Fragrances and Cultures Interview with Perfumer Tomoo Inaba and Some Rare Shiseido Perfumes

Interview with Perfumer Tomoo Inaba and Some Rare Shiseido Perfumes

02/14/17 09:12:49 (7 comments)

by: Sergey Borisov

For most of us, Japanese perfumes are kind of a thing-in-itself. Like, we all know the Shiseido corporation as the owner of Serge Lutens and for its fragrances for the Western market like Basala, Feminite du Bois, and Ever Bloom. I assure you that even the Shiseido world is much larger and more diverse – let’s ask Tomoo Inaba, perfumer enthusiast from Japan and the author of the largest Japanese perfume portal, to push aside the curtain that separates the Japanese perfumes from the rest of the world. And we’ll find out that Japanese perfumes will celebrate their Centenary Jubilee in 2017!

Tomoo Inaba sniffing tuberose in India

Tomoo Inaba sniffing tuberose flowers in India

SERGEY BORISOV: Japan is an island country. So this should influence to perfume and cosmetics traditions in Japan...

TOMOO INABA: Yes, so you know Japan created its own unique culture on its  islands, with no foreign influence for a long time. Perfumes were imported to Japan starting from the late XIX century, until then Japan was not connected with the rest of the world. According to an old catalog, Edouard Pinaud had been appointed as “supplier of the imperial court of Japan”. For some time, many of the Japanese perfumes were only copies of famous European perfumes.

The house of Shiseido was founded as the first Western-style drugstore, and started to create their first original perfumes in 1917. There were eight perfumes, incuding Hana Tsubaki (Camellia), Tanima No Himeyuri (Himeyuri Walley), Shirosobi (White Rose), Nyumonhei (New Mown Hay), Muge (Muguet), Bara (Rose), Sumire (Violet) and Heriotoropu (Heliotrope). Hana Tsubaki, or the Camellia flower, is the symbol of Shiseido; you can find it as their logo even now.
Tsubaki, or Camellia Japonica, is the flower that is more than just its name due to the Japanese flower language, Hanakotoba: red Tsubaki means "perishing with grace in love"; yellow Tsubaki means "longing", and white Tsubaki means "waiting".

Hana Tsubaki, Camellia on photo and art-deco Shiseido logo

Hana Tsubaki, Camellia, on a photo and in the art-deco Shiseido logo

SERGEY: How did the koh-doh ceremony affect perfumery traditions in Japan? Is it still popular nowadays?

TOMOO: Thank you for recalling the ceremony. At first Koh-doh was a game trying to guess a “wood” via smoke. If it affects the Japanese culture of the perfume, we prefer light and faint fragrance like air. Nowadays, it’s popular only amongst some people as incense.


SERGEY: What are the most famous perfume companies in Japan? I know about Shiseido, Kanebo, and Pola only.

TOMOO: The major cosmetic companies in Japan are Shiseido, Kanebo, Pola, Kose and Kao.


SERGEY: What are the most popular brands in Japan?

TOMOO: I guess Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Ferragamo are the top 3. :) Or did you mean perfume brands? I asked visitors to my site recently, but the tastes in Japan vary greatly, they depend on gender, age, region of the country. For girls just starting to be interested in perfumes number 1 is Eclat d’Arpege by Lanvin, followed by Relax Eau de White Floral by Jill Stuart, Miss Dior Blooming Bouquet by Christian Dior, Chance Eau Tendre by Chanel, Miss Dior Absolutely Blooming by Christian Dior. After the first five there are Forever and Ever by Christian Dior, Rose de Chloe, Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel, Un Jardin sur le Nil by Hermes, Vanilla Lust by Jill Stuart. Women in the age frame of 30-50 years like Guerlain perfumes.

Young men love Acqua di Gio Pour Homme by Giorgio Armani, Bvlgari Pour Homme, Bleu de Chanel, Egoiste Platinum by Chanel, The One for men by D&G. After these come Sauvage by Christian Dior, Light Blue Pour Homme by D&G, L’Eau d’Issey Pour Homme by Issey Miyake, L’Homme Ideal by Guerlain, and Dazzle by Samourai.

Plum blossom is as popular in Japan, as sakura blossom

Plum blossom is as popular in Japan as sakura blossom

SERGEY: And do Japanese people like niche perfumes?

