An odor by any other name


Draw a big breath and admit it. Japan smells.

And what place doesn’t? Take my hometown, for example, located close to Nowheresville, Illinois. The local aroma is a mix of clean living and hog manure, a tricky blend at that, one which my wife says I carried with me to Japan.

“But it wore off,” she says. “Half of it anyway.”

I tell her she had a special fragrance too, back when we first met. She smelled of mikan, miso soup and pickled radish. I don’t know if I was in love or just hungry.

And if she’d smelled like chocolate, we might have rushed from introductions straight to the altar.

Yet sustained years of marriage and residence have given me a nose full of Japan. Meaning that those smells that my foreign snout once announced as unique are now accepted as commonplace and comfortable.

But we foreigners have “long noses” and therefore long nasal memories. And there are certain Japanese aromas that once touched my olfactory sense like a white-hot cattle brand. The impressions left were so deep that even now those odors and fragrances reel up instant recollections of yesteryear and remind me I am no longer in Nowheresville.

No, this is Japan. It’s a nation far more diverse than advertised and everyone’s experience is different, but these are the smells that waft through my Japanese remembrances.

The honey wagon . . .

“Reek” is a powerful word. But in this case not powerful enough. We need fresher, more compelling language to describe the honey wagon. Like . . .

Reektacular. Reektastic. Reekmongulous.

A “honey wagon” is a sweet euphemism for a septic truck. In the old days, many homes were without flush toilets and instead featured johns consisting of mere openings over enclosed pits. Sort of like indoor outhouses. In fact, my wife and her family had such a toilet, perhaps the reason why she rubbed herself with mikans, miso and radish.

Anyway, every now and then a Reekasaurus Rex would show up to pump out the pit. This act would paint the air with a smell so pungent it could melt your brain.

A friend of mine was once riding in a bus that got hit by a honey wagon while making a turn. The sides split open and the bus passengers were trapped inside.

Even now he laughs about it. And even now they keep him in a straightjacket.

The funny thing is that honey wagons still pump on in many localities. If one’s in business anywhere near you, I am sure you are aware.

The subway . . .

Take the wet sweat of a hundred thousand commuters. Bake it in an underground oven. Remove the ventilation. And then get a train engineer to burn his clutch.

That is the subway. Or was when I first arrived. I remember descending the stairs and sucking in that first wave of sour heat and thinking, “This must be hell.” Of course, at that point I had yet to teach junior high.

Somehow modern subways seem to have lost their once malodorous glow. Or maybe my aromatic standards have declined. I now find many things fouler than subways. Like telemarketing.

Yet, on occasion, maybe when the dead air is at that perfectly awful degree of death, I can still inhale that subway stench of old.

Which I now find nostalgic. It reminds me of my youth, when everything about Japan was new, even gagging for fresh air.

Incense . . .

I do not like incense, no matter how soothing the scent. The reason being that I cannot help but associate the incense fragrance with the Japanese location where I typically breathe it in. Which is at funerals.

And yes, a funeral is not all negative. The weeping and shared sense of loss often result in deeper family bonds.

Which, in retrospect, we might also accomplish in other, less heart-wrenching ways, like with karaoke or bowling. We could even weep over my scores.

At funeral time you pull together. You squeeze hands. You exchange recollections and you trade some “only ifs.” You reflect on the frailty of life and the power of eternity.

And you breathe in incense. So much that I now have a Pavlovian response. One whiff and I begin looking for a body.

I suppose I could un-condition myself by lighting incense at other, more positive moments. Like, for example, when eating pizza. Yet, I fear this would only make me dial up Dominos whenever someone died.

People say God only gives you what you can handle. Well, I can handle a lot of pizza. So I think I’ll keep my incense conditioning right where it is.

Others? Old-style space heaters and pickled scallions come quickly to mind. The former made your house stink. The latter did the same to your breath.

And, of course, there are those who would tack serious questions to this or any list of Japanese odors.

Arguing that, in the end, it all smelled fishy to them.