Monday, November 5th: I have just come back from my piano lesson with Ms Tanaka. Today we were tackling a Schubert sonata, and I had my first introduction to Rachmaninov in the form of an Etude ( I am constantly playing Debussy and Ravel and we both felt it was time for a change). Ms Tanaka is hilarious, and the perfect piano teacher for me – she really knows what she is doing, but is so eccentric and over the top that we spend half the time laughing: her mix of deep respect for the classical composers, but irreverence to life in general, plus her appearance (something like a combination of Les Dawson and Brian May from Queen, with black frizzle perm and bright red lipstick) make these Monday lessons a lot of fun indeed. Plus she only lives a minute from my house, which for this lazy creature is a very added bonus.

Of course I can’t resist wearing perfume when I go round. I couldn’t be any more different to her Japanese students (sometimes our lessons overlap and I see them sitting there, in obedient silence as she goes over points of style and technique with them, nodding in acquiescence, naturally unscented). I can’t be like that, often argue with her about points of expression, and will always wear whatever I feel like that day, so poor Tanaka has learned to just put up with it. When I first started lessons I was in a Montale phase, all oudh and roses, which my neighbourhood now thinks of as my smell (Takashi from the wine shop on the corner says that scent of Aoud Lime and Aoud Rose Petals makes his heart go doki doki); my teacher also seemed to quite like it, though she is quite orientally inclined in any case – she bought me back some perfume from Tunisia last year and I hope she will do the same when she goes to Tashkent in the Spring. The time with Ms Tanaka is time I can completely be myself.

Usually, however, I find the classical music world so staid and ‘respectable’ it gives me a slow-burst feeling of repression. I have always felt this way: that mix of burning ambition and rivalry, plus something inherently ‘elevated’ in the music itself that sears into the hearts of the upper classes as something ‘to be done’. Yet I love it, always have done. I belong to a musical circle, do recitals at concerts, times when I find myself plunged into that world of delicacy and politesse, so very far from my real self but which in a masochistic way I do kind of enjoy. A different world; a mask.

Every year Duncan and I, along with my friend Yoko – my piano duet partner – get invited to an Autumn Concert at a family’s house in a suburb of Yokohama, a lovely annual event that nevertheless is a little stiffer than I would usually like things to be, and where I feel I have to behave. My posse, which also includes an old lady called Ms Ichihara (she of the Crêpe de Chine review) form the loucher, more boozy contingent (there is always a party after everyone has performed upstairs on the grand piano, a big spread of food  in the living room), and we tend to quaff the wine while the more virginal and teetotal types tend to be seated at different, further, parts of the table.

Every year I wear Vétiver Tonka by Hermès. In fact, I think this is the only time I wear this scent, as I have come to associate it principally with this day, this atmosphere, a time when I feel I have to be the ‘good boy’ (or try, at least). The Hermessences were launched in 2004 as an ‘exclusive’ line to complement the (already expensive) Hermès perfumes, a series of delicate olfactory études that initially were designed to conjure up the textures of various fabrics – silk, velvet, cashmere, and so on. These are scents of real luxury, well constructed and imbued with a certain ‘ennobling’ character. However, this clutched aspect, the sense of holding oneself in, combined with the excruciating experiences I have had at Hermès boutiques in Tokyo, where the levels of snobbery reach untold, futile,  proportions ( I actually had a bust up at the Marounochi branch as I could no longer tolerate the brittle little minx’s attitude as she sneered at me while I dared to pick up the perfumes…the assistants, who know nothing whatsoever about fragrance, not even what perfumes their own shop has – Do you have Rouge? Ah, Just let me see…..Do you have the new Hermessence? Ah, let me just see….seem almost afraid to touch the bottles they are meant to be selling, despite their ignorance about them, as though they were precious reliquaries in a museum. And when they do it is literally while wearing the kid gloves that Hermès is famous for. All the while looking at you as though you were dirt they had just stepped in.)

But this topic could make my blood boil and spill out the murderous fantasies I had upon leaving that place that day; good lord I was furious, my mind filled with such terrible things; and this post is tentatively entitled The Good Boy.





The point is, I have very conflicted attitudes towards these scents, as some of them are very good indeed, though what they represent makes me sick. Still, despite my reservations I did buy the original selection box of small eaux de toilette when it came out, which at the time comprised Rose Ikebana, Poivre Samarcande, Ambre Narguilé, and Vétiver Tonka (now it is possible to choose which four you would like from the eight or nine available).

They have come in handy. Duncan got through the Poivre in no time, and the Ambre is fun when guests come round and I want to make them believe that there really is a scent that smells exactly like cinnamon apple pie, but the other two I use exclusively for choice Japanese social events.

