The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. Strong, western perfume is inherently incompatible in a place where people live in such close proximity and value social harmony. It has its time, and its place, but will never be the norm. Such perfume here feels too exhibitionist, indulgent – even selfish. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I feel it intuitively. I sense what perfumes will be appreciated, allowed – condoned. As a decadent and opulent perfume addict myself, I will admit this has sometimes placed certain restrictions on my scented possibilities; the flaunting of my invisible wardrobe when at work or in public spaces. I am aware that my own clouds of perfume have been quite frowned upon. Detested, even. Yet rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace, at times, despite myself, I have almost even come to admire it.
Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, vulgar, and in your face (I know that it is not necessary at all for me to elaborate). Perhaps it is also because despite my occasional frustrations at the stress and strain of rush-hour living and the held-back intricacies, the social hypersensitivities of Tokyo, it cannot be denied that the converse side to it all is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life here – a sense of gliding through the neon gleam, unharried – that is beautiful.
In this more sensitive and socially aware context, strong, over sugared, or overtly ‘glamorous’ western perfumes can feel antithetical. Anti-intuitive. Tasteless and heavy, like elephants in a china shop. Yet despite this, the pleasure of smell being universal, Japanese have historically long used perfume, for centuries – even millennia – and have devoted an entire art form to its appreciation – ‘kodo’ : the ‘way’, or path, of incense. Perfume, as aesthetic and spiritual adornment, but transformed into a very different physical dimension. To be ‘listened to’.
When discussing the word ‘incense’ and its standard associations, it is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough, cheaply perfumed ‘joss sticks’ used at music festivals and the like and what I am describing here. Their scent is quite incomparable. While Japanese temples and shrines also sometimes use the more inexpensive and mass-produced incense sticks in big bundles for ritualistic use in daily ceremonies: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor and patchouli, not significantly different from what you might encounter at the more sandalwood-influenced Chinese temples in Malaysia or Vietnam, the incense I am referring to here – created from recipes, formulae and time-trusted aromatics – is truly a form of perfume. Rather than a liquid applied to human skin, though, one that mingles with your skin scent and evaporates, this is a perfume that is experienced from without, like the millennia-old origin of perfume culture itself; per fumum – through smoke – that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you; trails your hair, your aura, and then subtly scents your clothes (particularly the kimono, trailing the padded, embroidered silk with an embodying caress of dusky softness).
While there are many kinds of incense available in city Buddhist apothecaries and religious artefact establishments, specialising in the more ritualistic types of incense (austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness and used for praying for the dead or commemorating ancestors), one type of more floral and balsamic incense that I have particularly enjoyed personally over the years – and which is available even in good bookstores, demonstrating its popularity in daily fragrancing – is the beautiful Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that has long produced the exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that can gently transform your living space, your mood, and, when you step outside – as the airborne powder lingers, quietly but perceptibly, on your coat – even your atmosphere.
Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense in the collection, is a rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness, with a strong, powdered heft faintly reminiscent of the finest French oriental perfumes – yet drifting, slowly, in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious , as plush as Guerlain: the sandalwood – or byakudan in Japanese – not recognizably sandalwood in its more unvarnished, solar and unctuous Mysore sense, but pulverised, compressed; blended seamlessly with soothing unguents, sea shells, cinnamon, patchouli cloves, and balsams, all forming a very warming, and sensuous, salve to the soul. Horikawa is probably in fact the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coils (drifting dreamily, quietly, throughout your living space for hours….. friends that stay now often associate that scent with the memories they have of staying here); but recently I have also found myself being drawn to the other two fragrances in this particular series: Shirakawa (White River), a less forceful interpretation of the Horikawa scent structure, and the cooler, more introverted Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are nuanced variations on one olfactory theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle, crepuscular version of River Path, less closedly intense and erotic, but still retaining that incense’s internal, reality-averting thematics.
