Every few months or so I buy a box of Seiun incense. A simple, every day ‘family shrine’ incense blend of benzoin, camphor and patchouli, far less expensive than the more upscale artistanal temple incense featuring sandalwood or agar, I then have a ritual, at night, of dripping patchouli essential oil, drop by drop, onto the sticks, covering as much as possible (my favourites are the ones that are completely black: one day I will buy many bottles at once and make a threnody of the substance, as patchoulish as a witch).

When lit, the effect as the smoke hangs in the air, is pure patchouli. I know from trial and experimentation that this process doesn’t work with vetiver, cedarwood, vanilla, or any number of other essential oils I have tried – the scent becomes altered and unpleasant. With patchouli, though, it is almost as if the material were designed for this very use, the effect mind altering; pungently dark and earthy, twisty and sinuous, an arid, soil-like purification of the air that is more than a match for the current gloom of the moist, malingering rainy season where all is damp; green, almost constantly raining; humid and overgrown (see our ‘hydrangea bower’ in the top picture where we sit on the street and drink coffee watching people passing by on sunny days). On occasion, over the years, in small packages I have sent some of this double bind of patchouli of mine through to people – to Tora, to Pissara in Paris, D’s mum, Helen (Georgia, I think you definitely need some) – patchouli lovers lover it: it lingers in a room, dry and mitigating like a beautiful cold accusation.

Currently, we are also in a suspended state. The rain dampens everything, and yet I find myself partially in the mood for it. Waiting for this period to be over, while also wanting to live it. The Olympics are soon to be held, even as the Delta variant of the coronavirus is starting to spread; some athletes already taking it with them to the training villages that they are staying in and infecting local inhabitants. I feel like staying in as much as possible. We have been immersed in an eerie film we are making, in which I drown like Ophelia in the painting by Millais: weekends are spent in filming and editing; not really straying from the house; I lost my sense of smell and taste temporarily, but this was from being submerged in the bath surrounded by flowers and foliage ripped from the front garden rather than from a Covid diagnosis. Mad as this probably sounds, we need some artistic catharsis from all the accumulated stress and are absolutely in our element. The results are exciting. Thursday, though, with biting reality, I got a message from D at school: “Bad news. Our vaccinations have been cancelled due to a lack of supply”: an alarming turn of events that is now, in fact, transpiring across much of Japan as local authorities are forced to say no even to people in the 60-65 age bracket due to logistical mismanagement and a failure to secure enough doses by the hapless central government, who are about to let 90,000 people from abroad into the country with very few restrictions on their movement (the word that always gets used in this situation, in our household anyway, is pathetic. My god it’s pathetic‘.) P A T H E T I C, and also potentially lethal.

At any rate, the fact that the teachers in his school were asked instead to ‘try and get a vaccine somehow over the August summer break’ set my pulse racing on Friday. Fend for yourself, basically. It was all set in my mind that even though it was a bit close to the edge, he was set to get his first Moderna jab on July 24th, the day after the Opening Ceremony, and then we would proceed from there, seven months after our families had their injections back in the UK: to thus have the rug pulled from under your feet in this way is not very pleasant. It is not even that either of us is cowardly, afraid of getting the flu, or flu-like symptoms. Staying in bed for a few days with hot aches can almost be pleasurable in a sick kind of way; you just sleep it off and then feel rejuvenated afterwards. It is the extremities, your hands and feet, shrivelling and turning black as you die from lack of oxygen, the organ failure; the ventilators – plastic contraptions forced into your lungs which, even if you manage to survive, cause so much damage to the surrounding tissue that you have to have rehabilitation just for that. The brain fog. The stomach cramps. The debilitation. A friend sent me an email yesterday saying that a friend of hers has already had Covid once and now – he didn’t get vaccinated – has got horrible swollen glands like golf balls in his neck from having tested positive for Delta. NO THANKYOU. I will do anything to avoid being in this situation.

In kinetic, rational, fully proactive mode, at work the next day on Friday, I set about trying to get D onto my work vaccination program – still in progress – as next of kin. No problem. No issue – I was impressed with the modernity of the situation; D was considered a spouse, and one of my Japanese colleagues did his absolute best to see if there was a place on the waiting list for cancellations – every day there are three or four (some teachers are put off by the reports of some of the aches in your arm that you get from the injection (hello? compare that to liver failure or your muscle tissue atrophying in your legs or not being able to breathe); others are abiding by the rule that if you are feeling under par, you shouldn’t have the vaccination on that day. All the more for us then.

