Perfume in the Library : The Pillow Book

When the Japanese courtier Sei Shōnagon started writing what is now known as The Pillow Book at the end of the 10th century, it was mostly done to alleviate the desperate boredom women experienced at the court. Their movements were circumscribed, and they mostly spent their days behind screens, observing while not being observed. Sei Shōnagon has a keen eye for detail and a sharp tongue, which is why even at the remove of many centuries, her book beguiles and entertains. How can one keep a straight face when she complains about dull tweezers (or mothers-in-law) and suggests that priests should be good looking because it would make listening to their sermons more agreeable.


Some of my favorite passages are of Sei Shōnagon in her lyrical mood. She describes scenery, sounds, textures and scents with such precision that I too feel the crinkly silk under my fingers and smell the spicy sweetness of incense.

To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside. [26] Things that make your heart beat fast (translated by Meredith McKinney)

Recently, I found a fragrance that reminds me of Japanese incense. It’s Eau de Rochas, a citrus cologne with a chypre layer. The choice may be unexpected, but once the fragrance softens from its initial sizzle of zest and rind, it becomes softly shaded and warm. The experience made me discover two things. First, Japanese incense is chypre, an accord of moss and woods, turned into smoke. Second, finding a scent to capture the facets of a favorite book enhances the experience greatly.

But of course, many of you know that, and in our previous discussions on the subject of perfume and books, you have shared some of your favorite combinations. I’d love to hear more.

Extra: The Smell of Books :: Perfume and Books: A Scented Story :: The Story of the Porter and The Ladies of Baghdad :: Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway :: Things that Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Catherine: In a marvellous happenstance, I finished reading the Pillow Book for the first time last night – at the end of a fortnight which has marked my first forays into understanding perfume. So to find this post this morning feels like a sign that I am on the right path! I loved the book and its wonderful square-of-ivory attention to the minute sensual detail of everyday pleasures (and acerbic comments on the trials of living in close proximity to other people) – and will look out for Eau de Rochas. September 21, 2016 at 7:21am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love such coincidences! What’s interesting is that Sei Shonagon wrote much of her book during a period of intense rivalry between two imperial consorts (and Sei Shonagon’s patron ended up dying in childbirth shortly thereafter.) She must have realised that it meant nothing good for her, but none of these dark thoughts and tensions touch the surface of her stories. It’s as if she wanted to escape into her own world. September 21, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

  • Sandra: When I think of hair and incense, I think of the scene in Johda Akbar where Aishwarya Rai has a incense lantern passed under her ponytail. Its a very fast scene-but I remember it well.

    I don’t really associate incense with Japanese woman. I must expand my incense and book collection 🙂
    What perfume are Japanese they wearing these days? September 21, 2016 at 8:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t remember this scene in particular, but the whole movie is an eye candy. I should watch it again.

      Incense is used a lot in Japan, although people don’t wear incense perfumes on their skin. Some of the most favorites are light florals, fruity-florals, clean musky florals. You smell some perfume on the subway in Tokyo, but I have a feeling that most of it is the laundry and hair products. September 21, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

  • Lindsay: Love this post and the whole perfume & book idea. I just ordered The Pillow Book. September 21, 2016 at 8:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Hope that you enjoy the book. September 21, 2016 at 9:59am Reply

      • Lynn LaMar: Ahh…brings to mind another excellent perfume book I’ve read, first published in 1985 (?) called “Perfume. The story of a murderer,” by Patrick Suskind. It has never left my psyche due to it’s WOW factor… September 22, 2016 at 6:41pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes! Did you see the film based on this book? September 24, 2016 at 7:25am Reply

          • Lynn LaMar: Spectacularly eerie…:-) September 24, 2016 at 10:29am Reply

            • Victoria: Some parts of it worked better than others, but overall, I liked it. I also liked a set of perfumes that were launched with the movie, but it’s a shame that they were never distributed more widely. September 27, 2016 at 12:34pm Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,

    My compilation includes perfume, culture and drinks as well.

