As with any metropolis, there are a good few flea markets at weekends in Tokyo, scattered about the city selling old kimonos, antiques, forgotten ornaments and bric-a-brac; clothes, vinyl – any old junk to pique your curiosity. Perfume is not a major component of the majority of these places, although you will occasionally come across some unwanted bottle thrown in with rings, lipsticks and old necklaces: perhaps it is not something that the majority of marketgoers are really looking for.
The Japanese relationship with perfume is quite different to that of the west. Scent is of course worn by some people, especially high school girls and boys (who go for quite sweet, brash and trashy domestic brands, almost as a retort to the older, more conservative generation), and all department stores have perfume sections, just like anywhere else. And yet. If you look at the people who are tentatively browsing the fragrance sections, it is as though they are not really sure what they are looking at, as if they are almost afraid of perfume. They will rarely actually spray any on the skin (it’s always funny when some gaijin – foreigner – like me comes in and sprays with abandoned liberation), usually instead sampling it vagely on a paper strip, at a distance, as an assistant politely explains its virtues.
Perhaps I generalize: naturally there are fragrance fanatics and perfumistas here; you do smell perfume sometimes when you are out in the city (though no way near as much as in Europe, which I realized over this summer), but on the whole it is not something the Japanese do spontaneously. It is more intuitive to be unscented: to be clean, yes, but as unobtrusive as possible. Self-effacement is key in this society.
In terms of perfume itself, this has had its pluses and its minuses, in that the selection of perfume available is quite poor compared to other capitals. I yearn for a Liberty, an Aedes Venustas, KaDeWe or Japanese equivalent thereof, packed to the rafters with niche and obscure, edgy fragrances, but the only decent place to shop, really, is Isetan in Shinjuku, which has Lutens, Penhaligons, Santa Maria Novella and some others; fun, but not enough to satisfy the truly voracious perfume hunter.
On the other hand, when it comes to second hand, unused, unwanted vintage perfume, Japan is heaven on earth. This is a place where appearance is paramount, where gift-giving is an art, where ‘brand goods’, as they are called here, have very high cachet. Thus perfume – Guerlain, Lanvin, Dior – will often have been gratefully received as an obviously expensive present, perhaps as an omiyage (souvenir) from some overseas trip to Paris or London, but never opened. It is more of an acquistion than something to use. All across Japan there will be vintage parfums in perfect condition sitting on fashionable women’s dressers, knowing full well, as they sit with their scented meniscus unmoving and still, that people like myself are yearning to get their hands on them, to be opened, released, and finally appreciated for what they were intended to be – worn.
One way or another, these riches find their way into the hands of people who regularly set up stalls at fleamarkets every Sunday at the Shinagawa flea market I went to yesterday, which is more about chuko – second hand, unwanted things – than about art and Buddhist scrolls and calligraphy, the more precious antiques. People sell off perfumes along with with their other bits and pieces as part of their stall, often blissfully unaware of their value. The aforementioned reverence of luxury brands, which I personally find ridiculous (picking up a piece of olfactory trash such as Bulgari Blu I am told, with great seriousness, sore wa Bulgari, that’s a Bulgari, as though I should be impressed), but the good thing is that its price tag will often be the same as, or more than, say, the pristine vintage extrait of Diorissimo that is sitting next to it.
