A few days ago I was walking through drugstore retailer Ainz & Tulpe’s Harajuku store when the fabulous retro-looking packaging of Ueba Esou’s Gofun nail polish range caught my eye. That very same day, in a different part of Tokyo, I saw Gofun again; this time in a store selling traditional Japanese handicrafts. Besides the Gofun polishes, the store also carries Ueba Esou’s hand cream range – less retro-looking but equally charming. I started to research the brand and guess what – Ueba Esou isn’t a cosmetics company at all: they are a Kyoto-based manufacturer of traditional Japanese artist paints.
Ueba Esou has been manufacturing and supplying traditional Japanese painting materials since 1751. All the paints and pigments are produced in their Kyoto factory by hand and from what I have read, they have built up an impeccable reputation over the last centuries. The little white fox (byakko) on the label has been Ueba Esou’s brand seal since the beginning.
Paints and pigments
The company’s product portfolio includes gofun powder which is made from finely-milled scallop shells. The gofun is sold in little bags; in traditional Japanese painting (nihon-ga) the powder is mixed with liquid and used as a base coat, as a finish or mixed with other colour pigments to create different paint textures and effects.
Ueba Esou also manufactures mineral based paints (iwa-enogu), water-colour paints in two different styles – square pots (gansai) and round pots (teppatsu) – and mud and earth-based suihi powder pigments. Ueba Esou’s product line-up also includes bo-enogu which are are solid paint sticks made from powdered paint (you gently rub them in a little dish of water, like the ink stone used in traditional calligraphy) and tube paints which can be used straight away.
In 2010, Ueba Esou introduced the first Gofun nail polishes. At that time, the company was going through a bit of a slow phase; sales were down and new impulses were needed. Recently-appointed CEO Yumi Ishikawa had an fabulous idea: she decided to launch a nail polish range based on the ingredients Ueba Esou was already manufacturing – especially the gofun powder.
Ishikawa kept the formula as natural as possible; used the company’s original seals and 19th century brand visuals in the packaging and emphasized Ueba Esou’s Kyoto heritage by developing further beauty products together with local companies – a solid and convincing brand concept for which Ishikawa received the prestigious Good Design Award 2015.
The Gofun polishes are based on gofun, they are solvent-free (no unpleasant smell), they dry quickly and you can remove them with alcohol; no need to use nail polish remover. They probably don’t last as long as conventional nail polishes but from what I’ve read, they are much better for your nails. And at 1,300 Yen (approx. 10 Euro) they are quite affordable.
And the colours are gorgeous! Ueba Esou’s colour palette is taken straight from traditional nihon-ga painting; the current range offers 36 beautifully muted shades. The names are equally pretty: Enji is an orange-red, Kyo-kurenai a purple-toned fuchsia, Ai is a dark indigo blue, Fujimurasaki-byaku is a pale opaque lavender, Meno is a soft greige/taupe and Uguisu-midori (nightingale green!) is a greenish tone.
The range also includes three clear scented polishes with fragrances based on essential oils: there is a soft floral mix of ylang-ylang, jasmine and sandalwood, a woodsy blend of cedarwood, cypress, eucalyptus and bergamot and a zesty concoction with lemon, grapefruit, rosemary and ginger.
In addition to the Gofun polishes, Ueba Esou is has developed a range of 12 beautifully designed hand creams (see pic above) and a 3-sku range of lipglosses in cooperation with Kyoto beauty brand Kyo Miori. Like the nail polishes, the hand creams and lipglosses are priced at 1,300 Yen which keeps Ueba Esou’s beauty products firmly in the mass market bracket – a very smart move.
In Kyoto the Gofun polishes are sold in the more traditional hotels, in stores retailing traditional Kyoto souvenirs, in Japanese arts and crafts stores and on Amazon.jp. However, here in Tokyo I’ve seen the range in Ainz & Tulpe Harajuku (which probably means that distribution of the Gofun range in the Tokyo metropolitan area is probably going to pick up very soon!) and in a store selling traditional Japanese handicrafts.
And I’d imagine that these are probably going to be the brand’s two main retail channels: traditional Japanese souvenirs, arts and crafts stores + urban beauty retailers/concept stores with a young, trend-oriented clientele. A great juxtaposition of tradition and modernity. I bet the Gofun polishes would do well in Loft Shibuya or Tokyu Hands Shinjuku!