4 Beauty Secrets I Learned From My Japanese Grandmother
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At Byrdie HQ, it's our MO to celebrate beauty from every corner of the world. The beauty customs of different cultures are unique and steeped in history, and by learning about them, we're able to expand our own perspectives (not to mention pick up a life-changing new tip or two). That's why we're proclaiming this week Global Beauty Week and paying special homage to women far and wide, from Thailand to Russia and beyond. Each day, we'll honor the beauty practices, trends, and traditions of our sisters around the globe—complex, intriguing, and versatile as they are. Enjoy!
Some of my earliest memories of my grandmother were actually made in her absence—secretly exploring a forbidden room at my grandparents' house in Hawaii. My family would take the flight from Seattle to Honolulu to visit my aunts and cousins and spend school breaks with Roy and Nobuko Nakamoto, my mom's parents. At four or five years old, I'd sneak alone into the quiet place denoted as "Grandma's room" to be instantly transported by the mysterious space's incongruent surroundings in the otherwise modern house.
Tatami mats lined the floor of the shadowy interior, and a large wardrobe held fragile creations I knew were precious—and forbidden to my touch—but did not otherwise understand. Ancient-looking bowls delicately wrapped in thin paper and unusual accessories I'd never seen before were carefully sorted on shelves. Hanging scrolls adorned the walls, and heavy drapes darkened the room to protect its contents from the hot Hawaiian sun. When I inquired about the mysterious hideaway, my parents would simply tell me it was Grandma's room. In childish wonder, I tried to picture my dear grandmother choosing to sleep in a bare, furniture-less room instead of in the master bedroom with Grandpa.
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My grandparents met just after World War II when my American-born Japanese grandfather was serving in the U.S. Army as a translator in Japan. He noticed my grandmother at a bus stop in Himeji and was taken aback by her modern sense of fashion and beauty, still recalling to this day the striking European-cut, form-fitting dress she wore. After their romance blossomed, my grandfather requested permission by the military to marry her (as she was a Japanese national), and they said their vows in August of 1947. They left Japan for America, and once back in the States, they had six daughters and continued to live in Hawaii until my grandma's passing in 2008 after battling multiple myeloma for half a decade.
Though Nobuko is no longer with us, in so many ways her spirit lives on in my most indelible childhood memories and in the stories my grandpa loves sharing, tearing up with a smile as he remembers their 61-year marriage. I will forever recall the graceful way my grandmother always carried herself, her forward fashion sense, and her timeless beauty. Her vanity, strewn with luxurious moisturizers and lipsticks, was my first impression of womanhood, her exquisite hand-sewn clothes ignited my love for fashion, and her forbidden room will always bring back to life my childlike wonder. Below, I've shared the traditional beauty secrets she brought with her from Japan and instilled in me.
It was years after my initial solo explorations into "Grandma's room" that I learned it was not a dark, barren place in which she resided but actually her sacred tea ceremony room. Every week, she would meet with other Japanese women in Honolulu to practice the traditional Japanese art called the Way of Tea. The collection of clay bowls, or chawan, were used to serve the tea, and the various instruments, unfamiliar to my 5-year-old eye, were the natsume tea caddy, chashaku tea spoon, and Chigusa storage jar. In the master bedroom, my grandmother would keep her priceless wardrobe of kimonos and obis adorned in extravagant brocade, which she would wear with care for each of these occasions.
Tea ceremonies held a central place in my grandmother's life. After leaving everything familiar in Japan to begin a new life with my grandfather, it was an important aspect of her upbringing and heritage to hold onto as she assimilated to America. Ritual is an important tenet in Japanese culture, and the revered practice of serving and receiving tea also carries with it many meditative and therapeutic properties. The Way of Tea has been called meditation in action, doubling as a practice of mindfulness, finding peace, and relieving stress.
In addition to indulging my curiosity in Nobuko's sacred tea ceremony room, I found myself fascinated by her vanity. An array of creams in luxurious jars were strewn across the counter—ointments, serums, and powders that went well beyond the sunscreen my younger self was used to being lathered in. I could entertain myself endlessly rummaging through this treasure trove of skincare discoveries akin to Ariel's secret grotto in one of the only movies I had yet seen at that age.
The product that dominated my grandmother's beauty collection was skincare. Her makeup look typically consisted of no more than a classic dark-red lip and some powder, with the rest of her face left natural, but she invested in taking care of her skin. Japanese beauty celebrates the health and quality of the skin. The purity of a geisha's skin, even beneath their white performance makeup, is called mochi hada, and achieving the suppleness is a priority over covering up with makeup. Moisturizing was the central component of my grandmother's beauty routine, and she favored Japanese lines like Shiseido to hydrate, nourish, and protect her face and body.
Staying Out of the Sun
As skincare was of utmost importance to my grandmother, protecting her skin from the sun was always a priority—no easy feat living in Hawaii. Traditional Japanese beauty celebrates fair skin—demonstrated by the geisha ideal and perpetuated by brightening serums that promise that porcelain quality. To maintain this creamy skin tone, my grandmother never left the house without a hat and a long-sleeve dress or blouse, even on the hottest days. Sometimes she would accessorize with scarves or a parasol to shield herself from the sun.
Nori and Miso to Keep Hair Black and Strong
Pure black hair is an important feature of Japanese beauty. Long before my grandmother began dyeing her hair, she kept her locks dark by eating a diet rich in nori, or dried seaweed, believed to nourish tresses and keep them from graying. Miso paste, found in miso soup, is probiotic-rich and contributes to the shine and growth of hair.
Looking for more global beauty inspiration? Discover seven more genius beauty tips we've learned from around the world.