What this means for the perfume lover like myself is that every time I go to the flea market my heart truly palpitates with anticipation as I enter the building, as you never know what might happen. I can feel my white and red blood cells surging forth (seriously, there is no greater boost for my mind and body than this place). There might be nothing, as frequently happens, or there could be such a cache that you can barely contain your hysteria. I remember one time in particular, quite soon after I had discovered the place, when I was lagging behind Duncan in going in and he rushed out towards me, wide-eyed, saying ‘Oh my god you are going to die when you see this one stall’. There was a woman whose grandmother had left an entire Guerlain collection: Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit, Shalimar, all in the most beautiful, velvet boxes, all parfums – plus Carons – Nuit de Noël, Fleurs de Rocaille, and Infini (my favourite), among others. I stood still in time: my heart stopped. And then I was semi-hyperventilating. To be honest, I had to walk around to calm myself down to gain some sang froid before returning, negotiating and hoovering up what I could afford that day (all the Carons and Guerlains for a start). That Shalimar in particular has made me yearn thereafter to get my hands on more of the vintage stuff in that purple box- so warm, rich, so deep and absurdly magnetic that it makes the newer reformulations seem like a cruel joke…)
There was also, for a while, a woman who did know her stuff and thus priced things accordingly (there are also people who have no idea at all – I picked up a extrait of Guerlain Ode, an extraordinarily rare piece, and boxed, for 500 yen (about five pounds), tossed among the bric-a-brac as though it were rubbish) as well as Diorling and, to my astonishment once, vintage extraits of Chanel Gardénia and Cuir de Russie for a song. This more savvy perfume broker had nothing but classic vintage perfumes that I wanted – all of them. As I approached her stall (in a different place each time) my chest would constrict at the prospect of what might be about to happen…I remember getting an exquisite Calandre parfum from her that I treasure even now. There is only a bit left.
To be honest, sometimes when I go (not every week, or I would be bankrupt), I am actually happy when there is nothing that I want as it will be better for my bank balance. I am glad to just pick up a tie or two – my collection of vintage neckties is quite something due to this place as well – and leave feeling smug and virtuous.
Yesterday it was really bustling, with more stalls than usual. Duncan and I had met up with a friend Nicole, to saunter slowly through the place and then have a long late lunch in a nearby restaurant – a perfect Sunday for me. It was a bit chilly for the market stall owners sitting outside wrapped in their blankets, but in terms of atmosphere it was perfect, and I can only say that I spent the entire two hours we were there in a state of tenterhook ecstacy.
What was on offer there on this Sunday, November 11th?
100 yen = 79p, or 1.25 dollars, though I try to turn a blind eye…..
It was a good day yesterday at the flea market, even if I didn’t find any eye-busting masterpieces. Had I been completely without restraint I could have bought a large amount of vintage perfume, either for my collection, to sell perhaps on e-bay or just to give as presents to people. Among all the dross I found two or three perfect examples of prime Miss Dior in eau de toilette (800 yen) and 14ml parfum (4000, a bit pricey I thought but it smelled marvellous, just as it should, glowering from its bottle); a couple of Madame Rochas parfums de toilette (about 2000 yen, smelling good indeed) and a Calèche parfum or two (1800), although those were in the vaporisateur format, which I usually find don’t age as well (I have learned my lesson).
There was a lot of Nº5, in extrait, eau de toilette and the rare eau de cologne, usually around the 3500 mark, which might seem expensive but still cheaper than what you would pay in for a newer edition. I am always on the look out for vintage Nº19 in parfum, and have come across the amazing 28ml bottles in the past for as little as 1500 yen. Just eleven pounds for that scented wonder of iris, leather and vetiver that is one of my top holy grails….Yesterday I really wanted to buy the vintage eau de toilette, a nice full bottle, as I have come round to the other strengths recently ( I have NO time whatsoever for the reformulations of this perfume, by the way, where all the expensive orris has been leached out and replaced with citric vetivers and some ingredient I can’t abide that makes it sharp and evil), as well as that classic eau de parfum, which I remember a girl at Cambridge I knew called Kia wearing constantly….damn I wish I had bought that now thinking about it, in a way to reinvigorate the scent with the myriad of different facets that get brought out at different times….(but you see then I wouldn’t have been able to buy lunch, and that is half the reason we were out in Shinagawa).
Mmm, what else did I come across? I quite fancied buying Gucci Envy (2000yen) as a green work scent but resisted. There was a bit of Bal à Versailles about, but I have enough of that in my collection now, lots of L’Air du Temps vintage parfum (in fact one bottle, in perfect condition except for its slightly mouldy box, was only 400 yen!) But I only buy it to give to Helen, and I think she has enough for the time being so my coins stayed firmly in my pocket. One person was selling fake Coco roll ons, which I was surprised to see as usually everything is very bona fide article, but one sniff and I knew they were nothing to do with Chanel’s 80’s baroque classic. There were a few Egoïstes, and vintage Cristalles on offer as well, as well as the usual Mademoiselles and Chances.
