Rituals: 9 posts

On the Japanese Incense Trail with a Paris Detour

I’m sitting in front of smoldering joss sticks trying to determine whether they smell of the milky sweetness of sandalwood or the raspy sharpness of cedar. A young woman with a glossy black bob lights one stick after another, blowing each out with a gentle wave of her hand. I’m unused to kneeling for so long, and I feel the crunch of tatami mats through my thin wool trousers. The back of my head throbs slightly from jet lag, and I am being overwhelmed by the size of Tokyo and the strain of trying to remember Japanese covered by layers of other languages I’ve learned since my university days. I also feel anxious that I may not be able to guess the scents correctly, but then I remember my perfumery teacher’s words “don’t think, just smell,” and I let myself go.

I’m inside a Shoyeido incense store hidden in the elegant Aoyama district of Tokyo. Nearby are the glittering avenues of Harajuku, lined with fashion boutiques and populated by some of the most stylish people on the planet, but inside the earth toned store, there is only serenity and incense.

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A Day of Beauty and Scents

For as long as I can remember, Mondays have been my mom’s “days of beauty and health.” Instead of viewing it as the painful start of a working week, she prefers to think of Monday as a day when she carves out some time for herself. A day of beauty instantly conjures up visions of spas and expensive procedures, but nothing of the sort is part of my mom’s routine. She simply does a few face treatments at home, makes sure to leave time for a proper breakfast–green tea, oatmeal with berries and yogurt, instead of her usual coffee and croissant, and in the evening, she takes a bath with scented oils or salts.

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When the most expensive cosmetics she could afford were Polish face cream or Yugoslavian mascara, she made face masks at home. Strawberries, apricots, honey, sour cream, and oat bran feature prominently in her recipes. “It’s too early for you to use masks, wait till you get older,” she’d say, as I watched her apply thick creamy concoctions and relax with Georges Simenon’s novels. I couldn’t wait to grow into that marvelous old age when I too could plaster my face with fruit and tell others, “I need 15 minutes of peace and quiet.” My mom must have been 27 at the time.

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5 Scented Ways to Put The World on Pause

“Take a pause,” says my mother when I complain about some specific problem or just the general stress that wears me down. She means inhaling deeply, tuning out all of the worries and giving myself a break. It’s a simple concept, and I like the image of the whole world around me freezing in mid-movement as I readjust myself and regain balance.  Scents often make my breaks more satisfying, even if they are nothing more than a pellet of aromatic resin or a few drops of floral water.

sandalwood chips

Sandalwood and Cashmere

If you want your garments to smell of roses and cream, tuck a few sandalwood chips in your closet; wool and other natural fabrics absorb the scents readily, and the fact that sandalwood repels moths is a bonus point. Picking up a sweater and inhaling its perfume jolts me out of my sleepy state in the morning as I select my outfit and it instantly puts me in a better mood. Since I’m cranky before my first cup of tea, anything that makes me more socially adjusted in the morning is worth its weight in gold.  Catching a delicate whiff of sandalwood throughout the day is such a comfort.

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Holiday Gift Ideas : Soaps, Creams, Makeup and More

In the last part of my holiday gift series, I’ve put together another eclectic collection of my favorite things. Some of them are scented, others are simply pretty: beautifully wrapped soaps, decadent body creams, jewel-like makeup … and cat shaped lipsticks.

Rancé Iris Royal Box of 6 Soaps

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Rancé has been making soaps since 1795, and purportedly the formulas remain unchanged. While I highly doubt it, the quality of their soaps is excellent. They’re triple milled, which means that the bars stay firm and last well. They’re scented with high-quality essences, and the aroma lingers delicately on your skin. Even those with sensitive skin–and I’m one of those people–won’t find this soap drying or irritating. Finally, the packaging is stunning, making Rancé’s soap sets a beautiful present.

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What to Buy in Paris : French Pharmacy Finds

Perfume shops, chocolate stores, lingerie boutiques, pâtisseries… When I’m in Paris, I can’t resist any of them, especially since the fine-tuned French sense of design extends as much to the products as to the window displays. But I will tell you honestly that if I had to pick my favorite shopping ground, it would be a pharmacy. It’s a treasure trove of finds for anyone who loves scented products and skincare, or simply enjoys searching for affordable and interesting brands.

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Of course, pharmacies are not a Parisian phenomenon. If you travel in Europe, you will quickly notice stores with a neon green cross. Within two blocks of my apartment building in Brussels there are about 5 or 6 pharmacies. It’s more than a store where you get your medicine. It’s the place where you go to complain about your illnesses, the weather and the lack of government (although in my observation, Belgians don’t complain much about the latter; in fact, they can go for months without electing one). You can also buy skin and hair care products, perfume, soaps, vitamins, and an array of bizarre slimming supplements advertised by close ups of perfectly tanned behinds.

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