Tag Archives: incense

Instant cathedrals….. INCIENSO ARTESANAL COPAL, VIRGEN DE FATIMA

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Copal, a gum-resin obtained from the hymenaea tree, was to the people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica what frankincense was to the East: an ambered, crystallized substance whose scent, when used as an incense in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies (as ‘food’ for the deities) induced feelings of transcendance, succour, and religious connection.

 

 

I have read about copal before, and like any other scent maniac worth his salt, I find perfume ingredients, raw materials with exotic names (especially ones that I have never smelled) quite mesmerizing. ‘Copal’………. it resonates. Part jewel, part metal, part unknowable unguent; what, we wonder, could it smell like?

 

 

Yesterday at an import shop in Tsujido, one train stop from where I work, to my surprised delight I came across a packet of incense that I had never seen: COPAL by VIRGEN DE FATIMA, MEXICO. The heart leapt at the sight, though I immediately checked myself, assuming that surely it couldn’t possibly be as interesting as it sounded and looked (and, wrapped up and unopened, it was impossible to sample). I of course bought it anyway, and last night when I got home late after an extremly exhausting evening of teaching in Yokohama, I burned, quite intrigued, one stick of the grey, powdering incense in the entrance, as Duncan slept upstairs.

 

 

 

The great similarities with frankincense were immediately apparent (and how fascinating that on other sides of the world, completely unconscious of each others’ identities, even existences, different cultures would hone in on a natural substance that has such an involved method of agriculture; wounding the tree to collect the ‘tears’ and exudations, drying it, and using it in religious ceremonies. How wonderful that this non-coincidence truly suggests that there is something inherently spiritual about frankincense and copal, no matter what the religion).

 

 

If you had asked me to identify the odour as the stick was lit I would have immediately said that it was of course frankincense….the plumes of thick, spectral smoke were just like those from a censer: pure, Catholic incense, undoubtedly frankincensian ( a smell I adore ), perhaps less bitter, perhaps a touch more mellow, but most definitely a direct, if chaste, kissing cousin.

 

 

 

I have written before about how I have burned Somalian frankincense in the house, and how the neighbours have complained (and who can blame them). Though strangely satisfying – the intense, pyromaniacal lighting of the corner of a piece of solidified frankincense resin with a lighter, waiting for it to catch fire, glow and begin to give off ghosts – it is in fact a painstaking and time-consuming process that can lead to singed fingertips, lots of used up lighters and matches, and vales of intensely black, acrid smoke that are not entirely what you were looking for (for what you are looking for in fact is the moment just after the resin has caught fire and you let it linger just for just enough minutes before blowing it out: that moment when the smouldering, golden coal gives off wisps of delicious, pure frankincense).

 

 

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This new find, this copal, will solve all my boswellian dilemmas. I have just burned a full stick of the incense, this fine spring morning, and it is perfect. Very similar to the haunting smell we are all so familiar with, frankincense, just a touch softer perhaps, more animalic and benzoiny somewhere in its middle and heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has taken me back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In 2007 Duncan and I went to Mexico. We stayed in the capital for a few days, wandering around in a trance, went to the strange and surreal silver mining hillside town of Taxco, then travelled down to Guadalajara (for a friend’s wedding), before coming back to Mexico City via the university town of Morelia. It was an interesting holiday, intensely stimulating, even if the food didn’t agree with us at all (Duncan eventually stopped eating completely, as you can see from the pictures). It was an entirely new experience, though, and in many ways quite thrilling. I discovered, at the very worst time, that I suffer from vertigo when trying to ascend the Piramide Del Sol at Teotihuacan……. discovered an embarrassingly sentimental side to my possibly Japanized nature when I kept bursting into tears every time a mariachi band started playing one of those emotive, heartfelt songs near our restaurant table or on the street; and I was constantly fascinated by the churches, the roadside altars, the bloodish, voodoo-laced phantasmagoria (Alexandro Jodorowsky, creator of El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, is one of my favourite films directors, so I was basically in heaven).

 

 

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Those cathedrals…….. with the flowers, the icons, the incense – which I had assumed was frankincense, hanging in the corners of the cool, interior atmosphere – but which I now realize, geographically and economically, was far more likely to have been copal. And this morning, with that smoke lingering anonymously but tenaciously in the rafters, my house smells the same. Strangely transformed, like the atrium of a cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

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Actually, while we are (kind of) on the subject, trawling through some of Duncan’s facebook albums (hence the graininess here of these Mexico photos- I had to take them off the screen), I have just come across some more photos vaguely connected to this theme, of a fantastic evening we had at the Italian Institute in Tokyo, where Duncan won second prize in the costume competition as a bishop on a skateboard (inspired directly by the ecclesiastical fashion show in Fellini’s Roma). It was utterly brilliant, that costume, assembled in a week entirely from bits and bobs from the 100 yen shop, pieces of lace and plastic, and then just at the very last minute, the skateboard, which a friend called him up excitedly to say that she had found in a recycle shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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He was waiting in the wings, an irreligious prankster.

 

 

 

I pressed play.

 

 

 

And when the soundtrack began, to the delight of the audience, his eminence skateboarded in, a whirling pope, going round and round them in circles as they clapped and cheered.

 

 

Surreal. I loved it.

 

 

 

 

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TWO WALKS IN WINTER : : : : : : : WINTER WOODS by SONOMA SCENT STUDIO (2008) + TERRE DE L’ ENCENS by CLOON KEEN ATELIER (2012)

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This time of year, when we are finally able to distance ourselves a bit from the daily grind, from the accumulated stresses of work and the ‘real world’;  the bullshit that is the world news;  the petty strains and pressures of the office:  when the air is clear, the sky, and the stars are bright, when we can begin to find some clarity and level-headedness and contemplation, is the perfect opportunity for us to walk.  To just walk, and think, recuperate, unwind, get some mental and physical air and think about the year that has just passed as well as the one that is about to come.

