One Thousand Scents

Friday, June 21, 2013

Kaboom: Sugar Bomb by Tokyomilk

After our mind-bending trip to Tokyo last year, Jim and I decided that we were going to go back as soon as we could manage it: we thought about going this year, but that was beyond the reach of our time and money, so we're saving up both and planning to go in the spring of 2015, so we can experience the cherry blossoms and explore Tokyo more thoroughly, in addition to visiting Kyoto and Osaka. Consequently, I am trying to learn Japanese.

We tend to think of the ability to communicate as a single unified skill. As a child, you learn to speak and understand what's spoken to you more or less simultaneously, and you do it effortlessly, as if the brain had evolved for the express purpose of making that possible, which you could argue it has. Not too long after that, and with a little more struggle, you learn to read and to produce written text that others can read — speech made permanent. It all happens so close together in time that we just think those four elements of literacy and communication are the four faces of the same shiny object, the capstone of humanity.

But I have slammed into the fact that those four abilities are at best tenuously connected to one another. It's one thing to look at and learn that it stands for the letter "a", or more precisely the sound "ah": these things are not crushingly hard to memorize (although there are a lot of them — two different, barely related syllabaries, each representing the same seventy-odd sounds, plus a collection of thousands of Chinese characters which, perversely, represent the very same sounds singly or in combination). It's something else entirely to be asked to reproduce the character that stands for any given sound. Not more difficult, necessarily (although I think it is): just a different skill.

And it's far easier to understand a spoken language than it is to actually produce that language as speech. When listening, you have the luxury of ignoring certain elements, stripping an utterance down to its essentials, and using context to guess at meaning. When speaking, you have to juggle a thousand different things — grammar, syntax, vocabulary — that in your native language you handle without ever thinking about. I've had entire retail conversations with customers asking if we have a certain product and where it's located: they speak French, I speak English, and we get along just fine. I couldn't discuss philosophy, but I could tell them that we have four different kinds of watercolour paper, and which kind of brush they should use on it, because, as Laurie Anderson says, if you can't talk about it, point to it.

When in Japan last year, we got by with a lot of pointing to things (and much bowing, along with the words "sumimasen" — "excuse me" — and "arigatou", or "thank you").* We're hoping to go again in the spring of 2015, and I want that trip to be different. I won't be fluent, god knows, but I want to be able to read signage and have necessary basic conversations with people and understand what's said to me in response. I don't just want to be that tourist. So I am going to learn Japanese, dammit!

Wish me luck.


In Toronto last month we found ourselves in an awe-inspiring little shop called Outer Layer on Queen Street West, and you should visit it if you're ever in the neighbourhood. They had a gazillion things, including what I think was the entire Tokyomilk Dark collection.

Now, I am unfortunately a lip-balm addict, and apply it, what? thirty times a day? At least. If I don't have some around me all the time I start to go into meltdown.** Therefore, I am always buying little sticks and tubs of the stuff, and leaving them around where I can get at them. One in a pocket of every jacket I own. One in the knapsack, one in the satchel. At least two at work. Four on my desk in front of me, I see.

Tokyomilk has two lines of products: one is light and fresh and bonbon, and the other, the Dark collection, is the opposite, often dark, always mysterious. The lip elixirs (as they call them) come in massive tubs, almost 20 grams, or about five standard tubes. And here is what they look like:

I smelled all eight, and then I bought three (a bargain at $8.95 per): Clove Cigarette (clove-carnation, basically), Coco Noir (cherry chocolates), and Salted Caramel (what it says on the tin). The texture is waxy and slightly sticky — Salted Caramel is a bit creamier than the others — but they don't have any shine at all and they're intensely scented, parfum concréte for your lips. They're so waxy, in fact, that if I put some on before I go to bed, it's still there in the morning, which isn't true of anything else I have ever tried.***

Tokyomilk also makes in their standard line, and Outer Layer also sells, little boxed sets of three scents, two eighth-ounce spray vials of each, that are meant to be worn alone or mixed together. All of the fragrances in all of the sets are at least nominally composed of two notes, although that's just marketing. Most of the scents are very girly and so none of them appealed to me except one: Sugar Bomb. I will always go out of my way to try a dark, sweet scent.

You don't expect that fragrances sold with the intention of being mixed will be complex, or even complete: the more elements that are in a scent, the more chances there are that something will clash with another scent. As a consequence, the Sugar Bomb scents aren't really scents at all, but smells, and not even that: they're really bases, the final chapter of a composed perfume.

113 is probably the closest that any in the set come to being a complete fragrance: described as "vanilla orchid and honeyed cocoa", it has a dark orchidaceous floral presence with fruity overtones, making it a fruity floral. It's a stripped-down version of Tom Ford Black Orchid, really, and not bad at all.

114 is a base and just a base: a fragrance with a description of "tonka bean and sweet amber" could hardly be anything else. Consequently, it's a bit cloying on its own.

115, the best of the lot, is described as "sugared crème and fennel", and I guess that will do. It does smell rich and creamy — fatty, in the best way — and wonderfully sweet, with a caramelized-sugar overtone, a slightly grassy anise quality, and a hint of coconut.

The packaging suggests the wearer combine these scents with one another, which doesn't strike me as a great idea: base plus base equals more base. (Also, these combos are supposed to provide "endless fragrance pairings", which suggests that someone can't do math.) 113+114 = "oh-so-sweet" (no argument from me), 114+115 = "tempting", 113+115 = "sinful", and all three added together = "irresistible". I would imagine it would = instant death, though I don't intend to perform the experiment. However, any of these three would serve as a good anchor for a light, evanescent fragrance. Test-drive the combination first.

*When we got there and were unpacking, I looked everywhere for the phrasebook we had bought, and couldn't find it, because in fact I had left it on the kitchen table.

**Speaking of which: I once and only once left a tube of lip balm in the pocket of a pair of pants, and laundered those pants. And ended up with grease stains all over, well, pretty much every article of clothing I owned. And had to get them all dry-cleaned. At least it was cheaper than buying all new clothing.

***The regular line of course also has a line of fortunately unshiny lip balms, and of course I also have two of those: Let Them Eat Cake, a coconut-vanilla concoction, and Rose Water, a sugared rose, both creamier and less waxy than the Dark elixirs and very nice indeed.

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