THE EMPRESS OF MOSS: MITSOUKO by GUERLAIN (1919)

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Takedera, the bamboo temple; Kamakura. A Wednesday. Torrential downpour, the dark, sleek, shining bamboo trees ruffled with rain. Austere Buddhist furnishings: wet green; cold, grey stone. A small gate out to the back, and then the bamboo. Through this black-glistening, silent grove to the tea house. Sit and hear the water; cradling your cup of matcha in its rough, earthenware cup. Inhale the scents of nature. The cold, fresh air.

 

Helen, visiting from England, was wearing Mitsouko, in vintage extrait, on her wrist….

 

 

It had been perfect. I remember us shivering at the bus stop afterwards, the scent of Guerlain’s most revered scent prolonging the experience we had just had. Sombre, beautiful, it had fitted the spiritual clarity of the moment, while simultaneously warming the chill.

 

 

 

 

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Mitstouko is one of Guerlain’s oldest perfumes, and one of the most talked about by perfume lovers on scent fora, where it has achieved a kind of maniacal devotion. It is easy to understand why. It is a mysterious perfume of great complexity that adorns the wearer with a classical, velvet-green aura from another age; a unique, dark, powdered moss.

 

The inspiration for this greensleeved empress, famously,  is said to have come from a popular novel of the time, ‘La Bataille’, by Claude Ferrare, the story of the affair between a British naval officer and the wife of the Japanese admiral during the Russian war. Yet there is nothing sloe-eyed or adulterous about the scent, its composition eschewing traditional, romantic accords in favour of a more unusual, ambiguous – even solemn – resonance.

 

The final accord in vintage Mitsouko is a suite of cinnamon and clove-tinted mosses, Oriental and European, with soft earth tones of patchouli, vetiver and kyara (Japanese aloes wood) on a bed of amber and old-fashioned musk. The heart is an abstract, powdery, rose jasmine and lilac blossom accord, uplifted brilliantly by scintillating top notes of bergamot and lemon in a cloud of peach, an effect, plush and very three-dimensional, that is like forest sunlight dappling through Autumn trees onto the mossed river stones lying beneath.

 

 

Mitsouko is a dignified scent: strangely androgynous, and very much an acquired taste. But when she suits you, she is  is magnificent.

 

 

 

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Critic Luca Turin is famous for loving Mitsouko.

 

In ‘Perfumes, The Guide’, he states that it is his favourite perfume of all time….’a masterpiece whose richness brings to my mind the mature chamber music of Johannes Brahms.’ He also says that ‘there is nothing Japanese about Mitsouko aside from its name’, and it is quite possible that I have been overly influenced by the legend, the name, and possibly even the moss, in this review. But that moss is key. To visit a kokedara in Kyoto, to sit on wood, and gaze out at a garden of  different varieties of moss as the shades of green change incrementally with the light, is one of the most quintessentially Japanese experiences you can have. And the fact also remains that this perfume is probably the most popular Guerlain scent, even now, in Japan. It resonates here. It is the only Guerlain you can always find in department stores and other perfume shops,  and whenever I  come across vintage Guerlain bottles at flea markets, despite my inner prayers that it will turn out to be one of my Guerlain’s favourites instead (please be Vol de Nuit!) or something rarer, it is invariably a Mitsouko. It does have a Japaneseness to it, this scent; something shadowy, vague, impenetrable, and a very definite sense of knowing comportment and elegance, which is why I sometimes notice it on Japanese women of a certain age out in their kimono, meeting other ladies for some formal engagement. The combination of the Japanese sense of beauty, or wabisabi, the elaborate ritual of traditional Japanese dress, so concealed, and that more intimate and sensual French je ne sais quoi, is beautiful.

 

 

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This April, in my new class of high school students in the city of Hiratsuka, there was a girl whose name was Mitsouko. I have never met anyone with this name before, and initially I was amused and secretly delighted every time I said her name, as though I were teaching a class of perfumes. Mitsouko, have you done your homework? Shalimar, great job with that assignment. Chamade, stop daydreaming. Ondée, your haiku on Autumn was really quite exquisite…

 

 

Eventually, I decided I had to show this girl her namessake perfume, just out of interest.

