Beauty Shopping in San Francisco’s Japantown

I’ve spent the past two weeks in dissertation jail, bouncing between several of San Francisco’s fine coffee shops while completing an extensive rewrite of my chapter on Thomas Hobbes. With the help of massive doses of caffeine, sugar, and k-pop (I’m good, I’m hot, I’m fresh, I’m fly!), I wrapped up the damned thing yesterday and sent it to my committee. I started writing this post a week ago and have been typing a few lines a day in my spare moments, but it feels so good to finally have enough time to finish it. Of course, I have to start reworking my job materials almost immediately after this, but today is a day of freedom.

My daily view while waiting (sometimes up to 20 minutes: SF’s transit system is notoriously dysfunctional) for the streetcar.

As many of you know, I grew up in San Francisco and come back twice a year to visit my parents. The city has changed dramatically (mostly in the direction of aggressive gentrification) since we moved here in 1995, but a surprising number of my old haunts have clung to life. One of those haunts is the Japan Center, a mall in Japantown where I spent many an afternoon in high school, eating crepes and buying elegant notebooks and cat-shaped erasers. Most of the stores I remember from ten or twelve years ago are still around, but my interests have shifted since then. I didn’t care much for makeup when I was 16, but in the last two years I’ve discovered that a number of stores in Japantown carry Asian beauty products that are hard to find elsewhere in the States. I spent some time there with my high-school friend Jenny last week, and I thought it might be fun to give you a virtual tour of what San Francisco’s Japantown offers devotees of sheet masks, lip tints, and nail stickers. Warning: this will be a photo-heavy post!

Our first stop in the Japan Center is a place I’ve been visiting since high school: the San Francisco branch of the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya. I studied Japanese for nine years, from sixth grade through sophomore year of college, and though I’m nowhere near as fluent as I was at the age of 19, I still like buying the occasional Japanese fashion or beauty magazine to help refresh my vocabulary.

Leafing through Nylon Japan, I found the exact haircut I want for this fall (according to the caption, the bob conveys a “classic mood”):

This time I bought the beauty magazine Voce (pronounced the Italian way: “vo-chay”):

In Japan, such magazines often come with skincare samples, but since many Asian skincare products haven’t been approved by the FDA, Japanese magazines usually reach American shelves stripped of their samples. Because, you know, all Americans have a God-given right to stockpile assault rifles, but heaven forbid we come into contact with a foreign moisturizer. Speaking of contraband skincare, I managed to find Bioré Aqua Rich Watery Essence somewhere in the Japan Center (I ordered my first tube on Amazon, it took three weeks to ship from Yokohama, and I just ran out). Since I’m pretty sure it’s technically illegal to sell that divine sunscreen here, I’m not going to name the store where I bought two precious tubes for $15 each. Just know *conspiratorial whisper* it’s available.

Our second stop is the deceptively small Candy Doll, which sells mostly Japanese and Korean skincare and cosmetics:

This suggestively posed manga girl behind the counter creeped me out a bit:

The sheer quantity of products crammed into this tiny space is almost overwhelming. There’s an entire wall of false eyelashes:

Allll the lip tints (marked up significantly, alas). Clockwise from top left: Berrisom My Lip Tint Pack, Peripera Peri Tint Gloss, RiRe Lip Manicure, Peripera Peri’s Ink and Peri’s Lip Balm:

As adorable as these tints are, I wonder why the shade ranges are always so predictable: fuchsia, orange, pinky red, maybe a plum if you’re lucky, but nothing too dark or purple or brown. I saw a price sign for the wine-bottle-shaped Labiotte lip tints, which I’ve been curious about for some time, but the tints themselves were nowhere to be found.

I was also drawn to Candy Doll’s vast array of sheet masks, some with horror or folktale or horror-folktale themes (that green monster is a kappa, for instance):

First prize for cutest packaging goes to these It’s Skin BB creams…

…though the Brigitte Pure Cats eyeshadow palettes are a close runner-up. I’ve never heard anything about this brand; I suppose Paul & Joe is hogging the cat-lady spotlight.

Now for a rather mysterious establishment, K-Pop Beauty:

As recently as January, this was an official Tony Moly store crowded with life-size posters of the brand’s international ambassador, Hyuna of k-pop girl group 4Minute. Here’s a photo I took in Januaryyou can see the Tony Moly sign behind Hyuna’s head:

Since then, the storefront seems to have undergone the same fate as 4Minute, which disbanded in June. All of K-Pop Beauty’s merchandise is by Tony Moly, but the posters on the walls have “Tony Moly” very obviously crossed out, and of course there’s that odd name change. I would have asked one of the employees what was up, but I assumed their lips were sealed.

My best guess is that this particular franchise of Tony Moly lost its license and is now trying to liquidate its stock and get the hell out of Dodge (that would also explain the cardboard boxes piled in a corner of the store). Interestingly, Sohyun, the youngest member of 4Minute, was recently spotted selling her former group’s merchandise at a flea market. The parallels are uncanny. Here’s a question, though: if K-Pop Beauty is trying to get rid of all its lip tints and sheet masks, why hasn’t it followed Sohyun’s lead and lowered its prices?

Let’s move on to a more legitimate business: The Face Shop.

