I always report on the osmanthus. Whether it is one or two days early or late (by and large, it usually comes out predictably on October the 1st): this year it is in full flower three weeks early. A strange but gorgeous sensation: fuming the air with its persistent floral apricot like a tangential dream from another universe, the scent as dense as a petit fromage à l’abricot, creamy and benign; clear; yet almost eerie in its insistence. It floats on the air, and fuses with your thoughts, a floral accompaniment to each inhalation of mid-September air.
We decided to keep it local again this Sunday, going no further than down the hill, finding another undiscovered coffee shop with delectable cakes, before deciding, then, to go and have a look around Tokei-ji, a temple we haven’t been in for a while. Founded in 1285 (and it really feels it; I sensed something viscerally ancient while slowly making my way through the grounds in the mosquito-heavy humidity, osmanthus in every breath;) a wetness that could prove oppressive if it didn’t so perfectly go with the surroundings. Mossed trees and thatched rooves; wooden houses; this sanctuary was once the only temple where battered and abused women of the period could seek refuge from their tormentors; after three years on site, they were granted divorce.
D was wearing Nº12, the new perfume by Puredistance. And it smelled heavenly. Also containing osmanthus absolute, along with orange blossom and a touch of vanilla, the powdery, chypric sillage of the base note trailed him in a way that, given the visual and spiritual beauty of the Buddhist precinct, alongside the deep wet green of the lush, almost hopelessly serene gardens, added a dry, melancholic pathway back to him as he took these photographs; the osmanthus trees leaking their perfume silently into the air as the complex patchouli and oakmoss floral chypre androgynously insinuated itself into the droplets of air and my brain. I was completely entranced, and haven’t had an olfactory experience of this blissful intensity for quite a while.
Granted, there is a lot going on. After all, this scent is intended to be the jewel in the crown of the set of twelve perfumes that will now form the permanent collection by Puredistance: thus perfumer Natalie Feisthauer was commissioned with the responsibility of creating a perfume that would leave an absolute and unmistakeable impression. And it does. On my skin, there is, admittedly, a slight, almost saline rinseishness that comes from the initial tang of oudh-like ambroxan flashed with bright mandarin, bergamot, coriander and cardamom – a fresh opening that is rather dazzling (‘quite grapefruity!’ D exclaimed) with a Montale-like gleam and immediacy, with probable nods to the Middle Eastern markets. Soon veering off course from typical expectations, though, this attention-grabbing opening accord cedes to a rather intriguing contrast between a Faberge-fougère-like accord of powdery heliotrope, orris, geranium, hedione, tonka, oakmoss and ambrette, set against a more classical, Aromatics Elixirish rose, ylang ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, and crucially, patchouli – the key ingredient in the perfume, beautifully used – to form a characterful, long-lasting modern chypre; it is an emotively rich cushioning that is distinctive and frankly gorgeous – particularly when smelled from afar. The Amsterdam niche house, now this fragrance is complete, will be henceforth referring to its full collection as ‘The Magnificent 12’, and in this instance, I certainly cannot say that I disagree. On Sunday, in all the perfumed air, I was in heaven.
I was reading an article this morning by a journalist rhapsodizing about the summer, all the things he had done; all the places he had been, cross-country; feeling so liberated; how people he knew everywhere went crazy for travel, to catch up on everything they had been missing, to go places, see friends, socialize, hang out in bars, restaurants, attend concerts and the theatre pre-Delta and then during, despite the headlines about fatalities and hospitals filling up in the UK and in America and elsewhere: an explosion of need after being curtailed and unable to live as we do usually.
D and I were, though oppressed as everyone has been, quite the opposite. We didn’t want to go anywhere. Not realistically being able to go back to England: Japan is a ‘red country’, meaning hotel quarantines (at your own expense) in London; returning here would be the same, all under strict guard and control – it all feel at the instinctive level like some nightamareish ‘tourist’ equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. All travel thus held zero appeal: even the idea of physically getting on a plane, of sitting in an airport, seems inconceivable. Likewise long train journeys. We simply had no desire to go anywhere except in the near vicinity, and this despite double vaccination. Is this to be expected? Is it abnormal? Have you felt similarly? Is this reticence and caution a form of cowardice, collective PTSD, or is it just a normal reaction after a year and a half of having to travel on cramped trains and buses and in confined classrooms constantly under threat of potentially catching the virus? Have we been overreacting? Are we turning into hermits?
The first ten days at home after the end of term, I do think I went into some kind of summer hibernation or withdrawal, as I described previously in another post. I think I really needed it. After that, though, we started to venture out on walks nearby, discovering temples we had never known existed before, places I had seen on the bus route and always had some curiosity about but never actually made the effort to go and look; backlots and side streets; deserted spaces.
