A journey to an unknown land

The day I discovered Ogasawara

It was early morning, the sun was still coming up and warming the sea, creating flashes of silver on the water… We had left Tokyo 25 hours before on a ferry, and already, well before nightfall we were completely alone looking out across the smooth blue expanse to the horizon. All of a sudden, the seagulls began to circle in the sky as if they were in a ballet, turning and playing in the puffs of smoke from the boat's chimney. Their cries warned us that we were approaching land, the isolated land we so wanted to see.

The land began to become visible, preserved, exactly as it was when it emerged from the waves 48 million years ago… an archipelago of almost unknown sub-tropical islands, lost in the middle of the ocean over 1000 km from Tokyo. The Ogasawara archipelago wears its former name, the Bonin Islands, well. Bonin comes from the Japanese “bunin”, which means uninhabited. This is no longer the case, at least for the main island. But it reminds us of the shock that must have been that of the first explorers, in the days of the ancient city of Edo (today's Tokyo), who identified the islands.

The islands seem to be alive. Created by volcanic activity, they have never been attached to any continent. They are the visible symbol of our planet's underground – and underwater – activity, like a sigh on the surface that reminds us of the power of nature. Indeed, nature continues to express itself: in 2013, another island appeared, which shows the extent to which we are “only passing” and must protect and preserve it. We could feel this strength, this wealth, and at the same time this fragileness, when, dazed by our long journey, we began to see the first hills of Ogasawara.

My story began a few months ago. During a trip to Tokyo, I met a team of perfumers and scientists in our lab, who very discreetly and modestly told me about a project that had been so difficult to get organized they had been working on it for years. They wanted to organize an expedition to Ogasawara, an archipelago that was among the least known in the world, the most isolated and wildest, with a unique type of flora. Their aim was to celebrate the essence of this flora, the olfactory DNA of Ogasawara, by capturing the fragrance of these unique flowers recognized for their typicality by UNESCO, which classified these islands on its Natural World Heritage site list in June 2011.

I was at once enthusiastic. To my mind, the project had a very strong symbolic impact. In a world saturated with information, and in which a unique globalised culture seems to be overtaking most local specificities, it is essential to bear witness to the lost, unknown places on our planet. They are reservoirs of biological diversity, but also of the earth's memory, its origins, its complexity, its slow process of evolution, which is totally out of sync with our modern-day timescale. Above all, they are symbols of the urgency of protecting the nature in which we live.

The project also excited my olfactory curiosity. It was like setting out to discover the sensory unknown, letting one's nose smell flowers it had never encountered before, bringing back an inspiring collection of fragrances from the other side of the world: Shima Lemon, Shima Mokusei, Ogasawara Gumi, Shima Gyokushinka, Tsubaki Munin Hime, Bonin Coffee Flower… to show that nature has no limits and is a constant source of ideas and creativity, and of sensory emotions.

And a few months later, here I am.

In Tokyo, coming out of the subway, between two buildings I see the port. There is a tendency to forget that Tokyo is by the sea, there are so many pictures of the busy Shibuya district, the chic Ginza or the quiet madness of Harajuku. And yet, the sea is there, at my feet, lapping at those of the towers and buildings. The 25 hours at sea were no doubt necessary to put us in a meditative mood before we reached Ogasawara, which is by no means prepared to reveal its secrets to all. A journey to Ogasawara has to be earned.

Leaving Tokyo by sea is impressive, one feels so small under the hanging bridges, alongside the commercial port and its huge cranes unloading mountains of containers from ships as big as buildings. A private visit in the wings of a big city. The coast moves further away and there are fewer boats. The horizon seems infinite. The sunset is a flaming red, and breaks the rhythm of the waves' roll, and I have the impression that time stands still. I am sailing towards an unknown land.

And I discovered Ogasawara. At last. Like a Jurassic Park, intact, the first rocks became islets then islands covered with a luxuriating vegetation. I was nearing my objective, and I wasn't disappointed. To travel to Ogasawara is to plunge into the heart of nature, rich, but fragile. It is to testify to its beauty, but also to its more ephemeral aspects. During our hikes we discovered the jagged coastline, the immaculate white sand beaches, the damp, misty forests. Prehistoric ferns the size of trees stand out against the sky and draw you into the shade of an ancient forest. Alongside them stand delicate camellias, which could belong to a forgotten Garden of Eden. Exotic, luminous hibiscus give way to the flowers of lemon trees with their sweet, caressing fragrance. Fluorescent blue mushrooms look as if they come from a science fiction film set, while the liana intertwine, taking you back to Tarzan's day.

Ogasawara is unique. Much of this nature is endemic. Over 500 plant species offer a mix of ecosystems from north and south Asia, over 40% of which can be found nowhere else on earth. We become fully aware of the privilege of being there when, before setting out on a mountain walk, we are invited to dust off our clothes, brush our shoes and clean them with vinegar to avoid contaminating this fragile vegetation with foreign plants and parasitical bodies. On Ogasawara, nature is like a tightrope walker on the delicate rope of evolution, who could be destroyed at any moment.

The journey was an epic in itself, an initiation into the search for the lost beauty of nature, and a journey within oneself. I am very proud to be able to bear witness to it in this article, but also in the film I made while I was on the island to show the adventurous, enigmatic nature of such a journey. It is now up to you to go on that journey, at least in the olfactory sense. Thanks to the collection of headspaces Takasago created on the island all your senses will be awakened, headspaces of this endemic flora, whose essence is now preserved.

Inspire and be inspired, the quintessence of Ogasawara nature is revealed to you and is ready to accompany you in your finest “perfumistic” developments.

Arnaud Guggenbuhl (2015)
Takasago Europe Perfumery Laboratory S.A.R.L (at the time of publication)