I wrote the other day about the strange, dark beauty of the best Japanese incense. And for those who may have not had access to this experience, I was thinking about what perfumes closest approximate what I like best about o-koh: the shadowy, mothballed aspect that puts me in mind of an old temple priest’s kimono hung on the door of some wintery corner; that exquisitely poetic Japanese austerity which takes the severe to its profoundest, most otherworldly extreme and leaves you agoraphobically facing the void; dreaming; looking at the precepts of your own culture more deeply and wondering what life in fact really is.

While a lot of the incense I have tried is stress-appeasing in its woodful, powdered mellowness; heart-opening and sensual, like Horikawa by the house of Korin – a spicy warm oriental that fills up every nook of a room with its cinnamon and ambered goodness – much of the other incense you can try at the Buddhist shops is compellingly odd, especially when smelled in its full intensity from the box; almost alien and offputting in its black, moist camphoraceousness that teases out some lingering ancient Japanese spirit, entirely unwestern in its grave, self-disciplined, zen-master sternfulness. I have bought boxes of this incense nevertheless over the years, enjoyed its almost sour, pickled amalgamations of oudh/agar/kyara/jinko and other blended naturals such as cloves, cinnamon, patchouli and camphor. But particularly camphor. That cold coolness, that medicinal fire that separates us from the daily reality and leads us into the religious; the purifying, hairshirt, doubled down ecstacies of ascetism and meditation.

I have only really smelled two perfumes that put me in mind of this quality. One is a scent I smelled in London two years ago with a specific Japanese theme (but whose name I can’t come up with right now), that combined some very camphoraceous incense with ume plum as well as other quite original combinations of ingredients to odd but quite mesmerizing effect: I remember standing transfixed in Liberty, feeling a strange kind of reverse homesickness as I was successfully transported back to Japan by that perfume. The other overtly Japanese (to me at least, though it is not directly expressed in the publicity released around one of Serge Lutens’ most difficult scents), is Serge Noire, apparently created to express the rather arch and fantastical concept of a phoenix arising from the ashes (‘an ode to everlasting beauty under cover of night’s rich plumage’). This perfume: rich, disconcerting, deep and dark, based on notes of ‘black wood’, ‘crystallized ash’, incense, cinnamon, clove, amber and camphor, has a similar quality to quite a lot of the Japanese incense I have smelled over the years. Though Parisian, and recognizably so, with its correct gradations from wood and powder to herbaceous and upper spice, the effect is similar. The stunning opening of the vintage version (I have just emptied the one sample I have from ‘back in the day’) has a napthalene-like bite, the smell of mothballs woven into a spiced, burnt, incense clay of woven woods and cloves that is intensely enigmatic at first, quite hypnotic,  though it sadly dries down to a much more familiar, musky sandalwood accord that does not match the curious magic of the opening, and which I do have to say I have always found slightly disappointing. I smelled the newer version the other day in Tokyo from the bottle also, and it didn’t seem to have quite the kick of the original version, but I would like to try it again just to make sure.  Despite its flaws, Serge Noire is quite a fascinating scent, and it is worth trying if any of the above descriptions do appeal to you. There are not many scents out there that are quite this severe, this difficult and recondite; that access the particular emotion and aura of some the most unusual, even sombre boxes of Japanese incense.



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  1. I have a vintage bottle of Serge Noire. I wasn’t aware it had been re-formulated but presume that is the case with most all fragrances.
    After reading your blog, I sprayed some on–I tend to use my favorite scents more sparingly than others especially if they are probably now in a different formulation. As I am typing this, a fragrance is wafting into my persona–wow–I always loved this fragrance along with Chergui and still thing the two are among my favorite SL scents.

  2. Cath

    I have a sample of Serge Noire, I’m going to try it today, thanks for reminding me. I love incense, have many different ones, and am always looking for something that smells like my favourite Horikawa, from Shoyeido (not Korin). I found Zagorsk by CDG has a similar vibe, but it doesn’t last long.
    Have you tried the incense that you can rub on your skin, also from Shoyeido? It is quite a lovely experience.

  3. jtd0000

    Legumes de l’Encens. Isn’t that taking the savory gourmand bit from Jeux de Peau a bit far?