TOMOO: Yes, for sure. The most popular are Red Roses and Nectarine Blossom & Honey Jo Malone, Rosa Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria Novella Original, Petite Cherie Annick Goutal and Le Chevrefeuille Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur (The Pour Un Ete and Mimosa Pour Moi), Tom Ford Noir and Neroli Portofino by Tom Ford. This list can be prolonged by Penhaligon's (Blenheim Bouquet and Elisabethan Rose), A La Nuit Serge Lutens and Sa Majeste La Rose Serge Lutens, Tam Dao Diptyque and L’Ombre Dans L’Eau Diptyque, Creed Aventus and Fleur de The Rose Bulgare, Aqua Universalis by Maison Francis Kurkdjian… So the most popular perfume genres are fresh floral (especially rose) and simple citrus. Many of the Japanese men prefer unisex fragrances to masculine ones.


SERGEY: So judging by these lists, people in Japan prefer European brands and perfumes?

TOMOO: Yes, our people prefer luxurious European brands – from France and Italy. Japan is a small island country that does not share boundaries over land with any other country. So we all have something like dreams of distant lands. It should also be noted that Shiseido and Kanebo produce and sell many inexpensive and affordable perfumes and cosmetics for the Japanese market, so that these brands do not give as much of a luxury feeling as the French brands.

Suzuro Shiseido bottle

SERGEY: There’s a legend that Japanese perfume companies divide their perfumes into two groups – the greatest perfumes go to the Japanese market and are very expensive, and the average perfumes go to the international market with average ideas and price.

TOMOO: I believe, the two best and most expensive Japanese perfumes of all times are White Rose Natural (1954) and Suzuro (1976) by Shiseido. Although all vintage Shiseido perfumes are really great, in my opinion, and there were a lot of them. (Other Japanese companies had also created fragrances, but now they are no longer in production). But now, Japanese people see a lot of cheap Shiseido products for beauty and hygiene, and it’s not the brand of unparalleled luxury in Japan (as opposed to brands like Elie Saab, Issey Miyake, Narciso Rodriguez, Serge Lutens – Shiseido owns them through Beaute Prestige Intl). This is something from the category of ubiquitous things: there’re dozens of perfumes like More, Memoire, Auslese, Bravas...


SERGEY: I have encountered some pictures of beautiful Shiseido perfumes that were launched annually to become a gift for the most faithful customers of the company. How old is the tradition? Was that only perfumes – or were there other gifts as well?

TOMOO: Perhaps you mean the Shiseido clients club, Hanatsubaki-kai, created in 1937 to build up customer loyalty. That same year, The Shiseido Graph (until 1931 The Shiseido Geppo), the company's free journal of western lifestyle, fashion and culture, was renamed to the same name, Hanatsubaki-kai, “Camellia Club”.

Hanatsubaki bisquits with Shiseido logo

Hanatsubaki biscuits with the Shiseido logo were sold in the apothecary in the XIX century as part of a high-calorie diet supplement

Hanatsubaki magazine covers

Hanatsubaki covers

ТОМОО: The best Hanatsubaki-kai members were given gifts since 1937, but it was not always perfumes; it could be any goods for ladies: paper fans, calendars, personal diaries, wallets, cosmetic bags, brooches etc.
Mirrors were gifted in 1961, 1999, 2003, 2009, 2013, combs were gifted in 1972, atomizers in 1974, powder cases in 1962 and 1964, sun umbrellas in 2015. In 1990, the gifts were coffee cups with an Erte design (see photo).

кофейнуая чашка дизайна Erte

ТОМОО: Shiseido presented perfumes to Hanatsubaki-kai members five times:  Hana Tsubaki (1987), Hana Sakura (1988), Hana Sumire (1989), Camelia Superieur (1997), and Fleur Excellente (1998).
In addition, I should mention the fragrances that were presented to the Shiseido shareholders for three years in a row – the fragrances named Mizu No Ka (Smell of Water) were given out in 2010-2012. Despite the fact that they are not sold, they can still be purchased at online auctions.

bottles of Hana Tsubaki, Hana Sumire and Hana Sakura Shiseido.

From left to right: Hana Tsubaki, Hana Sumire and Hana Sakura Shiseido

SERGEY: Could you tell our readers about them?

