I sometimes try to bypass, in vain, the cliché of perfumes being seasonal. I am still using small amounts of my favoured Summer by Kenzo on my white workshirts, in the desperate and futile attempt to prolong August and July (even Japanese late September could pass for the hottest English summer day), with its lovely, gentle, almond-milk mimosa powdery seaspray smell that does kind of work, kind of, when the sun is out and the soft, sandalwood emanations come out of me clean and homely – but it smells preposterous in the rain, and there has been a lot of that; the lack of genuine, pure and searing heat, such as we get here in August, and which I adore – makes the top notes seem most synthetic, like bleach. Already all my jasmines, ylang ylangs and white flowers seem inexorably wrong – I can’t even touch them, let alone smell them. Instinctively, like all perfume lovers, I am now, as the sun leaches impossibly away from the hemisphere, drawn towards the warm and the cradling, the comforting and the numbing, as the nights get colder and darker, and the brooding feel of Autumn and its creeping, more lingering shadows and melancholies piercingly come into play.
Post-summer holiday, the hectic-ness of work and the classroom has been really quite hard to handle but we fortunately went on an impromptu trip this weekend to the hotspring town of Shima, a place I had never even heard of but which turned out to be a beautiful, isolated, traditional Japanese onsen town nestled along a strong, gushing river. Green and lush, with wild begonias and spider lilies carpeting the road side, Shima is connected to the town of Nakanojo by a car ride through meandering hillviews and pine forests, a place we had gone to specifically for the Nakanojo Biennale, an art event that apparently aims to revitalize a moribund place where children are disappearing as the birthrate declines by using the abandoned houses and school buildings that abut the area as installation spaces for contemporary art. Dominique BB, a good friend of ours, dancer and performance artist, was doing a piece, that night, ‘Dark Matters’, and we decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to go. It turned out to be a very worthwhile decision.
There is often something very spooky for me about Japan, something I feel quite viscerally, especially at night, in old-fashioned places, and most particularly, in the mountains. I think the foreigner imbues where he lives and where he works with the essence of himself, rendering the place familiar and liveable even when it is steeped in an alien culture (the one he has adopted), making it his own. Thus, Kamakura, Fujisawa – the city where I mainly work and am utterly bored to death with – Yokohama, and many of the parts of Tokyo that I know quite well just feel like my well-known playgrounds now, sufficiently Japanese and thus different to still feel dream-like and exotic. Just. But also so infused with my own experiences and memories that they also belong to me as much as they do the indigenous inhabitants (is this the essential immigrant experience?). Take me away from these places, however, into the Japanese mountains, to the styx, into the unknown worlds of folk stories and slowly dying villages and more secluded, un-urban places, and the creepiness soon unfurls; the hokey, chintzy sentimentality and parochial, smalltown ‘cuteness’; the sense of being foreign suddenly acute and overpowering, the dark habits of the residents and the overriding mountain air suddenly making me feel small, weirded out, and discomfited.
We had decided only on Friday that we would go up to Shima, after Duncan had checked all the travel preliminaries (a bullet train, two local trains and a taxi) and decided the trip was viable. I woke up on Saturday morning exhausted and puffy-eyed from work, as enthusiastic and animated for the trip as a short-circuited zombie; unspeaking, sullen, totally absorbed by the exhausting teaching week. I shoved some clothes in a bag, and wondered, in my half-doped state, what scents? Everything felt totally wrong, too sharp or irritating, except, for some reason, Must De Cartier, a vintage parfum which spoke to me immediately and that I have been wearing on and off for a few months now, having found it in a recycle shop in Yokohama and enjoyed immensely its vanillic, ambered complexity and green-fruited florality; a scent I find intrinsically unthreatening and comforting without being too overpowering or sweet – a wonder of instant contentment, in fact. So that went straight into my inner jeans pocket (the lid keeps coming off and that is the only way I know to transport it), along with two samples, on a whim, that were sent to me recently by Holly and that I smelled cursorily from the tester vials and thought might do the trick: scents to protect and soothe and bolster the spirits in the unnerving, dark environs of mountainous, Japanese Spooksville.
Like David Lynch, like ghost stories, like horror films, like all the inexplicable and the mysterious, I love, in a way, creepy places: there is a double edge to my feelings about them; a curiosity for adventure and story ( I think all travel has this component – simply lifting yourself out of your daily routine and space is in itself automatically liberating but unhingeing), but, also a strange thrill, like being a child, alone in your bed with a reading lamp and reading, for the first time, and in the darkness of the morning, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. There is also for me something deeply eerie about the Japanese mountains for some reason, looming over you with their ancient secrets and interiorized citizens, a country that was severed from the world for centuries, steeped in its own madnesses and rules, and as we got out of our taxi at a secluded and converted former elementary school (what happened to all the students?), took off our shoes and put on our slippers to enter the place ( I hadn’t been back in a school building like that in probably three decades ) I could feel my inner organs retreating inside themselves like a snail: an instinctive reaction I involuntarily have when I feel overwhelmed by creepy sensation, as though my body were tightening itself from within in natural response.
