Monthly Archives: September 2015

MORPHINE IN THE MOUNTAINS……..MUST DE CARTIER PARFUM (I98I) + OLIVE FLOWERS by MADINI (2OI0) + INIEZIONE DI MORFINA by PECCATO ORIGINALE (20I3)

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I sometimes try to bypass, in vain, the cliché of perfumes being seasonal. I am still using small amounts of my favoured Summer by Kenzo on my white workshirts, in the desperate and futile attempt to prolong August and July (even Japanese late September could pass for the hottest English summer day),  with its lovely, gentle, almond-milk mimosa powdery seaspray smell that does kind of work, kind of, when the sun is out and the soft, sandalwood emanations come out of me clean and homely – but it smells preposterous in the rain, and there has been a lot of that; the lack of genuine, pure and searing heat, such as we get here in August, and which I adore – makes the top notes seem most synthetic, like bleach. Already all my jasmines, ylang ylangs and white flowers seem inexorably wrong – I can’t even touch them, let alone smell them. Instinctively, like all perfume lovers, I am now, as the sun leaches impossibly away from the hemisphere, drawn towards the warm and the cradling, the comforting and the numbing, as the nights get colder and darker, and the brooding feel of Autumn and its creeping, more lingering shadows and melancholies piercingly come into play.

Post-summer holiday, the hectic-ness of work and the classroom has been really quite hard to handle but we fortunately went on an impromptu trip this weekend to the hotspring town of Shima, a place I had never even heard of but which turned out to be a beautiful, isolated, traditional Japanese onsen town nestled along a strong, gushing river. Green and lush, with wild begonias and spider lilies carpeting the road side, Shima is connected to the town of Nakanojo by a car ride through meandering hillviews and pine forests, a place we had gone to specifically for the Nakanojo Biennale, an art event that apparently aims to revitalize a moribund place where children are disappearing as the birthrate declines by using the abandoned houses and school buildings that abut the area as installation spaces for contemporary art. Dominique BB, a good friend of ours, dancer and performance artist, was doing a piece, that night, ‘Dark Matters’, and we decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to go. It turned out to be a very worthwhile decision.

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There is often something very spooky for me about Japan, something I feel quite viscerally, especially at night, in old-fashioned places, and most particularly, in the mountains. I think the foreigner imbues where he lives and where he works with the essence of himself, rendering the place familiar and liveable even when it is steeped in an alien culture (the one he has adopted),  making it his own. Thus, Kamakura, Fujisawa – the city where I mainly work and am utterly bored to death with – Yokohama, and many of the parts of Tokyo that I know quite well just feel like my well-known playgrounds now, sufficiently Japanese and thus different to still feel dream-like and exotic. Just. But also so infused with my own experiences and memories that they also belong to me as much as they do the indigenous inhabitants (is this the essential immigrant experience?). Take me away from these places, however, into the Japanese mountains, to the styx, into the unknown worlds of folk stories and slowly dying villages and more secluded, un-urban places, and the creepiness soon unfurls; the hokey, chintzy sentimentality and parochial, smalltown ‘cuteness’; the sense of being foreign suddenly acute and overpowering, the dark habits of the residents and the overriding mountain air suddenly making me feel small, weirded out, and discomfited.

We had decided only on Friday that we would go up to Shima, after Duncan had checked all the travel preliminaries (a bullet train, two local trains and a taxi) and decided the trip was viable. I woke up on Saturday morning exhausted and puffy-eyed from work, as enthusiastic and animated for the trip as a short-circuited zombie; unspeaking, sullen, totally absorbed by the exhausting teaching week.  I shoved some clothes in a bag, and wondered, in my half-doped state, what scents? Everything felt totally wrong, too sharp or irritating, except, for some reason, Must De Cartier, a vintage parfum which spoke to me immediately and that I have been wearing on and off for a few months now, having found it in a recycle shop in Yokohama and enjoyed immensely its vanillic, ambered complexity and green-fruited florality; a scent I find intrinsically unthreatening and comforting without being too overpowering or sweet – a wonder of instant contentment, in fact. So that went straight into my inner jeans pocket (the lid keeps coming off and that is the only way I know to transport it), along with two samples, on a whim, that were sent to me recently by Holly and that I smelled cursorily from the tester vials and thought might do the trick: scents to protect and soothe and bolster the spirits in the unnerving, dark environs of mountainous, Japanese Spooksville.

