Monthly Archives: December 2016


The Black Narcissus





The other day I came home with two small bottles of very good ylang ylang and bergamot essential oils, and, as you do, I decided to terrorize my perfume collection .

The tampering/contaminating/ disrespecting of a perfumer’s formula is something that that probably fills most real perfume lovers with horror. And, ultimately, when I look at my own triumphs and misdemeanours and weigh the whole thing up, I would have to agree. The formulae are the way that they are for a reason, the creation of a perfumer who has tinkered, and weighed up, and mulled over the details until he or she has liked what she sees and gives the green light.

This I know.

What if you disagree, though?

Or if you have perfumes lying around that you never really use and probably never will, because there just is something about them that gets on your wick, that is…

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I haven’t had a shower in three days. Duncan has Type A influenza, and I am feeling weird myself as well. Like a man suffering from rabies, I am hating the thought of water touching my body. Instead, I am dousing myself in cloves; in all the Italian perfumes I was writing about the other day, and, to go to the shops, in my pyjamas and a hoodie (because I can’t be bothered to get dressed), I am steeped in the exquisitely rare parfum of Shiseido’s Nombre Noir.



In my initial, stunned review (because I couldn’t believe that I had found it for the equivalent of ten dollars, or whatever it was) I admitted to you that I was overwhelmed and a tad dry-eyed; I suspect at that point I had been reading all the ecstatic reviews with perfume lovers prostrating themselves purple-prosedly before the altar of Serge Lutens and Mr. Turin, and the cynical, devil’s advocate in me could only smell a variant of Knowing, Rose De Nuit, and Jean-Marc Sinan, and had to churlishly beg to differ.



I still think that Rose De Nuit is probably the closest I have smelled to this delicious, damasceneous perfume (YES, it is all about the damascones, the volatile, neon prune roses) and they leap out from my hoodlum, crumpled clothes and fill up the room, as does all my SPICE from my skin that lies beneath – and also the stench, I suppose, of my lingering, unwashed filth.




And yet as I walk out into the cold cold night surrounded by this dramatic, incandescent, and decadent perfume I feel like the French aristocracy; like an iconic marquis, like the sybaritic, indulgent royal scumbag that I possibly once was, in another life long ago





(and yes, the photo above is of me, taken just after that monster got into power…….I wonder… all of this deep perfume mania, this pungent incantation, some kind of livid, pointless revenge; some kind of talismanic attempt to frustratedly de-poison him, and it all, from my system? I don’t know; I know that I am still, as many of you are, traumatised……………..)








Filed under Antidotes to the banality of modern times, Psychodrama, Rose perfumes



IN the mid-1980’s there was a mini, sudden, spice wave: Italianate, operatic; fur coats and roses steeped in mulled wine. With cloves and cinnamon, carnation, ylang ylang, mimosa, pimento, leather,  incense, even chocolate,  these piquant, extravagant, animalic floral bouquets screamed stilettos: full dressing, elaborately applied expensive French makeup and a sense of purpose : to be the last minute, and delectable crowning spritz or five for that exciting; hair perfect;  gala night out.

The most famous by far of these dark-lacquered divas is undoubtedly Coco, Chanel’s bird-plumed foray into drama; Gucci’s taloned and gilded L’Arte; then Fendi’s successful ( and now also defunct ) eponymous perfume that was so jam-packed with spices it practically fizzed. Teatro Alla Scala, by Krizia, another fine addenda to this short-lived ( but thrilling) craze of the olfactory extroverts even put its opera credentials right up there in its name, but it is, in any case, also inherently plush and rich and eventful : full-throated and sensuous;  less oriental than Coco, less all-spiced than Fendi, less tragic than Ungaro’s Diva ; more balanced, more knowing , and self-fledged in its heart (admittedly, I have added more clove oil to my own petit miniature ( about 20% of its total volume), just to make it even MORE lush and spicily histrionic – but that’s just because I am possibly insane).


