Orange trees seem to grow almost everywhere you look in Japan, particularly away from the city centres. Bitter orange trees, mainly, with tough thick skins and fruit only useable for marmalade, but also mikan tangerines; iyokan – the most fragrant varieties, along with lemons and yuzu: quite a sight in the snow, when sub-tropical foliage – palms, banana trees – is weighed down with a beautiful cognitive dissonance.

New Year is also a time when families gather under the heated kotatsu blankets and pass round bowls of satsumas – a quintessential winter fragrance – as well as the traditional daidai oranges that form part of the New Years decorations that you find pinned to the door of almost every house – especially in this neighbourhood – although now, like last year’s Christmas trees, they have already been discarded as the back to work gets properly under way and people emerge bleary eyed from their partial hibernation.

Kagamimochi, or ‘mirror mochi’, a riceflour sweet made to ward off fires in houses and bring good luck.

I myself am still in full orange mode though. Around this time of year on The Black Narcissus I often write about the balms I always make to see me through the coldest part of the year up to March when the air is dry and your hands and lips can get chapped. For citrus lovers who need an instant fix that smells wonderful and is healing too, there is truly nothing better: simple buy a big tub of vaseline, add essential oils, stir, and put into smaller containers that you can secrete into pockets for a burst of peel whenever the moment takes you. I don’t know anyone else who does this, but I highly recommend it. Aromatherapeutically, I have found that grapefruit, as claimed by most aromatherapists, has a unique psychological impact not found in other oils: more than a mere ‘mood booster’, inhaling the scent of this essence can be felt in the body and chest as well as the mind as an instantaneous, optimistic shift in perspective – a surge of happiness that momentarily overrides your more neurotic preoccupations if you have them: the effect is quite astonishing. Thus, in this year’s vintage, which I will frequently use myself as well as giving small lidded containers to friends and colleagues and secretly even to some students who I think it will benefit as the university entrance exams draw closer, I have used two kinds of grapefruit; one more astringent and peely, the other warmer, brighter, but geared in the heart of the matter towards orange in the form of a delicious iyokan oil I bought from Muji, far more fragrant than the duller ‘sweet orange’ or ‘bitter orange’ essential oils often available which I find wan and lacking in zest in comparison with this far superior perfume; some bergamot, also, for some an overall clarity and citric projection. The oils take a few days to properly ‘sink in’ to the vaseline, but once the alchemy hits and they fuse, you then have a wonderful winter citrus perfume that can be applied in a small amount on hair, the back of the hand for a private orange moment or else, as of course I do, sometimes just delving my hand into the pot and rubbing my hands together wickedly/gleefully, creating a busful of tangerine magic that has the occupants turning their head in wonder at the source of the invisible orange fruit.

I went out early yesterday morning to meet a friend and do piano duets together (but had got the day completely wrong) – and then get groceries.

It was one of those sublime blue- skied days with utterly gorgeous light that makes you very happy to be alive. Probably, just fresh air would have done, but I couldn’t resist perfuming. What I have found is that while having a perma-top note available in the balm is a definite pleaser, the effect of orchestral orange is vastly amplified by having harmonious mandarin/ tangerine perfumes on simultaneously. I have done a lot of citrus posts before on this blog (there is a whole database of them waiting if you are interested), although until now unless I am mistaken I don’t think I have ever reviewed Mandarin Vert, a sadly discontinued Miller Harris masterpiece, nor the oddly alluring Mandarine by Italian ‘Osmo-perfumers’ Il Profumo. Yesterday I wore both, and they smelled fantastic together (although I am not sure if the woman sitting next to me on the train on the way back entirely agreed). Tangerine Vert is a mossy, cedary musk of an orange with a bright citrus beginning, a ‘difficult’ marjoram and geranium middle section where it feels as though you are wearing a perfume that might have ‘gone off’, but then comes the most extraordinary mandarin glow, soft and enveloping, that lasts for hours on skin and on clothes, sensual soft: I find it hard to accept that my second bottle is reaching its final chapters now and may have to look out for another on ebay.

Over the Christmas and New Year period I was mainly in Mitsouko mode, alternating with days of Chanel Pour Monsieur, those cushiony elegant chypres that take me away from the real world and let me just float into somewhere more contained; with traces still on my scarves and coats yesterday I felt no clash with the Miller Harris, which settled into that territory with absolute ease (after all, citrus notes are so fundamental in those classics as well); the Il Profumo Mandarine, on the other hand, forming quite the striking contrast.

Where Tangerine Vert is all fuzzy and old school (on the back of the box it is written : “Childhood memories of comforting sweet citrus fruits combine with a mature delight of fresh greenery”, Mandarine is more like an architect’s sketch of a mandarin fruit written in glass. Transparent, sharp, fresh, this is a mandarin mandarin, not an orange; the classic ‘mandarin’ flavour you recognize in fruit jellies and hard boiled sweets or in perfumes, but curiously bodiless : a spectral projection of a memory of an essence. It is unique and arresting, although in truth, there is also a certain artificiality to this scent that can give shadows of a migraine. And yet yesterday I suddenly decided to spray it all over my scarves and the back of my hands, and was thrilled with how perfectly it went with Tangerine Vert; the two settling into a quite mesmerizing duet that was only accentuated by the occasional retrieval from my pocket of the iyokan and grapefruit.

