japan: 12 posts

The Colorful World of Japanese Kutani Ceramics

The first time I made my own clay pot, I must have been six or seven years old. My mother’s family comes from Poltava, the central region of Ukraine famous for its arts and crafts, and ceramics in the town of Opishnya have a long tradition. My great-grandmother Asya visited the town every summer to select new dishes and pots and she must have taken me along. My memories of that visit are fragmentary, but I recall the softness of the clay, the brilliance of the green glaze, and a slight disappointment that my pot didn’t come out as symmetrical as I thought it should have been. However, that experience made me fascinated with ceramics and the way rough soil can assume the most exquisite of forms.

I rekindled my passion for ceramics while working and traveling in Asia. In Japan, the ceramic arts have a strong reputation and many different styles of pottery and porcelain exist, from the natural-looking Bizen ware to the ornate Imari ware. One could travel from the north of the country to the south and discover ceramics studios in every region, each showcasing a specific style of pottery. During one such trip, I discovered the colorful charm of Kutani ware.

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The World in a Haiku

Silent the old town
the scent of flowers
floating
And evening bell
-Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), translated by Jane Reichhold

Haiku condenses. Haiku magnifies. If haiku speaks of a flower, it doesn’t compare the poet to a flower or the world to a flower. It says, the world is a flower. The world is in the flower petal. The details are refined by the poet’s imagination, who pours the whole experience into seventeen syllables. Haiku is the essence.

Discontented
Violets have dyed
The hills also
-Shiba Sonome (17th century), translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri.

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Haiku of the Day : Freesia Fever

I doze off
In the scent of freesias
High fever.

Je somnole encore
Dans l’arôme des freesias…
Forte fièvre.

This haiku written by Mariko Koga (b. 1924) is from an excellent collection of haiku written by women poets, Anthologie Du rouge aux lèvres. Translated by Dominique Chipot and Makoto Kemmoku (public library). The English translation is mine.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Peach Flowers and Cherry Leaves : 5 Fragrances for Hinamatsuri

This week as Belgium and the rest of Europe was battered by Siberian winds, I’ve enjoyed thinking about peach blossoms and pink confections. March 3rd is celebrated in Japan as Hinamatsuri, also known as Girl’s Day or Doll’s Festival. Starting in February, families with daughters put up elaborate platforms representing the imperial wedding, complete with the emperor, empress, court ladies, famous poets and musicians of the Heian era (794-1192). These doll sets are usually given by grandparents to their granddaughters as they wish them health and happiness. Since most Japanese live in tiny, cramped apartments and doll sets cost around $2000, only a few still keep to the old customs. Nevertheless, girls are still feted on this special day.

The reason I enjoy Hinamatsuri is not for the dolls but the flowers and food. March 3rd is known also as Momo no Sekku, the festival of peach blossoms. Peach trees blossom even before spring makes its first claims, and the flowers are as beautiful as they are symbolic–delicacy need not come at the expense of resolve. The fragrance of peach blossoms has a hint of bitter almond and creamy jasmine, but it’s fresh and bright. The pale color of flowers inspires the meals served on Hinamatsuri, like chirashi zushi, a bed of vinegared sushi rice scattered with raw fish, salmon roe, egg threads and pickled lotus root slices, or hishi mochi, diamond shaped rice cakes in delicate pastel shades. My other favorite is sakura mochi, glutinous rice cakes filled with red beans and wrapped in a salted cherry leaf.

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The Scent of Osmanthus

Once the weather turns cool in Tokyo, a sweet perfume fills its streets. It escapes from the parks and enclosed gardens and for a few weeks it becomes a familiar presence in a city better known for its skyscrapers, electronics and cuisine than for flowers. The tiny blossoms that give Tokyo its aroma are easy to miss, but the perfume is so vivid that osmanthus is sometimes called “a 10-mile fragrance” tree. In Japanese, it’s known as kinmokusei, and in English it may be referred to as a “fragrant” or “Chinese” olive, hinting at the plant’s origins, but by any name, the aroma of ripe apricots, jasmine petals and leather is irresistible.

In my latest FT column, Perfumes Linked by Osmanthus, I discuss one of the most fascinating perfume ingredients, osmanthus, and explain how it’s used in perfumery. Of course, I mention three of my favorite osmanthus perfumes and share stories about them. You can read the article by clicking here.

Please let me know other osmanthus perfumes that should be included on a list for someone who loves these apricot scented blossoms.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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