Jubilation. Yes! It turned out that there was a spot the very next day, on Saturday. So off we went to the centre of Yokohama, to the place where they were doing the jabs – there wasn’t even a line; we were in and out; vaccinated, it had happened, and then we wandered around the city in a happy weekend daze until we came across a building where a decade or so ago we had held a couple of dance parties, a place that had now turned into a Nepalese restaurant, where we sat on the rooftop garden, just the two of us, breathing many sighs of relief over a slow and delicious lunch. We will both have had the second vaccination – we have been guaranteed a set of two – by the end of July. Two weeks after that, we will potentially be able to feel protected enough to even go on a short trip; to some seaside town, maybe; though we are not going to be taking any chances. Though nothing like the situation in Brazil and Peru and elsewhere, with the ‘Olympics’ threatening to cause superspreader events, this is still definitely the time to be quite vigilant (“probably, a maximum of 5,000 people will allowed into some of the venues!” the organizers tell us! (though last week it was “10,000”! ) Also; no one is legally required to have had the vaccine…..What? Duncan gets furious whenever he talks about this: It is all a form of total insanity that plenty of my friends here, enraged that profits for broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals are taking priority over the lives of the people in the country, are ranting and raving about like you wouldn’t imagine; people I know scrambling desperately to find somewhere they can get the injections before the virus is delivered to every corner of suburbia on the trains that go from the heart of Tokyo like arteries and veins into the surrounding cities, towns, and districts; one friend of mine fortunately lucky enough to have had a contact who got him in at the Swedish embassy even though he is Canadian. All quite shambolic and dangerous.

Anyway. I have tried. I like to think I am not an entirely selfish person. I have attempted to open windows on buses and trains wherever I can: I make sure my students are always wearing masks and as spaced out as is feasible, and I do worry about the populations at large, here, and back home in England and everywhere else as well. But there is only so much I can do. Right now, I am looking after my own household. I am concerned, but am just going to hold tight. Alone. I just want to sit here in silence, with the rain outside of my window; the pall of water and mist hanging over everything, and sit, with my slowly billowing patchouli incense.


Filed under Flowers

39 responses to “PATCHOULI INCENSE

  1. I am happy to hear that both you and D have gotten your first shot and are are scheduled for the second. Enjoy your incense, a smell I have always enjoyed.

  2. Robin

    Had no idea that patchouli oil could be heated like that and smell divine. Thank you for that gem of fragrance info, Neil. I don’t have any patchouli oil right now but that situation will be rectified post haste.

    Meanwhile, not sure if you do this with your other oils, but what works for me is my electric stove and a thin aluminum tea light holder, sans candle. Ten or twenty or so drops of oil in the little round receptacle, then onto the burner (set on 2 or 3, very low heat), and wait for the magic. One of my faves is 45/45 cedarwood and Douglas Fir oil, just like the forest around me, with the rest, just a few drops, of lavender to remind me of all the bushes in bloom in the garden right now. Heady and atmospheric.

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but to me the combination of summer heat and moisture is completely foreign to us here and insanely exotic.

    What a shitty roller coaster for Duncan and for you, this vaccination issue. God, I’m glad it’s all sorted for Duncan now, but the whole thing, with the Olympics, and the Delta variant, and the lack of vaccinations: I’m getting freaked out just thinking about you guys. To actually BE in Japan with all this shaking down? I think the household red wine intake would take a big tick upward.

    • No comment. Not just that, but madcap escapades in literally haunted tunnels dressed as ghosts, like Persephone descending into Grecian hell. Some beautiful images have been created these last few weeks. The things some people need to do in order to relax.

      But YES to the aluminium tea candle idea. I love it.

    • Re the patchouli: the longer it is allowed to dry, the better it gets. Ideally, I would have coated each one thoroughly and then let it dry in a cupboard somewhere – obviously you would also then get those places scented as well – but I needed it straight away.

    • As I said also, it is not just me ranting and raving. It is anyone with a brain.

    • I mean hopefully, they / we will be lucky and somehow, the ‘containment measures’ at the Olympics will be enough. Social distancing etc. But if everyone isn’t required to be vaccinated, you’ve got a real dog’s dinner on your hands.

      Participants and their handlers will be able to stroll into the metropolis at their leisure; yes, they are checked periodically on their phones, but they could easily just leave them in their accommodation facilities.

  3. Tara C

    I hear from a friend the J & J vaccine is effective against the Delta variant; haven’t heard about the others. Very glad you are both able to get the shots.

    Patchouli incense must be in the air, I’m wearing Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma, a favourite in that category. Must try that incense stick/oil combo, it sounds fantastic. And the tea light container on the stove! Brilliant.

    • I really like Ummagumma and don’t wear it enough. Thanks for mentioning it and I will give it more attention.