At at this time of year especially, though,  I CRAVE to smell these kind of happy, screw-you, voluptuous scents. I want a woman to walk by me on the street looking gorgeous, whatever her age, in  total possession of herself, contented; and SLAYING me there and then as I drink in her trail  :::: her hot, tantalizing, humorous, life loving, spice- drizzling, neck-guzzling…….PERFUME


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          I had a brazen woody on one hand – Wazamba (Parfums d’Empire), and Spiced Citrus Vetiver on the other. And passing from the simplistic ebonic rudeness…


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Angel is a monster.

There can be no denying it. I knew it then, and I know it – particularly upon opening an old vintage box set yesterday and getting whole swathes of it running down my hands when one of the bottles broke – now.

It was so BRAZEN. So ugly beautiful. So loud, and sheaven of all imaginable subtlety.  A patchouli, purified, yes, but in its original incarnation much earthier than you thought, emerging stealthily with its nuclear, syntho-vanilla concussions.

Sharp, caramellized, fruit- sapping metallia,  and secretly macho ambitions : spilling this faux-innocent, blue coloured juice all over my pajama bottoms last night as I recanted some juice into bottles I am now very much persuaded by Luca Turin’s assertions that this was, as originally intended, an air munching, hairy fougere.

It is toxic, this chimaera of praline; this mango of the switchblade.  So it is no wonder that my sister wants to KILL people in London who wear it, and suffocate her, on the underground. She has something verging on a phobia. She totally loses her rag.







Angel was never released in Japan. So in buying a discounted box set of pleasingly shaped star shaped little Angels from an antique shop in Ofuna recently ( an unwanted gift from overseas? ), I have been able to fob them off quite happily as  novel, last minute presents for Japanese friends.


And it is as if, being so inside-out-familiar with this perfume myself ( I do wear it, on occasion, then usually regret it ), but simultaneously it being new here to people, that I am smelling its gourmand, lactic iconoclasms all over again –  anew.



Yesterday evening, a beautiful clear starry night, it was my friend and neighbor ( and colleague) Kunihiko’s thirty fifth birthday.  At our local bar, with all of his friends and the cigarette smoke and the booze flowing ( and a wonderfully jovial atmosphere as Nat King Cole sang Christmas songs on the stereo  ) my hastily put together present of Angel in a white mini feather boa encased in bubble wrap went down a treat. He really liked it ( last year I have him Bal A Versailles), and  he was getting everyone, sat in various places around the joint,to then try it.



‘Sharing the Angel’……the smoky air light with the skin smell of chocolate….


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Sometimes I wear Estée Lauder’s Beautiful.








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I was in Kamakura today and ventured into one of my usual haunts, Strawberry Fields (in case you are interested: Kamakura station, Enoden station exit, shopping street, it’s just a bit down there on the left) :





















Today, 1000 Japanese yen = 6.86 British Sterling

11.73 Australian Dollars

8.16 Euros

11.38 Canadian Dollars

8.48 US Dollars












From the outside, you probably wouldn’t imagine that inside there is an Ali Baba’s cave of vintage perfume among the bric-a-brac. Well, that is an exaggeration perhaps, but seeing that all I have to compare this with is threadbare Mother Hubbard selections at British and American flea markets and antiques fairs (tell me more: I am very interested in the comparisons), there is no doubt that this shop, for the perfume maniac, is like a dream come true.





Before I go any further, this is not by any means the first time I have been in this shop. It does tend to yield. And Duncan will sometimes pick me up something from there on his way home from work (for my birthday he got me a gorgeous extrait of Lanvins’ My Sin, for instance). But you can go for a long time without any new additions. Today, though, she seemed to have a whole new influx of perfumes, of many different kinds, and I was in my ELEMENT.




Here she is – sorry I forgot to ask her name – with a bottle of Amouage Gold (by far the most expensive thing perfume wise), which I have considered buying (a beautiful rose sandalwood concoction) but which doesn’t quite smell right on either of us (yes, the lady does let you try the perfumes a bit, within reason): anyway, she is hoping that I will buy  this set at some point, and who knows, on some hot summer’s sultry night, maybe I will.













Otherwise, things are MUCH cheaper. Some things are perhaps a bit overpriced, like this Infini









which pops up everywhere and which you can get more cheaply. On the other hand,



are exquisite prices for intact, vintage editions of such classics.
