Like David Lynch, like ghost stories, like horror films, like all the inexplicable and the mysterious, I love, in a way, creepy places: there is a double edge to my feelings about them; a curiosity for adventure and story ( I think all travel has this component – simply lifting yourself out of your daily routine and space is in itself automatically liberating but unhingeing), but, also a strange thrill, like being a child, alone in your bed with a reading lamp and reading, for the first time, and in the darkness of the morning, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. There is also for me something deeply eerie about the Japanese mountains for some reason, looming over you with their ancient secrets and interiorized citizens, a country that was severed from the world for centuries, steeped in its own madnesses and rules, and as we got out of our taxi at a secluded and converted former elementary school (what happened to all the students?), took off our shoes and put on our slippers to enter the place ( I hadn’t been back in a school building like that in probably three decades ) I could feel my inner organs retreating inside themselves like a snail:  an instinctive reaction I involuntarily have when I feel overwhelmed by creepy sensation, as though my body were tightening itself from within in natural response.

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*

I have good memories of school, and of childhood, and of the classroom, but unlike a great deal of Japanese people I speak to who yearn and crave to return to their studenthood, I personally have no urge whatsosever to go back ( I love this time of life with its creativity and autonomy so much more I can’t describe it), and it is very strange being suddenly hurtled into an environment – tiny slippers, tiny urinals, tiny wash basins, tiny desks – that takes you back so vividly to your time as a small person, nervous in the hallways, eager to please and do your best, navigating the pitfalls and intricacies of the beasts that are children with their cruelties and caverns of insecurities, of homework and the dreaded P.E, and warm, curdled milk that you were forced to drink against your will, of the horrors, basically, of all institutions, and I have to say that Must, brushing easily on my clothes and wrists and neck, unobtrusive but sensual, expansive on my skin with its golden sheen of lush and ease; balsamic yet fresh, was like a halo around me, of this life, of this time, of the familiar.

I have always liked this scent – no matter what Luca Turin might have to say on the matter. In fact, the Great Critic and the grandiosity of his famed pronouncements can almost make you feel guilty for liking a perfume that He does not: scents I have long adored like Must and Jardins De Bagatelle and Nocturnes, all of which get the Turinian death knell in his estimable guides and are considered to be travesties of perfumery, horrors that should never have seen the light of day even though they have been worn and loved by millions, become like guilt-trips that you ‘know’ are horrible scents but which you love anyway, like certain pop songs that you are not supposed to like but do in despite of yourself (Oh forgive me, Signore Luca, for having transgressed thy sacred interdictions but go fuck thyself).

For those readers who don’t know Cartier Must, which was quite a hit back in the day, and which is very pleasing to the nose and spirit no matter what that man says, Must (try pronouncing it in the French manner with a more tubular ‘u’ to avoid sounding like an imperative or an insidious form of fungus), this was famously very different in parfum and eau de toilette – which in fact smells virtually nothing like it (nor like Must II, the eau fraîche version of which formed a very interesting review on here by the D).

Must parfum, a glinting oriental, is in the geneology of Obsession and Vol De Nuit I would say ( I have also been wearing vintage Obsession recently, another apparent horror, shall I now confess and say three thousand hail Marys?), but I must admit do love the cosy, cotton-wool vanilla sweet papousse of such scents, as soft as eskimo fur in winter, lingering close and warm; a protectant.

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Must parfum I know intimately, inside and out, also because an Italian friend of mine, Alessandra, who I lived with for a while in Rome, used to wear this perfume, and only this. I would clutch the heavy gold bottle in her room, the glassy, ergonomic heft of its flacon only adding to its elixir-ness, lying on her floor on a cushion, listening to her stories (always intense), about how this perfume had been given to her by a German boy who had completely broken her heart and lived, if I remember correctly, in Stuttgart, and who she used to travel for miles across Europe for to meet for passionate rendezvous, wearing the perfume he had given her as a gift and which may or may have not have suited her but which she willed to and so it did, its heavy (unreformulated) panache of real luxury – Cartier still smelled luxurious back then – a vampish, ladyish perfume for a woman who, with her short hair and tomboyish ways, was anything but. I only found out much later that this was not just a case of a love gone wrong or she being rejected, but that the man in question had in fact tragically died ( I never knew how, never asked,  and she had never talked about it or even intimated it at the time), although I suppose the look in her eyes, which sometimes made me uncomfortable, had hinted at it, that this perfume, now, was a four-dimensional memento mori of him. No wonder that it had the deep, sentimental value that it did for her, now that the scent itself was almost like a talisman.

Which is kind of how I used the perfume, actually, upon entering the unused school building, on Saturday evening, wandering the corridors of that place with trepidation but not much impressed by the ‘art’ on display, not in that particular building anyway, turning in myself quickly in avoidance somewhat and nuzzling up to my own smell; drawn, quite easily, to a café (actually a school sports room) selling beer (thank god), where we sat down, imbibed some alcohol, dissolved a little, and inquired what part of the building Dominique’s performance would be held in.

“Oh no, Dominique-san isn’t performing here, she is in the next town in another school building, Shima”

“(????) ”

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“…….but I am going there as well with my friends so we can give you a lift if you like”.

