We had an absolutely fantastic day last Thursday. Meeting up with a Japan Times journalist I had got in contact with with a view to doing an article on the sense of smell and the adventure of seeking out your own perfect signature scent, I was able to turn one of my long held dreams into reality: taking a writer on a ‘tour’ of the city (although in the end it was just one tiny swathe of it), and opening their eyes and olfactory senses to hitherto possibly unthought of possibilities in the realm of perfume and then have them turn the spoken words into a newspaper article – which in fact will be published here in the next couple of weeks.
I have been reading Kaori Shoji for years (the Japan Times is delivered daily as a package with my beloved New York Times, and she is often a featured writer, particularly for profile pieces, cultural commentary, language lessons, and film reviews). As a bilingual returnee student who spent her formative years in New York but then came back to Japan, I have always felt that Ms Shoji has a sharp awareness of, and fondness for (and unflinching criticism of, where necessary) both ‘East’ and ‘West’; there is a wryness and melancholy sometimes, and yet simultaneously an absolute lust for life and a thirst for stimulation and realness in her writing that I can totally relate to. I instinctively knew she was the person to do the interview.
We met at Harajuku station, where I had carefully scented myself pleasantly (in a thematic of green tea and lemons – it was a REALLY hot day – I couldn’t smell like a powdery, sweating odalisque); and we went to a cafe for iced tea, where I was interviewed , we chatted, and I felt (as she took notes – so glad that it wasn’t a dictaphone, as I would have felt far too self-conscious) that I could say anything – I was on fire; in fact she could hardly get a word in edgeways.
So nice, though, to be in that relaxed space where you meet someone you immediately like and get on with naturally and can just communicate uninhibitedly (and SUCH a stark contrast to my disastrous radio interview I had a few months ago which I may not even have written about on here as it was just so embarrassing: LIVE, in front of two million people in Europe, with an ear infection, a terrible connection, a typhoon outside with multiple echoes, and questions I could hardly hear and were not connected to what we had agreed on : : “So Neil, how does one go about attracting the opposite sex with the right aftershave….?”
Jesus. No – that was a horrorshow that I had rather forget. This, instead, was a meeting of minds. Someone who wears scent on occasion, likes certain smells (hurrah! She loves green tea – my instincts were right!) but at the same time is not au fait with the goings on of the industry, the wild obsessions of crazed perfumistas, nor fully aware of the fact that this whole realm of decent perfumes exists beyond what we agreed was the sick, poisoned miasma of duty free, which she was surprised to discover we both scorn and loathe in equal measure.
We three – Kaori, myself, and Duncan, after the initial conversation, then went off to my favourite essential shop shop nearby, Seikatsu No Ki (Tree Of Life) as I thought it might be useful to get a primer on the palette- the basic ingredients used in perfumes- in case she wasn’t familiar with them. We had already ascertained in prior emails that she loved incense, which I had in mind as a possible direction to go in, but I also wanted to show her just how good pure ingredients can be on their own, putting some raw vetiver oil on my arm that was evocative of all kinds of reveries connected to a high school boyfriend she had once had; the smell of him after kendo practice……she liked this so much that I can imagine her returning to get some for herself to wear as a secret perfume.