While I have certainly been greatly enjoying using Shirakawa, the big revelation for me recently, over these winter months, has been Nijo. In the past, when sampling the incense from the box – you can, in truth, never truly understand what the fullness of the incense will be until it has been lit and its secret interiority has been revealed, I had somehow quite wrongly dismissed this incense – the most inexpensive of the three – as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its more soignée, courtesanish stable mates: far more subdued, masked; best saved for a distant twilight. And yet feeling more reclusive myself recently after the sometimes overwhelming political events in the world outside (I have sometimes had to simply cut myself off from the news), I impulsively found myself buying a box of the coiled incense the other day and, immediately entranced by its powdered, gossamer suggestiveness, as the delicate smoke snaked its way into my consciousness, I am becoming quietly addicted. With none of the overtly perfumed ‘thickness’ or spice (but there, intermittently, under the diffidently gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when this incense coil is lit, with a subtly floral element, possibly violet, and iris, that I find assuaging, and benevolent, to the spirit.
Looking at Shoyeido’s international website, written in both Japanese and English, I was pleased to see that this venerated old house accepts international orders (a selection of incense is also sold at the Japan Centre Food Hall and Bookshop in Piccadilly), and that there are also far more varieties of high quality incense, with various olfactive themes and ‘storylines’ created by the perfumers that I haven’t yet tried (“Translucent Path”, “Beckoning Spring”). There are little satin pouches, filled with clandestine powder, to be secreted onto your person, or to be deposited in your clothes drawer, to gloriously evocative – and sensuous – effect. I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto, it is possible to reserve a place on tours of the factory there and watch the Shoyeido artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients they have used firsthand, for centuries, in their studios. This is something that I will absolutely have to do myself the next time I find myself in that ancient and unforgettable city. But failing this, even if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend at least trying one of the three types of high quality incense that I write about here, or take the plunge with another. This is perfume of a very different, and quietly powerful kind. Redolent of worlds beyond. Of the ether. Of the untethered. And in these aggressive and turbulent times, what is needed for the spirit is perfume that is placating: beautiful: transcendent.
WHICH ONE ( S ) WOULD YOU BUY?!!
I was in Kamakura today and ventured into one of my usual haunts, Strawberry Fields (in case you are interested: Kamakura station, Enoden station exit, shopping street, it’s just a bit down there on the left) :
Today, 1000 Japanese yen = 6.86 British Sterling
11.73 Australian Dollars
11.38 Canadian Dollars
8.48 US Dollars
From the outside, you probably wouldn’t imagine that inside there is an Ali Baba’s cave of vintage perfume among the bric-a-brac. Well, that is an exaggeration perhaps, but seeing that all I have to compare this with is threadbare Mother Hubbard selections at British and American flea markets and antiques fairs (tell me more: I am very interested in the comparisons), there is no doubt that this shop, for the perfume maniac, is like a dream come true.
Before I go any further, this is not by any means the first time I have been in this shop. It does tend to yield. And Duncan will sometimes pick me up something from there on his way home from work (for my birthday he got me a gorgeous extrait of Lanvins’ My Sin, for instance). But you can go for a long time without any new additions. Today, though, she seemed to have a whole new influx of perfumes, of many different kinds, and I was in my ELEMENT.
Here she is – sorry I forgot to ask her name – with a bottle of Amouage Gold (by far the most expensive thing perfume wise), which I have considered buying (a beautiful rose sandalwood concoction) but which doesn’t quite smell right on either of us (yes, the lady does let you try the perfumes a bit, within reason): anyway, she is hoping that I will buy this set at some point, and who knows, on some hot summer’s sultry night, maybe I will.
Otherwise, things are MUCH cheaper. Some things are perhaps a bit overpriced, like this Infini
which pops up everywhere and which you can get more cheaply. On the other hand,
are exquisite prices for intact, vintage editions of such classics.
Things are presented in something of a jumble. But that is how I like it.
I’m thinking now that I should have got that beautiful Jolie Madame. In that size, and that price, that is a bargain from hell. I already have one the same, though.