Breathe out. Serendipitous doesn’t even begin to describe this turn of events, as we had come all the way from Kamakura, very far away, it was 4.45pm and the piece was beginning at 5.30, and it would have been very hard for us to get there had these kind volunteers at the art festival not offered to take us there in their car, once they had finished work, pure chance, at 5.I0: cue an action-movie chase through the mountains, zigzagging vistas of fields and flowers and trees and the sun going down, five minutes, four minutes, two minutes, sixty seconds: we arrived literally at exactly 5.30pm much to the collective amusement (the ride had been really quite thrilling, if a touch hair-raising, speeding along with strangers in an unknown place, suspended from normality, mutually intrigued).

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We entered, this second time, the old, old school building, this one wooden, from another time and era entirely (the previous school building had been white, a seventies thing, similar to my own childhood), whereas this place was all tatami mats and wooden floors and ghost-house atmosphere: beautiful, if dark, sinister and, deserted once the performance began except for the (standing) members of the audience…..we stood along the walls of the corridor, inert, interacting with the performer and the space and the flickering lights from the installation that Dominique was working with – a collaboration with a Japanese artist whose piece involved a collection of lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling which would flicker on and off, making a beautiful, moth-clicking sound that felt like lights going on and off in your head, something directly related to the performance piece at hand that dealt with the ‘dark matters’ of childhood memories, how much we reveal, how much we conceal, and how we wrestle with our own torments. Like much of Dominique’s work, dealing with the body and identity – surrealistic, physical explorations of the subconscious, this was unnerving, wordless, yet compelling as she contorted herself grotesquely and took us into a hole-like space of privacy and nightmare (brilliant in such a space, that time-laden old school), even if I still felt that I had to keep a hold of myself, my sweet scent clinging to my membranes.

*

The performance over, and the artist whisked away with other artists to her compound, we were taken to our ryokan, or Japanese inn, the cheapest one, probably in the whole town as we were on a bit of a budget post Vietnam-Laos, and again, here I really felt those darknesses closing in on me, with the fusty old decor, the damp smells in the air, the river roaring outside that could just as easily have been the sound of a motorway or torrential rain (rivers and waterfalls are so much more overwhelming, even menacing, in the darkness). Topping up on the little Must perfume tucked into the inside of my pocket, we then went out into the evening, dressed in extra layers as it had got quite cold, in search of food and conviviality, although only a few Japanese onsen – hot spring – tourists were walking about in their geta and yukata, those summer-time light kimono, worn with light padded jackets to keep them warm post-bath as they trundled on down to the river to take in the air before returning to their hotels.

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There are some exquisite old buildings in Shima, – very well preserved turn of the century wooden buildings that made us really feel that we had stepped back in time; little old lanes that reminded of Kyoto, rooms within rooms in cocoons of dimly lit paper – although for a Saturday night in September the place was really quite deserted. After a meal in one of the few restaurants that was actually open we returned to the place we were staying (seemingly the only guests there – it was dark and deserted, alarmingly decorated with Norman Bates taxidermy), determined to try the inn’s own onsen bath, water piped in directly from the source, before retiring, then, to bed and hiding away from the ghostliness (these places look better in the morning).

Hot spring resorts in Japan are usually kept meticulously clean, a matter of obvious pride for the proprietors. There are rituals and rules for pre-bathing; body soap, shampoos provided along with towels, and there is a precise way of doing things: where you shower (thoroughly), in the bathroom area before you make your way to the hot spring tub where you can soak your cares away, and drift off into your own geothermally enhanced contemplatations, along with the other human beings gathered there like staring, blinking snow monkeys from Hokkaido (as we left Shima, we did actually see two monkeys leaping up from the road side, not cute little spider monkeys but full sized, feral apes).

This place, though, was dire. Beautiful. Filthy (but then what can you expect, really for five thousand yen (or fifty dollars) each?) We loved it, aesthetically: an underground, slime-veneered grotto that reminded of a seventies film by Dario Argento where you might have been tortured; all turquoise romanesque walls and statuesque water features (covered in god knows what; carbuncles; slime, mould, al fresco organisms), as if we had tumbled down a hole into an underground thermarium in Rome, neglected for all these thousands of years until now. The water, good, thermal, Shima onsen spring water, was hot, too hot, to get in for anything more than a minute, and we couldn’t even shower properly as there was nothing to wash with, just some cracked and disintegrated soap; and no hot water tap, just a cold one; but in such a place who cares about washing properly anyway – the owner obviously didn’t (a sweet old man in his seventies who was apparently running the whole place all on his own), and anyway we had a hilarious time splashing each other and trying to make the hot water colder to no avail by pouring pink plastic buckets of cold water into the broiling waters and laughing at the fact that although woefully inadequate from any number of angles, from the aesthetic aspect (which is always most important), in some ways it was perhaps the most beautiful onsen we had ever been in.

