Category Archives: Japanese Perfume







































Japan is justifiably famed as an ingenious imitator of other cultures’ inventions, while usually adding that perceptibly nipponesque something to the mix to makes them its own – tucked guilelessly under powdered kimono sleeves.




In terms of fragrance, Shiseido, perhaps the most famous cosmetic company here, has a domestic perfume range that is somewhat run-of-the-mill and prestige-free for most Japanese women (while remaining unattainably exotic for some perfumistas overseas), comprised of mainly elegant, if unexciting, japonified versions of western classics: Murasaki (a green iris clearly based on N°19), Koto (any fresh floral 70’s chypre), Concerto (Patou 1000), Memoire (a whiff of L’Interdit) and More (a copy of Nº 5 or Detchema.)











mode, architecture, beauté,








Inouï, though, which presciently signifies ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unprecedented’ in French, seems on this one occasion to have pipped its jealous Paris to the post and been a very clever innovator. A fantastic, green-balsamic chypre that predated Lancôme’s Magie Noire (another masterpiece of this genre) by two years, its reputation in some quarters as ‘the perfect chypre’, which I cannot dispute, has allowed its cachet to grow to the extent that a bottle of this  perfume will now regularly go for $1500 at perfume specialists and internet auctions (and aside one tiny mini, it has tellingly never come up at the fleamarkets either….)






Like many, I myself had also only read about this perfume and had assumed that I would never get to smell it, but then was lucky one day to have access to an intact version when a Japanese dressmaker friend of mine happened to go back to her parents’ house one weekend in Kamakura and retrieved an old bottle of the Inoui eau de parfum that she had hidden away, long ago, somewhere in her bedroom closet (she had got rid of it when the boyfriend who had given it to her twenty years ago suddenly finished with her…the scent was still too much of a painful reminder and she had no plans on wearing it any more,  holding onto her bottle now more as an investment for the future).  Despite this, she generously let me borrow the bottle for a whole weekend.
























































This really is a compelling and delightful perfume.  While the forested, chypre-animalic finish of the scent, played out with a dry, resinous blend of oakmoss, myrrh, cedar, civet and musk, with evergreen tonalities of juniper, thyme and pine needles, is slightly reminiscent of Lancôme’s finest black magic hour (but without all the patchouli), the top notes of Inouï are a different affair altogether: a peerlessly crafted, assured, and very upliftingly green accord of galbanum, lemon, peach and raspberry-breathed freesia that reminds one a little, just briefly, of the dewily sylvan opening of vintage Y (Yves Saint Laurent).





Elegant and mysterious, the final result on the skin, lingering and insistent, is confident, sexy, and inscrutable, with none of the red-nailed and gold more obvious vampishness of other perfumes in the category. It is perfect.





































Filed under Floral Chypre, Flowers, Japanese Perfume

OF TOKYO: PLAY SERIES (BLACK) (2012) by Comme des Garçons + HINOKI (MONOCLE 1) (2008)







Hinoki, or Japanese cypress, is a very beautiful smell that you cannot really avoid if you live in Japan. It is more smoky than cedar, more lemony than cypress, a soothing yet powerful essence that the Japanese use as a building material for temples and shrines, as an incense, in bath salts essences, and to make the wooden rotenburo, the open air hot springs that the people so revere. Even the soap you use before you enter the waters, at my favourite onsen in Hakone, is hinoki scented.


I love hinoki. Unlike other evergreen essences it does not have a harshness – the lung-searing directness of pine, the depressing forest-floor darkness of fir. It is antimicrobial, like those; pure, but also somehow tranquil.



In fact, I like the essential oil so much that I once made a rather lovely homemade blend of Moroccan rose otto, patchouli, a touch of ylang ylang extra; then clove, iris, and a big dose of hinoki, the essential ingredient at the centre of the perfume that took it almost to the realm of the spiritual.

A small dab here and there was great on a winter jumper.









Monocle magazine’s ‘collabo’ with the ever-quirksome fashion legend Comme des Garçons sought to capture the Nippophilic air of a perfectly designed onsen, taking the essence of hinoki and combining it with an appealing chart of ingredients (on paper, or the computer screen at least): camphor, cedar, pine, thyme, frankincense and a strong dose of turpentine, that, like the latter, with its well known paint-stripping qualities, somehow succeeds in desapping the hinoki like a particularly virulent form of Dutch Elm’s. The addition of these moistureless greens somehow lessens the title note, a vascular desiccation that sees the tree juices sucked out, along with their Japanese spirit.



I know that some people love this fragrance, and rhapsodize on its evocations of ancient, shinto-filled forests. I cannot agree. Real Japanese incense has a smouldering liquid at the heart of it – never simplistic or linear, it seems to contain the carnality of humans even as it renders that animality to smoke: it is sensual while being severe.



The incense note in the Monocle fragrance is dead. Dry; it signifies ‘urban’ in the worst sense of the word (cut off from nature, believing every word of the latest ‘directional’ hype). The result is a flat, ashen little scent for fashionistas that I wouldn’t give the time of day.














