Founded in Nihonbashi Kobunacho in Bunsei 8, Isehan Honten is the last remaining beniya in Japan and continues the traditional practice of making beni (rouge) to this day. BENI is a rare red pigment extracted from safflower petals. In order to keep the culture of BENI alive into the future, Isehan has established the BENI MUSEUM, a museum to share the history of BENI and cosmetics in Japan. At the BENI MUSEUM, which is attracting an increasing number of tourists from overseas, we experienced the fascination of BENI.
Permanent exhibition tracing the history of red and the process of production and distribution
To get to the Beni Museum, it is a 12-minute walk from Omotesando Station. If you take a bus leaving from Shibuya or Shinbashi stations, get off at the "Minami Aoyama 7-chome" stop. The BENI MUSEUM is marked by a red design at its entrance, and anyone can visit the museum free of charge during its opening hours. Let's go inside right away.
The museum is divided into a permanent exhibition with various materials and a communication room where visitors can try on lipsticks. In the permanent exhibition, visitors can trace the history of safflower, which has been used as a dye and for cosmetics since ancient times, as well as the production and distribution process of safflower, the raw material for safflower.
A model of the Isehan head store in the mid-Meiji period is also on display. The year of establishment of the Isehan head store, Bunsei 8, was 1825 in terms of the Western calendar. The year 2025, the year after next, will mark the 200th anniversary of its establishment. The weight of history is amazing! Incidentally, Beniya at that time hung a red flag instead of a signboard. It is depicted in Ukiyoe, so please try to find it.
The red pigment in safflower is only 1%, and it takes about 1,000 safflower flowers to make one "Komachi BENI" lipstick. The raw material of safflower is produced in Yamagata Prefecture. The scene of picking safflowers in a safflower field in the Ghibli movie "Omohide Poroporo" came to mind. In the exhibition, visitors can see at a glance how safflowers were transported to Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (present-day Tokyo), and along what routes they were processed into a single batch of "BENI MOCHI" (safflower rice cake).
Extracting red pigment from safflower involves a great number of processes, and these techniques are not open to the public. Despite the fact that the technique is not open to the public, only craftsmen have been allowed to enter the production site for generations, and they were able to film a part of the process. This VTR can be seen only at the Beni Museum.
The extracted red was used not only for makeup but also to ward off evil. It was believed that the color red had the power to ward off evil.
The permanent exhibition room is roughly divided into two areas: "BENI" and "MAKEUP. After learning about the history and manufacturing process of BENI (rouge), you will finally go to the area of cosmetics.
Unraveling the History of Makeup from Ancient to Modern Times
People have been applying makeup since ancient times, but at that time, it had strong connotations of religious beliefs and status order. In the Edo period (1603-1867), the makeup culture flourished. The exhibition introduces "red makeup" (lipstick), "white makeup" (white powder), and "black makeup" (tooth blackening). Why did people in Edo wear makeup and what was its meaning? We can learn from valuable materials.
Don't miss the "BENI-ITA" (rouge plate), used by women in the Edo period to store rouge, and a pocket cosmetics kit case! They are very stylish and have a sense of design that is relevant to the current era. You can't help but want one. Please take the time to look at the real thing.
Ukiyoe and literature can also give us an idea of what was fashionable at the time. During the Edo period (1603-1867), it was fashionable to put a layer of rouge on the lower lip to make it glow with a bamboo grass color. Small chic!
Published in 1827, "Miyako Fuzoku Kesho Den" was a bestseller during the Edo period, explaining the procedures and key points of makeup application. It sold well for about 100 years after its publication. The Beni Museum also holds events such as makeup demonstrations based on "Miyako Fuzoku Kesho Den".
From the end of the Edo period to the Meiji and Taisho periods, when Westernization began to change the Japanese sense of beauty. This section traces the transition of cosmetics from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji and Taisho periods, when westernization began to change the Japanese sense of beauty, along with the advertisements and cosmetic bottles of the time. What is surprising is the glamour of the cosmetic bottles of the Meiji and Taisho eras. It is worth a look!
There are also lipsticks that are commonly used today. The early ones were flattened sticks and were much smaller in size than they are today due to the immaturity of molding techniques.
Themed exhibits are also on display in one corner of the permanent exhibition room. The current exhibit, "Gal Makeup in the Heisei Era: When Isehan Cosmetics Were All Glitter and Shiny" (on view through August 5, 2023), features the Y2K fashion that was popular around the year 2000. At that time, "lame" was all the rage. Incidentally, the theme exhibition changes every three to four months.
The permanent exhibition room where visitors can learn a great deal about BENI. In fact, the BENI MUSEUM is the only museum in Japan that has a permanent exhibition on the history of Japanese cosmetics. In addition to women and couples, the museum is also visited by history buffs. Next, we went to the Communication Room.
Red light in the Experience Corner of the Communication Room
In the Communication Room, where the museum store and rest area are located, visitors can try on BENI for free. The lipstick "Komachi BENI" is not red, but glows iridescent. It is said that a pure and good-quality BENI will have this color, but the principle of this color has not been clarified yet. When using it, dip a BENI brush in a small amount of water and dissolve it little by little. Let's see how the color changes from iridescent to red.
The coloring varies depending on the skin tone and the method of application. In fact, one out of four visitors to the BENI MUSEUM is a man. Men are welcome to try applying it to their hands to see how the color develops!
At the BENI MUSEUM, mini experiments to extract pigments from safflowers and a hands-on class to make flowers from safflower-dyed cloth are available. This may be a good opportunity for children to do free research during their summer vacation. Various other workshops and events are planned on a regular basis.
The museum store also offers a wide variety of souvenirs such as "Komachi Beni," safflower patterned eyeglasses, and Ukiyo-e postcards. Cute stationery, notepads, and clear files are also available.
The Red Museum is a great place to learn a great deal about the Red. You can visit with the resident staff for simple questions, or if you want to learn more, you can book a guide in advance. For more information on contact information, opening hours, and various events, please check the BENI MUSEUM's website.
BENI has fascinated many people since ancient times. Whether you are interested or not, why not visit the BENI MUSEUM where you can experience its long history and traditional culture?
K's Minami-Aoyama Bldg. 1F, 6-6-20 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyohttps://www.isehanhonten.co.jp/museum/
Hours: 10:00 - 17:00 (admission until 16:30)
Closed: Sundays, Mondays, anniversary of the founding of the museum (July 7), year-end and New Year's holidays
*Please note that admission may be restricted and visitors may be required to wait to enter the museum depending on how crowded it is.