*

Your skin feels soft. Your body circulates with mineralized goodness; you feel like a different person.

Reduced to the essentials and infantilized, simple. Locking the door of the hotel room and getting into your individual futons you feel like the very embodiment of coziness, deliciously comfortable, the atmospheric creepiness of the hotel notwithstanding; the draw towards sleep, the river rushing by at (pleasingly) deafening volume, blocking out all thought ( I had fantastically unencumbered, clarified dreams as a result); my scent, post bath, on each wrist, Olive Flowers and Iniezione Di Morfina, both perfectly soothing, sweet and fantastically Italian fragrances that went with the equaly strangely Italianate experience we had just had and which were ideal and nerve-binding companions for sheets and the bed. Although I was falling asleep, my immediate impressions of both of these perfumes was a lulling-to-dreams mmmmm, the Madini Olive Flowers dry yet oleaginous; dense, potent and with plum integrity, a rich, deep, oriental blend in the mode of Bal A Versailles (the blurb says Shalimar, I beg to differ); all opoponax and balsams and an almost lavender like astringency that makes the name feel like it has sense – leafy, savoury – and, as I was to discover the next day when I wore it again, a very lingering, dirty animalic base. I would like a bottle. This is a good no-nonsense, pleasing oriental, a dot of which will do the trick. It has a real warmth. Then, on the other wrist, ‘Injection Of Morphine’, by Peccato Originale, which was no way as sinful as it might have led itself to believe, but was rather a powdery, dense, rose violet with ambery vanilla undertones and perhaps a touch of clove that is right up my street, almost like a more strident Teint De Neige (again by an Italian, I do like scents from that country, as I love its cinema). But where Lorenzo Villoresi’s baby powder cult classic has that perfect equilibrium of pressed, snow-sweetened make-up, there is indeed more of a jolt to Iniezione di Morfina with its fervent, rose-centred heart that makes its narcoleptic thematics more real. Cloistered underneath my layers of futon eiderdowns, I slept like a bambino.

*

The next day, after the breakfast had been brought to our rooms (toast and scrambled eggs, marmalade; coffee), and we flung open the shutters and could really see where we were, all malingering feelings of dark spaces and horror films banished with the sun of the morning, I realized that Shima, is, in fact, a very beautiful place. We both really want to go back. The river is magnificent, a stunning natural green-blue. The curves of the mountains are gorgeous, serene and calming, and the town itself feels as though it had been molded along with nature, to live alongside it, rather than imposing itself on it. There is a natural feng shui here, more so than I have experienced in other hot spring resorts such as Hakone, or the quaint, but also soul-chilling, imperious beauty of Nikko. Shima feels tucked away and safe (at least it does in the daylight). An eased, gentle secret of a place.

We walked along the river, the sun out, now t-shirt weather late morning, early afternoon, going in now and then to look at exhibits in abandoned houses – various kinds of pieces that were designed with the place specifically in mind. I thought this was an ingenious way of mounting a biennale, actually; where often these things are so forced and pretentious, shallow and vacuous, the fact that the artists in residence were commenting on the town itself, on Japan, and using these spaces to make social comment as well as for philosophical and artistic endeavours (the passing of time and the river seemed to be central to a lot of this) meant that there was a transformational aspect to the entire proceedings. After a while, whether part of the exhibits or not, the entire town seemed to be become slightly magicalized, part of the art, or the art a part of the nature, and the Twin Peaks-like double-edged quality of the uncanny and the beautiful, along with the balmy, osmanthus-scented air, melded effortlessly.

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*

Before leaving town, and meeting a nervous Dominique briefly before her Sunday performance, looking at the old school building again in the daylight (still emotionally quite peculiar for me – what is it about going back to school?), where every classroom or school space had been transformed into something else and old feelings from childhood were dislodged and brought more vividly to focus, we had gone to the main Shima onsen, a real hot spring this time rather than the amphibious green cavern of the night before, and we immersed ourselves gladly in the healthful, somnific analgesia of its waters. Washing ourselves down along with the other, mainly silent and meditative bathers, we joined them outside in the open air, naked as the day; human beings languidly lying on rocks, sleeping or sprawled; or standing up and looking out into the valley like primeval man at the spectacularly blue-green waters of the river flowing below; breathing in, body and spirit lulled, and crystallized, temporarily, in the moment.

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on O S M A N T H U S

Source: on O S M A N T H U S

A brief reprieve on the psychotic computer, and the osmanthus is out, in full, a whole week early, on Helen’s birthday.

Happy birthday, muse x

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le narcisse disparu

it’s been a hideous week all round and now our computer has crashed to boot ( i am borrowing someone’s phone to write this).

see you when i return

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‘WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION’ : THE BLOODY ANNOYING FACT OF NOT BEING ABLE TO SEND PERFUME THROUGH THE POST ANYMORE GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

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I am the type to send luxuriant, magnificent packages through the post when the moment takes me. At least I used to be. The recent post 9/II postal restrictions have put paid to all that though,  and so I now officially, today, on this blog post give up.

