Tag Archives: Japan















Sitting on the balcony yesterday evening, I asked Duncan why he was living in Japan. It is not usually a question I would ask outright, but recently, he seems to have rather hardened in his irritation – you might even called it a kind of calcified, internalized fury – about the general reaction to the current pandemic here (which this country only slowly seems to be opening its eyes to; it has been beyond exasperating). He will roll his eyes, or look straight ahead of him in a way I am not sure that I have ever seen before, when asked about the general attitudes and lack of action taking place in these perturbing, maddening;   terrifying times.






He thought about my question quietly for a moment and then calmly gave a list of reasons why he loves living in this country:  the first one being, quite sensibly, that ‘our life is here’. That is true. It was never any part of any general plan to move to this part of the world, but it happened, and it worked. The refinement, the finesse, he said. The politeness. The general respect. The unbelievable levels of safety (something you can truly never, ever take for granted: until you have experienced this, you cannot imagine what it feels like). The sheer excitement of the cities. The incredible food. The gentleness. The surroundings here in Kamakura. Nature, the ancient culture. The open-mindedness (you could also call it permissiveness, or tolerance  – how else do you think we can walk around the way we do sometimes at night in Tokyo without anything ever happening? The responses are almost unanimously joyous and gleeful: there is no Judaeo-Christian moral judgment). These were just his first, throw-away ideas of why we do like living here; I could add many more (the classical culture; the weird, manic cyber- subcultures, the sheer, visual, aesthetic pleasure we derive from floating through Japan enough to sustain us for many years still to come). ‘But I really hate the work culture’ he said, looking at me firmly. And this, despite the fact that his own school is comparatively very mindful of the wellbeing of its staff and students and nurtures a generally positive environment.







He is not just thinking of himself though. He is thinking of all the brainwashed fools – sorry, loyal company employees, that have been continuously going into work on buses and trains in the last few critical weeks despite the government’s ‘request’ that social contact be reduced by 80% in order to save the country from a catastrophe ; a very ineffectual plea when people are given an implicit choice whether to work under such an ‘edict’ in a endemically workaholic culture such as this one  (the government apparently does not have the legal right to enforce the kind of lockdowns being experienced in other countries, since the Allies post World War II set up a deliberately very liberal constitution to avoid repeating any nationalistic military dictatorships such as the Emperor Hirohito), all leading to this bizarre, truly ambiguous situation in which there is a State Of Emergency while there isn’t a ‘state of emergency’; pachinko parlours – vile slot machine and pinball arcades,  hotbeds of infection, the domains of the chronically addicted, drop outs who queue up outside them every day in huge droves right now despite the risk of the coronavirus to play deafening automated machines sat right next to each other in hideously smoky environments (the smell when you walk on by one of these places!) their quickminded fingers constantly smearing the screens, always inhaling the same, foetid air……………largely remain open (all the government will do is print the names of such rule-bucking establishments in order to ‘shame’ them, often to no avail – the pachinko honchos, probably in cahoots with the yakuza, couldn’t care less, and the government needs the huge revenue they get from them in the first place); restaurants are still open and being patronised (because how many salarymen know how to cook here?) ; couples and families are still happily out and about – albeit in waning numbers, it was reported today, as people finally come to realise the severity of the situation. Just. Yet it always seems that many –  most, even – are pretending that nothing is happening,  or at least they are looking that way on the surface. ‘We are Japanese, so we are stoic. We have great hygiene. We are above all of this and will not be affected by it in the same way as other countries’ was Duncan’s sarcastic appraisal yesterday evening of the situation. I would agree: I would even say there is a fatalistic ‘if it happens, it happens’ samurai-ish suicide dream packed somewhere in there; a ‘shoganai’ – there’s nothing I can do about it resignation, or else a deeper unwillingness to sacrifice the daily sacrifices in the name of an unseen virus when the pressures to conform in the workplace are so strong that they can override the very real fears that people must have somewhere, locked and bolted deep inside.