This brand’s current campaign involves Kakao Friends, the animal characters from the Korean social-networking site Kakao. Never having used Kakao, I can’t say I’m very enthusiastic about the new products, but they certainly are cute:

There’s also some non-Kakao-related merchandise, such as these lipsticks. I didn’t look too closely, since the last thing I need is a new lipstick and the colors seemed to be the same old pinks, oranges, and reds:

Our final beauty-related stop is the Japanese discount store Daiso, which specializes in offbeat housewares and other tchotchkes, almost all for $1.50. I don’t know of another place where you can buy lacy sun-protection sleeves, metallic skulls, decorative nori punches, and plastic banana cases under the same roof:

All this would be enough to warrant a visit, but Daiso also carries everything you need for a Japanese-style manicure. I’ve never seen so many Kleancolors polishes in one place:

There are also lots of nail-art tools, stickers, gemstones, and even hand creams:

I couldn’t resist buying the glitter stars in the photo above, as well as a pink nail-dotting tool with which I’ve already done two manicures (post to come).

If you’re feeling peckish after all that beauty shopping (and even if you’re not), no visit to Japantown is complete without some fresh mochi from Benkyodo, a bakery and diner that’s celebrating its 110th anniversary this year. (Quick vocabulary lesson: “mochi” is the glutinous rice paste itself, as well as an umbrella term for the confectionery made from it; “daifuku” is the round, filled sweet that most of us think of when we hear the word “mochi.”) The summer is a particularly good time to visit Benkyodo, since they often have daifuku filled with fresh strawberries or blueberries along with the usual sweet white-bean paste. I’ve eaten a lot of mochi in my life, in Japan as well as the US, and Benkyodo’s strawberry daifuku is the best I’ve ever had.

Top row: age (donut filled with adzuki-bean paste), daifuku with adzuki bean, daifuku with fresh blueberries. Bottom row: green daifuku colored with mugwort, filled with sweet white bean paste, and topped with kinako (roasted soybean flour); blueberry daifuku.

And that concludes our tour of Japantown! I doubt the Japan Center can hold a candle to, say, Toronto’s Pacific Mall for sheer variety, but it’s still a great place to poke around if you’re a beauty lover passing through San Francisco. Have you ever visited?

10 thoughts on “Beauty Shopping in San Francisco’s Japantown

  1. I've never been to San Francisco, though it's on my list, that ephemeral list of places I'll someday go. Clearly I need to get out of the Maritimes to enjoy the worlds of great shopping I have yet to know.I totally squandered my times in Vancouver and Toronto.


  2. Just for the sake of controlling my makeup addiction, I often feel grateful I don't live in a big city with dozens of unfamiliar brands at my fingertips! But it's certainly nice to have a few weeks of city time per year.It's strange to have grown up in a place that's on so many people's \”must visit before I die\” lists. When I tell people I'm from San Francisco, they often seem mildly surprised that anyone is *from* there. It's sort of like, I don't know, Las Vegas in that way.


  3. God I love mochi. I visited San Francisco when I was twelve, which is almost two decades ago now… mostly I remember the touristy stuff, like the sea lions and the bridge and the cable cars. And the hills! Auckland is pretty hilly but this was something else. I visited Japan Centre in London in April I think, and picked up a copy of Maquia magazine. It's a shame I can't read Japanese, but I can pick out most of the Kanji (which isn't always particularly helpful, but anyway…). There was a a sheet mask and a couple of brushes included, so I was stoked! There's also a store nearby in Chinatown which stocks Asian makeup and skincare but it's all quite expensive. I still haven't really explored Asian products!


  4. I was in San Francisco for two short days in high school, when my entire family flew out to visit a college that my brother had been accepted to (and ultimately decided not to attend). I had a friend in Palo Alto and I think we mostly wandered about buying Japanese sweets. I expect I'll get back to San Francisco eventually now that I'm out here, especially since my partner, who moved with me, used to live there. My priority is seeing the Redwoods someday. I am so utterly smitten with those cat eyeshadows. Sparkling Cherry Pure Cats?? Do they know who I am???


  5. I was really excited when Tony Moly opened, they have better sheet masks than the other stores (Face Shop's products are overpoweringly scented, for example). It's a bummer to hear that they are winding down. Having said that, I have never been that big on Asian beauty brands, especially the dollar store variety because their quality is always so disappointing. But I do enjoy browsing around and looking at their cute packaging. Also, there are some really unusual products that I enjoy discovering for their novelty. ps. I can see how the Japantown center would be a really popular hangout for high school students. If I had grown up with a japantown like the one in SF, I would be a much different (and perhaps better) person 😉


  6. Are you yayziba from Instagram?? I'm not exactly sure what's happening with that store–they might be around for a while, who knows! I agree that Asian drugstore products can be disappointing, especially when you first discover them and get overwhelmed by the adorable packaging and buy too many (speaking from experience here, obviously). I was touched to discover that lots of high school students still hang out there! It's a nice wholesome place to spend an afternoon.


  7. Buying Japanese sweets is a great way to spend time in the Bay Area! I confess I haven't seen any redwoods since college, when I visited a friend in Santa Cruz. I wanted to make it over to Muir Woods during this visit, but it didn't happen. And it's so cool that you get to live with your partner now!The Pure Cats eyeshadows are adorable, but I wish the smaller pans looked like mice or something.


  8. This is KILLING ME. I want to go to San Fran so much now! Even if there's a high mark-up for the Asian beauty products, it'd be great just to have testers. And wow, I just love the houses in this city. There's so much color and quirkiness and gah, my kind of place!


  9. Yes, it was a real thrill to have testers for products I'd otherwise have to order blind! I wish the Labiotte testers had been available, because I'm so tempted by the little wine bottles.I may have lived in SF for ten years, but every time I go back I'm struck anew by the beauty and weirdness of the city. It's far from perfect (ask any resident about the appallingly shitty public transit), but it's a great place to visit.


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