I had promised myself I wouldn’t write anything today as I am feeling mind-wiped, but seeing this just-out-in-Nippon release in Takashimaya ( a take no prisoners, self confidently fresh and sharp mandarin tuberose neroli that she would never wear in a million years though I might ), I am simply putting this up to pique the amusement of my best friend Helen – who is anything but heartless
– though she can be severe and cut to the core and tell it like it is because she seems to understand me better than possibly anybody else: a soul twin, telepathic understanding that, though we speak far too little ( as we are both lazy and crap ) we know, as long as we remain intact, we will always have.
( the picture above is H giving me a pep talk before my Perfume Lovers London talk of 2014 ….. god how time so quickly flies……)
Helen has talked me through many a difficult situation: like my mother (in the earthquake, my operation, both were amazing ) they tell me just the right combination of reality and boost. A hotwire to my sensibility; fraternal umbilical straight to my fevered, potholed brain.
We are also both hypochondriacs. So god knows how she would feel being here where I am today, in Yokohama,; the biggest China Town in all of Asia, where a cruise ship is quarantined off shore walking distance from where I have lessons with passengers coming down like flies with the coronavirus, and where, as you can see, masks are selling out and there is a very uneasy feel in the air – as there is globally – as people are wondering what to believe, and whether they are over or underreacting; where being on packed trains feels unpleasant and dangerous, and where tempers get frayed —
– —- my ragged own, especially ( I had an argument with my closest Japanese male friend on the bus earlier this afternoon. about a common colleague who was espousing theories the other day about only the ‘weak’ being in danger of contracting the virus and being very arrogantly ‘unconcerned’ about the illness – —- so would that include me, then? having had very serious pneumonia in my left lung twice before ; I didn’t like the almost Nietzschean Ubermensch implications of what he was saying (and what of the immune stressed sleep deprived students, just before the most important exams of their lives ?); my friend said it was a linguistic misunderstanding: I responded with something below the belt about the man’s appearance…., oh when I get on the defensive I can be very venomous ; bile slips from my tongue with slippered ease.,.. …. never mind Heartless Helen; it is more like Noxious Neil (so should I wear the partner in the set, then : the devilish and dastardly woody tobacco scent, Terrible Ted? )
No : I think Helen would suit me much better : we need proud nosegays in these pestilential times; bright flowers (Penhaligons calls this a ‘fearless conquistador’), and everybody knows that I love oranges. don’t think about it, H would say, rationalize, hone in to the very best perspective; reverse or brake my hysteria —- ———- or at the very least, just try and steer me towards a more pacified lucidity
On Monday, I hooked up with my perfume-adoring friend Catherine for a day of scent hunting in Tokyo. Having moved up to Yokohama from Osaka, where she lived with her husband for a long while, she was yet to visit any of the troves I occasionally frequent to plunder for old vintages and any other bargains of that nature, and was eager to see what we might find.
Me too. The excitement of finding a beloved classic in some cabinet never abates, even if such moments are getting rarer these days as the sources gradually dry up. Still, although I was worried about disappointing her in case she had grandiose images in her mind of veritable Aladdin’s caves overflowing with abandoned, boxed, pristine Guerlains (“Will there be L’Heure Bleue?” – no there will not, of that I am sure; only Mitsouko in all its possible vintage forms, if ya pleasey – but neither of us is particularly bothered by Mitsouko); I was a little apprehensive that the day was going to turn out a big bore and that there would be nothing to buy.
First stop was the arcade in Jiyugaoka, where Catherine immediately found a pristine, perfect Caron Narcisse Noir extrait for 500 yen. She had never smelled it before and proffered it up for my inspection to check if this is how it should be (me being The Black Narcissus and all), and it was – a sickening bargain at five dollars. Beautifully glinting, fresh, and as unique as ever, she snatched it up without a second thought. Now let’s get the slightly gruff shop owner to open up the very cabinets. Where all of the main treasure is to be had….