    Jean Patou – Joy
    Billie Hollidays songs
    dry champagne

    Frederic Malle – Portrait of a Lady
    Portrait of a lady / The Wings of the Dove by Henry James , Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
    café au lait with honey and cardamon

    Guerlain – Vol de nuit
    Saint Exupery – Vol de nuit (trivial) and Le petit prince for a contemplative mood / Geroges Sand: La mare au diable – to compliment the hay scent

    Cuir de Lancôme / Cuir de Russie by Chanel
    The barber of Siberia (film by Nikita Mikhalkov) / Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
    burgundy wine September 21, 2016 at 8:42am Reply

    • Victoria: What a fantastic list! Joy and champagne seem to be made for each other. The EDT has a sparkling jasmine-in-champagne kind of sensation. September 21, 2016 at 10:01am Reply

    • Christine Kalleeny: Love it! What an inspired post: I love the idea of pairing books with perfume and drinks…especially wine. September 21, 2016 at 12:18pm Reply

    • Notturno7: Hi Nora,
      Some things on your list made my heart beat faster😍, like Joy and Champagne, Vol de Nuit in winter and The Little Prince book from my childhood with sweet drawings.
      And Henry James….
      Piano music played with sensibility and passion…
      A dark chocolate cake with raspberries and a big foamy cappuccino…. Aaaahh, now you got me started on the joys of being alive. 💖

      Thanks Victoria! I’ll look for this book. And my neglected new bottle of Après l’Ondee. I love that you mentioned carnations and iris. I ‘get lost ‘ in the fragrance and can’t identify the notes in it sometimes. 🌸😍🌹 September 21, 2016 at 1:57pm Reply

      • Victoria: I agree, these associations create such vivid, evocative images.

        I’m reading Dante tonight (thanks to Alicia’s references) and wearing Guerlain’s Nahema.

        Enjoy falling into scents and not worrying much about notes. 🙂 September 21, 2016 at 2:13pm Reply

    • Amy: I love your list, Nora! September 22, 2016 at 11:35pm Reply

  • Gina Tabasso: I never heard of this book and will read it. In exploring it on Goodreads, I also learned of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji” that I now want to read. I was an English major (specialized in 20th-century British novel and poetry) and am a bibliophile. My two addictions: books and fragrances. Thousands of each in my home. September 21, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Murasaki Shikibu was Sei Shonagon’s rival, since she served in the county of the rival empress. The two books couldn’t be more different, but I love both. Just be sure to read about different transitions before you make your decision, since there are three and each have their flaws and advantages. September 21, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

    • Wrenaissance Art: Skimmed the Tale of Genji about 10 years ago as research for an art project. What really struck me were the intense and lengthy descriptions of scents, flowers, and fabrics. (And paper!) It would make for an interesting series of paintings on its own! September 21, 2016 at 8:29pm Reply

      • Victoria: It is probably no coincidence that many paper makers in Japan also offer incense. September 22, 2016 at 10:22am Reply

  • Alicia: I am writing on Dante, and thinking of his ladies. First we meet Francesca (indivisible from Paolo, her lover) tossed by the winds of lust. She might be wearing FM, Carnal Flower, he perhaps Knize Ten (Inferno V). Then in the Earthly Paradise Dante sees Matilda, singing and gathering spring flowers by a stream: Guerlain, Apres l’Ondee (Purgatory XXVIII ff.). His guide in Paradise is, of course, his beloved Beatrice. She must smell of roses: a pure rose scent, like Lutens, Sa Majesté la Rose, or even Tea Rose. Rose is the smell of the Virgin Mary, whose emanation must permeate all the circles of Paradise. Dante will at the end of his journey see her, the rosa rosarum, the perfect rose. September 21, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Such beautiful images and choices! You remind me that in many Ukrainian baroque icons Virgin Mary is depicted holding a rose (or several). Most certainly not a part of the Orthodox canon. September 21, 2016 at 10:07am Reply

      • Alicia: In the Roman Catholic tradition the Virgin Mary is associated with two flowers: the rose and the white lily, usually called the Madonna lily for obvious reasons; it is a symbol of purity. In her iconography it usually appears in a vase.But Mary herself is the rose, the flower of perfection, because the Virgin is sinless. A further reason is that many Christian devotees have smelled the scent of roses, usually when praying to her, in places where there are no roses at all. They understand that intense smell as the presence of Our Lady. September 21, 2016 at 10:32am Reply

        • Nora Szekely: Great pairings.