From here, the sun radiating brilliantly down through the shade of the avenue of zelkova trees, we walked up the Omotesando boulevard to visit the Comme Des Garçons headquarters in Aoyama. For me, Rei Kawakubo’s perfumes and ethos really do represent a vanguard against the moronic platitudes of cheap perfumery: this brand, I feel, has real integrity ( and I was so delighted to see that none of the formulae seemed to have been messed with, many of which are in my book – the first chapter in fact begins with the green leafed innocence of Calamus ), and, having learned that Kaori once went to a Catholic school in America I thought ooh, how about some religious guilt ….I wonder how she will react to Avignon (starting in surprise; eyes closed as she inhaled it from her arm…………..oh wow, that is naughty) : it smelled fabulous on her, sexy if standoffish, with the softer incense notes rising up later in contrast with the harshness of the censer; Black Pepper, one of Duncan’s signatures – a ridiculously erotic perfume – also smelled great on her; dressed in black, like all the costumed assistants, who stood back and let us get on with what we needed, this gave Kaori an almost intimidating aura of grave don’t fuck with me that matched her delicate fierceness perfectly. Rejecting Incense Series Kyoto – we both agree that that perfume doesn’t remotely capture the essence of the city in the way that Avignon undoubtedly does; loving and being amused by Rhubarb and Peppermint, I also sprayed on the spicy original Comme Des Garcons scent on myself ,as well as White, which I bought for D as a present a quarter of a century ago on a cold winter’s day in London. It still smelled lovely.
Having been photographed outside, and inside, the Comme Des Garcons store (all sweaty-faced and shiny….I cannot imagine going to a newsstand and seeing my face staring back at me, but anyway), we decided to have a quick look in Prada just along the way as, both being total cinephiles, I wanted to hear her reactions to the overpriced pop and movie collection (Tainted Love, Pink Flamingoes, Marienbad, Purple Rain) just as a contracts to the CdGs, which are actually far better value. Amused, but not sold, as time was running, we hailed a taxi and drove the short distance to Roppongi where I had made a prior appointment at- the quiet haven of scent consultation and Japanese aroma that is Parfums Satori.
‘Perfume’ (which the founder and perfumer had several copies of, dotted around the premises, bookmarked for customers) features a selection of fragrances from the Satori range, because I genuinely feel that they do present a completely different face of perfume to the majority of mainstream and niche; subtle but perturbing; dry, emotional, poetic, and I was interested to see how Kaori, as a person of Japanese heritage but American upbringing, would feel about them. Perhaps a little over eager and uncouth in my enthusiasms – I can’t really do the sit quietly and be ultra polite thing, especially when the conversation has been flowing just so damn wonderfully – in the taxi we had been condemning the current racism, chewed the cud on women’s situation in Japan, the film industry and how it works for movie reviewers, I could have talked all day; to then just be expected to sit and wait to be shown everything was impossible (especially because I am just so contained and repressed at work all the time) ; so, more like a puppy just bought on Christmas Day that yaps excitedly and just bounds about the house unfettered I went about the shop, taking liberties and picking up things randomly from the perfumed shelves to show Kaori. Wasanbon? ‘I love the smell of that – it is my favourite sugar’. Try this then. “Oh my god!” Pure pleasure. As was the eponymous Satori, the lovely spiced sandalwood that is at the helm of the collection and which smelled differently, but great, on each one of us (on that day it reminded me a little of Mitsouko). We marvelled at the extreme oddness of Hana Kiraku, with its fundaments of melon and miso in search of replicating a particular species of magnolia (“Oh my god, this one is making me high”) ; the almost shockingly green, mind-clearer that is Oribe; then Satori-san introduced her latest perfume from last year, Mizunara, in Japanese and English, explaining to us the story of its inspiration: a particular species of oak tree found in the north of Japan, and the whiskey distilleries of Hokkaido, and the particular smell of the clear mountain air over 1,000 feet. By this point, we had all almost fallen into a dream-like state: one of those curious situations where you feel the membranes and boundaries between people have dissolved and you are existing in the same fluid, the same space :where you imagine that you are seeing the same imaginings and feeling the same sensations. Although too masculine for me to wear on skin, with its base of whiskey and woods and its crisp green top notes of rosemary, clary sage, galbanum and juniper, there is nevertheless a very natural, elegant expansiveness to this scent – it has space within itself – the smell of nature – that sent us all into an afternoon reverie. By the time we all left, and Kaori said she had to go, I felt as if I were floating on a cloud.
– me pictured with the perfumer Satori Osawa next to her perfume organ.
(You can tell how much I like having my picture taken)
What a great day though!