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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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