Sometimes I feel I have lost touch with nature. Yes, we do live in a place that is surrounded by hills and trees. But it is still urban; when you take the train down from Narita airport down here, it is shocking the first time you see it all outside of the carriage the window: true, there might be some countryside initially, some bamboo groves and torii shrines; but then, as you approach the satellite cities outside of Chiba and go through Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama and down to Ofuna (our nearest proper ‘shopping town’) it visually and actually is an unbroken connurbation of 36 million people with not a hint of green belt or natural separation; everything just blending into one big mass of buildings and infrastructure that on the regular train goes on for three hours; when I first arrived here on a boiling September weekday many years ago, I could hardly believe my eyes.
Kitakamakura is probably enough for me: enough balance. If I want to go into the woods, I can: there is green everywhere that you look, unlike in the main cities, which feel excessively manmade, built up – though on a smaller scale, when you do walk through a local residential Tokyo neighbourhood, in household gardens and on street corner parks there are plenty of plants and trees (barely enough for someone raised in England) but still, most of the time it is certainly not a concrete jungle, even if it might look that way when you look down from the top of a skyscraper and see nothing but grey, with Mt Fuji standing proudly quite far in the distance two prefectures away in Yamanashi.
When I was a child, I was more of a nature boy. Where I grew up was still of course very suburban (Solihull is the very definition), but we had plenty of greenery and forest walks nearby and at weekends if I wasn’t lounging in the garden with a book from the library we would often be taken on day trips to the nearby countryside in Warwickshire or which I used to really enjoy: woodlands really fired up my imagination; the world of fairy tales and magic, the freshness of the air; I could feel the living and breathingness of it all; picking leaves off the trees or going up close to mushrooms and toadstools and creepers and ivy and moss and inhaling them; the quiet rushing of streams or small rivers (heaven); wild flowers.
I remember running through the local woods once, having broken in through a hole in the fence, with my little sister in the rain : when she came to Japan, years later as an adult, and we were caught in a heavy sudden rainstorm, she was shocked at my reaction to getting wet : as umbrella-less, like any local Japanese person, I frantically wanted to get home to avoid getting soaked. “But I thought you loved the rain”, she said to me: “Don’t you remember how exhilarated you were when we used to run in it as kids? ” And I felt slightly ashamed on hearing this , as though it meant that I had become dull and conventional and boring and no longer had my earlier passion for the euphoria of being free in the outdoors; of looking up with the sky with my mouth open.
If I am not quite as wild and novelistic as I was possibly trying to be in young adulthood, I do still think there is something extremely beautiful about moss. The moist greenness; clinging deftly to a tree trunk; respiring in symbiosis with saps and tree bark; the evanescent glow. And while Japan, at least where we are, is very far from being a wilderness (for that, you would need to go to Northern Hokkaido), the ancient trees of Kamakura and Kyoto are replete with mosses in gradations of green; generations and generations of it, naturally complementing the scenery in an arcane stillness that is numinous, serene.
The mossiest place I have ever been, by far, is the forest at Aokigahara at the foot of Mount Fuji, which, unbelievably, on a summer trip with my school many years ago, we went on a hike to with the students, despite the fact that it is very ‘popular’ and (in)famous as a place to commit suicide. ‘The last place you will ever be seen alive’. I remember entering this mystical, gloomy and cavernous canopy of old trees covered in lichen and moss with a definite trepidation; there were wooden signs at the entrance posted exhorting visitors to seek help if they were in psychological distress; to ‘please think again’ and so on and so forth; I didn’t feel it was an entirely appropriate place to be taking children, to be honest, but then on the other hand it was resplendently atmospheric and dark magical; you could almost understand why those seeking to end it all might venture there, where compasses don’t work and it is very easy to get lost, simply because it would be like falling into the arms of ‘mother nature’ – enveloped in mists and earth and wild creatures, gnarled roots at your feet; a cold, mournful death where it would probably take weeks to be found, if ever……. though magnetized by the physical beauty of the vegetation, and the entrancing vegetal obscurity, at the same time it made me shiver. I have not been back since.
In perfume, moss is dark and heavy; an anchor. By itself, I don’t find extract of oakmoss to be especially beautiful – I admit that it is not a note that I am especially drawn to, even if I do love how it is used in the classic aldehydic chypre accords of perfume like Chanel Pour Monsieur and Calandre / Calèche. As a tincture, as a fixative, it can be rendered quite exquisite and is thus an extremely important ingredient. Now, of course, the substance is banned or at least under tight restrictions by IFRA for its potentially skin sensitizing qualities, so it is quite rare to smell fragrances that are prominent with this note when you are out and about (by far the most mousse de chȇne -heavy perfume I have ever come across is actually vintage Chanel Egoïste Platinum, a scent that bears no resemblance to the original, sweet spicy Egoïste – which for some reason I abhor, but is instead a bracing, silver birch fougère luminary with rosemary, sage and in the original, heapfuls of natural oakmoss : I know, because here, like other inexplicably huge hits such as Bulgari Pour Homme, Givenchy’s Insensé Marine and Alain Delon’s sweet and suave Samouraï, Egoïste Platinum was one of those Japan-only megahits that you would smell all the time in city centres – at least on the players who doused themselves in perfume in order to stand out more back in the nineties; I thus got to know it very intimately – we even have a bottle, as I find it quite manly and erotic – the gradation from its argentine brashness to its warmer, more intimate moss).
