Germany has always done herbs and botanicals exceptionally well – many of the best herbal teas, essential oils and plant based medical ointments are assembled or manufactured here (you definitely can’t beat Pompadour’s Pfefferminze for a perfect mint tea); I find many of the best aromatherapeutic essences often turn out to be Deutsch; and Kneipp, a 130 year old institution whose expensive – but incredibly soothing, stimulatingly effective – natural bath salts are very popular in Japan – is no exception ; a company whose products are great for those who like bracing and potent medicinal plant oils to clear their nasal passages or free up sore joints, just unwind( their eucalyptus is unparalleled; I also really like their peculiarly blue forests wintergreen when you need a really long deep soak).
The hand creams produced by Kneipp, though, I must confess, are sometimes somewhat more problematic. From the greasening, emollient point of view when your hands are dry they are of good quality, do the job, and also come in dinky mini sizes that you can easily slip into a small pocket for a crafty drop of scent when you might feel like one. However, the scent of these creams, even when a citrus, is often perturbingly animalic, or at least ‘bodily’ ( a little bit dirty); the plant hormones of the oils used not sanitized and cliniqued out of the final product into something hygienic and more consumer -palatable as they might be elsewhere; The ylang ylang tube I once bought unnerved me – I couldn’t quite place why, but I never used it ; this new apricot cream, which I just picked up on my lunch break, is also carnal, luscious – creamy as an apricot fromage frais ( sometimes I think there is no fruit flavour more delectable : it is easily my favourite jam, and the scent of Fauchon’s apricot tea is to die for …….. — has this note, come to speak of it, to your knowledge, ever been used convincingly in a perfume ? I do remember a gorgeous apricot vanilla confection once by Comptoir Sud Pacifique from back in the day but that is all that is coming to mind right now unless you stretch to the fruit orchards of Femme de Rochas); at any rate, I think I like this, though the scent definitely feels slightly too uncanny – forbidden, almost — to be used in my classroom later this evening.
Another state funeral today – this time a very controversial one : a government funded , costly and grave affair to commemorate assassinated prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot dead one Friday in July at close range; this, unlike the Queen’s of two weeks ago, closed off from the public under extremely tight security and anxiety as , according to news reports, at least half the country opposes it being held in the first place and, quite big ( quite unusual in Japan ); loud and angry protests going on as we speak across the country, even, to my slight surprise, where I work in relatively low key Tokyo satellite city Fujisawa, where groups of people with loudspeakers were gathered just now as I went out to lunch to voice their anger and resentment.
It is interesting to me that the emperor – pictured above – travelled to London for the funeral of Elizabeth, but that protocol states that he and the empress not attend the commemoration of Abe’s remains at the Budokan today ; also that the killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, now that it has come to light that at least half the government here have links to the Moonies/Korean Unification Church ( why ?! So bizarre ), the reason Yamagami apparently took ‘revenge’ against Abe in the first place for impoverishing his family (the mother gave all of her savings to the cult) ; he has now become something of a romantic folk antihero to some factions of this society despite the deeply shocking violence of his crime, indicating the deep unpopularity of many of the former prime minister’s conservative policies, and showing quite clearly, once again, that in Japan, as with anyone anywhere , you never really quite know what is going on under the surface.
I was moved by the Queen’s funeral. Awed, even. From the opening, searing deep chorale solemnity of the first voices as the coffin was borne into Westminster Abbey to ‘The Sentences’ – a seventeenth century piece by composer William Croft that stung with a purity of pain and sorrow, filling the vaults to the rafters of the abbey and the airwaves to Japan and around the world, I was profoundly aware of being in the midst of a truly historical moment.
As a typhoon passed over outside, D and watched much of the procession beforehand, amazed at the precisely calibrated organization and meticulously choreographed sense of occasion as the royal family walked somberly and gravely (almost ridiculously), in sync to Beethoven’s Funeral March (at one point, so hypnotized by the endless repetition of the music, I found myself going up and down the stairs to make herb tea walking in exactly the same stulted rhythm, unconsciously marching myself); transported to a very different, more gilded Britishness than the one I am used to (‘chaotic’, savvy, sarcastic, controversial, at ferociously political loggerheads); for once it felt, temporarily – even if this was only illusory – as if everybody had put everything aside and had reassembled themselves into one body of people concentrating their minds on just one thing: with London closed down, almost the entire country focused on the ceremony and the laying to rest of Elizabeth, there was a unifying sense, even from this distance, of a coming together.
