The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I can feel it intuitively.
I have of course written about this before. Living here, as a perfume addict, it is unavoidable. But right now, rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace (it is important to remember that despite what I write here there are in fact a small number of people who do wear scent on a daily basis, but these are a small, unobtrusive niche), I have come to accept this facet of Japanese culture and even admire it.
Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, and vulgar and in your face ( I know that it is not necessary at all for me to elaborate). Perhaps it is also because despite my irritations at the held back and the repressed, the intricate, the social hypersensitivities, it cannot be denied that the flip side of this is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life in Japan that when you are feeling quite happy in yourself is very beautiful.
Strong, decadent perfumes feel antithetical to this. And yet Japanese people, for centuries, have used perfume. In the form of incense.
It is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough sandalwood joss sticks used in temples across Asia and what I am describing here. Japanese temples also use the cheap stuff in big bundles for ritualistic use: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor, perhaps; not significantly different from what you might encounter at Chinese temples in Malaysia, or those in Vietnam.
The incense I am talking about though, and which I use myself, really is a form of perfume. It’s just that rather than something applied to human skin, it is something experienced from without, that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you, and then subtly scents your clothes and hair and aura.
There are many kinds of incense available in Buddhist shops that specialize in more ritualistic types of incense (more austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness) but one type that I have particularly enjoyed over the years (and which is available even in bookstores, demonstrating its popularity), is the Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that makes exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that transform your living space.
Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense I am featuring here, is a very rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness but counteracted by a strong, powdered heft like the finest oriental perfumes but drifting in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious stuff, actually, the sandalwood not obviously sandalwood to me – never one of my favorite notes – but rather compressed, and pressed, and truly blended seamlessly with soothing unguents and balsams that are a sensuous, warming balm to the soul. This is the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coil (that drifts slowly through your living space for hours), but recently I have found myself being drawn to the other two incenses in this series, Shirakawa (White River), and Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are variations on one theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle version of River Path, less spiced and less balsamic, but still retaining that incense’s essential thematic concerns. Less expensive, I bought some coils recently and really enjoyed them: sometimes Horikawa can be almost too much (Japanese people’s secret decadent side coming somewhat to the fore?); too gorgeous.
The big revelation for me recently, however, has been Nijo. In the past I had always dismissed this one, the most inexpensive of the three, as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its courtesan partners; more subdued, musked, and twilight. But buying a box of the coiled incense the other week I am now really hooked. With none of the overt sandalwoodness or spice (but there, intermittently, under the powdered, gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when lit, with a subtle floral element, possibly violet, and iris, that is incredibly assuaging and benevolent to the spirit. We have been having some fantastically creative weekends recently with really interesting people staying over (I have cut myself off completely from the news), and the woozing, mysterious perfume that has filled every corner of our house but not seduced it, is dense with powdered intrigue. This elevates.
Looking up the Shoyeido website, written in both Japanese and English, I see that the company takes international orders and also that there are far more varieties of high quality incense available that I haven’t yet tried. Seeing that there are several stores operating in Tokyo that I wasn’t even aware of, I am going to to go and find out more next week (I will, naturally, report back). I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto you can go on tours of the incense factory there and watch the artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients firsthand. This is something that I will absolutely have to do the next time I find myself in that beautiful city. But failing this, if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend trying one of the three types of incense that I write about here. In turbulent times, what is needed is perfume that is placating; beautiful, transcendent.