dogs of shinjuku






































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.





















Filed under Flowers


  1. I must say, dear, that it makes me nervous to hear about that “shift to the right. ” I remember so well feeling that seismic shift beneath my feet during the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq. The increasing refusal to consider any alternative to war…I am not a pacifist by any means, but I remember that surge of the worst kind of “patriotism” and shudder. Sometimes I think that I would prefer torpor to that. I do understand the problems with the constitution and all that, but I fear that bellicosity rapidly becomes its own reward.

    • Exactly. I am only a pacifist in as much as I want peace (so do you, surely?), and I was as unnerved by the build up to the Iraq war as well – I even demonstrated against it, so ashamed that that idiot Blair was joining that utter moron, Bush in a ‘war’ that I knew instinctively was wrong.

      And you are right: usually there IS a torpor in Japan, it is the most unruffled place imaginable in some ways, everyone just busily going about their business, but these days I do sense something in the air. Definitely.

      • Judith Butler’s writing on the American Government and media’s reaction to the Iraq War,and the development of reactionary and fascist responses to it across the globe, is really excellent. Check out ‘Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence’ also ‘Frames of War: When is Life Grievable’. They’re pretty accessible, readable, texts and give great food for thought on these things. Glad there’s some activism in Japan against the rise of right wing policies.

      • They all sound very interesting. As you know, I am not exactly a politico, but certain things are unavoidable thinking about and I would quite like to read a trenchant analysis of certain issues. Knowing me, though, I would give up after the first few pages. Hard core ‘reality’ and the stainless steel hardness of political prose don’t usually get me revved up enough to continue.

    • Apart from the dog picture, these were D’s actually. For some reason I failed to take any good ones then my batteries ran out, so I just nicked his.

    • I like the one of the sleek black car with the protesters in the background that he took especially (even though I sharpened it and put it in black and white) because it chimes with the Cosmopolis review I did – in fact it could almost be a still from the film. The anti-capitalist protesters in the background, and the shiny hard car in the foreground.

    • ninakane1

      What I like about Judith Butler is she’s a philosopher and a rhetorician so you get an astute political analysis that gets under the surface of things, but it’s more about thinking through how people respond to political happenings and how language gets used by governments and the media rather than an intense block of factual information (which I too find hard to read and absorb). She gets criticised for this approach, but I find it contemplative and open. The photographs are great. They are quite filmic! I thought that too. The black and white conjures those 1960s civil rights movement images! You two are great at capturing the moment x

      • ninakane1

        On a completely unrelated note, I’ve had Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ on the brain for much of today and was trying for the life of me to work out why! Just realised your post is the culprit! I’d prefer Thunderclap Newman, but for some reason Phil C is winning out in my inner jukebox jury. ‘I can feel it…’ Hang on, let me share the joy via the wonder of Youtube –! x

      • ninakane1

        And here’s Thurnderclap…

  2. Such an interesting day you had. The juxtaposition of abject luxury and the protesters fearing the worst is interesting. The situation, very disturbing and sad, is also interesting. I do not ever feel that war is the way to go, nor fighting in general, I feel diplomacy should be utilized more. Unfortunately, dealing with China, diplomacy may not work. Just as trying to be diplomatic with a bully rarely succeeds.
    I do admit, the Japanese constitution is a bit outdated, the war was 70 years ago, and dependence on US protection should not be the only option. On the other hand, Japan was quite vicious in all its actions during WWII, so it would make people worry what this all would add up to. Such sadness thinking about it all. It must be so much sadder for everyone over there than any of us could imagine.
    Parfum really is such a daily reminder of what can be so truly beautiful in the world, at the same time the current events balance that with what is truly horrible in the world. If only the whole world could be a beautifully parfumed, decorated and lovely place. If if could all be scented with a bit of Peau d’Espagne how much nicer it would be.

    • Nah: a blanket of suede would be suffocating, but I know what you mean.

      I don’t think there is such great ‘sadness’ per se among people, more a mutual, furious resentment. And apprehension. Definitely apprehension among certain people that things are all headed in the wrong direction and that the friction could become more than that: actual war.

      At the same time, to be honest, this was just one tiny group of protesters in one corner of the capital that were probably viewed as a bunch of weirdos by most of the people out shopping (although some of the onlookers, myself included, were cheering them on I must confess). Elsewhere, Japan continues in its never-ending gleam dream, people just working and enjoying themselves in cafes and restaurants, and shopping endlessly, and getting on with their lives.

      Ultimately, China and Japan rely on each other so much economically for trade, that I doubt either is willing to let things escalate too much. I think it’s more a question of principle and philosophy, that the country is renouncing something that many people feel is precious and unique – an officially pacifist constitution.

