Zen and the Art of Nail Design

I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity
Who uses a machete to cut through red tape
With fingernails that shine like justice…

“Short Skirt, Long Jacket” by Cake

No, these are not my nails...

Traveling in other countries, I like observing people. Specifically, I like seeing how foreign women represent beauty.

Hair colors. Outfits. Makeup. It’s fun to contemplate different ways women present themselves to the world. I also love that it’s arbitrary. There is no absolute universal concept.

In Japan, there are many ideas about beauty. But I’m most fascinated here by the intricate bedazzled nails many women sport. Historically in many Asian countries, long thin fingernails were a sign of status and femininity.

I have to admit I’m often caught between fear and awe of those nails, which like the Cake song lyrics describe, sometimes really do wield a strange abstract power.

I’m also curious how the women owning them perform basic functions like taking out contacts or scrubbing the kitchen sink. But I suppose that it’s the impracticality of the nails that lend their appeal. (Like bound feet once considered beautiful in China)

To be fair, I've never seen these scary versions in Japan

In my case, I’ve always had an awkward relationship with my own nails.

I was a chronic nail biter for years, and the concept of a manicure was foreign to me until my late 20s. My own mother never went to a nail salon, nor did any other female I knew. Paying for a manicure or pedicure was silly to me considering I could do it at home for free.

I remember meeting a girl once in college with long acrylic nails. She showed them off one day. On the middle fingernail of her left hand, an appliqué read, “Golddigger.”  On the right hand, another announced, “Bitch!”

When I finally did start visiting nail salons at the age of 28, I always veered towards neutral colors. I found a Vietnamese nail salon in my city offering a mani-pedi combo for only $14. Did I ever splurge the $2 extra for French Tip? Not a chance.

Still not mine...

Soon after arriving in Japan, I went to get my nails done with my Okinawan friend, Kanae. We were given a thick book to peruse with hundreds of nail designs. Rainbows, black cats, skull and crossbones, even beach scene panoramas. All of them to be painstaking painted on with tiny brushes.

When they asked me which design I wanted, I declined even though it was no extra charge.

I just wasn’t ready for that drastic next step.

Kanae was shocked. “But nails are so boring without designs!” she protested.

When I told her it wasn’t a standard custom to get elaborate designs on our nails in the States, she was shocked that Americans tolerate such incomplete service.

At first, I didn’t understand her sense of entitlement at all, and then I remembered how I felt when forced to pay for ketchup at a McDonalds in France.

That day, I gave in and agreed to a simple non-confrontational daisy flower painted on my big toes.

In the years since, I still won’t do anything crazy to my fingernails. However when it comes to toes, I have grown bolder in my color choices and designs. This year I’m getting holiday themed nails for Christmas.

If you’re interested in nail art in Japan, be prepared to fork over the cash. Salons in Tokyo charge as much as 1,000 yen (~$10 US) per nail. In Okinawa, it costs about 4,000 yen (~$40 US) although gems, fuzzy things, and 3D stuff cost extra.

Have you ever adopted a beauty custom from another culture? Henna tattoo? Hairstyle? Fashion Trend? Any regrets?


10 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Nail Design

    • maryrichardson

      I don’t bite them anymore, but once they start getting long, I can’t stand it. The orange with flowers is eye-catching, isn’t it?

  1. Interesting article Mary! I’ve often wondered why women get their nails done in such fashion. In Italy, women seem to always have nicely manicured hands and they’re starting to be more bold about it. Also, in Canada, it seems to be all the rage among the Indo-Canadians and Fijians. My friends get it done and I just like to “ooh and aah”. But, like yourself, I have always been afraid of them. They’re just not me. The one time I got a pedicure was a french pedicure for my wedding. Honestly, it’s just too fussy. I love the natural look. But, I’m with you. If I was ever to do something it would definitely be on my toes where I could hide them and just “ooh and aah” to myself.

    p.s. I’m sure the daisy looks very cute.

    • maryrichardson

      It does seem like nail art has become more popular in the last years, doesn’t it? I know it’s common in many places around the world. It just seems (from my scanty research anyways) that the tradition originated in China- maybe even going back a few centuries. One day I’ll work up to something more elaborate on the fingers.

  2. Gosh I love the nails – and even during 4 good long trips to Japan (no, not long enough :)), I never observed the middle photo but I did notice the many, many intricate and unique ways the Japanese women represent their beauty and delicacy to the world. The brand names. The Gucci and Prada and Chanel and Versace and Louis Vuitton bags and products everywhere. The make up and the hair clips which I love. The way they walk and bow and speak. Oh how I wish I lived in Japan too :)!

    • maryrichardson

      In addition to their modern sense of style, I really love all the traditional dress too… Japanese women have a distinctive femininity which is easy to admire. I know what you mean about those hair clips!

  3. Oh those orange nails are so pretty! I have the same color on my toes, minus the sparkles and flowers. I actually didn’t believe in going to a nail salon either until I started traveling for a living. I’m very hard on my feet and since I’m mostly in warm climates where my feet are exposed, they need to be presentable. Doing a pedicure myself is just not as good as a professional. I do my own finger nails because all my typing doesn’t make paying for a manicure that will chip in a few days worth it. As for other cultures beauty dictates, I have a collection of bindis that I’ve worn for years, as well as African anklets, clothes and head wraps.

  4. Great piece Mary!

    Mani-pedis have always been HUGE in Cuba where Im based, but the long and intricate design style has just creeped over in the past year or so. It’s definitely a beauty thing here, but also status symbols: costs about 50% of the average Cuban salary to get those babies.

    I am a form follows function kind of gal so only paint my toe nails when Im headed backcountry camping or turtle monitoring or something (hides the dirt!). The non functionality of these nails always perplexes me – they seem so limiting especially during carnal encounters.


    • maryrichardson

      Dear Connergo,
      I have no doubt that nails are a bid deal in Cuba. Wow, I can’t believe the price- wait, considering how much women will spend to beautify- yes, I do believe the price…

      That’s funny about the carnal encounters, but you know what, I’ve thought the same thing… how do they… well, you know?

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