          However for Beatrice, I can imagine a scent of lily-of-the-valley (Diorissimo?) as to me it’s the purest of flower scents. September 21, 2016 at 10:54am Reply

          • Alicia: You may,Nora, but it is not in the tradition either in Europe or in the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of all the Americas is often depicted surrounded by roses.Among the lilies only the Madonna lily is symbolic of her, but that is a symbol she shares with other saints. In Dante she is the celestial rose. September 21, 2016 at 11:08am Reply

          • Alicia: Sorry, Nora, I thought you were talking of Mary. Mymistake. In regard to Beatrice, perhaps when she lived on earth as Beatrice Portinari she might have smelled of muguet and thus Diorissimo. Nevertheless in Paradise the pervading smell, emanating from on high, has to be that of the rose. September 21, 2016 at 11:14am Reply

            • Victoria: The scent of sainthood and paradise in the Orthodox tradition is myrrh, although the general reference is “sweet smell.” And camphor, mace, spikenard, all of those scented references in the Bible. Such an interesting topic. September 21, 2016 at 11:32am Reply

              • Alicia: Spikenard is the symbol of St. Joseph. Jesus was, of course anointed with myrrh, at the time of his death, but a few days before Mary of Bethany anointed his head with the most expensive nard oil, so intense that it permeated the whole house.Rose, nard and myrrh. they might merge in heaven in infinite, everlasting waves.
                Never smelled nard, alas. September 21, 2016 at 11:48am Reply

                • Victoria: One of my professors of history liked to quote that heaven smelled of camphor and mace. Isn’t it fun to imagine heaven as a kind of perfume laboratory with smells undulating in “infinite, everlasting waves,” to use your beautiful expression? September 21, 2016 at 11:51am Reply

                  • Alicia: Borges thought of Paradise as an infinite library. For centuries Western painters such as Blessed Fra Angelico, have pictured it as an immense chorus with multitudes of voices and musicians, then why not as a laboratory where infinite scents are created for all eternity? Since God is the Being in Whom all potentialities for the good and the beautiful are actualized, in that lab all possible fragrances would become actual. As the Greek Orthodox Fathers of the Church would put it, there can be no limits for creativity in a divinized soul, since their source is the Creator of all that is visible and invisible. Victoria, we are going to go from discoveries to new discoveries in the never thought mansions of perpetual creative joy. Amen September 21, 2016 at 9:06pm Reply

                    • Victoria: A library of scents, books and music in an endless garden. That’s my personal idea of heaven. September 22, 2016 at 10:25am

            • Victoria: On earth, it might also have been iris, since iris root powder was used to scent clothes. You’ve very much inspired me, Alicia, and tonight I will read Dante. September 21, 2016 at 11:54am Reply

              • Alicia: Thank you, dear, but no more than you inspire me. Clothes scented with iris root? Just marvelous. Wouldn’t you like the return of violet scented gloves? I would wear them night and day. September 21, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

                • Victoria: I would! I saw L’Artisan offering a pair of scented gloves, but they were outrageously priced.

                  Not sure if Enfleurage in NYC carries iris root powder, but it smells so wonderful and works well to scent clothes. September 21, 2016 at 12:37pm Reply

          • Victoria: I also like this pairing! September 21, 2016 at 11:43am Reply

            • spe: Is there a fragrance that has predominant notes of rose and lily? Thank you! September 25, 2016 at 9:56am Reply

              • Victoria: Not obvious, because in perfumery both are made from similar building blocks. Un Lys by Lutens, perhaps? September 25, 2016 at 11:55am Reply

                • spe: Thank you! I’ve always liked that Lutens, along with A La Nuit.

                  For a brief moment, myrrh scents fascinated me, but they ultimately weren’t lively enough. In fact, there is something very serious about them as they wear on my skin.

                  Now that The Pillow Book is again discussed, I must read it! The book about the historical context also sounds excellent. Perhaps Prada Infusion d’ Iris Absolue?