  3. Your weaving of political analysis and parfumerie is astute. I think the parallels here are potentially deep and to my knowledge are as yet completely unexplored. Are there for example, connections to be made between the right-ward shift of Abe and the fist-in-glove fascism of Peau D’Espagne? Left-wing politics is too obviously linked to Tabacco di Toscana by el Che’s cigars, but did Fidel ever wear Feminité Du Bois? These are important questions that perhaps show a way forward to a new understanding of those tired left/right vetiver/sandalwood dichotomies. Keep pushing at this door.

    Less facetiously, lovely writing (again!). I’ve been gnashing my teeth at some of the nonsense spouted by Abe and his cronies: “comfort” women “not coerced”, idiocy about Yasukuni, that pillock at NHK. It’s mind-boggling that some people still want to defend the country for its part in WWII, and that Japan as a whole seems remarkably myopic about what happened. (Are there really only 4 pages on the war in the standard school textbook??)

    The discussion in para 5 seems spot-on to me, very fair and balanced. So I just have to check: was it really Neil who wrote that?

    Finally, your photos are great. The first looks like something from Cutie and the Boxer.

    • I had to re-read paragraph 5 to see what you were getting at, and I suppose it does seem remarkably clear-headed and balanced, especially considering that it was written at 8.30am on a Monday morning with a coffee in bed just off the cuff.

      But it definitely was me. I suppose it seems weird, now, seeing that I showed NO interest in current affairs when we were at university (and I still do genuinely believe that the ‘news’ is vastly overrated in importance), and that I didn’t read a single newspaper in the years we were there, being far more worried about existentialism, dying, Madonna, and the smell of Obsession (remember it?), but one of my daily rituals, which I adore, is to get up, make coffee, get the International Herald Tribune, which comes with The Japan Times (so badly and cretinously written!), and to read them both for at least an hour (or two) while listening to music. The fact that you are supposed to jump up, gambaru, and ‘get on with your day’, huffing and puffing and being ‘busy’ makes me perversely want to do the opposite ( I hate the idea that there is a way of life that you are ‘supposed to have’, childish though I know this sounds) and my lounging around in bed for hours on end is a big middle finger to the establishment, the world, and to life itself, and the whole carpe diem nightmare of ‘having to make the most of every moment’, which I think is a huge stress that I just don’t need, the sense of the clock always ticking (which is why I have never worn a watch). fuck it. I didn’t ask to be born, so I am just going to indulge in a bit of sloth, thank you very much, and it doesn’t hurt if I learn a bit about the ‘world’ while I am doing it, either. Excuse this utterly pointless rant.

      And by reading the IHT, which is essentially The New York Times, and a paper I really like (much more than The Guardian, which, dare I say it, is almost too left for me, in the sense that there are no surprises, that it is a set way of thinking – I read a copy this March on the train from Norwich to Birmingham and I was bored out of my skull: I felt that not a SINGLE thing had changed in terms of tone or content in the almost two decades that I have been in Japan, and I remember being irritated by it even when I occasionally read it in London). The New York Times, which I supposed would be considered left by most Americans, nevertheless contains a wider variety of viewpoints, and more importantly for me, is extremely well written. It stimulates me lexically, even aesthetically, and over the years I suppose I have gained more knowledge about world events than I used to have.

      Also, even though I am an irrational, neurotic freak, at the same time I am very logical. REALLY logical, I think, especially when it comes to philosophical questions. I feel I can see through the bullshit immediately, which is why I loathe nationalism so profoundly (because it is just so STUPID and OBVIOUS that you only love your country more than any other BECAUSE YOU WERE BORN THERE, DUMMY). The only thing I hate more than nationalism is air conditioning. And also religion: much as I might have spiritual yearnings, I know in my heart that I could never subscribe to one, and its ‘scriptures’ and ‘edicts’ and all that because HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY KNOW THAT THAT PARTICULAR RELIGION IS THE RIGHT ONE? The same goes for atheism; HOW CAN YOU KNOW?

      Strangely, though I have my own opinions on most issues, I have a sometimes annoying ability to perfectly understand the opposing side’s way of thinking, be it abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, whatever: there is this odd duality in me which means that I could never become an extremist politically as I can ALWAYS understand the opinion of the other side. And Abe’s wanting to change the constitution I do understand, perfectly. I can get inside his nationalist brain, understand how he wants to give Japan more ‘pride’ (pass the sick bucket) and so on. But also, obviously, I really also understand those who worry about what it all implies.

      And you are right: the whole whitewash of World War II is disgusting. But then I think that growing up in Britain I had no idea whatsoever of the ‘sins of our forefathers’ either. I think we do a similar thing in England. The Nanking massacre denial appalls me (but then again, I wasn’t there, so who knows what actually happened) but I am sure that there were quite a few neat slaughters here and there by the British Army Gentleman swathing their way across the continents in the name of Pomp and Circumstance (you will have to tell me – I haven’t read a history book in my life; I am literally unable to get past the first paragraph).

      The word ‘myopic’ is definitely right though. S T U N N I N G L Y so in Japan. People’s inability to question anything is a source of constant fury to me, the docile acceptance of everything. It is truly shocking.