But do they? Really? It’s hard to tell. Cycling back from the local shops to buy some sundries for mealmaking for the next couple of days yesterday afternoon, I was again baffled, and immediately angered, by the complete lack of social distancing occurring; customers crowding round outside the meat shop to buy home made croquettes now it is Golden Week and families are off together ( I wanted some too, but was put off straight away and desisted); most were wearing masks, but there was still no real sense of urgency or needing to stand away from each other; locals milling; no hand sanitisers used by the shopkeepers   (I did, quite boldly, make the suggestion in one place; the lady at the organic vegetable grocer’s, whose produce we categorically rely on – really delicious, fresh produce – made a wry unnn when I said this to her, looking at me slightly dryly from behind her paper mask as though I were questioning the levels of her personal hygiene); I know the lady in the bread shop is rather out of it these days; dotty, forgetful, still wearing her winged, liquid eyeliner and teased up thinning beehive that went out of fashion in the mid-sixties, but I had expressly said I didn’t want a plastic bag in an bid to reduce physical contact; I don’t want my purchases to be manhandled, preferably – in a dreamworld, not even touched; having assembled the things I wanted, I was about to deposit those items in my rucksack but the old dear did have to thoroughly fondle the chocolate with her fingers trying to locate the price tag (she never has any idea how much anything is); the same at every other shop, where we could be picking up the virus from everything we eat. We don’t know what to do: The alternative: cycle forty minutes into town, a busy commuter hub, to bigger supermarkets, with crowds of people in even closer proximity, and a much higher chance of infection – at least up here at the top of the hill in Imaizumidai it is marginally better, or start to order groceries online (have you been doing this?). We have no choice – where else are we going to get food? We have to eat. Even the hapless pizza delivery boy the other night kept dropping his change and re-handling everything and passing it on – there were no attempts to stand away as I opened the door:  as I handed over the yen to him from my  wallet we practically kissed.


















Riding home, yesterday, I passed by the well-renowned tempura and soba restaurant which is thirty seconds from our house – one of the most delicious meals you could ever have is there for our delightment virtually every weekend; the place is justifiably famous, and people come from miles around to have the homemade buckwheat noodles and incredible mixed vegetable kakeage. But now? Although part of me feels a bit guilty that we haven’t been going recently – of course I want to support local businesses – they rely on customers to keep going –  a stronger part of me selfishly just simply does not want to go into a restaurant. Any restaurant. I feel turned off. Sickened at the thought of it (don’t you?) In almost all countries, they are all closed in any case, so you can’t go out and eat even if you want to. But not here. They close at 8pm rather than 11pm, as though the virus only comes after you after dark, like a virological vampire. Yesterday, in the street I saw a group of seven or eight middle aged men emerge from the premises of the soba-ya and they were all maskless, the restauranteur included; jolly, close together, faces up close, clapping each other the back, having a whale of a Golden Week party gathering, physically close and touching – and I despaired. What is it going to take to make these people realize?
























To look at the situation simply, and rationally, is to feel your chest contracting in stress. The fact is – corroborated by the prime minister and every reliable news agency here – that the rate of infection in Tokyo has increased ten fold over the last four weeks, and the country is running out of hospital beds (per capita it has half the number of ICU units as Italy does). We all know that the reason that Germany has a far lower death rate than most other countries is because of the number of intensive care facilities and ventilators it has amassed; Japan has far fewer. There have been numerous reports of very sick patients being turned away from hospitals, unable to breathe; ambulances circling around for hours trying to find a willing emergency department to take them in; like other countries, the doctors and nurses are crying out for surgical masks, gloves, protective equipment  – and this is one thing I will honestly never understand : how the richest countries in the world: the US, the UK, Japan, Italy, aren’t able to provide the basic necessities for their heroic medical staff in these terrible times; why they can’t just jump up production – it is literally beyond my intelligence to grasp why this could be so difficult.







