japan: 12 posts

Things That Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster

I would love to have shared a cup of tea with Sei Shonagon, a 11th century Japanese court lady and author of The Pillow Book. What a character she must have been! It is rare that a personage removed by so many centuries feels so modern, but I can just imagine her doling out choice comments and sharing some court gossip. Of course, I would be worried that this aesthete might find either my conversation too dull or my attire too plain, since her diary is evidence enough of her strong opinions.

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Besides anecdotes about court life, The Pillow Book is full of poetic vignettes and observations. It’s a world where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense perfumed letters. Sei Shonagon’s rapier-sharp wit and appetite for life shine through her compilation of stories. That she is not all charm and sweet manners makes her even more fascinating.

The Pillow Book was written during a particularly trying period of Sei Shonagon’s life. Emperor Ichijo had recently taken on another consort, sidelining the writer’s patron, Empress Teishi, to a secondary role. Incidentally, the biggest rival to Sei Shonagon’s literary skill served the new Empress Shoshi. It was Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji. With the declining fortunes of Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s future was likewise troubling, and she probably found solace in writing.

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The Japanese Fragrance Conundrum : Top Selling Perfumes

I’ve never seen such well-dressed, beautifully groomed women as in Tokyo. At Harajuku or Ginza, two high-glamour areas with distinctly different vibes, you will see one impeccably coiffed beauty after another tottering in her impossibly high heels, looking as if she’s ready for a magazine cover.  Beauty is big business in Japan, where the sales of cosmetics make this country the world’s second largest market after the US. You can find entire magazines devoted to nothing but color cosmetics, with the kind of attention to detail that is downright astounding. I flip open the makeup magazine, Biteki, to find technical illustrations, sophisticated instructions and comparison charts on topics as straightforward as the application of lipstick or as complex as anti-aging skincare.

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By comparison, perfume is not represented nearly as well . Walking through the glittering halls of the Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya department stores, you won’t find the endless expanse of fragrance bars that you would see at Neiman Marcus or even Macy’s. This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting selection of both prestige and niche lines in Japan. They are available, along with detailed technical explanations on how your fragrance was made and how you are supposed to enjoy it. Have you ever received a brochure describing how to apply fragrance from your local perfume store? At Mitsukoshi, that’s exactly what would wind up in your bag, along with an exquisitely wrapped bottle.

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