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Thinking inside the box. In Japan, fragrance tends to have a long shelf life.

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Display It, Don't Spray It


Published: May 1, 2005


I flew into Tokyo. My grad-school friend Shigeru Momose had invited me over for dinner. His wife, Yukie, greeted me at the door -- gracious and lovely as always -- and as she was asking what I'd like to drink, I noticed, sitting on a glass shelf beside the art and the books, an exquisitely clean, unopened box of perfume with the cellophane still on it. I think it was Miss Dior. I stared at it, confused. Yukie explained: in Japan we love to give perfume as a gift. ''What about wearing it?'' I asked. She smiled. ''Ano . . . anmari tsukenai ne. . . . '' Well, I guess you don't wear it much.

Miss Dior sat, sealed tight as the day it left Duty Free.

Patrice Beliard, a handsome, energetic 31-year-old, often hangs out at Isetan, the Bloomingdale's of Japan and the country's single-largest point of sale for perfume. Patrice knows the Japanese reaction to Miss Dior. (Outwardly: thoughtful. . . . Inwardly: screaming.) Which is why his job is so interesting: as the general manager of Beaute Prestige International (B.P.I.) in Japan, he has to sell perfume to a culture whose relationship to fragrance is more ambivalent than perhaps any other on the planet. Japan is the world's second-largest market for cosmetics but one of the smallest for perfume; what is more, on a fundamental cultural level, the Japanese have been known to go out of their way to avoid the stuff. Walking around the cosmetics floor at Isetan, Patrice pointed at the Chanel stand; Coco and No. 5 sat in back. In Japan, he said, most brands use about 15 percent of their retail real estate for perfume (the majority goes to skin care and makeup); in Europe, it's around 50 percent.

I noticed something else unusual: throughout the floor every fragrance was paired with a single, well-used test strip, labeled with its name -- Fragile, Beautiful -- and impregnated with the scent. No clean strips were provided. There is a reason for this: apparently the Japanese dislike top notes, and by sampling perfumes this way you eliminate them. So the incandescent top notes of, say, Anna Sui's perfumes, which in the United States are a huge part of their allure, are actually dispensed with in Japan. Beliard sprayed my hand with Issey Miyake's signature fragrance, L'Eau d'Issey. It is an international success, and in the industry it is famous -- and notorious -- for being designed to convey the idea of . . . water. Which, in essence, smells of nothing. L'Eau d'Issey is pure concept: cleanliness, dryness, perhaps a slight coolness. Light, light, light. And it's almost as popular in Japan as it is here. You could say, then, that the Japanese are learning to wear Western perfumes, but perhaps it is we who are learning to wear theirs.

A young, serious Japanese perfumer told me that Marilyn Monroe's famous comment about wearing nothing more than Chanel No. 5 to bed shocked the Japanese not only because it meant she was sleeping naked but also because she suggested that perfume was something you wore on your person. (What was this weird thing?) Since this is Japan, the Japanese are doing what they do best: studying the problem, figuring it out. That night Beliard was the host of what I can only describe as an Issey Miyake perfume clinic. In an immense, white, spotless showroom nine stories directly above what was once the original Shiseido pharmacy (today it's a new Shiseido building, filled with chic restaurants), he greeted his best fragrance clients, delightful, polite people, some of whom arrived wearing head-to-toe Miyake and Comme des Garcons. They chatted happily. A Japanese woman spoke briefly about Miyake's fragrances, their aesthetic and their worth, and then she and five immaculately dressed young women introduced the elements found in L'Eau to the clients, who leaned in carefully to smell precious wood, freesia, osmanthus, cyclamen and white lily. Then everyone went downstairs to a lounge for Champagne and hors d'oeuvres -- and to watch a film further explaining Miyake perfumes.

The explanations don't stop there. Buy L'Instant de Guerlain at Saks in New York City, and you get a bottle of Guerlain. At Isetan or Mitsukoshi, you might also be offered highly detailed diagrams, bullet points, technical illustrations, scientific terminology and instructions on how to apply perfume, where, when and why -- an entire owner's manual. I thought I'd been given a Palm Pilot by mistake. ''Japanese are information-aholics,'' the Shiseido rep said to me with a smile. And of course they like novelty. (Don't we all?) At Isetan, there is a waiting list of 80 people for Jean Paul Gaultier's Ingenue Limited Edition Perfume, about $210 a bottle. And just like us, they are susceptible to celebrity endorsements. When Mariah Carey revealed in a magazine that she wore L'Eau d'Issey, tons of people came into Isetan to buy it. The actress Kanno Miho told the press she uses Escada's Rockin' Rio (30 milliliters, or about an ounce, for $42), and Escada had a huge bump.

But the question remains: Are people actually wearing these scents?

Honda San, the B.P.I. chief saleswoman at Isetan, tells me emphatically: ''Hai! Tsukete imasu yo.'' (Yes! Actually, I'm wearing it.) Dolce & Gabbana's fresh, lemony Light Blue is hugely successful in Japan, while the musky Obsession is not. YSL's best seller is, naturally, the supersweet, fun Baby Doll, and Anna Sui's delightfully strange elixirs are gigantic with high-school students. But ''hugely successful in Japan'' is relative. Especially when compared with the bottles of fragrance sold per capita in the United States and France. It has to do with history.

