Cocooning yourself at home for two days in Kamakura is the best way to find yourself in the mood for a day in The Big Mikan. And it was a beautiful, sunny day yesterday as I headed out to my usual haunts and some new ones, blending into the crowds and observing the fashionable young J-things; reading my new perfume book on the subway train rides in between (Mandel Aftel’s deliriously involving ‘Fragrant’ – review coming soon); ambling, daydreaming, and just generally enjoying the aesthetic stimulation that a day in the thriving, teeming metropolis usually affords.
Yes, I enjoy just walking and looking. And it is always fascinating to me the way that Tokyo fashion changes; the way that different cultural currents converge to make people all suddenly dress in the same way; how a certain ‘look’ can appear as if out of nowhere, one that all those easily influenced by such things immediately begin to adapt and perfect. What is initially fresh and exciting, though, quite quickly, for me, becomes dull – especially when you see hordes of people looking the same. Standing near each other on the platform: a mass fashion shoot. Young female Tokyoites really do nail these things, though – exquisitely put together, flawless, airtight, in a way that is unimaginable in the west, and I happily absorbed their recherché, polished, neo-80’s get ups: sharp, streamlined silhouettes complemented with baggy jackets, interesting jewellery, and often completed with black Boy George or Bow Wow Wow hats, the tight dresses and leggings, but more so the make-up, which seems to represent a great shift from the late nineties and 2000’s when it was all about browns; dyed, light brown hair; Louis Vuitton handbags, brown, kohley eyes with eyebrows plucked or virtually non-existent, all suave and immaculate- all very womanly and grown up (boring, actually). It was all a bit safe.
This new thing is interesting: a kind of Pan-Asian reversion to what to me looks more Chinese or Korean. I used to be able to guess immediately what country a girl came from based on how she dressed, but yesterday it felt like the girls of North-East Asia had all blended together into one : indigenous black hair, black, liquid, eye liner, very red lips, and exaggerated, full dark eyebrows. Almost Frida Kahlo. It does feel fresh, actually, a shift of some kind, that possibly reflects the less internationalized youth, the look inward more towards Japanese culture ( I noticed the ‘rising sun’ flag is more prominent now than before, Abe’s right-wing government certainly making inroads into the country’s veins); a certain tight, Nipponesque, aesthetically confident insularity.
Strolling down Omotesdando boulevard, one of the Tokyo equivalents of the Champs Elysées, a gleaming, undulating street of wealth and shine in the shade of zelkova trees, all the usual designer suspects in tow, I unexpectedly came across the new Dior perfumery, a small boutique devoted to makeup and scent that was unsurprisingly empty (it’s all about more visible ‘accessories’ like purses and bags here in Japan). I thought I would take a look anyway. The main store in Ginza is formidably formal and daunting with the footmen-guarded doors and the fawning but supercilious and begloved staff, and it is a mild trauma just getting to La Collection Privée for a sniff: the perfumes feel like irrelevant asides in a megalith devoted to clothes that cost the earth. At least with this place you can just walk in off the street, and the private collection is there on display, easy to sample. With the beauty products displayed on the right, and the perfumes on the left, this is a pretty amenable place I would say, if you are into Dior. The thing is though, I realized yesterday, is that I’m not. Not really.
I mean yes, like any true perfume lover, I have my bygone Dior favourites. Fahrenheit was one of my youthful fancies that I wore almost literally by the litre (I used to buy the 600ml bottles, and was drenched in the stuff the entire time I lived and danced in Italy); Eau Sauvage Extrême was an aromatic lavender that I always enjoyed as it soothed me when the moment was right; Jules is deeply sexy, Poison in its original incarnation amazing; Miss Dior on the right girl is stunning, as is the heartbreaking Diorissimo; Diorella is something I wear on occasion, and Diorling is a siren of the sixties that is well worth smelling in vintage for its voluptuous, corrupting leather. Yes, the house has had its classics, especially under Edmond Roudnitska. But Eau Sauvage, which once thrilled me to the kernel when I first smelled it as a seventeen year old with that peachy, sparkling lemon citrus, somehow just smells watery and attenuated in the current version with a nasty chemical backdrop that almost smells like oud; as has been widely noted, all the classics have been reformulated, and the majority of the shop is devoted to these castrated and neutered current best sellers and flankers: J’Adore in innumerable versions, of course (and still that tiresome Charlize Theron picture…..); Dior Homme, which I am personally not a fan of despite its delectable initial iris, ‘Higher Dior’……
I had a quick snifter of the Dior Homme Cologne, and while a touch generic, from a gender perspective I was quite impressed by how feminine and pleasant smelling it was. I quite like the idea of the tall, skinny template that is modern malehood smelling a bit more wistful and ambiguous and not just brash, gay-clubbish, and macho. Still, it was obviously not something to get excited about. But then neither, for me somehow, is the whole Collection Privée, a line that other perfume writers seem to get so lathered up about every time a new edition is added to the lineup but which so far I have been quite uninspired by.