Things are presented in something of a jumble. But that is how I like it.






I’m thinking now that I should have got that beautiful Jolie Madame. In that size, and that price, that is a bargain from hell. I already have one the same, though.

And can anyone tell me about Gres Eau De Cologne? I forgot to give it a sniff.











Lilybelle, look: vintage Eau De Joy and Joy parfum!










For anyone who loves vintage Madame Rochas, there is TONS of the stuff in Japan….






IMG_0549 (3).jpg




….quite often very cheap as well.








What else?

Obviously, my heart leapt at a full bottle of


as I only have a couple of miniatures and this stuff is GORGEOUS. However, the colour alarmed me a bit and I felt the top notes weren’t there (for me, the beauty of La Nuit is in the contrast between the sweet, strawberry innocence of the head and the nymphomania of the base, otherwise there is no point).






Mmmmm……. Other animals available today included the much sought after







which I could never get into for some reason (please take it, it’s yours – there was another bigger parfum there as well), and







which I have quite enough of already (love that bottle though: very Antoinette – I might have to get it anyway).






Speaking of animalics, what I saw and knew I would definitely have to have today was


the DELIGHTFUL  Parfum d’Hermes, (in parfum!) which I happened to be wearing upon entering the shop in any case (in edt): a kind of Marquis De Sade meets Chamade, ET QUE J’ADORE.I seriously love this stuff.


No, there was no way I was leaving without that one. I can’t quite carry it off, but on a red cashmere scarf, oh yes, baby, yes.






Also, how could I say no to this?


Never seen a boxed edition cheaply of this legend in Japan (they actually had TWO – I might have to hurry back and get the other one, in spray: on my arm tonight it smells like someone wearing Givenchy’s Insense while walking down a midnight avenue of sad and beautiful Christmas trees……..really sexy actually. I might get Duncan to wear it tomorrow when we go to the Cranach exhibition in Ueno.)




The proprietor also, as she always does, gave me a discount and let me have both for 5,000 yen (which for 34 British pounds is a SERIOUS bargain), and threw in a boxed Dolce & Gabbana miniature boxed set for the hell of it ( I happen to really like the original releases by them so was rather chuffed).



La la la.



What else was there?




Some Interdit parfum, if you’re interested






some IMG_0544.jpg




and of course some





(somewhat overpriced I thought), as was this, but then this is CAPRICCI ( SO beautiful, and it is a really big flacon)










argh I want this















Some mysteries


(does anyone know what this is?)





Some old chestnuts





and some more recent perfumes as well.






Still, you can’t really beat the vintage thrills. There is something about the rectangular shape of this Mitsouko eau de cologne that blows my mind, but I couldn’t afford it.











(This round bottle isn’t too shabby, either.)














Anyway, there were others as well, plenty of them,  that you could rummage among: miniatures, half used bottles, even sample vials stuck at the bottom of wooden boxes………..things that the average punter on the street wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow over, but which for the perfume enthusiast, are nothing short of heaven, really.







If you do come to Japan and make the day trip to Kamakura (for all the beautiful temples and the Great Buddha, the mountains and the history), aside a few Japanese trinkets, you know what souvenirs you want to be taking back home with you….







Better bring a big suitcase……..










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I will admit that as I get older, Christmas gets harder. Not because I am inundated with things to get done and organize, shopping to do, events to plan, people to worry about, presents to agonize over, but rather the opposite: I find it harder to even care. Despite the unplaceable feeling of yearning and temporary homesickness I sometimes suffer from at this time of year (whose pangs can be quite sharp when they do hit me, thinking of family and friends back home), I feel, in many ways, that I have extricated myself from the whole process. Almost as if, being here in a far away, ‘foreign’ country for so long that celebrates Christmas in its own, peculiar and inimitable way (see my piece on Japanese Christmas for a more detailed critique), I have become able to see through the commercial hype and brain-clogging claptrap of it all the more clearly – the accumulation and repetition and the sheer predictability of it all just a fixed point on the calendar that we know will come around at precisely the same time each year and be celebrated in exactly the same kind of way.