 

In the class that day there was a boy as well, Yasuhiro, just the two of them, and during a lull in the lesson I took the perfume out from my bag (a vintage eau de toilette, pictured), and asked her if she would like to smell it. Most definitely, she said. She had had no idea that such a perfume even existed, and her vanity must have been piqued.  Mitsouko, despite wanting to do international studies when she goes to university, speaking Spanish and English, is very much the yamato girl, Japanese to her core, and I think she was strangely thrilled that her English teacher had suddenly procured such an object in front of her, seemingly out of nowhere, with her own name on the flacon.Yes, they were both most certainly intrigued. But what of the scent itself?  Sure that neither of them would ever have smelled anything so fusty and antiquated I was waiting for the usual wrinkling of the nose or some kind of polite ‘I see’. Instead, both students’ eyes lit up, then went kind of dreamy. They loved it, genuinely, and I was really quite surprised, loving the idea that some kind of new world had been opened up to them. Then, to forever imprint it on her memory I asked Mitsouko if she would like to wear some of the perfume. She said yes, and was also quite happy, at that moment, for me to spray, liberally, the Guerlain masterpiece into the pages of her notebook.

 

 

71 Comments

Filed under Flowers, Moss, Perfume Reviews

71 responses to “THE EMPRESS OF MOSS: MITSOUKO by GUERLAIN (1919)

  1. nicky

    How delightful that you have a student named Mitsouko. I am sure that she will never forget you, her wonderful English teacher who introduced her to her perfume namesake. What a wonderful thing to share with her. Out of all my hundred plus collection, Mitsouko is my favourite, It was also the very first perfume I fell in love with as a little girl. My mother had the parfum in the Delft style blue and white patterned cannister on her dressing table. Sometimes she let me wear it and I was enraptured. Still am.

    • ginzaintherain

      Then I would LOVE you to elaborate: PLEASE!

      I have painted this perfume as something rather serious and sexless, but I have a friend who said that there was a woman who got into her taxi in New York who smelled quite astonishingly sexy in Mitsouko. I would love to hear more angles on it.

      And you are right: it was absolutely delightful to meet a girl with that name. And even better than a sixteen year old girl could appreciate a perfume’s beauty, and, I am hoping, seek it out.

      Tell me more more more about what Mitsouko smells like on you, what emotions it evokes in you.

  2. ninakane1

    beautiful!

  3. Delighted to join this sensuous journey! What a beautiful and charming experience for Mitsouko meeting Mitsouko. In the generation of your young students I believe it is quite rare to have girl names ending with -ko, so Mitsouko sounds classic and that already gives a touch of exoticism to the scene.

    I will enjoy untying one by one this fragrant bouquet of short stories of yours…, and maybe I – a sentless woman so far (except for the smell of age…) – should start my own voyage a la recherche de mon parfum prefere!

  4. penseedautomne

    Delighted to join this sensuous journey! What a beautiful and charming experience for Mitsouko meeting Mitsouko. In the generation of your young students I believe it is quite rare to have girl names ending with -ko, so Mitsouko sounds classic and that already gives a touch of exoticism to the scene.

    I will enjoy untying one by one this fragrant bouquet of short stories , and maybe I – a sentless woman so far (except for the smell of age…) – should start my own voyage a la recherche de mon parfum prefere!

    • ginzaintherain

      A lovely thing to say. You are right, Pensee, there are not many Mitsoukos (though I am being a bit disingenuous perhaps in spelling it that way: that is a gallicized version of Mitsuko, but then so would the original have been, so…..)

      She herself has something very antiquated about her, this girl – quite strange in a way, and I was totally amazed when she told me her name!

      Can I ask what scents you like? Or what flowers, or smells in general?

  5. tonkabeany

    I honestly had no idea that you recalled my wonderful Japanese Mitsouko experience as vividly as I do. Up until then my associations were with a quite lovely german jewellery designer in her late 50’s who always wore the parfum. Before then I had taken little interest having only really smelled the edt and been underwhelmed. My experience of the parfum however means that for me at least Mitsouko and Japan (a very particular cold and dignfied Japan) are inseparable.

    • tonkabeany

      And I would add that if ever I wear it my overwhelming feeling is is that of being accompanied by a warm, capable and intelligent mother figure – note ‘accompanied by’ rather than actually ‘ being’ one.

  6. ginzaintherain

    And you have no idea how beautiful I find these words.