Rose Ikebana is a watery, sharp grapefruit and rhubarb rose, with muted touches of magnolia, peony, and a smidgen of pepper. The overall aura of fresh green tea and spring leaves, this understated restraint, is perfect for when I need to get my nose in the air or at least feel ‘refined’ in an artificial context where I am guaranteed not to feel comfortable, as I did when I had to attend one of my student’s winning a national prize at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo, a grand old place with gilded banquet hall, and where a speech was given by the American ambassador. (If I wanted to feel refined and elegant on my own terms, I would wear Hermès Calèche, Chanel No 19, or Racine by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, but these are my scents, my personal, heartfelt perfumes that I don’t want to share in the wrong context.) Rose Ikebana gave me a sense of detached confidence; on my skin lasting all day despite its de-amplified, wan watercolours; there is also a drier, more cynical woody note that appears later on that is more masculine, sinewy, and the entire lack of sweetness or softness aids me in keeping my teacherly smile intact while I flatter the daughter’s mother, raise my hands in a yet another soft round of applause. The scent, which I do like in its limited way, will remain in my perfume cabinet and will fulfill its function again at a later date, I am sure.

With a carefully chosen perfume like this you can present a self you want. You can exteriorize, project a different identity. In general I want to be nothing other than myself, but as I have said there are times when I almost enjoy the perverse pleasure of dressing up, of being someone else. Rose Ikebana also contains the vaguely subversive notion that I am wearing something slightly feminine (when all is said and done, Rose Ikebana is merely a dressed down, but more expensive version of YSL’s Baby Doll). If I seem overly negative about a ceremony which was a cause for celebration, this was principally due to the fact that such levels of formality are painful for me, physically, one of the harder aspects of living in Japan. All false communication is to me essentially pointless, and proud though I was of my student’s achievements, I was desperate to get out of there. I remember when they dropped me off in the taxi in Ginza, I was practically suffocating, yet went to the Hibiya Guerlain boutique in order to drenched myself, to the assistants’ bemusement, in Spiritueuse Double Vanille and Bois D’Armenie.

Ah yes, there I am again.

Vétiver Tonka is different. I do actually like this scent, as I like the people who go to the yearly music party. Unlike Ikebana, which is based on concepts of silk and the Japanese traditional art of flower arrangement with its rigid aesthetic rules despite its seeming haphazard nature, Vetiver Tonka is based on the idea of the texture of wool, and it is a deliciously comfortable scent, as soft and gentle as the finest, cashmere sweater, worn with a nice white shirt underneath. Easy to wear, easy to smell, and eminently huggable. Beginning with clean, zesty citrus top notes of neroli and bergamot over green, woody vetiver, sweet, ambered tones of tonka bean soon make their presence felt, woven tight with gourmand notes of cereals and hazelnut. The gentle refrains of tonka and vetiver interlinked are riveting, ending with a perfect, balsamic base that lasts all day. It is a warm, trustworthy scent, urbane, adult, a perfume in which I just feel ‘good’ and eminently respectable. It is no wonder that it enjoys such a good reputation.

In the bath before getting ready to go out though, I have to say that I felt a momentary panic at the thought of coming out and putting it on. Of course I could have easily put worn something else, but it somehow felt like a preordained destiny, that I had to wear that.  It fits the aura I wanted to project perfectly, yet something about that tonka, which I always think of as having a certain poisonous, bitter, moisture-sucking quality, so insistent, felt like a cossetted, unyielding, Parisian straitjacket.

I wore it anyway.


Filed under Perfume Reviews, Rose, Tonka, Vetiver


  1. George M

    Having spent time in Japan (albeit years ago now), I love these pieces that touch on culture, customs and attitudes.

    My most enjoyable run-in with super-formality (in retrospect) went as follows… I joined the graduate training program of a very well known company (as a ‘shin-nyu-sha-in’) and, for reasons too long to explain here, went by train from the office to the joining ceremony with the managing director. We were heading to Ikebukuro. Conversation was a little stiff so I mentioned in passing that I’d actually been in Ikebukuro at the weekend and seen the giant Sunshine City skyscraper. And what did you think of it? asked the MD. Oh, a bit large and blocky and I’d heard that some Tokyoites thought it somewhat vulgar. Not everyone thinks that, said the MD in a gently final way; that line of conversation died out.

    Got out of the train with him in Ikebukuro, and had a horrible sinking feeling when we entered the ground floor of the… Sunshine City building. Heart sank further when we got in the lift, and got out at literally the top floor of the skyscraper, where a huge room had been booked for the company-entering-ceremony. Deep embarrassment – but great views!

    We had a group photo, graduation-style, with all us newbies (40 of us) standing in tiers, and the company board sitting at the front in starchy black and white suits, hands in fists on their knees, the MD in the middle. I’m the blond haired blue eyed one, in the non-kosher green suit.