And can anyone tell me about Gres Eau De Cologne? I forgot to give it a sniff.
Lilybelle, look: vintage Eau De Joy and Joy parfum!
For anyone who loves vintage Madame Rochas, there is TONS of the stuff in Japan….
….quite often very cheap as well.
Obviously, my heart leapt at a full bottle of
as I only have a couple of miniatures and this stuff is GORGEOUS. However, the colour alarmed me a bit and I felt the top notes weren’t there (for me, the beauty of La Nuit is in the contrast between the sweet, strawberry innocence of the head and the nymphomania of the base, otherwise there is no point).
Mmmmm……. Other animals available today included the much sought after
which I could never get into for some reason (please take it, it’s yours – there was another bigger parfum there as well), and
which I have quite enough of already (love that bottle though: very Antoinette – I might have to get it anyway).
Speaking of animalics, what I saw and knew I would definitely have to have today was
the DELIGHTFUL Parfum d’Hermes, (in parfum!) which I happened to be wearing upon entering the shop in any case (in edt): a kind of Marquis De Sade meets Chamade, ET QUE J’ADORE.I seriously love this stuff.
No, there was no way I was leaving without that one. I can’t quite carry it off, but on a red cashmere scarf, oh yes, baby, yes.
Also, how could I say no to this?
Never seen a boxed edition cheaply of this legend in Japan (they actually had TWO – I might have to hurry back and get the other one, in spray: on my arm tonight it smells like someone wearing Givenchy’s Insense while walking down a midnight avenue of sad and beautiful Christmas trees……..really sexy actually. I might get Duncan to wear it tomorrow when we go to the Cranach exhibition in Ueno.)
The proprietor also, as she always does, gave me a discount and let me have both for 5,000 yen (which for 34 British pounds is a SERIOUS bargain), and threw in a boxed Dolce & Gabbana miniature boxed set for the hell of it ( I happen to really like the original releases by them so was rather chuffed).
La la la.
What else was there?
Some Interdit parfum, if you’re interested
and of course some
(somewhat overpriced I thought), as was this, but then this is CAPRICCI ( SO beautiful, and it is a really big flacon)
argh I want this
(does anyone know what this is?)
Some old chestnuts
and some more recent perfumes as well.
Still, you can’t really beat the vintage thrills. There is something about the rectangular shape of this Mitsouko eau de cologne that blows my mind, but I couldn’t afford it.
I want to CLUTCH IT IN MY HAND.
(This round bottle isn’t too shabby, either.)
Anyway, there were others as well, plenty of them, that you could rummage among: miniatures, half used bottles, even sample vials stuck at the bottom of wooden boxes………..things that the average punter on the street wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow over, but which for the perfume enthusiast, are nothing short of heaven, really.
If you do come to Japan and make the day trip to Kamakura (for all the beautiful temples and the Great Buddha, the mountains and the history), aside a few Japanese trinkets, you know what souvenirs you want to be taking back home with you….
Better bring a big suitcase……..
Madonna once caused a minor kerfuffle when she was in Japan a few years back.
Asked what she loved most about the country, she, to the nationalist dismay, didn’t praise the temples, the sushi, the literature, or the sake, but rather, she gushed passionately about the toilets.
“ I love the toilets”
the perennial provocatrice exclaimed in her typically imperious manner.
“The toilets? “
the collective consternation.
Who, in reality, though, can actually blame her?
Once you have got used to these beauteously convenient contraptions, these genius works of toilet technological art, nothing else will ever do again. In fact, I would even go far to say that once you have known the most technologically advanced of Japanese restroom conveniences, you can never, ever, ever, go back.
It wasn’t always this way.
The traditional ‘ o-tearai ‘ is a nightmare.
