Monthly Archives: January 2023

THE RANDOM PERFUME VENDING MACHINE

“Echantillon gratuit. Ne peut être vendu que par ….” is a standard, unforgettable French phrase printed on the back of free boxed samples given out by the more magnanimous perfume houses telling you that this item is a gift and definitely not for sale. In Japan, though, perfume retailers are tighter than a shrew’s arse in terms of how generous they are in giving out free samples (even when you have spent a lot on an actual bottle, you are sometimes, only sometimes – even if you ask nicely – presented with one measly vial; expected to be radiantly grateful in return).

In contrast, I remember trawling the department stores as a teenager and young adult in Birmingham and London and coming home, later in the evening, flushed and exhilarated with bags of them (how else are you meant to properly try perfume? Stand blinking and pathetic at the counter like a knowledgeless ninny as the assistant blathers on about this or that and sprays a micro inch onto a scent strip from about half a metre away and expects you to buy the vastly overpriced import item just from overpolite and unrevealing company manual scentspeak?)

Guerlain used to do not only beautifully presented miniature bottles – in the same shape as the motherbottle, boxed in a miniature version of the packaging also, housed in a paper indentation – I have had Chamades and Parures like these – even the precious extraits (free samples of parfum!); the Chanels were lovely also; little Bel Respiros; miniature Cristalles.) The best ever, though, was when Helen and her sister Julia somehow got their hands on a full back-off-the-end-of-a-lorry boxload of Chlöé by Lagerfeld samples – the original seventies tuberose – in the late eighties; each was brand new and perfect; crisp and sensuous and gorgeous (these days when I smell my old bottles of this scent they have gone flaccid and doughy: they smell outdated: but I still vividly remember the joy of the finger scrabble to get the little vial out of its box and spray it anew; the top notes of honeysuckle; hyacinth; coconut and bergamot/peach so new and exciting to my brain. The smell is imprinted, now like embedded DNA onto my perfumatory brain cells: it reminds me of Prince records, and Kate Bush cassettes; hairsprays and lip gloss, lying around a clothes-strewn shared teenage bedroom.)

In Japan, you can forget such largesse. Here, you usually have to pay for your samples (have you seen how much 1.5ml spray vials of even totally run of the mill commercial fragrances go sometimes on all the e-floggers?) For me, there is something very anally retentive and kechi – stingy and miserly – about this fetishization of such a tiny amount of scent, clutched in your palm like an egotistical talisman, but I can also look at it from another angle: in Japan, with its Shintoist gods residing in virtually every inanimate object, from rivers to stones, to furniture (even the household toilet has its own deity), there is genuinely far more respect for products and things in general than elsewhere : quite a beautiful and elegantly acted out part of this culture; objects gain respect; luxury is venerated, or at least not taken lightly, particularly when it comes to European or American ‘brands’ (a whole subject unto intself). So profligacy of my natural nature – pouring half bottles over my body in one go; smearing myself in unguents as though I were a Roman at the unctuarium etc, is absolutely at the other end of the general Japanese scent purchasing concept and experience. My own relationship to perfume is quite different.

Japan is a consumerist hell. Or paradise, depending on your viewpoint. Shopping is of paramount importance: the national pastime. Biblic waves of human beings pouring through the electronic gates into stations and underground thoroughfares and into exitless labyrinths of underground endlessness; pop up stores and cafes and boutiques and discounters and hundreds and hundreds (thousands) of specialist clothes shops; honey-sellers, aroma oils, hats, home decor, sweets’ oh god all the sweets and the cakes and cutely wrapped up knick knacks and snacks and anything else you go out to mindlessly spend all your money on : you name it, they have it, in horrendous, plastically wrapped abundance ; there is such a proliferation of bounty, if you like shopping : I H A T E it personally (and what if there is an earthquake and you can’t get out?) (And where does all the discard go………?)

