It Smells Like Victory

Today you get an ode to the anonymous queen of Japan’s flowering trees: the humble jasmine bush. I first noticed it last year in early May, but even more so this year. My first encounter was while walking through a pedestrian lane one evening with Lia, near Tobata station. We actually backtracked to make sure we hadn’t imagined it.

A year later it doesn’t surprise me as much. Every so often, the scent of jasmine comes floating out of nowhere and brings a peaceful smile to my face. I get to experience flashes of this serenity at four or five points on my daily commute, though at 30kph—on a bike—they’re fleeting. The scent is subtle but unmistakeable, and a welcome change from the usual smell of factory emissions and exhaust.

The blossoms are quite unremarkable to look at—small white clusters on dense greenery. The dark leaves present a nice contrast to the flowers but tend to overpower them visually. Here, see for yourself. I took this photo on May 5th 2005 in the town of Mizumaki, just west of Kitakyushu. I was out searching for koi nobori—carp windsocks—flying in honour of Chidren’s Day, when the scent of this tree caught me.

photo of jasmine flowers

Jasmine bushes in full bloom are plain compared to February’s ume—Japanese plum—blossoms, which feature pink highlights on leafless branches. Here’s a photo I took on February 20th this year, in the gardens near Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine.

photo of plum blossoms

And even the ume pale in comparison to the sakura—cherry blossoms—of April. I took this one on April 6th 2005, the day before I posted the pictures of the new school year starting. This view is about twenty minutes’ walk from our apartment, overlooking the Village of the Fireflies park, where the luminous bugs are said to be active.

photo of cherry blossoms

Still, regardless of visual beauty, there’s nothing quite as memorable as unexpectedly walking into a cloud of jasmine fragrance coming fresh off the tree.

Except maybe for a natto factory surprise attack. Which might be the inspiration for Robert Duvall’s oft-misquoted line in Apocalypse Now.

Natto, son. Nothing in the world smells like that… I love the smell of natto in the morning… Ya know, that rotten bean smell… It smells like victory.

To which Marlon Brando’s character—Kurtz—replies:

The horror…the horror.

I know that the studios forced a lot of unwelcome edits on Francis Ford-Coppola for the original theatrical release, but really. You’d think that for the director’s cut they could’ve at least left the lines intact and in the original sequence.

But yeah, jasmine. Unforgettable. And yet another one of the things I’m going to miss about this place.

3 thoughts on “It Smells Like Victory

  1. Jasmine reminds you of natto, but you’re going to talk about plum trees and keep the secret of umeboshi? And deny the rest of the world quite an experience in the process!!

  2. Well… it’s not so much that jasmine reminds me of natto, as much as the fact that it’s possible to experience the two smells in the same way. You can be simply walking along, minding your own business, when you suddenly walk through a cloud of scent. But as opposed to the clear, refreshing wonder of the jasmine, a natto cloud can knock you flat on your back wondering what died, if you don’t manage to run for cleaner air first.

    And umeboshi doesn’t have a really powerful smell. But that’s a topic for a future post.

  3. mmmmmm. umeboshi. mmmmmm.

    One of the teachers offered me some from the batch she’ll make this month. She said she adds a LOT of shiso. mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

    (and I love the smell of jasmine too – umeboshi with rice and jasmine tea would be quite nice. mmmmmmmmmm.)

    okay – back to work now . . .

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