Zen could be dismissed as yet another faceless addition to an overcrowded genre. But there is indeed something – a luminous, white cloud of Japaneseness suspended above the scent – that almost lives up to its name.

30 Comments

Filed under Japanese Perfume, Perfume Reviews

30 responses to “ON THE ART OF JAPANESE INCENSE, AND ZEN BY SHISEIDO (2001)

  1. ninakane1

    Fab review! Your stuck-zip experience sounds hilarious! I’ve only just noticed this one, but Shiseido Zen is the fragrance I ended up buying as a present for Dante when leaving Tokyo, and he absolutely loves it. So do I. It’s quite light, shy and uplifting and it has become synonymous with his light black and white clean sunny bedroom – the best one in the house – that overlooks houses and hills. It’s accompanied him through this Summer and Autumn, through his first major love affair, through his gradual realisation that he wants to be an architect, and there’s something about the smell that goes with his lithe and slightly awkward then sudden gait. There’s a shifting balance of warmth and coolness, aloofness and intensity that makes it right for a young man such as he, I feel. It will linger when he goes to university next year and will always remind me of this last year. Anyway, enough of my doting mother stuff x

    • ginzaintherain

      No,not enough. I think this is beautiful what you are saying. But there are at least three Zen perfumes; are we talking about the same one? (this is in a white bottle…..)

  2. Ah, perhaps not! This was in a long black bottle with a delicate flower design on the front and a stopper top.

  3. alabasterwrists

    Oh goodness! This is the post I will read time and time again when I need a good laugh as the image of your girlfriend’s boot stuck shut by an uncooperative zipper just floors me! As a person who abhors public speaking I think I would have had a panic attack being placed in a position of having to compose a hiaku, let alone “naming” the wood. Yet I suppose there is something to be said for this esoteric practice, a dying tradition and all. And the idea of relaxing in water, bathed by moonlight sounds extremely enticing!
    But getting a back to perfume, I would LOVE a fragrance that smells exactly as you described a kamakura Zen temple to smell like 🙂 . I have heard that the Shiseido Zen reformulation does not hold a candle to the original, which I believe was housed in a black bottle with caligraphy markings (correct me if I am wrong).

    • ginzaintherain

      The original is just a seriously musty No 5 rip-off. I never use the word ‘old lady’ as it is so unimaginative and offensive even, but I might have to regarding Zen!

      I will try and think if there is anything that might do the trick..

      • ninakane1

        Oh, I think that was the one I bought for Dante, my son. can you not stand it? fair enough! each to their own! It was the reformulation of the original in a black bottle with stopper top and gold flower design and calligraphy (as i think i wrote above). I absolutely love it, and so does he. It has a real balance of intensity and lightness that lingers. Kinda sweet smell – light July hay and early autumn leaves. For me it’s totally a young man’s fragrance, but that’s perhaps association!

      • ninakane1

        But i think you’re right – there is something of a Chanel about it, and it. Possibly is No 5 ( which is my least favourite Chanel, in original or reformulation)! Perhaps the reformulation has softened it.

      • ninakane1

        Chanel no 19 however…sublime but that’s a conversation for another day x

      • ginzaintherain

        I am thinking of a couple of bottles I have smelled over the years, including one I gave to my grandmother when I first came out here

        (by the way, I LOVE floral aldehydes on men: most taxi drivers here wear them as the hair tonics and after shaves seem to be modelled on Madame Rochas!)

        So I can imagine how such a scent could smell stunning on a young man. I will have to revisit it. I just toss comments off into the wind without properly thinking abou t it….

      • I don’t think I’ve ever smelled Madame Rochas….will check this out.

  4. Me too… but that’s good. Your comment made me go and smell it again, and I could totally see what you meant! And I hadn’t thought of Chanel but that does form a kinda undercurrent to a lot of my life (I think I’ve facebooked you on this before, but will write more on’t another time) so it makes sense that this Zen has something of Chanel to it in its poignancy for me perhaps (though like I say, not a No 5 fan, although I did have a vintage bottle of this that I persevered with for a couple of years – largely because I liked the bottle…it ended up sitting for years in a silver dish I’d somehow acquired one drunken night, nestling ornamentally in a lake of dried rose petals with a load of kitsch china ornaments around it) which if I think about it…hahahaha xxx

    • ginzaintherain

      I have never fallen in love with No 5 either, not fully, and I strangely prefer it in its modern incarnations like Eau Premiere (I hate the musk of the original parfum: I don’t like certain musks as they deeply repel me in some way). Madame Rochas (only in vintage, pointless otherwise) is similar but more corporeal, glinting, woodier, chic….)

