Home Is Where the Hair Is

Scariest thing about travelling? Foreign hairdressers.

By Steve Burgess 5 Mar 2007 |

Steve Burgess has been writing reports home from his travels to Asia. This is his last one. Next week, he'll return to reviewing movies every second Friday.

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Lost in translation.

Retail transactions involve different levels of commitment and trust. Buying a shirt is pretty straightforward. Buying a sandwich raises the danger level. Getting a haircut is an act of faith involving near-total surrender. Especially if you're in Japan.

I was walking through Harajuku, the heart of Tokyo street fashion, the place where young Japanese go to sharpen their stylistic edges. Armies of style hunters wait obediently at the crosswalk for the lights to change, then surge down Takeshita-dori to browse through shops offering everything from hip hop to Goth to the myriad components that make up the inventive, over-the-top combinations swirling through the streets of Shibuya every night. Harajuku is campy and cutting edge, but mainstream too -- the Japanese mainstream, at least. It's a stream westerners dip into at their peril.

Nonetheless I get seduced by Harajuku. And a dog. And a ballerina. It is a French bulldog, placidly guarding the entrance of a hair salon called Hallelujah. Nearby sits a lovely young woman, waiting for work. "She's a ballerina," an employee offers, unsolicited. Not the most logical inducement. But that's how retailing works.

Elevator girls and toilet maps

Loss of control is a fact of travel -- different culture, different language and the sudden cluelessness that results. Not a good time to get a haircut, perhaps? On the other hand, what better way to bond with another land? To submit one's self to that very personal grooming service, less important than dentistry perhaps but just as nerve-wracking -- it's a sure way to escape from the mundane realm of tourism and truly experience life in a different place. This is my theory. My head will be the proving ground.

Japanese retail is quite different from North American, generally, and usually in a fun way. Elevator girls (they're always girls) in lovely uniforms may be useless, but they're a nice kind of useless. One department store even offered a toilet map. Posted at the entrance to the men's room, it indicated that I should go around the corner where I would find sinks on one side and urinals nearby. At no time during use was I lost or disoriented.

Helpfulness and courtesy can reach astonishing levels. In Kyoto, I entered a shop to browse for rice crackers. They didn't really have the sort I liked. Nonetheless the proprietor brought me a cup of matcha tea and a sweet, just because I was there. I ended up buying stuff, just because.

Shaggy, with highlights

One disconcerting aspect of shopping in Japan is the English-titled Japanese instructions. "Floor plan," reads the brochure in English. Drawn in by that ruse, I open it to find store listings all in Japanese -- perfectly logical. More worrisome was the frozen treat I bought that came with instructions titled: "How to Eat." The details were in Japanese. How to eat? Is biting OK? Is bacteria an issue? (As it turned out the idea was to let it soften up for 15 minutes. Dee-lish.)

Now I'm in the chair at Hallelujah. My new ballerina acquaintance -- her name is Yayoi, which means March -- has given me a swell shampoo and now brings me a book. "Here are pictures," she says, employing limited English and a sweet smile. "You can choose."

Photos of stylish young men dot the pages. The pictures look a lot like the view on the street outside -- hipper-than-hip guys with just-so hair cascading over high collars. Every one of them sports long, shaggy, highlighted 'dos, like J-Pop singing stars. Every one of them.

What have I done?

I start stammering to Yayoi. "Umm...well...I'm sort of old. Old? You know? Are you thinking about, um, hair extensions? Highlights? Because, you know, I don't think I can pull that off. I'm, you know...old."

Not from around hair

Yayoi goes away. I'm afraid I have disappointed her fatally, alienating the poor woman through my inability to get with the program. I'm not really Harajuku material, am I? I ought to stick to places with a spinning barber pole out front. At least just let me get something fixable. I can shave it off back home, assuming I can get still get through Canada Customs with my old passport photo.

Suddenly the stylist shows up. His name is Yuuki. Apparently Yayoi was just the shampoo person (with, I assume, some ballerina work at weddings and bar mitzvahs). Yuuki proceeds to cut my hair in fairly straightforward fashion, while practicing his English on his unexpected Canadian client. "I have been taking lessons five months," he says. "Expensive."

I'm happy to help out. The haircut is actually pretty reasonable, particularly for Japan. And it turns out quite well, thank you. Nestor the French bulldog seems unimpressed, but hey, he's French. They're a tough crowd.

I get through Customs just fine. And now I am back home at last. Do I look different?

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