                  I just finished The Piano Teacher. The author discusses jasmine scent several times, so let’s go with A La Nuit for that one, but I can also imagine 24 Faubourg (sp?) for the evening parties and California Reverie for the outdoor events. September 25, 2016 at 1:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, I was aware of that–Ukraine being part of the Catholic sphere of influence has adopted some Roman Catholic elements in its iconography, which made for very interesting blends. Of course, Ukraine also has the only church that blends the Eastern Orthodox rite and allegiance to the pope, the Uniate church. Beautiful examples of icon painting and architecture. September 21, 2016 at 11:37am Reply

          • Victoria: Also, in the Islamic tradition the embodiment of the Prophet Mohammed, or divine and perfect, is rose. In Farsi, rose is called gol-e Mohammadi, Mohammed’s flower. September 21, 2016 at 11:40am Reply

    • Notturno7: I love this, Alicia! September 21, 2016 at 3:34pm Reply

      • Alicia: Notturno, as Guinizelli said, “al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore.” September 21, 2016 at 7:25pm Reply

        • Notturno7: 😍💖 October 6, 2016 at 3:48am Reply

  • Jillie: So pleased you like Eau de Rochas as this has been one of my pleasures this summer, after having forgotten about it for years.

    I was searching for a replacement for Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien as the latest reformulation had left it insipid and uncool (in more ways than one), and remembered my husband had given me a ginormous splash bottle of the Rochas. I filled my empty Hadrien bottle (who knew they unscrewed?!) with it and have enjoyed its wonderful zingy mossiness on our hottest days. Just lovely. A much undervalued gem. September 21, 2016 at 11:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Such a clever idea! Yes, those Goutal refillable bottles are great, and I can see how Eau de Rochas can replicate Eau d’Hadrien. It’s a good option for anyone who likes dry chypres. September 21, 2016 at 11:42am Reply

    • Lidia: Eau d’Hadrien is reformulated? Just when I saved up for a replacement. I guess need to sniff it again before buying. 🙁 September 22, 2016 at 11:30am Reply

      • Jillie: Hi Lidia – sadly reformulations of perfumes happen all the time, it’s inevitable. But to my nose the current version of Hadrien is very poor and has lost its identity and lovely burst of lemon; it is also more fleeting than ever, which again is a problem I experience with many reforms. Sorry! September 22, 2016 at 12:44pm Reply

  • Madaris: Recently i read M.J. Rose’s novel The Book of Lost Fragrances. Afterward i ordered the perfume that Bouchardy created for the book, Ames Soeurs: the Scent of Soulmates. Actually the fragrance is more beautiful than the story! September 21, 2016 at 1:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a lovely perfume and a creative interpretation of the story. September 21, 2016 at 1:58pm Reply

  • Terry Futrelle: You all have inspired me, with flights of fantasy and a wonderful view of Heaven…What lovely inspiration for the rainy Autumn days to come. Beautiful post, Victoria. September 21, 2016 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Terry. 🙂 September 22, 2016 at 10:18am Reply

  • Tati: I’m in the English countryside for vacation. A whole new understanding of Shakespeare, and suddenly in the humid cool only Chanel 19 feels right. Off topic, going to London for the weekend– where are the best places to go for possible fragrance buying? September 21, 2016 at 6:29pm Reply

  • Kari: I really enjoyed The Pillow Book, and thank you for drawing to my attention (I read it earlier this summer.) I wanted something grounded, spicy, and warm, something that made me very attuned to my senses, and perfumed a bookmark with a couple spritzes of Etat Libre d’Orange Like This. Zesty ginger and sweet pumpkin wafted from the pages and made it an even more pleasant experience.

    The Pillow Book would have been an interesting companion to an anthropology course I took in college years ago, but our studies on Japan didn’t go into court life; the glimpses Sei Shonagon provides, even for mundane activities, are sensory, sensual, and witty.

    I have a hard time with incense-heavy fragrances; they smell hot and charred and make my chest tight, like I’m suppressing a cough. I don’t know if Japanese incense, having a different scent profile, would avoid that problem. September 22, 2016 at 12:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Ivan Morris, the other renowned translator of The Pillow Book, has a great work on the Heian court, called (if I’m not mistaken) The World of the Shining Prince. The intricacies of the court life and the day to day affairs are discussed, and it’s fascinating. But what was also interesting to me was glimpsing the openness to new ideas and being willing to adapt them. I suppose, this is what makes Japanese culture in general so appealing to me.

      Incense comes in many different forms, but if you’re thinking frankincense (olibanum) based incense, then it’s much heavier. Japanese incense is based on oud, but it’s blended with other woods, spices and barks. The effect is very different from the Indian nag champa incense or even other oud based incenses. The best would be to try some Shoyeido incense, which is available outside of Japan. They even have a powdered incense that can be used as a dry perfume. September 22, 2016 at 10:28am Reply

      • Kari: I might need to seek out Shoyeido incense. I think that I’ve only ever experienced the frankincense based incense as it is indeeed very heavy.

