I am currently in need of detoxification : physical, mental, spiritual, literal. And so coming down the escalators in Ofuna station with five minutes to spare on my way to work and hesitatingly setting foot in the almost piously Japanese komeya shop in the Lumine Department Store (by far the most populated of any of the concessions there on that day, bustling with its expensive rice products, pots and clay crockery, artisanal wooden utensils, printed linens, prefectural pickles, chutneys, high end organic teas and all manner of pleasingly rendered, aesthetically very careful nipponiserie), I was quite excited to see, alongside oil pressed yuzu, hinoki, Japanese ginger and hakka mint essential oils, my first ever bottle of camphor.
My obsession with perfumery has for decades gone hand in hand with aromatherapy. And the first bible on that subject was hands down The Encylopaedia Of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless, which I had in this edition
– and which I read over and over again over the years until it fell apart. Somewhere in the house there are still disparate sections and pages, but it was the kind of book that I absorbed in stages – it was unemotional, but I was continually mesmerized by its highly informative descriptions of every essential oil in existence, most of them unobtainable for the average human being, with their origins, appearance, scent profile, uses and contra-indications – in fact, it was astonishing how many of the essences she mentioned were actually lethally toxic, even in small doses. Herbs and barks that had been used centuries ago in various apothecary concoctions but which had now been proven to be dreadfully poisonous were given extreme health warnings – : wormwood, broom, sassafras; pennyroyal – (hence, presumably, the suicidally ideational song by Nirvana, Pennyroyal Tea (“Sit and drink pennyroyal tea/ distill the life that’s inside of me…../give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ so I can sigh eternally………). I remember going into a crystals and aroma type hippie dippie shop once in Moseley, Birmingham with my friend Helen and finding this oil on the wooden shelves next to all the gnarly roots and powders and nag champa incense sticks and Vishnu trinkets standing frighteningly alongside asafoetida – jesus christ what a smell – the only time I have felt so utterly brutalized and assaulted by an odour to the point of wanting to vomit that I just wanted desperately to rinse out my nasal hairs in crystalline spring water until I could smell it no more : a profoundly repugnant odour, a quick look just now tells me that this is also cardiotoxic in rats) – and immediately alerting the staff – they of course had a copy of the Lawless on their shelves – that they were actually selling something very dangerous and should desist from doing so immediately.
Camphor oil, which I am pretty sure I remember reading was also noxious, had also residually stayed in mind as something very dangerous, and in fact, it seems that ingestion of 5ml of camphorated oil can indeed cause death from convulsions in a small child. However, this type of oil – the dark coloured essences, are presumably now unavailable, for this precise reason. The clear oils – a different chemotype, have a long history of medicinal usage and have been used in Asian cultures for thousands of years for bronchial infections, sprains, swellings, and inflammation among other treatments. In Japan, the vast majority of the incense I love and use so much is usually an intriguing and enigmatic blend of agarwood, cloves, camphor, crushed seashells, cinnamon, benzoin, and patchouli, and I find I am somehow naturally drawn to the rigour and austerity of this smell, peculiar and ugly/beautiful though it may be (the smell of vapour rub; a little pepperminty, a little coniferous (I smell hiba trees); most definitely camphoraceous.
The oil I bought – which I kept sealed until getting home much later in the day – I can only imagine how strange and sinister a teacher would smell with leaked camphor oil dripping from his suit pockets – was fascinating for me to experience. Not quite as sinus-busting as I was hoping for, it is nevertheless superbly head-clearing and tonifying, relaxing, and serious simultaneously, and was sold alongside a small, neat wooden vessel upon which you can dropper the oil and experience ambiently : it puts me in a quiet and liminal space, somewhat removed from core reality (or seen in another way, actually much closer to it), and nicely complements the other spiced and incensed aroma elements I have dotted strategically around the house.
I was also very eager to try it therapeutically though. How would it be to actually take a camphor bath?
Very careful to read about the use of camphor oil properly first (our sixteen year old nephew recently had an extreme allergic reaction to overusing lavender and tea tree essential oils and then adding Radox on top in the bath – I also react badly to lemon, grapefruit and orange in bath water and so only ever use them as hand balms – it is always useful to remember how potent and real essential oils are; the concentrated aliveness of a plant or tree or fruit or flower positively swimming with stimulation that can lead to fully sensitizing reactions on the skin), and yet at the same time I am an extremist and always have been – so must always try, for the sake of common sense, to mitigate my own natural instinctive tendencies.
Showering first a long time to be clean – as is always the way here – I then put in several drops of camphor oil into the hot water and immersed myself. Instinctively I could tell that this was one of those oils that naturally ‘suit’ me (inner alarms bells go off very quickly inside me otherwise; I get glitchy and twitchy and ‘on alert’); the tingling sensation in my limbs delightful in this case, the scent more warming, more hinoki-like than I had been anticipating (camphor is very much an inherently hot and cold essence; in one room I have combined it with hakka mint, and just inhaling this combination is like being alone for a moment in the snow; I can feel it keenly, purifying my brain and mind). And yet in the body, later, I felt like I had been given a hot muscle rub; my face slightly ruddy initially (camphor is excellent for blood flow and circulation)- relaxed, more centred; more ‘in tune’.