I’m sitting in front of smouldering joss sticks trying to determine whether they smell of the milky sweetness of sandalwood or the raspy sharpness of cedar. A young woman with a glossy black bob lights one stick after another, blowing out each flame with a gentle wave of her hand. I’m unused to kneeling for so long, and I feel the crunch of tatami mats through my thin wool trousers. The back of my head throbs slightly from jet lag, and I feel thoroughly overwhelmed by both the size of Tokyo and the strain of trying to remember Japanese – covered in my mind as it is by layers of other languages I’ve learnt since my university days. I also feel anxious that I may not be able to guess the scents correctly – but then I remember my perfumery teacher’s words “Don’t think, just smell” and I let myself go.
I’m inside a Shoyeido incense store hidden in the elegant Aoyama district of Tokyo. Nearby are the glittering avenues of Harajuku, lined with fashion boutiques and populated by some of the most stylish people on the planet – but inside this earth-toned outlet, there is only absolute serenity and incense.
“Wafts through the summer night/The memory of scented sleeves/Of someone long ago” wrote an anonymous 8th-century poet. Incense in Japan has a long tradition, and the art of blending it has been refined to perfection. Kyara and jinko, different grades of aloeswood, are found in the most prized varieties, but sandalwood, cloves, patchouli, camphor and numerous other spices and roots are also used by incense makers.
Japanese incense has the complexity of a perfume, and as I sit surrounded by the pale curlicues of smoke, I’m suddenly reminded of a smouldering twist in Chanel No 22 (£115 for 75ml). This classical perfume made for a French couturier has little to do with Japan, but the languid note of incense that reveals itself after the champagne sparkle of aldehydes and jasmine has a polished Japanese aesthetic.
Similarly transporting is Guerlain’s Bois d’Arménie (£172 for 75ml), a composition inspired by papier d’Arménie, a type of benzoin-rich incense popular in France. Redolent of vanilla and cinnamon, benzoin is an important ingredient in Japanese incense, and Bois d’Arménie wouldn’t be out of place in Shoyeido’s collection.
Comme des Garçons Kyoto (£60 for 50ml), on the other hand, was inspired by Japan, and it has a serene, introspective character. One moment Kyoto smells like cedarwood shavings, and the next it transforms into a veil of smoke punctuated by patchouli and amber. The same perfumer, Bertrand Duchaufour, has recently authored Aedes de Venustas’ Copal Azur (£185 for 100ml), which evokes the incense of the Senso-ji temple in Tokyo.
An ache in my knees brings me back to reality. The joss sticks are slowly crumbling into a pile of grey ash and the woman is asking if I want to smell more. I will return the next day, I explain, but for now I select two packages of incense – earthy rose and spicy sandalwood – and watch as she intricately wraps them in transparent paper. When I step out into the biting cold of autumnal Tokyo, I notice my sleeves are scented with incense.