The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. Strong, western perfume is inherently incompatible in a place where people live in such close proximity and value social harmony. It has its time, and its place, but will never be the norm. Such perfume here feels too exhibitionist, indulgent – even selfish. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I feel it intuitively. I sense what perfumes will be appreciated, allowed – condoned. As a decadent and opulent perfume addict myself, I will admit this has sometimes placed certain restrictions on my scented possibilities; the flaunting of my invisible wardrobe when at work or in public spaces. I am aware that my own clouds of perfume have been quite frowned upon. Detested, even. Yet rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace, at times, despite myself, I have almost even come to admire it.
Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, 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 occasional frustrations at the stress and strain of rush-hour living and the held-back intricacies, the social hypersensitivities of Tokyo, it cannot be denied that the converse side to it all is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life here – a sense of gliding through the neon gleam, unharried – that is beautiful.
In this more sensitive and socially aware context, strong, over sugared, or overtly ‘glamorous’ western perfumes can feel antithetical. Anti-intuitive. Tasteless and heavy, like elephants in a china shop. Yet despite this, the pleasure of smell being universal, Japanese have historically long used perfume, for centuries – even millennia – and have devoted an entire art form to its appreciation – ‘kodo’ : the ‘way’, or path, of incense. Perfume, as aesthetic and spiritual adornment, but transformed into a very different physical dimension. To be ‘listened to’.
When discussing the word ‘incense’ and its standard associations, it is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough, cheaply perfumed ‘joss sticks’ used at music festivals and the like and what I am describing here. Their scent is quite incomparable. While Japanese temples and shrines also sometimes use the more inexpensive and mass-produced incense sticks in big bundles for ritualistic use in daily ceremonies: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor and patchouli, not significantly different from what you might encounter at the more sandalwood-influenced Chinese temples in Malaysia or Vietnam, the incense I am referring to here – created from recipes, formulae and time-trusted aromatics – is truly a form of perfume. Rather than a liquid applied to human skin, though, one that mingles with your skin scent and evaporates, this is a perfume that is experienced from without, like the millennia-old origin of perfume culture itself; per fumum – through smoke – that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you; trails your hair, your aura, and then subtly scents your clothes (particularly the kimono, trailing the padded, embroidered silk with an embodying caress of dusky softness).
While there are many kinds of incense available in city Buddhist apothecaries and religious artefact establishments, specialising in the more ritualistic types of incense (austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness and used for praying for the dead or commemorating ancestors), one type of more floral and balsamic incense that I have particularly enjoyed personally over the years – and which is available even in good bookstores, demonstrating its popularity in daily fragrancing – is the beautiful Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that has long produced the exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that can gently transform your living space, your mood, and, when you step outside – as the airborne powder lingers, quietly but perceptibly, on your coat – even your atmosphere.
Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense in the collection, is a rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness, with a strong, powdered heft faintly reminiscent of the finest French oriental perfumes – yet drifting, slowly, in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious , as plush as Guerlain: the sandalwood – or byakudan in Japanese – not recognizably sandalwood in its more unvarnished, solar and unctuous Mysore sense, but pulverised, compressed; blended seamlessly with soothing unguents, sea shells, cinnamon, patchouli cloves, and balsams, all forming a very warming, and sensuous, salve to the soul. Horikawa is probably in fact the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coils (drifting dreamily, quietly, throughout your living space for hours….. friends that stay now often associate that scent with the memories they have of staying here); but recently I have also found myself being drawn to the other two fragrances in this particular series: Shirakawa (White River), a less forceful interpretation of the Horikawa scent structure, and the cooler, more introverted Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are nuanced variations on one olfactory theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle, crepuscular version of River Path, less closedly intense and erotic, but still retaining that incense’s internal, reality-averting thematics.
While I have certainly been greatly enjoying using Shirakawa, the big revelation for me recently, over these winter months, has been Nijo. In the past, when sampling the incense from the box – you can, in truth, never truly understand what the fullness of the incense will be until it has been lit and its secret interiority has been revealed, I had somehow quite wrongly dismissed this incense – the most inexpensive of the three – as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its more soignée, courtesanish stable mates: far more subdued, masked; best saved for a distant twilight. And yet feeling more reclusive myself recently after the sometimes overwhelming political events in the world outside (I have sometimes had to simply cut myself off from the news), I impulsively found myself buying a box of the coiled incense the other day and, immediately entranced by its powdered, gossamer suggestiveness, as the delicate smoke snaked its way into my consciousness, I am becoming quietly addicted. With none of the overtly perfumed ‘thickness’ or spice (but there, intermittently, under the diffidently gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when this incense coil is lit, with a subtly floral element, possibly violet, and iris, that I find assuaging, and benevolent, to the spirit.
Looking at Shoyeido’s international website, written in both Japanese and English, I was pleased to see that this venerated old house accepts international orders (a selection of incense is also sold at the Japan Centre Food Hall and Bookshop in Piccadilly), and that there are also far more varieties of high quality incense, with various olfactive themes and ‘storylines’ created by the perfumers that I haven’t yet tried (“Translucent Path”, “Beckoning Spring”). There are little satin pouches, filled with clandestine powder, to be secreted onto your person, or to be deposited in your clothes drawer, to gloriously evocative – and sensuous – effect. I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto, it is possible to reserve a place on tours of the factory there and watch the Shoyeido artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients they have used firsthand, for centuries, in their studios. This is something that I will absolutely have to do myself the next time I find myself in that ancient and unforgettable city. But failing this, even if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend at least trying one of the three types of high quality incense that I write about here, or take the plunge with another. This is perfume of a very different, and quietly powerful kind. Redolent of worlds beyond. Of the ether. Of the untethered. And in these aggressive and turbulent times, what is needed for the spirit is perfume that is placating: beautiful: transcendent.