  7. Eva S

    Love this rewiev! I was always facinated by Japan and I think it was the japanese sounding name that made me reach for the tester the first time I came across it when I was 20 or so. Misouko was my signature fragrance for a decade at least and I still wear it frequently (don’t have any vintage though 😦 ).
    I try to recall if I wore Mitsouko when I’ve visited Japan, probably I must have.

  8. brie

    I never quite got Mitsouko the way I did L’Heure Bleue…it is not that I don’t like it but it doesn’t quite move me the way other perfumes do. Part of this I feel is due to the fact that there were too many negative associations with it. Hubby hated it on me and perfume despising co-worker told me time and time again that I reeked of an old woman whenever I wore it at work. Coupled with this was the fact that I had a current version, which I am sure was reformulated twenty times over. I wonder how my nose would react to vintage. A good friend of mine was so enamoured with my bottle that, in the end, I gifted it to her and now my bottle of Mitsouko has a very loving home.

    • ginzaintherain

      Like many, I also cannot, and will not ever truly love it ( and I have smelled a lot of vintage Mitsouko ): but on the day I describe at the bamboo temple, on my friend Helen, it really did smell lovely. To be honest ( sacrilege alert ahead ! ) I might even prefer some of the modern editions I have !

      > Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2013 13:28:32 +0000 > To: opoponax8@hotmail.com >

  9. Katherine

    I think I might really love this perfume. Influenced by the picture you painted here, in my mind I embellished ancient lush greenery, and stillness. I have sprayed myself liberally twice today from testers, as it seemed quite weak. Somehow it was right for my mood, which was not quite certain, a little bit lost and not the most forthcoming.. This perfume seems ageless and eternal, yet at the same time achingly reminiscent of a specific time, a lost dewy afternoon. It reminds me of childhood walks alone, discovering a new secret place, of nature revealing itself in solitude. I think it’s magical.

    • ginzaintherain

      Wonderful!

      Was it a modem version or vintage? Personally I quite like the new versions, though many lament the vintage ( often found in Japan). Does it suit you?

      • Katherine

        It was the current eau de parfum, and I just tried it in the shop. I felt a trace of it still last night but it’s vanished now.

        I really don’t know if it suits me or not! I do think it is beautiful, like I have a certain affinity with it. I’m so new to wearing perfume it’s like discovering your identity, maybe it was too wistful to me to wear regularly. But then I would need to wear it more to find out and though I really did like it as it is in its formulation it was frustratingly gentle (perhaps the perfume would be stronger) which just added to its wistfulness!

        But then my feelings are of something magic. Perhaps on the right summer’s evening, when the night has endless possibilities, but then perhaps that’s the ultimate time for me to imagine outwardly wearing any perfume, when laughter and magic make you radiant and fearless. I’m sorry, there’s a world of discovery for me on the way to knowing what suits me, what perfume is for?! I find myself wanting to reinvent myself, in a good way – I am drawn to Mitsouko like a distant no-place that is intimately familiar with childhood, like a sanctuary, but it is not a resting place, perhaps I would like to be someone different, and that is part of the adventure.

      • ginzaintherain

        Beautifully put. And I really love the idea of it all being new to you.

  10. Katherine

    It’s making me sad, I think it’s very beautiful, its sweetness is almost painful. But maybe that’s just my mood, I think it’s also sparkly and renewable.

  11. Katherine

    Actually it’s not true, I can imagine a million different days and moods for perfume, not just a summer’s evening. But as to what suits me, I only know what I’m drawn to.. (Sorry, longest answer ever)

  12. Katherine

    Also, on the Japanese theme it is totally reminding me of Miyazaki films, the forest in Princess Mononoke…

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  15. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    While we are on the subject……

  16. I loved the story of Mitsouko meeting her famous, olfactory namesake *AND* becoming completely dreamy-eyed at the smell. Absolutely charming story, my dear! Definitely the smile I needed before heading off to bed. *hugs*

    • Thank you. I honestly was gobsmacked when she told me her name; I have been here for about seventeen years and never even heard of a Mitsouko. As you say, the fact that she DID go dreamy eyed, when you would imagine that such a perfume would be hated by a teenager, was totally delightful for me. If it weren’t for school rules and my own sense of propriety, I would have given her the bottle.

  17. Dearest Ginza
    What a review.
    Starting out so sumptuously austere then culturally fascinating and finally tenderly reminiscent.
    In a sense a metaphor in letter form for the perfume itself.
    I’ve always worn Mitsouko without any awe of its reputation, but rather because I got along with it and it with me.
    The image of young Mitsouko falling Narcissus like in love with her own fragrant reflection will last a long time.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Thank you, monsieur.