 

 

 

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Duncan and I are fortunate in having some very beautiful walks here where we live in Kamakura.  And now that the hectic term is over, I look forward to taking advantage of them. Some paths that lead directly to the grounds of the most important zen temples, some that go through some very beautiful woods and eventually to the sea, and others, leading to a lake, that are not frequented by many people, that almost feel like secrets.

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Usually I would run a mile from a perfume called Terre De L’Encens.  I love incense, have been burning my usual Japanese incense for most of this week, and as I sit here, my chest and back are also drenched in essential oils of frankincense and rosemary, as I try to recover from a cold I caught last week. I adore olibanum boswellia, and in fact almost bought a frankincense perfume yesterday ( my final day of work this year):  Incense by Florascent, an all natural perfume based on a beautiful natural extract from Eritrea that I have had my eye on for a while, but I decided instead that I had better save some money back for Kyoto instead (  we go there tomorrow, for Christmas ).

Despite my love for the otherworldly and breath-slowing aspect of frankincense, though, incense and woody perfumes, which the niche perfume market is really quite over-flooded with in my view, really do bore me to tears. All those Byredos and Tauers and Nasomattos and the like, those cruel-hearted urban oudhs, just smell, to me, on the whole, of unimaginative fashionistas giving off some dry, arid, ‘edginess’ that I personally find most unattractive, even aggravating.

Terre De L’Encens, by Ireland-based Cloon Keen, is an incense scent that for once dares to tread new ground.  Like a beautiful walk in the beach air, this clear and pleasant perfume offsets a very bright, luminous, clean frankincense note (‘incense hyperessence’), with an aerated floral accord (iris, immortelle, pepper) that in my opinion really works.  Where from the somewhat uninspired name you might expect the usual clogged and burnt ebonics, instead we find here a pleasingly liberated frisson of loneliness and togetherness; the salted mineral marine facets and ‘clear, radiant ozonic’ top notes contrasting properly with a certain lip-softened aspect; a subliminal, animalic element (labdanum, ciste) that prevents the usual banality from ever setting in.  I find a pleasing simplicity here, a kind of warm and elegant solitude as we walk along the coastline;  a clean-lined, pearlescent space like some gradually dawning female enlightedness.

Terre De L’Encens is not a dazzling scent by any means, but that, to me, is the point: it just smells nice, wraps the wearer in a clear-eyed sphere of skylight dreaminess and ease, as you walk, look out at the seaside horizons, and thank the universe for your blessings.

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When I see ice and snow piled high on trees and bushes, I feel magic.

Everything else just drops away. It can feel as though you were alone in the world, that all the pollution and greed of mankind no longer exists, that you have returned to some kind of snowflake, primeval innocence: to childhood, and Christmas, and just the simple, beautiful reality of iced air penetrating the lungs, the magpies suddenly startling you from your reverie as they take flight into the beyond in a ruffling, shaking powder of snow.  I love to walk in such a scape, lose myself in the white of the sky, of the grass.  But at the same time, I have to admit that I am physically entirely unsuited to the cold.  It affects me inordinately.  I have a deep fear of it, and as a result, I am instinctively far more drawn to heat and warmth.  This is also true for perfume.  It seems as though I was born to wear ambers, patchouli, vanillas, and deep, rich perfumes that ground and surround me with a comforting, protective halo; eskimo furs of contrarian goodness to let me enjoy the frozen lake; the icicles frozen solid on the branches while feeling concurrently that they are outside, exterior to me, that I can feel my warm blood pumping in my veins, my heart hot, my body protected.

From what I have read, some people are apparently disappointed when they smell Sonoma Scent Studio’s Winter Woods, expecting some bleak, more poetic and touching scent that will conjure up the delicacy of frosted branches obstructing the path, the spirituality inherent in being lost in the forest ………….(” The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep…………..”)

 

But Winter Woods, a clever play on words, does in a way make one think of a walk in the woods in fact,  but more from the perspective of the walker himself clad snugly in warm clothes and perfume, the lung-protecting, rubefacient qualities of wood essential oils: of cedarwood, sandalwood, guaiacwood, elements that all have the characteristic of heat.  In fact, this perfume is very warm indeed, sultry even, especially in the almost raunched and sensual outerstages when it dries down to an ambered, bodied, conclusion of castoreum, vetiver and ambergris, with a healthy quantity of classic oakmoss giving the perfume a mossy, chypric aspect almost redolent of an underembellished, and more masculine, vintage Femme or Mitsouko (but without the spice).

This is a slow perfume: less a brisk walk in the forest than a half-somnambulent plod,  legs heavy, meandering into a clearing, wrapped up – too much even, in thermals and coats and scarves – where you sit on a log and stop; mull things over; meld with the surrounding woodwork.

There are seemingly no top notes in Winter Woods. All is cellos and basses: just a smokey, fireside aspect obtained with extract of birch tar resin, the cosy fireplace you know is waiting for you when you return home. The perfume – thick, genuine – is almost chocolatey: not in flavour exactly, but in its rich, inchoate texture, a deceptively simple scent that I almost wish were more complicated (some nutmeg? some orange peel, even a touch of paprika?) just to take it into more fully orchestrated territory.  And yet the perfume works perfectly as it is.  Ligneous, rich, dense, and somewhat magnetic, it is as fortifying, as reassuring, and as solid, as an oak.

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