I have just come in from a Sunday night lesson, the last one before one particular class takes their entrance examination for a prestigious bi-cultural school, and I am feeling guilty and worried: although the other Japanese teachers have been going in every day since November (no: every day, literally every day, poisoning their spirits and bodies), this is the first time this year I have gone in on a Sunday, and that was only because there are two boys who are very borderline and who could really benefit from my lessons and I just couldn’t not: tonight I went through every tense in the English language, did the subjunctive, countable and uncountable nouns, a myriad of linguistic things, until it was 11.10 pm and last trains were looming and their energies were draining and we had to call it a day.


I feel guilty because I should have done more, should have gone in on more Sundays to help them further, but I have already been going in on Saturdays (my days off!) and giving them seven hour lessons, which always leave me feeling depleted with worrying levels of mental toxicity…..


The fact is that I am an extremely, extremely sensitive type: porous, absorbent – I take in everything and it AFFECTS me inordinately in my soul: I have tortured sleep when I teach too much and I simply can’t understand how the other teachers can endure such a work schedule, how their families can accept it, how they can survive, physically and mentally, for years on end: I have even had counselling on the subject with a very expensive Tokyo psychologist, been told that they are they and I am me, and westerners can’t be expected to put up with such conditions ( my job is very cushy in comparison, very) and, essentially, just try to care less and switch off.


I am lucky. In any given year I have more days off than on, and I love teaching, in many ways, for the spontaneity, the energy and the connection with young people, and for the fact that I have enough free time, can concentrate on perfume and writing and playing the piano and having fantastic days out in Tokyo wandering the streets and going to the cinema, before I return to the working week – which is always exhausting nevertheless for me, even as it stimulates.


One day soon I am going to write a book about my years in Japan, and all of these experiences, because it is all in me, floating on the surface, and also in the depths, and whatever preconceptions you might have about Japan are always, and I mean always, wrong: the place is far more nuanced, beautiful and deep than you might imagine (the school is a kind of joyous place despite the long hours; the kids seem to love being there); the Japanese produce such a positive energy even as it depletes: it is a constant, sadomasochistic push pull of trying and doing your best and making an effort even in the face of adversity (look at the earthquake two years ago and how they pulled together), while equally punishing in a way that can only be described as sick (and yet, as any person who has lived here will tell you, all highly and completely addictive). Yesterday, after another all day lesson, though, I felt quite ill.


And we had a dinner party in the evening in Yokohama with my Japanese sister as I call her and her husband. But it was one of those things where a bunch of J-stiffs, nervous, awkward, and so CRAP AT BREAKING THE ICE gathered together in a house that was too bright (oh lord, don’t people know the value and the importance of the right light) and it took about three hours to relax (thank god for alcohol….without it Japan simply could never function…..), but still…. those first couple of hours…the BLEEDING EFFORT REQUIRED TO JUST GEL AND RELAX…

I love Aiko and her family to death, but after a day of, well, ‘Japan’ it was the last thing I needed and Duncan and I got completely wasted to cope and try to blend and feel good.



But not wasted enough it would seem..

The taxi back from the station was expensive but necessary (there was no way we were walking up the hill yesterday: I just have, and there were narcissi everywhere, which I am coming to in a minute), but as we got out I saw that our little local pub, or izakaya, was still open (yey!) and I insisted we go in…


This place, Yamaya, or ‘mountain place’, opened shortly after the earthquake, and it has been an amazing hub of social activity that has completely transformed the neighbourhood I live in, essentially quite a chichi residential area at the top of a valley (when you walk down the hill there are all the most exquisite zen temples in Kamakura: I absolutely love where I live ), but there is nothing, really, in this area –  only a 1960’s Showa-era shopping street – we rent our house from the fruit and vegetable store’s owners, the Mitomis, my Japanese parents, whose daughter’s house we went to last night).


The opening of the izakaya brought a whole collection of eccentrics out of the woodwork and it has been fabulous: where everyday culture here can be so fucking draining with its rules and regulations and keeping oneself under control, there is an incredibly libertarian, utterly unfettered openness and feeling of fun in that place – we are all like family, you can plug in your iPod and play your mixes, and last night I had so much crap to get out of me, so much poison to exhale, that only more poison would do ( I swear that if someone had come out with syringes of heroin I would have taken them): I was smoking even though I don’t smoke, we were drinking beer til it came out of our ears, and it was wonderful: I felt so myself, so released, in an environment so human, with friends and local weirdos who I have all the time in the world for, and as Duncan and I crashed home (and I mean crashed, the house was like a bomb site this morning) it felt like a huge, delirious, fuck you middle finger to this world that I sometimes truly feel I CANNOT ABIDE.