    • I thought so too. Thinking about it, with my track record, gas + flammable oils might not be such a good idea. No one reading this blog has any idea of how clumsy I truly am. Do you remember my candles piece, where I set fire to my room in university?

      I am actually regretful that I had to start blabbering on again about all of this; however, I do regard this blog not just as a perfume space but as a diary, and I consider the events that are unfolding right now very important and worth criticizing/ describing publically. It was a real shock to hear that D’s vaccination had suddenly just be ‘cancelled’ without any advice on what to do to secure a vaccine; I am glad I took the bull by the horns and slotted him in to my company’s program.

      Ummagumma is an unbelievable name for a perfume. What is it like?

  4. Truc N.

    Japanese incense is so good, I like the subtle scents and colorful sticks from lisn. My favorite is a floral one called Passing By A Lady. I haven’t been able to burn any in years as it’s not sold in the USA anymore, one day I’ll get to the shops in Tokyo or Kyoto and buy a lifetime supply! This is on a tangent, but have you ever seen the show Japanology? There’s an episode on the scents of Japan and they cover the incense ceremony of course, and there was a little clip about how you can go to a department store and have a personal fragrance made from Japanese essential oils which they then use to scent a pocket square or scarf for you. I’ll have to find that episode and rewatch so I can figure out the store.

    • That sounds divine. Japanese incense is indeed completely gorgeous, and I like writing about it on here. My patchouli remix is a bit on the rough and raw tip, but that suits this moment’s mood.

      ‘Passing By A Lady’ is a hilarious name.

      • Truc N.

        I know, there’s a bunch of other weird ones, too! If you look on the website there’s a pdf of their catalog, and there’s a lot lost in translation. Like, wtf am I supposed to think about “Chuckling Wool”?

      • I could never be friends with a person who chose that one.

  5. OnWingsofSaffron

    Strangely enough—or perhaps to be completely expected?—the same degree of denial and incompetence is playing out in Europe right now: the European Football Championship. For instance, corona infections were found on 86 persons who had returned from the football matches in Russia. Not to worry, all is well, says UEFA.
    Both Russia and the UK are hotspots for the Delta-variant, so guess where the endgames will take place? The quarterfinal will be in St. Petersberg and the final in Wembley-Stadium with, yes: 60.000 viewers! This is an invitation to a mega super- spreader event, and Boris Johnson and his ilk don’t give a fig about the consequences! Three cheers for a felicitous PR stunt!

    • I mean I understand the importance of sports to people, I really do, even if I am personally immune to their charms (and D even more so). But all of this is bananas. I suppose at least Tokyo is limiting the spectators, but then we have much lower levels of vaccination than London….I don’t know though; what do you think?

      • OnWingsofSaffron

        As I understand it, there won’t be any spectators from abroad: no unruly, riotous, uninhibited barbarians. With the über-polite and disciplined Japanese notoriously stiff as a poker, things might just work out, no?

      • Japanese spectators are certainly very well behaved, taking their litter with them etc. That won’t be enough to prevent corona having a quick spread if it feels like it though.

        I don’t know. Part of me, the optimistic side (yes, I do actually have one!) thinks it might be ok; that somehow the light measures in place will suffice, and that the games will pass smoothly and even be a mood boost for people (I am sure people in London are massively revved up about the Euro Final after this el crappo year we have had). Maybe there will be a slight spike.

        But maybe there won’t, and both events are actually incredibly irresponsible given the circumstances and hence my extreme desire to get both me and D vaccinated before all of this has a proper chance to take off. The thinking here in Japan is that there isn’t a strong ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement as such, based on principles and a whole ethos; there are some people like that, but a whole lot of others – it being such a group-oriented society – are waiting to see what happens with other people; if the consensus is that vaccination is the way to go, then virtually everyone will end up doing it, and then hopefully we can get back to ‘normal’.

      • OnWingsofSaffron

        Apropos: was just reading Guardian online; this is their news headline: “Boris Johnson to press ahead with final stage of unlocking in England amid huge rise in infections” ( And so night clubs will be able to reopen again! But, as the enviably self-confidentt chappie in the video says: the covid data appears to be “in right place”.
        Oh I see! Well in that case: best of luck!

      • I was saying to D the other day. I am a complete cinephile, but can’t imagine going back into a cinema. Nor a club for that matter. It will take me a while to declaustrophobize, but I expect the more mentally robust are just aching to get into these packed places and feel like humans again.

  6. Tora

    I treasure every stick of the patchouli incense you made. My supply is dwindling so I save it for special moments and especially times when I need to create a mood sanctuary for my reeling brain. That incense is one of the best gifts I have ever received. I must try to make it myself when yours runs out. I have plenty of patchouli oil. I just need to find the right carrier sticks.