I tried Granville, for instance, and was quite taken at first with its dour and serious herbal take on the cologne formula, with the thyme and rosemary and its overt top notes of Normandian pine needles, but as with most of the others in the line, it then became too fixed, severe, with an aspect of brow-knitted ‘fashion gravitas’ that just does not become me. I am open to suggestions, still, and will certainly be going back to the store to make sure I know for sure, but, ultimately I am just not really intrigued by any of these Dior perfumes for some reason. One thing I was quite drawn to, though, in the boutique, was a form of perfumer’s organ, in which every Dior perfume in the store was stored in stout, sturdy flacons that looked like perfumed ink bottles, the Poison a pleasing, belladonna purple: ‘Les Extraits’, I think they were called, which I thought at first might be real exclusives. Apparently though, they are just essences for ‘professionals’ to use when consulting, more a bit of decoration, really. Something to give the store an air of extra authenticity. I would have taken some photos, and I wanted to the entire day I was in Tokyo (so much to photograph, always), but the main reason I was out there yesterday was to get my lost iPhone back from Oimachi police station that I lost a couple of weeks ago when partying in Jiyugaoka. Naturally, Japan being Japan, it was not stolen, as it would have probably been elsewhere, but handed in, dutifully, to the police. Amazing (this is a side of Japan I never tire of….. I once lost my wallet, full of cash, and that was handed in too. And another time, I left another wallet in a taxi one night. The next day, the driver actually drove to my house to hand it back to me…)
After Dior, it was further up to Aoyama, past Issey Miyake (Jesus; the ‘new’ Nuit d’Issey for men; vile! So familiar, so dull – I think I even preferred the three ‘Pleats Please’ scents that were lined up in the store, toxic little fruit cocktails that nevertheless at least had a gleam in their eye); bypassing Prada (the effort to get the sales penguins to retrieve the private collection from the back of the stock cupboard sometimes just doesn’t seem worth the trouble, somehow), and right into Comme Des Garçons for my annual trip to get my friend Junko a perfume for her birthday (she always gets me some kind of interesting film box set for mine). We had worked through a couple of Montales, and then I went all woody and Kyoto and arid Jalsaimer on her (which I noticed was missing, incidentally: has it been discontinued?) and she has quite simply never looked back. If ever there were a femme boisée, it is J. This time, I was torn between Zagorsk and Ouarzazate – a name I simply cannot ever recall without having to revert to Google – as Junko is a total wood/incense lover now, and I can’t imagine her in flowers ever again. Of the two I personally I would probably go more for the Zagorsk, with its violet, birch and hinoki vibe, but then again that scent, to me, is so depressing. Burnt, pitch black, melancholic – quite poetic, but on me just so deeply, profoundly wrong, and I worried that it might just bring her mood down. I wasn’t sure if the Ouarzazate was too big, fatty, oversexed with its Moroccan oud and spice vibe (Avignon would just seem too spectral and weird for her, somehow), but Junko’s favourite perfume of all time is Lorenzo Villoresi’s amazing sandalwood and spice spectacular, the thick and unguenty Alamut – I sensed similarities, so I decided to go with that one instead; Sex over Soviet. I hope she likes it.
It’s always amusing to be in that shop, though. As I have said before, the most extreme fashions it is possible to see in Tokyo are on display here, the majority of assistants not quite able to pull it off, as though they had arrived at work in ‘normal’ clothes and then changed into their ‘costume’ in the changing room, transforming themselves into suitably fitted out CdG acolytes, transformed like Disney employees into Mickey. Still, I got two bottles of Comme Des Garçons mineral water to take with me, ridiculous items which will nevertheless look quite interesting on my desk at school (wow, he drinks designer water!)