        Morris’ book sounds fascinating! September 25, 2016 at 9:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: They have a big collection on their US website, but I know that many loved their Autumn Leaves incense. Seems perfect for the season. September 26, 2016 at 6:58am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for this lovely post. I haven’t read The Pillowbook yet, looking forward to it as it has inspired you many times. How interesting that Eau de Rochas reminds you of Japanese incense (it’s thanks to you that I’ve discovered Shoyeido). Me too I’ve worn it often this summer and what I like best apart from its unique, bright accent of citrus is the mineral effect, as if hot stones were splashed with water. September 22, 2016 at 7:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I suspect that the similarity comes from the dry, mossy facets of Eau de Rochas and its beautiful woods. It’s been around since the 70s, and while I tried it before, it was this summer that I fell hard for it. Your description of hot stones splashed with water is just perfect. September 22, 2016 at 10:34am Reply

  • Tim: When I read Huysmans’ A rebours, I wore Knize Ten. September 22, 2016 at 11:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds like a good combo! September 24, 2016 at 7:30am Reply

  • Geraldine Ethen: What an absolutely fascinating blog! To go from “Pillow Talk” to Dante and a description of paradise, with flowers associated with the journey to Heaven as well as important religious figures as interpreted both by western and eastern religions — what a wide range of discussion! Thank you for enlarging my world. September 22, 2016 at 11:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Geraldine! It’s all you who make it so, and I love how our discussions can branch out. 🙂 September 24, 2016 at 7:31am Reply

  • Liz: I adore your book revelations and admire how you chance (or not!) upon such intriguing reads. I am just finishing a book by Jan Morris on Venice, and seem to have a penchant recently for travel books with a twist. I am now out hunting for The Pillowbook. I have not read anything on Japan for years, so your sensitive review tempts me. I am now off to delve into your book review archives as there are quite a few I’ve missed adding to my bedtime nightcap read! Thanks for such beguiling and guiding posts Victoria! September 22, 2016 at 12:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you can, try to find Meredith McKinney’s translation, which is less formal and heavy than Ivan Morris’s and captures better, to my mind, the personality of the writer. I’m really envious of those who haven’t read The Pillow Book yet, because it’s such a pleasure discovering it for the first time.

      Have you read other books by Jan Morris? I was looking at “Europe” and “Trieste,” but I don’t remember why I didn’t end them to my list. I did like Venice a lot. September 24, 2016 at 7:29am Reply

  • Ariadne: My “yaya” of 35 years just presented me with a box of Horin Japanese incense sticks as a B-day present. Horin is the gold standard in my opinion. Very soft but potent, long burning, and ADDICTIVE. This particular box’s scent is Nijo. Their other scent offerings that I have experienced are Tenpyo, Muromachi, Genroku, and Shirakawa. Have not translated any of the names….I am smitten with them all. September 22, 2016 at 6:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Horin is Shoyeido’s brand, and yes, it’s very good, and I’ve tried the one called White River. It has a delicious licorice note. September 24, 2016 at 7:25am Reply

  • Karen 5.0: I loved this book and read it when you first recommended it! September 23, 2016 at 8:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Very happy to hear this! 🙂 September 24, 2016 at 7:22am Reply

  • Ian Johnston: Lady Murasaki, mentioned above, was, I understand, the inspiration for a Shisheido perfume of the same name, released many years ago, and although still available, has been reformulated, not, perhaps to it’s advantage. Apres l’ondee, also referred to in one or more of the posts, was, perhaps coincidentally, the name given to a piece of solo piano music by Maurice Pesse, a French composer who lived from 1881 – 1943. But whether or not the music inspired Guerlain, or the perfume inspired the composer, I can’t say. More recently, Francois Sagan’s Chamade was said to be one of the inspirations for Guerlain’s perfume of the same name.
    In respect of perfumes evoking the fragrance preferences of Japan, however, I suppose that Shisheido is perhaps best placed to achieve this, although it is clear that many other international companies now bear this in mind when creating particular fragrances for such markets. September 25, 2016 at 4:57am Reply

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