Tokyo has long been a trendsetter in the world of nail art and you can get pretty much anything you want on your tips, from over-the-top 3D art to more subtle diamanté designs. Many locals visit nail salons on a monthly basis – as often as they visit hair salons – and you'll find gel nail patterns marketed according to the seasons, on-trend colours, and special occasions like Valentine's Day and Christmas. If you're a nail art newbie or you just feel like trying out something different, we've picked out five salons that offer unique nail art, along with two options for those who like the idea of DIY nails.
Five to try
BEST FOR… Perfect portraits
An American-owned nail and beauty salon with English-speaking staff, Joli Nails offers a full range of beauty treatments. In terms of nails, their talents extend from basic French nails to artistic 3D art to copying an image you show them in exquisite detail. Besotted pet owners, take note.
We recommend 2015 NailPro World gel art champion Kikuko Asagami’s elaborate nail art. Besides pets and humans (one customer recently had their grandchild’s face painted on a nail to celebrate the little one’s birthday), she can also handpaint your favourite anime characters.
The vibe What makes this salon extra special is that they offer a beauty package including child-care service. Tired moms (or dads!) can treat themselves while the kids play in the spacious playroom downstairs. Booking for this service is essential and it costs ¥1,030 per hour.
Cost From ¥4,645 for one-colour gel nails, ¥5,500 for design gel nails, and from ¥4,320 per hand-painted nail.
BEST FOR… Mini masterpieces
Etars opened in May 2015 on a quiet backstreet of Nakameguro and their aim is to add something unique to Tokyo’s thriving nail art scene. Fans of artists like Van Gogh, Klimt and Monet will fall head over heels with the talents of nailist Ran Inoue who will copy the painting of your choice on your tips. Not sure exactly what you want? They have a bookshelf lined with art books for inspiration.
We recommend If not Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, then opt for their exquisite ‘stone art’ series (pictured above).
The vibe This small salon is quirky and rustic, featuring exposed concrete walls, antique wooden floorboards and a retro blue bathtub that’s been cleverly converted into a contained garden. There’s a hanging chair in the corner where you can browse the art books before taking up a seat opposite Ran while she works her speedy magic. They also sell accessories to complement your new nails.
Cost From ¥6,000 to ¥12,000.
BEST FOR… Edgy pop art
Any image or design you choose from the sample book is hand-drawn by salon owner Nagisa Kaneko, who works quickly and with amazing precision. She switches between hands as she paints, giving each set of gel nails a chance to dry under UV light inbetween coats. We asked her what it’s like always painting her ‘masterpieces’ in such tiny detail and she said she’s been doing it for so long that to paint or draw anything in normal size is what feels odd to her now.
We recommend One of her Andy Warhol pop art images – we went for Marilyn Monroe.
The vibe You can tell from the decor of the salon (think pink walls, orange lounging chair, vintage Christian crosses on the walls, crystal jewellery on sale in the corner) that Nagisa is not your run-of-the-mill nail artist. She’s going to give you something edgy and offbeat, but always beautiful.
Cost A 60-minute gel nail session (for hands or feet) costs ¥9,720.
BEST FOR… Classic with a sensual twist
Originally from Australia, Marilyn Klein opened Boudoir in the late ’90s. Back then it was the only salon that catered to Tokyo’s English community and the first to introduce Brazilian waxes to Japanese women. Still at the forefront of trends, Boudoir offers shellac manicures, which are more durable than your standard polish but not as tough on your nails as gel. Their nail art designs cater to a more Western sensibility, sticking with classic base colours and then adding hints of glitter, studs or foils.
We recommend Their half-moon design or treating just one nail on each hand to a cluster of gold studs.
The vibe With its thick red velvet curtains, velvet antique couches, and deep red walls, Boudoir’s decor is as sexy as its nail art. The English-speaking staff are professional but relaxed, making you feel pampered but also at home.
Cost A basic shellac manicure starts at ¥5,400 with embellishments such as studs costing extra.
BEST FOR…Otaku nails
As a popular hangout for otaku nerds, Coco Color’s is well-positioned in Akihabara. But the salon is famed for more than just its image; it’s also amassed fans thanks to its letter-perfect painting, usually of anime characters or idols. They accept requests and also offer 3D art.
We recommend If you’re planning to attend one of Tokyo’s popular idol-meeting events, get your nails painted with the face of your favourite star – that way, when you shake their hand, you’ll have more of a chance of attracting their attention. Yes, this is what real otaku nerds do.
The vibe Coco Color’s serves as a kind of community space where you can mingle with fellow fanatics. The walls are covered with customers’ anime character drawings, and anime music plays on repeat in the background.
Cost ¥1,100 per 10 minutes (it took three hours to paint five of our nails with anime characters). They request that you make a booking and don’t cancel at short notice.
Homei Peel Off Gel Nail Starter Kit
Granje Gel Polish Set
You usually need to file off a bit of the surface of your own nails before attaching gel nails, but Granje's set relieves you of that trouble. The UV stick light is convenient to carry around, allowing you to fix broken tips on the go. All made in Japan, their gel polish set includes both base and top coating polish, one type of colour polish, the light, polish remover, a nail file and a wooden stick. Set ¥16,740, each extra colour gel ¥3,240, available from cosmetics sections at major shopping complexes, including Tokyu Plaza, Shinjuku Lumine 2 and Estnation in Roppongi Hills.
Uka Nail Oil
Dryness is the enemy of all healthy nails. Making your polish last longer and preventing cracks and hangnails, Uka's nail oils were created for busy urbanites by top Tokyo manicurist Kiho Watanabe. Their set includes five varieties, each with a different aromatic essence for you to choose but all made with organic argan oil. The rollerball vial lets you apply oil quickly without getting greasy fingers. Set ¥15,120 (individual oils from ¥3,024), available from major cosmetics stores and Uka salons including ones at Ginza Six and Haneda Airport.