As for Comme Des Garcons, I have bought a fair few of their scents over the years (the original spicy eponymous scent and its offshoots White and Cologne; Calamus, Incense Jalsaimer and Kyoto, and Vettiveru), and although I can never fully get into the company’s taut efficiency, I still find them intriguing as a brand, like to try out their modish offerings. At one of the Tokyo boutiques on Sunday, where I always feel horribly boring in whatever I am wearing as it seems that nothing less than a mushroom smock, a bustle and striped leggings – the full industrial rumpelstiltskin caboodle and hair of razored black asymmetry (and that is just the boys), will do. But scootling uneasily among the racks we did come across the new ‘Play’ series, which comes in colour-coded thematics of red, green and black, and thought they deserved a sniff. Black seemed the most inviting, and I got Duncan to spray some on. He immediately went for it, pepper hound that he is, declaring it full bottle worthy.



Though the notes – birch, black and red pepper, pepperwood, thyme, and citrus notes – sound harsh, the scent is in fact quite comforting and warm, a pleasing grey smudge of scented charcoal; snuggly almost, the notes of violet and black tea ceding to a masculine base of tree moss and soft incense. It was familiar, somehow (we both felt this, and I was struggling to come up with what it was – the first minute reminded me, strangely of Tuscany by Aramis, which I always thought was a beautiful scent), and easy to wear. The longevity on the skin was unexceptional, but overall the creation was aromatically satisfying, if slightly lacking in depth.




Still, I was ultimately unmoved. In recent times, Japanese aromatherapy companies have started to produce more indigenous essences, such as hinoki, hiba (which I like even more – a darker, richer, smoky cedar that I scent the house with), shiso, and yuzu among others. I was even startled to find an oil of my favourite winter fruit – iyokan – the other day, which is the most gorgeous orange you have ever smelled, a lip-smacking joy in wintertime when you rip off that thick, oil-filled peel.





For the time being, If I want the smell of Japan I will stick with these. Sometimes you don’t need to tamper with nature.








Filed under Japanese Cypress, Japanese Perfume, Masculines, Pepper, Perfume Reviews, Woods




In ‘Japanese Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behaviour of the Japanese’, author Boye Lafayette de Mente talks of the ‘grave beauty’ of Japan and its effect on blundering westerners encountering it for the first time.






‘Foreigners are often left speechless…They know they are in the presence of extraordinary beauty, but generally they do not have the experience – or the vocabulary – to describe it.



It is difficult to argue with this. The austere, filtering light of incense smoke unfurling slowly above a Zen temple in December; the strict symmetry of the Japanese interior; or the tranquillity of a Zen garden in spring, can be astounding in their otherworldliness, yet still of the utmost simplicity. Whatever the chosen ‘path’- be it zen, tea, kimono, haiku, calligraphy – the Japanese are surely unsurpassed in their almost fanatical dedication to perfecting an art, paring it down, revealing its ‘essence.’





Of the traditional arts, kodo, or ‘way of incense’, has perhaps faded the most into obscurity, practiced only by a select (high class) few. Morbid associations with the Buddhist wake and funeral rites, where incense is continually burnt, are enough to prevent your average Nihon-jin from lighting up a stick on a Saturday afternoon. So while every large town will have a Buddhist shop stocked with a wide selection of incense, the main products on display are the dark, polished, expensive household shrines bought for the worship of ancestors: incense is just an accessory for this. (Japan is not a religious country as such; it’s usual to pick and mix – you have a ‘Christian’ wedding, a Shinto new year, and a Buddhist funeral – but it is a stickler for tradition.)

Kodo, probably a dying art, does persist in pockets of Japan however, and I was lucky once to be invited to an incense ceremony in the strictly-no-admittance third floor of zen capital Kamakura’s premier incense establishment. The first floor of the shop sells exquisite boxes of incense, from soft floral blends (iris, rose) to the finest kyara and jinko (agarwood): powdered, musky sandalwoods blended with the strange, dark resins and spices (clove, camphor, among others) that make Japanese incense so unique. I was very excited to get an invitation. Not equipped, though, with the requisite dignity, linguistic skills, or social status even, to blend successfully into the background of the ceremony (what were foreigners doing there?!)










In fact my friend Claire and I were late, which was truly unthinkable. Going up the dark, carpeted, airless stairs to the second, then hallowed third floor – social climbing with the gentry of Kamakura – we arrived twenty minutes after the ladies had begun: standing with trepidation before a closed, silent shoji screen.

The door was opened: and there we stood, flustered and embarrassed, then horribly hot-under-collar as Claire’s thigh-boot zip stuck, and we stumbled, almost falling over as we tried to wrench it off. Total buffoons. We were not a class act, and there they sat, in the incense room – purse-lipped, barely blinking, immaculately turned out Kamakura ladies with not a hair out of place; staring, concealing whatever pity/irritation they felt for these coarse intruders under the blank, expressionless Noh mask that every Japanese learns to perfect.

