Starter's guide to Japanese cosmetics: shopping

Being a beauty nerd, my friends tend to ask me for shopping recommendations when planning their Japan trips. I've repeated myself so many times I thought I'd share the same information with you and depending on your interest, I can make this subject a mini series, such as:

Part one: Shopping cosmetics in Japan (you're here)
Part two: Top beauty items to purchase in Japan
Part three: Brush shopping


Looking into Japanese cosmetics can be overwhelming for the first timers, even if you can read the language, there is a lot of selection. Not only there are a lot of inexpensive drug store brands, but also very good quality high end ones - and Japan/Asia exclusives or re-formulations from Lancome, Dior, L'oreal etc. Since I've mostly done my shopping in Japan in person, most of this information is useful if you can be there youself or use a personal shopper. Here are some tips what to look for when you're starting to venture into Japanese beauty for the first time. Photos by my lovely friend Liisa, thank you!

Check out recommendations

Japan has a vast make up and skincare database site called Cosme, which has constantly updating rankings what are the best or most wanted items in Japanese beauty. It also has lots of user reviews - if you can't read or use Google translate you can still look at the star rankings to determine if the product is decent. Like at the Makeupalley, there are different categories in skincare and make up. Cosme's bi-annual awards are also very famous and the most popular products will promote themselves in stores with ranking stickers, look for those! There's also a couple of physical Cosme stores where you can buy best ranked cosmetics. Other rankings include magazines, such as iVoce, Biteki and Maquia, which you can check out for other popular or novelty items.


If loud and cramped drug stores intimidate you, one way to check out both drugstore, natural and midrange cosmetics is to check out Tokyu Hands or LoFt. They're both home goods department stores/store chains that have nice cosmetics selection, the stores are less cramped with helpful and knowledgeable staff. The testers are usually in a good shape. Great for unique finds and exploring beauty gadgets as well. The prices might have a little mark up, but not necessarily a lot. In some Loft stores you can also find fude (=brushes), such as Koyudo.

If you're more price savvy and don't care about noisy, cramped environment drug stores or Don Quijote (pronounced 'Donki' or 'Donki Hoote' in Japanese) are a your choice. Donki is especially great for buying fake eyelashes and nail stickers. Drugstores, such as Matsumoto Kiyoshi, can be found everywhere.

For your high end make up I love Isetan Mirror. It's a beauty store that stocks both selected Western and Japanese high end brands (Addiction, Shu Uemura, RMK, THREE etc). Although I like department stores, they can also be cramped and it's harder to compare products or prices between counters. I often like to browse a bit of everything and cherry pick my products. In Isetan Mirror you can shop freely, the staff is very nice and give you recommendations from different brands.

Fukubukuro, presents and specials

Japan loves exclusives and limited editions. Just like in Western make up, high end brands come out with seasonal collections which are available as long as there are stock or a new collection launches. Sometimes special items, gifts with purchase or sets are available only at a certain department store, city or at the flagship shop, for example. My best advice is: if you find something you like a lot, buy it right away. At a different counter your favorite popular item can be sold out.

Fukubukuro means a "lucky bag" when brands sell packages of special or past season items with a heavily discounted price. The trick is, you don't know what the bag keeps inside. Some brands let you know partially what you're getting, for example when I was shopping for Shu Uemura with my Mom, you were able to choose the cleansing oil according to your skin type, but the shades of color make up inside the bag were a mystery. Fukubukuros are sold every New Year from 1st to 3rd January (some drug store brands might be sold in advance). Most popular items tend to sell out on Jan 1st, be prepared for crowds and queueing.


Gifts with purchase aren't usually over the top, but sometimes when you spend a certain amount you may get a product mini or a cosmetic pouch free of charge. You can request a sample of a foundation, but instead of getting a mini pot with your matching shade you might be handed a sachet and a pamphlet. Unfortunately the sachets often come only in one shade, which is the most popular or a medium one. If you want to match and wear your shade for the whole day it's a good idea to head to the counter in the morning without make up.

Shopping etiquette in Dept. stores

When you approach a busy counter, you might be handed a waiting number. Play with samples and wait until your number is called (or keep the number visible). Sales associates might not speak English, so please be positive and patient if you don't speak Japanese. In bigger dept. stores you might be able to ask for English or Chinese assistance. The SAs are often very willing to apply the products on you, which is great if you want to test out a blush, a lipstick or match a foundation before purchasing. Sit on a chair at the testing area and place your bag and coat into a basket provided. Test the items you like, and don't be afraid to ask for a different color or product.

