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and gorgeous (these days when I smell my old bottles of this scent they have gone flaccid and doughy: they smell outdated: but I still vividly remember the joy of the finger scrabble to get the little vial out of its box and spray it anew; the top notes of honeysuckle; hyacinth;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


Filed under Flowers


  1. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    Alas alas for those magic days. I had my own favourite shop in Amsterdam, run by a french lady, madame Irene. Once a year or moreI I used to visit her to choose my perfume. Always a grand occasion. I came back with a bagful of redolent goodies. Some of them are still in my possession.

    Reminds of my birthday parties when I was a kid. You could grab – blindfolded- in a towelwrapped ton and come out with something quite useless or definitely only eatable that very day.
    It is the kick of surprise! The suspense of wanting and maybe getting. I get the same feeling when I am bidding on Ebay for kimono’s from Japan. I find them very wearable with my present age and figure!!
    I bid in the last 10 seconds and hope and pray that somebody else has not overbidden me! Quite addictive.
    I love the poodle. Would have gone for him myself. And put him next to my totem and iconic animal, the Fox. I understand he is very much revered to the point of 13 tails deity in Japan.

    • Oh yes. Foxes everywhere at temples.

      I LOVE the sound of your shop and Irene.

      • Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

        She was indeed marvelous. She put me on Guerlain, Arpege and all my past perfumes.
        But the shop was canceled and sold when het daughter and successor got cancer and could not continue. Such a pity and a sad loss to every one.
        Years ago I wrote about her and Ma vie parfumee in De Leesbril, translation: Reading glasses, a monthly magazine for women of a certain age and a certain love 💗 inclination.
        About 300 max readers, all female. Folded after 5 years.

    • D came home with a load of kimonos last night too, given to him by a friend. He looks fantastic in them – the more elaborate and colourful ones he turns into cushions.

  2. This is so fascinating (lots of this in your new book please), I had never given thought to the whole Shinto deity angle. It makes more sense now, the whole worshipping of consumer goods, still feels like a hideous corruption of it though (obviously). I feel polluted and suffocated just picturing the hoards of shoppers and yet I know if and when I come back to Japan again, I will really enjoy the novel spectacle.
    The Chloe samples! They came from Julia’s boyfriend Doug? Big, Scottish, you remember him? No idea how he came into possession of them (he definitely didn’t work on a makeup counter!). I would be immediately transported back to Bourton Road and our teenage years, if I had the merest whiff, I think it would be a nostalgic pang too far and plunge me into existential despair!!

  3. Although I once used to sho, I now dislike shopping and rarely ever walk into a store. Even on the rare occasions that I have walked into a store, it is no longer exciting for me as nothing is as it once was. Not only free samples do not exist any more, but the aura of a department store has completely changed. I seem to do any “shopping” I need to do all on line now, although that is not much fun either.

    • Maybe you prefer to spend on things that have more meaning for you, like live music events with friends or travelling ( like your magnificent Italy trip).

      I agree about department stores changing though. They once felt more unhurried with more time to breathe ; fewer products to choose from.

      Probably in terms of perfume, all the ‘discovery sets’ have negated the standard samples now as you are expected to buy them instead. It’s a pity, because it you really loved a 2ml you would NEED a full bottle

  4. OnWingsofSaffron

    I am always amazed how the profane, kitsch and trivial stands next to the sublime in Japan (though not unknown, say in Italy)! Love the photo with the Bundt pan-thingies, the green box reminding me of some toilet sanitary whatever, and that completely OTT Briana Gigante box, which—till I saw a YouTube clip—I first thought had come from a way different sector !!!

    • I know ! The Frida Kahlo Big Bazooka club or something : she is one of those annoying ‘characters’ you get on TV : I feel sorry for people who have to act like fools all the time and draw on dark gigantic moustaches.

      The sublime and the tacky live in harmony in a way that is in a different STRATOSPHERE to Italy. I think the futuristicness and silliness ( inane but ironic ) make it more elevated : the sublimely austere and beautiful remains sublimely austere and beautiful – but then there is all the vast banal ugliness in between.

      The hideousness of so much of the domestic architecture for the citizenry would have your soul howling in despair ( especially on a cold, grey day )

  5. Oh, how I miss those bygone days when shopping was truly a pleasure, and there were wonderful things that you would truly want to possess. Now, there is not much that excites me in the way of shopping, not even fragrance; I’ve just been ordering newer ones online and older ones on eBay.
    I also remember the days of salespeople being overly generous with samples, but those days seem to be over.
    Chloe, one of my favorites. I have a few bottles and I wish I had more. Nothing like it.

  6. Aimexxe

    I really resonate with the “japan is a consumerist hell” statement, I visited nose shop expecting to take home a few samples to compare before making a purchase, the sales assistant however, sent me away with a measly single spritz on a sample card. While I recognise the craftsmanship aspect, expecting customers to spend half a thousand dollars on what is essentially a blind buy is insane. I ended up just ordering sample vials from overseas haha!

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