Not having worked out how we would, er, divide any of the loot were we to come across any, only a few minutes had passed before the linguistically-envy-inducing polyglot interpreter’s hand alighted wantonly on a Le Galion Violette parfum (exquisite! sheer powdery, swooning violets cold as the earth), also for 500 yen. I also wanted it but no I want it insisted Catherine in a tone I couldn’t argue with – we were like siblings arguing over cake, getting ready to shove each other out of the way in the event of coming across a Vol De Nuit – but no, only Mitsouko-ko-ko-ko, always that bloody perfume……. but I had found a vintage Obsession parfum (heaven! can’t wait to apply it to a cashmere scarf) and a Rochas Femme parfum, a scent I like to wear at night sometimes for its deep tapestries of fur and fruit; C had spotted an unopened Givenchy Interdit, a scent I had never really liked for some reason, not entirely, until we later retired to a coffee shop and she prized open the wax top of the bottle and the most gorgeous ylang, rose, jasmine and iris top notes wafted out and I was in heaven, finally appreciating this perfume for the first time in its beautiful, pristine edition. Audrey and Hubert would have been proud.
The scent of aldehydes that had been released from decades of imprisonment in their glass bottle and floated their way across the mille crepe and cafe au lait of the table was joined, and contrasted, in an anti-intuitively stunning blend of that Interdit and a rare bottle of Donna Karan Black Cashmere that Catherine had bought in a shop in Asagaya, the frankincense and dark woods and musks of which Catherine was sniffing at her arm like a madwoman in love, and whose sillage, from a mere spritz, filled up all the air around her brilliantly. What a great scent ! (and why, on earth, are such perfumes discontinued? We all know the usual tedious answers, but still – women in woods, yes please; so much more intriguing that the vulgar, IQ lowering pink sludge that is the current scent trail of many current ladies’ favourites). She smelled great and was enjoying the proceedings : yes, we were pleased with our bargains – this was about 35 dollars, but considering how much this scent can go for on eBay now, it was definitely a steal. Plus, the way C was swooning over the perfume on her hand – such fun to be out with a true perfumaniac like her- the pleasure is real – you know that this is going to be a perfume that she wafts about her as she interprets for the upper echelons of society, politicians, and even the visiting European royalty.
So. Where next. I had been saving the best til last. We would do bargain recycle stores in Asagaya, and then there would be the crowning glory, the legend that is MARISOL.
It is strange, but I haven’t written about this place before until now for some reason, even if I have mentioned it in the introduction of my book as an incredible old vintage perfume emporium that stocks practically anything you might want as a teasing detail of how much fun it can be in Tokyo; floors and floors of precious Carons, Guerlains, perfumes from the eighties and nineties; wrapped Jacomos, a repository of your teenage dreams. Still there. Tantalizing stacks of boxes reaching up the stairs to forbidden floors; the most amazing old perfume shop in the metropolis.
I had also been a bit disingenuous though. The big (and it is a big, a really big) problem with this shop is that the owner, pictured, is an extraordinarily ‘difficult’ woman, to say the least. Famously so. I was of course aware of this, but as I have bought a couple of things from the shop before – Jacomo Parfum Rare Extrait and Lancome Trophee, I know that once you butter the old bag up a bit, or if she happens to be in the right mood, she becomes more personable and guides you around the contents of her treasure house and introduces you to some of her fabulous wares. Also, seeing that Catherine speaks impeccable Japanese, of a level I could never attain in a thousand years, with all the nuances of register, politeness, grammatical accuracy – I come across like a grunting chimpanzee in comparison – which Madame Marisol scorns openly, pretending not to understand a word I am saying – I thought that as I was gingerly entering the holy premises with not only a bona vide perfume connoisseur but also someone with the language skills to negotiate the croc-infested waters, we would succeed in gaining access to some of the hidden preciousnesses – I dream of a Caron Poivre parfum with the studded glass tears; or even just to look at and gaze with my retinas at some magical Guerlain extracts glowing silently from their boxes begging secretly to be opened and worn on the skin, but………………………..…sadly this was not to be.