Or to let people work from home. Do you know that I am, to my knowledge, the only person in my company who has been refusing to go in to the workplace? Everyone else, unless they have family members that have been infected, has been going in; commuting. This means that when I return, I will be even more of a pariah than I already was (no, I was never a pariah as such, just someone always ‘outside’ of everything; removed, except for when I am in the classroom). I will possibly be seen as weak, scared; a coward, when my instinct tells me that I am the opposite in my resistance: I was brave to stand up for my right to try to not get infected, particularly when, if caught by the disease, I probably won’t be able to get into a hospital in any case. By negotiating with the top bodies, I have managed to reach a compromise situation in which I am able to record lessons at home, for the time being at least, with my borrowed video camera, which is what I have been doing these last few weeks; something I have still to acclimatise to but which is getting better as I get used to talking into a camera lens and not physical students in attendance (right now I have two weeks off, as does most of the country, for Golden Week, the time when people traditionally travel to see their parents or leave the country or go on trips and fill up all the famous places, like Kamakura (the other day a couple we sometimes bump into walking their dog said that the famous viewing platform near our house overlooking the beautiful Hansōbo and Kenchōji temples was thronging with about thirty eager Japanese tourists………. …..the government is imploring people not to do this; every morning we have an announcement at 10:00am over the loudspeakers by the Local Resident’s Association stating that the ‘infections of the novel coronavirus are increasing. Please stay at home’, but it is often to no avail. The illogic of it all is mystifying; physically painful to contemplate.)










(recent office workers going about their ‘corona-free’ days in Tokyo, about 45 minutes by train from our local station:: : : : : :  is this your own personal idea of ‘social distancing’ ?)









I am praying that more people here will start to comply and take real heed. Reports say that the popular hotspots in Tokyo were significantly less crowded over the weekend compared to January and February  – when the virus was already present but nobody gave a damn whatsoever – with the exception of parks (in our local recreational areas and children’s playgrounds, families are also all out together – no social distancing! ; the concept itself somehow just isn’t taking off; it is impossible for people to take it on……………….why?) They are standing as close as they always would. Kids are all running around laughing and squealing and playing in the sand as they always do; yes, the bigger supermarket we cycled down to the other day did, finally, have a system approximating every other country’s idea of reducing physical contact: shop clerks standing glumly behind plastic screens to avoid ‘aerosol droplets’ plastic markers on the floor delineating where each person should stand – probably one metre apart, though – not two; the pictures of social distancing in other countries look like photographs from another planet. It is somehow unfeasible here, in a collective society, a group-oriented mindset where to stand two metres apart would be to look ludicrous. ‘Selfish’.  But it is a start, anyway.  And it might, when I am in an optimistic mood,  be enough to prevent what some grim forecasts say could be 400,000 infections soon if things don’t actually get properly turned around (though for some reason I feel that those predictions are exaggerated, not that I am an expert. Or maybe I just can’t handle thinking about such a dreadful situation) There are already talks of a ‘total collapse of the medical system’ – an expression I am not very fond of, and which strikes terror into my heart; like you, I have read about the symptoms, and the intubation needed for severe cases, and the extremities of the body going black if you can’t get sufficient oxygen to them – if you can even get into a hospital here there are so few beds. It does not sound much like much of a summer picnic to me, and makes my determination to try and stay here at home for as long as humanly possible until the situation begins to improve a little bit  – and we can be safer  – all the more hard-headed.


















As usual, everything here is complex. Nothing is ever simple. You never really know what people are thinking. How afraid they are, or are are not. I have experienced this before, after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, a truly catastrophic triple disaster with a devastating tsunami and nuclear meltdown that left the entire population very shaken, but which was met with great (at times mind-bending) equanimity and mental strength that amazed me; people simply refused to be undone by it;  were determined, at core level, to present a brave face to the world. I was both deeply awed, and flummoxed by it at the time; I will never forget it. That said, the current global challenge is surely different. In being ‘stoic and hardworking’  – some of my colleagues have been travelling to and from Tokyo, the viral epicentre, to the workplace, where the teachers have still been having daily meeting crowded together in the staff room (!) with no real distance between them at all  – I heard, from my source, they even closed the plastic sliding windows, in the staffroom, as they usually would, to prevent students from hearing confidential matters – except there were no students; this was pure force of habit, and where I differ: oh yes ! You can be sure, oh you can be sure,  that, no matter what the consequences were, I would leap up – fuck everybody – and dramatically pull those windows  open so fast they would possibly even break or fly off their hinges as I cannot under any circumstances put up with such idiocy, no matter the reactions of my more self-contained, ‘dignified’ colleagues who just grin and bear it. It perplexes. Oh, how it perplexes.








