One morning in mid-May, after having fallen asleep on an airplane in Los Angeles with an eye mask and a bowl of noodles in my belly, I woke up in Tokyo and couldn't believe my luck. The Japanese cosmetics brand Koh Gen Do had invited me on a press trip (in celebration of the reformulation of its iconic Aqua Foundation) to visit its headquarters, take a tour of the beauty shopping scene in Tokyo, and explore the sprawling city of kawaii fashion, ramen, kitty cafés, and 9.4 million people.
So I packed my quirkiest outfits and my passport. Having never been to any Asian country before, I had wide, eager eyes and few expectations. For five days, I was given a crash course in all things Japanese cosmetics and skincare: I discovered drugstore and department store brands, hydrating products, and facial massage techniques I'd never so much as heard of before. And by the end of my trip, I felt like I had a new lease on skincare thanks to the lessons I'd learned from Japan's unique combination of centuries-old traditions and brand-new technology.
Curious to learn about how my week in Japan changed my beauty routine? Keep scrolling to read five Japanese skincare secrets I picked up in Tokyo.
1. A youthful complexion all starts with a cup of tea
Matcha is as prevalent in Tokyo as coffee and soda combined in the U.S.—it can be found served hot or cold in every restaurant and convenience store, not to mention all the different matcha-flavored snack foods you can buy (I may or may not have taken home some matcha Oreos as a souvenir). But matcha is also an important centerpiece of Japanese culture, and I learned about the traditions surrounding it at a tea ceremony hosted at a Tokyo cooking school called Chagohan, where I learned to mix and drink matcha in an old-school style.
Matcha is a part of almost every Japan resident's daily lifestyle, and Megumi Setoguchi, an esthetician and Koh Gen Do's Senior Managing Director, credits it in part for giving Japanese women such glowy skin. Matcha has anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it can help curb the redness associated with acne and rosacea, not to mention it contains antioxidants and chlorophyll, which help protect the skin against the negative effects of UV radiation.
2. Hydrating lotions are at the center of everyone's routine
Setoguchi taught me that lotion, a product that doesn't really exist in the average U.S. routine, is the centerpiece of Japanese women's skincare. A lotion is a product with a liquid, watery texture that you pat on your skin with your hands after cleansing to deliver deep, intense moisture that feels lightweight and non–pore clogging on the skin. It's as important to the Japanese routine as moisturizer is to us; in fact, some Japanese women use a lotion and an oil without any moisturizer at all.
If you need even more hydration, another thing you can do with lotion is to create a Lotion Pack, where you saturate a few sheets of pure cotton and apply them to your face. Lie down in bed, leave them on for 10 minutes to absorb, then take them off, and don't rinse. It'll feel like you just did a super-hydrating sheet mask.
One of the most popular lotions in Japan, according to Koh Gen Do's intern, was this $11 Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioner, which we came across at a Tokyo drugstore. It's so cheap but offers so much product that you can really go to town with your lotion packs.
3. A happy gut microbiome is the true secret to healthy skin
When asked to describe how the Japanese attitude toward wellness benefits its citizen's skin, Setoguchi knew right away: probiotics. "The environment of your gut is directly connected to your skin—Japanese women are all very aware of this," she said. (Among the benefits of probiotics are a reduction of skin inflammation and other issues—you can read more about it here.) For this reason, probiotics are a huge part of the average Japanese diet.
The Japanese consume their probiotics in a number of ways: They have a version of kombucha called “kocha kinoko," which is a sweet fermented kelp tea that's rich in probiotics. Pills and supplements are also on the rise. And of course, many probiotic-containing foods are staples of the Japanese diet, like miso and pickled vegetables (both of which I consumed every day of my trip).
4. The best sunscreen is secretly hiding at the drugstore
If you think American drugstores are chockablock with beauty products, Tokyo would make your heart skip a beat. We hit up about five popular drugstores all over the city and were flabbergasted by the selection of makeup, skincare, and gadgets, some of which were quite exotic. (Like eyebrow stamps? So strange.) But what impressed me the most about Japanese drugstores was their impressive selection of "gel" sunscreens. So many American consumers complain of facial SPF being chalky and breakout-inducing, but tons of Japanese brands like Shiseido and Allie, make these incredibly lightweight, liquidy "gel" sunscreens that offer SPF 50 and a texture that won't clog your pores, all at drugstore prices.
I'd heard legends of a Nivea sunscreen that's only available in Japan, so I picked up a bottle in Tokyo and have been using it ever since. Believe me when I tell you the texture is so featherlight and watery it was hard to believe it really contained SPF—but about a month after my trip to Tokyo, I went on a beach vacation with my family, wore the product every day in the sun, and didn't get burned once. America, it's time to step up your drugstore sunscreen game to Japan's level—pronto.
5. Your makeup should complement your skin, not hide it
The Japanese makeup trends I noticed in Tokyo consisted of matte, flawless skin, bright lips, and a black eyeliner wing. But "flawless" skin in Japan doesn't mean a thick coating of full-coverage foundation: It all starts with a clear, hydrated complexion underneath—achieved with the products and lifestyle habits I've already mentioned—matched with a foundation that conceals and evens out just what's needed while still looking like natural human skin.
Those were the requirements in Koh Gen Do's mind when they set out to reformulate their signature foundation earlier this year: Koh Gen Do's Aqua Foundation is sort of a sleeper hit in the U.S., used by nearly every makeup artist but not as much by everyday consumers. By contrast, in Japan, it's a household name and the go-to product for movie stars and on-camera talent whose skin has to look perfect, but also like it's not caked in makeup, in super-HD.
In April of this year, the brand relaunched the product with an updated formula, intended to be lighter in weight but with better coverage. The formula is complete with soft-focus pigments that make the skin look airbrushed, in addition to nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil, olive squalene, and shea butter for a hydrating effect.
Whenever I want my skin to look naturally flawless in the Japanese style, I spend 10 minutes with my lotion pack, make myself a matcha tea, and apply this foundation. It's a routine that blends old traditions with modern technology, and I feel honored to have gotten to witness it firsthand.
Shop more Japanese beauty favorites below!
Want more international skincare advice? See what happened when one of our editors lived like a French girl for seven days.
This trip was paid for by Koh Gen Do. Editors' opinions are their own.