If you had told me, in the nineties, that I would become a wearer of tea, I would never have believed you. Although I immediately recognized the iconoclasm of Jean Claude Ellena’s groundbreaking Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert when it was released in 1992, and admired the aura it gave, at the same time there was always – and still is – a slightly bourgeois, smug, almost passive aggressive ‘zen’ to its ‘just back from yoga and off to the farmer’s market’ nonchalance that made me feel it was definitely more ‘them’ than ‘me’. In London you would smell it on yawningly predictable people of a certain class: it felt wan and slightly brainwashed.
Yet I still like it, and sometimes crave it. It’s just….relaxing. Easy. Like taking things down a notch when you need to detach. Irrevocably pleasant. So yesterday, on the way to my school in Hiratsuka – a hill-surrounded, ‘uncool’ city plagued by the yakuza with wide streets and a retro, red-lanterned vibe I am far more drawn to than the mall-infested pristine hell of ‘Center Minami’ in the north of Yokohama where I worked last year – I couldn’t resist a quick dart into Wattmann’s, a recycle emporium that has a locked glass perfume cabinet and sells contemporary, and occasionally vintage, perfumes at very reasonable prices. I was delighted to be back. The first thing that immediately caught my eye on the shelf was a brand new, unopened bottle of Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée Au Thé Bleu for about £22 that I knew I had to have even though I had never smelled it: the white tea variant is a Bulgari I sometimes reach for after a night shower – the most masculine of the tea collection with its crisp white musks, Himalayan white tea and cardamon, coriander and artemisia : almost numbing, depressive (but in a pharmaceutical, good way) – and D really likes it on me. I thought I should definitely add the blue edition to my collection.
The idea of ‘blue tea’ is rather alluring and removed. Tea itself is somehow dreamy and more ‘experiential’ than coffee, which I ultimately possibly prefer for the delicious jolt it gives- but tea always has the upper hand when it comes to that sinking above or below the membrane of consciousness to a momentary awareness, which is why Japan, with its culture of ‘appreciation of small things’ and the highly stylized ceremonies based around matcha, not only reveres its own traditions connected to how green tea is presented and imbibed, but the drink itself is deeply embedded in the conscious and subconscious : cold, bottled green tea from vending machines the most popular consumer item in train stations. If Japan adores its own tea, it also almost fetishizes other teas from around the world. Tea is a ‘hobby’. A luxury, and a rip off: ironically, the very best tea I have ever found here is also the cheapest: a rather unattractively packaged (in aluminium foil), not individually paper-sachet-wrapped Darjeeling, Ceylon Dimbula (D’s of choice) and Earl Grey from Sri Lanka that you can buy for about ￥150 from my local supermarket. It is ideal. Perfect. A friend came round the other day and actually asked what it was and I laughed, because the same, or actually inferior tasting ‘English’ tea dressed up in British Colonial trimmings à la Fortnum and Mason or any other of the fancy imported brands you can purchase from luxury mecca Seijo Ishii will cost you ten to fifteen times more, (but, admittedly does look much prettier on your shelf). Chinese tea – the most ancient of the tea traditions – of course has its own speciality shops and sometimes tea houses here; French tea the most ludicrously expensive of all (the most extortionate pinnacle of tea worship in Japan to my knowledge probably being the legendary Mariage Frères, which actually does sell a Fujian blue tea that can be sampled at its chichi little upscale den in the centre of Shinjuku if you are prepared to wait in line.
A brief inhalation from the Bulgari box before arriving at school, where the students this year are fascinatingly unfashionable and ‘pure’ – once you cross that river on the train you know you are entering a different zone further south that is ‘not Yokohama anymore’ – told me that this would in many ways be similar to Thé Blanc: and both perfumes do in fact share the same zoned out tea and Bulgari musk base, which couldn’t possibly be more innocuous if it tried (and this is why I like it: sometimes I just want unthreatening and safe). After an evening of teaching, though, with hot, unfresh skin – this time of year, the beginning of term, requires a phenomenal amount of effort on the teachers’ part in order to get the students on your side, to ease their nerves – all of Japan basically has a huge complex about English and thus so many of the students are literally terrified on meeting me in case they are shown up, humiliation being the worst thing imaginable here; this requires me to totally behave as the key force in the room and the instigator of it all to rev them up and be on my Greatest Showman best, ringmaster Chapman, and it is exhausting, but thoroughly necessary to pave the way for the rest of the year; everything is based on this foundation, of establishing a positive atmosphere: it kills me but I jusr have to do it.