Yesterday, a freezing Saturday early evening in Yokohama after special pre-exam lessons, as I entered the thronging maelstrom of buzzed up product-choosers laughing and chattering at deafening volumes in their cream and camel coats and light brown dyed hair and identical eyemakeup I simply couldn’t stand it anymore , truly desperate to get back to the quiet of Kamakura. But as Nose Shop, a niche little niche shop tucked on the third floor of a department store on the way back to my platform was not a hassle and en route, I made a quick stopover to just sniff my way through quickly and try to enter another zone.

There was a lot of syncretic niche; woody and nauseating at the gut level : aggressive and mood-lowering. I quite liked Nicolaï’s heliotrope almond, Kiss Me Intense. And Maya Nijie’s dark and self absorbed leather, Voyeur Verde. But to be honest, I wasn’t entirely in the right mood (as you might have gathered). I was, however, quite intrigued, and amused, by the company’s gachapon fragrance tombola that had been put right in the centre of things for this Saturday spendfest: I saw a smartly dressed couple indulging and each walking away with something they had absolutely no idea about (there was something pleasing about the idea of them getting on public transport, and later taking out these perfumes and giving them more attention than my own couple of half-hearted and cynical inhalations) . For 900 yen, or $6.93, you could put your money in the vending machine – the gacha – is the onomatopeic sound of the chosen as it is drawn out randomly and the pon the moment it hits the removal slot – and get a totally unchoosable scent sample of various sizes and shapes. I didn’t get one, on this occasion, but I do actually find myself from time to time when on a train platform on my way home putting a few coins in (usually 300 yen) the standard gachapon vending machines from one of these useless and pointless toys and gadgets that are everywhere just for the hell of it (Duncan just nearly ate a rubber doughnut on a keyring that was downstairs because he thought it looked so tasty and realistic; my sister loves these things as well and often eggs me on to get her more : sometimes I text her and send pictures of the latest finds – she liked the ‘windswept animals’ collection – see the poodle above, steeling itself in a great urban gust; I preferred the windblown Afghan hound as its hair looked more dramatic, but wasn’t lucky enough to ‘win’ it when I put my money in the two times that I felt like doing it – I was not after the whole collection. She loved the scowling yakuza boss cats you can see staring at you just there above; unfortunately I didn’t get to the office workers giving each other enemas in time, or the prognathous people and animals with outsized chins before they sold out (really: that was one thing: someone’s job, somewhere up in a crowded office in Tokyo, is coming up with this nonsense ; the creation and execution of the next utterly ridiculous concept). My sister especially loves the ‘cat sushi’ – sushi literally with cats inside – as well as the comatose donkey (animals in comas is another ludicrous thing someone invented) that I brought back in my suitcase especially for her over the summer. Sometimes I just think that all of this is such a hideous waste of time and energy, seeing that it is all probably just going to end up in the ocean and destroying the planet; I wish that humanity had somehow worked out differently. Others, I just think it is fun; hilarious even; something to laugh about: an amuse bouche for the brain and eyes. Perhaps I would be better off wasting my cash on a scent sample from the random perfume vending machine instead though. I might be given something I like. You never know what you will get.

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the smile

I am definitely no educational saint nor wannabe humanitarian savior (too decadent and selfish, obviously), but I must admit that seeing an extraordinarily socially awkward seventeen year old, after nine or ten months of teaching him and assuming, from his totally blank and robotic facial expression that he hated the lessons, and me ( and the other students ) – and so massive kudos to the rest of the class for accepting, and even nurturing him to the point where he feels like something frozen, slowly, thawing and coming alive : to see him laugh and smile unabashedly, finally, after all this time, is something exceedingly precious and beautiful

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SEEING RED : GEORGETTE by VYRAO (2021)

The main problem with this brand is that I can’t remember their name.

