I’ve never seen such well-dressed, beautifully groomed women as in Tokyo. At Harajuku or Ginza, two high-glamour areas with distinctly different vibes, you will see one impeccably coiffed beauty after another tottering in her impossibly high heels, looking as if she’s ready for a magazine cover. Beauty is big business in Japan, where the sales of cosmetics make this country the world’s second largest market after the US. You can find entire magazines devoted to nothing but color cosmetics, with the kind of attention to detail that is downright astounding. I flip open the makeup magazine, Biteki, to find technical illustrations, sophisticated instructions and comparison charts on topics as straightforward as the application of lipstick or as complex as anti-aging skincare.
By comparison, perfume is not represented nearly as well . Walking through the glittering halls of the Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya department stores, you won’t find the endless expanse of fragrance bars that you would see at Neiman Marcus or even Macy’s. This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting selection of both prestige and niche lines in Japan. They are available, along with detailed technical explanations on how your fragrance was made and how you are supposed to enjoy it. Have you ever received a brochure describing how to apply fragrance from your local perfume store? At Mitsukoshi, that’s exactly what would wind up in your bag, along with an exquisitely wrapped bottle.
At first, the lack of interest in perfume might seem surprising considering that the Japanese have a highly sophisticated tradition of incense, along with its unique scent appreciation ritual of kōdō (incense ceremony). One explanation I’ve heard is that applying perfumes directly on skin runs counter to the purity stipulations of Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people. Perfuming the air or the clothes is a more acceptable way of scenting oneself.
Nevertheless, step inside Shibuya 109, a trendy department store catering to teenagers (but incredibly fascinating to us, older folks), and you will faint from the pervasive scent filling each floor of this shopping mecca. I don’t even know how to properly describe it because I haven’t smelled anything similar in the US or Europe. It’s a smell of plasticky vanilla, baby powder and neon pink roses that made my head spin. Perhaps it was also the loud music and the flamboyant outfits worn by Shibuya’s sales staff.
Somewhere between absolute purity and Shibuya’s madness lies the list of Japan’s top sellers. Looking at the selection, you aren’t likely to be impressed. On the one hand, the choices reflect a preferences for fresh florals that dry down to a clean base of woods or amber. On the other, there is a strong showing for established brands. Nevertheless, as you compare it to the other best-seller lists I’ve published, you will see several distinctive trends. So what do Tokyo’s beauties favor?
The list below is based on my calculations of department store sales data for 2012. The results are not ranked, and given the perfume shopping habits of the Japanese, it’s hard to say what people buy because they genuinely love the smell or because of the brand and image.
Lanvin Éclat d’Arpège
Ever since its launch in 2002, Éclat d’Arpège has proven to be a success in the Asian market, and Japanese consumers never fail to rank it highly. It’s also mentioned as one of the best selling fragrances at most department stores. On the face of it, it’s just a simple, crisp peony, but it has some nice accents of osmanthus and amber. If you were to pick a fragrance that smells just pretty and wouldn’t offend those around you with a strong sillage, this is it.
Relaunched in 2008, Chloé is a lychee accented rose that somehow became successful enough to spawn a little family of similar fragrances. It dries down to a clean musky-woody drydown.
The wafts of Coco Mademoiselle that you might encounter in the subway in New York or Paris won’t delight (or drive you crazy) on Tokyo’s underground. Even so, Coco Mademoiselle Eau de Toilette (a much fresher, brighter version than the more commonly available Eau de Parfum) is one of the top sellers in Japan.
The advertising for this Guerlain’s success is everywhere!
Like Chloé, this is another lychee spiked rose that has been around since 2000. In Europe, it’s somewhat of a sleeper, but in Japan, Miracle still holds sway with its clean ambery drydown.
Jo Malone Blackberry & Bay
This new launch has been really well-received, and the sales data are quite impressive for this new comer. I liked Blackberry & Bay for its adult take on berries, without the dreaded cloying sweetness.
Jimmy Choo Eau de Toilette
The original Eau de Parfum version of Jimmy Choo was a woody oriental, with a gourmand patchouli-caramel accord, but the Eau de Toilette is a crisp fruity rose. Do you begin to see a pattern here?
Givenchy Dahlia Noir
The Eau de Parfum is a sweet floral with a rich woody backdrop, but guess which one is more favored in Japan? Yes, that’s right, the sparkling Eau de Toilette, which places its accent on a dewy rose and peach combo.
Courrèges Blanc de Courrèges
I admit, I’m cheating by including this perfume, because it’s hardly a top seller. But Japanese magazine editors have been praising it for its elegance and beauty, and I have to agree. At the same time, it’s far from a bland fragrance, and it proves that one can do “clean and alluring.” A graceful iris-patchouli vignette from a mod French fashion house.
As a little bonus, here are a few snapshots from my favorite Japanese magazines, Biteki, Maquia and AneCan and their detailed (and sometimes quirky) makeup and fashion tutorials!
The history of Chanel No5, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the commercial with Brad Pitt.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin