Today Lauren explores attitudes towards perfume in Japan and invites us to experience its various scents.
It was a rare night for us young English teachers in rural Japan. We were escaping our hot, stuffy apartments amid the tea fields for a glitzy night out in the bright lights of Tokyo. I greeted my friend Mayumi in the parking lot. Her skin was creamy and flawless, as always, but as I hugged her hello I noticed something different.
“Mm!” I said. “You smell so nice!”
“Thank you,” replied Mayumi timidly, smiling as she put a finger to her lips. “I’m wearing it for our big night out in Tokyo.” Her eyes pleaded with me to keep the secret. Our friend Jun was picking us up shortly, and she didn’t want to discuss perfume in front of him.
Though I’d been living in Japan for several months, it was the first time I smelled a fragrance on anyone with whom I’d come into contact. The light, gently tumbling cloud of lilies, vanilla and sparkling orange was enough to make me thirst for big doses of perfume. I was a vampire who’d caught a whiff of blood. Cultural differences in Japan meant that wearing personal fragrance was generally considered rude. In a country that is so crowded with people and so limited on space, extending your personhood via a bubble of perfume – however pleasant – is considered intrusive and inconsiderate.
Soon we hopped into Jun’s car, and as I smoothed my skirt in the back seat, I heard him exclaim,
“Yech! What stinks?!”
I turned to Mayumi with wide eyes, unsure of whether to laugh or be offended. Her finger was back over her lips. I winked at her and turned to gaze out the window, settling in for the ride.
I missed perfume in Japan. But the country was far from lacking in any sensual scent stimulation. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t own a car and spent so much time walking, out in the world. One of my most treasured repeat memories of Japan was my stroll home after a late night of teaching; I passed through tea fields and residential neighborhoods to my apartment high on a hill. I would leave the school building and say goodbye to the scent of sweaty shoes and rubber slippers that everyone was required to wear inside, past the slightly dank, hay-like tatami floors and out into the dusk of clean mountain air laced with diesel exhaust. I knew diligent mothers were folding laundry as the comforting, floral notes of dryer sheets formed puffs outside their homes’ ventilation units.
Chasing the smell of clean Japanese laundry would be heated soy sauce and sweet rice vinegar, often spiked with a shot of ginger. Raw fish. Cooked fish. A slightly sour, sweet floral note of cherry blossoms, petals raining in the breeze. And the sharp yet lush greens of passionflowers and snapdragons that populated so many people’s tiny yards.
I would arrive home sweating, climbing my structure of damp wood and drywall, only to reach my own hay-scented tatami, slightly moldy from the recent monsoons and constant moisture that made each and every fragrance so tangible in the thick air. I’d hang my clothes in a closet scented with cheap, scratchy lavender from the dehumidifying gel meant to keep the tatami mold (often unsuccessfully) off my clothes.
Yes, I missed perfume. But I did love all the smells in Japan. At the time, they were home to me and I wonder how many cultural nuances I would have missed if everyone were wearing perfume.
Extra: Japanese Fragrance Conundrum
Photography by Bois de Jasmin