Kinmokusei (金木犀) Blossoms Give a Sweet Accent to the Autumn Air
By Avi Landau
In Japan it is almost always pleasant to take an OCTOBER STROLL through the countryside, parks, or even residential neighborhoods. And though here on the flatlands of the Kanto Plain the leaves will not turn their colorful best until late November or early December, there are still plenty of eye-pleasing plants of the season to make a nice long walk well worth your while- the spectacular spider lilies ( higanbana), fruit bearing persimmon( kaki), pomegranate (zakuro) and fig (ichijiku) trees and dancing fields of cosmos flowers or pampas grass being among the most impressive and representative of this area. Your meanderings will almost surely be to the sorrowful accompaniment of Japans autumn insects, whose melancholy chirpings might just get you in the mood to philosophize and ponder the meaning of it all – and the passing nature of all things, in particular.
And it is not only the sights and sounds which are pleasing ( and moving). As you make your way past private homes or through parks, every now and then, you nose will encounter a sweet perfume which will probably stop you in your tracks. When you search for the source of this fruity scent, you see a tree generously bedecked in small clusters of tiny light-orange flowers.
If you didn`t stop and take the effort to look, you might never have noticed these blossoms of the KINMOKUSEI (Osmanthus fragrans var.aurantiacus), a tree which was introduced to Japan from China sometime during the Edo Period (1600-1868), and which is now VERY commonly planted along roads and paths, in parks and the gardens of private homes – not for the beauty of their blossoms, but for their amazing October smell.
And though many Japanese love this blossom`s fragrance ( my friend Asako-San even keeps a blossom-laden sprig in her car), its iconic status as one of the great fragrances has ironically led to this flower ( and its smell) being connected in the minds of many Japanese to something much less charming: the latrine or outhouse – in other words, THE TOILET!!
The reason for this is simple. Since its odor is so pleasing, fresh kinmokusei`s blossoms have long been used as an air-freshener by placing them in foul smelling places. In recent years, kinmokusei has become a standard fragrance for the air-freshening sprays or sticks used in restrooms, both public and private.
And while in China, where its blossoms are often found used as a motif in legend, poetry, and the arts, the kinmokusei`s olive-shaped fruit are used to make a popular sweet and fragrant wine called KEIKA CHIN SHU (guihu chenju, 桂花陳酒, in Chinese), for many Japanese the idea of drinking such a beverage does not sound very appealing- since it reminds them of the toilet!
In fact, I was surprised to find out that in Japan, the female kinmokusei trees, the ones that produce the fruit, are very rare! I repeat – though this species has separate male and female trees, in Japan there are extremely few fruit-producing females!
There are three other varieties of MOKUSEI, that you might encounter in Japan: the GINMOKUSEI (var.fragrans f. fragrans), and the USUMOKUSEI (var.aurantiacus f. thumbergii), though these are much less fragrant ( and much less common).
You will probably be able to catch a whiff of the KINMOKUSEI throughout this month, as it usually blooms ( depending on where you are in Japan) in September and October.
Keep your noses open!
Today I got a kick out of watching people coming down a kinmokusei-lined path and suddenly stopping to look for the source of what they had just smelled!
Oh, by the way. In English this tree is variously referred to as the sweet olive, fragrant olive, or tea olive.