TOMOO: Oh sure. They are all in my collection. First, the trio of Hana Tsubaki, Hana Sakura and Hana Sumire was released. The series was timed to the 115th anniversary of the company and the 50th anniversary of the Camellia Club, Hanatsubaki-kai.
So, the first fragrance Hana Tsubaki was released in 1987, exactly 70 years after the first fragrance of the same name. This Eau de parfum in a 30 ml flacon was a soft floral scent with deep green tone and a light powdery shade (it must be said, that Shiseido launched several perfumes on the Hanatsubaki-Euthrixine theme. In addition, several Camellia fragrances were released as issues for certain regions, like Kagawa and Kurume). The fragrance is so light and delicate that is more like a pure fragrant mist than an eau de parfum. For some time the fragrance could be purchased at the Shiseido Corporate Museum in the Shizuoka Prefecture, but not anymore. The next year, 1988, Hana Sakura was released for the Camellia Club – the company paid a tribute to the Japanese cherry blossom, the symbol of Japan. It was a soft powdery floral fragrance in a eau de parfum concentration in a bottle of 50 ml built on the GCMS-results of the cherry blossom fragrance – again, Shiseido has released several sakura fragrances, only in my collection I have got five different perfumes. Right now you can buy a sakura scented candle on the Shiseido web store.

In 1989 Hana Sumire was launched, dedicated to the gentle and sweet violet flower. Shiseido 's wish for their customers was “I would like you to be more young and more beautiful everyday”. It's a sweet, fresh and powdery scent, which combines fresh rose and violet with a lively powdery accord, musk and a delicate green watery hue. 70% is Rose, 20% is Violette, 10% is Musk and a small amount of Powdery Notes and Green Notes.  This fragrance became the fifth violet perfume in Shiseido's history, after Sumire (1917), Odori Sumire (1918), and Violette (1919 and 1949). A violet by Matsushige Uemura was printed on the packaging.

флакон Camélia Supérieur

ТОМОО: Camelia Superieur was presented in 1997. This camellia was a fresh floral-fruity fragrance, it has a jasmine flowery tone, with subtle hints of peach and melon. The scent is more fresh and light, and was designed for younger buyers. The design of the bottle and packaging was created by Angela Cummings (as well as the fifth customer perfume, Fleur Excellente from 1998).

Fleur Excellente bottle

ТОМОО: The fifth fragrance, Fleur Excellente was based on a GCMS-investigation of the Ohga hasu lotus flower (this Nelumbo Nucifera flower is famous in Japan because its 2000 years old seeds have been found by Professor Ohga, propagated and successfully landed in the small pond of the Simauchi park of Matsumoto city). Among the fresh floral scent notes of lotus, jasmine, lily of the valley, other white flower notes based on white musk can be identified. In April 2007, Shiseido launched the fragrance of lotus Ohga hasu in a limited regional fragrance series for the University of Tokyo as well.

Shiseido stockholders perfume presents, named Mizu No Ka 2011 and 2012 years

Mizu No Ka perfumes were presented to Shiseido stockholders in 2011 and 2012

ТОМОО: All three eponimous Mizu No Ka (Smell of Water) fragrances were different. In 2010, a green floral fragrance was dedicated to spring water, and revealed the smell of a Ranunculus nipponicus var. Submerses flower. In 2011, the citrus-woody fragrance was dedicated to waterfalls and the smell of flowers Anaphalis margaritacea. In 2012, the theme of a sweet floral scent was water from the earth, and the golden rice stem, it used Indian vanilla and Congolese coffee, bought in the framework of fair trade.


SERGEY: Is the love of Japanese people for roses reflected in Japanese perfumes?

TOMOO: Yes, of course. We can say that Shiseido carries a great collection of gorgeous rose perfumes. First I would name the popular Rosarium (1986), the fragrance of a rose garden dedicated to Mr. Suji Suzuki, the most famous breeder of roses in Japan. Anyone who has been growing roses in their own garden, immediately recognizes the smell.

флакон Rosarium

Rosarium Shiseido

ТОМОО: Then comes the gorgeous White Rose Natural, originally released in 1936, followed in 1964, and still on the market today. This luxurious bottle contained oil of 2280 white roses from Bulgaria – not the usual pink roses, but white ones only. At a time when the average college graduate was paid less than 10,000 yen, the manually polished 32 ml bottle of extract costed 18,000 yen.
The price has gone up gradually due to the rising prices on rose oil; probably in April, it will be around 23-25 ​​thousand yen. A little bitter at first, it soon becomes a delicate aroma of roses – white roses in the wet morning fog. One could smell rose essential oil and rose absolute, geranium and musk quite clearly – but the smell is so gentle, like a young girl in a white bridal dress on a city street.