I have good memories of school, and of childhood, and of the classroom, but unlike a great deal of Japanese people I speak to who yearn and crave to return to their studenthood, I personally have no urge whatsosever to go back ( I love this time of life with its creativity and autonomy so much more I can’t describe it), and it is very strange being suddenly hurtled into an environment – tiny slippers, tiny urinals, tiny wash basins, tiny desks – that takes you back so vividly to your time as a small person, nervous in the hallways, eager to please and do your best, navigating the pitfalls and intricacies of the beasts that are children with their cruelties and caverns of insecurities, of homework and the dreaded P.E, and warm, curdled milk that you were forced to drink against your will, of the horrors, basically, of all institutions, and I have to say that Must, brushing easily on my clothes and wrists and neck, unobtrusive but sensual, expansive on my skin with its golden sheen of lush and ease; balsamic yet fresh, was like a halo around me, of this life, of this time, of the familiar.
I have always liked this scent – no matter what Luca Turin might have to say on the matter. In fact, the Great Critic and the grandiosity of his famed pronouncements can almost make you feel guilty for liking a perfume that He does not: scents I have long adored like Must and Jardins De Bagatelle and Nocturnes, all of which get the Turinian death knell in his estimable guides and are considered to be travesties of perfumery, horrors that should never have seen the light of day even though they have been worn and loved by millions, become like guilt-trips that you ‘know’ are horrible scents but which you love anyway, like certain pop songs that you are not supposed to like but do in despite of yourself (Oh forgive me, Signore Luca, for having transgressed thy sacred interdictions but go fuck thyself).
For those readers who don’t know Cartier Must, which was quite a hit back in the day, and which is very pleasing to the nose and spirit no matter what that man says, Must (try pronouncing it in the French manner with a more tubular ‘u’ to avoid sounding like an imperative or an insidious form of fungus), this was famously very different in parfum and eau de toilette – which in fact smells virtually nothing like it (nor like Must II, the eau fraîche version of which formed a very interesting review on here by the D).
Must parfum, a glinting oriental, is in the geneology of Obsession and Vol De Nuit I would say ( I have also been wearing vintage Obsession recently, another apparent horror, shall I now confess and say three thousand hail Marys?), but I must admit do love the cosy, cotton-wool vanilla sweet papousse of such scents, as soft as eskimo fur in winter, lingering close and warm; a protectant.
Must parfum I know intimately, inside and out, also because an Italian friend of mine, Alessandra, who I lived with for a while in Rome, used to wear this perfume, and only this. I would clutch the heavy gold bottle in her room, the glassy, ergonomic heft of its flacon only adding to its elixir-ness, lying on her floor on a cushion, listening to her stories (always intense), about how this perfume had been given to her by a German boy who had completely broken her heart and lived, if I remember correctly, in Stuttgart, and who she used to travel for miles across Europe for to meet for passionate rendezvous, wearing the perfume he had given her as a gift and which may or may have not have suited her but which she willed to and so it did, its heavy (unreformulated) panache of real luxury – Cartier still smelled luxurious back then – a vampish, ladyish perfume for a woman who, with her short hair and tomboyish ways, was anything but. I only found out much later that this was not just a case of a love gone wrong or she being rejected, but that the man in question had in fact tragically died ( I never knew how, never asked, and she had never talked about it or even intimated it at the time), although I suppose the look in her eyes, which sometimes made me uncomfortable, had hinted at it, that this perfume, now, was a four-dimensional memento mori of him. No wonder that it had the deep, sentimental value that it did for her, now that the scent itself was almost like a talisman.
Which is kind of how I used the perfume, actually, upon entering the unused school building, on Saturday evening, wandering the corridors of that place with trepidation but not much impressed by the ‘art’ on display, not in that particular building anyway, turning in myself quickly in avoidance somewhat and nuzzling up to my own smell; drawn, quite easily, to a café (actually a school sports room) selling beer (thank god), where we sat down, imbibed some alcohol, dissolved a little, and inquired what part of the building Dominique’s performance would be held in.
“Oh no, Dominique-san isn’t performing here, she is in the next town in another school building, Shima”
“…….but I am going there as well with my friends so we can give you a lift if you like”.
