Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Smells Like America

Last Friday, one of my regular students walked in and said that my apartment smelled good. This wasn't the first time this has happened but it was the first time it occurred when I wasn't baking bread in the bread machine or dinner in the slow cooker. The thing my student smelled was Downy fabric softener. She told me that, to her, it smells "like America."

I'm guessing the reason she associates the scent of Downy with the U.S. is that it's one of the most popular brands there and not necessarily because Japanese laundry isn't usually washed with fabric softener. I can't say for sure though since I don't tend to quiz my students about their clothes washing habits and it's not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation. I can say that fabric softener is quite expensive in Japan and that Downy is one of the most heavily stocked items at one of our local import shops.

I've always associated fabric softener use with dryers since they prevent static cling. Since most people line dry in Japan, they may not bother to use it so much. The truth is that, after my dryer broke, I stopped using it because of the price, but I recently grew tired of crispy clothes from line drying and had my husband pick up a big jug of Downy from Costco. I guess my student commented on the smell because she hadn't smelled it in my apartment before.

The fact that she associates the smell of Downy with the U.S. made me consider what scents I associate with Japan. One of them is most certainly the hay-like smell of tatami. This is a scent which is especially strong if you close off a room and leave the windows closed then return after half a day. You don't really notice it otherwise. I've been told, however, that our luggage has been infused with this somewhat musty smell and people back home can really pick it up when its used for travel. There are a lot of other smells in Japan, of course, but few are what I'd consider sufficiently unique to it that I'd draw a strong connection to Japan besides the wonderful fragrance of roasting sweet potatoes in autumn and winter and tatami.


As of late, I've been reading a great deal of hateful commentary about the United States on other (Japan-related) sites that I can't help but make this post with the idea in the back of my mind that someone will drop by and make some sort of rude comment about how America or American people smell uniquely bad. I just wanted to take a moment to say that they need not bother to offer such thoughts here as any obviously prejudicial or ugly comments will be rejected in comment moderation.


Roy said...

Just the other day I went to Costco and bought a big box of Bounce which I left on my kitchen table for 3 days. It made my whole house smell like Bounce and when a friend came over she said the exact same thing, that it smelled like "America." What a coincidence!!

For me, the smell of manga and Japanese books, which I love because it brings back lots of fond memories, is distinctly Japanese. The printing ink and paper in Japan is completely different in smell than anywhere else. And in contrast, American books and magazines have their unique own "western" smell. That's the smell of your Amazon shipment.

Shari said...

Hi, Roy. It's great to hear from you again. I hope things are going well for you. :-)

Your comment illustrates how we all have different impressions and perceptions based on our experiences and interests. I've never had much interest in manga so I didn't know they printed with different ink or paper with a unique smell. It's very interesting though to know that and makes me want to go to 7-11 and sniff the magazines. ;-)

I think it's also remarkably perceptive of you to note that the smell of western printing is what is in an Amazon shipment! When we get books from them, I often think the smell is pleasantly familiar but I never gave it second thought.

Thanks for your, as always, interesting comment.

Miko said...

I love the smell of scorched green tea leaves! Just try burning some in a little aromatic oil pot, and you'll understand why. I also love the subtle Japanese incense, although most people associate it with funeral rituals. And what about the wonderful fragrant olive blossoms (osmanthus) that are so ubiqitous at this time of year? (Unfortunately that smell puts most Japanese people in mind of toilet air freshener, which I guess is the effect that pine fragrance has on many Westerners.)

Vanilla is a smell that I strongly associate with America, because in the past several American friends have gifted me with vanilla body lotion, which seems to be very popular there. Christmas-y smells, such as spiced apple, also put me in mind of America, as does buttered popcorn.

A couple of years ago I had a hospital stay, and when I got back home my cat gave me a very thorough sniffing over, especially about my face and hands. Even he seemed to recognise that distinctive hospital smell that clung to me. I wonder what causes it?

Shari said...

Hi, Miko and thanks for commenting, as always!

Ah, vanilla, joyous vanilla. I love it so much. I've been trying to find vanilla scented candles in Japan but it's tough locating them. FBC does seem to sell gargantuan ones which I think I'll buy (they're about 1300 yen but I think you can put tea candles in them and make them last forever).

I also associate holly, cinnamon, and pine scents with Christmas in the U.S. I miss it all greatly!

