Tonsorial Teeterings in Tokyo

Rob got a haircut in Tokyo, which he describes in detail below in the first guest post on The Garden of Eden: 

I get normal haircuts.  Ever since shaving my number in the back of my head for soccer state championships in middle school or those lines on the side of my head in elementary school (I haven’t seen those in ages – maybe they’re prime for a comeback?), I’ve had the same haircut.  Usually when a barber sees me sit down, he or she probably thinks “normal white dude - probably wants normal white dude haircut” and gets down to business.  If they do ask, I’ll say something like, “normal haircut” or “what you’d guess my hair looked like a couple months ago when it was last cut” and then we’re off to the races.  Toward the end, there are some nuances -- squared off in the back vs. rounded (I’m the latter), neck shave (I’m a no), add product (I’m a no).

I view haircuts as a utility – I require them periodically, but if I get fewer and from cheaper vendors, I’ll save money over time.  But, there’s a point where I either have to deploy product (gasp!) or a part that I just have to get a haircut.  We reached that point in Tokyo.

Darcy and Blythe gave me a brief hall pass to try to find a haircut before picking up dinner so Blythe (currently in terrorist / no-sleep mode, but that’s a separate story) could get to bed early.  Outside of Meguro Station I looked at Google Maps under “barber shops near me” and saw a variety of results that looked like:

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On the plus side, I guess they weren’t 1-star reviews, but they were all Japanese to me (literally and figuratively).  Also, I have no idea whether you need reservations, or anything about barber shop customs in Tokyo.  But, I thought back to my high school Latin days and recalled “Fortuna audaces iuvat” (fortune favors the bold) and determined to get this done.

The Google Maps thing wasn’t seeming too helpful, so I scrapped the iphone approach and went old school – wandering looking for blue and white barber poles or similar identifiers.  I soon came across a sidewalk sign with photos like these:

Knowing that time was of the essence, seeing a reasonable price listed (3800 JPY), and assuming that the price was for a haircut and not 30 minutes of karaoke, I decided to go for it.  I followed signs up a narrow stairway past a hidden-away bar, a yoga studio, and some government offices and emerged into a “salon” to begin one of the coolest hours I can remember…

A few days ago, Darcy and I got a babysitter and went whole hog into the classic “Japanese cultural experience” – omekase sushi.  We were recommended “one of the best, off-the-beaten-track” sushi places where they charged us $100 each to serve us chef’s choice of sushi.  It was cool, but felt a bit distancing from the chefs and clientele and we really didn’t connect at all, and I’m not sure how we could have given the language barriers and customs differences.  It was like we were at an aquarium peering in at the fish.

Well, as far as I know, they don’t offer “omekase” haircuts, nor would I be audaces enough to try it (especially seeing the above photos), so I had to jump into the aquarium.  Fortunately, there were no sharks in the tank…  (ok, I’ll stop the hokey metaphor).

When I walked into the salon, heads turned (like they do toward Blythe in the Tokyo subway).  “How the heck did this caucasian dude arrive here in this random, hard-to-find shop in a non-touristy area of Tokyo?!  COOOOL – good for him, this is gonna be AWESOME!!”  In the same fashion as I did my best charades acting of diaper at the supermarket the night before, I acted out scissors on my hair to the hostess (in hindsight, she was probably like “no shit, this is a hair salon”).  I think they were trying to tell me that they could try to squeeze me in in an hour even though I didn’t have a reservation.  To which I tried to say that I had a commitment and I really want my hair cut and could they pretty pretty please try to squeeze me in, but I understand if they can’t.  (You see, the dialog quickly got way beyond my vocabulary of konichiwa and arigato – and by the way, theirs was not much better than “hello” and “thank you” either).

Out of the ether in the salon floats this adorable Japanese woman grinning ear to ear.  There is an exchange amongst the staff.  They whisk me off to a special chair, take my coat which they fold meticulously and place on a shelf nearby as if it were a newborn baby.  But I’m sort of confused since I think they think I’m waiting an hour for a haircut, but I can’t.  After a back and forth of facial expressions, noises, and speaking our native languages, they explain that the angel lady who floated in can cut my hair in a couple minutes – JACKPOT!!  I think she must have overheard the desperation in my voice and offered to fit me in.

So, I sit in the special chair and look around.  I take off my sunglasses and place them on the counter.  After they had been on the counter for a nanosecond, an attentive staff dude swoops in and scoops them up, wipes the counter and places the glasses in a special antiqued wood sunglasses-on-the-counter box.  He offered a very friendly smile and bow afterward while thinking “what’s up with this white dude’s manners”.  Yes, they are meticulous about their tidiness here….  Speaking of which, I had a bit of my signature forehead sweat coming out (subway to stairway to foreign hair salon-induced).  I think he caught a glimpse of it and in a nanosecond he brought me a cool, minty towel on a tray indicating that I should wipe my face off.  That was quite nice actually – thanks dude – I would actually like one of those every time I get off a subway.  Next – another dude comes by with a menu for drinks.  There were some interesting options (e.g., matcha, maybe rosewater), but I stuck with water – maybe I figured there were enough uncertain things going on I’d keep it simple.  Had there been sake or amazake, I’d have partaken.