    • ginzaintherain

      Oh George, that is beautiful, seriously (and hilarious, and I can totally imagine it, you sweet blunderbuss). And perfectly expressed.

      I worry that as this is meant to be a perfume blog I am overdoing the Japan thing, but it is so intrinsic to my life…Also, very intent on not wanting to sound Japan-negative, although the country is surely the most unnatural, the most REPRESSED in the world. but that is where all the beauty comes from. it is a constant cycle of love and hate, and i can’t help but put a lot of it in here. also, the fact that i have been here for sixteen years must say something….

      A lot of Japanese have been logging on the last few days…maybe it was all about Mitsouko…


  2. ginzaintherain

    (ironic: I remember us in that garden at Trinity College, which we weren’t actually allowed to go in but went in anyway…me disdaining your whole plan to come to Japan as you sat on a bench reading a Japanese grammar book or something and I was ranting about whatever, as usual, …must be nineteen years ago or so. I was so disparaging. …neither of us would ever have believed that I would end up here…)

    How are your memories, now, of the place?

    I imagine that when/if I ever leave, the homesickness would be literally unbearable. I have friends who suffer on a daily basis! That said, even now, despite all that I love here, I would never describe myself as a Japanophile. There is too much to fuck the brain, to disturb the soul. It is a totally sadomasochistic nation, and I am neither.

    • George M

      Ranting, Neil, surely not! It’s odd, I remember plenty of visits to Trinity gardens, but I don’t remember studying much Japanese before going. I knew basically nothing when I arrived. Needless to say, I wasn’t a very good shinnyushain.

      My memories of Japan are really fond, which is odd because I left, feeling pretty unhappy, before I had intended to. But that was more personal situation than the environment.

      What I liked: the people, learning the language, shrines and temples, catching fish in the early morning off some sandy beach south of Kamakura, walks in the countryside, the market area round Koenji where I lived for a while, onsen, metro map confusion, aisu kohi from Shinjuku cafes with my wonderful Japanese teacher, Tokyo art exhibitions, department store food halls. The food, the food, the food!

      What I didn’t like: the bland and boring new suburbs (Musashi Urawa, where I also lived, blach!), the reports of racism, the idea of crammer schools, the need to join-in (I’m not much of joiner – I pissed off everyone by refusing to take part in a company game of football. God, I hate football!).

      I wasn’t there long enough to pick up on the full sadomasochism thing. I saw some hints, but my memories are overwhelmingly positive.


  3. ginzaintherain

    I’m sure mine would be too, once I had sucked out all the poison. You were not here long enough for it to seep into you…

    Yet I love it. Everywhere else feels flat in comparison. Ultimately it is the layers of mystery and complexity that keep me here,plus the ENERGY. But again, everything for me is double-edged: that maniacal ‘gambarimasu’ quality is what makes the country what it is, but also why people are turned into slaves. It’s a hard act to balance.

  4. penseedautomne

    Enjoyed reading it 🙂

    Thank you for asking about what kind of smell I like; I have two scents that I can tell I like: one is the fresh scent of newly sprouted grass, drifting in the wind in May; the other one is the sweet and tender fragrance of orange sweet tea tree or Kinmokusei, Osmanthus fragrans? Of course I also like the scent of wild roses, of ready-to-eat fruits. Of good meal. Of babies. Of coffee (prefer its smell than taste; love coffee but often disappointed that the good flavor was not fully reflected in its taste.)

    I don’t know what kind of scents they have but I like lilac, light blue plumbago, mimosa (in boom.)

    I think I have never put on perfume, only eau de toilette spray (mainly during the summer), often citrus type. Like it dry, refreshing, not too sweet, discrete.

  5. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    To continue the topic of my neuroses, perfumes, and Japan….

  6. Thank you. I like that you make us understand your use of scent and how it’s affected or impacted by the culture you’re living in. I too, sometimes, find myself making conscious choices about what perfumes wear according to where I’m going so as not to offend the sensibilities of others. I’m in my 50’s and I go indoor roller skating 3 times a week. On those nights I’m careful not to choose one of my many vintage chypres as the rink is filled with 20-30-somethings who are so used to smelling the latest fresh, fruity, florals that they would probably swear they were suffocating if they smelled vintage Bandit wafting in the air as I circled the floor.

  7. Katy

    I love your writing. This is a beautiful, thoughtful post. I fear I still view Japan through the eyes of a 6 year old American girl. I was too young to realize the repressive nature of the culture at the time. In Japan, most people I encountered we’re very kind to small children, though I did notice a definite preference for boys! My little sister had a harder time because she only wanted to eat hotdogs and hamburgers, which were not to be had there in 1969. My Mom would order her Ramen noodles and desperately try to remove the tentacles before my sister noticed them!

    • Katy, thanks for your fascinating stories about Japan: I would love to hear more of them.