It felt genuinely sad. The more I read about the Queen, the more I (perhaps naively) come to the conclusion that despite the many problems associated with what she represented (still strange using the past tense) – the public financing of the royal family, which many quite rightly see as outrageous; the legacies of colonialism; the inherited privilege and entitlement (and so on and so forth), this was a person of true integrity and decency, who spent her entire life dedicating herself to what she believed in. I respected her consistency. First and foremost, paradoxically, even, given her her great personal wealth, unlike so many who pronounce themselves to be Christians but in fact are not, I believe that in spite of her position, she did not generally condescend to people nor discriminate, but seemed to truly believe that all human beings are equal and worthy of respect ; I did not sense the deep hypocrisy present in so many of the supposedly ‘pious’ and racist and bigoted whose hearts are full of prejudice and hate. While the funeral service, so extraordinary in its choreography, and the BBC’s camerawork, as though, almost, you were watching a film that had been pre-considered (which of course, it had been), and not an event of great significance that was transpiring live before your eyes, with its cold but compassionate lenses moving down slowly from the cloisters onto the lonely coffin lying below, covered gently in simple flowers (at first I found the bouquet underwhelming in its scope, but came to like the naturalness of it; the rosemary especially, entwined with myrtle, roses and carnations – there was a tasteful simplicity), all of this non-contemporaneously and profoundly religious in its use of ancient Christian texts and hymns as well as some truly sublime and exquisite more contemporary organ and choir music, which may have felt alienating to the modern atheistic society of Britain; but at the same time, as the head of the Church Of England it all felt very right for her, personally – her own choices; purifying, cathartic, healing, rather than the sham of morality so often seen by religious zealots with no sincerity of religion their hearts. It was religion as consolation, no matter your own beliefs; magnificent, but also intimate, ecclesiastical public rites that allowed you to spiritually exhale and move on; songs and recitations that were often piercingly melancholy, reminding us ever more keenly of our own mortality and that of the ones we love, including the truly heartrending plaintive piece by the bagpiper that signalled the end of the funeral; an epoch making reign of seventy years ending definitely requiring such a drawn out, fantastical, almost ravishing, grandeur.
The lying in state for such a long period of time was, in my opinion, also remarkably well judged. From the sudden announcement of the death, up in Scotland, to the burial at Windsor, a sufficiently long period of time went by for the news to sink into the minds of the people; the various, televised ceremonies in different cities across the UK reinforcing the reality; the endless queues of people lining up for many hours to be able to walk past the catafalque (a new word in all our vocabularies), at Westminster Hall, hypnotic as it was broadcast live on the BBC like an art installation delineating time, slowing it down, deepening and solidifying the moment, crystallizing the mourning into something slow, considered, contemplatory, happening in real time; you could feel the passage of time; though part of me simultaneously felt sorry for the Queen, simply as a physical human being, being constantly on display in this way (I was very glad it was not an open casket : I remember parading past the waxen perturbment of Ho Chi Minh at his mausoleum in Saigon, the complete lack of personal privacy), this presuming that the Queen really was inside the coffin of course – a thought that occurred to me several times as the body was borne aloft across so many miles, turned, jostled, bumped on gun carriages, returned finally to Windsor – it felt tumultuous, rather than serene, for a recently deceased person to be disturbed and moved about so much: no ordinary person would have so little physical stillness. For this reason alone, I am pleased that she is finally at rest at the mausoleum in St George’s Chapel.
Ultimately, unenviably, it felt that Queen Elizabeth, her actions, her body, almost belonged to the State, truly its servant – hence the public’s ‘right’ to view or imagine her within her coffin, replete and loaded with whatever each member of the public wanted to project onto her embalmed figure. I found the spectacle of the crowds waiting patiently to walk past her quite riveting but also quietly harrowing; the Queen had dignity, but not the solace of peace nor deathly solitude. I felt sorry for her. But the public, of course, understandably, had to mark the moment, a change of monarchs – something that has not happened in most of our lifetimes, and the sheer numbers involved and the logistics required to make this run smoothly without hitch were very impressive. It was as though time had stopped, a National Event unlike any other I have ever witnessed, and so it felt absolutely imperative to be there, at the time of happening, on Monday evening, even just on a screen thousands of miles on the other side of the earth. I was transfixed. The beautiful music chosen at the funeral and the manner in which the whole post-passing was managed, was incredible to behold; it was like being cast back centuries into a history that you forget exists or existed, but was there before you, right in the present. Certain hymns, like ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, took me right back to being a little child when we used to learn it at school, and made me feel quite emotional. Such carefully selected pieces of music touch people deeply; a shared cultural knowledge that you forget lies still within you; the soaring boys’ choir truly reminiscent of angels in heaven. — even if you don’t believe in them.
