My First Haircut at a Japanese Barber Shop

Sato Barber Shop in Nagoya Japan
Sato Barber Shop in Nagoya Japan

The first barber I ever went to was around the corner from my old apartment near Nagoya Station.  It is a tightly packed neighborhood behind the Toyota Museum. There is a constant clickety-clack sound of trains running in the distance. I had not been in Japan that long as I walked down the small alley-like street toward the barber shop. I thought about my Uncle Tony, I really missed him. It was one of those what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moments that I got a lot when I first moved to Japan. Those feelings slowly get replaced by the how-am-I-going-to-expalin-this-back-home thoughts.As I approached the shop, I saw an old man outside the shop door. He was standing in the small street with a 7 iron carefully gripped between his hands.  You could see the concentration on his face as he slowly pulled back the golf club in a big circle.  He was thinking,

“I’m in the rough, but if I could put this drive on the green, I’ll birdie the hole and win the tour.”

I practically step on his feet before he notices me, and then startled, he almost hits me with the 7 iron! He apologized, and caught his breath. I nodded politely as I pointed at the barber poll and then to him. His face totally changed as it slowly dawned on him that this gaijin with the messy hair, had arrived to get his hair cut. With his face still in astonishment he began bowing to me as he rattled off a stream of words in Japanese. He led the way toward his shop door with the 7 iron.

The barber shop itself was a small cluttered room with two large barber chairs toward the walls. As we entered, the old man began yelling,

“Takash Takash.” He rested his 7 iron on one of the many dresser-like cabinets in the shop.

“Dozo dozo dozo!” (please follow me)  he kept politely saying as he cleared a path through the shop. Again he began yelling, Takash Takash. I did not know what “takash” means in Japanese. Maybe it is some kind of barber battle cry. A “Let’s-Do-This” kind of thing. Very interesting I thought, I have obviously come to the right guy. He ran through the shop in a flurry as he flipped switches, turned knobs, and pressed buttons. Again he yelled Takash Takash. This time I thought about joining in with him, maybe with an arm-raised fist pump. Lets Do this!

Just then a head popped out from behind the dirty Mt. Fuji printed curtain in the back of the shop. It was a young man. He had chopsticks in one hand, and a bowl of instant noodles in the other. A long piece of ramen was hanging from his mouth.

“Takash” was not a Japanese battle cry, it was the old man’s son; Takashi. He was as shocked as the old man was to see me standing in the middle of the barber shop. He wiped the noodles from his face and rushed into the shop to flip switches, turn knobs, and press buttons. The old man bowed to me and left the room. Takashi introduced himself as he showed me to one of the barber chairs.

TM Revolution showing off his cool hair.
T.M. Revolution showing off his cool hair.

Takashi looked a lot like T.M. Revolution, or at least his hair did. T.M. Revolution is a Japanese pop music singer that started getting popular in the late 90’s. His name means “Takanori Makes Revolution”, which is comical on several levels. But his hair is what I noticed the most. Like T.M., his hair was long in the front and ended in lighter red-ish highlights. I told Takashi this and he was very thankful. As if finally somebody had noticed.

Takashi and I established very quickly that we did not know each others languages. Luckily, I had memorized some Japanese barber vocabulary in the event that this situation should arise. Some common terms like; short (mijikai), long (nagai), and hair (kami). I also learned the word nai (not), in case I needed to explain them in negative. But my crowning achievement was to memorize the word for sideburns; “momiage”. I had asked several Japanese co-workers to help me pronounce it correctly, and felt confident enough to use it.

Everything was fine until I began to speak. When Takashi asked me how I would like my hair cut, (Or I assumed that’s what he was asking me.) I went right to my vast hair vocabulary, and my sideburn-removal request.

“Omiyage nai” I said with confidence. Takashi stared at me. “Omiyage nai” I said again with a slightly higher tone.

Takashi paused for a moment, and said “daijoubu… daijoubu…” (Its ok) and shook his hands in a “no” fashion. Which I took as him saying that I should leave the sideburns, that they look fine. But the side burns were the main thing I wanted to get rid of.