Having been in Marisol before, which is situated in completely the wrong area of Tokyo – bang in the middle of the youth district, where twenty year old couples smooch on down from the 109 department stores geared to their age group, and pancake houses and cinemas and jean shops and cheap izakaya to get drunk in – and, passing the inviting windows full of cute looking perfumes, once entering, quickly get sent packing, I kind of know what to expect. I have seen this happen before: an innocuous and sweet young couple came in and politely asked the proprietress if she had any fragrances that smelled like tea, only to be told ‘nai’ – a very abrupt way of saying ‘there aren’t any’, that NO regular person in any form of customer service would dream of uttering in a million years, this being the apex of refined, artificial politeness in the world, comparable to none, which is what makes it all so surprising and even upsetting: I remember the look on their faces (but what did we say wrong? ).
The answer is nothing. The woman is as bitter and twisted as a hag in a fairy tale: the witch in the forest you feared as a child, just that this is a perfume shop instead, and Catherine wandered in as innocent as Red Riding Hood knowing none of this. Should I have warned her? As I said, I honestly thought that given her Japanese and fragrance credentials, that we would be fine. Also, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise : I thought that we would enter, gaze in awe at all the potential perfumes we could buy, and then charm the fuming, chuntering psycho-hag into ‘letting ‘ us buy one of them.
Watching two young people go in as we climbed the street towards the shop, I waited for the expected thirty seconds before they were sent out (!!I know – what kind of shop IS this?!!), and out they came, right on cue, looking perplexed – what just happened?
And the air was immediately hostile (in fact, it felt as if there was no air). Unwelcoming. Compressed. Sat on her chair, the owner of Marisol sat leviathan-like, unmoving, emitting silent, noxious fumes of hatred – like an old cobra awaiting death.
Despite the plenitude of cabinets of perfumes we were both fascinated by, she clearly didn’t want us in there. You felt an uneasiness in your chest, a strong sense of discomfort, her eyes piercing into yours and yet clouded over at the same time with foregone, spiteful conclusions.
‘How much is the Leonard Tamango?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’.
‘Do you have L’Heure Bleue?’
‘I do, but it’s expensive.
‘How much is it, if you don’t mind my asking’?
WE DON’T HAVE IT.
NOW SHUT UP AND GET OUT !!!!!!!!
hissed the creature vituperously to Catherine’s utter shock and astonishment. Completely taken aback, I could feel her heart beating just standing behind her; the sheer stupefaction of the situation, and I immediately regretted not having given any warning or instruction on how to proceed in ‘Marisol’ beforehand.
‘But what did I do wrong? Have I said something untoward’? said Catherine in very polite, even poignantly soothing tones. ‘This shop was recommended to me by a friend who said you have some wonderful things to buy, which is why we came here’
‘then you should have asked that person why I am such a bitch beforehand and learned what to do in here ‘ spat back she at Catherine’s gobsmacked face; with really horrible breath, too, which only added to the true vileness and rudeness being displayed in the ‘shop’
‘I just wanted to know if you have any L’Heure Bleue!!” protested Catherine.
If you really wanted that perfume, you wouldn’t say it like that
spat the witch
– – – and I wanted to show you this, said I stupidly , taking my book out of my bag, which mentions this vile komodo in the introduction as a place to look for vintage perfumes if you are ever in Tokyo – now I kind of wish it could be redacted-
TAKE. IT. AWAY. !!!!
DON’T SHOW IT TO ME !!!!!
shrieked the crone as Catherine was getting more and more upset and trying to reason with her, asking why she was being so hated in her fluid and intelligent Japanese, at which point the woman was momentarily silenced – perhaps even slightly embarrassed.
It was obvious we would have to leave (the drama queen I am, I was partly loving all of this, I have to confess – am I a terrible person? I let it linger on than I should have; but it was as though Catherine was slightly hypnotized :::::::::::::)
It was the language.
Which she kept repeating.
SHUT YOUR MOUTH !!!!
‘Urusai‘, which literally means ‘noisy’ in Japanese , is used as a way of saying ‘shut your mouth’ when said in a certain way; only with family members in a moment of anger – never, never never, to a stranger, and certainly not to someone who has come to your shop, with only the best intentions, to peruse and possibly buy your wares.