It’s just that I love to share the wealth sometimes (and you know what wealth of vintage beauty I have come across all these years in Japan). I used to really enjoy wrapping up bottles in bubble wrap and beautiful paper and sending them off, imagining the looks on people’s faces when they opened them. Now, though, they always come back from the post office unsent, probably opened and sniffed about by dogs, of the literal or the human variety, and all my anticipation comes to nothing.

Strangely, though, samples do seem to come through here, from America and the UK and other places (usually from some of you wonderful people); labelled, usually as something else, which I have of course tried myself (this time it was ‘book, soap and incense samples’ he lied even though it was in fact all boxed parfums) but hell no: it had to come back.

I suppose in a way, all this security strictness does at least mean that inflammable horrors aimed at hurting people are less likely to find their target (are there really many such things flying their way across the world though?) but even so, it does feel like the end of an era to me.

Do any of you know any tricks around this? Or is it just no more post package joy for my friends and loved ones?

Boo.

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TOM FORD PATCHOULI ABSOLU (2OI4)

nightmare

A NIGHTMARE.

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SHADOWS AND LIGHT: : : an in-depth look at Japan’s one and only independent perfumery, PARFUM SATORI

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Sometimes it is good to just take a different path in the city and explore. Just wander. Take a left here, because that corner over there looks intriguing, follow that other road over there, by instinct  – no map needed. Get lost. In a metropolis as safe as Tokyo it doesn’t matter anyway: you can relax the usual urban defences, not be on guard, just sink into the streets and the labyrinth, a place that is always changing and demolishing; rebuilding, recreating, and reinventing itself, like a secretive, glowing, neon organism.

Returning blindly from a party one Saturday lunch time somewhere in Tokyo we decided to just walk and see where we ended up. Just peruse the streets, amble aimlessly along, happily losing our way, when, somewhere between the environs of Harajuku, Yoyogi, and Shinjuku, I did a double take. Almost hidden within the tiled and glassed walls of yet another nameless high rise condominium, was that not a perfumery that I just saw back there? Was it? Or was it a jewellers?

We turned back and looked. And it was both. Smarting with curiosity I suggested we go inside; pushing open the door gently, and gingerly, into a small, delicately lit room that seemed part living room, part atelier, part perfumery. Part antique shop: inro and netsuke and Japanese combs made of wood; tea pots and objets and porcelain tea cups; vases and sculptures and framed pictures. Necklaces and brooches. And a Japanese gentleman, perhaps in his sixties, genteel, cultivated, with a humorous and wordly glint in his eye, sitting at his desk working on a piece of jewellery while simultaneously entertaining a friend who was sat there drinking tea. He asked where we were from, and then, seeing my great interest in the surroundings in which I had suddenly found myself,  asked us also to sit down at the little table that was situated in front of a perfume organ, replete with black-bottled, labelled oils.

I was in heaven, and surveyed the room, noticing cabinets filled with some incredibly rare vintage perfumes that made my eyes pop out (the original Chanel Gardénia, an unopened Guerlain Djedi; decorative, limited edition Carons (Poivre), Coty Jade parfum), and, on the surfaces of these cabinets,  unostentatiously set out: the shop’s own collection of in-house perfumes, Parfums Satori.

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This was my first experience of Parfum Satori, a line of independently produced, beautifully made, and very Japanese fragrances that I probably would never have even heard of had we not stumbled across that little boutique near Shinjuku by accident. On that first occasion, the perfumer responsible for their creation happened to be away in France, as she was also on the second time I visited the shop, that time coming away with a sample of the signature fragrance, Satori (a perfume I have been meaning to write about for a long time but for some reason have never got around to).

On subsequent occasions, whenever I was in the area, I was also there on the wrong day ( it is closed, unusually for Japan, on Sundays). Yesterday though, on impulse, in the waning last days of my summer holidays, I decided to visit again. And this time, to my luck,  I had the full Satori experience.

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The jeweller in exactly the same position. An acquaintance, sat drinking tea. The usual, intimate, subdued light, lit by lamps, and filtered by lace. And despite the presence this time of an assistant, who asked me gently if she could help me (or more precisely, what I was looking for), I felt, somehow, again that I was intruding, like a giant cat in a precious and delicate Czech animation, knocking down miniatures, dolls; disturbing the nuance.

Unlike most perfumeries I have been to, there is seemingly nothing vulgarly commercial about Parfum Satori. Though it is, of course, a business, still, the select few sample bottles on the few available surfaces seem to almost fade harmoniously into the woodwork – the furniture, other perfumes, and objects –  that are placed throughout the space. The visitor, casually walking in from outside, doesn’t really know, in all honesty, quite what to do.