I am aware, as I always am here, that there are layers of compulsion, reasons for certain actions and behaviours that I am sometimes not consciously aware of. Like a societal onion, the layers are removed; a deeper layer revealed. I learn. I take in. I understand. It makes sense, in the context. While certain failures are undeniable – I was already spewing acid on here a long while ago about the useless reaction to the Diamond Princess quarantine in Yokohama at the end of January and the beginning of February (WHY. DID IT TAKE THEM. SO LONG. TO FUCKING DO SOMETHING? Why did they just release the infected passengers into the public transportation system? It was beyond, beyond comprehension. STOP! I HAD PROMISED MYSELF I WOULDN’T GET TOO RILED UP HERE; I was trying to keep it calm and measured! !!!! ); but why are there all these half-assed, half-baked measures that go against common sense and global objective reason in combatting the spread of this fucking virus?) 









AAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH – excuse me while I scream and blow my head off. But no, as D says, this is Japan, and you just have to accept that you can’t do anything about it. The Japanese have their ways. We just have to keep going with it. You live here. You reap the benefits, the advantages: you have to go with the flow. There are things you perhaps have not considered: for example, I read in an article in the Japan Times that the correlation between unemployment and suicide is so great here – deaths have already been increasing a lot on the railways of Tokyo, people leaping to their deaths on the tracks despite the lower numbers of passengers – that the government has to seriously weigh up the risk of suicide and social breakdown against the risk of death from the virus. Though complete loss of income is obviously a traumatic event for any human being, a study has shown that the prevalence of mental illness and self-harm when connected to the loss of work and the presumed loss of dignity that ‘failure’ entails in Japan is in direct proportion to the seriousness of the economic malaise; for many people here, they are their work, so when small or middle-income businesses close down and those that rely on this money to stay afloat go under, so, often, do their owners. It is a spiritual death. According to this study, there is no comparable tendency in Spain and Italy. Though the economic distress will be no less appalling, perhaps people in those countries value time with their families or at home more, or at least do not feel that their intrinsic worth, their value as a human being,  lies in the job that they do day to day. One thing I know unambiguously; mine most certainly does not.


Filed under FURIOUS PERFUME CRITIC, Psychodrama






I wrote the other day about the strange, dark beauty of the best Japanese incense. And for those who may have not had access to this experience, I was thinking about what perfumes closest approximate what I like best about o-koh: the shadowy, mothballed aspect that puts me in mind of an old temple priest’s kimono hung on the door of some wintery corner; that exquisitely poetic Japanese austerity which takes the severe to its profoundest, most otherworldly extreme and leaves you agoraphobically facing the void; dreaming; looking at the precepts of your own culture more deeply and wondering what life in fact really is.

While a lot of the incense I have tried is stress-appeasing in its woodful, powdered mellowness; heart-opening and sensual, like Horikawa by the house of Korin – a spicy warm oriental that fills up every nook of a room with its cinnamon and ambered goodness – much of the other incense you can try at the Buddhist shops is compellingly odd, especially when smelled in its full intensity from the box; almost alien and offputting in its black, moist camphoraceousness that teases out some lingering ancient Japanese spirit, entirely unwestern in its grave, self-disciplined, zen-master sternfulness. I have bought boxes of this incense nevertheless over the years, enjoyed its almost sour, pickled amalgamations of oudh/agar/kyara/jinko and other blended naturals such as cloves, cinnamon, patchouli and camphor. But particularly camphor. That cold coolness, that medicinal fire that separates us from the daily reality and leads us into the religious; the purifying, hairshirt, doubled down ecstacies of ascetism and meditation.