‘Kaette !‘ literally means ‘go home’, but in the context of where we were, it would probably be better translated as GET OUT for its rawness, particularly when combined with her dismissive, and very aggressive, waves of the hand towards the exit………….. and though dumbfounded, gobsmacked and horrified by the incredible rudeness we had just experienced – ‘I just want to slap the bitch!‘ exclaimed Catherine as we finally pushed the glass doors open, one final kaette and urusai was enough to convince us to leave (which we should have done, really, from the first moment).
On the street, Catherine’s heart was beating in rage so badly I truly regretted having taken her there (even though I was doubled up in hysterics on the street – I don’t know, I just couldn’t help finding the whole thing H I L A R I O U S); but then I suppose I kind of knew what might – potentially – happen. Catherine had gone in as innocent as a doe, and been ferociously attacked and reviled by this obviously desperately sad woman who owns the entire premises and thus doesn’t need the money, but opens up each day so that she can insult people and make them feel dreadful: the camp side of me loves this: I often find the drabness of daily life so tedious that any drama, particularly surrounded by perfume bottles I so badly want, is curiously stimulating and at the moment, outside, as we gathered ourselves, I must say that I felt 100% alive. And couldn’t stop laughing.
But I couldn’t leave Catherine. She was too upset. I had been planning to part ways there, and go to a club I know in Ebisu called Enjoy House as I want to book it for our Love Goddess Of The Cannibals party that we want to hold in June; a disco/ art performance event, something tropical and lush and amazing, based on the film Papaya from 1978 by Joe D’Amato, because at that point in the term I am always ready to really let loose and do something mad and amusing, gathering all our friends up and creating something lurid and exciting and memorable –
– but it was obvious that Catherine really didn’t want to be left alone. She was simply so furious, shocked, and outraged by the terrible treatment she had experienced that she said she was about to burst into tears (what can be done about this monstrous woman, do you think? If you ever come to Tokyo, will you give it a go?!)
So we took the train back to Yokohama together; processing and laughing, imagining glitterbombing the place and temporarily stunning Marisol (possibly even tying her up) while we scamper up and down those mysterious stairs making off with bags and bags of unbelievable loot (imagine the Nahema parfums I would run off with! I know she has it, because she has told me, as has her poor assistant, who occasionally works with her, but naturally she wouldn’t show it to me, as it is ‘too expensive’………)
‘It was like Catherine and Neil’s Adventures In Perfume Heaven and Hell’ , said Catherine. One minute I was so zen and relaxed from the pleasure of buying all those perfumes and from just hanging out, and the next I was being harangued by a wicked witch, just out of the blue, and it shocked me to the core.
Horrible. I can’t believe it.
I AM NEVER SETTING FOOT IN THERE AGAIN.
We all have good and bad periods in our lives, times when we feel things are right and we can believe in the present and the future, and others when we feel lost. Much of the beginning of the twenty first century was like that for me.
Coming to Japan in 1996 for no other reason than pure escape, even though I had, in fact, virtually zero interest in the country (it was truly a do or die situation for me at that time, it could have been Timbuktu), I went through a period of deep isolation and desolation before beginning to slowly bloom again when Duncan joined me here (we had briefly split up for a time beforehand, at my instigation, in my post-university London desperation).
Japan – alien, bizarre, yet simultaneously unsurprising – took quite a while for me to settle into, but as its pleasures began to take hold, we made friends, and were soon in a drunken gaijin (foreigner) late-twenties bubble, working at low-reputation language schools and watching Japan from the outside while working and partying within it. This was great for a while, even if, as ‘Cambridge Graduates’ – an albatross of expectation that ultimately just makes a young person feel guilty and horrifically underachieving unless they have scaled the career heights and ‘made their mark on the world’, deep down, we both felt unanchored, vaguely embarrassed, and consistently anxious about the future.
I think that unless you have a solid ambition from a young age – to be a doctor, a journalist, a fashion designer, an entrepreneur- and are a liberal arts graduate – in my case so pragmatically specializing in twentieth centry Italian and French literature, with a special focus on existentialism (meaning that I could see through everything and could not believe in the value of anything whatsoever) – upon graduation from those ivory towers you can be really plunged into what is, essentally, a terrifying and all encompassing black hole.