Flummoxed again for a moment as I was offered a seat, regaining my composure, I then said I had come, in essence, to try and smell everything in the shop. The man, recognizing me from a former visit, then picked up the telecom and called up his wife, apparently working upstairs in her studio. ‘There’s a foreigner gentleman here’ he said, as I nodded, glancing about me and waiting, a touch apprehensively, wondering how this would all pan out, for the perfumer’s appearance.

‘Satori’ is the attainment of supreme enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, the moment of awakening, comprehension, and understanding. It is also the perfumer’ name, and Ms Satori Osawa, a few minutes later, smoothing herself from her work, then pushed the door open; came into the shop, and introduced herself, a slightly quizzical look on her face as if to say perhaps who is this, as I sat, ungainly, on the low-placed chair, my overstuffed bag and hooded top sprawling all over the place, not, perhaps, the usual nicely turned out French journalists or writers she is probably used to having conversations with at her second home in Grasse. In truth, I had gone to Tokyo purely on impulse on that hot day and had not really thought very carefully about my appearance, nor considered the possibility of doing an interview with anyone, let alone a well regarded perfumer (which, I suppose in truth, you should make an appointment to do in advance). Also, going off on an unrelated tangent here, I am in that sand-glass, end-of-days time before going back to school as August dies into September, when I cling avidly to my non-teacherliness, a much more feral and uncivilized animal in my month-long beard and unkempt, messy hair, all of which will have to be trimmed and cut and shaved off and made neat and into shape before the coming term begins next week but I am, right now, in mode incognito and I am resisting. Still, the person that met the elegant Ms Osawa’s initially untrusting eyes did look rather like a cross between the original Neanderthal Man and the Creature From The Black Lagoon, and I can’t entirely blame the lady for wondering what, exactly, this person was up to (or after).

A name card, a peruse online of The Black Narcissus, and a picture of me at the Jasmine Awards  in London (“Ah, today is the casual version, I see”) said with a smile, certainly did something to melt the initial frost and convince her I wasn’t a serial killer. And, realizing I was quite serious about perfume and saying some things quietly to her assistant, who began packaging up the entire collection in samples, we then sat down to have an impromptu interview (in Japanese, with sprinklings of English words) about the essence, and philosophies of Parfum Satori.

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Sat demurely, and with a gauzed sense of Tokyo reserve, this perfumer has a quiet, almost hypnotically distant aspect to her that comes across also in her perfumes, which are, like their creator, definitively Japanese: apparitions, almost, that float in and out, creating aqueous, hazy olfactive impressions reminiscent of Japanese watercolours or incense, with French-influenced classical perfumery-led undertones; you can smell, immediately, that these are well-made and well-thought out artisanal products, ready to be snatched up by a high-class Japanese woman off to the kabuki or some social assignment in the upper echelons of Shinjuku or down the Ginza.

The starting point of most Parfum Satori creations, according to the perfumer, is usually Japaneseness itself, a point expressly made in the company’s mantra:

“Satori Osawa’s creations are based on traditional Japanese culture. Through the sado (‘way of tea’), kado (‘way of flower’), and kodo (‘way of incense’) that she has practiced since her childhood, she entrusts her perfumes with a message, a wish: to introduce the real Japanese spirit – real oriental fragrances”, a cultural specificity that comes not only from the background of the perfumer and her own personal inclinations, but also aimed, I would say, very much at Japanese taste itself. It is a well known fact that people in North East Asia – in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea – are not usually very drawn to strong, sweet or heavy fragrances, and most of the Satori range comes on subtle and deft, easing in gently in a drift of alcohol before settling onto the skin and revealing its  intriguing message. There is none of the chemical head clobbering that you get with much current high street perfumery, which must reveal its (usually tacky) main message within the first two seconds, but instead a rather delicate, finespun, and often quite unusual bouquet of scented elements that formulate themselves slowly on your skin into unanticipated, and quite interesting, perfumes (while some of the range I have been testing again by myself at home are quite conventional in some respects – classic green florals or rose and jasmine bouquets and so on, others strike me as being really quite unique and quintessentially Nipponesque).

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On the table, after showing me a recent article from a Japanese fashion magazine that was highlighting some Parfum Satori creations along with some other niche perfumes – presumably with educating the public into realizing that there is more to the joy of perfumery than what you might be assailed with in the average department store – Ms Osawa, as I asked,  then brought forth five representative perfumes from her collection that she felt were a good way in to understanding her philosophy.

