Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bed of Roses

Laurie at the entrance to her Puurfumery
I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Laurie Stern of Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery a few weeks ago. She was in the midst of preparing for Sniffapalooza's Fall Ball, but was kind enough to make time for me to chat. What a chat it was!  Her studio, aka Purrfumery, is a wonderland of beautifully made objects and smells and bottles. She told me about how she used to go across the street to Christopher McMahon's house to smell different oils. It made me jealous just hearing about it!

Laurie's organ
Oils are organized by scent types
 Laurie's organ was a total wonder and an eye opener. Instead of organizing her oils alphabetically, she organizes hers by scent type. I thought that was very smart and plan to do that with my oils one of these days. Right now mine are bunched together with no organizing principle. I also noticed a lot of antique and vintage oils in her studio. She told me that she loves going to garage sales and flea markets and finds them there. I go to garage sales and flea markets, but I've never seen anything! I've got to go shopping with Laurie!

Laurie's garden was another paradise. Her husband is a landscape designer, so she has a good excuse to have a fabulous garden, but wow! I found the different experiences that the garden provides with different plants and different areas to be very playful and very Laurie Stern.

Laurie keeps an outdoor tub with running hot water!
She also keeps bees that provide her with propolis, beeswax and honey.

Laurie let me test some of her perfumes. I was also very lucky to be the first one to smell her new perfume, Bed of Roses! I'm putting a little bit on my wrist now... The perfume opens with a light, brandy-like, sweet rose with a hint of vanilla, then morphs into a symphony of layers upon layers of complex rosy scents. I think I smell Mutabilis on a hot day, my apricot-colored hybrid musk rose, also something like Rosa de Recht. Do I smell rose leaf? Maybe a hint of fir absolute? Bed of Roses is indeed a bed of roses. Once I put it on my wrist, I can't keep from smelling it. I'm now a total fan of Laurie Stern. Thank you, Laurie!!!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horse Hair and Mosquito's Leg

Fragrant woods, namely agarwood or aloeswood, that are used for kodo in Japan are getting very scarce. The price of kyara and jinko seem to rise yearly. I read somewhere that only ten years ago, top grade kyara could be had for 2500 yen a gram, about 1/8th of what it is today!

Scarcity of wood didn't start recently. When Japan was under feudal rule during the Edo Period, the country was closed to most foreign countries. If I remember correctly, Japan traded only on a limited scale with Holland, Portugal and China. (I might be wrong about Portugal...) Since all fragrant materials including aloeswood had to be brought in from abroad, the supply was very limited. Also it was during the Edo Period that kodo became very popular among the princesses and came to be considered a part of proper upbringing. Since supply of wood was very limited, only a small amount could be burnt at a time. The word that is used to describe the amount of of the precious wood used in kodo is "babi-bunsoku," meaning literally, as thin as horse's hair and small as a mosquito's leg.

This kind of expression and sensitivity to material seems very Japanese to me. Since Japan never had much natural resources of its own, its citizens had to always rely on imports and also be very thrifty about materials. Words like "mottainai" meaning "precious, not wasting, holding off" all at the same time are unknown in English as far as I know. In that sense babi-bunsoku could have only been born in Japan, and kodo is a thoroughly Japanese pass time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Kyara II

My first impression of the third piece of wood was that it was yet another type, but because I had such a strong reaction to the first one, I wanted the third to be the same as the first, and I managed to find a similarity, a sweetness way in the back of the scent.

I marked my paper with the appropriate symbol, connecting the first and the third vertical lines with a horizontal line on top, meaning they were the same. 

Then came the answer. They were all different. My mother, a cooking teacher with a very keen nose had gotten it right. The young woman told us that the first one was kyara, second one was sumotara and the last one manaban. We were told that manaban is mistaken for kyara often. I should have stuck with my first instinct.

In Kodo (pronounced like kohdoh with long o's) the woods are classified into six categories (rikkoku) that represent six countries, kyara (伽羅) - Vietnam, rakoku (羅国) - Thailand, manaban (真南蛮) - Southwest India's Malabar area, manaka (真那伽) - Southwest Malaysia Malacca, sasora (佐曽羅) - unknown, and sumotara (寸門多羅) - Sumatra. While these names represent real places for the most part, the names are representations of types of wood. Hence it doesn't mean that all the jinko from Sumatra are sumotara or that all sumotara are from Sumatra. 

