One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 09, 2012

Long Distance Love Affair: Serge Lutens Feminité du Bois (eventually)

You are going to have to scroll a very long way down if you want to read about Feminité du Bois. Just so you know.

All my posts for the last month were written in advance and auto-scheduled to appear on Fridays. I wasn't able to post because I WAS IN TOKYO. Seriously. I HAVE BEEN TO TOKYO AND I CAN PROVE IT.

That's a receipt from the Apple Store in Shibuya, Tokyo, dated October 17th, 2012. I bought an iPod nano, this tasty little morsel right here:

My old one was on its last legs: it was a second-generation nano, six years old and very much the worse for wear. This new one had been on the shelves for less than a week, and it seduced me with its vividness: it is SO RED! (You can also get an iPod touch in the same colour, but that one, to my surprise, is too red: there's just too much surface area and it's kind of overwhelming. This one is just exactly right.)

Flying to Tokyo from Toronto, unless you do it first class, is a real slog: twelve hours of sitting upright and being completely unable to sleep. (I watched five movies on the in-flight entertainment system. What did people do before those things? I really want to know, because without it I would have gone mad.) They do feed you every couple of hours, to distract you from the awful slogginess of the voyage and also to give the flight attendants something to do.

And then when you get there, you're twelve hours ahead in time zones, which means that 1) you haven't slept in quite a while, even though you're exhausted, and 2) you left at 5 in the afternoon and it's still 5 in the afternoon, but 3) your brain thinks it's 5 in the morning. AND YOU STILL CAN'T SLEEP. It took us a solid week to shake off the jet lag, and I am not kidding. (And then we had to do the whole thing again in the other direction, so there's another week that it took to shake off another bout of killer jet lag. And we both caught colds, too: a twelve-hour airplane trip, as it turns out, is a great incubator.)

Japan is years ahead of us in vending-machine technology. Everything you may have heard about that is true. Vending machines are everywhere, and most of them serve cold beverages in cans, hundreds of different brands and flavours, which is why I became addicted to Suntory Boss Café au Lait (milky, barely sweetened, and absolutely perfect): some of them also vend hot beverages, also in cans. From the same machine! You pay with change or bills: some of them also allow you to pay with a transit card called a Suica. Less commonly you might find machines that vend frozen ice-cream treats, snacks like Pocky, and children's toys. In Japan, one doesn't walk around eating and drinking and smoking (in fact, quite a few Tokyo sidewalks have something like this spray-painted onto or set into them):

(That's a sidewalk and not a wall.) So the custom is to buy a drink from one of these ubiquitous vending machines, stand there while you consume it, and then toss the empty can or bottle into a recycling container attached to it.

Those are outdoors. Most of the vending machines are. (The recycling slot is over to the left of the photo.) We never saw a single machine that had been damaged or vandalized in any way except very rarely a graffitied sticker or two slapped on the side. Can you even imagine anything like that in North America? They'd be spray-painted and kicked to death within days. Hours, maybe.

Japan is also years ahead of us in toilet technology. This is the control panel for the toilet in our hotel room:

Yeah, a toilet with a control panel. The leftmost button is to stop the water from spraying. The next one is labelled "Shower", and it cleans the back passage with a continuous jet of warm water. The next one is labelled "Bidet" and since it has a picture of a lady with her undercarriage being sprayed, you can rightly surmise that it moves the spray a little closer to the front. (I guess a man could use it too.) Over on the right is the dial for choosing the strength of the spray. Sitting on the commode was a slightly disconcerting experience, because as soon as you do, a pressure sensor detects that you're there and begins heating up some water for you: this trickles into the toilet and makes it sound as if you're peeing.

It is impossible to drop the toilet seat or lid: they hydraulically lower themselves, which is nice. More advanced toilets than this one — and we saw these in public places like malls and subway stations — also have a deodorizer spray button and a sound-generator button, which makes the sound of a flush (not very convincing, actually, but loud enough) to cover up any unfortunate sounds you yourself might be making. Apparently, Japanese women used to flush the toilet continuously to cover up sounds — walls in Japan tend to be pretty thin — and these devices help them stop wasting water.

The Japanese have a reputation for cleanliness and discretion, and I guess their toilets are a pretty good indicator of that, but I would like to note that twice during our stay, a young Japanese woman (not the same one each time) got onto an elevator absolutely stinking of body odour, so clearly not everybody knows how to use soap. I would also like to note that whatever the fragrance people say about differing Asian versus Western tastes in applied scents, we smelled a fair number of young men wearing loud, modern fragrances like Calvin Klein or Axe (aka douchewater).