For me it was like drowning. There was literally not a single job in the world that I actually wanted to do. Nothing appealed to me. Of course I realise that this is one of those ‘first world problems’, ‘white privilege’ and all the rest, when half the world doesn’t even have food to eat, but I was me, in my own situation, and my own milieu, and being aware of all that didn’t detract from the sheer angst my lack of direction engendered in me. I could see no future ahead of me. And that can be devastating for a young person.
I have never had any interest whatsoever in business, in just working for companies that make money for executives and stock holders – and the existence of Donald Trump and everything he stands for just vindicates my instincts in this regard – these soulless, evil fucks. And so all the twenty three year old students rushing to get jobs as investment bankers during the so called ‘milk -round’ in the last year of Cambridge, when you are sucked up by the City Machine and all the Big Companies just left me bewildered and at a loss. I was never going to even try doing anything like that. I would literally rather have died. But what else was there? As a language graduate, you could say that the world of the EU (weep, I am still fuming), and diplomacy, or translation, and interpreting, beckoned, but that was about as likely as me transforming one fine morning into a llama. Fakeness, excruciating politeness, the exchange of small talk and schmoozing among well dressed reptiles with underlying motives and blank-faced foreign counterparts and all that diplomatic goo is as alien to me as tilling the bank vaults and advising clients on their portfolios would be; and even translating, which sounded vaguely impressive in a way, seemed to me to be simply transforming another person’s words like a machine. I am too egotistical and selfish for that. I like my own words.
And so what else was there? The media held no appeal. Mainly because anyone I met from the TV, film, art or music sphere just seemed like such pretentious, insecure assholes that I couldn’t bear to spend even a minute with them. I had so many miserable evenings in London I can’t tell you. Publishing, another option, just seemed the same. I considered counselling and psychology for a while but then realized that realistically, I am just too porous and sensitive (I would have absorbed the clients woes too much, like a sponge). I even considered the idea, for a while, grasping at straws, of becoming an aromatherapist – at least closer to my passions. It was just that I didn’t want to ever touch anyone.
One exciting option seemed to be perfumery. There was a chink of light. Perhaps. And so with dreams of perhaps opening a shop one day and becoming world travellers sourcing ingredients, my best friend Helen and I enrolled in the Plymouth University Perfumery diploma course, a long-distance qualification that involved assessing aromatic materials (which I found I was quite good at), essays (the first one, on the essence of perfume itself got me good points), and then, as you might expect, just reams, and reams, and reams, of chemistry (100% impossible). The whole project, which we had been so frothing about the mouth about initially, was dead in the water before you could say opoponax.
It was just not to be. Although I infinitely prefer to associate with positive people – I have no time for negativity in my life any more, because what’s the point?– at the same time, although I deeply respect idealism and optimism in people – I have never had any truck with the ‘anything is possible’ idea personally, particularly when I know that for me, certain things are truly not. To me, rather than pessimism, it is just enlightened, intelligent, realism.
I know myself. I am not an especially modest person – I know what I am good at. But I also know my limitations and what I can’t do. This extended from studying physics at school – so utterly dull it was hard to even be in the classroom let alone concentrate on what was in front of me (one classic punishment, which I think I have related before, was when my teacher at the time, Mrs Lakhani, who I actually liked, and who liked me as well in a bemused kind of way, just said to her wilting, languorous fourteen year old yawning student, oh for god’s sake Neil, just go and water the flowers at the front of the school or something, will you? – cue an embarrassed school boy with a watering can, caught giving the geraniums at the front of that Orwellian building some water by the head teacher – ‘Chapman, what on earth are you doing?’….Mortified, yes, but at least I was close to the flowers, something I have always, since very early childhood, completely and utterly adored, and which could at least allow escape from that hellish, bunsen burner prison – from history, chemistry, mathematics….I had no interest in any of it.
But perfumery without chemistry is like being a fingerless pianist (yes I know you can use your toes, but I was never that resilient or determined: I am a lazy bastard at heart) and even though I knew it was impossible, I did try for a little while. Helen, fearing the chemistry, wisely saw the light earlier than me and gave up immediately. I, stupidly, vainly, tried to learn a few basics about the fundamental elements of our earth, and nature, with a very patient friend of mine living in Japan called Soraiya, who I taught basic French to in return after work in Yokohama cafes, but she quickly had to let me down gently (when I didn’t even know if the sun went round the earth or vice versa), that this probably wasn’t going to work.