Walking one afternoon pre-work past the unchanging little niche shop in Fujisawa which stores a modest range of fragrances by such houses as Studio Olfactive, Nobile 1942 and The Different Company, I noticed to my surprise the newly stocked bottles of a brand I was unfamiliar with.

I had cursory inhales of all, identified Georgette as perhaps the most interesting, but then realized that as I left the store, about to possibly do a quick review on here, that I had completely forgotten the name of the perfume house. It had 100% slipped my brain (though I did, to my credit, remember that I think it began with a V). This happened not once, but twice: the other day – the third time – trying the perfume again, I made sure to take notes as I left the building so as not to forget it.

What is this instant amnesia? Are we just too jaded from the millions of new houses that keep sprouting up like so many mushrooms that our brains simply can’t take any more names and concepts, or is there something inherent and particular about, wait was it it – = Vyrao – that doesn’t stick? In my favour, it’s not impossible that as I was passing by the shelves I simply couldn’t see the logo in its entirety, as it was only partially visible on the bottle and I was in a hurry. Or else I just have giant Swiss cheese holes in my brain.

At any rate, this peppered zinger of a warm and resinous tobacco rose – a very red – orange red – rose made a certain impression on me. It has something. It has a glow. A subtly commanding presence. I am not sure I would want to wear it myself, in the same way I was hovering over Le Feu D’Issey today, in the mood for something vibrant (they have a similar aura and it was almost right ); the spiked woodiness and patchouli guaiac freshly assertive while also warming, androgynous; intelligent, but possibly a little over-insistent. Cunning. There are undertones.

Finally having remembered (and memorized!) the name Vyrao, I looked them up this evening and discovered that they are a ‘wellness’ oriented new house focused on holistically rounded perfume formulae that are designed to make you feel better (are most perfumes designed to make you feel worse?) Red is a colour I love, as is coral orange: and sometimes a red scent – and this smells quite red, woodily peppered red – is just what you are in the mood for on a cold day. In terms of really feeling good though, I have to be honest and say that I personally simply couldn’t look at all those garishly coloured bottles for very long. Rather than wellness, this ghastly tonal palette, in my own peculiar case, would most likely lead to illness.

Still, no one is saying you have to buy the entire set – which in any case would turn out to be very expensive. One or two might look acceptable if you locate the best place in your collection for them. Plus, finding out that the majority of the collection was created by perfumer Lyn Harris, an unsentimental but intuitive creatrice of subtle and intricate scent I have long admired, I am tempted to go back and smell all of these again more thoroughly at the shop again next week. Witchy Woo (?!!!!), a patchouli incense, has a lot of polarized comments on Fragrantica which usually means there might be something worth smelling, it sounds quite strange: and as a bona fide green lover I will definitely be re-trying I Am Verdant – and Free 00 – a solar floral citrus, which sounds light and breezy perfect for the summer.

Have you tried any perfumes by this house? Vyrao? I wasn’t wowed: but I did sense a certain energy.

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“PERFUMES, DESIGNER CLOTHES AND SEX PILLS WERE FOUND” – THE UNDOING OF A MURDEROUS PERFUMISTA MAFIOSO

Perfumes, designer clothes and sex pills were found on Tuesday in an apartment which investigators believe was the last hideout of Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro” said the world headlines last week, after the arrest of a notorious ex capo who had been on the run for thirty years and was responsible for some of the most heinous crimes in the history of modern Italy: a boss who once vindictively dissolved a police informant’s twelve year old son in vats of acid so that he would never be able to bury his body, and who once boasted that his victims – allegedly at least 150 – could fill up the local cemetery. After thirty years of evading the authorities (how many of them must have been complicit?) Denaro was finally caught by the carabinieri in broad daylight : in the birthplace, ironically, of cosa nostra itself: Palermo, while visiting a cancer clinic for treatment, under an alias.

He had been right under their noses the entire time.