……as I got lost on the underground and went a torturously long route to Shinjuku via the subway (too crowded! thank god I live n the dark zen beauty of Kitakamakura I always think to myself, imagining myself getting off the train later in the cool, coniferous silence, as the day wears on; I start rueing the throngs – you have to contain yourself; glide through them, distance yourself from all the other commuters and shoppers in order not to feel panicked, although the enlivening fact that there is never any aggro or danger to worry about certainly does help you in this regard).
Isetan. Nothing new in the Men’s section, except for Il Profumo’s latest release Quai des Lices, which I thought sounded more like a remedy for a scalp infestation but which was in fact a light, fresh and curious blend of tobacco, eucalyptus and mimosa (‘very popular!’ the assistant assured me). It smelled quite original, odd, curious, but not really my thing. Then, across the street over to the main store to check out how much my new favourite, Diptyque L’Eau de L’Eau, was being sold for. Obviously, whenever I like a scent, that will be the one to be hidden away or discontinued first, and the Diptyque lady had to search for a bottle at the back of the cupboard in order to check the price. At least I know they have it though, even if the 100ml bottle is six times more expensive, in the flesh, than my 200ml recycle shop bargain…….(sigh.)
And then…..ah!! they have Guerlain L’Homme Idéal! I have been reading reviews of this, this cherry balsamic, this new departure in men’s perfumery, how it is supposed to be something new and exciting, but I can’t tell you how disappointingly crap it smelled to this primitive, vicious nose. Maybe I need longer with it ( I don’t ), but ideal man my arse: this just smells like extraordinarily familiar old chestnuts like Minotaure or Nikos Sculpture and their like mixed up with brash, sports aromachemicals and a brief hint of cerise; cheap-smelling and uninspiring, an insult to Guerlain and its lovers. Anyone who has been raving about this scent is surely either anosmic, an idiot, or on the pay roll.
Pah!! I emerge, eventually, from the needling, suffocating temple of luxury and make my way to seedier quarters. Ni-chome, the gay zone, with its rundown but cosy, upward warrens of bars, cafes and bookstores and pick up joints, a place to wander about with a more relaxed and soft-bellied spirit. I watch a very drunk young man being tussled with in the middle of the street by the police although it is still only afternoon; this man is out of it and he is spitting at the law. His friend attempts to persuade the officers that the poor creature is just drunk, although he really is too legless and aggressive to be moved. I turn a corner: Vietnamese and Thai eateries, traditional barbers, a Buddhist crematorium and cemetery. And what is that over there? An antiques shop? Never seen that before.
Inviting in the crepuscular afternoon light; lamps twinkling in the fading day, a nest. One of those Anglophile places, where the fetished regalia of my home country is placed immaculately according to a Japanese logic and imbued with a Tokyo essence of pinpointed style: old glasses, plates, paintings, post cards, candle holders, cabinets and chairs….
A beautiful necessaire, one of those antique, enamelled wooden cases that hold perfumes, combs and powder compacts and the like, and then, next to it, an empty Lavender Bottle of some kind and…
Good Lord. Surely not. It is. Coty Chypre. An antique bottle, 40ml, almost full. Sealed, and un-openable with a beautiful, beautiful, Lalique crystal stopper. The scent still palpable, alive still, nevertheless; breathing up to me imploringly through the stopper. I lift this perfect bottle (so elegant, so simple : a sloping rectangle, bucolic label – the box is paper, or cardboard, not in the most perfect condition, but it has heft, I feel its age : this is not one of those Chypres from the forties or fifties that you see on e-bay no; this is the original, I am sure, from 1917 or so, and I can feel its essence in those base notes that are somehow managing to emanate, in tiny proportions, through the glass. It smells warm, inviting, lovely, and I know immediately that I will like it better than Mitsouko, the scent to which Chypre is always compared.)
The man says it is not possible to open it. I say I am a perfume writer, and that although the bottle is divine as an artifact, I am more interested in the contents. I have no intention of buying it, of course. It is priced at 78,000 yen (428 pounds, or 679 dollars) and is completely beyond my funds. I don’t know how this sounds in whatever currency you are reading in, but the yen has really strengthened recently and 78,000 feels more like 700 pounds in the Japanese reality – utterly unaffordable and stratospheric (for a few seconds my heart thought it might have stumbled upon the bargain to end all bargains).
They are unable to prise open the lid, the whole friendly and relaxed family involved now, in the kitchen – I say try warming it under hot water, I won’t buy it unless I can smell it first.
They can’t open it. But the man then says we can give you a 25 % discount.
Now it is 54,000 yen. I start to wonder……..