Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is an American indie perfumer based in Colorado, much loved among American perfumistas for her warm, engaging personality and prodigious talent. Her perfumes have long been a point of curiosity (and even obsession) for perfume fans outside of America, but as with indie houses like Sonoma Scent Studio and Parfums DelRae, distribution outside of the States has been an issue. Thankfully, Dawn now sells her perfumes in an optional Voile de Parfum format, which is IPM (Isopropyl Myrastate)-based and can thus be safely shipped internationally.
I’m writing a series on DSH Perfumes primarily to help potential buyers outside of the United States to come armed with adequate information and reviews when choosing a sample pack or blind buying a bottle. Although there are plenty of individual reviews on DSH Perfumes scents out there on the Net, it might be useful to break the perfumes down into broad categories and review them as a group. The casual visitor to the DSH website can easily get overwhelmed and decide it’s not worth the trouble to slog through each of the 100+ entries (all of which come in 7-8 different formats), cross-referencing with Fragrantica all the while to see whether it’s something of interest to them.
The way I’ll be organizing this is to review per ‘grouping’ as listed below and fill in the links and I get the posts up. At the end of the series, I’ll publish a ‘top picks from DSH Perfumes’ with the understanding that such rankings are always subjective. My hope is that this series will help someone, somewhere, sometime when it comes to picking a sampler or perfume from the DSH Perfumes website.
DSH Perfumes Series: Orientals & Chypres (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Spicy-Warm (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Gourmand (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Series (this post)
DSH Perfumes Series: Animalic
DSH Perfumes Series: Floral
DSH Perfumes Series: Fresh-Green-Citrus
DSH Perfumes Series: Woody-Smoky-Incensey
Tsukimi is named for the Japanese festival of moon-gazing (Tsukimi), which occurs every autumn. It is my personal favorite of the DSH Perfumes Haiku series because I have a weakness for what the ladies over at NST have dubbed ‘wood pudding’ scents, and Tsukimi is most definitely a wood pudding scent.
Loosely speaking, fragrances that fall into the ‘wood pudding’ category are woody but also gently sweet, spicy, and creamy; notes like basmati rice, sandalwood, milk, and amber are almost always involved, as are cinnamon and saffron. Some of the wood pudding fragrances I’m fond of for this time of year include: Etro Sandalo (vintage eau de cologne), Safran Troublant (L’Artisan Parfumeur), Cadjmere (Parfumerie Generale), Chaos and Wenge (both Donna Karan), and almost all in the La Fumée series (Miller Harris). Recently, I also tried and loved Remember Me (Jovoy), a perfume that layers milky Karak tea over a cushiony suede – a perfect addition to the genre.
Tsukimi opens with the scent of coconut milk taffy. Have you ever eaten those white saltwater taffies fresh off the churn in a seaside town? They taste (and smell) so milky and sweet and juicy that you’re almost convinced that chewing on one for too long will leave you with the kind of shit-eating milk mustache you see on those Got Milk ads. Technically speaking, I suppose this effect is due to the very coconutty sandalwood used here, but its faint under-smudge of chocolate and peach skin makes me wonder if massoia and peach lactones have been used to boost the bold lushness of the milky texture.
Despite the milkiness, Tsukimi never comes off as overly sweet or ‘thick’ in the modern gourmand style. It is not, for example, as thickly sweet as the kulfi note in Tom Ford Noir Extreme. Instead, it leverages the tannic topnotes of hinoki wood and peach skin to glance the milk pudding skein of the scent with a lively, darting bitterness; the cedar also helping to ‘brusque’ up the prettiness somewhat. Its thread of silvery-green freshness therefore performs the same function as the hairspray hiss of the massoia in Coco Blanc (House of Matriarch) or the cypress in Cadjmere (Parfumerie Generale), i.e., it restrains the milky sweetness of the scent, keeping it firmly tilted in the direction of woods rather than dessert. For what it’s worth, I believe that Tsukimi is a more accomplished perfume than Coco Blanc, its closest relative, and far more affordable to boot.
Tsukiyo-en fuses mikan, a Japanese orange close in taste and aroma to mandarin with peppery shiso leaf and mint to form a balmy mint-citrus accord that smells very Japanese. By this, I mean that the citrus smells like citrus but with an aromatic, herbal depth missing from the European cultivars, and the mint smells like mint, but with a spicy, tannic edge that (for once) doesn’t make you think of toothpaste.
These kinds of notes – and their sparkling transparency – remind me very much of the austere, woody-transparent style of Di Ser, a Japanese brand that makes perfumes exclusively from Japanese ingredients. The strange bitterness of these notes, and their unwillingness to bend to the Western taste for sweetness, is, for me, what sets the Japanese style of perfumery apart from the Western style. Remarkably, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz has managed to capture the spirit of Japanese perfumery, without it ever coming across as a clumsy pastiche or a misfire.
Green and aromatic the opening certainly is, but its bitterness is carefully modulated by a gentle milkiness that reminds me of those bamboo and green tea lotions they use in upscale spas. I smell this accord and instantly my muscles relax. The bamboo milk note is extremely subtle, though; it never intrudes, takes over, or detracts from the juicy green fizz of the mint-citrus combo.