The accepted wisdom is that virtually all fragrance originated in a small, ancient city in the heart of India called Kanauj. (Scent is integral to Hinduism.) But over a millennium or so, fragrance culture, to a large extent, split into West, where one perfumed the body, and East, where one scented the air. Shintoism has always equated purity with a lack of odor. In the sixth century, when Buddhism first arrived in Japan, it brought the use of fragrance as part of religious ritual. By the 14th century, Kodo appeared -- ko means ''scent,'' and do (the same do in judo) is ''the way'' or ''the path.'' Kodo is similar to Sado, the tea ceremony, only it focuses on incense: you pass around a cup of incense, experience the smells, meditate. (Though the practice seems to have gone out of fashion. ''No one does Kodo anymore,'' everyone I spoke to assured me.) But these Buddhist smells were in the air. Scent on your skin? Bodily pollution, my Japanese friends called it. What is more, the great majority of Japanese have barely any body odor. There was a time when Japanese men who had it were reportedly kept out of the military as bodily smell ran contrary to this Buddhist idea of purity.

Yet aside from the obvious hypocrisy -- Japan is one of the mercifully shrinking number of countries where men, who bathe their lungs in smoke, actually reek of cigarettes; talk about bodily pollution -- the signs of change are all around. For example, the overwhelming billboard on the Ginza for Bulgari's new fragrance, Aqua. Bulgari fragrance is doing well in Japan largely because its jewelry image, Beliard notes, is impeccable. And, at least as far as Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert goes, Bulgari's aesthetic works for Japan. ''It is the only perfume you can wear in a sushi restaurant,'' a perfumer told me. And that sounds right: clean, pure, with a single filament of opalescent darkness running through it. The Japanese even engineer their fragrances differently. At the Miyake event, I smelled my arm where four hours earlier Patrick sprayed L'Eau d'Issey, and there was . . . nothing. No base-note glowing embers, as you get with Shalimar. And no chemical residue like lower-quality fragrances. This, I was assured, was a very Japanese concept of fragrance.

But as you sniff just a little deeper, everything you think you understand about fragrance in Japan starts to dissolve, and the picture becomes much more complicated, even strange. Shiseido, which was founded in 1872 as a pharmacy in the Ginza on Ginza Chuo Street, started making perfumes in 1917. Today it produces three scents you can find in the United States, and none of them would appear to appeal to Western sensibilities. Scents like Relaxing, Energizing and Zen are truly otherworldly. At Isetan, the Shiseido saleswoman handed me Zen and mentioned the space rose. ''Huh?'' In a joint venture between International Flavors and Fragrances (I.F.F.) and NASA, roses were taken on the space shuttle, and their scent was then analyzed. Shiseido recreated the scent of the roses as they smelled in space and made it a key ingredient of Zen. (You can't make this stuff up.)

The fact is that to any traditional Western sense, these Shiseido fragrances aren't perfumes. To us, they smell as if they're from, well, outer space. You can say (and people do), ''But the Japanese wouldn't produce traditional perfumes.'' But that is completely false. Walk into the Ginza Shiseido store at Namiki Street, go down the white stairs and smell Shiseido's White Rose. It is an absolutely classic scent. If you like Yves Saint Laurent's wonderful Paris, White Rose will take your breath away. It is one of the most astonishingly beautiful perfumes I've ever encountered -- a luxurious, layered, delicate, luminous rose (23,100 yen for 32 milliliters, around $218). Shiseido created it in 1954. Or move up one shelf to Saso (1987), which smells like a classic Dior, or Suzuro (1976 and 49,350 yen, or $465, for 30 milliliters), in a box so beautiful it could be in a museum.

Then walk down the Ginza to Mitsukoshi, look left and enter a store called Kyuukyodou. It is flooded with Japanese buying exquisite Kodo incense; thick, rich, heavy scents. (Clearly somebody around here is still doing Kodo.) And look at the list of Top 10 fragrances in Japan in 2004: Ibiza Hippie, Gucci Envy, Rush 2, JLo's Glow, Gucci Rush, CK One, Eclat d'Arpege, Chanel's Chance, Eternity and Chanel No. 5. It could easily be a Top 10 list for the United States.

Perhaps most startling, take the Hibiya subway line to Roppongi Hills, the fancy new shopping and dining complex (Claudio Sadler has his restaurant there) and enter the obligatory, fabulous Estnation. It's usually called the Barneys of Japan, but Estnation is quite intentionally Japan-oriented (est means ''east'' in French), which is why, if you can afford it, Estnation is so much fun; you find exclusively Japanese superluxury brands like the weirdly named Via'Picky-Am and the astonishing Japanese company Antianti.

Makoto Miyazaki -- 6 feet 1 inch, big, barrel-chested and friendly -- runs Antianti from his perfume factory in the depths of Toyama Prefecture, where his Elite of Parfum collection is made by hand. He showed me his bottles like tiny jewels -- at 32,000 yen, or $302, for 18 milliliters, on average, they are three times as expensive as Chanel No. 5 -- and named the countries he visits year after year (India, Bulgaria and Turkey), obsessively tracking down the highest-quality ingredients. The results are scents unlike any others. Extremely earthy, if earth were clean, not on the same planet as the Calvin Kleins and Ralph Laurens, they could be described as French, but in a distant dream; their Japaneseness is obvious in that they don't read ''perfume.'' Elite of Lotus has a slight unwashed richness; it has the quality of making you lean forward to inhale it in spite of yourself. (Makoto's Rose Shampoo is equally startling, a dark rose saturated in a half-smoked cigar.) Elite of Narcissus is Papeete -- in an instant, Tahiti's humidity, light mold, dirt, flowers, lush vegetation. Elite of Plumeria is Hanoi plus white flowers; Elite of Lily is a soft, hip Christina Aguilera enveloped in a cloud; and in Elite of Gardenia, the musk leads and the gardenia's mint angles have been strangled. Very strong, very clean animal. Then the mint comes back. Weighty, opinionated, full of character. And utterly Japanese.

Chandler Burr is the author of ''The Emperor of Scent'' and writes frequently about fragrance.

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