It was the same with Japanese kanji. As a supposed linguist, you might think that by now, after two decades in the country, I would be a fluent speaker, someone who can compose haiku in Japanese or write a Tokyo-based novella in the language of my home country. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I can converse in the language fairly well up to a point (if I said to people I had been here four years, say, they might be mildly impressed, but for an expatriate of twenty years my level is shameful), I cannot write a single sentence. Literally. And I knew I never would…
DEFEATIST ! I hear you cry.
I don’t think so. I know my brain. And I respect it. I was born with what I was born with. In Japan the crushingly prevalent idea is that if you try hard enough, you can do anything. I don’t agree. I actually hate that ‘Impossible is nothing’ bullshit. While mind over matter, endeavour, and the power of sheer will have led to remarkable achievements the world over I am sure, if you have ever sat through a four hour mammoth piano recital, the way I have, with the pupils and protegees of my piano teacher all rattling off pieces – Bach, Chopin, Beethoven – of enviable technical proficiency but with no soul – dry, robotic – you will realise that it doesn’t matter how many hours of practice you put it, if you haven’t got it you haven’t got it. God……..it was like being raped with a hammer, actually, and D and I couldn’t take it any longer and just had to go out and get totally smashed, drunk out of our minds, to get back even a modicum of spiritual equilibrium.
And you can forget about Kanji, or the Chinese characters that form a great part of the Japanese language. That was NEVER going to happen. While I can read a katakana menu (wow how impressive), to this day, I am unable to distinguish the hiragana お (o) from あ (a). Even sitting here looking at these two symbols right now, which I have just copied and pasted, and which most foreigners here can memorize in one look, I am still literally unable to distinguish them. I think, thus, that I despite the obvious fact that I am not illiterate (like, say, the president of the United States), I am possibly a little bit dyslexic. The Roman alphabet – fine. I picked up Italian very quickly and was almost fluent within ten months of living there. Japanese takes me about twenty times longer to remember, and I think that this is partly because of the syntax and grammar, which still makes very little sense, but more the way it is written. If I can’t mentally imbibe even the a b c of the language, there is no way in hell that I was ever going to be able to read, let alone write, words like these with their ultra complex kanji, which just look to me like mangled, intricate insects :
躊躇（ちゅう・ちょ） – hesitation
朦朧（もう・ろう） – dim, hazy
憂鬱（ゆう・うつ） – depression
瀟洒（しょう・しゃ） – elegant; trim
You yourself might have different basic abilities and attributes to me, and thus think ah yes, but if you tried, if you really tried, you could probably do it. Er, No, I couldn’t. And I knew this the very first week I was here. I remember staring out at a building opposite from where I was teaching, with ‘words’ like these on the walls, and my brain just said nah, that is never going to happen: and that was that. I gave up upon arrival, but in a way I think that was sensible, because it saved me unnecessary heartache and hassle. I do occasionally think of how beautiful it would be to be able to read Japanese novels in the original, or enter the bizarre world of anime and manga in the same way the Japanese do, to read newspapers in Japanese, but at the same time, not wanting to enter too deeply into this culture is honestly a conscious decision. I retain the right to live like this, to be in Japan, but to not even vaguely attempt to be Japanese. Both D and I like, and insist on, keeping ye olde Nippon, which doesn’t really want us here, at a distance. We want to preserve the floating neon dream, not to understand every insidiously repressive intricacy of the real thing. We are dreamers, and it took us a while to truly accept that. I like not understanding advertising – something I have detested from the bottom of my heart for decades- it has always just instinctively felt like pollution to me, real brain toxin – and Japanese TV commercials are literally unbearable poison to me from every caricatured, racist, sexist, ageist stereotype imaginable, to the saccharine sheer stupidity of it all………..no, this is not anything I need to understand any more than I do already. Let me edit my experience my way.
