Culture: 322 posts

Art, travel, books, history

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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Postcard from Uzbekistan : Desert in Bloom

Every spring the Kyzylkum Desert lives up to its name, which means red sand, by turning crimson. Except it’s not the sand that gives it its vibrant hues, but the wild poppies. Located in Central Asia and shared between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, it encompasses the region historically called Sogdiana or Transoxiana. Traveling in Uzbekistan for my new research project into the cultural history of aromatics has been full of such discoveries. This land may be associated for many people with its recent Soviet past, but what are 70 odd years of Soviet rule in a place that counts its history in the thousands of years. Even if the recent past left deep scars, from social to environmental, the more ancient traditions and customs remain.

As do the scarlet flower fields of the Kyzylkum Desert. Alexander the Great crossed it. And so did Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. The remnants of Alexander’s fort still stand in the desert, their ancient ramparts still imposing enough. And the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi came to my mind.

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Wind Through Green Leaves Aoarashi

Imagine right now standing under a tree and hearing the wind rustling through its leaves. If you enjoy this vision, I would like to share a Japanese poem with you.

Wind blowing through green leaves
I see a shrine
And I pray

青嵐神社があったので拝む
Aoarashi Jinja ga atta node Ogamu

Japanese haiku are full of seasonal words, which serve as a guide to the reader. For instance, this charming poem by Ikeda Sumiko (池田澄子, born in 1936) contains the word aoarashi.  It means wind blowing through green leaves and it’s a seasonal word for the fifth month.

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Frida Kahlo and Shalimar

“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Frida Kahlo once said. An artist is inseparable from their art, and this idea is particularly dramatic in the case of Kahlo, whose body of work is based on the explorations of self. Of the 143 paintings Kahlo left behind, 55 are self-portraits, brutal, honest, startling. What’s more, Kahlo was conscious of the power of the image, and she also fashioned self through her choice of clothes, colors and accessories.

I admit that I didn’t appreciate the importance that Kahlo assigned to her clothes, jewelry and perfume until I saw the exhibit of the artist’s possessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The image of the Mexican artist—the colorful skirts, the flower-decorated braids, the unibrow—entered pop culture to the point that we risk forgetting the artist behind a fashion icon. In order to understand her art, is it necessary to know that Frida Kahlo wore Guerlain’s Shalimar and Schiaparelli’s Shocking and draped herself in Mexican dresses and Chinese silk?

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Bulgaria Travel Reading List

Some of you will be joining me in Bulgaria’s Rose Valley this May, and I’ve received a couple of requests for reading that would prepare you for a trip. Bulgaria is one of the largest countries in the EU, and yet like so many places that fell on the other side of the Iron Curtain, it remains  terra incognita. Yet, it’s a place with an ancient history, delicious food, beautiful music, picturesque churches, and of course, roses. Bulgaria supplies 50% of the world’s rose essence.

I’ve decided to put together a list of non-fiction and fiction books that would be interesting even if you have no plans to visit Bulgaria and simply want to learn something new. These novels and travel accounts present a fascinating and rich land, a place where many different cultures, influences and traditions meet.

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Latest Comments

  • Aurora in Recommend Me a Perfume : August 2019: And one last choice: Cacharel Anais Anais Premier Delice, original because it’s chocolate over flowers, I quite like it, it’s different, just thought I would mention it. August 24, 2019 at 11:33am

  • Aurora in Recommend Me a Perfume : August 2019: Oh and I forgot to mention Guerlain Idylle with your favorite flowers, all there: do try EDT and EDP, the EDT is more evanescent very good in summer and the… August 24, 2019 at 11:31am

  • Aurora in Recommend Me a Perfume : August 2019: Hi Purple: yes, I think the A*Men were limited editions as well as some Angels like The Taste of Fragrance which might have been contenders for you, Muse is more… August 24, 2019 at 11:14am

  • Aurora in Recommend Me a Perfume : August 2019: Hello Erin: Yes, Diorissimo has been reformulated, the EDT has less longevity than before and the extrait de parfum but it is pricy are still quite like the original and… August 24, 2019 at 10:57am

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