At zen minded we are always excited to find creative individuals who share our passion for Japanese craftsmanship, especially when they can bring artistry from another culture to create an innovative cross cultural fusion.
We recently had the good fortune to interview Chikako and Geoffrey Perez of Tokyo Kodo – an exciting, new Japanese Incense brand. What makes their concept unique, is that they have manged to combine the ancient olfactory art of Japanese incense appreciation, with the enchantment of French perfume.
Geoffrey & Chikako of Tokyo Kodo, sitting in front of piles of raw agarwood chips at their headquarters in Tokyo
Chikako studied at Grasse Institute of Perfumery in the south of France, and after graduating she joined an internship at a perfume company in Geoffrey’s home town. At that time, Geoffrey was working with the natural ingredients side of the business, so he could help her to choose the best natural ingredients & scents to use. He was the only one who could speak English at the company, and that’s how they first met.
We spoke with Chikako and Geoffrey at their Tokyo based HQ
Can you tell our readers a little about your background - how was Tokyo Kodo first conceived?
Chikako: Tokyo Kodo for me is connected with nature, from within our incense. We need nature in our lives. When I was in France, I was always surrounded by nature. Because I Grew up in Tokyo, I was sensitive to the changing seasons - how fantastic it is to be surrounded by nature! I wanted to create that feeling.
Geoffrey: For me it is the opposite - I came from Grasse, to Tokyo, I never went to a big city before. For me its energy - Grasse is like a rainbow, a lot of energy, and you feel very well!
Chikako: When I was studying perfumery I realised that the materials are from all over the world. Sandalwood is from India, flowers are from France, citrus from Italy – its all mixed together in perfumery normally. When I realized that story I thought 'why not do incense for our creation?'. Different countries, but nature is always linked. Nature is harmonious – e.g. sandalwood can work well with Lavender, everything is connected in nature.
Chikako, you come from a traditional incense family based in Tokyo. Why did you choose to study perfumery in Grasse, France?
Chikako: My sister had already joined our family business and learned about Japanese traditional incense, and then after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake – I decided to help my family business too, but I didn’t want to follow in my sister’s steps. I wanted to know another aspect – maybe to combine Western fragrance with Japanese traditional techniques. I thought that may be a good way for our future. So this idea came before going to Grasse. Then I studied perfumery there, which strengthened my idea to create a new type of incense.
As we chat, we enjoy the amazing scent of pure agarwood chips - agarwood is traditional ingredient used in Japanese incense
What are the origins of your interest and love of incense?
Chikako: Without incense I can’t imagine my life, because always its been part of my life. So I have no experience without incense in my life. Incense is my roots. I grew up in my grandfather’s house, and grew up with the smell of wood and incense, which was always supporting my heart. He said "you can keep incense for 100 years like fermentation – the smell gets mature, like wine or whisky".
How do you combine the perfume materials from Grasse, including various floral oils, with traditional Japanese ingredients?
Geoffrey: Sometimes its not a good way. Some things we try aren’t a good match, but it keeps things interesting! For me it was lemon – we thought this was a good idea, but when you burn it there is nothing! lemon is a head note – you smell it quickly. But when you burn, its easy to vanish. So this is another challenge for us. Floral scents are difficult like this, usually they are head notes. Head notes are quite complicated (for incense). Even with a wood – its not like you thought, when you burn it’s another story. Wood notes, these are base notes, so no problem! but lemon, orange, are very difficult! So the process has taken some experimentation, which is very interesting.
Chikako: When I create a scent, I have to check with the incense powder. When I combine the incense base, the scent changes, so I have to go back and create it again. Tuning it and making slight alterations. The process took around 2 years for Love Carrot, but now we are faster. My father and grandfather didn’t know how to use the Western materials, so I had to start from scratch. I knew traditional materials like sandalwood and agarwood, but I didn’t know flowers and these perfume materials. For example lemon we have maybe 20 different lemon scents – from bitter to sweet.
Geoffrey: For me I knew about the perfume oil, but had no idea about incense.
Tokyo Kodo's scent design atelier is hidden in nature - Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo
What is it like working together?
