Tag Archives: Japan

L’ENIGME DE L’ENCENS JAPONAIS…….SERGE NOIRE de SERGE LUTENS (2008)

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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.

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on O S M A N T H U S

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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‘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.

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THE BASE NOTES OF BLEU DE CHANEL

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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.

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* 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:

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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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