ClaireV's Review of Gekkou Hanami (Sakura gazing in the moonlight) by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Gekkou Hanami is a sort of smushed together phrase to mean ‘gazing at cherry trees in blossom underneath the moonlight’, a Japanese pastime involving picnicking under the trees and gazing at the cherry blossoms as they flutter to the ground.

The more I learn about the classical Japanese arts of refinement like ikebana (kadō), the art of listening to incense (kōdō), and the tea rituals/tea ceremony (chadō), the more I’m convinced that the key to it all is patience, a trait that Westerners seem not to possess at all. The Japanese high arts seem to involve long stretches of waiting, contemplation, mindfulness, and silent appreciation, all of which I am genetically unsuited for. So while I appreciate the prettiness of cherry trees in full bloom on my way to something else, I am pretty sure that gazing at them for any length of time would drive me mad. Of course, it depends on what’s in the picnic basket. I can be lured anywhere with the promise of cake.

My late father-in-law had quite a few cherry trees on his farm near Skadar Lake, a huge body of water separating Albania and Montenegro, and they also grew abundantly in our city neighborhood, so although I now live in the entirely cherry tree-free land of Ireland, I do vaguely remember their scent when in bloom. I’d describe the aroma as a delicately fruity (slightly cherry-like) floral scent carried in the air. To me, it smells tentatively of spring, a shy and recalcitrant smell with little definition of character beyond a gentle freshness.

Jump from that to how cherry blossom (sakura) is portrayed in perfumery, and oh my God. I get that the ghostlike nuances of sakura are difficult to capture in liquid form. But cherry blossom seems to be shorthand for that girly pink, sweet fruity smell that’s popular with very young girls, involving (usually) industrial quantities of fluffy laundry musks, cherry-flavored lipgloss, and great big swirls of indiscriminately floral notes all smushed together until all we can do is to (helplessly) nod our heads and agree that, yes, it all smells very feminine and innocent. I’ve been forced into many’s a hostage situation with cherry blossom before. (Don’t even get me started on that bastard peony).

All this waffling if, of course, my way of setting you up for the reveal – Gekkou Hanami smells nothing like the grim cherry blossom I’m used to smelling in modern feminine perfumery. Full praise goes to Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for creating a cherry blossom scent that manages to smell, in fact, not only like real cherry blossom (in all its shy, indeterminate fruitiness) but also the whole tree, from the candied lemon blossom aroma of the petals to the tannic tartness of the wood and the green, spermy scent of meadowfoam and wildflowers clustered around its roots.

Gekkou Hanami smells gloriously sour, floral, and acidic, like spring greens bursting through soil, bringing with them not only the scent of new growth but also the earthy sourness of fermentation from the earth itself, newly exposed to the air after a long, cold winter.

The hints of fermented reminds me very much of the hanbang (medicinal herbs) aroma of a Japanese hydrating toner I love to use, the Kikumasamune Sake Skin High Moist Lotion, which is made by a sake-making company that realized that the ferments left in the rice after making the sake could benefit the skin. The tartness of the sake is accentuated by hinoki wood, which is similarly acidic, thus providing the scent with this sour whoosh that slakes the fruitiness of the sakura to perfection, rather like adding a shot of balsamic vinegar to a rich curry or lentil soup to brighten the flavor.

Gekkou Hanami is thus an atypical take on the often dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks note that is cherry blossom. I don’t for a moment want to underplay what must have been the technical difficulty of making a sakura scent that feels adult and syrup-free. If you want a cherry blossom scent that steers well clear of puerility or soapiness, then Gekkou Hanami is probably the best rendition I’ve personally encountered.

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