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.