Other than the sensationalism of the crimes and the ludicrous fact that it took them so long to nail this obviously nasty piece of work who was suspected to still be in town, what struck me most about this story was the fact that his collection of perfumes was what made the headlines (“suspected of perfume”) as though there had been a cache of ak-47s , mountains of heroin and cocaine, or a stockpile of grenades. It is certainly not the most traditionally macho of accolades for a crook (“Police discover secret boudoirs full of vintage Nº5, Houbigant Chantilly, for mafia boss’s personal use”) (“Head honcho caught sniffing Bal A Versailles cologne under the boardwalk, redhanded!”). Perfume very rarely comes up in the news – the most notable exception being of course the deadly Nina Ricci Premier Jour that was smuggled into the UK from Moscow in 2018 which contained the highly toxic and radioactive Russian nerve gas novichok for a politically motivated assassination, tragically killing an unsuspecting woman in Salisbury who was given the perfume by her partner after finding it discarded, wrapped in plastic in a local dustbin; she sprayed the ‘Nina Ricci’ twice on her wrists, rubbed them together, and died a bizarre, slow agonizing death.

The ‘luxury perfumes’ in Denaro’s possession (quite the ironic surname : denaro – ‘money’ in Italian, the very thing he had a lot of and presumably sold his soul for) were mentioned in the news stories not as lethal poison dupes as per the Russian spy case, but as proof of his wealth and extravagance (“He had ……… .. perfumes!“) . Exorbitant watches, fur coats; suits; Ferraris, Lamborghinis, yes – but perfumes? This we don’t usually hear about in any criminal context, nor as inherent valuables in a scandal connected to murder, theft, and grand larceny (demonstrating very clearly just how expensive niche perfumes and special editions really are these days) . By ‘Perfumes were found‘ – presumably we are not just talking about a couple of half-used bottles of Cerruti 1881 and Armani Aqua di Giò left malingering next to a pair of Ray Bans, a whiskey glass – and some mouldering, half-smoked cigar.

Instead, I imagine this man, wracked with disease and perhaps even plagued by conscience, crouching in the candlelit dark beside his rows of niche rare collectibles of the most exclusive kind; full ranges of the most inaccessibly priced concoctions, in their stone and crystal artisanal flacon editions; gorgeous artifice, wondering to himself what he will wear for that day …………mmmm.………….not for a moment predicting (but secretly, deep in his heart, always actually suspecting his inevitable eventual betrayal) : the soon to be stark, perfumeless and incarcerated future. The Catechin monks of Rome and their walled skulled cells in the catacombs hidden underneath the ancient city, the ceilings rife with the carefully placed bones and skeletons of their forefathers – a constant reminder of death; the memento mori as decoration, but here unholy; a witch gnarled and breathing; hovering over its hoary potions of woods; spices; extracts; musk; all in silence, behind closed blinds. I see luxurious art presentation sets of Filippo Sorcinellil; Unum for Il Papa – the illusory olfactory confession of Catholic sanctity with its captured, smokeless purified frankincense and cherubim aldehydes; rows of the finest Xerjoffs, the Meo Fusciumis, Borellis, Orto Parisis: the horological Byzantine overdecoration of all the gilded Tiziana Terenzis. Which one to pick today? Which ornate, Venetian mask of scent to try and coat the inner putrefaction? A spray or two to the wrist; inhale; eyes closed, in sensual grimace……try and counteract the inextinguishable stench of all those sad, corrupt and wasted years of violence and meaningless bloodletting.

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rabbits

2023 is the Year Of The Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac and begins next Sunday – the 22nd. Believed to be lucky and auspicious, this year, in contrast with the far more aggressive Year Of The Tiger, is destined – if you believe in such things, to be much more peaceful – with an overall sense of ‘relaxation, fluidity, quietness and contemplation’ compared to the overenergized fury of 2022. Rabbits are seen as gentle, calm – if nervous and slightly suspicious- creatures; sensitive to emotion – composed, and tranquil, appealing, animals.