With the water came a stack of books and magazines – Japanese style guides and headshots.  This seemed like a good idea to me.  I could just point to a picture and angel lady could do it (just like we’d been doing at restaurants where they have food art or photos to point to).  So I flipped through the books, but was disheartened to find that Japanese dudes just have different hair and hairstyles.  I literally couldn’t find a good one to point to.  By this time she came over grinning ear to ear and ready to get down to business.  It brought out a similar grin from me – for one, because smiles are amazingly contagious, but for two, because I was sincerely appreciative that she was thoughtful enough to take on this “project”.  I reached out my hand to shake hers and introduced myself as Rob.  Oh shit, I thought, do people shake hands in Japan (especially those of sweaty foreigners)?  Who knows, but she smiled and introduced herself as Miki.

I tried to point at a few of the dudes in the books, but none was really right.  I pulled up the picture of my driver’s license I have in my phone when I had had a recent cut.  But, none were that helpful for her it seemed.  Grasping for straws, I finally said “George Clooney” – my logic being that the guy has good/normal hair and always looks amazing, and everyone in the world must have heard of him.  By this time, the entire salon was intently listening to our awkward exchanges and every barber/customer pair was having a good-old time making light of whatever was going on in my seat.  The George Clooney comment created near hysteria in the shop as folks laughed like crazy.  Miki then left for a couple minutes, so I wasn’t sure what was going on (I thought maybe she’d thrown in the towel), but then she came back with an ipad with a photo of Clooney asking for my approval.  I said “yes” and “hai” (which I figured out means yes while at the salon) – and everyone laughed.

One of the staff members was apparently excited to learn English, so accompanied Miki during the haircut.  He was using a translation app on his phone.  (We have been using Google Translate app a little, but it struggles with Japanese to English.  It provides some funny/crazy translations.  I kid you not that one food item at the grocery store received a Google translation of “woman’s crotch”).  The haircutting itself was somewhat routine, but Miki did want a lot of feedback since she was being rightly cautious about her understanding of what I wanted.  I mostly guided with hand gestures and we got to a pretty good cut.

But the experience was SO pleasant.  She was so thoughtful and caring and smiley, that it was just pervasive and made me feel comfortable and special (yes, that sounds cheesy, but it’s true).  Also, she was really putting her interpreter sidekick to work so she could make small talk (not bullshitting, but like she really was interested) – how do you say “where are you from?” “are you here for business?” “how long are you in Japan?” “what did you eat today?” “do you have kids?” (I showed her a photo of Blythe on my phone), etc.  I really wished I could have asked her tons of questions too.  As an aside, having worked internationally a lot for the last few years, I’ve found there is nothing more connecting across cultures than sharing a photo of one’s kids (writing this, I realize this is a no-duh statement, but it’s a powerful connection thing, so worth keeping in here…).

I’m learning that the Japanese are full of contradictions:

-        they’re extremely healthy, but smoking is common

-        they disinterested in sex, but strip clubs are frequented

-        they’re super friendly, but also isolationist, sexist, and socially regressive

-        this list could go on a ways…

BUT, the one consistent characterization is that people take pride in their work and how they treat guests.  We’ve seen this in a number of instances during our Tokyo visit, but never has that pride/treatment been more palpable/emanating than from Miki.  It was simply a joy to observe.

I never get a shampoo at the barber/salon (extra expense and I’ll take a shower when I get home anyway), but Miki whisked me off to shampoo after she was done cutting as though it were not an option.  You could feel her attention to detail in my scalp as she shampooed it.  And, she even surprised me with the most complex/specific translation ask of her interpreter sidekick: “is any area of your head itchy?”.  Hmm, I’d never have really thought about that, but actually, the lower back part was sort of, so I told her and she did some extra shampoo work there – wow!

Icing on the cake was this massage afterward back in the haircut seat.  She sprayed some “stuff” in my hair to make my scalp cold -- “It is cold.  Don’t worry.  I think you will like.”  This massage was so neat – like tingly scalp / shoulder work / neck relaxation with some serious skill involved.  Some of it was like drumming and patting in rhythm.  Anyway, difficult to explain, but really neat experience.

At the end, I think we were both thinking, “how cool that we live on the other side of the world from each other, but stumbled out of the blue into an intimate hour with each other which involved problem solving together, learning, creativity, demonstration of a craft with precision, and an excellent visible result.”  So, of course, we had to get the hostess to take photos of us.  Here we are!

P.S. At the end, she gave me her business card with the signature bow and two hands.  I’m ashamed to say that in my processing of the whole event, I neglected to take it with the honor Japanese traditionally do (taking it with two hands and looking at it carefully before putting it away).  Silly American!  In any event, here is Miki’s card if you want to track her down for a great haircut and experience.  Though she doesn’t actually know what it means (nor do I really), she really would “Thank you for the chance to see you in a life time.”