    Thank goodness you found Duncan a dose. I hope all of your friends can get vaccinated soon. When do you get your second dose? I cannot believe that vaccinations are not required at Olympic events. Are masks required?

    Back to the incense. I think, in your honor and in Duncan’s timely vaccination, I will light a stick of your incense, right now.

    • And obviously I am going to send you some more: that goes without saying. the main reason I haven’t is that the local post office has become extremely draconian in the way it makes you list every last thing to an absurd level of detail. We sent a package for my sister’s birthday full of novelty Japanese sweets and snacks and they expected us to detail each one, all with very suspicious looks. While all this has been going on, I simply haven’t had the sangfroid to go into the post office before work, because it would make my blood pressure shoot up through the roof.

      I will get D to send you some more from his bigger post office in Kamakura, where the workers are not quite so anally retentive.

      • Tora

        That is so sweet, Neil. Can you tell me the website where you get the patchouli incense sticks? Then I could make my own and save you the work. Although, I do love that you made them by hand for me. It warms my heart.

  7. Patchouli is such a culturally charged scent. In India, patchouli is used in cough & cold remedies much like we Westerners put menthol eucalyptus in many of our cough & cold preparations. Thus, Indians aren’t fond of patchouli in perfumes just as we Westerners don’t like eucalyptus in our fragrances – it smells medicinal, and not in a pleasant way.
    To me, patchouli is reminiscent of my youth in California. Summers spent riding in a “magic bus” to Grateful Dead concerts and music festivals. Upper middle class and rich kids playing at being hippies, sweaty, suntanned, hairy, and fashionably unkempt. Reeking of marijuana smoke, veggie burritos. and liberally applied patchouli oil in a vain attempt to mask the rampant resultant body odor. Ugh. I am getting nauseous just thinking about it.
    My favorite Indian brand of incense is simply called “Woods.” It is just an ambered sandalwood as far as I can tell, the box lists unspecified natural oils & resins. I believe it is genuine Mysore sandalwood oil or resin as the scent isn’t harsh like Australian variety, nor is it buttery as the synthetics tend to be. The amber note is too sweet or overly vanillic (benzoin resin?), and the creamy dreamy Mysore sandalwood really comes through like a warm embrace.
    Glad to hear both you and D got the jab! Bravo!

    • Thanks Bibi.

      As for sandalwood incense, I neglected to mention that it works absolutely beautifully as well. I was given a sandalwood oil by Ajmal, and ideally should have kept it as a perfume, but I gave some incense sticks the same treatment I gave the patchouli, dunking them in the essential oil and they were utterly beautiful. I think this is actually my favourite way to enjoy sandalwood – you can really lose yourself in the space that it creates.

      We should do a swap – although by the sounds of it, you couldn’t possibly take strong patchouli given your sweatily evocative descriptions of filthy Garcia aficionados.

  8. OnWingsofSaffron

    Oooh! Just watched Persolaise’s latest video (“The Sultry Summer of Love”) and would look forward so very much to a possible video collaboration he recklessly mentioned between the two of you! The 10 ABBA songs perfumes (at around 29:25 minutes in the video). Oh such fun!!

    • This is the first I have heard about it but it sounds fabulous I must say. We do want to collaborate

      • He is much happier in front of the screen than I am, though – a born performer in that regard. I like to hide behind the keyboard.

      • OnWingsofSaffron

        It’d be a light-hearted setting for a fun and OTT chat about this and that. I mean, which perfume would be the best one for, say “Dancing Queen”? Or “Money, Money, Money”. Or “Mama Mia”?

      • I honestly have no idea. I adore ABBA, but somehow their songs don’t make me think of perfume at all.

        At the vaccination site, I bumped into an old Japanese colleague of mine who I haven’t seen for years, a self-proclaimed ABBA nut who gave me a DVD of their greatest hits. He asked me if I had listened to them recently. I said yes, I listened to The Visitors at New Year.

        “The Visitors? What?”

        “You know, their last album. Really dark and brilliant.”

        “I don’t know”.

        I stopped the conversation in sheer disdain and faced forward in the queue.

  9. The patchouli incense sounds absolutely divine, and I do mean that sincerely. Patchouli is one of my favorite essences in fragrance, as you well know by my love of the heavy hitters. The incense must be heavenly, completely from another realm, one entirely different than the mundane one most common folk trod through daily.

    So thrilled you were able to get D in to be vaccinated at your workplace’s vaccination sight. I cannot imagine how nerve wracking the whole situation is over there, especially to anyone with an ounce of common sense. Japan is really just dropping the ball on the whole thing, and the olympics are the cherry on top. Just saty safe and stay masked until you both are two weeks out from your second dose.

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