Chikako: He grew up in Grasse and I grew up in an urban city, so sometimes I’m so interested in hearing his childhood memories. For example, when he was young he was always playing in a lavender field, but I never had this kind of experience in Tokyo. Different culture, and experience is good for me.
Geoffrey: I grew up with only nature. We are different but as a unit, good to inspire each other. She has a more creative way, I have a more logical way, so we are supporting each other. She creates the scent, I create the incense (Chikako designs the scents, Geoffrey blends them together). So its good that we’re different, different roles that support each other.
Tell us a little more about the main themes and inspirations behind your scents:
Geoffrey: Love Carrot – at Grasse, she fell in love with carrot seed, and it touched her heart. It took a lot of time, trial and error. French fragrance is like art. Perfume - it's very artistic. When I saw those fragrances I wanted to create something like that for incense. But the scent, its another type of carrot - carrot seed. The smell is different from carrots. And there was a particular one that she fell in love with. In the institute, they have many different types of carrot seeds. For Love Carrot, close to 30 ingredients were used: orange, sandalwood, carrot seeds, white floral aspect – many ingredients, like perfume.
Chikako: Murmure de la Foret – With this incense, I think about my grandfather’s house when I was young. I want to create that kind of smell, like a childhood memory for me. I wanted to make that into a perfumery incense, that idea. sandalwood, patchouli, a lot of different materials. My imagination of it is like the agarwood way – many layers of fragrance. Spices, frankincense, lots of woody notes, to create the image of the forest. Smelling that fresh scent, like the forest is whispering to you.
Lavender: I could smell a lot of different types of lavender in Grasse. I tried to visit all the mountains in the region, and smell the lavender from different fields. High up in the mountains, it has a different smell. I wanted to create a different type of lavender incense, and this mountain lavender was a very good fit – I found it! This lavender is like honey, fruity – its very deep! that’s why I don’t want to combine other materials, just sandalwood and lavender. So it’s a very pure scent. Complex, fruit & honey.
Lotus: My father and grandfather really like lotus. Its very connected to Buddhist culture. My father requested 'can you try and make a lotus smell?' My grandfather would always take a photo in front of lotus flowers. I wanted to create this scent for my family.
Wisteria: when I was in Europe there was a lot of wisteria – it was so amazing! In Grasse, walking around the town there are wisteria flowers growing on a lot of walls, and the fragrance reminded me of my home town in Japan. So that’s why I thought this would be a good scent for our collection. This one is crafted like a perfume.
During your time at Grasse, were there any particular flowers that you felt a strong connection with?
Chikako: First I fell in love with the scent of Carrot Seed. Which is why my first scent became Love Carrot. For me Carrot Seed is earthy and similar to osmanthus. It has a depth that I can really smell a lot of variety in. So even with just Carrot Seed, I could see many colors. Sun-orange, yellow and brown shades – very complex.
How would you say your incense differs from other brands of Japanese incense?
Chikako: Combining traditional Japanese incense and French perfume - this is artistic for me. I used to work for a textile design company in Japan, and making colour is the same for me as tuning the fragrance. When I was making perfume, I could see the colours. When I first went to France and I smelled some of the natural flowers that were growing, some of them I felt deeply touching my heart. I realised something was touching my heart, and I wanted to create that feeling for incense. I was thinking that in the West, people use a lot of perfume. So I thought about using incense as interior fragrance – like this scent could be good for the morning, or a night time fragrance, like how people in Europe use perfume.
Geoffrey: Incense depends on the place, the atmosphere, the weather - it's changing. If you are using a diffuser, the smell will always be the same because it's oil, but with incense it's different because it is burning. The incense, because it is wood, absorbs the atmosphere, and a subtle difference is created.
Chikako: For me perfume depends on different peoples' skin, because the skin has different oils, which can change the reaction and the smell.
Geoffrey: This is the magic of incense. It’s always changing.
We are proud to stock Tokyo Kodo's First Collection, comprising of 5 different scents, with sets that include a handmade ceramic incense holder. Refills and samplers are also available. Click this link to checkout the full range of Tokyo Kodo incense.