December 17, 2022

The Scent of Japan

If I had known that the smell of a moisturising cream would be my most vivid reminder of Japan, I would have developed this one trick a long time ago.

In early 2019, I solo travelled to Japan for two weeks as part of my medical school ‘elective’ placement. Spoiler alert — I used it as a holiday. At my departing airport, I bought a travel-sized cocoa-butter moisturising cream, one that I’d never seen or used before. It was going to be pretty cold over in Japan, so I needed some extra protection from my skin drying out. 

I mostly applied that cream after showering in the hostels I stayed in, which by the way, turned out to be surprisingly clean. 

On returning to London from that trip, I ended up buying a normal-sized bottle of that exact same cocoa-butter cream, throwing it into my gym bag to be applied after post-gym showers. But that’s not all it was useful for.

The first time I opened that bottle of cream in the UK, I was standing in my gym’s locker room, but my mind had been transported somewhere else. The smell of cocoa butter injected a vivid picture into my mind, throwing me back into that first hostel shower room in Japan, where that cream had also been used. 

From the large rectangular mirrors above the sinks and the sleek black paint on the walls to the cold blue floor tiles against my bare feet, it truly felt as though I was there, even if just for a moment. 

After processing that image and returning to reality in the locker room, I paused to wonder about the significance of why that trivial memory had just jumped to the forefront of my mind. It took me a second to realise that it was the nostalgic smell of the cocoa butter moisturising cream, the scent of which had now been afforded time to envelop fellow gym-goers, too. But they were uninterrupted by it, continuing to unpack their bags or launch them into the lockers whilst I stood still, wrapping my head around what had just happened.

I have no doubt that this phenomenon had taken place before in my life, I just didn’t take notice of its significance as I had done this time. A unique smell had transported me back to a time and place I could well have easily forgotten, and without remorse. I didn’t care much for remembering what it was like to be in a Japanese hostel shower, but it was the most powerful memory I’d experienced since that trip, more than the bamboo forest of Kyoto or Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing. 

This fragrant reminder began to dwindle away the more I used the cream. Now, it no longer interrupts my attention the way it once did. But what if I could recreate more nostalgic reminders using the power of the senses? 

What if a sound, smell or texture could be the least invasive way of disturbing a moment, yet preserving it for memories to come? 

Both consciously and accidentally, I’ve replicated this phenomenon again twice in subsequent travels, both of which occurred after listening to new songs on repeat in new cities. Inevitably, those same songs would bring back memories from my time in those cities, moments that would otherwise have been buried deep in my subconscious mind if they hadn’t been so accurately encoded, stored and resurrected.

Memories are powerful things. They invoke emotions and transport us to a different time and space, whether or not we wish them to. 

We capture and share moments through writing, photography and film, so why don’t we try to enhance our memory-retrieval ability while we’re at it, even if it’s just for us?

I wish I could paint you a vivid picture of what it’s like to walk the streets of Kyoto, or the smell of an authentic, family-owned Sushi restaurant in Tokyo, but I wouldn’t do it justice. But I can put myself back in Tokyo anytime I please, so long as I have that scent of cocoa butter cream.

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