Which is the whole point, I do realize. Societies and individuals need festivals and occasions to come together, a chance to celebrate something more than the focus on the self and ‘getting ahead’; to move out of our own self-obsessed spaces for a while and spend time with loved ones (despite the ridiculous amounts of stress that this seems to cause so many people!): wind down after a year of working and trying to just psychologically survive in this exhausting and overwhelming contemporary world, which, this year especially, has so depleted the energies and the spirits, leaving us feeling like broken and enervated husks. Traditions exist to allow us to strive for something higher, or at least more generalizingly human. Plus, they can be very enjoyable in the right circumstances and frame of mind: even joyful; something to look forward to and be excited about: that beautiful, piercing, reflective, melancholic end-of-yearness, when you look back and mull over what you have done and what you haven’t, coupled with the noise, and the smells, and the touching realities of the standard, complicated, family Christmas.




I think for me it all comes down to the loss of magic. And the terrible pressure I always feel to try and replicate it. Which is never going to be possible. Not ever – unless you yourself have children and can enter their pure and innocent world and believe again; or at least let their own beautiful unsullied enthusiasms rub off on you………perhaps then, and only then can you re-enter, to some extent, that frosty wintry wonderland of elves and reindeer and Silent Nights and holly and No Cribs For A Bed. Because, when Christmas was truly magical, you were a child and so believed in the lie of Father Christmas; that snow -whitest of lies (that I am very glad we were told because I have such intensely beautiful memories of that time), that to try and access them, now, in the face of the present, soul-clagging reality of department store Xmas and the same, tired old songs repeated year after year and the hideous poinsettias and discount tinsel and cheap, red felt Santa costumes and tins of solid jellied cranberries – it can, on occasion, leave a man feeling almost desolate.




We have tried. Over the years we have faithfully attempted to stir up some genuine Yuletide magic in our house here in Kamakura by setting up twinkling Christmas trees, putting up the fairy lights (which always slightly do the trick for me, I must say), and putting on the relevant music – right now as I write this I am listening to Japanese electronic pioneer Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing – synthesizer reworkings of Debussy piano pieces that have the requisite sparkle and are giving me some vaguely Christmassy feelings in the pit of my stomach, but sometimes it can feel as though there were some kind of futility lurking beneath it all. Why do we keep doing it? We are not Christians (although I have some residual feelings myself in that regard) and here, in any case, it is usually just another day in the week and nobody else on the street is doing it and it can feel as if you are flaying yourself into trying to get that feeling back, that marvellousness of memory from when you were a kid that you know still lives within you somewhere, but that you know, in your heart, you never will.




No. The best recent Christmases (I never go back to England for it now – I prefer to return in the summer) have been the ones where we have just said f*** it, let’s just get away and do something different. Although I was neurotically worried that I would feel bereft and depressed just relinquishing Christmas and not going through the motions, in fact, the first time we tried doing something new, when we went down to Kyoto in the freezing cold weather a few years ago, it ironically ended up feeling more Christmassy in the end than anything we had done for many years through the sheer spontaneity of each day’s discoveries, the exquisite environment, and then happening, purely by chance on Christmas Day, to come across a Japanese restaurant by the Sumida river that was traditionally Nipponesque but which also had a small glowing Christmas tree in the corner that felt beautifully and unexpectedly right. In the same way, jetting off to Florida and New Orleans with Duncan’s family two years ago also shook things up in delightul ways: it was almost as if by nutcracking open that Fabergé egg of familiarity and repetition you could see the light again.




I know that perhaps the majority of people deep down really are sticklers for tradition and want to do things exactly the same way every year – I remember my mother trying once, in an attempt to do something a bit different for a change, to have Christmas dinner in the evening, by candlelight instead of at the required 3pm around the time of the Queen’s Speech, a break with tradition that I was completely for personally ( I get deeply bored myself by deadening routine and stultifying traditions that can brook no compromise), but this change of precious habit caused such consternation and mayhem and regret among everybody else present (somehow it apparently‘didn’t feel right’ for various reasons), that no changes, to my knowledge, were ever suggested again. Like me, then, I suppose my family are also chasing the ghosts of Christmas past and want, again, to enter that exhilaratingly enchanting and enchanted space where my siblings and I, as young children, would rush downstairs to the Christmas tree lights and decorations to open our huge bags of presents, utterly convinced that Santa Claus and his helpers had really been there, excited to the point of delirium, and overjoyed that this nebulous, external presence who had drunk his glass of sherry and eaten his frosted biscuits and flown on a sleigh ride in the starry skies of constellations had somehow managed to brush our living space – and are trying, through ritual and renactment, to bring it all back again, to now.