Once perched on our mats in the Japanese style, an embroidered cloth over Claire’s knees (“there are gentlemen present”) we did our utmost to blend as well as we could into invisibility and watch what was taking place. Which, though snobbish and somewhat self-congratulatory, was in fact fascinating – so esoteric and removed from daily life as to be astonishing.

The incense master gently passed round, on a small plate for the purpose, a tiny, smouldering piece of the finest kyara (the most prized wood in the world); a scent that is part patchouli, part vetiver, part cannabis, part pepper – but drier, more sinewy and powerful than all: true opiate.

With eyes closed, each ‘listener’ (you ‘listen’ to incense) would have to try to guess the ‘name’ of the piece of wood the fragment came from: ‘Moon in the grove’, ‘Still waters at Izu’ and so on (each is subtlely different; particularly prized specimens are in fact priceless, and stored as investments by banks and other institutions). But name guessing, difficult even in English, was only the beginning. The bearer of the kyara would then, in elegant, calligraphic kanji, compose a haiku, an ode to the incense, while the others looked on.

Such excruciating refinement was clearly beyond such mortals as ourselves; we fumbled, mumbling – and couldn’t begin to perfect the slow, beckoning motion of smoke to bearer that to the ladies was second nature (you don’t just stick your nose in). And with the unbearable pins and needles from the sitting pose, the torturous, pained, poetic silences; the grim-lipped patience of the ladies, the forbidding circular zen window that gave only glimpses of the world outside (“let us out!”) it took great stamina not to burst out with hysterical laughter (we did, in great gusts, as soon as we fell out into the sunshine). Yet the scent in the room, as precious perfumed materials gave off their spirit, was extraordinary.

The above scene illustrates fairly well I think the Japanese attitude to scent. These ladies were unscented themselves; the smell of the burning wood strictly exterior to the body, to be ‘listened to’, a communing with hidden ghosts. The body itself should be kept clean: at a Japanese hot spring, the length of time spent soaping down – everyone naked, together, child-like almost – before thoroughly rinsing with water, can seem bizarre to foreigners. Some people spend the whole day washing, then entering the waters, then washing again. This goes far beyond mere bodily hygiene: it is ritualistic, has been this way since antiquity. In fact, hot springs (onsen) are not only a way to relax, but a form of purification and spiritual reflection.  Having sat in pools under trees in the light of the moon, listening to the night, you feel cleaner, more serene than you can possibly imagine. You smell of nothing but water.

Yet Japan is of course also a nation much influenced by the West: ideas, goods flow in, are transmuted to the Japanese ideal, incorporated in the culture. It is a society of appearance, and thus of status symbols. Look at the success of Vuitton, Gucci, Dior here: status is big, and perfume (though a relatively small market in Japan) is an inevitable consequence of a desire for conspicuous consumption. Pass a group of old ladies dressed in their finest and you may catch a drift of Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Vol de Nuit – two well established classics; walk by some twenty somethings, a whiff of the latest pinky Dior. But it is still possible, probable even, to ride a crowded train packed with hundreds of people and smell no perfume. Kosui hasn’t really caught on: not deep down, and I doubt it ever will. The recent rush of incense perfumes on the market, some Japanese themed such as Comme des Garcons Incense Kyoto, Santa Maria Novella’s ‘Citta di Kyoto’, are strictly for westerners chasing the exotic – such perfumes would rarely, if ever, be worn by Japanese themselves. You never smell an oriental here.










What, then, is Japanese perfume?




Well it has to be light. It has to be airy. And it has to be subtle.









And the ‘smell’ of Zen? In a Kamakura zen temple, the scents that fill the air: incense, fresh water, wood: blue breath of hydrangeas; wind in bamboo; osmanthus; pine, stone.




With Zen: Perfumed Essence, Shiseido is therefore attempting the impossible. Trying to incorporate this Japaneseness, this purity, in a fresh, floral, commercial blend designed to appeal to the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the fashion conscious on both sides of the east/west divide. Really it is a contradiction in terms. But the company apparently employed the latest research in aromachology to find scents that would relax and transport the wearer to a nicer place than stress; a neatly packaged product- zen for the twenty first century. And you might say that Shiseido does a good job here, providing you don’t take too seriously the words inscribed on the box.





“ A soul enlightened.

A world anew.”





The perfume begins with ‘fresh budding florals’ (a shining, translucent rose) ‘spiritualized by the peaceful influence of rare Eastern moss, bamboo, and Kyara wood.’




The possibility of this perfume being the source of an enlightenment is, I would say, fairly low, but the composition is very pleasant: clean, fragrant – a calmer, purer version of Eternity and other white woody florals. The green of the bamboo leaf lingers intriguingly, momentarily, over fresh laboratory flowers and perfectly controlled, light woody essences that give the scent a certain grace. A hint, just a hint, of kyara underlines the whole.










Essentially a pleasant perfume to wear to the office (not really a fragrance ‘to inspire moments of quiet meditation’), Zen could be dismissed as yet another faceless addition to an overcrowded genre. But there is indeed something – a luminous, white cloud of Japaneseness suspended above the scent – that almost lives up to its name.


Filed under Japanese Perfume, Perfume Reviews