japanese perfume tradition: 3 posts

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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Around the World in Scents : Japan

Today Lauren explores attitudes towards perfume in Japan and invites us to experience its various scents.

It was a rare night for us young English teachers in rural Japan.  We were escaping our hot, stuffy apartments amid the tea fields for a glitzy night out in the bright lights of Tokyo.  I greeted my friend Mayumi in the parking lot.  Her skin was creamy and flawless, as always, but as I hugged her hello I noticed something different.

temple-wishes

“Mm!” I said.  “You smell so nice!”

“Thank you,” replied Mayumi timidly, smiling as she put a finger to her lips.  “I’m wearing it for our big night out in Tokyo.”  Her eyes pleaded with me to keep the secret.  Our friend Jun was picking us up shortly, and she didn’t want to discuss perfume in front of him.

Though I’d been living in Japan for several months, it was the first time I smelled a fragrance on anyone with whom I’d come into contact.  The light, gently tumbling cloud of lilies, vanilla and sparkling orange was enough to make me thirst for big doses of perfume.  I was a vampire who’d caught a whiff of blood. Cultural differences in Japan meant that wearing personal fragrance was generally considered rude.  In a country that is so crowded with people and so limited on space, extending your personhood via a bubble of perfume – however pleasant – is considered intrusive and inconsiderate.

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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.

japan-womenjapan-harajuku

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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