March 2007, Kamakura. I had been invited to tea with one Ms Ichihara and her sister: two refined old ladies who have been living in the same elegant old wooden house, near the famous Kenchoji temple, for sixty years. It was a cold, grey day, but the camellia tree outside the front sliding door was host to the most magnificent, deep red camellia flowers I have ever seen; brilliant contrast to the gnarled, mottled bark of the surrounding trees.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I know Chieko, the older sister, from music circles; at seventy three she is still performing Schubert lieder at small amateur concerts in the area, but I had never met her sister, Hanako, who has an artist’s studio at the front of the house. The two were like chalk and cheese: Chieko, despite her extravagant, eccentric appearance (Orville-goes-Maharaja, all glittering purple sequins and never less than shocking pink hair), is a cultured, urbane, retired businesswoman with the skin of a peach; always very perfumed (I think she might like to be noticed) and a fluent English speaker who comes out with camp one liners: “When my boys (her colleagues) went to America, I always made sure they brought me back some Joy.”
The sister – plain, unadorned – has the face (furrowed, wild, somewhat off-kilter), of an artist, and much of her jewellery work done in solid silver and Japanese black enamel, is excellent. On display in her little shop, but strangely not for sale unless she really likes you.
When I first crossed the threshold and went into their home, as if often the case in Japan, the first few minutes, with all the formalities, weren’t exactly relaxing. I was admonished by Hanako (who speaks no English): “Fifteen years in Japan? You should speak better Japanese!” and was told, in great detail, about their illustrious connections – they both know the Empress Michiko – and their high society family; but such conversations, where you boast of your bloodline, can only go so far. Fortunately for me though, they had decided to forgo the tea and instead brought out some Japanese red wine, refined tidbits – pickled Spring greens and fried lily bulbs from the garden
(“ no-one eats this anymore”) which helped things along immeasurably.
Talk eventually got on to perfume. I already knew Mieko’s favourites, but had presumed that the much more spartan Hanako wouldn’t be interested. But suddenly she said:
“Mine is Crêpe de Chine.”
“ Crêpe de Chine?”
“Yes, do you know it?”
“N-no, only the name; it is extremely rare. Do you have it?”
“Do I have it? It is my perfume! I have only worn Crêpe de Chine for forty six years! Haven’t you smelled it? Would you like to? Eau de cologne? Parfum?”
To the casual reader, this will not be much cause for excitement. But for me it was a very good turn of events indeed, and I practically hit the roof (by this point, reserve had been flung off, anyway, which I think they secretly much preferred.)
So off the lady ran, like an excited young girl, to fetch her ancient bottles of her beloved Crêpe de Chine; which were shortly placed in front of me on the counter. I hardly dared touch them. Did she realize that once used up, unless she searches long and hard, this perfume will be gone forever? Production ceased many, many years ago and any bottles left are in the hands of collectors, at the Osmothèque in Versailles, or dusting somewhere on forgotten shelves. Every drop is precious.
I wanted to know when she used it, on what occasions.
“I use it when I want to feel ECSTACY!!!!” she exclaimed, and made a rather savage howl as she inhaled the stuff and mimed the past flooding back: eyes closed; slow, emphatic inhalations. I realized then once more just how wonderful perfume can be.
Truly a sealed vial of life and experience to be sampled at will. Hanako keeps this perfume thus for life retrieval, a link to her girlhood, and to swoon at the sheer aesthetic pleasure the scent provides. Or to wear to the Japanese Noh theatre performances she loves (they told me the best one is under moonlight, by the sea, in September).
So, Crêpe de Chine: she was happy to let me splash and dab, and the extrait proved to be quite wonderful: a lush, ambiguous green chypre; old, for sure, but graceful, distinguished: a profound woody floral just not of this time. Something like a cross between Worth’s Je Reviens and Guerlain’s Vetiver, but not really like either: it was deep, magnetic, strange. I was desperate to experience it further (you always need time with a good perfume) but such a treasure was lucky to find even once, so when Hanako then picked up the bottles and scuttled back to her rooms, and knowing I would probably never smell them again, I just sat there wistfully with my glass of wine and smiled.