Random cultural experiences – The Barbers

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You find yourself in the middle of Tokyo with a free hour on your hands. You scratch your chin and ponder the question – where can I experience an immediate authentic cultural experience that is guaranteed to not be on any travel itinerary? Why not a local barber shop? After all – all that is required of you is that you sit back, relax and try not to snore.

In Japan, a visit to a barber’s can range from 1000 yen for a 10-minute special at one of the railway station quick-cut salons, where a swift chop is followed by a vacuum cleaner hose run over the head to suck up any loose hairs – job done; to 4000 yen at a shop run by a chain-smoking sole proprietor. As much as I would love to support the small fish (but not his smoking habit), I can hardly justify paying so much for a quick buzz over my 30-something balding scalp. I therefore normally go for the mid range deal – 1500-2000yen for a cut and then the all-important shave at a chain-barber shop.

Being follicly challenged, one might think that I rarely need to visit my local barbershop, however, keeping my beard in trim is something I sometimes leave to the professionals. And for a couple of thousand yen, I get to switch off completely and enjoy the pleasure of a little manly pampering, or whatever you want to call it!

Like anywhere in the world, the barbershop in Japan is a fascinating glimpse into local culture. On entering, I sit in strict order on the seating provided, shimmying along as the next person is called to the chopping chair – an example of the highly ritualistic queuing that the Japanese follow.

Of course the clientele are always varied – I may well find myself squeezed between a manga comic reading student and a businessman on his lunch hour, or the elderly gent who treats the experience more as a social occasion so has no qualms in ushering me to be seen to before him. He has already been there for an hour and will no doubt still be ushering away when I leave the shop an hour later!

Just as in the Japanese office environment, there is no small talk between coworkers about last night’s baseball match or the crazy Karaoke session whilst on the job – full focus is on the scalps lined up in front of the mirrors. My assigned cutter may ask where I am from but then will leave me in peace and doesn’t feel obliged to engage in inane conversation. Time to doze…

The whole cut/shave process is a prime example of what the Japanese are renowned for – teamwork. Someone will lead me to a chair and drape the protective anti-itchy hair gown over me, then hand the baton to a colleague who will take my “hair order” and religiously run the clippers over my head to produce a perfect 2-mm cut.

Then the shampoo application specialist jumps in and zealously rubs away, always careful to ask if the (luke warm) water is not scaldingly hot. A token towel run over my feeble pelt dries it in a single wipe and he hands over the reins to his superior, relaying my beard requirements.

Creams and hot towels are applied and left in place to soften the bristles, while eyebrows are trimmed and upper facial bum fluff (on forehead and ears!) is removed. Then comes the ritual of extreme concentration by the hygiene-masked barber as he sculpts my beard – I occasionally open my eyes to note him working away with the focused gaze of a surgeon. Then a post-shave cold towel and more lotion is applied before the final check for any errant hair. They always save the best for last though…

…now it is time to plug in the giant massager – pneumatic drill-like in appearance yet thankfully a little kinder on the back, although no less frenetic in its movement. This last shuddering massage feels great but is enough to awaken me from my dozy state. A token straw brush across the shoulders and we are finished. I pay, every worker in the shop shouts out thanks to me from across the room and I leave a happy customer.

As always, on later close inspection at home, my beard is perhaps never quite as I asked for it to be, but the visit to the barbershop always remains one of my favourite “local” experiences!


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