The crisp, antioxidant tannins of white tea are present, though in holistic dosage and not enough to make you feel like you’re reversing years of sun damage. But it does establish that holistic, Japanese-spa feeling of taking care of oneself, of cleansing the bloodstream of impurities.
There is even the slightly mineral scent of water bubbling over the stones in one of those small water features they have in (again) upscale spas. (I realize that I’m making it sound like I’m the kind of gal who visits upscale spas a lot, but I’m not. In reality, it’s more a case of taking turns with the kids in the pool while the other parent sneaks off to the steam room for a – very tightly timed – 10 minutes). But I hope I’m getting the central idea across – Tsukiyo-en smells like the steamy aura of a very posh Japanese bathhouse, complete with slightly foreign-smelling herbs, citruses, therapeutic lotions, and starchy minerals bubbling up from beneath.
Linking all the elements here is that common denominator of minty shiso leaf. Tsukiyo-en strikes me a far more successful rendition of the idea behind You Or Someone Else Like You by Etat Libre d’Orange. Whereas the ELDO loses it aromatic, zesty mint topnotes very quickly and devolves into rank vase water that makes you feel like you’ve nervous-sweated your way through a mohair sweater, Tsukiyo-en settles in a softer, gentler citrusy-mint vein, which is thus sustained most pleasurably by the bamboo milk and white tea throughout.
Gekkou Hanami was actually the first entry in the DSH Perfumes Haiku series, so obviously I’m working my way backwards here. Gekkou Hanami is a sort of smushed together phrase to mean ‘gazing at cherry trees in blossom underneath the moonlight’, a Japanese pastime involving picnicking under the trees and gazing at the cherry blossoms as they flutter to the ground.
The more I learn about the classical Japanese arts of refinement like ikebana (kadō), the art of listening to incense (kōdō), and the tea rituals/tea ceremony (chadō), the more I’m convinced that the key to it all is patience, a trait that Westerners seem not to possess at all. The Japanese high arts seem to involve long stretches of waiting, contemplation, mindfulness, and silent appreciation, all of which I am genetically unsuited for. So while I appreciate the prettiness of cherry trees in full bloom on my way to something else, I am pretty sure that gazing at them for any length of time would drive me mad. Of course, it depends on what’s in the picnic basket. I can be lured anywhere with the promise of cake.
My father-in-law has quite a few cherry trees on his farm near Skadar Lake, a huge body of water separating Albania and Montenegro, and they also grew abundantly in our city neighborhood, so although I now live in the cherry tree-less land of Ireland, I do vaguely remember their scent when in bloom. I’d describe the aroma as a delicately fruity (slightly cherry-like) floral scent carried in the air. To me, it smells tentatively of spring, a shy and recalcitrant smell with little definition of character beyond a gentle freshness.
Jump from that to how cherry blossom (sakura) is portrayed in perfumery, and oh my God. I get that the ghostlike nuances of sakura are difficult to capture in liquid form. But cherry blossom seems to be shorthand for that girly pink, sweet fruity smell that’s popular with very young girls, involving (usually) industrial quantities of fluffy laundry musks, cherry-flavored lipgloss, and great big swirls of indiscriminately floral notes all smushed together until all we can do is to (helplessly) nod our heads and agree that, yes, it all smells very feminine and innocent. I’ve been forced into many’s a hostage situation with cherry blossom before. (Don’t even get me started on that bastard peony).
All this waffling if, of course, my way of setting you up for the reveal – Gekkou Hanami smells nothing like the grim cherry blossom I’m used to smelling in modern feminine perfumery. Full praise goes to Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for creating a cherry blossom scent that manages to smell, in fact, not only like real cherry blossom (in all its shy, indeterminate fruitiness) but also the whole tree, from the candied lemon blossom aroma of the petals to the tannic tartness of the wood and the green, spermy scent of meadowfoam and wildflowers clustered around its roots.
Gekkou Hanami smells gloriously sour, floral, and acidic, like spring greens bursting through soil, bringing with them not only the scent of new growth but also the earthy sourness of fermentation from the earth itself, newly exposed to the air after a long, cold winter.
The hints of fermented reminds me very much of the hanbang (medicinal herbs) aroma of a Japanese hydrating toner I love to use, the Kikumasamune Sake Skin High Moist Lotion, which is made by a sake-making company that realized that the ferments left in the rice after making the sake could benefit the skin. The tartness of the sake is accentuated by hinoki wood, which is similarly acidic, thus providing the scent with this sour whoosh that slakes the fruitiness of the sakura to perfection, rather like adding a shot of balsamic vinegar to a rich curry or lentil soup to brighten the flavor.
Gekkou Hanami is thus an atypical take on the often dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks note that is cherry blossom. I don’t for a moment want to underplay what must have been the technical difficulty of making a sakura scent that feels adult and syrup-free. If you want a cherry blossom scent that steers well clear of puerility or soapiness, then Gekkou Hanami is probably the best rendition I’ve personally encountered.