From a Western point of view, Japanese don’t seem to be taken with perfume. At least not the way we define it. I’ve heard too many stories about the Japanese market, for example – the many unopened perfume flacons displayed in Japanese home as evidence that clearly Japanese are uninterested in fragrance and perhaps even to the extent of criticism - i.e.: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
However, preference for smaller objects (i.e.: 1/4oz flacon rather than a 5oz spray bottle) and appreciation for the flacon design should not be mistaken for dislike of aroma or inability to enjoy and appreciate scent. If anything, the Japanese have a history of designing unique containers for their scents – since Japanese traditional clothes had no pockets, they’ve designed inro for men - these were tiered boxes for storing small items such as incense and medicine; and silk sachets and kinchaku for the ladies, as well as beautiful lacquered boxes with intricate and stylized botanical designs for storing cosmetics and aromatics. Also, a special accessory was developed for the sole purpose of hanging the kimono in front of incense to scent it. Not to mention they have used scent to indicate the passing time with an incense clock!
These all indicate that aromatics - and especially natural ones - play an important role in Japanese culture and are much esteemed – and this is true for both the past and the present.
The reason for the Western misunderstanding of Japanese perfume-culture is two-fold: The physical form of perfumes enjoyed in Japan is different; and the scents themselves are far more subtle and gentle than Western perfumes – both commercial and historic.
While Western perfumery has evolved from incense into liquid perfumes (mostly alcohol base and recently also with other liquid bases such as oil or silicone), Japanese perfumery has remained mostly focused in the mostly raw materials – dry aromatics that emit their fragrance as they are (i.e.: sachets and powders) or when burnt (incense). This stands in line with the Japanese love for purity and perfection. As with any cultural differences – this can either be perceived as a technological disadvantage that limits the scent palette; or a point of difference that makes scent cultures across the world more interesting and makes traveling just a little more meaningful in this time of globalization where you can pretty much find anything anywhere.
Japanese seem to dislike the scent of alcohol (which could also explain the preference for parfum extrait - these formulations have less alcohol and more essence, thus reducing the impact of alcohol in the opening phase of the perfume). In addition, they are fortunate to have very little body odour and therefore don't feel the need to mask it as much as us Westerners are inclined to do.
As for the aromas themselves – similarly to the cuisine in Japan, Japanese perfumes (i.e.: incense, sachets and body incense powder) are subtle and use a more limited palette of aromatics. The most dominant component is woods: local woods such as cedar (Hiba) and pine (Hinoki) and the more exotic ones imported from the south – agarwood (Jin-koh) and sandalwood (Byaku-dan). Especially with the sandalwood and agarwood, there is much attention to grades – affected by how and where the trees were grown – so much that they have many different names (i.e.: Kyara is the name for the most prized grade of agarwood, which is the most rich and dark in aroma). Other significant aromatics in traditional Japanese perfumery are gum-resins such as borneol and camphor, myrrh, frankincense and benzoin; roots such as galangal (alpinia) and spikenard; patchouli leaves; and spices – cloves, cassia, cinnamon and star anise.
To truly appreciate the subtleties and slight difference between one incense or another, one must develop a sensitive nose; just like one’s palette has to be trained to truly understand and appreciate the art of tea and the subtle differences between one kind to another – after all, teas are all made from the exact same species!
The picture above is of sachets by Shoyeido incense company, sent to me by Yoko (she has been extremely generous and helpful in satisfying my Japanese olfactory culture curiosity!). They are for scenting Kimonos, and are usually tucked into the sleeves. This not only helps to make your kimono smell wonderful, but also helps keep away the silk-hungry moths. It smells spicy and camphoreous – but in a rich, luxurious way. In fact, it smells very much like a high quality carnation soap (which is one of my favourite things to tuck among my clothes); and smells nothing like moth-balls. There is an air of tranquility to all of the scents I’ve experienced from Japan. They smell like a dark room in an antique wooden house, and that’s how I imagine houses in Japan to smell like. There will be only one way to find out!