Saturday, June 24, 2017

Smellscapes of Japan - Part TWO

Dedicated to Masahiro Kamiya, my dearest friend from Japan!

One can find many ways of experiencing a new country. To me, intimate sensing is crucial to the experience. Through smells I found a way to deepen the experiences of my travels and perpetuate them in my mind.

Smells played a more important part of my experience in Japan than in other countries I have already visited due to the fact that Japanese people are very reserved and formal when compared to other civilizations.  

Just as a curiosity: The average interpersonal distance (personal space) in Japan is 360 cm, while in Europe is 240 and in Spanish speaking countries like Cuba is 120cm.

Being a well behaved tourist, I used my self-control and I took my distance. I touched less than I am used to and I stared less than I am used to. But proper etiquette diminishes quite considerably the experience when you reduce tactile understanding of things. 

Although smells are invisible and they come and go in the most ephemeral way, they make a substantial contribution for our understanding of the world around us. If you are really aware of its representations, you can also translate them into the cultural background of its surroundings.

So, using the sense of smell played a significant part of my visit to the country of the rising sun.


Rice is the most important crop of Japan and it has been cultivated for more than 2000 years. Japanese white rice is not one of the pillars for the Japanese diet, but it is also so important and representative of their culture that once it was used as currency. Also, GOHAN, the word for cooked rice, became a synonym for meal (in a general way).

Photo credit - +Q Perfume Blog

A bowl of steamed cooked rice is served in every Japanese home, restaurant or any other place serving food, but this is not the only way Japanese enjoy rice. The grain can be processed into different products such as Sake (rice wine), rice vinegar, rice flour or bran (nuka), and enjoyed in rice cakes (mochi), onigiris (equivalent to rice balls or "sandwiches"), domburis, sushis and many other Japanese dishes, including desserts and sweets.

Photo credit - +Q Perfume Blog

White Japanese rice is short, sticky and softer in texture and once cooked they aquire a translucency and glossiness quality that no other rice does. Its appearence is so important to Japanese culinary that in fact a sushi master has to know his rice more than anything else -  how to purchase, prepare and store it. Some even grow their own crops.

Flavor (taste and aroma) in the grain is the highest valued grain quality traits in rice. It is the key factor in determining its market price, although Japanese prefer less scented grains. For them appearance, texture, color and degree of gelatinization with cooking is much more important than fragrance.

A Japanese white rice contains 200 volatile compounds therefore, as simple as a bowl of Japanese cooked rice looks to you, it is in fact a very complex mixture of odorous compounds that needs a very complex sensory evaluation to determine its aroma.

Rice aroma has been already described as starch-y, nutty, slightly flowery, popcorn-y, baked-bread scented, hay-like scented...Truth is that the aroma of rice is mainly cause by the presence of the 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline.

Photo credit - +Q Perfume Blog

As I mentioned before, you will find rice steamers in use absolutely EVERYWHERE in Japan. When that lid opens and the cloud of fragrant humid vapor is released and spread in the air you will know you are in Japan. There is nothing more delicate, more comforting and more peaceful than this aroma. A bowl of fresh cooked steamed rice in front of you is a deep plunge into the millenar traditional culture of Japan. 

The aroma of steamed cooked rice is definitely the trademark of Japanese olfactory culture.


Tatami mats are a traditional flooring unique to Japan. They are made of several rice straw core (doko) that are covered with compressed rush grass straws (Igusa - juncus effusus); filled with wood (fuchi) and laced with decorative cloths. Straws are woven and cloth is used to cover the woven ends. They are green when new, maturing to a yellow tone with age.

                                             Photo credit - +Q Perfume Blog

The 4000 to 7000 rushes in the tatami mats  is what brings to it an unique pleasent, refreshing and relaxing smell. Specially when it is brand new it releases a herbal, greeny, grass-y, slightly sweet smell that is very unique to Japan. 

To sleep in a futon on a tatami floor is the ultimate Japanese experience! I never slept better in my entire life!

Tatami rooms smell of tradition, royalty, austerity and most of all, of peace.

Just as a bowl of rice, you will have the impression that tatami mats are simple. Well, not really. They are in fact a luxury that once was enjoyed only by royalty. In addition, tatamis are not cheap at all and its constrution and placement is really not a simple task. Like everything in Japan, it is a process following many rules, tradition and rituals.

Photo credit:  +Q Perfume Blog

Although they are in decline in Japan (many homes are now using other types of flooring), as a tourist visiting many traditional houses, temples and tea rooms you will certainly agree with me that the tatami smell can be considered a national olfactive identity of the Japanese smellscape.