      If I had read your review first I probably would never have put this up. As it was, it was a thing I wrote a few years ago, but then updated when I met Mitsouko herself. Only a perfumist would be as delighted as I was, and as I said to Kafkaesque, it was so wonderful when their eyes spoke their feelings. I was honestly amazed – perhaps some things really are timeless.

      • Dearest Ginza
        I can imagine how priceless that look was, eyes like children cannot lie.
        I may be ‘forced’ to wear some tonight after my second or third bain of the day
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  18. Lilybelle

    What a sweet teacher you are! I can imagine they were enchanted with the scent because of the special way you presented it, out of the usual context of perfume, pulling it out of your bag like Mr. Poppins. 🙂 I can’t wear Mitsouko at all. It doesn’t love me. But I have a special fondness for it, almost a reverence, because of the effect it has upon my psyche. It is definitely dappled sunlight through autumn forest trees, golden and green. Mitsouko gives me visions – I’m dead serious – of another time and place in just that setting. For me it is 19th century, an abandoned estate, fallen leaves, crumbling stone, old wood. No one is there but the ghosts. There is violin music coming through the window, someone in the house played violin. I could go on and on.

    • I wish you would. Those images are beautiful and I can totally imagine what you mean as the perfume really does have a soul and evokes so many things.

      In terms of actually wearing it, I feel similarly. I love it, but it doesn’t love me either, it just doesn’t.

  19. Rafael

    In Japanese, Mitsouko means “Mystery.”

  20. Martha

    I can only imagine the thrill your student received when her namesake perfume was sprayed in her notebook. It was most enjoyable to read the story (that’s how I think of your reviews at times).

    I tried Mitsouko from a Nordstom’s sample last fall. It may have been an EDT. My impression was that it smelled “thin”. I am determined to find a vintage sample of EDP because I think it will have held up better, but I may be wrong about that.

  21. I’ve always thought of Mitsouko the perfume version of Madama Butterfly, tragically beautiful. It’s not the kind of fragrance that immediately draws you in. Rather, it holds the outside world at arms length, while suffering quietly on the inside (my impression of older Japanese culture). I have a 1950’s extrait (rosebud flacon) that has gotten so concentrated it smells like rocket fuel from the bottle. Off-putting in a modern way, but just the tiniest application will bloom into a warm veil of sepia. And that’s the secret of Mitsouko, you need to stick with it until it warms up to you.

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  27. I’m not spam, but your responses make me laugh. I hope you gety rid of them though. Back to Mitsouko: thank you for the story and the review. I love Mitsouko and if I’m really lucky I will be able to wear it on a planned trip to Japan in spring.

  28. Most likely April or May. And it’s very kind of you to offer advice.I will make good use of that…

  29. jennyredhen

    Apparently Guerlain has reformulated Mitsouko a number of times and the version released in 2013 is supposed to be more like the original then the immediate predecessor. I had read reviews of Mitsouko where it was listed as one of the sexiest perfumes of all time. Being anxious to be a Femme Fatale, I tracked a small bottle down at Duty free. At that time no one else in NZ sold it asas not popular Unfortunately it smells like antiseptic mixed with furniture polish on me, I have read how the cedar wood and moss notes develop into warm peach etc etc but it doesn’t develop on me at all!!! Still smells the same after many hours !! So much for the Femme Fatale dream. I am blonde and blue eyed. Opium gets many comments whenever I wear it also Samsara. Maybe Mitsouko suits dark olivey skinned people. I would like to try Le Heurre Bleue and give the Mitsouko to my Japanese daughter in law. My version of mitsouko was bought in 2010.. I think. Maybe it doesn’t work in New Zealand.

    • It doesn’t work on me, either, or on several people I know. To be honest, I think it is probably SLIGHTLY overrated in some ways, but then you smell certain batches, and then put it on the right person, and it can be stunning.

  30. Yet another wonderfully written piece. I have smelled the vintage Mitsouko and although I admired it, I did not see it as a scent I would wear. But I have been a perfume lover for many many years and perhaps I am tired of smelling it–although I actually have never worn it–tested it on myself but never actually wore it as my perfume of the day/evening.

