Author and Journalist


The Japanese Art of Scent

Sunday, September 11, 2016· Last Updated on: Saturday, September 17, 2016

in Blog, Japan 1853

Fragrance of the orange
Flowering at last in June
Wafts through the summer night
The memory of scented sleeves
Of someone long ago

Scent has an amazing power to evoke and transport, to bring back a sudden memory of somewhere or someone once loved and long forgotten.

The Japanese have always celebrated scent but not quite in the same way we do. In the Heian period, around the eleventh century, accomplished young noblemen prided themselves on their skill in mixing scents. The world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, is set in a society in which noblewomen lived hidden away in their palaces, occasionally letting a gorgeous brocade sleeve dangle from a carriage window to hint at their beauty.

Heian nobles, noblewomen and a carriage

Heian nobles, noblewomen and a carriage

Shining Prince Genji, the hero of the novel, and his amorous friends would creep in to visit them at dead of night. But no matter how dark it was the ladies always recognised the intruder visitor by his distinctive scent.

While we have developed oil-based perfumes, the Japanese have perfected the art of heating the woods which form the basis of their scents so that they produce no smoke, only fragrance. Till the mid-nineteenth century women scented their kimonos overnight, laying them on a wooden framework over an incense burner, and draped their glossy long black hair over incense burners to scent it.

Gosho-doki kimono (‘imperial court style’) laid out over a brazier to scent

Gosho-doki kimono (‘imperial court style’) laid out over a brazier to scent

Young men about town, geisha and courtesans carried pieces of scented wood in their sleeves and rub powdered scent onto their hands and neck.

In modern Japan the art of ‘listening to scent’ is the most recherché of accomplishments, a level above tea ceremony and flower arrangement. It’s a game but also a fine art, akin to wine-tasting. It takes years of study and there are at least as many variations and bouquets as there are wines, probably more.

I’ve been fortunate enough to try the incense-guessing game in the city of Kanazawa and a few times in Tokyo. As with tea ceremony, the implements are beautiful works of art in themselves.

Incense ceremony implements

Incense ceremony implements

The incense censer holds hot ashes with a tiny fragment of incense laid on top.

 Incense censer with a tiny piece of incense laid on top.

Incense censer with a tiny piece of incense laid on top.

Players kneel in a row or a square and pass the censer around and take turns to inhale the scent and try to name the incense.

‘Listening to scent’

‘Listening to scent’

As with tea ceremony it’s a social activity yet also peaceful and contemplative. For a beginner it’s extremely difficult to tell the different scents apart. However, no one could forget the most exquisite and expensive scent of all: kyara. Imported from Vietnam, it’s an ancient wood that takes thousands of years to develop and, so I’m told, costs many times more than the equivalent weight of gold.

 Kyara - the most exquisite scent of all

Kyara – the most exquisite scent of all


Black Teeth (Ohaguro)

Thursday, July 28, 2016· Last Updated on: Sunday, July 31, 2016

in Japan 1853

The tayu knelt next to me, adjusting her skirts. Underneath it all she had a cheeky, elfin face with a tiny nose and pointed chin. How long had she been a tayu, I asked, then gasped when she opened her small mouth to answer. In the chalky-white face with the blood-red lips, her teeth were painted black. It was macabre, like looking into a black hole.’ (Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World by Lesley Downer, Headline 2000)

A geisha with blackened teeth

A geisha with blackened teeth

When Commodore Perry arrived in Japan on July 8th 1853, he probably didn’t meet any women at all, though he may have seen the odd commoner peeping out from behind a barrier to catch a glimpse of the monstrous new arrivals. But if he had, he would have seen that all married women had black teeth – in fact not just women but aristocrats and courtiers too.

When a woman set about her toilette, her first job was to shave her eyebrows and freshen up the blacking on her teeth. To Japanese eyes black teeth were beautiful, like shiny black lacquerware, smooth and perfect and blemish free. Black teeth were a mark of sexual maturity and all women, from samurai to farmers, blackened their teeth the moment they got married. White teeth looked positively barbaric.

To blacken their teeth women used a dye of sumac-leaf gall, sake and iron. To make it you soaked pieces of iron in tea or vinegar, giving a rust coloured liquid, then added tannin in the form of powdered sumac leaf gall to turn it black. Then you painted it on warm, tooth by tooth, with a soft feather brush.

Tooth blackening tools. Two jugs for the ingredients, a small bowl to mix them in and a basin to wash hands and brushes, plus two small brushes

Tooth blackening tools. Two jugs for the ingredients, a small bowl to mix them in and a basin to wash hands and brushes, plus two small brushes

It usually needed several applications and had to be topped up every few days to maintain a perfect glossy sheen, like nail polish.

At the time women wore chalky white make up. At night, by candlelight, as in the case of geisha, a woman’s face glimmered magically. Unpainted teeth would have looked unpleasantly yellow in contrast and the black lacquer helped hide the teeth, which may not have been in the best of shape.

A geisha checking her black-painted teeth in a mirror

A geisha checking her black-painted teeth in a mirror

Black teeth were simply the norm. In the 12th century Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari there’s a story about an eccentric young woman who loved insects. So eccentric was she that ‘she would not pluck a single hair from her eyebrows nor would she blacken her teeth, saying it was a dirty and disagreeable custom.’ One day a handsome Captain happened to pass by by and admired her from a distance. But then she smiled and he saw her unblackened teeth gleaming and flashing and was quite disgusted. ‘There was something wild and barbaric about it.’

When the British diplomat Ernest Satow arrived in Japan in 1861 at the age of 18, he sneaked off to an out of bounds geisha house in Osaka one day, having heard all about the wonderful geisha. But he had a nasty shock. The women were certainly pretty but he hadn’t expected black teeth and white lead-painted faces.

Court lady of the Women’s Palace with blackened teeth and iridescent green lipstick. Woodblock print by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)

Court lady of the Women’s Palace with blackened teeth and iridescent green lipstick. Woodblock print by Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892)

And it wasn’t just women. When Algernon Mitford, another British diplomat and the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters, met the 16-year-old Emperor Meiji in 1868, the emperor had shaved eyebrows, rouged cheeks and black teeth.

But in the end both men became so used to the practice that when Empress Haruko declared in 1873 that she would no longer blacken her teeth they found it every bit as shocking as the Japanese did. Ernest Satow wrote of how strange it was to see ladies with white teeth.

If you think about it teeth-blackening was no more extraordinary than any of the ways we adorn ourselves – from Elizabeth I covering her face in poisonous white lead make up, to women teasing their hair into massive beehives in the Sixties, or people getting tattoos or piercings today. Plus the lacquer helped prevent tooth decay and enamel decay. It was probably no worse for you than teeth whitening gel. It’s all a question of adjusting the lens through which you see the world.

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Sharp-eyed Hambei the Fisherman and the Invading Aliens

22 July 2016
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On a hot steamy summer’s day like the last few here in England, 163 years and 14 days ago, on July 8th 1853, something happened that would entirely change the course of Japanese – and world – history. Read my short story … Sharp-eyed Hambei the Fisherman and the Invading Aliens Sharp-Eyed Hambei is the […]

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At Kumano Nachi Shrine

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Tigers at the Tokugawas' castle in Nagoya

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Approaching Yokohama

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7 November 2014
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3 November 2014
Sailing into Tokyo Bay …

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In the eighteenth century, Edo, much later to become Tokyo, was the largest and most glamorous city in the world. Right in the centre was Edo Castle, home to the shogun and his government. Deep inside that was the ‘inner palace’ or harem, where three thousand women lived and only one man could enter – […]

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