France vs. Japan: Perfumes and memories

“Nothing brings to life again a forgotten memory like fragrance” (Christopher Poindexter).

If there is one thing that puts Paris and Tokyo to the opposite ends of the same spectrum, that is perfume. While Paris is known as the capital of fashion, elegance and perfumes, Tokyo is… I had to search for those few available articles and blog posts to understand, at least a little.

Japan is considered one of the biggest markets for cosmetics, yet, it is nowhere even remotely close to that when it comes to fragrance. If in Paris you go, pop into all different specialized perfume shops, test, smell, play, choose, or even go to numerous atelier du parfum (i.e. perfume workshops) and create one of your own, in Tokyo you will realize that the preferred way is no odor or even a trace of it at all. Yes, you can buy perfume in big department stores selling luxury goods (probably without that free style testing and choosing by yourself part) and there are people who buy, though it is the  actual use of perfume that is a question.

Maison Guerlain Paris, Les Champs-Élysées.

Perfume stand, Tokyo Midtown.

It seems that while Japan has a (disappearing) culture of appreciating scent in the form of incense, any kind of a scent on the body is a “no go”. Those few articles and posts I came across were discussing all kinds of possible reasons, including different genetics, whereby certain Asian nations (including Japanese) have virtually no body odor in general, or Japanese perception that fresh and odorless relates to purity and innocence, meaning that Japanese men tend to prefer women that look childish and innocent versus the Western type of elegant, stylish, sexy, etc. I am not even mentioning that demographics might have a role as well, just think about packed trains and other public spaces in and around Tokyo… Whatever are the true reasons behind, Japan does not have a historic/cultural tradition of appreciating fragrance, especially the one worn on a body, thus, in the current context it is not more than a symbol of Western luxury and status, and has nothing to do with personality or self-expression.

The brand new Perfume museum in Paris, 73 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Japanese like buying perfume as a gift, in many cases for the name that it represents, not the smell itself, but then it often ends up either on display or somewhere deep in the drawer or, a number of years later (still unpacked) somewhere in a flea market in Kamakura. Wearing a perfume remains something foreign, because what if the foreign smell will make you stand out too much?

Strangely enough, Japan seems to be very fond of a scented fabric softener, which is even considered as a substitute to perfume. Can you imagine that companies offer mixing service, where anyone can mix different scents to get a unique fabric softener scent? I find it sad, don’t you think?

I must admit that since I moved to Japan, most of my perfume bottles remain almost untouched. In fact, I started wearing some of those at home, as I realized that each scent brings a number of memories. Having just visited the brand new perfume museum in Paris, I am rediscovering perfumes I once created myself that were left somewhere at the bottom of a suitcase hidden deep in the wardrobe.

Le Grand Musée du Parfum: each “ball” represents different smell. Try to guess and then listen if you were correct. Tip: press and turn before lifting it to choose the language.

Le Grand Musée du Parfum: the garden of scents. When you get close, each lamp omits a dose of different scent for you to discover.

Le Grand Musée du Parfum: here you can test and try all different kinds of existing perfumes.

“Perfume is the most intense form of memory” once said Jean-Paul Guerlain, and I tend to agree. Though if anyone asked me what smell would remind me Japan, I would not have an answer. To me, Japan has many colours and visual memories from all four seasons, but no smell that I could remember. With the “Journal d’un parfumeur” (perfumer’s diary) in my hands, I’m putting one thing on the to do list when next time in Paris – to get a new bottle of my favourite one!

Le Grand Musée du Parfum, Paris, very beautiful and interesting, a must see for any perfume lover.

“Perfume is like a parenthesis, {A moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality} between the disturbances of modern living.” (Sonia Rykiel)

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