I know you must be confused right now. Probably asking yourself "shouldn't she be mentioning green tea instead of coffee?" To answer to to this question I must say that first of all,  +Q Perfume Blog is not famous and followed worldwide for bringing the obvious. Second, I will mention green tea at some point of course, but my main concern when mapping a city or country is to understand the complexity of its olfactive identity. When I mentioned the globalization of smells as a disturbing factor of the original smellscape of a country I could not leave Japan out of the picture. Indeed the aroma of coffee is present in Japan today corrupting its traditional scent-based spacial experience. 
Brewed coffee aroma became an everyday smell detected EVERYWHERE in Japan. It is altering the sensory perception of the country by replicating the culture of others.

But is this really a new habit among the Japanese?

Photo credit: +Q Perfume Blog 

I found some interesting data regarding the culture of coffee in Japan, published by the Japanese Coffee Association.


A limited amount of coffee was drunk by Dutch residents of Nagasaki at the end of the eighteenth century. However, coffee was not generally sold until the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the first bulk imports in 1877. 
The first coffee shop was opened in Tokyo in 1888 and the coffee drinking habit spread slowly with imports peaking at 140,000 bags in 1937. 
Global conflict of the World War prevented significant imports of coffee during 1940s and the requirements of post-war reconstruction dampened consumption during 1950s.
Coffee imports were liberalized in 1961 and some 250,000 bags were imported in this year. Coffee remained a minor drink compared with the traditional green tea and initially it was drunk only among richer adult urban dwellers. 
Consumption of soluble coffee widely spread and regular coffee was consumed at coffee shops, eventually coffee has become increasingly popular over all the country. 
The introduction of canned ready-to-drink coffee in both hot and cold forms in 1969 and the expansion of vending machines helped to promote coffee consumption among younger generations and consequently coffee consumption increased rapidly by the synergistic effect.
Japanese coffee consumption has soared during last 40 years. The country is now third in terms of total consumption among importing countries. The rapid increase of consumption was realized mainly due to following reasons:

*A marked change in society with some “Westernization” of consumption habits;
* A marketing, with the initial emphasis on soluble coffee then extended to roasted and ground coffee;
* The initial growth of attractive coffee shops (The number of coffee shops reached to 162,000 outlets peaking in 1982);
*A process of product innovation including the vigorous promotion and sales of canned ready-to-drink coffee (now more than 5 million vending machines exist all over Japan and half of which serve for sales of beverages, including coffee).

Photo credit: +Q Perfume Blog

It is easy to understand why coffee has a significant presence in Japan. Knowing a little bit of chemistry of human vices I tell you: caffeine and nicotine walk hand in hand just as Romeo and Juliet. They simply LOVE each other! Japanese are heavy smokers, therefore they are also heavy coffee drinkers.

Another factor is the pressure to perform. Japanese have crazy working habits. They need this boost of energy not to crash. Which at one point they do and kill themselves by jumping into holes in the forest. Google it...It is creepy shit.

Anyways, back to scents...

You will smell coffee in the air all day long coming from coffee vending machines - where you will find canned or bottled hot/cold coffee; from coffee shops like Starbucks or Japanese brands; from coffee shops selling beans or imported grinded coffee and many coffee tasting at the streets and shopping malls.

Photo credit: +Q Perfume Blog

The coffee vending machines are simply everywhere. Hotels, bustops, shops and more shockingly - sometimes in the corner of every block in the streets of smaller towns. Sometimes these towns have absolutly nothing to offer. But you will find the coffee vending machines in the main road or in the back yard of a house!

I brought a video of an exquisite type of coffee vending machine that shows customers how the coffee is brewed:

Although coffee is not an original Japanese treat, you will find the Japanese touch in every experience they offer, so your coffee experience would not be different! It is nothing like elsewhere.

Photo credit: +Q Perfume Blog

We found a very exquisite café in Harajuku: The Cat Cafe Mocha which is a café for cat lovers. You must know that Japanese are so crazy about cats that they even sell the scent of cat head

Photocredit: Hub Japan

So, loving coffee and cats you won't be surprised that Mocha is a place where you get to sit to sip a cup of coffee surrounded by many many cats! We tried to get in to experience this feline coffee experience, but unfortunatly the line was so long that we had to give it up due to our tight schedule for that day.
Mocha offers cat feeding time when not only you sip your coffee but you can also feed the little balls of fur. Only in Japan, believe me!


Stay tunned for more Japanese scented experiences!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Smellscapes of Japan - Part ONE

In 2014 I published an essay of articles on urban smells dedicated to Victoria Hensaw - the Queen of Smellscapes (or olfactive maps).That article evolved one entire theory that we are loosing the sense of the smell of our "home" due to globalization. Once you have the same shops, the same bakeries, the same chain of brands everywhere, you have also a globalization of smells, which are little by little substituting and sometimes even erasing the local ones: 

"In a world of globalization and virtual living we have developed a lack of emotional connection to what is local. We are less aware of our surroundings and we are not fully experiencing the "materiality" of things. Being less contemplative and less emotionally connected to a local environment although it may sound very modern and hip, it is also drifting us away from our origins. We are loosing our identities as urban citizens. Where we come from and who we are. We no longer recognize the smell of "home" because we became urban nomads, modern gypsies."