I have only really smelled two perfumes that put me in mind of this quality. One is a scent I smelled in London two years ago with a specific Japanese theme (but whose name I can’t come up with right now), that combined some very camphoraceous incense with ume plum as well as other quite original combinations of ingredients to odd but quite mesmerizing effect: I remember standing transfixed in Liberty, feeling a strange kind of reverse homesickness as I was successfully transported back to Japan by that perfume. The other overtly Japanese (to me at least, though it is not directly expressed in the publicity released around one of Serge Lutens’ most difficult scents), is Serge Noire, apparently created to express the rather arch and fantastical concept of a phoenix arising from the ashes (‘an ode to everlasting beauty under cover of night’s rich plumage’). This perfume: rich, disconcerting, deep and dark, based on notes of ‘black wood’, ‘crystallized ash’, incense, cinnamon, clove, amber and camphor, has a similar quality to quite a lot of the Japanese incense I have smelled over the years. Though Parisian, and recognizably so, with its correct gradations from wood and powder to herbaceous and upper spice, the effect is similar. The stunning opening of the vintage version (I have just emptied the one sample I have from ‘back in the day’) has a napthalene-like bite, the smell of mothballs woven into a spiced, burnt, incense clay of woven woods and cloves that is intensely enigmatic at first, quite hypnotic,  though it sadly dries down to a much more familiar, musky sandalwood accord that does not match the curious magic of the opening, and which I do have to say I have always found slightly disappointing. I smelled the newer version the other day in Tokyo from the bottle also, and it didn’t seem to have quite the kick of the original version, but I would like to try it again just to make sure.  Despite its flaws, Serge Noire is quite a fascinating scent, and it is worth trying if any of the above descriptions do appeal to you. There are not many scents out there that are quite this severe, this difficult and recondite; that access the particular emotion and aura of some the most unusual, even sombre boxes of Japanese incense.



Filed under Flowers

on O S M A N T H U S






There is something almost irritatingly predictable in the annual punctuality of Japanese osmanthus. I will be walking along, and will suddenly catch its fresh, early, blooming in the air, unexpectedly, ( I always forget ), and then, ask myself the date. Ah yes, October first. Or, perhaps, sometimes, October the second.  Always one of these. But whatever the date, the flowers, like Japanese trains, come out like clockwork, and for the next two weeks you are drowsed, almost suffocated, in that canned-peach, alluringly autumnal smell of apricots, orange peel, and delicate white flowers.

Two years ago, post-earthquake, we moved to this house, which just happens to have the biggest osmanthus tree in the entire neighbourhood. If you are an osmanthus freak, then, this is the time to come and stay chez nous. Hard to imagine, now, how extraordinarily excited Helen and I were, fifteen years ago or so, smelling it here in Japan when she first came to stay, clutching its tiny, beautifully scented florets in our hands and marvelling at its existence; but I suppose when you have anything in such huge abundance, even something of great beauty, it eventually loses some of its lustre: I know the smell of these flowers so completely inside out now that I have something approaching osmanthus nonchalance – I simply can’t escape it.







– the osmanthus tree in the front garden; photos taken today –





‘Osmanthus’. The word itself is beautiful, capturing some of the cruciferous clutch of its tightly-bound fleurs, those powerfully scented little blooms that herald autumn here in the East.  It is called ‘kinmokusei‘ in Japanese, and osmanthus is a well loved scent here, used in teas, soft, floral incenses, and in various other scented products such as hand creams, the kind of unobtrusive, yet slyly sensual, perfume the Japanese often love; perfect for autumnal, kimono-clad temple strolls in the koyo, the melancholic contemplation of the turning autumn leaves which is so exquisite later, especially in Kyoto, in November.

In perfume, the osmanthus flower, as a main feature in a fragrance,  has become more prominent in recent years. I remember, after we had discovered that first osmanthus tree and its startling flowers, passing by, then turning immediately back to, the heady apricotiness that rose up beguilingly as we were mounting a hillside by the gaijinbochi, or foreigners’ cemetery in Yamate, we later, Helen and I (coincidentally it seemed), came across Keiko Mecheri’s Osmanthus for the first time at Barney’s New York, Yamashita Park (a fantastic Barney’s, incidentally, that overlooks the bay, Marine Tower, and the iconic skyline of Sakuragicho.) I remember us drinking up the osmanthus notes in the head, but being slightly disappointed by what happened next (often the case for me with Ms Mecheri’s perfumes). I was also deeply disappointed by the Osmanthus that was released later by Ormonde Jayne, a scent to me that smelled harsh, ozonic, floral, like an airline handwash or the ‘complimentary’ body lotions you get given in hotels.

Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan, with its pairing of Chinese tea notes and the floral, pallid watercolours of osmanthus flowers, was certainly far more poetic, and always brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’..




…..and she feeds you tea and oranges

that come all the way from China

and just when you mean to tell her

that you have no love to give her

then she gets you on her wavelength

and she lets the river answer….



– this famously hyperdelicate work by Jean Claude Ellena a very original, watery thing; brushstokes of evocative, minimalist notes that come together in a diffident, slightly haunting manner. The perfume still doesn’t quite work for me personally ( I always feel it is lacking that essential something) though I intuitively know that I would love to spend an afternoon with someone who it suited. A girl like Suzanne, perhaps.

As a straight, and beautifully rendered literal osmanthus, The Different Company’s take on the flower, Osmanthus, by the same perfumer, is unbeatable I would say, having all those delicate, but enticing, mood-balmingly light, petalled apricots and a gentle, hay-laced dry down – a perfume so unthreatening as to verge on boring, but which any osmanthus lover worth her salt categorically needs in her collection. Personally, though, I think I prefer to smell an osmanthus note interwoven with other materials, cushioning the essence in a mixed media scenario to bring out more the flower’s intrinsic mystery. Fig tea, by Parfums Nicolaï, is a brilliant, but not much talked about, delightful eau fraîche that pairs jasmine, osmanthus and tea notes in a subtle but arresting manner that makes it the perfect scent for spring and summer. Fresh, yet enigmatic. Serge Lutens’ extravagant voluptuary Datura Noir melanges the jammy, apricotted flowers with coconut, poisonous blooms, and other aphrodisiacs to intriguing, almost tropical, effect; a perfume that seems to smell differently on me each time I try it ( which is why I have never committed). My favourite osmanthus perfume, though, is probably one that you might not associate with the flower: Patou’s almost grimly beautiful 1000 ( particularly in its stunning vintage parfum form, which is like nothing else in terms of ingredient quality and peculiar, inspired execution. Odd, wistful, green notes in the head (coriander, violet leaf), dwell alongside a very natural osmanthus absolute, while further down in the heart is a bewitching, shimmering well of animalics, geranium, jasmine, rose, patchouli and sandalwood. Here, osmanthus really comes into her own: she is given deeper, more spellbinding powers we did not realize she had; reigning intuitively above those elegant cloud formations below, the immaculate orchestration typical of classical French perfumery that make this scent, for me,  one of the most effortlessly poised ( if snob-drenched), perfumes ever created. Here, the osmanthus becomes a queen.


And a queen who is perhaps not as predictable as we had thought.  Because, this year, in fact, she is late (off with her head!!!!) It was October the fourth yesterday, and although I had seen orange clusters forming slowly on the tree outside my window, it wasn’t until walking down the hill towards the station yesterday that I suddenly felt assailed by orange musks: by an intense, floating veil of apricot-tinted flowers (it sometimes feels, synaesthetically, as if the very air were hued differently when the osmanthus flowers are in bloom..) There was a group of school girls walking down by the hydrangea temple, Meigetsuin, and at first I thought it must be them, that their mothers’ perfume had somehow infiltrated into their school uniforms, but then, I realized, yes! It’s out. The Osmanthus. Where is it coming from? ( I love that game; be it jasmine, lilac, hyacinths: when you know, as clear as day, that the flowers are blooming somewhere, even if other people can’t smell them, and just to be proven right you have to go off and locate them…)


