One of the things that surprised me when I first came to Japan was the haircut experience. It’s not as if I have never had my hair cut before, but the whole experience here is just unique, and more than that, the whole hype about haircut, hairstyle and fashion in Japan, even among guys, is probably peculiar to Japan. Of course there are various kinds of hair salons in Japan, of which experience varies to different extents, but what I am going to write about, is the average haircut experience in Japan.

So, the first step to get your haircut is to step into the hair salon…

NO. You missed one step before that- to get a reservation. Well, not all salons require reservations, but most Japanese do get a phone reservation before visiting the salon, because of a reason you will know later.

If you are not visiting for the first time, you would probably have a member’s card, of which they will take from you, before asking you to take a seat. If you are visiting for the first time, you are in for a good number of cultural shocks. First, you will be asked to fill in an enquette (a questionnaire) where you have to fill in personal details including name, address and so on. What’s interesting comes after that. These enquettes vary from salons to salons, and some of the questions in the enquette might be asked verbally in some places.

Do you have a preference on your hairstylist in-charge?  Which of the following is/are important to you: Technique, atmosphere, music, attitude, price etc.? Where did you get to know our salon? Would you prefer your hairstylist to actively talk to you or not?

“Woah, I actually just want my hair to be cut. Why ask so much?” might be what will be on your mind, looking through the questions, but this just goes to show how much they value the customers and their feedback. And so, based on your enquette, or perhaps at random, you get a hairstylist in charge of you, who will probably stick to you for your subsequent visits, trying to know you better, understand your style and preference of hairstyles… and girls.

In fact, they actually have a rank of hairstylists from which you could choose from! From the lowest stratification of a normal, assumably fresh graduate from a training school, to an advanced, more experience hairstylist, to assistant director, and the director of the salon! I am not sure how the ranking system works, but I suspect this is based on how many customers they get, and that is the reason why they try so hard to please us. Nevertheless, I can’t help but relate this to a cabaret club (host/ hostess club)  in Japan, where the hosts/hostesses try hard to increase their customers, and to defend their ricebowl. And since you have an in-charge stuck to you (unless you demand a change), it would then make sense to make a phone reservation a day or a few days before your visit, to ensure that your in-charge would be available!

I once thought of just going without a reservation, and if my in-charge had been booked that day, I would just opt for a different hairstylist. But imagine how awkward it would be sitting right opposite and staring at your original hairstylist, while being served by a newly-assigned one. It probably wouldn’t mean THAT much to me, as it would to the relationships among the hairstylists in the salon. The thought of me distorting the peace and inducing rivalries in the salon just gave me the shudder, especially when the Japanese value “wa” (peace) very much.

And so, you get a hairstylist assigned to you. As you take a seat, someone would collect your bag and overcoat and place it in the locker or cupboard, and at the same time, pass you some magazines to read. At some places, you will be served a cup of coffee or tea. In the previous hair salon I used to frequent, they had an iPad for customers! God was I impressed! So as you flip through the magazines (mostly about hairstyles and fashion), you wait for your hairstylist to come to your services.

Your hairstylist arrives and asks you how you would like your hair to be cut. Depending on the hairstylist, he might stand or sit next to you. Well, mine once knelt in front of me as he spoke to me! I almost jumped up instinctively when I saw him go on his knees in front of me. OH please, I’m younger than you! No wonder why people say customers are served like kings/ emperors in Japan.

One other thing that fascinates me is how much detail they look into when cutting hair. They categorize your hair in terms of length (very short ~ long), and have specific names to specific hairstyles (natural straight, smart short, waving short, casual italian etc., and incidentally, all these words are in katakana, mainly borrowed words from the English vocabulary. Sometimes they add in Japanese words such as sawayaka, or funwari, to bring out a clearer image.) Oh wait, did I mention this section is dedicated only to men’s hair? The women’s hair section (in magazines or on website) normally contains four times the number of styles (and names)! (Refer to: http://www.beauty-box.jp/style/index.html)

Another interesting way of categorizing hairstyles is through how your head is shaped, how dense your hair is, and of what quality your hair is. Wow, did I hear wrong? No, you didn’t. It’s true!

For the different hairstyles, they have a range of the above conditions that they deem “suitable”. So you could imagine asking for a certain hairstyle and being told, “I’m sorry but you have too little hair for this”, or “I’m sorry but your hair quality is too poor”.

After telling your hairstylist what kind of hair you want, you will be brought to have your hair washed. As you lie on the comfortable reclining chair, you have your eyes covered with a towel sometimes to avoid eye contact with the person washing your hair. The previous time I went, as my chair was reclining and my vision moved towards the ceiling, I was impressed that they had a television screen diagonally upwards, so that people having their hair washed could watch the screen (showing random advertisements of the salon).

Once again, perhaps in a way to avoid awkward silence, the person washing your hair would ask you questions such as “are you feeling comfortable?”, “is the water too hot for your liking?” or “do you feel any itch or discomfort in your hair?” Once done, you will be brought back to your seat, with magazines or a cup of coffee. Your hairstylist comes, confirms with you how your hair will be done, and proceeds with his job.

More often than not, your hairstylist would talk to you about various things, ranging from sports, politics (hmm hardly?), television shows, celebrities…. and most importantly, about love relationships. I remember my first hairstylist used to ask me if I had a girlfriend EVERY TIME i visited the salon. I would say “no”, and he would ask me “why not” and asked me if I preferred Japanese girls, or if I had any preferences on girls. Sometimes he would ask me what kind of dates I would like to go for, and so on. Well, I guess talking about such things would serve as an ice-breaker between us.

A haircut normally takes about an hour (or more), including all the excessive waiting time, or random chats with the hairstylist. You leave the seat, collect your bag and overcoat, pay and step out of the salon. Your hairstylist would send you to the door, bid you farewell and watch your every step until you disappear from his vision.

Sometimes I wonder, in what other countries does men’s haircut mean more than a “just get my damned hair cut!” ?