Breathe out. Serendipitous doesn’t even begin to describe this turn of events, as we had come all the way from Kamakura, very far away, it was 4.45pm and the piece was beginning at 5.30, and it would have been very hard for us to get there had these kind volunteers at the art festival not offered to take us there in their car, once they had finished work, pure chance, at 5.I0: cue an action-movie chase through the mountains, zigzagging vistas of fields and flowers and trees and the sun going down, five minutes, four minutes, two minutes, sixty seconds: we arrived literally at exactly 5.30pm much to the collective amusement (the ride had been really quite thrilling, if a touch hair-raising, speeding along with strangers in an unknown place, suspended from normality, mutually intrigued).
We entered, this second time, the old, old school building, this one wooden, from another time and era entirely (the previous school building had been white, a seventies thing, similar to my own childhood), whereas this place was all tatami mats and wooden floors and ghost-house atmosphere: beautiful, if dark, sinister and, deserted once the performance began except for the (standing) members of the audience…..we stood along the walls of the corridor, inert, interacting with the performer and the space and the flickering lights from the installation that Dominique was working with – a collaboration with a Japanese artist whose piece involved a collection of lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling which would flicker on and off, making a beautiful, moth-clicking sound that felt like lights going on and off in your head, something directly related to the performance piece at hand that dealt with the ‘dark matters’ of childhood memories, how much we reveal, how much we conceal, and how we wrestle with our own torments. Like much of Dominique’s work, dealing with the body and identity – surrealistic, physical explorations of the subconscious, this was unnerving, wordless, yet compelling as she contorted herself grotesquely and took us into a hole-like space of privacy and nightmare (brilliant in such a space, that time-laden old school), even if I still felt that I had to keep a hold of myself, my sweet scent clinging to my membranes.
The performance over, and the artist whisked away with other artists to her compound, we were taken to our ryokan, or Japanese inn, the cheapest one, probably in the whole town as we were on a bit of a budget post Vietnam-Laos, and again, here I really felt those darknesses closing in on me, with the fusty old decor, the damp smells in the air, the river roaring outside that could just as easily have been the sound of a motorway or torrential rain (rivers and waterfalls are so much more overwhelming, even menacing, in the darkness). Topping up on the little Must perfume tucked into the inside of my pocket, we then went out into the evening, dressed in extra layers as it had got quite cold, in search of food and conviviality, although only a few Japanese onsen – hot spring – tourists were walking about in their geta and yukata, those summer-time light kimono, worn with light padded jackets to keep them warm post-bath as they trundled on down to the river to take in the air before returning to their hotels.
There are some exquisite old buildings in Shima, – very well preserved turn of the century wooden buildings that made us really feel that we had stepped back in time; little old lanes that reminded of Kyoto, rooms within rooms in cocoons of dimly lit paper – although for a Saturday night in September the place was really quite deserted. After a meal in one of the few restaurants that was actually open we returned to the place we were staying (seemingly the only guests there – it was dark and deserted, alarmingly decorated with Norman Bates taxidermy), determined to try the inn’s own onsen bath, water piped in directly from the source, before retiring, then, to bed and hiding away from the ghostliness (these places look better in the morning).
Hot spring resorts in Japan are usually kept meticulously clean, a matter of obvious pride for the proprietors. There are rituals and rules for pre-bathing; body soap, shampoos provided along with towels, and there is a precise way of doing things: where you shower (thoroughly), in the bathroom area before you make your way to the hot spring tub where you can soak your cares away, and drift off into your own geothermally enhanced contemplatations, along with the other human beings gathered there like staring, blinking snow monkeys from Hokkaido (as we left Shima, we did actually see two monkeys leaping up from the road side, not cute little spider monkeys but full sized, feral apes).
This place, though, was dire. Beautiful. Filthy (but then what can you expect, really for five thousand yen (or fifty dollars) each?) We loved it, aesthetically: an underground, slime-veneered grotto that reminded of a seventies film by Dario Argento where you might have been tortured; all turquoise romanesque walls and statuesque water features (covered in god knows what; carbuncles; slime, mould, al fresco organisms), as if we had tumbled down a hole into an underground thermarium in Rome, neglected for all these thousands of years until now. The water, good, thermal, Shima onsen spring water, was hot, too hot, to get in for anything more than a minute, and we couldn’t even shower properly as there was nothing to wash with, just some cracked and disintegrated soap; and no hot water tap, just a cold one; but in such a place who cares about washing properly anyway – the owner obviously didn’t (a sweet old man in his seventies who was apparently running the whole place all on his own), and anyway we had a hilarious time splashing each other and trying to make the hot water colder to no avail by pouring pink plastic buckets of cold water into the broiling waters and laughing at the fact that although woefully inadequate from any number of angles, from the aesthetic aspect (which is always most important), in some ways it was perhaps the most beautiful onsen we had ever been in.
