Smells

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Masahiro Watanabe

    Main guest

    Masahiro Watanabe is an aroma consultant who uses the power of smells to promote products and craft the image of companies. His research into such approaches is intended to awaken both businesses and the general public to the broad potential of fragrances.

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October 13, 2016

Smells

*You will leave the NHK website.

In the minds of many people around the world, the leading visible symbols of Japan might include the kimono, sumo and sushi.

But what smell might the world associate with Japan? Though aroma is often one of the most personal and subjective of the senses, there are a number of strong (smelling) contenders.

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The succulent aroma of grilled chicken skewers wafting out into the streets draws many a customer into yakitori restaurants across the nation.

Some relate to food, such as dashi stock, an umami-rich staple ingredient of most Japanese dishes, ranging from miso soup to noodles, to okonomiyaki and more. Usually made from skipjack tuna flakes, this salty, malty aroma sets the stomach growling as it wafts from kitchens, restaurants, street-side food stalls and (in autumn and winter) convenience store oden displays.

In fact, many Japanese eateries and bakeries deliberately ensure the appetizing scents they are cooking up are carried out onto the street via ventilation systems, to woo peckish punters. Yakitori (grilled chicken skewer) restaurants are a particular heavyweight when it comes to this whiff war, and the succulent, charcoal-heavy bouquet emanating from such establishments has surely been the downfall of many a visiting vegetarian.


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Incense is a quintessentially Japanese aroma familiar from temples as well as household altars.

Another smoky perfume that will be familiar to tourists is the incense that wreathes many temples. The warm, sweet scent of spices such as agarwood, sandalwood, frankincense and cloves is synonymous with all things sacrosanct. Joss-sticks are also frequently burned in homes to pay tribute to deceased relatives at the butsudan (family altar). 

Another type of incense, and one that is redolent of summer, is katorisenko, the humble mosquito coil. This acrid-but-not-unpleasant aroma keeps biting bugs at bay when one is enjoying a lazy summer evening in a park, or sitting on the wooden veranda (engawa) outside a traditional home.

Hinoki cypress, the main timber used in the elaborate construction of sacred structures by the miyadaiku (shrine and temple carpenters), exudes a woody perfume that is also a defining feature of many onsen baths.

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Peter Barakan and Masahiro Watanabe revel in the woody aroma of the log yards at Shin-Kiba in Tokyo.

Japan's not all pleasant aromas, though. The acrid, sulfurous smell of gases emitted from volcanic vents is a common (although not exclusive) feature of many hot spring resorts, which owe their soothing baths to Japan’s seismic instability.

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Jigokudani in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture is characterized by the sulfurous odor of steaming volcanic vents.

The hot, humid climate also means that great care must be taken to stave off musty mold during the summer months. Another related problem is the sour tang of laundry whose proper drying has been hindered by the moisture content of the air.

As Japan’s population ages, one potentially embarrassing scent that is currently in the media spotlight is kareishu, or “old person’s smell.” Particularly strongly associated with men as they move beyond middle age, the consternation of colleagues and family is compounded when the individual in question fails to recognize the impact that he is making on nearby nostrils.

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This man goes to great lengths to stave off odors of all kinds.

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Odor-related products are a 200-billion-yen market in Japan.

It is precisely this kind of fear that makes deodorants, dehumidifiers, body wipes and other odor-related products a 200 billion yen market in Japan. A nation that is so fastidious about presentation is not only concerned with saving face, it would seem, but also with "saving nose."


Also appearing

Kenichi Inoue

Kenichi Inoue works for a firm that designs and manufactures over 200 different artificial scents, ranging from food aromas to the musty smell of fairground haunted houses.

Koji Matsubayashi

Koji Matsubayashi is a nationally certified aroma inspector with some 15 years of experience. He specializes in identifying and addressing the root of unpleasant odors.

*You will leave the NHK website.