It feels surreal, predestined, and quite fortuitous in many ways that on this long delayed trip back to England we had almost randomly decided to stay in Windsor, a place neither of us previously knew. After an arduous three day journey back to Japan, having left our hotel in Windsor at the break of dawn, with that particularly English beautiful cold damp smell in the air as the sun broke through the clouds, it was startling to wake up to the news that Queen Elizabeth had died. I had just, for some reason, in the grogginess of deep jet lag, been thinking about her, about her longevity, about what the world would say when she reached her hundredth birthday (I think most of us assumed she would go on forever), trying to imagine Charles as an eighty year old monarch, when I walked blearily into the kitchen and D, who had got up very early to go into work, and was looking at his phone, told me the sad news.
I am not a royalist; for me the royal family are just people, like us, with fallibilities and problems, at times even evil (just look at the disgrace that is Prince Andrew), but I do see the value in terms of tradition of the monarchy, and like many, had a great deal of respect for The Queen. She was dignified, hard-working, in many ways a deeply loyal and honourable servant of the country (I personally believe that she was stoically ‘holding on’ as long as she could for the people despite the grief she must have been suffering following the loss of Prince Philip and the exhaustion she was apparently feeling post-Covid infection, knowing that they needed the positivity of the Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games as a boost to the spirits after the misery of the pandemic): a living icon – at least while we were still there, just a few days ago now, her face everywhere in Windsor, probably the most royal family-centred town in the whole of the UK; souvenirs, posters, teatowels, mugs, portraits of her wherever you cared to look celebrating the Platinum Jubilee; we really enjoyed basking in the pub beer and fish-and-chip Britishness. The buildings were beautiful, the atmosphere benificent and calm, the fluttering bunting and flags everywhere very charming – there was a quietly celebratory feeling in the air as the long hot summer continued its dreamy late evening strolls; our hotel just five minutes from the castle, incantatory at dusk; romantic (we asked ourselves if the Queen was also up as we walked back to our room, assuming she was inside, not realizing she was ailing at Balmoral); soaking up what was actually to be the very end of her reign. The place where now the crowds are gathering and milling to see Harry and Meghan, William and Catherine was peaceful and quiet; we had a nice lunch with my parents there, who came down the day after we arrived, sitting together inside the beautiful flowering hanging basket covered pub that is nearest to the royal residence, The Two Brewers, right by the castle entrance; at that time, just the odd family standing happily taking photos in front of the gate; extraordinary to know now that this was the end of an era.
You know you are probably a bit eccentric when rather than have a final spritz for your return flight home as you embark on the journey towards the gate of your departure from your miraculous lifesaver of the transit hotel, food so good your tongue is hanging out ( god how I missed real Asian food !)
you instead without hesitation plunge your fingers into the aroma oil burner in the entrance not knowing the temperature in advance but not caring because the divine scent of natural sambac jasmine oil is just so good that you smear it joyously over your hair, clothes, and skin
Some perfumes have made repeat appearances on this holiday. I am now lying in my transit hotel after a desperately needed shower and sleep after the gruelling first two legs of our rescheduled odyssey back to Tokyo via London and Abu Dhabi, a highly crowded headfuck of an airport with very bad feng shui (like being trapped in a crushed-in Escher painting pumped with bad smells (mainly ‘perfume’) and where travelling feels more like an ordeal and why you wonder why you are ever even doing it.
Among the thick, sickly and head turning ‘new fragrances’ clamouring for your attention in the jammed fragrance aisles – ‘Good Fortune’, a purple fruit number for Viktor & Rolf fronted by FKA Twigs as a soothsayer with a crystal ball, tolerable but whose name is really scraping the barrel of uncreativity and whose artistic directors need a quiet slap, or a sixties eyeliner pixie-cut Emma Watson for Prada Paradoxe (pink fruity), or the new Paco Rabanne Fame, fronted by perceived to be ingenue Neon Demon star Elle Fanning (pink fruity) – but hang on a sec, don’t I already have two perfumes with that very same name in my collection – Fame by Lady Gaga – a celebrity gourmand – plus far more importantly, Fame by Corday (a beach mirage of shimmering tropical flowers from 1946)?. Like the bastardized iridescent oilslick that is Joy by Dior (the perfumed equivalent of a petrochemical disaster, with its name pilfered shamelessly from Jean Patou), there no longer any respect left for original copyright of perfumery’s creations ?