      As for perfume and politics, well I don’t know if they mix (I saw a drop in ‘followers’ immediately after posting it, unsurprisingly), but although The Black Narcissus is definitely a perfume blog, it was never intended as a ‘beauty blog’, obviously. ‘Beauty writer’ is not what I want to be, even though magazines and websites devoted to those things can be enjoyable and stimulating when they are well-written and not just obsequious suck-ups to cosmetic companies the writers have got freebies from.

      The thing is, I truly am obsessed with smell, and perfume, and am aware of it every moment I am awake – it infuses everything I do, but then again I don’t just sit around gazing at perfume bottles, so I also like to link it to whatever else is happening, be it cinema, music, Japan, or almost in an autobiographical way – it sometimes feels like a diary, written through smell. This is why it can never be a very popular site, because ultimately I think it is just too personal. But many of the perfume-only sites, while exciting for the perfumista to read, can also feel lacking in something. I put myself completely in it all, and often feel rather vulnerable and naked as a result, and yet to be instinctive and real is more important to me than anything else, so I have no intention of changing.

      I love your analysis of the Peau D’Espagne and the Tabacco di Toscana by the way. The idea of Fidel Castro in Feminite Dy Bois (a lovely rich, sweet, plummy and spiced cedar wood scent) is very appealing. We are going there for Christmas, actually. Have you ever been to Havana?

      Thanks for reading, George. I hope you will reply to this.

    • Ps. The photos on this occasion were D’s, except for the bulldog one, which I am really pleased with. I love doing pictures just as much as I do the writing.

  4. Lilybelle

    I loved your writing here (I always do), and the photo with dogs in the car is hilarious. What a strange, funny, tragic, absurd world we live in.

    • We do. Which is why I would ultimately rather just capture a hilarious moment with dogs in a car that worry too long about the other baloney, which, ultimately I feel has absolutely nothing to do with me.

  5. jennyredhen

    Perfume and politics… where else would you get that mix. … but here…
    It is fabulous that Japan doesnt have an Army but the reasons for that are outdated
    I think the sanctions against Japan should be lifted. Everyone has their Army The New Zealand Army mainly does peacekeeping and good works through out the Pacific as well as aiding the population in times of disaster. The Army can provide a place where young people can train and get qualifications they might not be able to afford to get in the outside world. An Army doesnt have to be all bad, we have to put the past behind us. Maybe I am totally naiive..

    • No, I agree with you in many ways, and I was trying to put across a balanced viewpoint in my quick analyzing of the situation, understanding why the government would want to change the constitution while also feeling keenly for those who might interpret this as being more sinister and antagonistic. It is a complicated situation, but I do feel that Japan is, and has always been, monstrously insensitive to China and Korea. It is shameful. But then I am British, and who shows any remorse there for things that the Empire did in the name of bloody Hope and Glory? I can understand some people in Japan’s idea that there is no reason why they should repent when other countries such as the U.S, and the U.K, have equally shameful pasts (and presents, actually).

      Anyway it’s all a load of bollocks and I don’t really care about it. BACK TO PERFUME!!!

  6. David

    I love how you wrote that Japan is a never-ending gleam dream. It’s so true! And thank God for that! The gleam is what kept me going when I was living in Tokyo. I remember one horrible day when everything was dark and dreary and I wandered into a store in Shibuya that sells panda goods and my mood just suddenly lifted…. When I came back last December to pay my taxes, I remember being so depressed after handing over 400,000 yen….but the lady at the city hall said “When you come back, you’ll be all set to go.” That comment made me feel so welcomed. And then I went to the Barbie store in Harajuku to buy Christmas presents for my Brazilian cousin-in-law and the clerk was just so lovely and gracious and she wrapped the Barbie accessories so elegantly and I felt my heart just melt….I have ties to both Japan and Brazil through my partner. This gaijin gringo survives both by focusing on the gleam.

  7. ann

    Your blog is one of the most interesting on the net. I love it. This was a fascinating and scary read. Abe was here in Australia being welcomed by our right wing and incredibly stupid prime minister so we are well aware of Japan’s new military powers. No mention of protests in Tokyo of course.
    Thanks for your writing about Japan and perfume, don’t stop.

  8. Shinzo Abe. Yasukuni. And now, this. It’s been a long, long time coming, and I predicted this exact constitutional proposal back in 2005, but it’s depressing nonetheless. But I really thought this military thing would have happened earlier, with the Bush Administration’s support, as they could have used the increased troop assistance from Japan.

    The demonstrations shown here are quite a surprise to me, though. For a variety of reasons. Also surprising is the fact that it doesn’t appear that the ultra-nationalist, extremist groups were there to counter back. They can be quite militant and aggressive on occasion, and one would think they would have made an appearance here. I suppose that wouldn’t be very Japanese, though. Plus, they’re probably just smugly gloating in the shadows, at their various victories and at the growing white-washing of the past.

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