I had a lesson from 7 this evening, which went on til late, as I said, woke up at 2.30 this afternoon with a monster hangover, D still fast asleep and groggy as a chameleon, and I had a long, long bath in coconut oil and essential oils of cardamon, cajeput and ylang (my heart beat wake up remedy), and then thought fuck it, today I am wearing perfume, I am slapping it on, and wore a large amount of Vanilla Del Madagascar by SS Annunziata: boy was it wrong; as you might know if you have been reading the narcissus, we are basically not allowed to wear perfume to work ( I know, me working for a company that forbids scent), but it is never enforced, and I have recently been wearing Eau Duelle by Diptqyue in subtle (for me, anyway) amounts: though I am displeased by the bitter, pepper/incense opening – which seems so tedious somehow – I love how it develops and lets me wear my favourite note, vanilla,  in a covert way that no one is going to find objectionable: delicate, light, lovely….



The woozy, boozy vanilla tonight, coupled with the bath I had had, which left me weirdly scented (plus the smoke on my suit from last night in the bar), my boozer’s breath and garlic from some Vietnamese noodles I had, concealed under the synthetic peppermint of gum, all made me smell quite foul I realized, as I stood at the blackboard, self-conscious, feeling myself reeking…


Still, it wasn’t a proper day at school (BECAUSE IT WAS SUNDAY NIGHT FOR CHRISTSAKES), and only the hardiest stalwarts were there, and anyway I think my kids enjoyed the lesson, as did I ( I could have gone on all night once I hit my stride), and I didn’t see any undue wrinkling of noses – though one girl did have a slightly grimaced expression……lesson: never mix your work and private life; never mix your weekend perfumes, where my Vaniglia smells quite gorgeous (it IS my scent now) and your daily, sanitised, laundry musks: I felt, in a way, like a marauder in my own life, sabotaging my own smell.



I stank.



Coming home and going up the hill, which is my silence, my solace, an ancient valley turned suburb, but with such spirit it nourishes me on a daily basis, I came across two kinds of narcissus: one, with yellow eye-centres, beautiful and haunting, like a portal to another world.


I keep using the word ‘piercing’ in relation to this type of narcissus, but it is the only word that works for me: the smell of this variety (pictured at the top of the page) kills me and contains so much condensed emotion I honestly can’t explain it to you, I can’t: I find it heartbreaking, as though the flowers and that smell contain Japan, and all the feelings I have for the place, itself.









The other flowers, these white ones here, stink. There is no other way of putting it. They are the most animalic, cowshed flowers I have ever smelled: close your eyes and inhale thecowpat; open them and see starry beauties with bad breath, decaying at the edges, exhaling their foul florality by the roadside in moonlight; as I wearily make my way, in their drifting, pungently placid scent, back home.











Filed under Flowers, Narcissus, Psychodrama

36 responses to “NARCISSUS, YOU STINK

  1. Marina

    I love the way you write. I look forward to your book.

    • ginzaintherain

      …if and when it ever leaves my brain and makes it out onto the screen or paper. I have so much Japan in me it is unbelievable. It is a drug..

      And thanks for saying that, by the way – this kind of splurge is so emotional and embarrassing that I immediately regret writing it afterwards. If someone is reading it and likes it then it makes it all valid.

  2. ninakane1

    Neil, I utterly love this writing, and of course, you! YOU MUST WRITE THAT BOOK ON JAPAN!!!!! You understand the country so well, and are totally absorbed in the tensions of being a Westerner there, although having lived there for so long, you are not a stranger. It produces a brilliant fusion of thoughts, sensations and observations that you convey powerfuly through body, mind, emotion, energy and smell when you write or talk on the subject! And this is because you are not a detached observer or a passer-by / passer-through, but a dweller – someone who is reaching to people with warmth, communication, connection – and I can’t quite find the word I’m looking for, but that ‘beingness in joy’ with others, a ‘belongness in joy’ (sorry sounds a bit hippy…had little sleep…but do you know what I mean. That high energy joy of company and connection and the joy of dwelling with…). So when the cultural differences are polarised, it’s hugely emotive and that’s where your turmoil, passion and brilliant insights begin to emerge – utterly unique and wonderful to hear. That and the fact that your brilliant mind and soul is absorbing everything anyway and thinking. Keep going strong. That Yamaya cafe is a wonderful place – loved visiting there on the crazy first night of my arrival. Hope your students do well. I’m sure they well. D’s too. Hope you and D have a more relaxed week, love to you both xx

    • ginzaintherain

      Nina, very generous comments from you: you understand the potency of the highs and lows and the exquisite tensions ( strange they haven’t abated after all this time… )

      I came in and just had to write, even if it was a mess: need the catharsis..