Your skin feels soft. Your body circulates with mineralized goodness; you feel like a different person.
Reduced to the essentials and infantilized, simple. Locking the door of the hotel room and getting into your individual futons you feel like the very embodiment of coziness, deliciously comfortable, the atmospheric creepiness of the hotel notwithstanding; the draw towards sleep, the river rushing by at (pleasingly) deafening volume, blocking out all thought ( I had fantastically unencumbered, clarified dreams as a result); my scent, post bath, on each wrist, Olive Flowers and Iniezione Di Morfina, both perfectly soothing, sweet and fantastically Italian fragrances that went with the equaly strangely Italianate experience we had just had and which were ideal and nerve-binding companions for sheets and the bed. Although I was falling asleep, my immediate impressions of both of these perfumes was a lulling-to-dreams mmmmm, the Madini Olive Flowers dry yet oleaginous; dense, potent and with plum integrity, a rich, deep, oriental blend in the mode of Bal A Versailles (the blurb says Shalimar, I beg to differ); all opoponax and balsams and an almost lavender like astringency that makes the name feel like it has sense – leafy, savoury – and, as I was to discover the next day when I wore it again, a very lingering, dirty animalic base. I would like a bottle. This is a good no-nonsense, pleasing oriental, a dot of which will do the trick. It has a real warmth. Then, on the other wrist, ‘Injection Of Morphine’, by Peccato Originale, which was no way as sinful as it might have led itself to believe, but was rather a powdery, dense, rose violet with ambery vanilla undertones and perhaps a touch of clove that is right up my street, almost like a more strident Teint De Neige (again by an Italian, I do like scents from that country, as I love its cinema). But where Lorenzo Villoresi’s baby powder cult classic has that perfect equilibrium of pressed, snow-sweetened make-up, there is indeed more of a jolt to Iniezione di Morfina with its fervent, rose-centred heart that makes its narcoleptic thematics more real. Cloistered underneath my layers of futon eiderdowns, I slept like a bambino.
The next day, after the breakfast had been brought to our rooms (toast and scrambled eggs, marmalade; coffee), and we flung open the shutters and could really see where we were, all malingering feelings of dark spaces and horror films banished with the sun of the morning, I realized that Shima, is, in fact, a very beautiful place. We both really want to go back. The river is magnificent, a stunning natural green-blue. The curves of the mountains are gorgeous, serene and calming, and the town itself feels as though it had been molded along with nature, to live alongside it, rather than imposing itself on it. There is a natural feng shui here, more so than I have experienced in other hot spring resorts such as Hakone, or the quaint, but also soul-chilling, imperious beauty of Nikko. Shima feels tucked away and safe (at least it does in the daylight). An eased, gentle secret of a place.
We walked along the river, the sun out, now t-shirt weather late morning, early afternoon, going in now and then to look at exhibits in abandoned houses – various kinds of pieces that were designed with the place specifically in mind. I thought this was an ingenious way of mounting a biennale, actually; where often these things are so forced and pretentious, shallow and vacuous, the fact that the artists in residence were commenting on the town itself, on Japan, and using these spaces to make social comment as well as for philosophical and artistic endeavours (the passing of time and the river seemed to be central to a lot of this) meant that there was a transformational aspect to the entire proceedings. After a while, whether part of the exhibits or not, the entire town seemed to be become slightly magicalized, part of the art, or the art a part of the nature, and the Twin Peaks-like double-edged quality of the uncanny and the beautiful, along with the balmy, osmanthus-scented air, melded effortlessly.
Before leaving town, and meeting a nervous Dominique briefly before her Sunday performance, looking at the old school building again in the daylight (still emotionally quite peculiar for me – what is it about going back to school?), where every classroom or school space had been transformed into something else and old feelings from childhood were dislodged and brought more vividly to focus, we had gone to the main Shima onsen, a real hot spring this time rather than the amphibious green cavern of the night before, and we immersed ourselves gladly in the healthful, somnific analgesia of its waters. Washing ourselves down along with the other, mainly silent and meditative bathers, we joined them outside in the open air, naked as the day; human beings languidly lying on rocks, sleeping or sprawled; or standing up and looking out into the valley like primeval man at the spectacularly blue-green waters of the river flowing below; breathing in, body and spirit lulled, and crystallized, temporarily, in the moment.