In is a maelstrom of harsh and persistent aroma chemicals, it is sometimes difficult to stand out from the crowd. With every name from Chopard to Caroline Herrera showing ‘prestige’ collections and full floral armoires – some of the Chloe Atelier Des Fleurs were quite nice and I will come back to those later, and the new Bottega Veneta flowers such as Salvia Blu were particularly crisp and superciliously pristine to convincingly fashionable effect, but for someone searching for a pleasing spritzer on a grotty scuzzbag of an endless flight, the new Hermes Basilic Pourpre created by Christine Nagel, is degreasing, piercing, and a tonic to the nerves.
Although I reek of two many conflicting vetivers sprayed on my person, after my next long, and soapy shower (thank GOD for this hotel in the airport !), on the next, final leg back to Tokyo I might find a Hermes counter and spray on some of this curious and original cologne, which combines the bright freshness of the classic Eau D’Orange Verte with anise and cardamom and a patchouli geranium base note with an almost shockingly photorealistic nose burst of freshly cut basil leaves. A REALLY good basil note – possibly the best I have tried, alongside Sisley Eau De Campagne , which I also sprayed loads of at Heathrow, but here melded perfectly with the other green citrus underlay as though La Basilic herself, herbaceously resplendent, were emerging boldly, but graciously, from a leaf-fronded grove pool.
For those finding basil too foody or catpissy ( there is an undeniable olfaction link : sometimes I buy bunches of fresh basil for cooking and forget and then wonder if a stray cat has got into the house and sprayed), this odd little green perfume will be a bit wincey; for me, it is unique, new; appealing , and was also the first scent that stood out for me at Birmingham Selfridges on a day out with my mum when I found myself perusing and talking avidly with a lovely sales assistant had returned recently from Japan ( hello again if you are reading this – I never caught your name): she took me around some new, unknown to me perfumed intrigues, even if my eyes kept straying back, ultimately, to the Hermes.
In England, there are two perfumes. The overwhelmingly predominant one is inoffensive, aimiable, but rather low IQ-seeming vulgar floral Vanilla ( EVERY fragrance wearing woman who has passed me smells like this; D is nose-weary of it as well; no matter the contemporary female-marketed contemporary perfume’s starting notes, it will end exactly the same, to the point of complete indistinguishability : Perfume = Thick Synthetic Crass Vanila: Thick Synthetic Crass Vanilla = Perfume ( please memorize this important equation).
The other perfume of the two that are available to UK citizens ( far fewer, say, than the number of haircut styles available in North Korea), is brain aching synthetic oud – one I endured from someone metres ahead on the street combined this plague on the olfactory senses with a rich caramellized inner heart and a biting, ozonic top, which made me both physically and psychologically quite nauseated, while others slip the note into the classic macho fresh sport fougere. for football boys milling around the bar area at the pub.
I exaggerate of course ( but not actually). The Rules can be circumnavigated : I experienced a nice light figgy green on a woman by the Windsor Hotel breakfast bar; on the way to the PCR testing pharmacy ( the hassles and stresses we have gone through on this trip; cancelled flights, hellish, endlessly time consuming administrative infernos, head exploding psychodramas …) , a Meditterranean man pleadingly walking by us in an alluring, herbal aromatic almond musk, but 99% of the time, in truth it would seem that there are only the Nationally Validatd Two Options. And my does it get depleting.
Which is why it was so nice to meet up with my old university friend Emma in Norwich one day ( there have been a lot of lovely, reconnecting and emotionally cathartic experiences on this visit too ), to walk around the beautiful streets of this ancient cathedral city with someone with the sense and taste to wear a scent that has real elegance, elusiveness, and crisp citric chypric freshness, rather than being clobbered unmistakeable over the head with the aforementioned industrial mallets. It was the perfume man’s inhalation of Fresh Air.
Reminiscent of classics such as Eau Sauvage and Cristalle, Eau Du Sud is less prevalent than its close relative and perennial favourite Eau D’Hadrien, but is drier, more herbal ( mint and several citrus peels ) alongside jasmine and a deft touch of natural patchouli. It has lasting power, but not ‘persistence’, which is a quality I have come to really object to in a perfume – I don’t know : maybe I am now just too Japanese.
At any rate, Eau Du Sud accompanied our strolls and conversations quite delightfully as a soft, ethereal skin soundtrack, as we reminisced and examined our current state of affairs, over leisurely local ciders and ales, wondering where all the time had gone, while living vividly : immersed in the actual moment.