A rush of 45 degree air and the clatter of dress shoes greet me as I exit Japan Rail’s loping green line commuter train and make my way to the heart of Akihabara.
The bustling Tokyo neighborhood has straddled idiosyncratic boundaries of the modern and traditional for decades, at once a major passageway for goods and travelers and a place to get wholly lost in digital desires. Cosplayers shadow doorways and faux French maids call out flyered greetings, beckoning the gamers and otaku of the world with their favorite manga or anime. The massive pachinko parlors do the best to entice amid the looming megastores: Bic Camera and Don Quijote being the most prevalent.
I’m headed to the latter for a nail appointment I am desperately late for, at least by Japanese standards. There’s a bit of time to be made up in knowing where to turn along the alleyways and massive boulevards illuminated by HD screens and metal signs. I had visited Ita Color’s Yellow the week before—a nail salon known for its highly detailed manicures of your favorite anime and cartoon characters known as itanails—in hopes of grabbing a walk-in session to no avail.
Salon may be a strong word for Ita Color’s Yellow’s set-up. Situated in a small corner on the ground floor of Don Quijote across from some mobile phone and TV hockers, the place resembles the type of booth you’d see at a county fair shilling bejeweled headbands and leather woven bracelets. PVC pipes and curtains make up the barrier between Ita Color’s Yellow and the rest of its surroundings. With just two card tables for manicurists, the salon is really more of a “hands only” kind of place but that’s perfectly OK.
Nails run a pretty penny at Ita Color’s Yellow, though they aren’t unfounded in their pricing. Rather than a flat rate for an anime manicure, otakus seeking beautification are paying per 10-minute interval. That explicit knowledge and the time constraint had me thinking fast: For a manicure that may very well run me $100, what would be the best use of my nails and time? Eying the midnight blues, the cobalts, and the azures, one of the OG manga stars who effectively shaped the genre when he burst on the scene in 1969—Doraemon—came immediately to mind.
The robotic cat from the future is the creation of Fujiko F. Fujio, who has an entire museum dedicated to his work in Kawasaki. The ode to Fujio opened in 2011. One year later, Ita Color’s Yellow began welcoming visitors to its vibrant booth. I picked a complementary blue for the rest of my nails and reserved my ring finger for Doraemon as something of my own tribute to Fujio and one of the most beloved manga characters on the planet. It’s been years since my last manicure, but the artist in front of me was patient and caring, filing down my nails into semi circles, clipping at cuticles and using oils to purify the nails before quite literally painting lacquer and varnish and lacquer and varnish and lacquer and varnish.
The process was one of the most tedious, yet relaxing, I’d born witness to at a nail salon. After finishing the matte deep blue, he produced four gnarled tubes of acrylic paint, prepped my ring fingers, and went to work, freehanding the image with precision as he occasionally glanced at a picture of Doraemon on his phone for reference. The strokes were light and the manicurist wielded the brush with the utmost mastery as he asked me where I was from and told me about a recent trip to New York.
I was lost in amazement as Doraemon began to take shape, his smiling eyes and bashful stance covering the center of my nail from top to bottom. After another coat of varnish, the manicurist dabbed tiny flecks of glitter on either side, then finished with another coat of varnish. The hour-plus long session was over before I’d even realized, running me a grand total of $87.
Shaking hands with the manicurist and thanking him profusely, I left the salon and headed out into the wind, surrounded by Narutos and Monkey Luffys. The sun had gone down but the glow of Akihabara had only strengthened, shining artificial light on the most artful manicure I had ever received. It also turned out to be the most durable. My itanails have miraculously held up to intense travel and temperature differences. If only they would truly last forever.
Photo by April Siese