Perfume and chemistry were the same. It was just not to be. The chemistry was fully impossible. And it always will be. I picked up Luca Turin’s The Secret Of Scent again the other day, thinking it would make good toilet reading, and I was really enjoying the first section about Nombre Noir and Chamade and all the rest of it and how this perfume love started him off on his path, but I had to give up by about page 10 when he started on all the chemistry (I imagine that some of you had exactly the same response).
Frankly darling, it bores me to death.
So there went the perfume dream, anyway, at least in the traditional lab-coated sense. By this time (why am I telling you all of this?) I had left NOVA, a chain of language schools that sank in an explosion of infamy a few years ago with English teachers left starving with no salaries as the whole thing went under, and had immersed myself in a fully Japanese company of preparatory schools where I am the only full time foreign teacher ( I say ‘full time’, when really it is only four days a week, fulfilling perhaps the only ambition I ever had, to have a three day weekend): a decision that on the professional level was definitely the right way to go – real teachers, pedagogically sound, even if the Japanese teachers themselves are treated like slaves – I could never do what they do in a million years – but emotionally, I can’t deny that it was incredibly difficult for me for a long while; making me experience deep and lasting culture shock four years after arriving in the country and having done nothing but play in the seductive, and immersive, gaijin bubble.
I could write an entire book about my experiences of teaching in this company along with all the other things I have lived in this country, and one day would like to, but being the kind of person I am, and being weighed down in what I found an incredibly oppressive environment, so impersonal and rule-bound I found it demoralizing up to the point of dehumanization, I have to say that the start of the millenium really wasn’t the best time of my life.
Why didn’t you just leave? I hear you ask. Yes, but I had no idea what else to do. I didn’t have an MA, the requirement to work at Japanese universities – which, in truth is said to be quite unfulfilling in any case as students in Japan basically use up all their energies in junior high school and high school in cramming endlessly for entrance exams, university being their moratorium, a four year playground where you are essentially guaranteed to graduate and can just party and chill, explore fashion (killed dead the second you leave and get a job when you become a salaryman drone), and live the four years of freedom that you will spend the rest of your life yearning back to, absolutely the definitive honeymoon period for most Japanese, and not a time that anyone takes studying seriously; teachers I know who have jobs like this say that half of the students present at any lecture are asleep at any given time, the rest on their smart phones, and I am such a control freak I know I would find this quite intolerable. I want my students to fully engage with me. But anyway, aside university positions, there were only school jobs with curricula I didn’t want to be bound by, or gabba gabba language schools where you talk to bored housewives and half-dead businessmen and hardly get paid anything, and in my job I have one hundred per cent creative freedom in what I teach and virtually zero interference. Perfect.
Except that I immediately felt so incredibly isolated and alone. Sitting there in that teacher’s room, paranoid and trapped inside my ‘Englishman’s’ head, I eventually started to slide into depression (went to counsellors too to explore some past and current traumas but was told that I was not clinically depressed, but was perhaps suffering from something called ‘depressed mood’). You don’t say. Then September 11th happened and things got way, way blacker and I could hardly see the wood from the trees. I knew things would never be the same again and I felt even worse, floundering. Lost. The culmination of all this was 2002, when my heart was black as tar, I felt deep inside myself that I was instrinscially unloveable, and after flying back to London, came down with a very serious case of pneumonia that saw me hospitalized for eight days, followed by a lengthy recuperation period at my parents’ house that was my own personal ground zero. This was a strange time for me, when I felt adrift and so very mortal, unfulfilled at the molecular level, anxious, and with very little, in truth, my relationship with Duncan aside, to cling to.
Perhaps this is universal, this cultural alienation having such a profound physical effect on the individual. In fact, upon returning to Japan after my convalescence, I remember coming across a novel, the fascinating Foreign Studies by Shusaku Endo, in which the protagonist had had almost precisely the experience I had, just in reverse. I know I have written about all of this somewhere (but I can’t remember where or when), so forgive me if all this repetition of my quite unremarkable life is dull, but this story, which I remember reading in a Starbucks in some Japanese hicksville town on the way to some school near the mountains where I had to teach roomfuls of eleven year olds I didn’t want to teach, blew my mind with its similarities to what I had experienced myself personally as I sat there still feeling frail from my potential brush with death and read of this neurasthenic ‘aesthete’ with literary and artistic pretensions, fulfilling the bohemian obligations of the day by going to live in Paris and ‘live the life’. Unable to shake off his innate Japaneseness and disappointed by the French realities, the monolithic heaviness of the stone buildings (I myself felt initially profoundly internally disturbed by the opposite flimsiness of Japanese architecture), the writer eventually finds himself so alienated by his adopted culture that he withdraws from society and succumbs to pneumonia just like me (the chest and breathing apparatus is definitely the most vulnerable area for sensitive people, no matter where they are from!)
