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.