Really concerned about the lost of our scent heritage I did a journey in my own town São Paulo to try to collect some local smell identity.Truth is that I have been collecting smells from every city I visit. Some I have shared here in my blog over the years. 

Victoria Hensaw's life work played a crucial role in my smell walks and made me fully understand how important it is to identify and map these smells and also improve my knowledge of how to map and how to catalogue smells. Unfortunately she has passed away in 2004. When I found out about her she was already sick, so I never got to do her smell walks that I dreamed so much of joining one day. But the inspiration did not die with her and I continue to do my olfactive journeys...  

Jumping to the present...

Photo credit: + Q Perfume Blog

I just came back from a trip to Japan and inspired by something that I also wrote in that article of 2014 about this country made me wish to write a piece on Japan:

"...Japan is an exception in a way. Although eager to have food chains like any other country according to the specialist, it is the country that has one of the most advanced attitudes towards the olfactory sense and its relationship to place, going as far as declaring “One Hundred Sites of Good Fragrance” across the country. From the sea mist of Kushiro to the Nanbu rice cracker of Morioka, not to mention the distinct smell of glue that hangs in the air around the doll craftsmen’s homes in Koriyama, all now have protected status..."

Curious about the concept of the 100 Sites of Good Fragrance? 

It is a project developed by the Ministry of Environment of Japan, and in their own words:

The Ministry of the Environment has introduced the olfactory measurement method to the odor control law to further solve the problem of odor caused by urban / life type pollution which is increasing in recent years, and is promoting the spread of it more In addition to that, we adopted a new way of thinking about the Kaori environment, "We will rediscover the good fragrance around us, conscious of the various smells around us through noticing Kaori, actively work on improving unpleasant smell Regional activities "that we would like to promote. Therefore, as part of supporting regional efforts to preserve and create good scent and its natural environment and culture - the Kaori environment - 100 points that are particularly excellent as a Kaori environment "100 Kaori Landscapes" We decided to implement the project. Regarding the candidate for 100 candidate sites, there were 600 entries from all over the country during the three months from May 25 th this year to the end of August, as candidates for "100 Kaori Landscapes." By entrant, there were 512 local governments and 88 individuals.(extracted from the Ministry's website)

I must admit that did not visit the 100 sites of Good Fragrance therefore I can't really write about them, but instead, I decided to share my own collected smell perceptions of Japan during this last Spring.


I know you can't wait for this journey to start, but before we step in this fragrant path there are some facts about Japan related to fragrance that I think it is worth mentioning here.

To those of you who followed me in Japan in Facebook you know I mentioned the fact that Japanese culture in general is contraditory and ambivalent. 

Side walk in Shinjuku, Tokyo near perfume store
Photo credit: + Q Perfume Blog

As an example, you will find non smoking signs on the streets. They have specific hidden corners where groups of smokers gather to share their vice, and yet people are allowed to smoke in restaurants while eating. SO, public open free space is not a place to produce smoke and bad smells, but blowing it on people's face while they eating it is not only allowed but almost a must. Actually they will find quite surprising that you don't mix Malboros with sushi. 

Photo credit: + Q Perfume Blog

The contradition and ambivalence are also applied to the perfume culture of Japan.

1. You will see 1000s of shops selling perfumes, but you will rarely find Japanese wearing them. 

Also ambivalent regarding perfumes: 

2. Japanese don't wear perfume but in Japan you find a perfume sommaliers. 

To understand what a Japanese perfume sommalier does, Kazutoshi Kato, one of the 14 perfume sommaliers of Japan certified by Bluebell Japan Ltd describes his job he explains:

“It is my job to select a scent that matches the customer. It is also my duty to teach the customer how to wear and preserve perfume, and how to observe proper manners when wearing it. He adds: "It is not just about knowing as many perfumes as possible, though that is necessary as well. You need to know the historical background of fragrance, how to describe each scent, how to display the perfume on the counter, and even the anatomy of the nose and how it works.” (Kato has been selling Bluebell’s perfume imports at the Isetan department store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district since 2001).

In 2003 Bluebell Japan introduced a perfume sommelier degree, a certificate awarded to Bluebell employees who meet certain qualifications. One of them being to pass the fragrance sales test conducted by the Japan Fragrance Association, and in order to pass this test it is necessary to have a wide knowledge of the perfume industry and of fragrance in general.

Yes fragrant friends, they have experts in fragrance, but will Japanese people wear the fragrances they are advising to purchase? Not really.