      Glad your London weekend was so fervid and life affirming as well x

  3. brie

    I am floored!
    These are the stories that I love to hear, beyond perfume, bearing your soul, so to speak.
    Indeed, you MUST write a book….and I expect an autographed copy!

    Ultimately, you would not be doing what you are doing if there were not a passion and desire and talent for it (right now I am talking about your role as teacher). You know what I do and there are days when I ask myself if I can continue…but we do…who else but us will do it in our own “special” way, as I am sure that you add your unique spin on teaching that the other Japanese professors could not and/or would not. Keep this in mind when you get down/frazzled/stressed.

    Know that you are surrounded by friends…all over the world!…who support you.

    • ginzaintherain


      You know how it is: you love it, and you hate it. Your energies are DRAINED, but it is energizing at the same time: a constant loop.

      Perfume is a way to rise above, to go to another plane…

      Incidentally your third, far too generous package arrived. I love those solid perfumes! Of course I automatically went for the coconut, which I am destined to like, but strangely loved the Mountain temple even more. I hate woody perfumes yet love this: it reminds me a bit of an old L’Occitane perfume I have called Cannelle Orange: gorgeous.

      And speaking of cinnamon, I adore the Thieves Balm the most. I would wear it as a perfume; slathered it on my chest last night. Ordinarily these eucalyptus blends smell healthful but almost unpleasant: this one is heavenly, smelling of breeze in cassia trees. Which company makes it?

      And, finally, and I am not just paying lip service, you HAVE converted me to sandalwood in this instance. If that Bois De Santal were a perfume I would wear it; there is something red and gorgeous in it that spices it up and de- butters. Lovely. What is in it?

      Thanks so much and for the words of encouragement too.

      • brie

        So well put…”a constant loop” Yet I also feel that very few would have the patience to work with severely autistic children so I just keep chugging along!
        Sounds like the package came along in perfect time to cheer you on. I knew you would like the Mountain Temple…with vetiver and patchouli how could you not? The Thieves Balm is made by an extremely local mother and daughter team- Earthen Vessels- and they use only herbs,botanicals and essential oils in all of their products. I have been slathering the Thieves balm all over my body (including the soles of my feet) and have managed to stave off the flu that is running rampant at work. The Bois de Santal has a very strong vanilla note to me which is why I sent it to you. And given that it is merely a hand cream the scent lasts for hours! It is made by another local (NY) artisanal company-Soap and Paper Factory- Unfortunately the company does not list the notes of Bois de Santal on its website. They do make glorious solid perfumes that I adore but sadly Bois de Santal is not one of them!
        Hope you are in good spirits!

  4. Ana

    Neil, thank you for taking me into your world, and somehow into mine.It’s no wonder we like the same movies.It’s nearly spooky how I recognize my own soul in your feelings

    • ginzaintherain

      Nice to hear from you again. I watched Turkish Delight the other day and it was ridiculously amazing: beautiful, alive, shocking, ripe…. came home after work and watched it, dissolving into its kinetic, living atmosphere.

      Also loved The Soldier Of Orange, The 4th Man, and Katie Tippel. The man is clearly a genius.

  5. Cath

    I don’t know what to say. I think you and I should get together and have a bitch session about Japan, teaching, teaching in Japan, being a part of this country in your heart, but feeling like an intruder, because a gaijin will always be a gaijin, even if you’ve lived here for over 20 years. Sometimes I feel like I need to get out of here, leave this country behind, and find a place, a society that will accept me the way I am, and where I can blend in and be myself.

    • ginzaintherain

      Cath I hear you!

      Next time you are in Tokyo or I am in Kinki, it’s a date!

      But you know how it is: those foreigners who just complain about the country get on my nerves and I find myself going into protective mode as there is so much I love, as I am sure you do…

      Yet: it is so profoundly xenophobic at heart despite the acid politeness: we know deep down that we are, and as you say, always will be, outsiders.

      Glad to have found a fellow perfumist in Japan who understands!

  6. Hi Neil, I teach too and I also have a hard time compartmentalizing and not have my work take over my whole being. It used to be much worse, but circumstances became such that I either had to force myself to care differently, or suffer total break-down. In any case, that is a long-winded way for me to say that I truly sympathize.

    When I am feeling a little run-down, I can also overdose on the fragrance. I think that I read somewhere that when you are tired, or exhausted, your sense of smell is diminished so it is easy to overapply. I was doused head to toe in ELd’O Rien, which is pretty powerful applied lightly!

    I hope that by the time you read this message, you have had some time to decompress and feel a little more “moored.” Big hugs to you!