You will be disappointed to learn that I promised Jim I would not be doing any fragrance shopping while I was there (not because he doesn't want me to try them but because he usually ends up standing in some public place waiting for me), and I didn't, either. Okay, one tiny exception. We were in Ginza (more about that below) and there was a Shiseido boutique which I figured would have the newest Serge Lutens, Santal Majuscule, so Jim graciously consented to wait around the corner by a vending machine and have a quick sip while I popped inside. And they did have Santal Majuscule, but there were two problems: 1) at first sniff it didn't seem all that different from Santal de Mysore except with a chocolatey note, and 2) it was like ¥13,600, which is almost $170, and I just couldn't. So I left. And other than that, no scent shopping until the very very end.

I did, however, go ink shopping. Boy howdy did I ever go ink shopping!

Tokyo has the most amazing stationery stores possible. A chain of stores called Tokyu Hands always has a stationery department and some of them are HUGE, with literally hundreds and hundreds of different makes of pens (I didn't count). There's a store in Ginza called Ito-Ya, nine stories of every single thing you can possibly imagine a stationery store ought to have: an entire floor of Japanese paper and calligraphy supplies, another consisting entirely of 2013 calendars and journals and diaries. We went to Ito-Ya on Day 2, still jet-lagged but in a shopping mood, and what I ended up buying there was not ink but a clutch of these little beauties:

That is a disposable fountain pen called a Pilot Petit1. It's tiny, but when you put the cap on the end it's almost as long as a standard pen. There's an ink cartridge inside in a colour that matches the pen: you impale it on the post inside the pen and the ink passes through the feed and into the nib, which is amazingly smooth for a pen that cost less than $2.50. The ink, though, is not particularly good, nothing special (you don't expect much at that price, I guess), except for the blue-black, which is really nice. You can buy replacement cartridges, but I had something else in mind: I got a syringe from a 100-yen store (like North American dollar stores, but much much better, sometimes four or five stories of wonderful things) to empty out the ink, flush the cartridge with water, and refill it with better ink. Specifically, Iroshizuku.

Remember Iroshizuku? I knew that they would be cheaper in Japan so I made up a list of 9 colours (out of 21) that I thought might be interesting, and figured I would choose a couple of them if I could find a source in Tokyo. The retail price in North America is $35, though you can buy it online for $28 a bottle. (After the trip we spent a week in Toronto to decompress, and the owner of Laywine's told me that after taxes and duties and so forth, he would have to sell Iroshizuku inks at $50 a bottle to make any money from them.) In Japan, you can buy it for 1500 yen, which is like $18 a bottle. So I bought eleven.

Not all at once! I was the very model of self-control at first, picking up only two (Fuyu-syogun, a cloud grey, and Syo-ro, a dark teal, in case you were wondering). But those inks are everywhere. A couple of days later I ended up buying three more (Asa-gao, pure blue; Yama-budo, dark magenta that I thought was more like burgundy; and Tsuki-yo, tealish blue-black). And then four days later another (Shin-ryoko, pine green). And then the next three more (Chiku-rin, bright bamboo green; Ku-jaku, bright peacock blue; and Fuyu-gaki, bright persimmon orange). And I really thought I was done with ink, but then the day before we left I found myself at one last Tokyu Hands location and by god didn't I buy two last Iroshizukus (Kon-Peki, bright sky blue, and that one up there, Murasaki-shikibu, killer purple)? And I loaded them all up into Petit1 pens (I ended up buying seriously about twenty-five of those things at various stationery stores all over Tokyo) and I just wrote and wrote and wrote (filling up almost two thirds of a Rhodia staple-bound journal in just over two weeks) and it is the most colourful thing you ever saw — it looks like a clown exploded all over the pages. But I got every single colour on my list and two more besides (the persimmon and the purple), and I am writing writing writing and it is wonderful.

So that is kind of a lot of shopping (there's more besides that could not possibly interest anyone), but when am I ever going to get back to Tokyo?

Before we went through the security gate at Narita airport, I went into a little drugstore/convenience store to get something to drink and maybe use up some of smaller change: I had a whole lot of it and too much was ¥5 and ¥1 coins, which vending machines won't take. And they had this:

Breath Palette, little 25-mL tubes of toothpaste in the most insane flavours, 31 of them. Yes, you can see Grapefruit and Pumpkin Pudding on those tubes, and that's just the start of it. I thought I had read about them before but I wasn't 100% sure that they were even toothpaste, so I asked the very nice clerk, "Toothpaste?" And she spoke no English, so I mimed brushing my teeth, and she responded by laughing and fake-brushing her own wide smile. (You can get by in Tokyo without much Japanese if you are willing to act things out, point a lot, and say "arigato" (thank you) and "sumimasen" (excuse me) a lot. And you bow a lot, too, and you will get the bowing wrong because there are different depths and durations of the bow depending on you and on them and your status and age and so forth, but they cut foreigners a whole lot of slack, and so it is all very civilized and polite and wonderful.)