Weather, and atmospheric conditions, were key, she told me, in designing her perfumes, in that Japan is essentially a very humid country, where the air is moist, unlike Europe or most of America ( a fact I can most definitely attest to – my skin starts drying up the moment I get back to England) and the perfumes reflect this practical need in olfactive terms deliberately. Oribe, for instance, a bracing green tea fragrance, is fresh and uplifting, as you might naturally expect from a perfume of this type, but also very different from its European counterparts such as the classic Bulgari Eau Parfumée Au The Vert, or the recently released L’Isle Au Thé by Annick Goutal. While I personally quite enjoy those scents on the odd occasion, there is also something rather fuzzy, even slightly bilgey about the base notes in those scents that can begin to irk me. Oribe, named after the renowned I6th century avant garde Japanese tea master, is delightfully green when it first comes on, cutting through the hot summer swelter; unsweetened, unhindered, the matcha note at the heart of the perfume scything into the air and the skin with head clearing notes of freshly cut green grass, camellia flowers, and a cleverly disguised addition of clary sage. A clear floral jasmine accord forms the centre of the perfume with just a breath of patchouli on its edge to provide a certain earthiness, while violet and iris (seemingly the perfumer’s favourite material) form an unimposing floral backdrop. While the airiness of the base accord might feel wanting in its in insubtantialness to the western nose, this is, perhaps, the point I think: Oribe is designed primarily as a momentary pleasure.

Sakura is another peculiarly Japanese confection in the collection, giving the cherry blossom flower – venerated for millennia in this culture for its fragile beauty and ephemerality – an entirely new interpretation. I always found the Guerlain Cherry Blossom perfumes a touch on the sickly side: too powdery, vanillic, ‘fruity floral’ to truly merit the name. Floris’s recent Cherry Blossom I felt came slightly closer to the mark in depicting this flower in perfume, but all sakura influenced perfumes I have encountered seem to hesitate, too pinkly, around the tremulous borders of the flower’s classical image. Satori’s Sakura seems instead to go right to the cherry blossom’s lineage and bore into its fruit from the inside: from the pickled cherry flowers used in Japanese cuisine, to the sakuranbo cherries that bloom later once the petals have fallen (less sweet, less coloured than their delicious American counterparts, the sakuranbo variant of cherry fruit different, more virginal). Sakura, the Satori perfume, begins with a firm sour cherry note that segues persuasively, with a clove-tinged woodiness, into a rose-centred heart that does, somehow, capture the emotive, vernal feeling of the cherry-flowering season in Japan and its mirrored despondencies,if not the diaphanous translucency of the short-lived blossoms themselves.

If cherry blossom is a universal signifier of Japanese culture, verging on overused cliché, then the ume, or plum blossom, with its characteristically ukiyo-e jagged shape, is the specific. While I personally fully understand the sheer romance and joy of the hanami or flower-viewing parties come March and April (see my piece on the flowers in Ueno Park for a closer look at how beautiful it can be), there is something nevertheless far more piercingly beautiful, as winter turns to spring, in the scent of the plum tree. When I walk home up the hill at night in the dark after work in January, that perfume catches and grasps me, surprisingly potent, even pungent; a night-calling, solitary, scent that seems to say to me don’t worry, it won’t be that long now, these frigid, starry nights will soon be on their way out and the first signs of spring will soon be around the corner (the flowers are lying though as in fact they won’t: you still have to wait another painful two or three months in your drafty, ill-constructed house with your gas heaters burning on all cylinders until it starts to get decently warm again but I digress).

Yoru No Ume, or Plum Blossoms At Night, is a genuinely strange and affecting perfume whose like I have never really smelled before. Almost savoury, even vinegary, at the very least foodish, in its very original opening of sour Japanese anzu apricots and cloves, the plum blossom heart notes, combined with muguet and rose, cleave longingly to a chypric, patchouli-touched, balsamic base that is long lasting, and peculiarly addictive.

‘Could it really be the same tree?’ asks the description on the card given out with this perfume. ‘The one with its piercing scent on a cold morning, and the one releasing fascinating scents on a warm spring night? The plum flowers, constantly changing their expressions, leave our hearts dreamful and confused’. Much like this perfume itself.

If Satori’s ‘Sakura’ reveals a certain slither of warm, Lutensian shimmer (in its depth; its plum cherry notes, and its anchoring of sweet woods), then ‘Satori’, the house’s signature scent, certainly makes the comparison slightly more overt. Though Ms Osawa bristled at my suggestion that this scent bears some resemblances to the original Shiseido Féminité Du Bois, that classic Moroccan Atlas cedarwood eulogy that I have in vintage extrait and treasure ( Duncan wears it wonderfully), there is no doubt in my mind that intentionally or not, the perfumes are certainly similar. But where the Shiseido (later Serge Lutens) is sweet and mahoganied, gilt with plum fruit and spices and centred on pure cèdre, Satori, its Asian counterpart, is less delineated around the edges and founded on the essential component of Japanese incense, agarwood, or kyara.