I could go on and on (please do, cry the perfumistas). If you looked hard enough, nestled in most of the stalls there was a perfume bottle or two – a lot of unwanted recent-ish fragrances à la Bulgari or Salvatore Ferragamo; I briefly considered a Monsieur de Givenchy après rasage that I wouldn’t have minded owning, but then decided that I would never wear it so there wasn’t much point (that whole civety citrus thing doesn’t really work for me). I am a Givenchy Gentleman fanatic (patchouli, rose and leather – classic) and have a huge stash of the vintage courtesy of this very flea market. I consider it as an alternative to Nº19 extrait – on me they dry down in a very similar fashion: elegant, sexy, but somewhat aloof. Both are two of my signature scents.
Duncan bought an antique Japanese wooden cabinet, some hip-hop cds and some ties, including a very nice vintage Giorgio Armani. I also bought loads of ties yesterday – a 70’s YSL for 100 yen, one very classic kimono-patterned one and some rather garish things as well as I like to occasionally wear ties that have people thinking is that cool or is it actually quite hideous?
But back to perfume.
Well I bought a couple of things I can’t write about because they might be birthday presents for friends reading this. They were definitely good buys. The first other thing I bought for myself, from among a little box of miniatures (where the people don’t often realise they are small bottles because they are PARFUMS! I have had several Lauder Private Collection parfums this way) – a 3.7ml parfum of the original Chloë, which I always loved back in the day, that groggy, woozy tuberose in lace. That only cost me 100 yen (79p for a vintage extrait!!!!!) and its bottle, with its suggestion of aorta sticking out of the top, amused me. Next up was a perfume that smells almost identical, just a little fresher – Tubéreuse by Les Fleurs de Deborah, a house I have never heard of before, but it is my sister’s name, and though she would never be caught dead in a scent this old dame (she is a Biagiotti Roma girl or wears Daim Blond) I thought it might be cute as a christmas present.
I picked up an old room fragrance, Terre d’Ochre, by Esteban, which is quite nice in an Ungaro pour homme kind of way, and I couldn’t resist getting an old bottle of Lumière Rochas for 500 yen, simply because I had been reading about it on a Dior Poison thread on Bois de Jasmin and it had been lumped in with all those other 80’s rock queens that I have a secret penchant for. At dinner at Chez Tsubame, I sprayed some on a piece of tissue and my first comment, I must say, was that it smells like ‘a tart who has pissed herself’, though this is perhaps a bit ungracious: there is a sambac jasmine beachy orange blossom vibe going on within it that is actually quite sexy, a hair-tossing member of that whole flaming Red Door sorority.
One thing I absolutely couldn’t resist was an old mahjong set that I found somehow compelling. I doubt I would ever play it, as I have an extremely low IQ when it comes to strategic complexity and retaining rules, but my piano teacher has mahjong parties (there is something illicit about this game – it is illegal for minors for example, and I think you are not allowed to gamble either, by law…) so I might take it round next lesson and see what she thinks about it. The waiter in the restaurant said it is a very good set and an absolute megabargain for 500 yen. I also adore ‘Lust Caution’ by Ang Lee, that ravishingly beautiful and repressedly erotic film which features mahjong prominently (as a pretext for a Chinese spy to infiltrate the pro-Japanese Shanghai government). I stared at this mahjong set for quite a while and then decided I had to have it.
At this point we were about to leave, and I espied an Eau de Fleurs by Nina Ricci that I felt I needed (1200 yen), a completist urge to add to my collection of vintage Riccis (Farouche, Signoricci, Capricci). I had somewhat gone over budget, so Nicole took pity on me and kindly got it for me as an upcoming birthday present. I would never wear such a delicately feminine floral in a million years, but the old Riccis fascinate me with their intimate, innocent florality…..the solidity of the glass bottles, the packaging; all so reminiscent of eras long gone.