The toothpastes, as it turns out, are extremely peculiar: don't have any detergent to make them foam, and they don't actually taste like their namesakes (which include Indian Curry, Yogurt Freshness, and Lavender). They sure as hell do smell like them, though, and they don't actually make your breath smell like chocolate or green tea or whatever: it's an evanescent experience. At ¥200 each, almost $2.50 Canadian, they're expensive for toothpaste but cheap for novelties. And so I added up my change and bought ten: Monkey Banana (!), Tropical Pineapple, Rose, Honey, Café au Lait, L'Espresso, Caramel, Cola, Blueberry, and Darjeeling Tea. If you're used to a toothpaste foaming up and making your breath severely minty, then these are a weird, counterintuitive experience, but they're fun as hell.

After the security gate at the Narita airport there is of course duty-free shopping, and so I decided that since I had been unexpectedly restrained and virtuous in Tokyo, I was going to see what they had. And the answer was, not much. I am mostly over commercial fragrances, and there were lots of those, of course, and some travel exclusives and sets of miniatures, but not one single thing grabbed my fancy. There was, however, a Serge Lutens display, complete with a very aggressive saleswoman (possibly on commission) who decided that I was going to sample, and buy, Daim Blond, which is nice enough but nothing I'd own. A quick skim of the contents — there were maybe a dozen scents there — revealed either things I already owned or things I wouldn't ever want to own, with one possible exception: Feminité du Bois.
When it was first launched in 1992, the bottle looked like this

and I really did not like it: I didn't think much of the scent, either, and even if I had liked it, I wouldn't have bought it, because of the bottle and also because of that name. In what I now know to be typical Lutens fashion, the scent itself isn't feminine or gendered in any way: but it was part of the Shiseido line, and the scent was so woody, so dominated by cedar, that the company had to take the curse off it and assure women that yes, it was a wood scent meant for them, that it wasn't masculine at all.

At Narita I sprayed some on a blotter and then wandered off to think about it. It didn't take me long to circle back and buy a bottle. Bois et Fruits is one of a series of variations on Feminité du Bois, and the family relationship is immediately clear: cedar and dried fruit, but in very different proportions.

Feminité du Bois opens with the briefest flash of soap, for some reason, and then it's immediately off to the main feature: a little dried fruit (mostly peaches and plums, lightly spicy, plus some orange peel) and lots and lots and lots of wood, mostly cedar but also sandalwood. It leaps off the skin at first, but once it settles down (which it does quickly) it's mostly a cozy, intimate scent: people are going to have to lean in to smell it on you.

Despite that name, there is nothing remotely feminine about it, at least not now: Lutens might as well have called it Un Bois Unisexe. It's been reformulated since its launch: that's no secret. (In fact, Lutens has said that all scents are reformulated repeatedly, sometimes every couple of years, and his are no exception.) Some people who know both say that the wood is considerably attenuated in this newer version: I have nothing to compare it to. I am willing to bet that if I could go back in time and smell the original Shiseido version, knowing what I know now, I would adore it. But the Lutens reformulation is what I have, and luckily for me, I adore that, too.

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  • How apropos u found to review Feminité du Bois while in Japan.. It never occurred 2 me its kinship w/ Bois et Fruits.. My thought exactly on Daim Blond(Good but ~good enuf!).
    I just returned from a Basenoter's reunion in Vegas. Barney's there had no Santal Blanc, but upon 1st smelling Santal Majescule, I found it 2b eerily reminiscent of Jeux de Peu; perhaps due to the confectionary/chocolate note u alluded 2? Could I pls ask u 4 a redux of Santal de Mysore/Blanc/Majescule & JDP w/ an emphasis on their similarities & differences?

    PS. The Breath palette has been around since 2005. I'm glad u got to try them;)

    By Blogger Howard, at 10:48 AM  

  • What a fascinating post! I've never been to Asia before, so this was really interesting. And I'll join you in a love affair for FdB, not only for the smell, but also for its influence.

    By Blogger Dionne, at 12:04 PM  

  • I absolutely love stationery and am so excited to see your obvious love for it too. Tokyo is truly the mecca for stationery freaks like myself. I hope you managed to make it to The Loft in Shibuya. I spent three hours there alone, on top of all those extra hours in other stationery chains.

    I make it a point to taste all their crazy yummy drinks too. Cheap thrills!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:25 AM  

  • Howard — Quite right, Santal Majuscule is also reminiscent of Jeux de Peau, at least based on the brief time I tried it (I didn't put it on my skin, so my knowledge of it is limited).

    Dionne — My idea of a vacation is "Go to a big city for as long as you can afford to, do everything," and if that's yours, too, then you REALLY ought to go to Tokyo, which is enormous and endlessly amazing.

    theotherscent — I didn't get to The Loft because I hadn't even heard of it until just now, but next time.... There was no shortage of stationery stores in my trip, though: there was just a shortage of luggage to carry everything home in, all the pens and paper and ink and more besides that I could have bought. I got enough to last me a while, though!

    And yeah, I kept trying new things out of vending machines just because there were so many of them and they all seemed so different and alluring (Calpis sounds gross but is delicious). Cheap thrills indeed!

    By Blogger pyramus, at 9:47 AM  

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