10 April 2024

Beauty Secrets of Ume and Sakura: Discover at Japanese Cosmetic Museum

Spring in Japan begins from February 4th, Risshun (the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar), and gradually, flowers representing spring start to bloom. Plum and cherry blossoms are synonymous with spring in Japan, attracting crowds for hanami "flower viewing" across the country.

This time, the MUSUBI team visited the Beni Museum, where exhibitions related to plum and cherry blossoms are being held. This museum is operated by the "Isehan Honten", the last remaining beni shop dating back to 1825. Beni refers to the red pigment extracted from safflower, used in paints, dyes, cosmetics, and as a food coloring. We explore how these two motifs relate to the Japanese sensibility and uncover their secrets.


  • Isehan Honten Beni Museum
  • Special Exhibition "Plum and Cherry Blossoms"
  • Permanent Exhibition
  • Beni Experience
  • Plum Viewing at Koishikawa Korakuen

Isehan Honten Beni Museum

The museum's exhibitions offer a place to learn about cosmetics and Japanese culture from the perspective of beni. The museum was founded with the desire to share with various people the process of making beni, involving safflower farmers, beni craftsmen, and the production process itself.

Special Exhibition "Plum and Cherry Blossoms"

We began by admiring the thematic exhibition "Plum and Cherry Blossoms," which was being held in a corner of the permanent exhibition room.

According to the explanation, plum was introduced to Japan from China around 720 CE during the Nara period, meanwhile, cherry blossoms have been native to Japan since ancient times. Both have been used as metaphors for beauty in Japan, evident from their popularity in cosmetic tools and as themes in waka poetry.

The exhibition displayed cosmetic tools and products from the late Edo period (1603 CE - 1868 CE) to the early Showa period (1926 CE - 1989 CE), with labels featuring plum and cherry blossoms.

Plum was used in cosmetics mixed with fragrances, such as toothpaste and hair oil. For example, toothpaste called Baika-san contained red colored plum blossoms as an ingredient. This inclusion was not for flavoring purposes, but rather for their fragrance. This practice reflects the deep appreciation people at the time had for the scent of plum blossoms. Moreover, white plum was depicted on the package of white powder (used as face powder) as its white shade was highly praised at that time.

Likewise, cherry blossoms were popular for their light pink color. The thin layering of beni lipsticks could create a cherry blossom-like color. Showcases displayed Kyo ware beni containers, adorned with intricate patterns that reflected the craftsmen's dedication. Beni was once contained inside of the seashells, presenting an elegant appearance.

"Komachi Beni," a product of Isehan Honten, is named after Ono no Komachi, one of Japan's three great beauties and a renowned poet known for verses like the following.

"I have loved in vain, and now my beauty fades like these cherry blossoms paling in the long rains of spring that I gaze upon alone."
- Kokin Wakashu, Spring 113 (Translated by Peter MacMillan)

Here, "flowers" represent cherry blossoms. Komachi often used cherry blossoms as a theme in her poetry, linking her closely with them. This influence likely contributed to the popularity of cherry blossoms. 

Initially, plum was the mainstream for flower viewing, with nobles landscaping their gardens with plum trees. On the other hand, cherry blossoms were recognized as wild mountain flowers, not particularly sought after for viewing.

Both flowers are beautiful, but there were distinct trends in each era. Both plum and cherry blossoms were cherished until the Edo period. With the introduction of Western culture in the Meiji era (1868 CE - 1912 CE), fragrant flowers like violets and lilies began to be used as cosmetics, gradually phasing out plum. Meanwhile, cherry blossoms gained renewed popularity in the late Edo period, used on cosmetics labels.

Viewing the "Plum and Cherry Blossoms" exhibition, we rediscovered how these two flowers are deeply connected to Japanese aesthetics. It was surprising to learn that once, plum blossoms were more mainstream than cherry blossoms for flower viewing. What we learned is that although beauty trends differ through history, the attraction to beauty is universal.

Permanent Exhibition

The permanent exhibition showed the history of Japanese cosmetics centered around the Edo period, overviewing the production and distribution of safflower, the beni-making process, advertising, and sales activities through models, videos, and related materials.