As a child I kept rabbits, and they were the first animals I loved. We had a white one with bright blue eyes which I rather unoriginally named Snowy, followed by a beautiful champagne rex breed called Bambi, who we had mated at a local animal farm and who had the most exquisitely cute fawn coloured babies that you weren’t allowed to touch for the first two weeks or the mother would ingest them – an early lesson in the more frightening side of beauty, although it was worth the wait. I remember my delirious excitement when my parents said I could finally open the lid of the hutch and see them all – I think there were nine – all nestled together in the corner, sightless, but so sweet I also wanted to eat them myself. Other rabbits that we kept included Chloe and Zoe – a grey dwarf and a black and white, and there were more, though I can’t distinguish them now in my mind. The impression that rabbits make on you is nothing like that of cats or dogs; although rabbits can be reponsive, even affectionate, they are silent creatures, except when agitated; they don’t do very much. Just sit there, looking, twitching, eating greens; bolting round the garden uncatchable and scratching…In fact, having lived with a cat for these last fifteen years, where interaction, intuition, telepathy, humour, and real communication exist on a daily basis – cats’ mood range is astonishing and something I continue to find fascinating even when she gets on my nerves – I realize in retrospect that rabbits are probably, as pets, rather boring.

Still, I did love them as a kid, even if, as always with me in virtually anything, there was an anguished ambivalence. Their claws – talons, really, which you were supposed to cut regularly – were like sabres jutting out from the paw: you could be quite seriously wounded if they dug them in. Under the noiseless mouth, innocuously chewing robotically on dandelion leaves, staring forward (the scent of these leaves automatically throw me back to childhood whenever I pick them by the roadside and rip them to smell that rabbit hutch mix of straw and ammonia if you hadn’t properly cleaned it out regularly enough, which became a real problem for me: a mixture of morbid apprehension/avoidance/ procrastination that would soon take over when it came to clearing out the droppings; partly just because I was lazy, and hated shoveling it out, but also from a fear of finding one of them dead – which once experienced is something of a shock to the system ; how their mysterious, blank placid faces would transform into frightening death masks ; rigid toothed snarls : a cold domestic mxyomotosis when you lifted up the roof and screamed for your dad to come and take the lifeless rock hard body away (and then a very sad burial ceremony, somewhere in the garden). I can see myself on a cold winter’s night, gingerly going out in the dark into the garden, treading past the rabbits’ spacious wooden abode, but sometimes lacking the courage to look inside; this haunted my dreams for many years: a swirl of leporine shadows and accusatory rabbit eyes, suffocating nightmares fused with the exquisite sadness of Watership Down – the animated film which was out at the time about a warren of warring rabbits that included Art Garfunkel’s total heartbreaker of a ballad, Bright Eyes, which just happened to be number one in 1979 at the time Snowy died — I can remember running out of the living room sobbing, disconsolate when it was on Top Of The Pops. Even now, while I have the film soundtrack somewhere on record downstairs, this music is just somehow far too poignant to ever listen to.

The art work for the original single sleeve – pictured here – encapsulates the dark and heroic savagery of the rabbits defending their territory in the (for a young child rather scary) film, narrated beautifully by the grave and deeply soul piercing voice of actor John Hurt; a melancholically enveloping, nostalgic pastoral, in which the rabbits were often anything but cute but instead rather violent and vicious (which they can be in real life; I found myself this summer, on the morning I was leaving my parents’ house, when there were still a few hours to go before we were going to drive to the station and say goodbye, and I found myself utterly absorbed in one of those ‘animal reality’ tv shows that I would probably not normally watch but which happened to be on the screen. It concerned the daily travails of the staff working on a stately home menagerie/animal park – goats getting ensnared in wire fences; moody rampaging bullocks ; balding lions with alopecia, mad chickens, that kind of thing, but this particular episode happened to be about all the extreme drama surrounding introducing a new member to the rabbit enclosure. The rabbit specialists working there gave quite in depth analyses of each bunny’s personality – this one is introverted, this one is a bit of a showoff, this one is depressed, that one laid back and contented, just like the human colleagues in an average workspace; all different, they all knew their place in the scheme of things and that the boss – by far the smallest – a rabbit with Napoleon syndrome which bit and nudged and bullied all the others into its own schemata would soon attack them into submission – a female dwarf that no one messed with; and sure enough, as the veterinarians predicted, the second they put a couple of new inmates in the pen then all hell broke loose.