Clearly, though, a rather peculiar, unusual combination of very pervasive grey blue lavender, mint, shiso leaf and a Guerlain Lavande Velours-like striking powdery violet note on top of the tea and musk were smelling very odd indeed on me (if slightly mesmerizing) as I sprayed some on just before boarding the train back home last night :compelling in a weird way, but not entirely me. Vestiges of diaper and baby powder, at least on that occasion. Also cold: robotic. Do I regret buying it? No, because I love just owning it – the box is lovely too- and this morning, more importantly, it smells very different. Perfumer Daniela Roche Andrier, the creator of Prada’s Infusion D’Iris and Guerlain’s Angelique Noir among many other gentle, neat, designed to be wearable perfumes but still with a certain enigmatic twist, has a recognizable signature, and in fact, traces of her star iris perfume for Prada are recognizable somewhere in the mix here, lending the heart a certain familiarity: looking on Fragrantica I see that many seem to worship this scent for having captured the ‘smell of calm’, and in a matinal, ironed shirt kind of way, I think this could be quite nice as a work scent. The dry down is very laundresque, dry; like a new bar of soap.
While perfume at home and when going out are a much more extravagant affair, Work Scents are also extremely important to me. Now that in Japan it seems that people will be permanently masked for the foreseeable future (where you are, they just haven’t worked; people refuse and pay the consequences: here, they are de rigeur not only inside but also out, in the fresh air; all the time :only when in restaurants bars and cafes are they removed, briefly: it is a horrible thing to have to get used to but better than being bombed or shot in the head). You can never entirely breathe. From the perfumaniac perspective though, it does mean that, with windows largely open, I feel it is fine for me to go to work scented. Not excessively, but this carries me through the day and makes my – I was going to say ‘borders secure’ but that might be overdoing it – delineates my sense of self in a way I find ‘approving’. Right now it is Parfums De Rosine’s Roseberry, but as the weather gets warmer I might move into tea as I always do in summer with Roger & Gallet’s Thé Vert, a summer staple, but it is always nice to refresh the palette a little, branch out to pastures new, and at Nose Shop Yokohama, Turkish cult brand Nishane’s Ode to fruit-laced Chinese oolong tea seems to be at number one or two in their popularity list whenever I go (things are always ‘ranked’ here to make it easier to choose and be swayed by the greater herd). And I also rather like it. Plus the fact that there is also a lighter, bigger, and less expensive bottle of ‘hair mist’ available which might be nice as an overall spritz when things get muggy has also caught my attention. I am not sure that this scent is 100% suited to me – it is quite multi-levelled;: an ‘experience’: a bracing tea and nutmeg heart; a fleshier fig and musk base, but also a very florid and fresh upper parapet of bergamot, orange and litchi. It might end up being too much, but I think I am going to investigate further, as it attracts me.
Tea is astringent: revitalizing, uplifting. And I think that my prime reason for being drawn to tea fragrances is their clarity (yet also their ruminative hint of melancholy). They bestow a certain dignity. A quiet rectitude. Which is sometimes what you need. Yet : they can also, of course, veer into the gourmand and the gooey – like Chai by Baruti, which is too much for me ( I don’t take sugar and not too much milk), or Five O Clock Au Gingembre by Serge Lutens, which never quite lit my candle. Likewise, though fascinating, with its potent central note of an almost lurid green tea extract set like a jewel amid a sea of gummering sweetness (vanilla, amber, heliotrope, spices, rose, ylang ylang, thyme), Ananda Chai, which came originally in a hideous brown bottle but which I am hoping has been replaced by the one pictured above) is great for doing the dance of the seven veils perhaps, but not really something I could ever wear myself. It is so insistent and needy. On the other hand, this perfume is so unusual and so perfectly rendered, that smelling it makes you wish that more people in the world were experimental and nose-literate or at least interested, so that you could spend your day being stimulated by different individuals wafting by in indecipherable and head-turning fragrances such as this. I am glad that it exists.
