Ever since I first landed in Tokyo 14 years ago, I’ve been dazzled by the sparkly nails of fashionable Tokyo women.
As a gyaru working in the trendsetting Shibuya 109, having a fresh set of nails was practically a requirement.
As a teacher, there’s no better way to get the attention of the easily distracted by flashing candy-colored fingers their way.
Needless to say, gel nails mean a lot to me, so I’ve compiled this gel nail art FAQ for those curious about getting gel nails done in Japan. Read on!
What are my nail art options in Japan?
There are 4 ways you can get a perfect set of nails in Japan: nail polish, gel, acrylic, and Shellac:
Nail Polish (マニキュア/manikyua)
Perhaps the most affordable option for manicures and nail art is polish. While polish comes in a fantastic array of colors, the only downside is drying time and length of time before polish starts to chip.
Acrylic (アクリル/akuriru, also スカルプチャー/sukarupucha-)
A monomer and a powder polymer used to make a layer over your natural nails. The product hardens as it is exposed to the air. When forms are used to elongate and shape the nails it is called sculpture.
A gel cured or harder by a UV light or LED lamp. Gel come in a stunning variety of colors and are further divided into “hard” and “soft.” “Soft” simply means that the gel is not durable enough to sculpt, or make extensions.
A patented product that is best described as a gel/polish hybrid. It comes it a nail polish bottle and is cured under UV lights just like gel nails, but is not as hard nor does it last as long.
What makes gel nails in Japan so special?
Products in acrylic nails give nail salons that “nail salon smell” — which you will not have to worry about here in Japan.
Whereas tips/acrylics/sculpting are common in the US, gel is the way to go in Japan. Bold, unnatural colors, airbrush art, and basic French tips that are associated with acrylic nails are replaced with literally a rainbow of designs.
To put it bluntly, acrylics are rather “fake,” while gel nails tend to gravitate towards natural colors and designs to compliment the gel on one own’s natural nails and length.
Acrylic sculpture was once very popular during the gyaru heyday; but nowadays the extreme, blinged-out, dagger-like nails tend to be limited to a few TV personalities and ladies of the night (women who work in cabaret clubs and other drinking establishments where men pay a premium to talk to beautiful women).
In Japan, women in some industries still wear uniforms to work (bank tellers and office workers immediately come to mind), so having a set of gel nails is a way to show a bit of your personality to the world.
How do I choose a design?
If you’re inspired by an image you saw on Instagram or in a magazine, do bring it to your appointment. Nail artists are constantly perfecting their skills, and salons have plenty of designs of their own for your choosing.
And, because Japan is a country of seasonal delights, you will often see designs featuring sakura, or cherry blossoms in the spring, snowflakes in the winter, and so on.
Do salons accept walk-ins?
Nearly every salon is by appointment only, because of the level of care and dedication that nail artists devote to each customer.
Each part is applied individually, the gel cured, then the next part is affixed to the nail. Designs are painstakingly hand drawn, line by line. This is all after the previous set of nails is carefully removed!
How long does it take to get your nails done at a salon?
Referring to the steps in the above question, your visit will take between 90 to 120 minutes. This, of course, varies largely on the artwork that you select.
How much does a set of gel nails cost?
First time visitors can expect to pay around 5,000 to 6,000 yen for a set of gel nails. This price includes “dry care” (filing, shaping the nails and cutting cuticles).
Returning customers typically pay around 8,000 yen or more. Again, this is all largely depending on the design you choose.
Why is it so expensive?
Here’s a breakdown of what is included in the total price:
Basic manicure (ドライケア/dorai kea/”dry care”)
Filing and shaping the nails, pushing and cutting cuticles, and clipping hangnails
Nail art design
Jewels, beads, and other nail art parts
Gel nail removal
Generally, salons offer free removal for returning customers, or removal for a flat fee around 1,000 yen. To remove gel nails from another salon, you can expect to pay 2,000-3,000 yen.
If the high costs still puts you off, remember this: when you go to a reputable salon, that 8,000 yen or 9,000 yen will last you for at least 3 to 4 weeks, with minimal chipping or lifting (when the gel separates from the nail bed).
It’s the reason why, after all these years, I still entrust my hands and nails to the artist at Goldy. I know I’m getting my money’s worth!