But this is all something that I can’t, and don’t want to, try to go back to any more. Duncan and I don’t even usually give each other presents  (something I feel rather conflicted and guilty about: recently my family in England and I also decided that it was just too much bother buying and packaging and sending things from our two, very distant countries; part of me does just feel it is an encumbrance, but at the same time, I feel childishly jealous and regretful in a way)  – but on that vividly memorable trip to Kyoto, the first time we had ever truly broken free from the Christmas traditions, we just decided that if we saw something small that we liked, we would buy it for each other. In the end, that was what we did: just a nice winter scarf each –  but somehow it felt better, more precious, and more suited to the original Christmas spirit, than this excess of requested gifts that cost the earth, which, although in some ways expressing love, do in other ways to me seem the antithesis of the original Christmas.






We would always have a Nativity play in my primary school every year, little children dressed up in the familiar Bethlehem roles, a reimagining of time and place that always took me close to the more transcendent aspect of Christmas (particularly the music: I always have been a total dreamer and wanted to escape from reality), as well as sometimes going to the local church not far from our house for a ‘Christingle’ celebration on Christmas Eve that saw children dressed in white and red ceremonial garb carrying foil-wrapped oranges with candles in them down the darkened church aisles. That vision, and the smell of the church, and the heartwarming singing of carols, was always the perfect start to Christmas Eve for me, the contrast between otherwordly solemnity and then the more animal-like familiarity of our house on Dovehouse Lane where we would then come home and eat practically a whole giant tin of Cadbury’s Roses chocolates under the glimmer of Christmas lights, a selection box of caramels and nuts and fruit filled chocolates that we had every year, a Chapman tradition, and which we would stuff our faces with in anticipation of the glorious feast that would be Christmas dinner the next day. I suppose these are the smells now  – the loitering smoke of frankincense and the eerie, and absorbing, smell of churches; oranges, and spice, and the gorgeously evocative scent of Christmas trees themselves, pine needles coating the living room carpet to the exasperation of my mum who was always having to then vacuum them up (in my memory we always had real trees – plastic ones just aren’t the same), that most evoke in that ghostly, emotionally overwhelming sense we call smell, the magic that I sometimes just can’t help, now that I am much older, and in spite of myself, still trying to chase.







This year, though, forget trying to reawaken English dreams of snowmen and walks under Yew trees and clear, starry skies (though the moon has been very beautiful here recently). I have been, like so many of you I am also assuming, just so exhausted by the events of the world and the horrors of this year, not to mention the strains of my job and various health issues that have meant administrative and financial hell here in the world of Japanese hospitals (and a sense, at times, that my life is not entirely my own), that I just don’t have the capacity to try and contrive any heart-searing, emotional replicas of Noël. We are having no tree this year.



















But despite all of the above, now that my Christmas and New Year holidays have begun, and I have retreated into my much needed slob of a cocoon (no one reading this has any idea of how truly lazy I am), after a week, since finishing work, of socializing with Japanese friends that I wouldn’t get the chance ordinarily to see, of cooking while listening to my favourite records in the kitchen (heaven), and some days just doing nothing, or else going out to the cinema by myself or with Duncan, I have had the luxury ( and I realize how lucky I am in these days in Japan of death from overwork and exploitation and wars and death in Syria and elsewhere and everything else to even have this time, this life; most of my Japanese colleagues don’t); the true luxury of beginning to feel a sense of life and possibility coming back to me, an untightening of some of the stress, and a sensation that my heart and mind and senses are open again to whatever is coming next.