Yes. So the next couple of weeks here in Kamakura will all be about osmanthus. The train doors will open at night and I will walk right out into it. Drifting on the air like ethereal marshmallows, insinuating iself into every Autumn nook. Gorgeous, sense-adultering loveliness………but finally (and every year this happens) it becomes almost sickening, one is osmanthus’d out; as though the goddess Amaterasu, on peachy whim, had drained a cannister of osmanthus/apricot-scented airfreshener out into the universe, celestial fingertips lazily and unconciously pressing sssspray, while we mortals feel it descend from the blue, tantalizing us with its subtle, billowing softness; then, gradually, feminizing us out of male consciousness til we yearn for some air; then; one’s wishes granted, the autumn storms come, right on cue, washing the tiny little petals in great unfinished showers onto the street; pools of osmanthus, detached, scattered, like frantic, unwedded confetti. You watch these disembroidered flowers falling like twirling sycomore seeds to the ground, and know a particular season, a specific time of year is over. Another year passed; eyes now towards Christmas, New Year. Not that long, now, til the narcissus.


Filed under Flowers




I often hate Wednesdays, and yesterday was no exception. The day started off well; I slept like a log and woke up invigorated;  the sky was blue, if sultry and humid, and I felt kind of in the mood to face my twelve hour day (Wednesdays and Fridays are my killers….)

Walking along in my own world, still half daydreaming, out of the blue…BAM! a woman in her fifties on a motorbike crashed head on into another on a bicycle, ramming into her and throwing her from her bicycle and onto the road, as a car came down the hill. Startled into action by the sudden shock of violence I rushed over to see if they were ok – fortunately the only injury was a cut leg, but both were shaken up and she seemed to be in some pain. Looking at the time I worried I might be late for work, but decided to stay awhile. Perhaps I should have walked her home….

I left the scene adrenalized and disquieted, but what had upset me much more, sent me livid, was the total indifference and inaction of passersby, who did nothing to help, not even a ‘daijobu desuka?‘ –  ‘are you alright?’

Stiff businessmen, just walking by with their briefcases on their way to work, deciding that that it wasn’t worth getting involved with, not worth dipping into, and even the man whose house the accident happened outside of just came out for a moment, disturbed by the noise, took a look, mumbled something, and went back into his house without so much as a word.

I helped the woman with her bicycle, and stayed a while to make sure they were both definitely alright (I left them altercating about whose fault it was, something about shadows or a mirror (‘kage’? ‘kagami’?) , then headed off to the station, fuming wildly at the coldheartness of these middle-aged ‘salarimen’ showing no human feeling, not even expressing anything on their furrowed, ‘dignified’ visages, and then found myself ranting and raving in my teacher training classes like a madman, refusing to talk about anything else until I could at least start to get to the bottom of this callousness (sometimes I am like a volcano, and the magma rises up and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop myself; I even don’t want it to stop, unafraid of the consequences).*

Lunchtime came, and I had an hour to kill, so I went to the local book store that carries all the lowest denominator US and UK gossip magazines: Kim Kashardian (‘is Kanye West really gay?’) and other celebrity slobs I don’t really give a toss about, but sometimes feel a need to connect with anyway (perhaps in moments of deep cultural alienation like yesterday we need to plug into even the most meaningless of baloney if it somehow reminds us of home, not that I really know where home is any more):  lardy dardy, is Katie Holmes just ‘skin and bones’, is Brad Pitt supporting Angelina’s brave decision, let’s move on now to a fashion magazine, ok James Franco, good, and this one has fragrance strips in it as well which I can naughtily rip open (a shifty trick all perfumistas must know – we cannot resist), even though they are all men’s, so guaranteed to be dull doppelgängers that will foul up my mood even more, and yes of course they did, all the same; always the same pattern that I can’t be bothered to even describe because you know that pattern as you have smelled these blends a thousand times yourself. Bleu De Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, Armani something or other, dull as dish water, but then I suddenly remembered two weeks ago in Tokyo, when we went to a Eurovision Song Contest party which began at 4am  with a bunch of fun people, and I remember one, an Adam, smelling, yes a bit typical I suppose, but good; attractive; a bit strong, but fully aromatic, with integrity and definite character. I was sat next to him on the sofa for the entirety of the contest as we scored each number, and thus that rounded, warm smell (after all, it was created by Jacques Polge), permeated my memories of that evening completely, most of us conking out on the floor before the awards were even given; and smelling the strip again with that usual sherbety woody ‘sport freshness’ in the top notes, I could still catch some of those memories still, now in my brain fluid, there right down in the base.