Photo credit: + Q Perfume Blog

3. Japanese people has almost no body odors.

Regarding this subject I have always heard things like "you smell of what you eat". If that was 100% accurate Japanese people would smell like fish, soy, ginger... wouldn't they? Well, they don't.

Japanese people in the subway smell good after one long day of working. They don't have a pronounced body odor, nor does the subway stink. Ridding the subway you will notice the difference from a New York subway train right away!

Although Gwen Stefani has launched in 2005 a line of fragrances called Harajuku Lover, inspired by the Harajuku street fashionistas you can be in a crowd in the middle of the day in the fashion district of Harajuku, where you can't barely move, and all you will smell is delicate flowery shampoos, fresh washed clothes and crêpes (we will address to this aroma later on).

Experts explain that one reason why the Japanese fragrance market is still relatively small is simply due to what is claimed to be a racial characteristic of Japanese people: They have a lower tendency to develop body odor.

“In Western countries, people originally used perfume to conceal their body odor,” says Akiko Ryu, the deputy general manager of the perfume and cosmetics division of Bluebell Japan. “Most Japanese people, however, hardly have any body odor. Therefore, perfume is not a necessity.”

That explains why Japanese subways and crowds are not smelly. (they don't bring food and beverages to the subway like new Yorkers do...)

I confess that while traveling in the subway I wanted to come closer to the Japanese standing next to me and take better sniff, but since they have a cultural imposition of minding your own space - "don't touch me, don't even look at me if possible" rule, I did not dare to do so.

If you guys want to go deeper on this subject I found an interesting/fun video in youtube made by Rachel from the Rachel & June channel that actually explains in a fun and easy to understand the chemistry and genetics of Japanese people:

So by now you are wondering... How come there are successful fragrances like L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake, Flower by Kenzo or houses like Shiseido and Hanae Mori if Japanese don't wear fragrances? It is indeed a mystery to me. There are Japanese perfume brands, there are perfume shops in Japan...but I am yet to find a Japanese person wearing perfume. Maybe perfume wearers gather in hidden corners to share their passion like the smokers do. 

I read an article in a blog about living in Japan as a foreigner that Japanese people consider perfume an accessory only for very important people or for women that "work at night", but I had no confirmation on the matter. 

Photo credit:  + Q Perfume Blog

4. You notice in Japan the absence of perfume in the air (personal scent), but the fragrances of household cleaning products, hygiene and laundry products are definitely there, almost like an entity.  

Truth is while in Japan you notice that they have a near obsession to cleaning and hygiene. This cultural emphasis on cleanliness is thought to be originated from the influence Japanese religion Shinto. By the way, 80% of the Japanese population is devoted to Shinto religion which is translated to the Traditional Religion of Japan with 81,000 temples. Shinto suggests that there are more than 8 million deities (Kami or Shin) in the daily objects and as they hate impurities the followers of the religion and the world around them must be purified and cleaned constantly thought ritual of purification (Harai) with water baths.

Photo credit: + Q Perfume Blog

According to one of the laws of Buddhism, another popular religion of Japan, it is forbidden to wear ornaments and perfumes. So one can assume that Japanese use very little or no fragrances at all due to some sort of religious belief.

And to finish this chapter: 

More smelly facts about Japanese culture extracted from the paper - "Japanese Fragrance Descriptives and Gender Constructions: Preliminary Steps to a Cross-Cultural Study" by Brian Moeran, Copenhagen Business School:

1. The Japanese make conscious use of smell in their everyday lives. 
2. Japanese have been concerned to get rid of smell, rather than add it in the way that Westerners do… There was a period earlier when Japanese added things to stop smells – as in lavatories, for example – but nowadays the idea is to produce things that do not smell in the first place.
3. Compact living styles in close quarters encourage either milder forms of smell.
4. If Japan is marked by a smell culture that is based more on ‘odourlessness’ than ‘odour’, we may wonder how fragrance companies advertise their products in Japan and how Japanese themselves react to modern – primarily Western – perfumes and the use thereof. In the early 1990s, it was remarked that the Japanese fragrance market constituted a mere 3 per cent of the total cosmetics market, as compared with 30 per cent in Europe (Wilk 1993: 52).
5. The Japanese vocabulary of smell appears, initially at least, to be as undeveloped as smell vocabularies in other languages, although it would seem to prefer to use ‘pure’ Japanese rather than foreign loanwords in its main classifications. There appears to be some continuity between contemporary Japanese and Heian Court aesthetics in terms of elegance, gorgeousness, sensuality and attraction (cf. Gatten 1977:44-46). The use of ‘sexiness’ is the exception here and suggests a strong Western influence, although the exact definition of ‘sexiness’ remains vague and imprecise. It may be possible to pursue the analysis of fragrance descriptives with reference to Adrienne Lehrer’s (1983) study of the vocabulary of wine appreciation.  

Stay put because in the next chapter we will start our fragrant Journey!!
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