The mass of rabbits were moving so fast that the human eye couldn’t make out what was happening – you would assume that the film had been sped up 77%; it was a hilarious blur of darting fur tails and ears and eyes and sharp teeth, the cohabiting females running at breakneck speed to nip and scratch each other into the correct pecking order; one of them docile yet gung ho enough to just go with the flow; another, more stubbornly non violent just wanting to get on with its quiet life – got quite badly injured – an incision right through the fur that would require antibiotics and having to be kept separately for quite a long time until could make any further attempts to reintroduce it to the colony).

The defensive and quick acting, teeth tearing reality, for me, though, doesn’t really take anything away from the fundamentally placid and appealing serenity of how rabbits still seem to humans; at least to me; I used to sometimes walk across Hampstead Heath when I worked in London, and on the meadows in front of Kenwood house, at dusk,the grass was teeming with them – calmly grazing and sitting; hopping to another patch. Sometimes moving; sometimes not. I loved stopping to watch. Just stand there for a while and unobtrusively observe. And rather than the cartooned oversimplification of much cute rabbit imagery – Miffy may be lovely, like Hello Kitty, if you say so, I prefer the true duality of the animals; beautiful, sociable, energetic, but aggressive when necessary, the more dangerous yang to the essential yin. They have a delightful shape, and smell good (they do – not the urine, which is pungent – but up close, you pick up a rabbit to cuddle and they just smell clean and fresh, of air and hay and rabbit fur – unlike other rodents like hamsters and gerbils, which perhaps not coincidentally I never took a shine to).

This is why, though now a cat keeper, I still collect rabbits. Not expensive and antique collectible ones, like those you have seen so far, but which I would definitely buy if I came across them at an acceptable price (I never go looking for these on the internet either), but, on ocasionl if I see a peculiar rabbit trinket or knick knack at a junk sail or local antique market I will sometimes pick it up to add the rabbits that happen to inhabit some of the upstairs shelves.

Speaking of which, please pardon the two week silence : I retreated into a much needed blissful hibernation over the New Year Period. One week or two spent intensely researching the culture of flowers until my brain burst; then after a New Year’s Day feast with our Japanese neighbours eating all the traditional food like o-sechi ryori I switched to my Japan book, which I had promised myself I would do, daring to finally open all the folders of writing I did last year – jettisoned, by the strong currents of the year, but also always waiting to be re-examined. There is so much of it it is hard to know what to do with it but I am certainly re-ignited; watching J-dramas on TV for research, trying to get my head around it all, but all this newness of knowledge and relaxing while always analyzing and reading and writing was essentially my idea of heaven. The weather was a stable temperature – cold, but blue skied and sunny – the perfect climate for headclearing afternoon walks. The morning, we would wake up whenever, and spend two or three hours with the cat in bed leisurely drinking tea and then coffee reading the papers from cover to cover, the sunlight illuminating the upstairs; later we would drift into individual projects for the rest of the day and evening – I am also in the middle of a long article I want to submit to a new perfume magazine – I felt, for a change, really at ease and in the moment: it was true contentment (I can’t actually think of a time I have been happier). I don’t know if the celestial Rabbit has anything to do with any of this, casting a benign and calming spell over everything, but if this is what the year holds for us – slower, tranquil, more dreamy (rabbits, though alert, patient and responsible, apparently have a tendency to evade reality) – then I am very happy to play along.

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