We were headed up to an obscure part of Shinjuku in the evening on Saturday night for a small performance in a theatre there, but, naturally, I insisted we stop off first for a bit of sniffing at Isetan in the town centre beforehand, specifically because I wanted to see if my instincts were right about Mareschialla – an aromatic, tobacco and nutmeg scent by Santa Maria Novella I had smelled a few weeks ago, quite liked, and which I thought might be quite good as one of those characterful and dandyish scents for the D. The SMN apothecary, spacious, delicately lit, and situated aloofly on the eighth floor of the iconic department store (next to a chic little coffee bar, and a tiny, cramped, and über-chic shot bar into which I saw a beautiful woman in lilac kimono disappear) is rather appealing, with enough room to sample the extensive wares at your leisure without being pounced upon by sales ladies – these are nice and knowledgeable assistants for once; but, despite my anticipation, D wasn’t having of this Mareschialla business which, on closer inspection, rather than the spicy and dry cologne I was thinking of, was more like a sour and musky, deeply rosed and fusty potpourri scent with mulchy spiced accents (mainly clove and nutmeg) that I still myself like, I must say, but which he said smelled horrible – like an old beef stock cube.
We did the full range. Peau D’Espagne smells as gorgeous as it always did, an antique, gazelle-hued kid glove (the perfect soft leather scent?), but too blond and sweet, somehow, for either of us to think about wearing ourselves. Città di Kyoto, another scent I was trying for the first time, a powdery sandalwood iris-musk, is in fact vaguely reminiscent, somehow, of that unforgettable and haunting city, with slight reminiscences of vintage Shiseido Feminité Du Bois, but also, for me personally, a little bit too Comme Des Garçons (in that typically woody way); worth trying though if you like a gauzy, incense-ish, subtle sandalwood skin-scent. Eva was quite nice, I thought: a very soapy, fresh-lemon floral vetiver that it would be quite hard not like for its clean, relaxed expansiveness, but, again, not something that either of us would wear. A much better fit for D, unsurprisingly, was Tabacco di Toscana, which I didn’t even know existed, but which from first inhale you realize is not one of Santa Maria Novella’s musty antique scents all’Italiana but one of those more modern additions to the collection; a sweet, sawdusty, dry, and long lasting perfume that caresses the skin with a light tobacco undertone and modern sensual musks in a way that reminded me a bit of Bulgari Black. It lasted all day and well into the night, and had that requisite ‘loveable’ quality that draws us both in, meaning that it might, at some point I think, have to be purchased.
Prior to entering the perfume haven of Isetan we had just, on the semi-pedestrianized main street of Kabukicho, seen a big, loud and angry street protest against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial bill to change the Japanese pacifist constitution and widen the scope of the military – a move that right-wingers approve in this time of deep and rising friction between China and the two Koreas but which, given the country’s colonial history and past mistreatment of those countries, has obviously been met with incendiary responses, not only from Koreans and Chinese but from many Japanese as well: in fact, only last week a sixty year old man self-immolated in the middle of Shinjuku, a truly shocking act that one really doesn’t expect to happen in such a ‘well-behaved’ and politically docile country as Japan.
That the country has been shifting to the right, though ( as is most of the world, it seems )is something I didn’t need to be told by reading the newspaper: you can feel it. There is an nationalistic introversion in the air, less interest in other countries – as evidenced by the ever-decreasing number of Japanese students going abroad to study, and a certain, cold-eyed curtness towards foreigners that I have noticed at times recently . There is also, increasingly, I fear, a lot of overtly aggressive rhetoric about the country’s rivals in Asia, particularly China, even from my students, something I am not at all comfortable with and remonstrate them for – you can only imagine the conversations around their families’ dinner tables.
I will not get into all of this now in detail, but one thing I do know – the situation is complicated, fractious, and getting worse. While I can fully understand the viewpoint of those who say that the U.S-imposed post-war constitution, which forbids the use of any militaristic action by Japan except in pure self-defense, is perhaps outdated, given the shifting power balances in the Asia-Pacific region, and deprives the country of the basic right to run its own military (not to mention the indignity of having to still rely on American army to defend them, seventy years after the end of the war), simultaneously, the absolute, almost triumphalist lack of remorse relating to the World War II actions of Japan and the bulldozing over the sensibilities of countries that were affected by Japan’s imperialist aggressions in the time since, make the re-militarizing of the country an issue that many people in Asia, and in Japan, feel understandably very passionate about. It is a major potential shift in policy. For many Japanese, the fact that this country is the only one to have ever experienced the annihilating force of not one, but two atomic bombs (the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was an edifying but traumatic experience I would not like to repeat, I must say), but, then, successfully rebuilt itself into a peaceful, vibrant, safe and successful society, is something to be very proud of, a peace that feels threatened by Abe’s undeniably nationalist provocations.
Whatever your thoughts on these issues, it was startling, on Saturday, to be shaken out of one’s anticipated drowsy, easy, shopping reverie by the sudden noise, as we came out of the station exits, of loudspeakers, angry chants, the beating of drums, and the passing by of thousands of people vehemently demanding that the constitution not be changed; comparing Abe to Hitler; campaigning for peace, and for death to the fascists. The disconnect between the materialist morphine of window-shopping, and the stark realities of the shifting nature of society (and I can feel it shifting: what is going to happen in the next few years? Could the ridiculous spats over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands turn into actual war?) opened up some strange void in me on Saturday, I must say. I was tired from the week anyway, but the sky was bruised and swollen, and clear, yet peculiarly humid; the gathering of people together often can give rise to a certain tumult in the breast in any case, the impassioned singing of human voices together, but suddenly I really felt as if I were about to burst into tears and I had to get a hold of myself: semi-overwhelmed, some emotion just rising up as if out of nowhere, as though rather than just dreaming about the Tokyo streets in my hedonistic fashion as usual, I were ‘witnessing history’: a history I don’t want to be a witness of, and one, I sincerely pray, that is not about to be repeated.
Still, being the drama-addict I am, it was all very exhilarating somehow (anything that shakes up the torpor of the everyday life of people always is), and we darted about, being refuted and pushed back by the sullen faced policemen as we tried to take some photos of the demonstrators; and then, suddenly, a car comes by, trying to get to wherever it was going with a couple sitting in the front with their two hilarious-looking dogs growling out of the windows because the car had come to a standstill in the political human traffic, and I found I just had to leap into the road and approach the car window to capture their expressions; this amusing, gruff, but very real, moment in time.
Then, to veer away from all this spectating, heart-beating and Che Guevara, stomping street-carnival fury and into the cool, and grave, interiors of Isetan and its world of unquestioning riches; its floors and floors of clothes, bags, wallets, and other things to buy (because you have to buy something, else what are you spending all those exhausting office hours working for?), me immediately making a beeline for the new Heeley corner there to try Coccobello, a coconut, obviously, and a quite nice one at that, if overpriced – a bit ozonic, a big figgy, and dry-woody in the base; not bad, quite a nice ‘escape’ scent (is this all perfume is? An evasion of the harsher realities?), but, again, not something I would necessarily buy. I look for the new Serge Lutens L’Orpheline, but it is not out yet. Scan the shelves. Yes, know all of those.
We take the elevator up to Santa Maria Novella.