флакон White Rose Natural Shiseido

White Rose Natural Shiseido

ТОМОО: The next rose fragrance, Rose Rouge, was released in the form of an extract in a red 32 ml bottle, and quickly sold out, despite the price of 21,000 yen, since only 40,000 bottles were made. This is a more complex and sweet perfume compared to White Rose Natural, and it is far from the fresh flowery smell, it’s closer to rose jam with fruit and berry shades of raspberry and blackberry. While pretty and nice, it’s not a teenagers' rose, it is a grown-up rose, a rose with a powdery-woody accord of iris, incense, sandalwood and heliotrope.

флакон Rose Rouge Shiseido

Rose Rouge Shiseido

ТОМОО: In 2006, Rose Royale was created in honor of the 250th anniversary of Marie Antoinette. This perfume was based on her favorite May rose from Grasse. It was produced in two concentrations: extract (32 ml) and Eau de Parfum. It has green fresh bergamot, magnolia and jasmine; oak moss, cedar and iris form the base.

Rose Royale Shiseido

ТОМОО: It is worth noting that Shiseido created some other limited edition fragrances. For example, the previously mentioned regional perfumes of Japan – 25 fragrances were created for different regions and these are excellent souvenirs for any tourist. The first souvenir perfume was launched in March 20, 2004 as Onomichi sakura (the town is famous for its temples, gardens and castles surrounded by cherries). The first batch of Onomichi was sold in just one month – and now it is a traditional souvenir from the city, an inexpensive and nice gift.

флакон Onomichi

ТОМОО: Another regularly updated and inexpensive fragrance series is named Message from Orchids. Starting in 1995, 22 fragrances were released – for example, in 2017 its main theme is the Cymbidium sinense orchid aroma.


SERGEY: And are there a lot of niche perfume companies in Japan?

TOMOO: Hardly any. In Japan, there are very strict laws that regulate the cosmetics and perfumes production. That's why, for example, it is easier for me to create fragrances for foreign brands (like Nightingale Zoologist) than make my own niche brand. Or, I can create fragrances that are not for sale, in my perfume training seminars as a hobby.


SERGEY: I wish you good luck, Inaba-san, I’d love to see you at the next perfume exhibition in Milan! I will be glad to learn about your new fragrances!

TOMOO: Thanks and all the best to you and all Fragrantica readers!


Sergey Borisov has been involved in perfumery since the early 90`s when he had his own perfume-devoted program “Close to Body” on Krasnoyarsk radio (1993). As a perfume enthusiast (known as moon_fish), he became famous in Russia for his translation of  Luca Turin's Perfume: Le Guide. He made a career as a fragrance journalist and contributed to distinguished magazines such as GQ, Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Interview, Forbes, Allure, Robb Report, Flacon, Departure, RBC-Style, TSUM-Magazine (2008-2016). His own online columns for,, and (2006-2015) have earned him international recognition and an invitation to be an editor for the Russian edition of “The Little Book of Perfumes” by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez.  Sergey Borisov was invited as a speaker at Esxence 2012 (Milano) and Intercharm 2015 (Moscow). In 2013, Sergey joined the Fragrantica team.



Previous Fragrances and Cultures



Thank you, Tomoo, and I believe you will start your own line in France, Italy or USA :)


I am fascinated by Shiseido and Japanese perfumes, and I often browse a Japanese auction site admiring perfumes. I sometimes suspect that the images on the packaging represent the flower, but generally speaking I have no idea what I am looking at. A lot of round packaging. Every once in blue moon I jump into the fray, but I have yet to win an auction.

Thanks so much for this article. I would LOVE to see the collection!


I am still upset from the discontinuation of my beloved Saso! Please bring it back!!!


I have been aware of many Shiseido perfumes mentioned in this article. I got both bottles that Shiseido gave to their shareholders in 2011 and 2012. I sold the 2011 to someone but still have the 2012 one. They are, indeed, both floral. But I didn't know these were shareholders' exclusive. Now I am overcome with a little regret maybe I should have kept the blue one, too.


Wow! I never realized Japan had such a perfume history and culture as this. What a story! Thank you, Sergey and Tomoo, for sharing it with us.

And thank you, Tomoo, for creating the wonderful Nightingale!


Thank you so much for this interview discussing these fragrances! Not a lot of information about them until now! These are just wonderful.

Leonco Aaron
Leonco Aaron

Thanks for this superb interview. First time I tried a creation by Mr.Inaba it blew my mind, and it was indeed Nightingale from Victor Wong's Zoologist. It's truly the closest I've ever been to a blooming Japanese garden


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