Hair Salon Experience in Japan

Some people talk about being in a long distance relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend. I am in a long distance relationship with my favorite hair stylist.

(I am also in a long distance relationship with my boyfriend. But Kosuke lives just 120 miles away.) Closer than the 5,500 miles that separate me and my favorite hair stylist. Let’s see that’s… 11,198,000 steps. If I start now, I might just make it in time for my next haircut!

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Our Story

His name is Nakagaki-San. We met 6 years ago in November 2010.

At that time, I had just moved to Japan and I was looking for someone to cut my hair. I was feeling anxious about getting my hair cut in Japan – would I be able to communicate what I wanted? Would I walk out with an embarrassing hair cut? Also I was feeling overwhelmed about the task of picking a good salon. Japan has an incredible number of hair salons. Just walking from my apartment to the nearest train station, I passed over 6 hair salons.

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So I turned to the person who had helped me manage so many other details of my adjustment to life in Japan – the secretary of my adviser. She recommended a salon near my house and called to make an appointment.

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November 2010 – my first appointment with Nakagaki.

The Day We Met 

I was so nervous the day before my haircut. I barely slept. I had a myriad of concerns.

  • Would I be able to effectively communicate what I wanted? I can hardly explain how I want my hair cut in English… let alone in my second language Japanese. Usually I show a picture that I tear from a magazine and provide some vague information about the style I am hoping for – yeah kind of like this but shorter here and not so long here. And for the bangs… sort of like this. Not surprisingly the results tended to vary from acceptable to odd to just fine.
  • Would the haircut be ridiculously expensive? I was used to spending $60-80 for a haircut in the United States and I had heard whispered rumors that haircuts in Japan tended to be more expensive than the United States. I was too scared to ask how much the haircut would cost, so I packed 3 crisp 10,000 yen bills into my wallet (about $300 USD). Just to be safe. It would not cost more than $300…right? RIGHT?
  • Would everyone at the salon think I am so uncool? At this point, I had lived in Japan for about 2 months. I had seen all the fashionable college students crowding the bus that I took to my research center. Everyone seemed to have perfectly coiffed and styled hair. In comparison, I felt like my haircut looked like some amateur had hacked it with a pair of kitchen shears.
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Haircut (circa 2010)

There was no need to worry!

I ended up passing a lovely 2 hours at the salon. That’s right – TWO HOURS!

I started by filling out an information sheet with my basic information (phone number, address), as well as concerns about my hair (texture, scalp dryness, split ends, etc). I could barely decipher the dense Japanese but one of the staff helped me read it.

Then someone brought me several “hair catalogues” (basically magazines with pictures of lots of different hairstyles) and asked me to pick some styles I liked.

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Source: scans165

Incidentally there are also hair catalogues for men!

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Source: Terapeak.

 A Heavenly Shampoo Experience

 What came next was possibly the most relaxing experience of my life – having my hair shampooed.

I was escorted into a quiet, slightly dark room. There was a low window looking out onto a pond with a fountain. I could hear the gentle burbling of the water. Softly tinkling lullaby music played.

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A fluffy warm fleece blanket was placed over my lap. And my chair was reclined until it was horizontal. Kind of like a dentist chair but rather than being filled with dread for the drilling and scraping that would begin, there came a whoosh of water in the basin under my head and the staff began gently washing my hair.

I have had my fair share of bad shampoo experiences.

There was the time the person sprayed water all over my face. Or another time the entire back of my shirt somehow got wet. Or the time the staff did not properly clean the back of my head and I left the salon with the hair at the nape of my neck still greasy.

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This experience was not just the absence of any of those negative factors, it was possibly the most perfect shampoo experience of my life.

Every movement was fluid and natural. And the experience tingled all my senses – the sounds of water in the basin, the warm towel wrapped around my head at the end, the invigorating scent of grapefruit shampoo, the quiet reassuring voice of the staff asking “Is the water too hot? Is the massage too firm?

Forget the haircut, I would go back just for this shampoo experience!

The Cut

By the time I reached the chair of my stylist, I was already super impressed. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the level of service that I received from Nakagaki-San.

He quickly evaluated the condition of my hair, listened to my concerns about my hair, and made suggestions for a cut taking into account the shape of my face and neck. The resulting cut looked amazing and felt great – light, yet with more texture and movement than I ever thought possible for my hair.

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The Mind Reading Powers of Nakagaki-San

That hair cut happened 6 years ago but I have never forgotten it.

When I put my glasses back on at the end of the cut and looked at my hair, I felt like Nakagaki-San had read my mind. He gave me exactly what I wanted, even though I could not fully articulate what I wanted.

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The experience lives in my memory as one of my most vivid experiences of omoiyari.

Omoiyari is a central value in Japan. It describes the sensitivity to imagine another person’s feelings, affairs, and circumstances. Exercising omoiyari requires anticipating the needs, desires, and wishes of another person, even before that person has to ask for what they need or want.

Seeing the care that Nakagaki-san showed towards me, trying to anticipate my needs, inspired me. I wanted to give this same attentive understanding to others around me. Of course, there is a flip side to this intense consideration. It can lead to dense and tight relationships, where interacting is stressful. Plus, it relies on shared expectations about what people want and can quickly break down with incorrect assumptions. Even so, bringing an element of omoiyari to my interactions helped me to learn to focus on being more thoughtful and considerate to others.

I felt so grateful for the experience that I wrote a thank you letter to Nakagaki-San.

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6 Years of Haircuts Later

I was so pleased with the haircut from Nakagaki-San that I never tried another salon. I started regularly going every month for my haircut.

December 2010 Cut

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January 2011

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February 2011

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It might sound ridiculous but even though I am not living in Japan anymore, I go back every year to Japan to visit and I always get my hair cut by Nakagaki-San.

Sometimes it is a trek to his salon in Otsu (outside Kyoto) from wherever I am staying in Japan but I always go and he always welcomes me back. I have become friends with two rounds of young staff at his salon. I have watched Nakagaki-San develop his own line of shampoo (and have been treated to several bottles of his exclusive blend!). We have slowly become friends (of sorts) and even though I can only visit once a year, I feel like we enjoy a wonderful friendship.

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Two haircuts ago, he sent me home with a pack of his homemade takikomi rice.

Many thanks to Nakagaki-San! I am already looking forward to our next meeting.

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The salon is just down the street from here. I’ll be back soon~!

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