Follow Your Nose

Outdoor yakitori stand
The aroma from an outdoor yakitori stand takes me right back to my first visit to Japan, when I was 18 years old, and visiting Inokashira Park in Kichijoji. There was a stand right outside the entrance to the park, and the smell was intoxicating. The yakitori was pretty tasty too.

Believe it or not, some of the most intense and lasting memories we have come from the aromas we encounter when we travel. Sadly, most of us tend to disregard the impressions we receive from our sense of smell when we travel, and instead concentrate more on taking pictures or buying souvenirs to remind us of our journeys.

And yet, our sense of smell has the ability to repay the the encounters we have with scents and aromas many times over. Experiencing a particular scent after we return home, or in a different location, has the power to transport us to both a place and time, pleasant or unpleasant, filling our minds again with what we were hearing, seeing and feeling when we inhaled that aroma. It’s the same way the scent of bread baking or other foods cooking can take us back to our grandmother’s kitchen, or the scent of freshly mowed grass can bring back memories of a park we visited or games we played as children.

Here are a few of my favorite travel memories associated with aroma:

  • The scent of green tea always reminds me of tea shops in Japan and China. They were calming, comforting and quiet places, even in the busiest of cities.
  • Barbecue – The aroma of smoky barbecue still takes me back to a little shack called The Brown Pig, which sold the most amazing barbecue in Millington, Tennessee. I craved it when I was pregnant.
  • Temple incense – when I smell incense now my mind leaps to several temple visits in Japan

    Fresh tatami mats are green;
    Fresh tatami mats are pale green, and have a refreshing aroma
  • Whenever I walk past a tatami shop in Japan, and smell the fresh mats, I’m transported right back inside our off-base Japanese house, where we lived for 18 months in 1990-1991. We had fresh tatami in our dining room and bedroom – heavenly!
  • The tang of ocean air and the aroma of sunscreen always remind me of childhood summers spent at our family’s San Clemente beach house.
  • Any time I smell dashi, the broth made from dried bonito that’s the basis of Japanese cuisine, I’m right back in Japan. I call it Japan’s “background scent.”
  • Yakitori cooking on an open grill (see the picture above)

    This stuff really worked!
    White Flower Embrocation
  • The scent of Tiger Balm and White Flower Embrocation always puts me in Hong Kong, having to stay in my hotel room with a very, very bad cold and watching a man across the road practice some kind of martial art on the top of his building. I still use White Flower – it works!
  • Campfire smoke = coffee around a morning campfire at Honeyman State Park in Oregon

The smells we encounter when we’re on the road are perhaps our most intense travel experiences, even if we don’t recognize them as such, or pay much attention to them at the time. While a picture can remind us of where we’ve been and what we’ve done, a remembered aroma can put us right back inside a memorable experience.

11 thoughts on “Follow Your Nose

  1. My first one is not a travel one, but a “coming home” one. I can remember being at the beach all day in Oceanside, CA, then coming home and sitting on the back steps at our house in the dark. I smelled of sun, sand, and Coppertone, and jasmine filled the air. That is summer right there.

    My second is only a “slight” travel one – the smell of diesel buses reminds me of Disneyland!


    1. Oh my, the smell of just about any suntan lotion these days puts me right back in San Clemente during the summer. Coppertone always had the best smell (IMO), but we always used Sea ‘n’ Ski, in the green bottle. I loved the scent of the ocean there which you don’t really get here – someone said it’s because the ocean is cleaner here (and there’s no kelp either).

      Are you thinking of those little trams that used to take you from the parking lot to the gate at Disneyland? They did smell. Disney to me always smelled like popcorn, or something buttery.


    1. The yaki imo trucks did smell good once you got close to them, but when you say “yaki imo” it’s the song that came with the truck that pops first into my mind. The trucks seem to be few and far between these days. We lived out in Kanagawa suburbs for nearly two years, and never once saw, heard or smelled a yaki imo truck – sad!

      (I will call one of these days, promise!)


  2. I remember the smell of orange blossoms when we came to live with my grandmother prior to being stationed in Germany. I was six but the smell still reminds me of that time.


    1. Our sense of smell is really is more powerful than we give it credit for. I think it’s amazing that a scent can take you all the way back to when you were six years old!


  3. The smells do not need to be pleasant either. Each time I land at JFK, I smell a mixture of jet fuel, garbage, humidity and a wee bit of a fresh breeze. Then I know, I am in New York. Same thing in the City; except that instead of jet fuel, it is the cars and the subway smells mixed with food smells. Every once in a while I catch a smell like that here at home and I say “Oh! How I miss New York!”


    1. Oh, exactly. Tragically, certain scents can bring back unpleasant memories as well as pleasant ones. I interviewed survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, and several of them said certain smells remind them of that day. I can’t even imagine.


  4. My friend always buys a new perfume before going on a trip and then wears it the entire time she is there. When she returns and wears the different scents, she is reminded her of her trips.


    1. What a great, clever idea! Better than pictures in some ways for remembering your travels. It almost makes me wish I could wear perfume!


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