Suzanne's Perfume Journal

November 4, 2008:

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Excerpted from Memoirs of a Geisha, copyright © 1997 by Arthur Golden (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 1997, pp. 63-66)

Image: photo of geisha in the snow by Koichi Kamoshida for Getty Images; photo of saki cup lined with Beni lip rouge is from, where the lip rouge can be purchased. [NOTE: in the time since this page was originally published, the website vanished and was replaced by something else, so I removed links to the company and the Beni kit they were selling at the time I wrote this.]

Aroma M Geisha Rouge perfume oil, on the other hand, is quite the bargain: $40 for a quarter-ounce roll-on at

Thinking about Geishas and Sampling Geisha Rouge

When she’d finished applying blush, she still had no eyebrows or lips.  But for the moment she left her face like a bizarre white mask and asked Auntie to paint the back of her neck.  I must tell you something about necks in Japan, if you don’t know it; namely, that Japanese men, as a rule, feel about a woman’s neck and throat the same way that men in the West might feel about a woman’s legs.  This is why geisha wear the collars of their kimono so low in the

back that the first few bumps of the spine are visible; I suppose it’s like a woman in Paris wearing a short skirt.  Auntie painted onto the back of Hatsumomo’s neck a design called sanbon-ashi—“three legs.”  It makes a very dramatic picture, for you feel as if you’re looking at the bare skin of the neck through little tapering points of a white fence.  It was years before I understood the erotic effect it has on men; but in a way, it’s like a woman peering out from between her fingers.  In fact, a geisha leaves a tiny margin of skin bare all around the hairline, causing her makeup to look even more artificial, something like a mask worn in Noh drama.  When a man sits beside her and sees her makeup like a mask, he becomes that much more aware of the bare skin beneath.

All that remained were the final touches on her makeup and the ornaments in her hair.  Auntie and I followed Hatsumomo back into her room, where she knelt at her dressing table and took out a tiny lacquer box containing rouge for her lips.  She used a small brush to paint it on.  The fashion at that time was to leave the upper lip unpainted, which made the lower lip look fuller.  White makeup causes all sorts of curious illusions; if a geisha were to paint the entire surface of her lips, her mouth would end up looking like two big slices of tuna.  So most geisha prefer a poutier shape, more like the bloom of a violet.

                             —From the 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Today I'm sampling Geisha Rouge perfume oil by Aroma M, and it reminds me of the excerpt above, because it is a concentrated dab of "red" (scent-wise, not literally) that at first application has a waxy smell that reminds me of lips—the plump fleshiness of polished lips.  This is a clove-heavy perfume oil that is all about spice (there isn’t a hint of anything floral in it), and its other notes include cinnamon, star anise, sandalwood, tobacco, vanilla, and tonka bean.  My guess is that warm, pungent clove is what lends Geisha Rouge this waxy quality, because when I sniff the jar of ground cloves in my spice cabinet I detect a similar smell (perhaps due to the fact that cloves have a very high oil content).  For the first hour of wear, the scent of clove and anise predominate, making for one quirky fragrance that also reminds me of the old Black Jack and Clove chewing gums that my grandfather used to carry around in his coat pocket when I was growing up in the 1970s.  Black Jack was flavored with licorice, and it was one of the oddest-tasting gums I’ve ever tried.  But since I like a little slice of weird every now and then, I don’t mind this stage of the perfume; it’s like an unexpected first kiss, strange and intense.

Eventually, the waxy and licorice-like properties of the scent soften, and the tobacco note kicks in, changing the character of the fragrance slightly, so that it reminds me of spiced tea.  In fact, if you had asked me to guess the notes, I wouldn’t have named tobacco; I would have said black tea.  The fragrance doesn’t change much at this point, except to get warmer and softer.  There are a number of things I love about it: the vanilla is never very pronounced, so the scent remains a spice scent clear through to its end; the fact that this is a perfume oil means that you need only apply a small drop to each wrist, and it lasts and lasts—a real feat once cold weather kicks in and the forced-air heat in my home makes my skin dry; and, lastly, it’s one of the few clove scents that I actually find wearable (Caron’s Poivre, which I had so hoped to love, overwhelms me with its clove—enough that I’m tempted to give up on it, but will continue to test it throughout the winter).

Apropos to nothing except the name of this fragrance, Geisha rouge is a rather interesting item to investigate on the Internet. Known as Beni (which means “red” in Japanese), this very expensive lip rouge has been used since ancient times by Japanese geishas.  Beni is a natural flower pigment derived from the Benibana, or safflower, and it is painted onto the interior surface of a sake cup (see photo, below).  The pigment, when it dries onto the cup, takes on different hues—from iridescent green to gold to red—when held up to various angles of light.  Because it is susceptible to light and humidity, the rouge lasts in the cup for only a month or two, so must be used up in that time frame.  It is applied to the lips by wetting a brush with water and swirling it against the dried pigment in the sake cup, then transferring that pigment to the mouth, building up as little or as much color as is desired.  A Beni kit from the Edo Craft company currently costs around 12,000 Japanese yen, which converts to about $120 as of this writing.  Considering that the Beni rouge is only good for about 30 or 40 applications, that’s some pricey lip color.