In Britain, a haircut is usually just a haircut. In Japan, a haircut is much more – it's a shave, it's a severe nose tweak, it's a cigarette (optional), it's a wonderful or terrifying experience (depending upon your disposition) and, of course, it's a haircut too.
A hairy experience
It looked like an ordinary barbershop to me – three chairs, three mirrors, simple décor, an ordinary looking barber with ordinary looking hair holding an ordinary pair of scissors. But this was to be no ordinary experience.
I took my place in the comfy chair and was immediately set upon by the barber's wife who proceeded to tie a number of cloths and towels tightly around my neck to prevent any hair from going down my back.
Unfortunately it also prevented any blood from getting to my head and I could only watch in silent horror as my face began turning a nasty shade of blue.
My Japanese ability was, at the time, limited to little more than numbers and days of the week, so when the barber muttered a few words in my direction, I took it to mean something along the lines of, “So, what would you like?” (some oxygen would have been nice).
In a bid to answer his question, I croaked, pointed in various directions, and made scissor actions with my fingers, foolishly believing that this would be enough for him to understand. I couldn't even understand what I'd just asked for, but worryingly, he seemed to.
Without warning, the back of the chair fell away and I collapsed into a horizontal position. The woman returned, holding a pair of steaming towels. Before I had a chance to hold up my hands in surrender, she smothered my face with one of them, and for the first time in my life I tried to find a way of breathing through my ears. What was this for? I'd come for a haircut, not a near-death experience.
To my great relief, the towel came off and I gasped for air like a drowning man resurfacing for a few seconds before going under again, arms gesticulating wildly. And under again I went, arms gesticulating wildly, for she placed another towel over my ever-reddening face.
I was on the verge of passing out when suddenly the towel was whipped off and there she stood, smiling, angel-like. I wondered for a moment if I might've died and gone to heaven.
The reason for the wet towels became apparent when I saw that she was holding a tub of fresh shaving foam, which she began to liberally apply.
“At last, it's beginning to feel normal,” I thought, until she started going overboard, smothering my face, my entire face – including my forehead.
She set to work with her Samurai-sword-sized razor, methodically shaving away. After a few minutes I felt a scraping sensation on, of all places, my left ear.
This I found highly amusing, but my stifled laughter quickly turned to rampant paranoia when I realized that she was spending an inordinate amount of time around my eyebrows.
I began to wonder if I had inadvertently communicated to the barber that I wanted my forehead and earlobes shaved, and my eyebrows removed. What about the haircut?
I resigned myself to a few weeks without eyebrows and wondered what she was going to do next. A leg-shave perhaps? Liposuction? Anything seemed possible, so when she appeared with a pair of ugly looking tweezers, I wasn't in the least bit surprised. It was all I could do to guess which orifice she was going to go for.
She looked at me thoughtfully, as if she hadn't yet decided, so I flared my nostrils invitingly, believing that these were the safest holes to take such an evil looking instrument. She dived in.
After a moment's plucking, she stopped with a facial expression which suggested she'd dropped the tweezers into my nose and couldn't see where they were. If I'd had any eyebrows, I would've arched them in confusion.
The back of the chair flipped up, which meant I had to flip up too or else suffer a broken back. I was about to vacate the chair, feeling dazed and a little weary, when the barber jumped me from behind.
A hair cut?
Throwing a wet towel onto my hair, he began to rub vigorously. At long last some attention was being given to the hair on my head. We were making significant progress.
I caught sight of a pair of scissors and began to get excited. To my total astonishment, he picked them up and actually started to cut my hair. The cut was occasionally interrupted by my speaking English and pointing at my hair and not being understood, and by the barber speaking Japanese and pointing at my hair and not being understood. I just nodded and braced myself.
It was good to see that he was highly competent and that our lack of mutual understanding had not been a problem. When he'd finished, he put the scissors down and I started to walk away from my chair.
However, before my feet touched the ground, I suddenly felt what can only be described as a block of wood with nails sticking out of it being dragged across my head. It can only be described as that, because I'm sure that's exactly what it was. The pain and shock prevented me from crying out.
Once again, believing that the ordeal was over, I made moves to leave, but the chair shot skywards and the back fell away again. The woman applied a cream to my face and began massaging my cheeks. This culminated in a severe nose tweak which was either a part of the massage, or an attempt to remove the lost tweezers.
The chair was returned to its normal position and I was about to get off when I heard a whirring noise behind me. Now I was being attacked by a giant vibrating contraption. I assumed it was one of those massage devices so I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but it felt more like a severe beating than a soothing massage.
Suddenly everything fell silent. I was offered a cigarette, but declined, wishing I knew the Japanese word for valium instead. I slowly slid to the edge of my seat but thought better of leaving. I waited a while during which time nothing happened so deemed it safe to finally climb out.
I paid my money and exited the shop, looking over my shoulder as I did so. Before returning to the establishment (yes, I did return), I learnt some useful Japanese phrases such as: “Please don't shave my eyebrows” and “Can I leave my chair now?”