  4. Ha! I thought I was the only one.

    This is one SL from recent times I can honestly say I adore unconditionally. It is as uncompromising in its bloody minded pursuit of “the dark” as Tubereuse Criminelle is in of its namesake flower. I love the bite of camphor in it- and in fact that was my primary attraction to it. The severe and ascetic incense that followed, reminding me not so much of a severe Buddhist monk as much as Death itself – all bony and ramrod straight, was the next thing. So entranced was I by these that I did not even pay attention to the the burnt cumin, burnt fruit, burnt cedar & HUGE patchouli note for a long long time.

    In my mind, the scenario that plays out with this perfume is as follows:

    A non-believer decides to test the resolve of a monk who has taken a vow of silence and no food. He places before the monk, as a temptation and as a mockery, a plate of fruit. The monk sits ramrod straight, clad in flowing black robes, on the mossy forest floor, beneath a cedar tree, eyes closed in penance. Upon sensing the mockery and temptation in this man’s intentions, the monk opens his eyes from meditation – and in his anger, burns the fruit and the surrounding cedar forest with the fire from his eyes. The man having learnt his lesson runs away from the burning forest. The monk closes his eyes once again, in deep penance and descends into silence as the fire around him finally subsides into thick white smoke.

    Serge Noire captures the moment where the monks eyes close.

  5. Oh, now I need to go and apply some Serge Noire. 🙂 It’s one of my favorite Serge Lutens perfumes and luckily for me, I don’t actually think of it as incense-y as incense is not a note I enjoy.

  6. Tora

    Both your and Badrinath’s decriptions are quite moving and descriptive of what sounds like a very dark and challenging scent. This I will try. My favorite Japanese incense perfume is Phaedon’s Grisens. It is a much lighter perfume than what you have just described, but I believe it has characteristics in common with the Japanese sandalwood incense I have tried. Beautiful article.

  7. Lilybelle

    “…that exquisitely poetic Japanese austerity which takes the severe to its profoundest, most otherworldly extreme and leaves you agoraphobically facing the void; dreaming; looking at the precepts of your own culture more deeply and wondering what life in fact really is.”

    That is just so perfect. ^^ ♡♡♡♡ I went through a phase in my 20s of admiring everything Japanese in culture. I read books and watched films and looked at art in museums and drank it all in, desiring it but somehow also knowing I could only ever be a tourist, inherently irredeemably western. 🙂 Maybe I’ll go into another phase on my 50s (though I probably won’t smell Serge Noire).

    Merry Christmas! We saw six penguins in Japan in perfect red Santa suits being taken on a walk on TV the other day. So funny. 🙂

    • The other funny thing is that I had NO, I mean ZERO, interest in anything Nipponesque ( the original plan was to go to Brazil ), and came here really just to escape my life in England at the time and immerse myself in something different, purely for the sake of it. One result of this is that not being a true Japanophile ( I never will be ), I never had that grave reverence that so many people have for the country and culture. I am monstrously, constantly critical of what I hate ( it’s just that there is far more now that I love).

      You should come. At least once.

      Think of all the vintage Joy you could take home with you.

      • Brazil? Talk about the complete antithesis of Japan! I can see you and Duncan there, can see the appeal for you. It would have been a different experience, to say the least.

        Good writing. Not sure why I never really wanted to wear Serge Noire, even though I admired it. Possibly too unfamiliar without resonating emotionally. Or too dark, or gloomy? I have a vague memory. Perhaps if I had the association you do, it would have come alive for me. Must try to track down my vintage sample so I can experience it in the context of your associations. I’m fascinated now!

      • Lilybelle

        I would dearly love to visit Japan, and I am determined to within the next few years. We have relocated so many times over the past NINE years that I just want to stay put for a while and go nowhere. But I will come. I just need to catch my breath.

      • I know that feeling precisely!

  8. Tara C

    I was so excited when Serge Noire was released as I love incense perfumes and this one sounded perfect. I nearly bought it blind, but in a moment of lucidity ordered a sample first. Lucky thing, as SN was the most dire, stanky thing I had ever tried. Pure cumin BO on me, totally unwearable. I put it back in its tiny ziplock bag and walked it straight out to the trash can.

    As for pleasant Japanese-themed incense scents, my favourite is CdG Monocle Hinoki. There is an initial blast of turpentine and then the drydown of hinoki wood that I just love.

  9. rprichpot

    You make me want to try this again. I bought a bottle years ago, in the early days of my perfume exploration, and based on my love of other Lutens.
    It was hate at first sniff and I quickly gave it away.

    Now, years later, I wear many polarizing scents. I wonder if I would enjoy it today.

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