Japanese Beauty: Practically Perfect

Courtesy @cosme store

On her first visit to Japan, beauty guru extraordinaire Linda Wells finds a new definition for flawlessness.

As I wandered around the Daikanyama area of Tokyo, I heard the whir of blow-dryers and set out to find them. This kind of distraction is an occupational hazard, a Pavlovian thing from 25-plus years of writing and editing beauty stories. I discovered the salon and peered into the window. There, in a pristine room, were four of the most gorgeous dogs, and each one was getting a blowout. Their coats were glossy and fluffed, as if they were preparing for a night on the town.

Beauty is no minor pastime in Japan—and neither are dogs, for that matter. But this is a story about beauty of the human female order in a place where beauty is a rigorous, energy-absorbing enterprise.

I was visiting Tokyo to speak to a group assembled by cosmetics brand Shiseido about the power of beauty. But having never been to Japan before, having never witnessed dogs getting hair treatments or people wearing Hello Kitty contact lenses, I ended up getting a lesson of my own.

We all know that the Japanese have a next-level appreciation of beauty. This is a country where melons and strawberries are arranged on store shelves like fine jewelry and priced according to symmetry and color, not flavor (though I did have a bite of a $40 strawberry and it was sweet and juicy). Multiply that by a bazillion and you still have lowballed the role of beauty in Japanese life.

Perhaps you’ve read about the Japanese nightly skin ritual, ministrations that involve as many as ten products and take as long as an hour. The basics are double-cleansing with an oil first and then with a cream, followed by an essence, which looks like fancy water and is patted on the skin with the fingertips. The Japanese swear by essences; unlike toners, they contain no alcohol and are designed to soften the skin with moisturizing and fermented ingredients, such as rice or soy. I have about six in my medicine cabinet and use them almost never; I might be too American for a product that’s so delicate and esoteric. The next steps in the ritual are a serum or two, a cream, and a face mask applied with specific, mapped-out massage strokes. Aya Aso, the editor in chief of etRouge, a beauty magazine in Japan, explains, “For us, those steps are just a daily routine, which has been naturally learned from our mothers, and maybe mothers learned from grandmothers.” She calls it an “imprinted idea of skincare.” Beyond that, “some women take some extra steps to be more perfect...and have beauty care as a hobby.”

I used to think all these steps were just this side of crazy and envisioned those Japanese women laboring at the bathroom sink while I waved a cleansing wipe lazily over my face and fired up Netflix. Don’t they want to speed it up and get on with life? Apparently not, because I haven’t even gotten to the subject of hair. During my week-long visit to Tokyo and Kyoto, I tried to experience traditional treatments in their natural environment and intended spirit: patiently, precisely, respectfully. Even if it made me twitch. I had the best facial of my life at the Clé de Peau Beauté salon, a two-and-a-half-hour endeavor that included multiple creams and masks with the most mind-altering body massage as a bonus. I may have drooled, possibly snored, and if so I apologize to my facialist. In the final step, she sealed my face in what felt like a plaster cast, covering everything but my nostrils, and I had to practice Lamaze breathing to keep from ripping it off in a full-blown panic. I’m glad I didn’t, because my skin looked almost unrecognizably smooth and glistening afterward. It seemed a shame to have to sully that with makeup, but the salon offered a fully stocked vanity table with drawers holding every shade of Clé de Peau Beauté foundation, its famous concealer stick, eye shadows, lipsticks, numerous makeup brushes, and hairstyling tools.

Courtesy Shiseido

Tokyo’s unofficial shrine to beauty is the Isetan Shinjuku department store. People line up outside on Saturdays, and the beauty counters are so mobbed that the salespeople hand out numbers. “Japanese women love to be guided for makeup and skincare,” says Saori Nemoto, who works in public relations at Shiseido in Tokyo. “They don’t feel annoyed about waiting.”

Isetan houses an enormous selection of products, including several lines that haven’t made it to the U.S. yet. There’s Ladurée makeup in the sweet colors of Parisian macarons and Madonna’s skin products and devices, called MDNA Skin, in the not-sweet colors of her Madgesty (black and chrome). The MDNA salesman gave me a demonstration, streaking Madonna mud on my right hand and then holding a metal wand over the mud. Without touching the skin, the wand pulled off the mud like a grade-school magnet drawing iron filaments and, according to the salesman, taking every single solitary impurity with it. That doesn’t sound like Madonna’s brand message to me—but, okay. The salespeople at Isetan are so lovely that you want to hug them, even when they’re demonstrating slightly ridiculous products. Last year, the store inaugurated a program called “smile training,” and the salespeople practice grinning at one another before the customers arrive every morning.

In the basement are the natural and organic beauty products, along with the BeautyApothecary spa by Uka, tucked away in a quiet corner. I submitted myself to the Uka Head Therapy, where natural oils were massaged into my scalp, followed by a shampoo as I lay on a flat bed, perhaps drooling again. After a blowout, I felt soft and shiny, like one of those well-groomed dogs.

Hair is a serious matter in Japan, where women tend to shampoo twice a day and diligently blow out and flat-iron it smooth. The humidity may be one explanation for all the fuss. There seem to be three salons on every block. “I once heard there are 400 hair salons alone in Tokyo’s Aoyama area,” Aso says. Japanese women tend to visit them once a month for a cut and color, and sometimes a shine treatment.

Some other fun facts:

Japanese women rarely leave the house without full makeup. “It’s polite,” says Nemoto. “Without makeup, it’s like being naked. It’s the same feeling.”

Many girls wear colored contact lenses to make their eyes look bigger. “They’re sold everywhere,” Nemoto says.

Young women often adopt the beauty look of a specific celebrity, chosen by a magazine, right down to the hair and lipstick color.

The Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in impermanence and imperfection, apparently applies to humans too. Artist Tomoko Sawada, who explores the meaning of image in her remarkable self-portraits in which she changes her hair and makeup as many as 2,000 times for a series, explains that “Japanese women are trying to be beautiful, but there’s no answer, there’s no end. I don’t think they want to be perfect. Japanese like effort. That’s the culture.”

By the end of my visit, I had a new appreciation for the effort required in the pursuit of beauty and the elusiveness of perfection. In the U.S., that pursuit can sometimes feel punishing and futile; in Japan, though, the hard work is almost always pleasant (except when it involves a plaster cast on your face).

It can even be poetic. At a public garden, I saw three fragile trees covered for protection in what looked like raffia skirts by Rei Kawakubo. I understood that the practical can be beautiful, especially in Japan.

Back in New York, I arranged my new Japanese products and tools by my bathroom sink and tossed out the facial wipes. It’s now time for me to wash and moisturize. I’ll see you in a few hours. 

Where to Buy

Isetan Shinjuku department store is over 100 years old and carries a robust array of beauty products. 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; isetan.mistore.jp.

Shiseido The Ginza carries many Shiseido lines not sold in the U.S. The Clé de Peau Beauté facial salon is on the third floor. 7-8-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku; stg.shiseido.co.jp.

Tokyu Hands is a multistory, Target- like shop where locals buy stationery; it also carries beauty products, including numerous facial masks, for adults and children. Marronier Gate Bldg. 5–9F, 2-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tokyu-hands.co.jp.

@Cosme Store is an online beauty review site that engendered brick-and-mortar stores throughout Tokyo. Products are displayed with ratings and user information. cosmestore.net.

Ainz & Tulpe carries a vast selection of local beauty products, tools, and brushes. 3-36-10 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; ainz-tulpe.ainj.co.jp.

For Wells's favorite products, see her slideshow »