I am not sure what the point of all this is, really (has my blog suddenly turned into a banal series of diary entries?). Perhaps I just want to say that even though I am as much of a decrier of boring men’s fragrances as the next art-yearning perfumist, at the same time, I realized that as with almost anything in this life, there is often more than meets the eye; that surface realities most definitely do not always tell us everything.



* In a very strange moment of synchronicity, after I had just written all this down on a piece of paper at the school I was working at, I reached into my bag and happened to take out this small ‘Etiquette guide To Japan’ book that Duncan had picked up cheaply at some book store, not the kind of thing you think you would need after fifteen years in the country, but it was written by Boye De Mente, an ‘acknowledged authority’ on Japan, whose experiences often chime with my own, but written with the sharp eye of the unemotional, objectivity-driven, anthropologist. A complete Japanophile (like me to a very large extent: this place has made me; I love it; it goes deep; it is mysterious, beautiful, maddening, intoxicating, dream-like), but like me, he is also nevertheless crystal clear in his analysis of its negative points, at least from the typical western perspective.  And in some peculiar moment of Jungian non-coincidence I happened to just open the book on a page which explained exactly, or at least began to, what had happened to me in the morning.

Before I quote him directly, I just want to preface it by saying that I hope it goes without saying that am uncomfortable with any kind of racial or cultural stereotyping, especially when I know so many excellent Japanese people and you reading this may not know what I do about the country and thus get overly negative impressions ( I am very protective of Japan in many ways); and yet, the culture of ‘being Japanese’ is SO PERMEATING in this homogenous, sealed-off-for-centuries land (there are even countless, self-serving and to my view, almost racist, books on ‘nihonjinron’ – or theories on why Japanese are so unique – which are apparently eagerly consumed by a lot of people here): the country is utterly obsessed with itself, with the fact of being Japanese, that there undoubtedly are common national traits that Mr De Mente is very adept at describing:

“One of the many puzzling contradictons of the Orient is that the Japanese, internationally renowned for their refined, stylized manners and unfailing courtesy, are also infamous for being rude in public, uncaring about strangers, and heedless of the environment. While Japanese public rudeness and callous attitude towards strangers, which has been exaggerated to some extent, has significantly lessened in recent decades, the concepts of public awareness and concern for outsiders remain relatively undeveloped.

Once again, historical factors explain why the Japanese tend to reject any responsibility for the environment or for strangers. For centuries the focus of responsibility in Japan was extremely narrow and limited to the family, the work group, the village, and the local authority. Each unit of this vertical grouping was exclusive and in competition with every other unit. ….

As Japanese sociologists and management gurus point out, the Japanese work exceptionally well within their own groups, but have little or no affinity for working with other groups or taking individual responsibility for things outside of their immediate work area. Translated into public behaviour, this means most Japanese are inclined to ignore everything and everybody not somehow related to them or their group.”

I gave this passage to a Japanese colleague to read to see if he agreed with this conclusion before writing anything here, and he agreed with it entirely. Also, on the way to the school, an extraordinarily rude woman had pushed me, barging me aside to get off the train with out so much as an excuse me (this is perfectly common, and I won’t repeat what I shouted out after her), but even another Japanese friend told me the other day that she had been on an immensely crowded train (you don’t want to experience a rush hour densha here I tell you:




there are NO manners, it is all herd, look out for yourself, fuck everybody else – thank god I don’t have to get trains at these times working the hours I do). There was a poor girl who was practically suffocating, and as the doors opened, and the blind work zombies surged forth, she collapsed onto the platform, pale and obviously in trouble, and in a weak voice was saying ” kyukyusha, kyukyusha, get me an ambulance”, but to my friend’s horror and disgust, people just rushed pasther, leaving her lying on the platform. Only Yukari actually stopped what she was doing and went to get the station master.






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