We even had a sleepover at our own house. Moved one futon into the small guest room with its narrow bed; one on the floor, like kids, and stayed there for about ten days watching films or reading books with the cat (who seemed to enjoy the ‘new stimulations’ as well). It was funny how it was actually like having a holiday within your own house: waking up each day not in your usual environment – a ‘home away from home’. Like staying at your friend’s; waking up to the unfamiliar. After coffee and breakfast we would then just play it by ear; either just wander down another unexplored path, or stay in.
One evening we were invited to go to the house of some old friends’ for dinner. What would be a usual turn of events – socializing, drinking, talking and eating together – seemed initially strangely daunting. D didn’t even want to go at first – I had to persuade him. Having been in his own funk for a month or longer from July, during which time he turned off all notifications and closed down his emotions, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Was it going to be awkward? And when we arrived at their house in south Yokohama, overlooking the sea, at first things, just momentarily, did feel a little stilted, as though none of us quite knew what to do. I even felt that our hosts were a little neurologically odd in their movements, initially; a bit jerky, dusty, as if they had been taken out of storage: our eye contact was off at first: I felt a bit heartbeaty.
After some wine, and just the pleasure in each other’s company though, (plus an absurdly delicious homemade chicken pie), and the fact that we had after all just recently had our second vaccinations, we all calmed down a lot and the time went very quickly and enjoyably. The conversation was great. I felt less contained. It was like being unsutured. We just caught the last train, hugging Justin goodbye – having said goodbye to Setsuko back at their apartment with her new rescue cat; D had a very big spontaneous constant grin on the way home, physically looser – I felt the same. It was lovely. For a long time, aside a couple of times going out with some of my Japanese colleagues after work for cans on the park bench, and one or two quick lunches with people, again outside, this was, I think, the first proper socializing we had done in a year and a half, and it felt oddly momentous. You do forget that you are a social creature, that humans are social beings; I suppose when the possibilities of interaction are reduced, as they of course have been, you just adapt. But sometimes you don’t even realize yourself what is happening to you; there can be a normalization within yourself of new states of being that are ultimately perhaps not in your best psychological interest.
Sometimes you also realize that you have been living in a place for many years and not noticed things you should have. You have just walked past them. Like this exquisite cafe, for example. A former villa turned restaurant (it was apparently very famous for its beef stew of forty years until last year), the current corona restricted cafe was still a place of utter serenity and calm; the lemon cheese cake and crème caramel we had completely out of this world.
How could we have missed this place? It has been waiting for us, all this time. Just off the main road to the temple of Kenchoji. Next time someone comes to visit, or I need a private, quiet tete a tete with a friend, this retreat is where we will be headed. We both felt deeply tranquil there – it was a a beautiful oasis of peace.
Another discovery we made by chance just from walking around was a 1930’s cafe, hidden behind a building in Ofuna – next to Kamakura – famous for its pickled mackerel bento boxes and boiled ham. Although it was a bit odd having sushi for breakfast with coffee – D was more adventurous, going for the full chirashizushi; I could only (barely) bear the much easier to eat roll version- with the out of place Hawaiian music going on in the background, and the giggling not-used-to-foreigners adult waitresses, it was quite a novel, and amusing, experience.
It was nice not having an agenda this summer; no fixed itinerary, as you sometimes ironically do when you are on vacation : stumbling upon these new old places. Probably if we had gone away somewhere, to another country, they would have remained undiscovered. It is good to go deeper into the local topography – climb some stairs, here, go down this lane : I felt we had penetrated further into our own living space.
The weeks went past. Then, having spent most of the summer holiday close to home, just in Kamakura, one day we woke up and decided on having a proper day out.
Going north up to the centre of Yokohama has little appeal right now – it is one of the current delta epicentres – and we have both agreed that for the time being, Tokyo is completely out of the question : it is simply impossible to avoid being in close contact with large numbers of people there and the medical situation is getting out of control. Instead, and I don’t for the life of me know why we haven’t done this more often, seeing that they are pretty much equidistant, we decided to take a train just 20 minutes south, to the curiously old fashioned but less densely crowded US naval base city of Yokosuka.
I must say, that having been spending so much time in the zen capital we call home, Yokosuka truly did feel like going on an exotic vacation. We went there once, many years ago, and I remember being in some trap club thinking where am I? The streets were full of Americans in uniform and the dressed up locals sometimes giving them the eye; every other premises a burger place or tacos bar or pool club – it is so different in terms of energy I don’t know how it had possibly faded from our minds.
Yokosuka is a very intriguing place. Run down, as you can see; old fashioned in a way, but very vibrant. Ethnically diverse – you see soldiers in full uniform about three times as big as the regular population walking around, kids on skateboards, old Japanese grannies – fascinating eateries – we had an excellent Peruvian lunch and want to go back for the Colombian and Vietnamese, difficult to get in Kamakura or Yokohama. Not to mention the burgers. I need to try one.