      Also, I worry that when I spout off about Nihon that I come across as negative and overcritical. I have lived here for almost fifteen years now, and have never been able to tear myself away from it: I love Japan on quite a profound level, and all the good memories you have are things I am still experiencing.

      At the same time, I am a quite strangely honest person, and oppression/suppression/repression is dangerous for my psyche, and I have perversely chosen to live in one of the most repressed places on earth. It really IS repressed: and that is why the country works, as people push down their own feelings in order to fit in and make the society as a whole work. Which it does, almost perfectly. Until they just can’t take any more and throw themselves onto the rail tracks….(something I witnessed at my local station…….)

      There is a book in all of this, and it is bubbling up slowly in my unconscious. Ultimately, it will be positive, but there will be a LOT of darkness in it as well. Japan is just so….

  8. I love these glimpses of Japan through your eyes! Don’t stop!

    I think that anyone who has ever lived or spent a lot of time abroad has moments like this. Especially if it’s not your native culture, the tendency to kind of let the world fall into soft-focus and muse/construct an impression of what you do and do not like about a country is a very natural impulse! Or at least that is how I feel and have felt.

    When I lived in Paris, I had all kinds of rants about France and the French even though I love both. And when I spent a lot of time in Britain, I had maybe double the amount of rants (sorry, Neil!), but still feel very comfortable there.

    But I love reading these cultural slivers of fragrant life abroad! Please keep them coming. You write beautifully!

    • Thankyou. I would kill to hear your impressions of the UK. What a shit hole! France drives me INSANE as well ( I can’t watch French films, despite having done French literature at university and having been a former Francophile…..)

      Culture is weird. I love England/Britain for what I love about it, but can imagine how it might seem to a ‘foreigner’ (is that now a yawnsome term?)

      • Ha! Well, Americans are both closer and further away from Brits in a weird, paradoxical way.

        Whenever someone asks me what the difference between the two are, I always think of this story: once, I was in Britain at a market buying fish. The fishmonger had just gutted and scaled my choice. I handed over bills and that change would have been a lousy 2p, which I told him to just keep. I turned around, left the market, and seconds later the out-of-breath fishmonger caught up with me to palm two stupid, slimed up coins into my palm.

        Honestly. In the States, most people just assume you don’t want them and don’t even bother offering to give them back.

        So that is what epitomizes the difference between Britain and the States to me!

      • Interesting. They would come panting after you in Japan as well…

  9. Katy

    Culture is indeed weird. Do write a book! To truly understand a culture, or a perfume or even one’s beloved, ultimately lead to a passionate love/ hate kind of thing. One of the defining moments of adulthood is when your life partner is driving you crazy and you want to kill them and you realize you make them feel exactly the same way. Quite humbling.

  10. Tara C

    I love the stories about your experiences living in Japan. I’ve never been there but was sufficiently fascinated with the culture to take a year of Japanese in university (my degree is in French but I also studied German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese for fun – then I went on to do graduate studies in linguistics, naturally). As for the Hermessences, I like Vetiver Tonka, Ambre Narguile, and the two new ones, Cedre Sambac and Agar Ebene. I received Paprika Brasil and Osmanthe Yunnan as gifts but don’t wear them much.

  11. johnluna

    I too love these stories about your Japanese experiences, especially the ones that are focused on the nuances of interpersonal exchange, surely a Venn diagram where Japan’s obsession with etiquette and perfume’s abstract spatial messaging share a substantial shaded area.

    I was thinking of your writing recently as I got a bottle of the new Caron fragrance, Aimez-Moi Comme Je Suis. It has gotten very mixed reviews and I can see why… There is a combination of bright, almost ‘blue’ (bleu?) opening notes (grapefruit, ginger, DHM) married to a warm Haitian vetiver and hazelnut heart backed up by tonka and tobacco can cause a lot of cognitive dissonance. At first I was mortified but now I love it. I realized after a couple of wearings that its head is actually rather similar to Caron Pour un Homme Sport, which you wrote about very engagingly in the past (c.f. ‘bicycle sillage.’)

    If you get your hands on a bottle I’d be curious to know what you think. It does have vetiver, tonka and hazelnut, but I think the outcome is quite un-Hermès. The question is, is it un-Caron? For me, no, but then Caron is one of those houses… if you love it, you think you understand something no one else does.

    • It sounds quite fascinating, and you have kindled my interested in smelling this (I had read about it, but am never keen on that creamy ‘hazelnut’ note in perfumes – it’s like one of those foully sweet overflavoured coffees. But Caron Sport is VERY dissonant, and I also love that (grapefruit and mint all clashing with all manner of things – try it if you can); let’s not forget they even have a perfume – awful – called L’Anarchiste. Yes, something quite ‘off’ about Caron, which is one of the reasons I adore them.

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