  7. Lynley

    I’ve been reading your posts for months but have never commented so hello 🙂 You’re right, frankly I’m rather tired of hearing of all your enviable finds 😉 All that’s available here is rancid Avon it seems. Yes I’m just jealous 😉 lol

  8. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    I thought I might be able to avoid feeling this way this year, and it is true that I am nowhere this time as poisoned. But today, my mental toxicity is high. I have a wonderful life here in Japan on the whole, and I think this usually comes through clearly on a The Black Narcissus.

    But pre- entrance exams, though I truly love most of my students, I just start to gradually lose my mind.

    My nerves are SHOT.

    I am vastly, and violently, irritable.

    But I think this crap from last year that I wrote in a fit of expunging my madnesses describes it really much better.

    You truly have no idea how f***ed up the work culture is here in this country: the exhaustion that the Japanese put themselves through. And yet, the eternal paradox: the place is fun to live in, he says unconvincingly.

    Today I just wanted to commit mass murder….

  9. At least it comes at the time of year when narcissi are blooming. Sorry you’re having a rough time, and I must say that I feel badly for the students in this system, being trained to endure misery for the rest of their working lives.
    I recall one year long ago when I was obsessed with scent in flowers, and grew a succession of fragrant bulbs indoors and outdoors all spring. The parade started with forced paperwhites in January and went through to late pink hyacinths outdoors in April. The loveliest was a deep yellow forcing narcissus called Soleil or something like that, and I seem to remember a cloud of sweetness with a note of ripe peaches when the sun came through the front windows. But the succession required about as much forethought and attention to detail as you’re showing to your teaching right now. Still, it’s been a decade or two, and I might be up to the effort again.
    Thank goodness for your pub. Are you due for a drink there tonight, or very soon?

    • I really wish you could join me. I would love it. Let’s meet there in about, say, two minutes?

      • Don’t tempt me! I’m covered with vintage Opium, due to a piece of luck on EBay, and ready for anything, except possibly a (very) long plane flight.

      • !

        Brilliant: I am delighted you got some vintage Opium. Parfum? Edt? Is it everything you hoped? Is the new version a criminal atrocity in comparison? I haven’t smelled it recently.

      • EdT, late 70s. It is lovely. Full of sandalwood, the real Mysore deal. I snared a bit of the original parfum too, but am surprised to find that it isn’t that much richer than the edt. I think that the edt is the exemplum of Opium. The current formulation is a very different thing. Compared to the original it’s a travesty, but maybe if they had renamed it we would all think it was a nice enough incense fragrance. It’s hard for me to say what I would think if I had approached it with no expectations. But I can say that real sandalwood makes me feel wonderful, and I start thinking “hmm…what would a ticket to Japan cost, anyway? Hmmm…”

      • Japan awaits your presence. Reeking of Opium.

      • I’m concerned that a population tending toward rosy L’Occitanes would stiffen, look aghast, and possibly fall over backwards when they got a whiff of Opium. But if you and Duncan were to meet me at a pub in Bangkok or someplace like that, we could wear whatever scents we wanted.

      • Cath

        Feral jasmine, you’re giving me ideas. I also have vintage Opium and I’m ready to go and make some rosy smelling Japanese fall over backward. Let’s do this all together. I could even wear MKK for more effect ;))

      • Yey. A terrorist collective. I’m in.

      • No no there are feisty dames here who do know how to rock an oriental. Might be problematic on the rush hour trains, though: hilarious…

  10. elaine

    Beautifully written post Neil…brings back memories of the good times we had with you up on the hill. Oh that walk! Miss you. X

  11. Renee Stout

    “…this kind of splurge is so emotional and embarrassing that I immediately regret writing it afterwards. If someone is reading it and likes it then it makes it all valid.”

    The “splurge” may be embarrassing for you, but it’s very rewarding for me as the reader, because I’ve never visited Japan. You give us a very vivid sense of place and the way you navigate through it.

  12. Neil, I love all your posts…they are always descriptive and mentally put me in the place where you are. I am certain I would love a book written by you on Japan–a place where I would love to go, but doubt that my finances (or shall I say “the lack thereof”) will ever take me there. However, I especially love the random thoughts you write and share with us…PLEASE NEVER STOP WRITING!

  13. Tora

    Sometimes when I read your writing, I just fall into a little more love with what you say. This piece is another epic story of who you are. I will be standing in line to read your book, Neil. Until then, I wait for the Black Narcissus with baited breath. I feel like I have a soul mate all the way across the world. And it makes this world a smaller and better place.

  14. Katy

    Today is my Birthday and reading this post was the best gift I received. I love you, Neil and bash on! Maybe someday I can meet you and Duncan at your wonderful neighborhood bar…….

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