It was fascinating. A very hot day, I almost felt eventually overwhelmed by it and all the sensory stimulation, so we sat in the seaside park,looking out at the shipyard, at sunset, the sound of the military trumpet calls as evening fell; navy personel out for their evening jogs; old men sat looking out over the water: Japanese sailors doing manoueuvres aboard a submarine that was docked in the bay. Though only a short distance away, it felt as if we had entered another world. I had assumed it was miles and miles away down the coast, an hour or so- but no; just an easy twenty minute train ride. We loved it. So we have decided we are going to go back there again, the weekend after next, to celebrate Duncan’s 50th birthday. There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from; the alcohol laws (which currently can’t be served in public spaces as a precaution against the spread of Covid because customers let down their guard too much) are being repealed this week as no one can stand it any longer and all the bar owners and restauranteurs are going crazy; there are so many beckoning alleyways to look down – so many compelling neon corners: coffee houses, import shops; it is a a whole new playground. I can’t wait. Let’s just hope that in the process of having fun, we don’t overdo things and wake up with tattoos.
It has probably long been obvious to everyone else, but it only struck me for the first time the other day placing them side by side, that there is a perfect design cohesion and style continuity between the first and the most recent Serge Lutens. My bottle of the ultra rare and ultra coveted Nombre Noir, the legend that the maestro of maquillage created for Shiseido in 1982, is probably my most ridiculous bargain of all time (as in ridiculous: please read the story here). There isn’t much left now, as I used it all in one Christmas frenzy, but still enough for me to enjoy, once in a while, the plummy, damascene apricot glamour of its churlish, preening osmanthus.
The latest by Lutens, La Proie Pour L’Ombre, is of course from the Gratte Ciel, or skyscraper, collection, and the bottles look perfect together, though almost forty years apart. A vanilla amber, with incense/licorice and a hint of leather (this is not a leather, ultimately, no matter what you read, but an immortelle-laced, ambery, warm and sweet, luscious scent that brings to mind so many of the old Lutens like Ambre Sultan, the incense of Serge Noire, a hint of Arabie (the celery note is problematic here; D doesn’t like the beginning but likes how it evolves on my skin), the warmth of Cèdre; it went perfectly this weekend with a dot or two of the new Christian Dior Vanilla Diorama – another glinty vanilla amber that begins with a fresh spritzy opening that reminds me of a delicious dessert I once had at a French restaurant in Nagasaki that was infused with citruses and star anise, leading to a cacao-touched, sugar-crusted texture of marrons glacés and a light woody amber basis that prevents the scent from becoming too sweet or flayed open. I haven’t worn vanilla in a while; it has become a note I save for special occasions in case I feel it is eating me alive; but this one is not a vanilla bean monster: I would say it is more along the sleeker, less ice creamy lines of vertically structured cents such as Pure Distance Gold or Guerlain Tonka Impériale. While the name of the scent may raise a few eyebrows among perfume purists (what next? Chocolate Dioressence? – actually, that’s not a bad idea) – playing with classics from the Dior Heritage Archives and giving them a contemporary remix, the perfume itself is is a warm, lingering, and at first, slightly unassuming perfume that gets better as the day goes on, eventually lasting for a good twenty four hours on the skin. It was very enjoyable with the Lutens on Sunday, which I wore on my clothes and on my beard – some Dior on my wrists; the cooler weather a perfect backdrop for being wrapped up in rich, but strangely subtle, dreamy, autumnal amber.
I have often admired and envied the ginger lilies that grown in the garden of our neighbour from Paraguay. Cycling past her expertly tended gardens, when her tall, hedychium coranarium plants flower at the end of August and the beginning of September, I always greedily inhale the scent of the flowers and wish I could pick them. I probably sometimes have.
This year, just beyond the kitchen window, a big ginger lily – which D says came from a cutting from a friend of ours who moved back to Scotland nine years ago, and which has always been there, getting bigger each year, but has definitely never blossomed before (because you can be sure I would have noticed )- opened up out of the blue in the garden one day, just as we were about to go out. By the time we had returned home, it was open more fully, intensely fragrant – like a delicate gardenia infused with freshly cut ginger stems – and proceeded to keep flowering, and wilting, flowering and wilting as new buds kept opening up.
We were both really excited. I have never had a plant fragrant enough to disturb the senses from outside the window before – (if you discount our big osmanthus tree, which makes you almost too delirious come October)- but never a white flower, with that erotically petalled, lunescent trail of perfume trailing up at the moments when you least expect it. My mother has an incredible trellised jasmine back home that smells breathtaking in early summer; there were lilies here everywhere in July, wisteria in June; but this is the first time that I have ever had such a seductively scented flower of my own.