One of my favourite ‘standout’ fragrances, those that mystify and intoxicate, of recent times is Meo Fusciuni’s Odor 93, a fungal, powdery tuberose that is amazing and which I love on myself but would also have loved to discover on someone else : that whole oh my god what is that phenomenon where you are immediately smitten. The new release from this extraordinarily passionate Italian perfume house, a small bottle of which I received in the post the other day, is Encore Du Temps: a rich floral green tea scent with masculine leanings based on the founder’s travels in Laos and particular the city of Luang Prabang.
This is indeed a glorious place. I have amazing memories of being there myself – in fact, if you look up my reviews of Shalimar and a strange piece I wrote there called Tropical Malady, I was also in a state of bliss just sitting in our bungalow by the Mekong watching the water go by and writing; the scent of frangipani petals falling at the temples: the sheer slowness. Meo Fusciuni also seems to have been completely transfixed by being in Luang Prabang, and the new fragrance is his capturing of certain sensations and feelings he felt while in Laotian reverie. A distinctive, deep, green tea note is matched with a slightly animalic absolute of osmanthus here (with other flower notes of magnolia and champaca), with a resonant note of maté tea extract, sandalwood and benzoin in the base that is quite compelling. For me, though, I must admit, this scent is more ‘sexy man in business suit’ than anything conjuring a particular spirituality ( like the brand’s own Varanasi). D wore it last Monday, when we met after work in Yokosuka for a late showing of Leos Carax’s prize-winning bizarro film Annette so I was able to experience it in proper close-up. Getting lost by somehow taking the wrong turning in the road, we ended up encircling the outskirts of the entire city like mini automobiles carving out new scalextrix tracks in space, walking miles against the clock and quickly wolfing down an Indian when we finally found our bearings – which only made D even more disorientated – and got to the (empty except for one other person) Multiplex just in time. Encore Du Temps was the constant soundtrack to these shenanigans, and it is an extrait, so quite potent – and perhaps he sprayed on too much. But the musky, synthetic final accord was very persistent, too much so – next time he will have to wear less, I think this was three sprays – and I was in a certain state of vague anxiety despite my pleasure at being out because it was just before the busiest week of my entire term and we really shouldn’t have been out in truth, it wasn’t sensible. And the film…….well we walked out. Quite a rarity. On the one hand, it was darkly captivating and aesthetically quite exquisite at times, like nothing else I have ever seen (a musical about a violently toxic male comedian – Adam Driver, who falls in love with an opera singer – Marion Cotillard – who then fall out of love while co-parenting a……..marionette). With odd, monotonous but occasionally riveting songs by 70’s group Sparks, some ear-worming their way into the dark recesses of your brain, others just plain repetitive and annoying, I immediately found the too-obvious French philosophizing (look! we are drawing your attention to the artificiality of the process! This is not real!) extremely irritating and each time I looked at my other half in the seat at the back of the cinema beside me, reeking of Meo Fusciuni, his blank expression with glazed eyes – you could see the film going on in his retina with no reaction inside as he had closed off : this told me that we should abort. And so with one hour and twenty minutes still to go, we headed home, depleted, not talking and headache-induced by all the almost laughable nonsense.
What touched me deeply about this episode, though, I must say, was the fact that even though D had absolutely hated the film (neither of us could remotely tolerate the animatronic and deeply ugly and boring puppet child, like some nightmareish mix of Pinocchio and Pan’s Labryinth, nor the theatricality), I am pretty sure that D would have stayed until the end for my sake nevertheless if I had been enjoying it. I am not sure I could have returned the favour, and so I really appreciate his sweet unselfishness. Granted, it was a naturally precarious choice to begin with ; We both detest musicals, although I loved Dancer In The Dark – he didn’t – butin truth, had I been alone, and it been earlier in the day, I probably would have stayed until the end because a part of me was pulled in. Adam Driver was kind of spectacular. And just to see what happened. And because actually, afterwards, I kept thinking about the pitch black neon LA uncanny atmosphere of the film, which penetrated into my inner mindstream despite the deliberately goonish artificiality. I think I may actually have liked it. There was something quite emotively unsettling about it, and I would like to see it again: alone. I am pretty sure, also, that the bottle of Encore Du Temps, still in a pocket in D’s workbag, when I smell it again, will stir something in me, fused immediately with that night’s experiences. With its pungent, almost haunting and reverberant note of osmanthus oils and green tea. I look forward to Meo Fusciuni’s take on Japan…