The exhibition starts with the history of beni. Safflower came to Japan via the Silk Road, grown in Yamagata Prefecture as Mogami beni flower. Several steps are involved in making beni, unchanged from the Edo period, starting with picking safflower petals and processing them into beni mochi before being wholesaled to beni shops and dyers.

Beni refers to the red pigment in safflower, present only 1% in the flower, equivalent to about 1000 flowers for one beni lipstick. There are about 40 safflower farms in Yamagata, with only two craftsmen continuing the beni-making traditional methods. This valuable material and traditional craftsmanship is an invaluable heritage.

In Japan, red has historically been considered a color to ward off evil, appearing in rituals at life's milestones. Beni embodies people's prayers and celebrations, rooted in a culture of faith and protection.

Beni Experience

At the Beni Museum, visitors can try beni lipstick for free. Seizing the opportunity, guided by a curator, two of us tried the experience. Komachi Beni consists solely of red pigment, 100% additive-free. The beni shone lustrously inside an Arita porcelain container with a cherry blossom pattern, sparking admiration with its metallic green shine, unrecognizable at first glance as beni.

Komachi Beni is applied to the lips with a beni brush, mixed with water. After soaking the brush in water and shaking off the excess, beni is gradually dissolved from the edge of the container with the brush. The moment beni touches water and dissolves into red is fascinating.

The charm of Komachi Beni lies in its ability to reflect and enhance the natural skin tone of the wearer, depending on the amount applied. It beautifully blends into the skin within a mere minute, achieving a harmonious and personalized color.

When Tominaga-san painted the beni, it turned vermilion, while mine resulted in a vivid rose pink. Seeing myself with beni in the mirror was surprising, feeling like discovering a new self, an interesting experience that added to my future lipstick choices.

The Komachi Beni lipsticks can be purchased as a souvenir, not sold overseas, making it a unique gift when visiting Japan. After using beni, the container can serve as a timeless accessory holder.

Beni Museum

6-6-20 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, K's Minami Aoyama Building 1F

Go to Website

Plum Viewing at Koishikawa Korakuen

After visiting the Beni Museum, we went to a plum blossom viewing at Koishikawa Korakuen. Tokyo has several famous spots for plum blossoms, blooming from late January to early March.

Koishikawa Korakuen, established in 1629 during the early Edo period by Tokugawa Yorifusa of the Mito Tokugawa family, is the city's oldest garden, completed during the era of the second Mito Tokugawa Lord, Mitsukuni. The garden features a "strolling pond garden" with a central pond, incorporating Chinese scenic names and landscapes, skillfully expressing various sceneries such as lakes, mountains, rivers, and fields using the terrain's natural undulations.

Mitsukuni was so fond of plums that he created a plum grove, blooming with about 30 varieties of red and white plum blossoms in February. The day was sunny and warm, perfect for a stroll. Although not in full bloom, white and red plums blossomed prettily. Watching the plum flowers, occasionally, a Japanese white-eye would perch on a branch, nibbling nectar cutely.

Speaking of flower viewing, dango "sweet rice dumpling" is a must. Fortunately, a dango-selling camper was there, so we decided to eat. With flavors like soy sauce, mitarashi "sweet soy glaze," and anko "red bean paste," members choose their favorites. 

The chewy texture was satisfying, filling our stomachs and hearts after a day's work. Truly, the proverb hana yori dango "dango over flowers" was right. We asked the vendor when this shop is opened, learning it only opens during the flower viewing season. This park is certainly worth visiting in spring.

Koishikawa Korakuen

1-6-6 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Go to Website

The Isehan Honten Beni Museum is a place to learn about beni. Viewing Japanese culture through cosmetics offers a different perspective. Although lipstick is commonly applied with a stick today, the experience of using beni leaves an unforgettable impression.

For those interested in makeup or traditional Japanese culture, it's a captivating place where time flies. Going outside to see plums and cherry blossoms is good, but seeking spring-related art exhibitions in Tokyo is also a great idea. Aoyama, home to the Beni Museum, Nezu Museum, and the famous wagashi shop Toraya, offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy Japanese culture with all five senses.