Old Man Smell

Old Man Smell

According to my wife there are three categories of body odor in Japan: The Pencil, The Chicken Soup and, most frightening and mysterious, The Old Man Smell or Kareishu.

The Pencil incorporates a range of aromas both earthy and spicy. Sniff a freshly sharpened pencil and you will see: hints of cumin powder, the astringent bite of freshly picked oregano, a bowl of curry nestled in a baby diaper, the steaminess of freshly turned soil.

The Chicken Soup is a more hefty BO.  Onions, cabbage, the sour pungency of lactic acid fermenting in the pits. It can be a heavy smell, weighty, something you could lift with a spoon. It can combine with The Pencil to terrible effect.

The Old Man Smell is something different, something more philosophical.  When my wife first brought it to my attention, I had many questions.  Is it the smell of death?  Not precisely. Rot? Not precisely.  It was a smell that could not be adequately described.  You had to smell it to know it…and apparently all Japanese people know it.  Medical science actually has an explanation for Old Man Smell.  The National Institutes of Health describe it as an “unpleasant greasy and grassy odor” caused by the chemical compound Nonenal which is formed when Lipid acid is oxidized on the skin (a process that increases with age). This description doesn’t fully catch the nature of the aroma.  I first caught a whiff of it on a drunken salary man passed out on the last train of the night.  It comprised a dash of loneliness, unwashed hair, old sweat on a much worn suit, stale beer, the shadow of cologne splashed on in the early morning and gingivitis. I excitedly asked my wife: Is that Old Man smell??  She nodded in agreement.  I began to catch it more and more.  I developed an appreciation for its nuances and layers — a sweet undertone of cheap perfume lifted from a long night at a sketchy hostess bar, old cigarette smoke from a pachinko parlor, stale cooking oil from a cramped izakaya, pork fat from a late night ramen.

As I reached middle age, as 50 fast approached, I occasionally asked if I had gained The Old Man Smell.  The answer was always in the negative until one day last year.  I had drunk too much, smoked too much and snoring in the early morning, I had apparently tinged the air of the bedroom with Old Man Smell.  I was mortified. Luckily,  it turned out to be an anomaly and I was never censured about it again.

Tokyo during the summer is brutally humid.  90% humidity is common.  Your clothes feel damp and, for me, the sweat just doesn’t stop.  You must keep a rag or handkerchief on your person at all times.  The other night I went out and joined some friends for drinks and some yummy bites (gorgeous sashimi, a japanese take on Tom Yum soup, fried chicken) in a smoky izakaya.  I rushed in the cloying heat to catch the last train back to Hewadai. As I wiped my brow, I smelled the old man smell emanating from the moist sweatband inside of my hat, from the liquor on my breath, from my very soul possibly. The big Five Oh is next year, my lipid acids are oxdizing with great frequency, I drink too much, I smoke too much, I eat too much and my failures pile up behind me like boulders that I am too frightened to address. I am at risk of being another old man on the late train smelling of Old Man Smell — a warning to the silent hipsters rosy with the smell of youth and health and promise. I won’t give up, I shall fight against Old Man Smell — I will battle it out with a new soap (permisson soap is apparently the best at neutralizing Nonenal), some new cologne, a teeth cleaning and a more sober approach to life — I shall do it all, right after I try out those tiny Izakayas in Tateishi that seemed to specialize in a type of whole fried quarter chicken served over cabbage with mugs of almost frozen draft beer. Yes, right after that, I will get get serious in the battle against age!


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