Some department stores give 5~10% discount coupon to tourists, so ask about it before paying. Once you're ready to purchase they often hand you a little tray for credit card or cash. Often the cosmetic counters don't have their own register, you need to wait for a moment as the SA goes to other side of the hall. When you're handed your make up products they check and show you there's no mistaken colors or damaged items. This is to avoid complaints. If you don't want your products be opened, please inform them. 

Notice the tax might be added to the price at the time of payment, often the prices listed on the counter/packaging/shelf are tax free. If you purchase tax free, you need to take the purchased items, passport and receipts to a different counter (often in downstairs). This is not the case in all shops, but often in department stores. They will check your purchase and return the tax to you as cash.


I hope you found this post was helpful! I love talking about Japan, and there will be many more posts to come. If you're looking for reviews of a particular item, please check my tag cloud for the brand/product type or click Japanese make up. If you have any questions about shopping in Japan or requests regarding these series or a particular product(s), please leave me a comment! I hope you're having a wonderful day and talk to you soon. x

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10 Backup worthy beauty items

I'm one of those people who likes to have their favourite products always at hand. I shop 90% online and take advance of good discounts and sales to purchase backups. I've rarely used a particular product for years and years: I simply didn't have the experience and knowledge what to use back then. But today, these products are my tried and tested! I'm only listing individual products and not generals like acid toners or cleansing oils, which I rotate from various brands. I also stash different mascaras, random Japanese sheet masks, deodorants and liquid liners.

1. Essie Good To Go Top Coat

Ever since Essie launched in Finland I've been hooked on their beautiful candy colors. I find their polishes fairly long lasting, especially with this top coat that I learned from the the one and only - the MakeupAlley. Every time I find Essie in tax free I buy one or two Good to Go top coats.

2. Innisfree Eco Safety Perfect Sunblock SPF50+ PA+++

My 'Holy Grail' status sunblock. It's heavy, greasy, leaves you a white cast (not giving a good sales pitch here..), but so reliable, can be applied on the top of make up and feels great for dry skin. I always buy 2 or 3 at once from ebay.

3. January Labs lotion

I was on the hunt for a perfect Summer moisturiser and after seemingly endless browsing I found January Labs. The ingredient list and attractive price got me into purchasing one and I've religiously used it since. The ingredient list is packed with aloe vera leaf juice and plenty of organic plant oils. It's feels light, hydrating and my skin loves it. (2nd bottle gifted from the brand but my opinions are my own!)

4. Rouge Bunny Rouge Papyrus Canary

The best pale beige base shade for your eyeshadow. Matte of course, soft like silk.

5. My Beauty Diary sheet masks

I love masks and try to use sheet masks on a regular basis. I've found Taiwanese My Beauty Diary masks the most effective and moisturising, packed with essence and a good quality sheet. I find the 'flavours' pretty similar, but my favorite is the sake mask.

6. Balmain Sea Salt Spray

I only stand scented products if it's for my hair and whoa! this Balmain sea salt spray I could wear as a perfume. Beautiful packaging and gives that little volume and texture freshly washed hair needs sometimes.

7. Nuxe lip balm

This lip balm has a cult following and there's a reason. A matte texture, balmy instead of creamy, melds to your lips for a long lasting moisture and protection like nothing else. Perfect for under make up or as a mini treatment when you go to sleep.

8. Cure aqua gel

A very gentle exfoliant for your skin. Must be used on a dry skin, massaged in and all your dry skin and dirt will flake away. So gross it's cool. The texture is a colorless gel with no scent. I bring Cure Aqua Gel back from my Japan trips and one bottle lasts ages.

9. Estée Lauder Micro Essence

My favorite essence until this day. I will use it as a 1st step instead of a toner, as I want all those fermented ingredients and moisture straight into my skin. My complexion feels plump and healthy after every single use. Unfortunately they don't stock this in Finland. Highly recommend!

10. Nars Radiant creamy concealer

Another star product that has gained a cult following. Too creamy and slightly radiant for blemishes, also there isn't a perfect match for my skin tone: Vanilla is too pink for my face, but fortunately makes a great under eye concealer to lightly cancel those dark circles. Creamy texture doesn't feel drying on the delicate under eye area.

What beauty items do you buy backups of?