Which, right now, just seven days from now, is Christmas. And you know what, this year I think I am fine with just being here in Kamakura and going off to Tokyo and Yokohama for days out and not bothering with too much Christmas fuss (though I have considered cooking my first ever Christmas dinner, or else, if we can’t bothered, we might go off instead to a theatre restaurant we like in Ueno where we once saw the Bolshoi perform Swan Lake and I cried like a baby).  Tokyo, like most cities the world over, is of course in ‘festive mood’ at present, and when I went off to Shinjuku on Friday to see a film and do some perfuming, I caught a glimpse, despite myself, in the cold, lung-freshing air and the lights and the shining department store baubles, of something that felt a little bit like Christmas. I also was on the hunt for a perfume that might do the same, and was thinking that Rêve D’Ossian, a curious perfume I had smelled before but not properly tried on my skin, by revived nineteenth and early twentieth century Oriza L LeGrand, might do the trick.







I adore frankincense. I find it such a beautifully luminiscent, soothing but simultaneously spectral smell, and am rarely without the essential oil, which I use in the bath, in face creams, on the chest when we have colds, or even a drop on the tongue at night to help me sleep. There are some natural essences that you are inherently ‘at one’ with, and frankincense, like bergamot, sweet marjoram, clove and patchouli, is that for me. In perfumery, though, I rarely find a frankincense that truly works. They are usually clad in far too many harsh, aggressive, ‘incense’ and synthetic wood accords that are supposed, I think,  to make you think of Bedouin fires in the desert, Omar Sharif, or the Three Wise Men (even Comme Des Garçons brilliantly holographic Catholic cathedral Avignon eventually, unfortunately takes this path): but to me, while obviously seductive, mysterious, and erotic, these incense perfumes don’t reveal the true, apparitional ethereality of frankincense, which, as humans have known since ancient times, really is a communion between this world and the next.






Shinjuku Isetan, probably Tokyo’s best department store for niche perfumery, has a selection of Oriza L LeGrand fragrances, though most of them were behind the counter when I went and I had to ask specifically to be able to sample them (perhaps they are just a touch too old fashioned for trendy, Tokyoite contempories). Relique D’Amour, for instance, one of two frankincense perfumes by this house, is not only ‘old’, it smells positively ancient. Beyond the grave ancient; creepy, like a damp crypt in a French monastery collecting water. Quite fascinating, actually, and definitely one for the pondering gothic and morbid among us, with its notes of greenery (the moss and the ivy creeping on the walls outside); of rising damp; waxed wood (the pews in the church that stands above) and the light, dewy breath of fresh lilies as you first enter the sacristy. Christmassy, perhaps, but only for true Brides Of Christ and other adherents of the devout. You can practically feel the cold, inspiriting breath of the Holy Ghost.








Far more evocative of my personal childhood Christingle memories, and a much more soothing, benevolent perfume in general, is Rêve D’Ossian, a true frankincense scent that achieves a beautiful balance between cold and warmth.  Apparently originally released in 1905 but reorchestrated for 2012, in some ways this is like the frankincense equivalent of Serge Lutens’ La Myrrhe of 1995: aldehydes lifting the mystical incense to fresher heights and throw, while a bed of labdanum, benzoin, musk and sandalwood/vetiver lie beneath faint gestures of pine trees and cinnamon. The effect is cogent and natural – like the cordiality of bodies congregated in a Christmas Eve church service; the lingering warmth of incense huddled in the rafters; a semi-religious gentleness and aerated smoothness that took me out of my immediate environment (Shinjuku station is the busiest in the entire world, as, probably, are the streets) and which put me, for a moment or two at least, in a definitively different, more contemplative, and  Christmas-like, space.






















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I wrote the other day about the strange, dark beauty of the best Japanese incense. And for those who may have not had access to this experience, I was thinking about what perfumes closest approxima…


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Chestnuts roasting on an open fire: CASTANA by ATELIER CLOON KEEN (2012)


Chestnuts, or ‘kuri’ in Japanese, are a winter staple in Japan. In Tokyo, and in most cities and towns in fact, there are chestnut vendors who trawl the streets at night with their tinny tr…

Source: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire: CASTANA by ATELIER CLOON KEEN (2012)

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