In moss-tastic terms of course, though, the ultimate perfume is probably Mitsouko. A perennially popular perfume not only in Japan, but worldwide: the perfumista’s perfume; the holy grail (if not for me; as you know, I have regularly written about this beautiful enigma and often buy it when I find vintage bottles as I just can’t resist them) – even if it never quite makes it to my heartstrings. It obviously does though for many other perfumers and scent cravers, who are still amazingly paying homage to it over one hundred years after its original release: Zoolologist’s intriguing Civet, for example, is a fine and mellow, gently animalic blend with a huge myriad of ingredients that coalesce like late morning sunshine in a forest clearing on the fur of a wild animal ; while initially quite peaceful and lulling, on my skin it eventually becomes too insistent, stuck at a particular shade of yellow. Likewise Rogue’s excellent Flora and Fauna, which opens with a peculiarly fresh apricot note I am not sure I entirely like, is a beautifully done tribute to Mitsouko which at times during its soft, skin-loving duration – all the correct procedures of bergamot and labdanum and soft leather – I actually prefer, even if finally, at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite have the level of inherent mystique that the Guerlain is preternaturally blessed with – and I don’t think anything else really ever will.
Lichen D’Ecosse by Buly is a far more windswept and almost torridly verdant affair that does evoke some of the Hebridean landscape of northern Scotland – a place I find just too stark and mountainous and unadorned, personally (just give me a reedy river with bluebells) – even if its majestic grandeur and rugged naturalness and almost awe-inspiring rainy, bruised indigo skies is indisputable (also; the sheer difference between travelling to a Scottish loch, where there is nothing but lakes, and mountains and heather and the stags of the imagination (and possibly underwater prehistoric beasts), and where even the parking spaces and toilet facilities for visitors are built out of wood so that they blend into the background, and a place like the Kegon waterfalls in the mountains of Nikkō, with its elevator built into the natural rock and the huge number of vending machines and souvenir kiosks and noise and endless trivial distractions for all the schoolkids and old pensioners out for a day trip – I definitely know which approach to presenting natural phenomena to the public I prefer); but I digress. Eau Triple D’Ecosse (“The scent of the upright stones of Hyperborea, dotted with the lichens’ reddish-brown froth. The tartness of the cold grass fur on the hills’ shoulders, the mosses frosted with dew – the pollens sticking to the belly of dawn are left out to dry in the salty wind from the Hebrides.”, is a sea salt and foresty moss number with a cinematic sweep to it; coniferous and alive; even if – and sorry I often say this – a certain sour, contemporary synthetic sandalwood note in the base – which I smell immediately and sniff out like a cadaver dog when trying new perfumes, ruins it for me personally as a potential private purchase.
For a burst of enlivening green energy, I do love the beginning of Le Jardin Retrouvé’s latest release, Mousse Arashiyama, inspired by the Japanese idea of ‘forest bathing’, or simply walking and inhaling the trees – it gives you an immediate boost. In this case, the perfume is apparently inspired by the sacred mountains near Kyoto, which is certainly a city not to be trifled with (Diptyque’s Kyoto, a sweet bright earthy woody and beetroot rose which came out recently and whose packaging I adore, is very young university student graduation trip modern, but slightly……lifeless; and captures nothing of the extraordinary dark austerity of the ancient capital and its ghosts and its fearsomely beautiful aura ; and neither, while we are on the subject, does Comme Des Garçons’ workable incense of the same name, which I always thought was perfectly pleasant but rather overrated and not remotely rendering even the inscrutability of a simple box of daily incense from a local temple).
But can the guest-resider get too protective and precious about these things? Too much Nipponology and Japan worship can smack of western orientalism, where everything is worshipped as extraordinarily mysterious and otherworldly (when in reality it is often just as ugly and mundane as anywhere else-;) perfumes based on place names and cities have been issued for a long time now, whether from Guerlain, or Chanel or niche brands such as Gallivant- who also do a Tokyo that I feel is slightly more on point; no one worrieswhether Patricia De Nicolaï’s New York actually smells like the metropolis; so it is fine, in my book, if Le Jardin Retrouvȇ’s Mousse Arashiyama, which doesn’t really smell mossy in truth (the base of cedar and vetiver and undetectable moss accord) – isn’t reminiscent of the actual wooded area around Arashiyama – famous for its changing leaves in the Autumn, that it isn’t especially Kyoto-esque. The box and the labelling are nice; and the beginning is perfect for summer: a resoundingly light-filled green fig leaf and lentisque, bergamot brightness with a sliver of wateriness that makes it feel very positive and revitalizing to the spirits; I see young Tokyoites getting onto a train on the Yamanote line chatting animatedly in freshly fabric softened new clothes ; to me this is youthful, even futuristic; almost a sport scent I would say. Nice. Quite neat and brisk. But certainly not redolent of the note in question that bears its name; ie. a real Japanese forest with its hidden Buddhist cemetery, where plentiful moss resides perpetually on damp tombstones; on stone; in dark, umbrous glades ; like a gateway to the underworld.