Parfum Satori Satori: Fragrance Review

Satori Eau de Parfum, the representative creation of Pafum Satori

Satori Eau de Parfum, the representative creation of Pafum Satori

What is this elusive category of perfume referred to as “oriental?”

Many in the fragrance community will say Shalimar was the first perfume ever composed that was inspired by the mythical Orient. Creating using a overdosed bergamot top and smoky vanilla base, its use of resinous materials like labdanum cemented the oriental as a mainstay in modern perfumery. So what is an oriental perfume? From a technical point of view, it is often characterized by the use (and abuse) resinous and balsamic raw materials like vanilla, benzoin, labdanum (the combination of which give rise to the oft-bandied about “amber accord” – which is a story for another day), myrrh, frankincense/olibanum, spices, and woods like sandalwood, agarwood/oud, and so on. From a more cultural-historical point of view, oriental is also an interpretive category, a fantasy French perfumers had about the exotic Orient. It is nothing like the Orient. Behold modern masterpieces like Guerlain’s Encens Mythique d’Orient or modern orientals like Portrait of a Lady. These works of olfactory art only take elements of the Orient (incense, rose attar, spices) and incorporate them into the technical and cultural framework of French perfumery to create something novel, yet undeniably classically “perfumey” as well.

Why the detour? Because, although Parfum Satori’s Satori claims to be an oriental woody fragrance, it is none of the above. It is not some fantasy accord of the mythical Orient, it is a creation by a Japanese perfumer, who was born, raised, and educated in Japan. How does one Japanese independent perfumer represent the “orient?”

Incense in Zen Buddhism

Satori, which is Japanese for “awakening,” or “enlightenment” (as in the Buddhist tradition), is a splendid rendition of what Japanese incense smells like. Incense was first introduced to Japan via Buddhism in the 6th century, and is not the same kind of incense that is associated with church (that is frankincense – French incense, which is a discussion for another day). In fact, the Japanese developed an elaborate Buddhist ritual called kōdō, which involves the appreciation of incense not unlike in an austere and codified system as with tea in the Japanese tea ceremony. I am not an expert on this art, but the perfumer, Satori Ozawa, is certainly one. This perfume is obviously inspired by her own experience with the ritual, as it comes extremely close to duplicating the scent of Japanese incense.

Japanese incense from Kyoto. Unburnt incense has a profound and complex aroma of vanilla-creamy woodiness...

Japanese incense from Kyoto. Unburnt incense has a profound and complex aroma of vanilla-creamy woodiness…

Japanese incense is dominated by agarwood, and the highest quality agarwood is said to have “five tastes: spicy, bitter, sweet, sour, and salty.” The trick behind rendering these five tastes simultaneously is to use a cinnamon and clove to express spiciness, cacao (bitterness), vanilla (for sweetness). Sourness and saltiness were achieved through the controlled use of citrus, moss, cypress. Finally, sandalwood and frankincense help to bind these tastes and give it an oriental-incense flavour not unlike those found in the archetypical oriental perfumes. My research also turned up other ingredients used in Japanese incense, while I smell some incense that I purchased in Kyoto, Japan a while ago. It has lost none of its fragrant and profound scent. Unburnt Japanese incense radiates a woody vanilla-creaminess to it. I wonder if it is due to the sandalwood, which is known to have a creamy, milky quality (in perfumery, the technical term is butryic). Indeed, Japanese incense has the following list of ingredients (taken from Wikipedia): Agarwood, sandalwood, camphor, benzoin, frankincense, clove, star anise, rhubarb, cinnamon, licorice, patchouli. All perfectly suitable for making an oriental perfume!

The stated list of notes on the website, packaging, and from the perfumer herself seem to vary. On the packaging itself, the official list of notes are:

Top: Bergamot, coriander
Middle: Cinnamon, clove, cacao, vanilla
Base: Olibanum (frankincense), sandalwood, oakmoss, agarwood

On spraying, the perfume gives off a citrus-spicy heavy top. After 20 minutes, the citrus-spicy top give way to a heart of agarwood, sandalwood, and oakmoss. It is a simple composition, made with these profound ingredients. In fact, due to shortage, Indian sandalwood is hardly ever used nowadays by industry giants. The use of oakmoss has also suffered greatly due to IFRA regulations about the safety of oakmoss in perfumery. And real agarwood is hardly used outside of the Middle East, as most western perfume manufacturers in fact use synthetic oud – which has none of the depth and profound-ness of the real deal.

A Subtle and Refined Oriental-Woody Fragrance for Men and Women

True to its name-sake, Satori invokes a Zen-like image of stilness and meditation

True to its name-sake, Satori invokes a Zen-like image of stillness. Picture from Kamakura, Japan.

If you are expecting an oriental powerhouse like Guerlain’s Samsara, you will be in for a sore disappointment and I would advise you to look (or smell) elsewhere. Parfum Satori’s perfumes are all made with her Japanese clientele in mind, and Japanese people tend not to like overpowering scents. Satori, is no exception. This fragrance is refined and elegant, never obtrusive. This is pretty much a skin scent, does not project much, but the tenacity is surprising. There are some in the fragrance community who do not like this fragrance, nor the house in general for the simple fact that the perfumes do not project much. They are not loud nor leave an incredible sillage like classical French orientals. And therein lies the biggest difference. For the French, the orient is exotic, it is out there for you to grab on to, and then announce to the world. For this Japanese interpretation of the orient, it is inward-looking, a vision of peace and meditative calm.

I however, love it. Why do I like Satori? Because it triggers fond memories I have of travelling around in Japan in my younger days. A whiff of it transports me, like any good perfume should, to a different place and time…

And now, I am in the temples of Kyoto in the crisp cold air of winter-spring. The incense from the temples wafting around me, the austere emptiness of Zen architecture and design.

This is really technically well-made. The perfume blossoms with the heat of human skin, I thought to myself, before losing myself again to the silent hum of meditation, as I sit and watch my mind…

To learn more about Parfum Satori, you can read my original post here (2015) and here (2016).