A hole in the floor on a raised platform, it forces you to squat like an undignified primate if you get the gist of it; and if you don’t, or cannot, like myself and plenty of other grimacing non-Japanese, you are forced to perform the most obscene and mortifying contortions to do your business without sinking into flailing dehumanizing degradation; hands clawing at the walls and the toilet roll dispenser trying as you grunt and panic and try not to topple into the horror, in moments of thank-god-there-are-no- cameras-in-here, privately humiliating, shame.
Plenty of such unsuitable ‘conveniences’ do still exist across Nihon, especially in almost all of the railway stations, and they are stressful and disgusting if you are caught unawares in the middle of your day and aren’t in the mood for Cirque Du Soleil acrobatics and creative, contemporary dance interpretations. And with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics only four years to go and the inevitable coming influx of the westernised hordes, some metropolitan think tanks are now apparently ‘scrambling’ to revamp their urban water closets with the more up to date, but really quite expensive, hi-technology alternatives. The majority of the population, however, has long outgrown its traditional squat til you drop benjo, and has come to only expect the best, and the cleanest, when it comes to its sparklingly white, self-refreshing ‘Washlets’ and ‘Purelets’.
To the first time visiting gaijin, the most hi-tech editions of these beloved latrines are truly a dream of comfort, hygiene and simplicity, catering to your every need when you are on the go between assignments and find that you suddenly have to ‘powder your nose’: a veritable think tank of preconsidered needs and solutions, among futuristic, white-walled interiors.
You enter the facility.
Sensing your presence immediately, the lid of the toilet is raised, automatically, slowly, the throne pre-flushing and re-cleaning itself to assuage any doubts you might possibly have had regarding its cleanliness.
You ready yourself, eager to get on with the operation, safe in the comforting cocoon of your surroundings.
Worried about ‘sounds’? in case, someone, somewhere, might know what you are up to?
Toto has it covered. Cover Up buttons can be pressed, bird noises or sea waves to counter the primal shame, as you settle in, soothed , for the proceedings. If you are in an upscale restaurant or shopping centre, soft jazz, harp music or Chopin preludes, piped in from invisible speakers ensconced in the walls, will also accompany your shameless ablutions, as you sit, cradled in civilisation, awash in a beautiful sea of pika pika, blurred and oneiric, twittering.
Now comes the fun part (no wonder people seem to spend so long in these places!)
Swathes of velvety toilet tissue expended (oh, how it never runs out as it often does in less conscientious nations; oh the copious rolls of back up paper, that nobody steals here, miraculously as they might back home, stocked up by scrupulous cleaning ladies, soothe your future anxieties), now that you are ready, at long last, for the machine-intensive, meticulously computerised, clean-up operation.
The ultra-tech toilets in the highest of the toire manufacturing categories sometimes make distinctions between ladies and gents, providing ‘forward’ ‘back’ and swirling options for the pudenda (‘oscillating‘ and’pulsating‘, though I have not, as yet, tried either of these alluring options). You can also control not only the temperature of the toilet seat (fabulous in winter; unfortunate if someone has left it sweltering on a hot summer’s day and you feel like you are being bottom slo-cooked like a casserole), but also, for your pleasure, the jet strength as well (there is even a function called a ‘massage’).
Inevitably, first time visitors sometimes emerge from these space age toilet booths flushed, dreamy, and googly-eyed with a sometimes slightly guilty look on their faces as though they had been indulging in a spot of overextended ‘afternoon delight’. They wonder to themselves, how can going to the toilet possibly ever be this much fun?
But whether you have let the Japanese toilet robot explore your nether regions in an unorthodox manner is entirely up to you – let’s face it, no one is ever going to know – but at any rate, with the ‘powerful deodorizer’ button having been activated along with the wavy ‘blow dry’ button to tidy things up nicely, anyone who has been in one of these delightfully well considered places feels vastly more contented and squeaky clean than they certainly would have done otherwise. If there is one thing that Japan is justly renowned for, it is in its glorious attention to painstaking detail. And when it comes to the water closet, or the powder room, or the bathroom, or whichever euphemistically shrouded name you might want to give it, this country has it totally, and absolutely, down pat.