“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and gorgeous (these days when I smell my old bottles of this scent they have gone flaccid and doughy: they smell outdated: but I still vividly remember the joy of the finger scrabble to get the little vial out of its box and spray it anew; the top notes of honeysuckle; hyacinth;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.