In any case, I had survived, I was back in Japan, yes, but what was to become of me now? Was I simply going to malinger as an English teacher? Oh, the shame and failure. Yes, I enjoyed certain aspects of it, and it wasn’t as though we weren’t having fun or doing anything creative ( I had the odd piano recital, and we still had our themed parties twice a year or so), but at heart I felt dissatisfied. I know now that this was because I wasn’t expressing anything – not really, I wasn’t creating anything, not writing about perfume, not transcending anything – which I now know I do absolutely do need to do, and which, even just writing the Black Narcissus, has saved me in many ways. I live for beauty and pleasure, for the infinite, the beyond, the essence of what we are,and I can’t just passively consume the banal crap that constantly comes our way and be happy. I need more. I can’t and won’t be brainwashed by this crass, capitalistic, simplistic and moronic world because I know that what we are presented with as the ideal, is a lie.
LA VITA E BELLA.
Does any of this rambling chime with anyone? Have you ever come through a period of malcontent and emerged the wiser? When even the ‘friends’ you were associating with for extended periods of time weren’t even making you happy?
During the beginning of the 2000’s I was, in truth, quite often bored with our weekends, not stimulated by the company we were keeping during these years if I am honest – 2002, say, to 2008 (WHEN I WROTE MY FIRST PERFUME REVIEW! MITSOUKO, I BELIEVE), which totally started things in a whole new direction….
People had sometimes said to me over the years that I should write, and I thought that maybe I should, but I could never think of anything to say. A novel was out of the question, as I could never imagine anything from a perspective other than my own (such a self-absorbed creature!) As soon as I felt perfume flowing through my pen nib, though, it was an entirely different matter. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that it was akin to being reborn.
Around this time, though, we were living a fairly staid and quite ‘grown up’ (so overrated, as a concept!) way of life. A lot of our social occasions involved frankly dull English teachers, quite a lot of overly conventional gay couples and their female friends, where no one ever really said anything interesting and where the conversation was usually grounded in such dull reality (Jesus, conversations about gas bills, ‘property’, visas, the daily ins and outs of schools, the price of fish, I was bored out of my skull). I like eccentric people, individuals, alive, real, vital; those that might have been hurt but have put it behind them, people who revel in the beauty of life and the world and know instinctively not to talk about the realia of daily and all the tedious rubbish that can bog us down. Those who can see beyond all that. Beyond their bank accounts.
Now, at this time of my life, mid-forties (easily the best, despite some problems – but then who has none of those? – I think we would both quite honestly say that; both professionally fulfilling, but also artistically, socially often quite frankly thrilling), I can hardly imagine being so mired in, as I often was before, in what I superciliously, and quite snobbishly sometimes refer to as the ‘quotidian mould’….
You know, I think I should stop here. This piece was supposed to be about something different entirely – I don’t know where all this retrospection has come from. Perhaps I just needed to say it. I don’t know.
I came across some old notebooks the other day in a drawer – notes I had taken on perfumes while out and about in Paris, London, Berlin and other places (there are so many reviews I have never completed or put up on this blog), and I thought that, for a change, rather than full-fleshed perfume reviews it might be amusing to put some of them up for your casual perusal. Often just one liners or quips for later reviews that never happened, but which sometimes say all I have to say on the matter. Some of them amused me. Some of them were quite pleasingly succinct. And the more perfume reviews, I say, the better. I have written so much on perfume already on The Black Narcissus, some pieces pored over for days, the majority just splurged out and put up immediately, but I want to keep writing more.
I will continue this confessional later.