Flower Power: Beni Museum in Tokyo highlights traditional Japanese rouge made from petals


Flower Power: Beni Museum in Tokyo highlights traditional Japanese rouge made from petals

by Yashira Rodríguez
Stripes Japan

The Beni Museum is a space dedicated to the beautiful Benibana (Safflower) flower and the craftsmanship of Komachi-beni. For centuries, the flower has been used in Japan for the production of a red color, extracted from this yellow-orange flower. This is the traditional rouge inherited from the Edo period (1603-1868) and was used by Japanese ladies of the era to paint their lips, cheeks and eyes. The most amazing thing about the extraction of the pigment, is that only 1% of each of the small petals is extracted to get the desired red liquid.

The museum, located in Minami-Aoyama, Omotesando, was founded in 1825 by Isehan Honten, the only remaining Beni shop continuing the tradition of the craft. The company says it has “secretly preserved” the methods of extracting the red color from the flower. Today, Komachi-beni is still a luxury artisanal product and is expensive due to the long process and the many people involved in the production of the rouge.

The process begins with the cultivation of the flowers by farmers in Yamagata Prefecture, where the flower is very important culturally and also provides a source of income. During the morning dew, farmers pick the flowers. The morning humidity softens the leaves making it so the spines do not hurt the farmer’s hands. After harvesting, the artisans of the area begin to work with the fresh flowers creating a paste similar to mochi (rice paste). That's just one step in the process, as extracting the color can take weeks and even months! At the end, the extraction is a fabulous iridescent green color, which changes to red after it is mixed with water. This makes me remember a famous green lipstick that was a trend in the 90’s; once it was applied to the lips, it turned into a different shade of red.

For the application of Komachi-beni as a lip color, a small, handmade brush is used. The porcelain container, known as “Beni-choko”, holds the extract and is another wonderful handmade piece. And for the travelers, the museum offers a smaller, portable version, called "Itabeni", which is a fabulous gift for anyone!

The museum has various exhibits that explain the history and significance of Beni. On display is a permanent exhibit that depicts the techniques used to extract the traditional pigment. A model complete with small figures of Japanese artisans working in their workshop during the Edo period is shown for visitors.

I want to end by affirming the power of reading. If it had not been for Michelle Dominique's book about Japanese medicinal herbs, "The New Beauty", in which she dedicated a few pages to this flower, this adventure would not have been possible. It inspired me to want to know more about how a simple flower represents so much for a society and that's why I went to the museum. This is one of the places I recommend to everyone and although the staff doesn't speak English, it doesn't matter, because they will provide literature in English language. I think that just being there was enough to admire how Japanese culture has included nature as part of their own lives.

Location: Omotesando, Tokyo
*Address: K’s Minami Aoyama Building, 6-6 20 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-Ku, Tokyo, 107-0062, Japan

 *There’s a documentary about the artisans of Komachi beni and the farmers of Benibana flowers:a
Trailer (Japanese language, but, the visuals are inspirational!)

*Yamagata Prefecture’s benibana culture is designated as part of ‘Japan Heritage’ (Japanese agency that recognized the places and stories for the preservation of culture and traditions).

*To see more about Benibana: “Only yesterday” is an animated movie about a girl who returns to her grandmother’s safflower farm.a
Author Bio: Yashira M. Rodríguez Sierra is originally from Caguas, Puerto Rico. She is assigned to Sasebo Naval Base. Rodríguez enjoys nature and moving to Japan was a dream come true. Before joining the Navy she was an artist and journalist.

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