Rising Phoenix Perfumery Bushido Attar is an attar made exclusively for The World in Scents, a Princeton-based purveyor of fine attars and pure oud oils, and its name translates to “the way of the Samurai”. The idea for this particular attar came from the ancient Japanese practice among royalty, Samurai warriors, and the nobility of scenting their kimonos, robes, and sword sheaths with a blend of tsubaki, an oil made from camellia flower petals, and choji, clove oil.
Sometimes powdered jinko, the Japanese word for aloeswood (agarwood), was also added to enrich the oil, but this would have been the preserve of only the wealthiest members of society, meaning the royal family of Japan. The use of agarwood is historically important in Japan, and dates back to the 6th century BC, when fragments of fragrant agarwood were combined with aromatic herbs and woods to perform Kōboku, the act of perfuming one’s robes for religious and stately purposes. Important warriors also used it before battle, and it was an important commodity on the Silk Road.
The best pieces (Kyara) were reserved for royal use, and some pieces of Kyara from this period have been preserved in vaults by the government. The price and scarcity of Kyara means that the ceremony of Kōboku is rarely performed today. However, the art of Kōdō continues, with the more expensive aloeswood being mixed with sandalwood, clove, spikenard, and other aromatic spices to produce a wonderfully fragrant incense for burning during the ceremony.
Today, one can still see traces of the ancient “way of the Samurai” in the making of Japanese incense. Oud oil is not particularly prized or used in Japan, but the densely-resinated wood from whence oud oil is extracted –agarwood – is still a crucial component of the Japanese incense tradition.
The old traditions of tsubaki and choji have also left their mark; delicate floral notes and spicy clove-cinnamon flavorings are still very much part of the character of Japanese incense. Famous incense sticks such as Shoyeido’s Southern Wind (Nan-kun), for example, feature a combination of powdered jinko, usually from Cambodia, mixed with clove, star anise, sandalwood, camphor, and spikenard, the Himalayan herb also known as jatamansi (fresh, spicy, with a fatty animal undertone and lavender-like facets).
What Rising Phoenix Perfumery does with Bushido Attar is to trace the roots of tsubaki and choji oils back to its source, and using materials available in this day and age, re-build the attar from scratch. When we smell Bushido Attar, therefore, we are smelling something that is as close as can be to the original oil these Samurai warriors would have massaged into their sword sheaths and what the royals would have dabbed onto their ceremonial robes.
Bushido is constructed largely through the compounding of several distillates and extractions, most notably a trio of wild jinko (agarwood) oils (a Hindi, a Cambodi, and a Malaysian), a 1980’s Mysore sandalwood oil, and a rare vintage star anise oil which dates back to 1906. The star anise extract has both the clove and licorice tones common to Japanese incense.
The attar opens on the skin with a blaze of oud and spice so thickly knotted that it is difficult to parse out the pieces. Like flies trapped in amber, Bushido’s three oud oils float weightlessly in a bubble of molasses or chestnut honey. The oud assault at the start is animalic and leathery, hot with smoke and fruit, but not in the least raw, thanks to the smoothing out properties of that molten molasses accord. The texture is smooth, unctuous even, with the stifling density of hot tar.
The opening salvo of leathery oud and thick black honey is followed by a subtle arrangement of notes that begins to separate and float free of the oud – licorice, anise, clove, camphor, and allspice. The vintage allspice extract comes out distinctively as clove at first, with a rounded, almost cocoa-ish spiciness that completely avoids the more unpleasant, metallic, or shirking aspects of modern clove notes. The spicy exoticism of the note is subtle, and the overall feel of the attar is definitely Japanese in orientation rather than Indian or Middle Eastern.
As time goes on, the structure of the attar opens up a little, the leathery thrust of the ouds dimming to allow more of the spices to come out, revealing a rich, salty buttery Mysore sandalwood in the base – the slide from fiery-hot to buttery-sweet reminds me slightly of one of my favorite perfumes, the magnificent Eau Lente by Diptyque. Tania Sanchez says in her review of Eau Lente in The Guide that it is the equivalent of “those hypnotic colored lights that slide from pink to cyan without anyone noticing“, which strikes me as a perfect way of describing the transitions in Bushido Attar too. The ambergris in this attar slices through the heft of the sandalwood with a salty, mineral sparkle, giving it air. The ambergris lingers long past the finale, leaving a trace of something musty, sweet, and saliva-ish on the skin.
Bushido is beautiful stuff, and a must-try for anyone who loves the Japanese traditions of Kōdō. If you’re unfamiliar with the characteristic Japanese combination of agarwood, clove, spikenard, star anise, and sometimes immortelle, then perhaps approach this attar with caution. It is not immediately familiar to the Western palate, which means it might not be immediately likeable. But if you like carnation, clove, or even if you rather like fragrances like Diptyque’s Kimonanthe or Eau Lente, then give Bushido a try.