Saturday, 14 May 2011

Getting a haircut in Japan

Getting a haircut in Japan is different to getting one back home in the UK. To start off, it's not just a haircut – going to the barbers involves a shave, having your hair washed numerous times and a massage, so if you don't want any of that and are just there for the haircut you must say at the start. Also, the way they actually cut the hair here is different. Then when you consider that the hairdresser has probably never cut anything other than Japanese hair, it all adds up to an interesting experience for foreigners.

You're certainly not going to be short of options though, as I'm pretty sure Japan has the most hairdressers per square mile in the world. When I first came to Aomori I chose a hairdresser that was fairly close to my apartment. I moved apartments at Christmas but I still go to the same guy because he provides a good haircut and we always have a good chat, usually about girls. But on the way there from my new apartment I pass by no less than five different barbers in the 5 minute walk. If you think Japan has a lot of konbinis, look again and you'll notice there are even more hairdressers.

Last night I thought I'd try somewhere different for a change, so instead of the usual place which is run by one guy, I went to a giant hairdressers that I always pass on my way to the supermarket. This place is like a wholesale hairdressers, with low prices, lots of staff and lots of customers. I had about 8 staff greet me all at once as I walked through the door, and a woman showed me to ‘Chair Number 3', one of the many which lined three of the four walls. After stating that I only wanted a haircut, the woman called out “カットのみ”, to which the whole place replied “はい”.

My hairdresser stepped forward. It was a man in his 40s who had a well-groomed beard and a big name-tag with “のぐち” written on it. He was softly spoken and in his big pockets he had at least 5 sets of scissors and other various implements jangling around. After consulting me as to what I wanted doing, he set about creating his next masterpiece.

One of the differences in the way they cut hair in Japan is that they do things very slowly and gradually, rather than getting stuck in straight away like hairdressers back home. In fact, sometimes they're that slow and gradual that if you're not careful you'll leave looking the same as when you walked in. I wasn't going to let のぐち get away with anything other than an actual haircut and told him I wanted my hair cutting in the same style as it was but made quite a bit shorter. Even so, it took him a while to get going, as he sprayed his water and ran his scissors over my hair for a few minutes, cutting off very little. Next he got the clippers out and I told him I wanted ‘grade 2' on the back and sides, leaving him with no choice but to take more than a millimeter of hair off. At least I felt like I was having a haircut at this point, but it was strange that even after using the clippers he went over the same area with his scissors for a good few minutes, searching for and trimming off the slightest hair that was out of line. In fact, this took up most of the process as he endeavoured to achieve a perfectly straight line around the back and sides. After this he moved to the top, where he repeatedly sprayed more water, changed scissors a few times and trimmed lots of small amounts off until he eventually achieved the desired effect. After a while, it seemed like he'd done, as he got out the small mirror to show me the back and ask if it was OK. But just as he was putting the mirror away he must have spotted a hair out of place and returned to trying to create the perfect line for another couple of minutes; I'm surprised he didn't pull a spirit level out of his pockets. He finally finished and I left the chair with shouts of お疲れ様です from the staff who were just stood by watching, the guy sweeping the floor and the other hairdressers, still busy at work on their own topiary projects.

This Japanese method leaves you with something of a precision haircut, where it's not too much different from what you had before, but it's very neat. It does take a lot of time though, and if I'd have had all the other services it would have taken quite a lot longer. If you want to leave feeling like you've had a proper haircut, my advice is to give them specific instructions, otherwise they might make it look like they're cutting your hair, but not actually take anything off. Also, the shave, hair-washing and massage are OK if you're into that kind of thing, but the massage is nothing more than a few taps on the shoulders with a warm towel over your face, and it does put the price up quite a bit. Due to the no-frills nature of the place, the price for my haircut yesterday was 1500 yen (around 11 pounds), which is cheaper than the place I normally go to. The other guy has better banter and a TV though, so I'll be back there next time.

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