It’s hard to buy Christmas presents for someone when I ask them what they want for Christmas and all they say is, “I don’t know.” So in the end I gave my daughter some money. A few weeks before Christmas my wife also said “I don’t know,” but then in passing she mentioned perfume. When I was home alone I searched her makeup case and found no perfume there to give me a clue about what she might like. So I asked my daughter and she said that “Mama doesn’t use perfume.” But I decided to buy perfume anyway and maybe surprise her. When it comes to perfume all I can think of is Chanel No. 5 because it’s so famous. I have no idea if it’s good or not or what it even smells like. So with the perfume plan in mind I casually drifted through the Takashimaya Department Store in Shinjuku more than once while I was there on other business, quickly looking in the display cases to see what the prices were like. But no prices were listed. Eventually, on the day before Christmas, Tuesday, December 24th I asked my teenaged son - who just that morning attended his school’s end-of-term Closing Ceremony for the end of the calendar year - to accompany me to Shinjuku. He would be able to speak to the sales ladies in Japanese and he could help me decide on a scent, too. Plus there was other business to take care of. Ken wanted to buy a scarf for his sister and I wanted to exchange some Japanese yen into Canadian dollars in anticipation of my March 2014 trip.
Rather than going to the Takashimaya Department Store which is several hundred meters south of Shinjuku Station I decided to take him to the Isetan Department Store, much closer. Before leaving home I checked the Internet to see where there were Chanel outlets in Tokyo, and I figured in a department store all the scent makers would be represented, so a near one is as good as a far one. Also, Isetan is just as reputable a place as Takashimaya, or Marui, or Mitsukoshi, Keio, Odakyu, etc.
It’s the first time I’ve ever bought perfume, and it was more difficult than I imagined. First I was asked if I wanted ladies’ or men’s perfume (“kosui” in Japanese). Ken and I had to think quickly as the sales girls were giving us one sample after another. Did we want to get a scent that we thought smelled good or that we thought Junko would think smelled good? Strong or weak? Sweet, musky or flowery? We had no idea what perfume Junko likes. We decided to get something that we thought was good. But Ken was tired and he was disposed to agree to anything just to get out of there. After walking around in a daze for a while on the first floor of Isetan, where the cosmetics and perfumes are, we first went to the Dior counter. After that we went to Chanel. Then I wanted to clear my head so we briefly went outside. I don’t know how the sales ladies can spend their entire days around these perfumes without getting a headache, or without losing the ability to tell one scent from another. I thought we were going to give up but I quickly turned right back around and went back into the store. This time we tried the Estee Lauder counter and by now we had decided to get something that we liked, and what we liked was a strong, sweet smell.
The Estee Lauder sales girl let us sample one perfume after another, spraying a dollop on a piece of paper for us to hold up to our noses. I wondered if there was a trick to it, like don’t put too much perfume on the paper, don’t hold it too close to your face, don’t inhale too deeply, gently fan it in front of your nose, etc. At all of the counters - Dior, Chanel and Estee Lauder - the strong smells kept me thinking about insects and the decaying chitin shells of dead bugs. Eventually we decided on a 13,000-yen ($130) bottle of stuff called “Beautiful.” It reminded me of my mother’s scent.