  31. A magical scent and one that sings on my skin. I love it in extrait and in Parfum de Toilette, vintage of course. How lovely that you had a student who shared the name with one of the greatest scents ever created. Now I feel the need to indulge in some Mitsouko.

  32. I just stumbled upon your blog since I googled Mitsouko, as my supply is running low. It has been my signature scent for around forty years….and I am glad to have learned more about it ! It is amusing to me that you say Mitsouko is the number one selling scent by Guerlain, as there was only one shop in the 70’s I knew of in all of New England that sold it, and even they I believe, finally discontinued it. My sister ( who copied me) had to order it from France last time she ran out. Shalimar was always the number one perfume by Guerlain, and L’Heure Bleue was also easily available here in the northeast of the US. One of the reasons I love Mitsouko is I find it mysterious and at the same time not too girly sweet. I have been asked many times what scent I’m wearing…listening to you, it sounds like it has made a comeback! I am amazed!

    • I wouldn’t say it has made a comeback. In the perfume community it is an absolute legend as I am sure you know; one of the most researched perfumes on Basenotes and so on, and by FAR the most common vintage Guerlain perfume I find at flea markets and antique fairs here. I wish, to be honest, I could substitute it for Shalimar or Vol De Nuit, my personal favorites. I must admit though that before coming to Japan I didn’t smell it much, if ever, in England, so I am sure you smell quite unique (shame your sister had to commandeer it as well though……..).

      Glad I was able to shed some more light on the subject anyway and I hope you find other things of interest on here.

  33. Pingback: Daydreaming – Review: Guerlain Mitsouko Vintage Parfum de Toilette | Olfactoria's Travels

  34. Celeste Church

    I loved this article, and I love wearing Mitsouko. I have the modern reformulation of the EDP, and have sampled the vintage EDT and the extrait, though not sure when it was from. Like so many others I loved Shalimar and L’Heure Bleue, but the first six or seven times of trying the various formulations of Mitsouko I was horribly disappointed. It was just a terribly strong blast of oakmoss, so dark and unhappy to my nose.
    Then one morning I woke up thinking about Mitsouko, and kind of half-heartedly applied the last of my sample (I think the EDT) and I was stunned! Was this beautiful, radiant, golden peachy cinnamon-bomb the same scent?? It was. And I fell madly and irrevocably in love with this classic shape-shifter of a perfume. Bought the EDP and love it, wear it all the time, with jeans or a work outfit or in my grungy pajamas. And it feels like I’m enveloped in dry champagne (that had a peach slice sprinkled with cinnamon in the glass)….there’s a real shimmering feel to Mitsouko. I do not find her austere and haughty as many do. This is a party girl….but an elegant, cerebral party girl! Like Woody Allen or Steve Martin’s “who’re from Mensa” bit. I love how I feel wearing Mitsouko. Glad I kept trying! Thanks for your great article!

  35. Larkin

    What a gorgeous story. And I love all of the comments. Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece!

  36. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    To get lost among the bamboo and fall asleep upon a moss bed. Far away from the maddening crowd. And then at or on arms distance, too lazy to read back, as you so aptly put it, an oriental Grace Kelly floating by with her pocketbook worn at armour edge. Don’t overstep! Thanks for a most versatile interlude, with all the comments, before going on with the dreary facts of life.

  37. Woke up this morning to read this and my faith in the magical powers of scent was restored. (I just CANNOT follow the news anymore today. It is finally too much on top of the rest of the horrible events of the last months.) What lovely stories about Helen and the girl named Mitsouko. Also, an exceptionally vivid description of the fragrance itself. I’m so happy to read that you like some of the newer formulations. I do, too. I have a number of bottles of Mitsouko of varying ages and concentrations, including several old and well-preserved parfums, and actually have a soft spot for the 2005 EdT; it’s firm and golden, spicy, with a leathery base, less dreary and dank than Mitsouko can be when I’m not quite in the mood for her at her most oak-mossy. Even the much-maligned 2009 EdP my friend has isn’t half-bad. Very good, in fact, to my nose, although also, and of course, not the spitting image of the original. Perhaps this is sacrilege, but I don’t give a particular shit!

    • No I am with you. I kind of prefer the newer versions. I have smelled enough vintage Mits here to last me a life time, and it can depress me. And the world, and the news, IS, utterly, unbearable this year. I have never had this feeling before. I am quite overwhelmed, as I am sure many of us are. It has been a bloody nightmare!

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