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The 'Japanesque' perfume taking Europe by stormMiya Shinma 'in' in Paris and favored by Russia's First Lady

May 13, 2013  Satomi Iwasawa

 This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on March 19. You can read it here.

People are said to have five senses, but don't we tend to neglect one of them? We pamper four of our senses: beautiful art for our eyes, moving music for our ears, delicious food for our mouths, sensuous clothes for our skin—but how often do we stop to (literally) smell the roses? Writer Satomi Iwasawa travels to Paris to meet Miya Shinma, who creates unique, Japanese fragrances and asks us to consider our noses and be mindful of the wonderful smells around us in our lives.

In the world of Western perfumes there is a unique line of fragrances which has been selling for more than a decade. Named after its founder, it is called Miya Shinma. In recent years its popularity has spread as far as Russia, with even Russia's First Lady said to be a fan.

Hundreds of new perfumes are released each year and most have short lives and quickly disappear from view, which makes Miya Shinma's success even more remarkable. To learn more about this brand I visited Ms. Shinma at her office in Paris.

"Embarrassed to see my own name on the box"

Miya Shinma is a high-class brand with Japan and the Japanese sensibility called wa as its core concepts. It is currently selling eight perfumes, called, Hana (flower), Tsuki (moon), Kaze (wind), Sakura (cherry blossom), Feuillage vert (green leaves), Hinoki (cypress), Mizu (water) and Yuki (snow).

Miya Shinma brand perfumes are beloved by people around the world, particularly in France, the UK, Germany and Russia, who have an interest in Japan. (Photo ©Miya Shinma)

As Miya Shinma is very stylish it is carried at the famous Parisian department store Le Bon Marché and is highly regarded by the store's affluent clientele (particularly women). Perfume was invented by the French and it is a necessity for them. There are many who are keen to try lovely new fragrances even as they retain bottles of their own favorites.

Packaged in a wooden box with a label reflecting Japanese women's tidiness, the perfume carries a phantasmagoric scent that alludes to far-off Japan. The very Japanesque packaging and aroma of Miya Shinma was instantly adopted by madams and mademoiselles.

Miya Shinma comes in a carefully made box. (Photo credit: author)

Ms. Shinma explains the establishment of her brand, "The name 'Miya' is easy for people here to remember, and it made me happy that my parents had given it to me. Although I was embarrassed to see my own name on the box, Parisians encouraged me to use it because it's a Japanese-made Japanese-style perfume." It was picked up in fashion magazines and newspapers beyond France and Miya Shinma is now said to be in vogue among Russians of culture and taste.

"Japan is very 'in' in Russia right now, and a lot of people want to know more about it. I think that the people who buy my perfume admire and want to learn more about Japan; they use the perfume as a way of strengthening their feelings toward Japan," she explains.



Expressing Japan's aesthetic through perfume

Ms. Shinma came to Paris in 1997 to study to be a perfumer.

"After I came to Paris the more I learned about fragrances the more I wanted to know about them. I was quite absorbed in my studies. At that time I decided that I wanted to experience the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (an anthology of classic Japanese poetry) again, having studied it a bit in school. I was seeking something very Japanese, and was being asked a lot about Japan, so I wanted to look at that aspect of Japanese culture.

Ms. Miya Shinma gives off a gentle aura at her atelier in Paris. (Photo credit: author)

So when I was reading the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu I began to want to create a perfume with Japan in mind. When I finished my studies I chose poems about flowers, the Moon and wind and created scents according to my interpretation of them. This was the beginning of Miya Shinma.

I'm not trying to put my message in the perfume so much as I am trying to faithfully express a part of nature with it. I want to remove unnecessary elements and express Japan's aesthetic of simple beauty. When I talk to the people who bought Miya Shinma there are many who have a high degree of interest in Japan, which made me understand that I need to correctly convey Japan's image.

This is why I try to convey Japan's strong sense of beauty towards nature instead of trying to make Western perfumes," Ms. Shinma explains.

Just like with cooking, in creating fragrances there is a nearly infinite array of possible combinations of raw materials. When creating a fragrance, Ms. Shinma decides what sort of aroma she wants to create, then expresses this in a poem. She then works hard, mixing until she has a fragrance that reflects the poem.

Memories of Kyoto help with making perfume

Ms. Shinma's experiences from her youth onwards come out in her perfumes. She wrote poetry daily when she was a child, and the music she has played since the age of three (the piano and organ) helped to lead her to this world.

She loved music which enriched her life, and one day she read an article about French perfumers which mentioned that creating a fragrance was like composing a symphony.

Ms. Shinma believes that, "Perfume is a crystallization of artistic activities. Both perfume and music are works of art that make life enjoyable," and upon realizing this she developed an interest in fragrances which she had never had before.

Another product is box perfume including ball-type room fragrances (Photo ©Miya Shinma)

The world of fragrances was far more interesting than she had suspected.

"The French are extremely sensitive to very subtle scents. They don't say, 'That smells nice,' they say, 'This scent is nice because it smells like that herb.' This led me to study a variety of interesting scents from everyday life for use in perfumes. This included scents like that of a church or of goat cheese.

But looking back on it, I was raised among a lot of wonderful smells too. The wooden house I lived in since birth always gave off the scent of wood, and as I'm from Shizuoka, tea factories were nearby, so when I would open a window, especially during the new tea season the smell of tea would waft in. So much so that I almost felt that the air was turning green with tea.

I also have wonderful memories of my time at university in Kyoto. The smell of old buildings, the smells of incense and of the tea I enjoyed in the tea ceremony room—there were a lot of smells unique to Japan I was exposed to when living there.

My time living in Kyoto is a treasure to me. I think that it is extremely important that I was able to experience Japan's true, graceful culture. Knowing Kyoto's streets and atmosphere are useful to me now that I am making perfumes. I think that I am able to be confident in providing 'Japanese' products because I am familiar with Japan's old culture."

Whenever Ms. Shinma returns to Japan she always makes a stop in Kyoto.

Enriching life through being mindful of scents

On the degree of work and dedication required to make good perfume, Ms. Shinma says, "First class perfume is perfume made over many years with the support of many people. Just as a first class painting makes a unique impression on our hearts, there is a tremendous degree of difference in fine fragrances. It's easier to choose to try to do everything first class.

You must try out various scents, and although there will be failures I think that if you think of them as investments for improving your ability you won't be discouraged."

Miya Shinma's scented fans are also highly regarded. (photo ©Miya Shinma)

Despite what Ms. Shinma says, she's not implying that everyone should wear perfume.

"I'd like everyone to pay attention to and know the appeal of aromas. I hope perfume can help lead them to it."

When you think about it, the nose is often forgotten. Just as we use our eyes for paintings and pictures, our ears for music, and our mouth for food, if we became better at using our noses we'll sense a difference in our daily surroundings.

As I write this, I admit that I hadn't paid much attention to my sense of smell. I used perfume for fashion when I was in college, but since then I had distanced myself from it. Recently, since I've started wearing it again at Ms. Shinma's invitation I've noticed a sudden change in how I feel. Ms. Shinma said, "Smell makes life more enjoyable." It looks like I too have been caught up in Ms. Shinma's magic.

The author is a magazine journalist and editor who has lived in Switzerland since 2001.

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