According to the house,

‘The fumes of kyara (agarwood), a type of wood said to have greater value than gold, rises straight up from the incense burner like a posture of an elegant and dignified woman. The light softly enters the room and enhances the woman’s gracious air. In a nostalgic silence, she leaves behind the rustle of her kimono and the invisible traces of her shadow…this perfume has successfully encased the Zen sense of Japanese beauty.

Kyara’s fragrance, the highest quality agarwood, is know to have five tastes: spicy, bitter, sweet, sour and salty. The five tastes are expressed by blending cinnamon and for spiciness, cacao for bitterness and vanilla for sweetness. Sourness and saltiness was added by a delicate amount of bitter orange, oak tree, moss and cypress, condensing the shades of the fragrance. These five tastes are unified by a woody scent based and sandalwood and frankincense, bringing out gentleness and warmth’.

A side by side hand study of the Shiseido vintage original ( I find the new Lutens version of Féminité Du Bois far less exciting, even if it is still a good perfume) sheds light. The Shiseido classic, I find, is harder, edgier, more animalic, while Satori has a softer, more expansive aspect, a blur of shadows. Both are excellent perfumes, with the Satori, ironically, having perhaps the more sensual, and feminine, edge.

For sheer originality and Japanese fascination, however, from these initial five perfume discoveries, nothing in the collection beats the alluring Wasanbon . Ostensibly a ‘gourmand’, with the now over familiar notes  of ‘sugar, almond, honey, vanilla and guaiac wood’ (albeit with more unusual additions of muscat grape; muguet, mimosa and a misty, doughy iris), this odd and compelling perfume nevertheless smells like nothing you have ever smelled before. The perfumer really has, as she told me, subverted notions of what a gourmand perfume should be. Drying down to a powdered, woody scent, whose nearest possible relative I can think of is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s doughy Bois Farine (though really, they are nothing like each other), Wasanbon, for me, in its exquisite drydown, encapsulates the Japanese spirit even more than Satori (though in truth, it is more like a ghost) then any other scent I know. ‘Haunting’ doesn’t do it justice. It is elusive, ambiguous and verging on disturbing, almost literary in its evocative qualities of soft incense, padded kimono, and light, careful steps in white-toed geta.

SatoriOsawa

Finishing this part of our conversation, her husband concentrating hard on his work under his spotlight, myself lifting each scent strip to my nose in the fading afternoon light, and appraising them under the watchful eye of the perfumer, thawing now each minute as we got to know each other, I was then invited, in my to my great excitement and pleasure, upstairs to the Satori studio…

PART TWO, coming soon…

UPSTAIRS AT SATORI + MORE SATORI PERFUME REVIEWS

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THE GOLDEN HOUR : : : VINTAGE COTY L’ORIGAN PARFUM (I905)

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I recently had the fortune to pick up a boxed, pristine, vintage parfum of one of the most famous of the Coty vintage classics, L’Origan. Schlepping at the back of the key-locked glass cabinet, unrecognised among its more fashionable second hand perfumes, the owner of the antique shop in Kamakura obviously had little idea of its worth. I was extremely excited to find it – not that I didn’t already know how it smelled  (my other tiny parfum enchantillon bottle was already running low), but to have this scent in more luxurious amounts, and at such a reasonable price, is a precious, and historically important, addition to my collection.

Often compared to L’Heure Bleue, which it preceded by seven years, L’Origan is a powdered, peppery, spice carnation with violet, orris, labdanum, incense, and a sharp, almost dour aspect reminiscent of dried herbs (‘L’Origan’ is usually translated as ‘The Golden One’ but also means ‘oregano’ in French). If Mitsouko was a fuller,  romantic reworking of Coty’s classic Chypre – said to be more angular and spiky – then so is L’Heure Bleue, which I find to be infinitely more plush, gustatory, and melancholic, not to say romantic, than the more private, yet  determined, L’Origan.

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I find in fact the comparisons between the two perfumes to be somewhat overstated. While L’Heure Bleue may have some spiced aspects that dwell within its swirls of cherry almond patisserie, L’Origan, in vintage, is pointed, divaricated: a soft, ambery, poudré vanilla base offset by the far more strident and full-willed, hard, nutmeg and cloved notes of the top.

This perfume has an autonomous quality, a strength and presence whose romantic overtures ( L’Origan would smell beautiful all dressed up in furs ) do nothing to detract from its essential self-reliance. If Jacques Guerlain did later use this anisic template to make his exquisitely rendered and emotional ‘blue hour’ ( I adore L’Heure Bleue), the perfumer certainly made that perfume very much his own, embroiling his heliotropine atmospherica in a lighter, and sweeter, Parisian wonderment. François Coty’s Italo-Corsican roots come much more to the fore in L’Origan, which is less sugared and much more androgynous; pressed : tightly bound together like powder in a gilded compact, ready; when the moment is allowed, to release its strange, almost medicinal, beauty.

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