Though I do like to think that I still have a lot of spontaneous juice in me, my spontaneity is tediously lacking sometimes when it comes to socializing : I don’t really like to have things just sprung on me. D is far more free and easy.

So getting back home yesterday afternoon, after all the trains and buses and all the problems out ‘there’, the crowds, an accident, everything delayed, I had assumed we would just be staying in and making dinner. The three weeks off have been, for me, a heavenly cocoon.

But there was an invite-only event taking place in Kamakura he knew of but hadn’t told me about: a performance at a strange house off the beaten track somewhere that we had never visited; with giant sculptures of animals made of leather dangling from the ceilings: all manner of surrealist art and paintings filling the space; an Argentinian pianist apparently dazzled the audience there just a month before, as Maya told us as we got into the taxi, down from Tokyo, the doyenne of cabaret and Goth dance parties and current ringmaster of the Night Bizarre Circus which friends of ours perform at with Balkan accordion players and contortionists and what have you ( I had relented pretty quickly as much as I wanted to stay in (but did I? Did I actually? Didn’t I actually have quite a lot of energy?). Plus: the flyer had featured a semi-naked didgeridoo player clad in animal fur who would be the artist in question for the day………..

Traffic was torturous, and we were thirty minutes late.

As the car wended its way finally down a path and then up a hill, I could see a wooden house, and the backs of people in the audience facing whatever was going on inside. And I felt that strange sense of trepidation where you suddenly are afraid of the unfamiliar; the sounds sinister and foreboding. I clutched my clothes to me in the freezing air, glad with the smell, now mellowed, still mandarin, but not now like citrus peels, more a comforting blanket.

We were guided in through the back door, where I came upon this scene: a satyr/ faun like man in the middle of a musical bacchanalian frenzy:

At first thinking I was being initiated into some terrifying Satanic ceremony like in Eyes Wide Shut and feeling that I wanted to just bolt again for the door, I realized we had made a terrible faux pas by sitting on the leather alligator that was in fact not a chair but one of the ‘works of art’. Quickly remedied by an apologetic but very insistent young woman coming over and giving us slippers and a cushion to sit down on near the door, I gazed around the highly eccentric living room and began to be pleased that we had come out after all.

But the drinks went too quickly to my head. And I felt rooted to the spot I was sitting in, unable to ‘work the room’ and introduce myself to people I didn’t know, instead talking to and eventually arguing frenetically with a young American at the table about identity politics. I may have behaved somewhat monstrously.

( ( Do our social skills wane or become rusty when we haven’t used them? Have you found this?

Once the music was over (we were only able to catch the last twenty minutes but that was quite intoxicating enough), all the people there were mingling and eating and drinking and it was stimulating to be out in such unfamiliar circumstances and meeting new beings, even if I keenly realized my own form of awkwardness. Did we just get used to the new reality of just being alone or with one other person or a family and not interacting and integrating? Are we just literally, like my terrible piano playing now, just totally out of practice? ) )

Whatever the case: I wasn’t up for the continuation of the proceedings in Kamakura over dinner. D, ever the consummate gentleman, stayed with Maya, until she caught her last train, while I came home, partly to rescue the cat, who had been stuck inside for seven hours and would by now surely be needing a call of nature, but also as an excuse to just be alone.

D had been wearing an unusual and intriguing German fragrance called Lune Noire which had been lingering in my brain (for me it’s important to co-ordinate your scents when you are going out so that they don’t clash: not enough people consider this; two people should complement each other olfactively if they are going to be perfumed and in close proximity with other unwitting citizens, and skimming the house, this, which neither of us had ever worn before – I have a 20ml sample bottle – was the only one that seemed somehow feasible). If Thierry Mugler’s Angel is the sun (it isn’t, I know, but just imagine), then this is the lunar alternative; a silvery chocolate with notes of star anise and gardenia, hyacinth, cherry blossom, vanilla, leather…. smooth, unpredictable, that when worn in just the right proportions – one spray on each wrist, gave very enjoyable sillage. A counter-intuitive choice for him, but anchoring.

Making my excuses and leaving, as the taxis arrived at the main Kamakura station, I wrapped up warmer and got off one station along the line at Kitakamakura station to pick up my bike.

The air there noticeably colder; iced breath, my hands freezing, but silent. The moon bright.


Filed under Flowers


  1. Julie Zam

    Contortionists and accordion players! What a way to burst back on the scene! I love that you had your satsuma comfort balm to balance the wildness.

  2. That was one hell of a day!
    I love the idea of citrus fragrances during the winter, but I just cannot do them, nor even florals. I seek out cozy, heavy, lush fragrances during the icy months. All that mandarin and tangerine must have given you quite a boost and kept you going, so that you were able to enjoy that otherworldly performance you and D. went to. The photos were fab!

  3. Well now, there’s no other way to discuss identity politics with an American other than frenetically. Mistaking artwork for furniture is a common experience at these sorts of happenings too.
    I dread returning to society, but this looked like fun!

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