  5. ginzaintherain

    Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus.

  6. brie

    This has always been one of my favorite posts…I am happy to see that you have reblogged it and I have enjoyed reading it again with a good laugh at 4am in the morning!

  7. Excellent!!!!! I loved every bit of this as it gives an insight in the relationship of Japanese culture and perfume. I think western perfume houses approach this culture in such a stupid, colonialist-turned-world-traveller way and I am glad to know some of the intricacies of the way Japanese relate to scent. Thanks!

  8. I haven’t smelled the version you are describing but I thing the original Zen smells more like a cross between No5 and No19.

  9. Dear Ginzo

    The part I well take away and remember most from this wonderful piece is the simple idiom of ‘listening’ to the incense.

    It seems to speak volumes of what people do so little with scent these days – we ‘hear’ a great deal of fragrance, but to how much of it do we truly listen.

    I’m also struck by how few Japanese you say wear perfume and of their very decided tastes.

    My mind strays to Shiseido’s wonderful – though discontinued Basala – more kabuki than noh and to the brands underwriting of Serge Lutens.

    It seems true as you say that when the Japanese embrace an art they are keen to master it.

    With great thanks.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • ginzaintherain

      Basala always struck me as somewhat too in-yer-face, but I remember it, and its bottle, vividly.

      I agree that ‘listening’ to incense is a gorgeous idea.

      • Basala is certainly a ‘theatrical fragrance’, but then isn’t kabuki one of the most theatrical forms of performance?

        Listening generally is something of a lost art.

        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  10. I had the 2001 Zen in the white bottle and really loved it! I actually finished the whole bottle, except for a few drops that I keep so I can take it out and sniff nostalgically once in a while. Loved this post — were you ever invited back??

  11. Another superb piece. Thank you for re-posting.

    Interesting the mention of Shiseido and Chanel No 19. When my dad spent an academic sabbatical in Japan back in the early 80s he brought me back a bottle of Murasaki extrait. In its original formulation, it was really rather No 19-esque: perhaps lighter, more floral, aldehydic. I wonder if vintage bottles are kicking around the flea markets there?

    • Never, actually, but you can still get the edt in local Shiseido pharmacies. I quite like it actually, but compared to 19 it is just a bit too…not prissy, but ‘good-natured’.

      • I’d imagine it was considerably less “good-natured” (love that) 36 years ago. I recall a fair whack of very dry vetiver. The extrait anyway.

  12. Tara C

    Superb piece, thank you for republishing it. I remember one of the black bottles with gold writing on my mother’s vanity many years ago, but I have no memory of the scent. As it so happens, I am in the middle of reading Murakami’s 1Q84 at the moment. Japanese culture fascinates me, I even studied the language back in college just for fun. So much discipline and restraint, in which I am sorely lacking.

    • God so am I. Perhaps that’s why I ended up here. The culture really is my polar opposite. You should come to Japan one day. The reality is a lot trashier than most British people imagine, but the exquisite aspects still truly do exist in abundance.

  13. Leiannk

    Adore your blog… Do you ever make perfume recommendations? Would be thrilled to have you select a few for me…I would be very grateful if you could.
    p.s. Husband loves white florals and I can’t stand them. What he likes on me I hate…and what I love (i.e. Killian intoxicated) he can’t stand… What to do…hoping your choices will please both of us.
    Anxiously awaiting your response!
    Happy Holidays
    Regards from NYC

  14. Leiannk

    Neil-
    I am beyond grateful…
    My favorites in no particular order:
    Anick Goutal Hadrien
    Bulgari green tea
    L’occitan labdanum- discontinued (bought every bottle I could find)
    Coco Chanel
    Thierry mugler Angel
    Ysl opium
    Boucheron
    Terre de Hermes – sneak a spritz from husband

    I love my scents dark smoky and mysterious. I also love a fruity citrus for the summer at the beach…

    All the best,

    • Mmm, I wonder. It seems you already have a very good handle on what you like! And a real smorgasbord as well……what areas are you wanting to venture in beyond these, or are you wanting similar perfumes?

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