I'm not sure what the incense is in Japan but I recognize that smell as well. It reminds me of the stuff one of my cousins used to burn when she smoked pot to cover the smell so it isn't one of those reminders of Japan so much as my druggie relatives. ;-)

tornados28 said...

I have wondered why people in Japan line dry their clothes. When I visit my wife's family, that is what they do even though their washer can dry also.

My clothes are always stiff from line drying. I was thinking it was do to space limitations, but like I said, my in-laws washer has a built in dryer but they don't use it.

Then I was thinking it was to conserve electricity and energy. But then I thought if they wanted to conserve energy, they would better insulate their frigid homes.

I prefer clothes from the dryer.

Shari said...

Hi, tornados and thanks for commenting. :-)

I've asked students about this because a few of mine also have dryers which they tend not to use so much. I was told that the dryers are very weak relative to the ones we have in the U.S. and take hours to dry. Since this was exactly what mine was like, I imagine that's true. When I asked why they were so weak, I was told that they don't get as hot so they don't shrink people's clothes.

I also prefer them from the dryer but the energy consumption is just far too much given how many hours it takes to finish them.

tornados28 said...

A lot of clothing like jeans do shrink over time but the clothes also wareout long before that.

Strange that they use dryers that are weaker so they won't shrink the clothes.

Of course there are many things in the US that Japanese probably think is strange.

Chris ( said...

I think I know the answer to this. I'm British, but I spent a few years in NYC and I will forever associate the city with the smell of soap powder.

Most apartments in the city do not have their own washing machine - it's all communal (usually on the first floor or in the basement) or the local launderette. I remember walking around the East Village on a Sunday morning and all you could smell was clothes being washed!

It *is* a very American smell, I know just what your student means. You don't get it anywhere else that I know of. It always makes me feel very nostalgic, and brings back all the great memories of my time in NYC.

To expand the list (for me) Bangkok smells of Tiger Balm, Singapore smells of Jasmine Tea, Kyoto of incense and Tokyo of... cigarette smoke(!?)..

Shari said...

Hi, Chris, and many thanks for taking the time to add your comment.

It's very interesting to hear that this is this scent has such a strong impression on visitors to the U.S. It's a great example of one of those things you are oblivious to because it's "normal" but strikes others as unique. For me, home smells like trees, especially pine. Pennsylvania isn't "Penn's woods" for nothing. ;-)

I've never been to Bangkok but I'd know good old Tiger Balm anywhere! It's kind of too bad though that Tokyo brings cigarette smoke to mind though I can easily see why that'd be the case!

Miko said...

While we are on the subject of city smells, I always know the smell of Kobe! I cannot describe it, and I don't even think that it's a particularly pleasant smell (well, it's a Japanese city!). But whenever I return to Kobe from one of my trips to other parts of Japan, I always take a whiff of the air at the station and think, "I'm home!" even when I just come from a neighbouring city. It's such a nice feeling.

By the way, Japanese incense is very different from the over-powering Indian pot-covering incense (um, not that I'd know anything about that :wink:), and like Chris I associate it very strongly with Kyoto, and also with certain Japanese rituals. In fact in certain quarters in Kyoto it is regarded as an actual ceremony, just like the tea ceremony, and a very intriguing one at that.

By the way, in NZ we line-dry as well. I've never owned a drying machine in my life and I don't think I'll start any time soon! (Privately, I'd be horrified if my son married a woman who insisted on using one - such extravagance!) In Japan (and possibly other countries) sunlight is regarded as having bleaching and sterilising effects upon clothing. I do know a few Japanese people who own dryers, but usually they only half-dry the clothes, and then hang them out to fully dry on the line, which somewhat defeats the purpose of owning a dryer in the first place, if you ask me.

mjgolli said...

I just had to chime in and say that the reason the dryers that are built-in to the washers (the single units) use condensation to dry the clothes...they suck the water out of the air in the drum that the wet clothes emit...exactly like an air conditioner works. These are quite unique in the States. Generally, you can only get them at high-end specialty appliance stores. The brochure I saw for one, Bosch I think, said that it could dry a whole load in just 4 hours! I'll stick with my natural gas dryer, thank you. :)

Shari said...

Hi, mjgolli, and many thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

I had not idea that the dryers that were built in worked in that fashion (actually, I didn't know much about the kinds that are built in at all since mine have always been separate). It's a very interesting technique.