Whether it be chipped nails, bitten nails, cracked skin or fat fingers, Japan’s manicurist to the stars Naoko Takano can turn her hand to any challenge.
Takano, who is credited as the inventor of pressed-flower nail art, has spent half of her life helping her clients express their individuality through their fingers and toes, letting their nails speak on their behalf.
The Tokyo-based nail salon owner-cum-celebrity gets to be a part of people’s lives — from big occasions like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries to everyday work and family life.
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“A manicure can provide quick relief from people’s problems, big or small. We’re kind of like therapists,” Takano says. “When you’re soaking your feet in a tub of warm water or getting your hands massaged, you can take your mind off your worries. You can chat with us, or be pampered in peace, whichever. For some people, it’s not a luxury but a necessity.”
Takano started her career in the beauty industry after being influenced by her mother, who was both a hairdresser and a manicurist. She landed a job at a five-star hotel spa, which offered nail-care services, then still a new thing in Japan.
Back in the day, Takano says, social norms in Japan meant most women withdrew from the labor market once they married. She thought her only choice was either to become a full-time housewife or a businesswoman, and at the age of 22 she opted for the latter.
“When I walked into that spa, I was so sure that’s where I wanted to be. I’d never seen anything like it,” she says. “But once hired, I was told I would need to learn nail tech skills. I hated my nail shape and I was ashamed to show my deformed nails to other women. I couldn’t draw and I couldn’t come up with creative ideas, so it wasn’t an ideal start.”
She quickly realized that there was a lot more to the nail makeovers than painting and decorating, and her passion for beauty and personal care turned into an outlet that has since allowed her to pass on the professional knowledge to new nail artists.
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In 2001, at age 28, Takano started her own nail salon in the upscale but relaxed Ebisu neighborhood of Tokyo.
“It was always facial and body treatment plus nail care, or something plus nail care,” she says of other establishments in Tokyo. “Nail care was an added option and not the signature treatment. I wanted to make a nails-only salon.”
Now, with a decades-long career as fashion’s most sought-after editorial manicurist and beauty blogger, Takano divides her time between her salon and school, fashion shoots, stage events and home.
Her high-profile client list includes supermodel Miranda Kerr, pop star and actress Jennifer Lopez and others she cannot mention for confidentiality reasons. Some VIPs, including music moguls and professional athletes, even make international flights to place their hands in hers.
Juggling work and motherhood, Takano says her approach to business is a little different to when she started in her 20s. She is no longer the girl who could survive on two hours of sleep and still perform at a high level. The 45-year-old also now wears glasses. That said, she hasn’t lost the ability to turn fingertip canvases into miniature works of art.
She paints anything from Japanese motifs, such as kimono and traditional pottery patterns, to flowers and Disney characters on her customers’ nails. Red and white are popular choices during the Christmas season, while tweed and checkered designs were the hot picks in 2018.
“I don’t work late like I used to. I’ve become a morning person,” she says. “I don’t even keep nail products at home. I switch off on Sundays when I’m with my husband and daughter. Times have changed.”
In Japan, nail decoration has become a form of art, not just a superficial, feel-good activity. There are contests and exhibitions dedicated to nail art and the Tokyo Nail Expo is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Takano, who gets her inspiration from high-end fashion brands and can recreate the pattern of a $5,000 runway gown on your nails, says that Japan has its finger on the pulse of nail trends.
“Japan is a global leader when it comes to nail art. ‘Made in Japan’ represents high quality, and people are coming here for things like gel nail supplies and nail art brushes,” she says. “I believe Japan is No. 1 in nail art techniques. Nail art is booming in South Korea and China, too, and their tastes are a bit different, but they all want to learn the Japanese way.”
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Takano herself has given lectures to hundreds at a hotel in China and has taught employees of the U.S.-based nail giant OPI, where she met educator and regional manager Nadine Galli, after whom Takano’s salon, Nadine, is named.
“Nadine takes happiness seriously. She says a nail artist has to be happy in order to make people happy. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been in the industry,” says Takano. “Working with her was a turning point in my career.”
Despite her resounding success, Takano continues to study to stay up-to-date with the latest nail tech procedures, in the same way, she says, that a doctor needs to stay at the forefront of medical research and clinical practice.
“With more people going to Instagram for nail art ideas, it’s getting harder and harder to meet customer expectations. A simple gel manicure will take about an hour. But then there are those who stay for five,” she says.
There are truly committed gel devotees who invest loads of time and money in their nails. But to many women, the beauty upgrades of a manicure and pedicure —along with the complimentary tea, soothing music and pleasant conversation — are worth spending money on.
“I’ve seen all kinds of people with all kinds of nail shapes. But I’m confident I can make them all look good,” says Takano. “My job is not just to brighten up nails. I want to make people look and feel good.”
While most of her clients are women between the ages of 40 and 60, Takano says it is becoming more common for couples to get nail treatments together.
“You see your lacquered nails every day … so we want you to be pleased with the finished look. There’s no need to compromise your style. Colors on your nails can improve your mood. Well-maintained nails can increase your self-confidence,” she says. “A good manicure can make all the difference to a mundane day.”
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