The scent of jinko is described using five characteristics called gomi (literal translation "five tastes".) They are hot 辛(karai) as in spicy hot like a clove, amai 甘(sweet) like honey, suppai 酸(sour) like pickled plums, nigai 苦(bitter) like herbal medicine, and shiokarai 鹹(salty) like the ocean and sweat.

Having been brought back to the real world, we walked through the garden and back into the shop. The shop was filled with wonderful treasures. I really had to restrain myself. I found a basket of sandalwood that were left over from making wooden beads. I smelled all the pieces and tried to pick one that smelled the best. Then I found another much smaller basket with jinko pieces left from making jinko beads. I started to smell these, too, but they were harder to smell. Jinko's scent is released with heat. I decided to choose one that was darkest. They also had some kodo utensils and cups, but I decided to pass on these as they would break the bank. I also thought I could substitute something for the time being, but you couldn't substitute the wood. I saw some kyara powder in small bags. They were being sold for ¥15,000 for a gram bag. At the exchange rate of ¥80 to the dollar that would be close to $190! 

Meanwhile the woman that had guided us through the kodo experience was serving us glasses of jinko tea. At the other end of the counter, I noticed another customer looking at some pieces of wood and incense. I summoned the nerve to ask the woman about the kyara we had listened to. She opened one of hundreds of drawers and pulled out a small plastic bag full of small pieces of wood. I chose one of the smallest piece and gave it to her. She weighed it; the scale flickered between 0.2 grams and 0.3 grams. She punched in some numbers into her calculator and came up with a price for the tiny piece of wood: ¥3,750. Roughly $48. It is now one of my dearest treasures.

I found this on YouTube that is a pretty accurate impression of the store Yamadamatsu.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


This is Ranjatai, the most famous and important piece of kyara in Japan.  The markers show where pieces were taken from it by shoguns and emperors.

I listened to the scent of kyara for the very first time this summer. I'd read about it in Miyao Tomiko's 「伽羅の香り」or "The Scent of Kyara," and had been gifted a small sample of agarwood oil and pieces of jinko from friends, but nothing really prepared me for it.

My mother and I arrived at the venerated incense shop Yamadamatsu just before our appointment at 10:30 on a hot and muggy, typical summer day in Kyoto. We were lead through the store, through a courtyard to a tea room like structure. We entered and was relieved that it was air conditioned. We waited for a few minutes and a young woman with a tray with some incense burners arrived. She gave us a quick and very basic lesson in kodo, and told us that we would be "listening to," not smelling, three different pieces of wood. They might all be the same or different. Two maybe the same or not. The point was to see who gets it right.

She put the tadon (charcoal) into the censer and covered it by making a cone with the ash. She then pressed the ash neatly and brushed the ash on the rim away with a feathered tool. She put her hand on the censer to test the temperature, then she deliberately poked a hole in the top to the tadon, then placed a ginyo (mica plate) on top. Slowly, she scooped up a tiny piece of wood from the elaborate paper wrapping, and placed it on the ginyo.

I felt like a blue wing swooped me into another dimension. The smell was floral and woody, purple and blue with streaks of white. It was like nothing I'd experienced before. In a single word, it was otherworldly.

The young woman passed the censer to my mother to listen to, then my mother passed it to me. I put my right hand on top of the censer covering it, making a reverse C shape with my thumb and fingers where I will be putting my nose, and holding the censer with my left hand in the prescribed manner. Both elbows must be out, creating a triangle with your head as you put the censer to your nose. I inhale once, then turn my head to the side to exhale and contemplate the scent. I inhale again, turn head. Once more, I inhale and turn my head to exhale. To my surprise the scent in my hand is much more demure than the powerful scent that was emitted when the wood was first put on the ginyo. I enjoyed the sweet, jasmine-like floralness of the scent that rested on a foundation of grand woods.

The second wood was lit. This was totally different. No drama. Very shy, soft wood. Almost not there. We listened and passed it around. Then came the third one. My first impression was that it was yet another different wood, but I wanted to smell the first one again so much that I looked for similarities. This one didn't have the voluptuousness of the first and was much more shy and demure, but I manged to find the same sweetness I found in the first one. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I decided to mark it the same as the first.