Skip to main content

It's Beni-Good Day

Ok so that was a horrible pun. Awful, truly. I shouldn't have exposed you precious readers to that, except I couldn't really help myself.

But what, you may ask, is "beni"?
Beni is the word for safflower, a thistle-like plant that looks like this:

It's a flower that actually has quite a long and cultured history in Japan. Murasaki Shikibu, the Heian-era courtier who wrote the saga "The Tale of Genji" even had a character who was referred to (not always flatteringly) as the "Safflower Princess" because her nose was somewhat large and often red.

Other than this delightful reference, safflowers have been used to create a beautiful (and expensive) red dye in Japan, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The flowers originated in Egypt and came to Japan through China via the Silk Road. Even though the flowers are yellow, 1% is, in fact, a red dye. Now, however, there's only one beni company remaining, and they have a small museum in the Omotesando area: the Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni.

It's really quite a minuscule museum, but since entry is free you can't really feel too bad about checking it out if you're in the area. The one-room exhibit details, mostly, how beni dye and cosmetics are made and how they were used during the Edo period.

I actually knew a little bit about beni and the dying process before I came, thanks to what I think is one of Studio Ghibli's most underrated films, Omoide Poroporo (its English name is "Only Yesterday"). The main character leaves the hectic city and finds solace (and love!) in a rural beni farm...

Beni (also the word for "crimson") was one of the three colors of Edo-period makeup, the other two being white and black. Red was used on the lips and in the corner of the eyes, or mixed with the white lead-based face/neck powder to make a pink cheek dye. Black was, of course, used to paint on eyebrows and to blacken teeth for what was once considered the height of beauty--shiny, black teeth.

Leaving aside the questionable aesthetics of black teeth (even though the dyeing process apparently helped prevent cavities and the like), properly made beni makeup dries to an iridescent green, like a beetle's wing:

Nevertheless, when you dip a brush in water, it returns to being a vibrant red:

The museum/shop lets you try some of the beni on your lips, where it matches with your body's ph and changes color to suit your lips, much like the "frog prince" lipsticks that are popular on Amazon right now. Modern lipstick might be a better deal, however, because a small cup of beni like that can only really be used about 40-50 times...and is much more expensive. Still, it's good to know that this small piece of culture is still alive and kicking in Tokyo.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Final Touring Excursions

Tomorrow is my last day. It felt strange to write that sentence, knowing that I've been gone six weeks, which feels like both no time at all but also forever. Even though this is my fifth time coming to Japan (and the fourth for an protracted trip), the coming-and-going is something I don't get used to. Just as I start getting over my "ugh, I just want to go home" hump and settling in, well, it actually IS time to go home.

What have I done the past few days?

Well, on Sunday my host family and I took a drive to Yamanashi prefecture (re: near Mount Fuji) to visit the Oshino Hakkai, the Eight Sacred Ponds of Oshino. According to the signage, when people used to hike up Mount Fuji for pilgrimages, they would purify themselves in the ponds before starting their journey. And having stuck my hand in an (acceptable) corner of the main pond, Wakuike, it was FREEZING. Some other ponds have specific purposes, however. One was for people who wanted a good marriage, for instance.

Cat Cafe

Today I went with my host brother to a cat cafe for "research". Yes it is a cafe and yes it has (canned) coffee, but also I really really really wanted to go to a cat cafe. By doing a little research, I found one off a convenient train station that not only didn't require a reservation in advance, but had free drinks and was actually significantly less expensive for more time than other cafes. On to Nyankoto!

For cat lovers, this is paradise:

This shop had fifteen cats, each with their own names and personality described in a photo book:

This cat's name is Kinta and he's a mix--though most of the cats there were breeds I was unfamiliar with and had fur of various kinks and degrees of fluffiness. 
They were all very social, active cats as well.

Kinta greeted my host brother by literally jumping on his back. 
The other cats often ran around chasing each other (one was a very energetic kitten, so he was always pouncing on the others) or flopping down to be pet in co…

Shibuya and Ebisu

The past few days I've been in the Shibuya and Ebisu areas (think: south-west side of Tokyo) to check out some of the up-and-coming cafes, as well as wander around the neighborhood. I've decided that wherever I go, I'm going to find something to do in addition to spending 3-5 hours in coffee shops--while the research and the people I meet are incredible I do regret that I don't get to spend as much time exploring the other aspects of Tokyo. 
Yesterday in Shibuya I checked out The Local Coffee Stand, Coffeehouse Nishiya, and The Theater Coffee. The Local is a pretty unassuming space, even though it is on a main street. It's goal is to be the sort of jumping-off point for people just getting in to specialty coffee: they showcase beans from local roaster and run a website called "Good Coffee" in both Japanese and English to help people find "that local spot" in a neighborhood near to them. I'm including a link to the site, HERE. CLICK THIS.