“omiyage nai” I said again with more conviction. This time I pointed to them on the side of my face and made a cutting motion. Takashi stared at me again.

“Ah… MO…  MO-miage”, he said. “Momiage deshou… side-o-burno desu.”

“Yes sideburns.”

In my nervous state of mind I had forgotten the all important “m”, and had blurted out the very common Japanese word “omiyage”. I had in fact been telling Takashi that “I had no gift for him.” He had been responding by saying that a gift was not necessary. I had then proceeded to “insist” that I did not have a gift for him. The strange thing being that it would not be that unusual to bring an omiyagi (small gift) to somebody you are just meeting. Or to someone that is helping you with something as a thanks ahead of time. But in this case it was another one of my classic Nihongo (Japanese Language) screw ups.

With that information established, he scrabbled around the room collecting everything he needed to get started. Most interesting is when he went to his CD player. He looked at me and then froze, a smile came across his face. He then started flipping through all his music. A stack of cd’s here, a row of cd’s there. He obviously had a certain album in mind for this occasion. Born in the USA perhaps… or the Barber of Seville? After he found it, he gave out a big, “Yataaaa!” (the “I found it” expression.)

I had a brief chance to see the cover as it flashed by. It seemed strangely familiar. But it was not until he popped the cd into the player, and set the case down that I recognized the unmistakable primary colors of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual.

Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. An 80’s classic. But why the hell am I listening to it now?

Cyndi Lauper… That’s what he was looking so diligently for? This was the music that puts English speakers at ease during a hair cut? I had another what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moment.

Takashi showed me some Japanese hair magazines. He would pick one up that had a bunch of Japanese guys and with different haircuts. He would look at one and then look at me. His face would have no expression. Then there was a pause and he would repeat the process with a different magazine. It did not take him long to realize we were going to have to work outside the book.

He meticulously dressed me in all the barber “stuff”. Towels, paper strips. smocks. None of them too tight, none of them to loose. Then started in with the cutting and combing. This soon led to trimming everything from nose and ears, to a tight trimming of the eyebrows.

I had another how-am-I-going-to-expalin-this-back-home thought, as he ran his fingers through my hair while listening to “Girls just want to have fun”.

After what seemed like hours, he took a steaming towel out of a small refrigerator-looking thing in the corner. I assumed it was steaming hot, and not steaming cold. He walk toward me and lifted it to my face. I’ve only seen this in the movies… when they are trying kill somebody. I also recall, in my short time here, that the Japanese have a tolerance for hot water that is markably higher than the rest of humanity. Whether its making tea or bathing, it was always just below the boiling point. The effect that this could have on my cold Irish/Chicago blood may leave permanent scars. I tried to act as though I knew what was going on, and did my best tough-guy imitation. But when the towel touched me it took only seconds before I squirmed and practically jumped out of the chair. He was surprised by the reaction and apologized profusely.

When he came back with a slightly “cooler” hot towel. I began to wonder why I needed a hot towel wrapped around my face for a haircut. The answer was revealed after the towel was unraveled from my face. He was sitting in front of me with a straight edge razor and a coffee cup. He stuck a brush in the coffee cup and started mixing up the contents. He pulled out the soapy brush and smacked it all over my face. With an old-school razor in his hand, he began shaving my face. It was another thing I had only seen in the movies. I remembered the shaving scene with Clint Eastwood, In High Plains DrifterI did not know this kind of shaving was still done outside of cowboy movies. I might remind you, that was also a scene in which they were trying to kill him.


During the shave, It had dawned on me that I am not sure what I am paying for. I am not sure what services I am getting because I did not ask for any services. At the rate I was mispronouncing Japanese words, who knew what Takashi had in store for me.

I could say, “You look like T.M Revolution.”

and he hears, “I am getting married tomorrow morning,  please make me beautiful!”

Even if he asks me about “barber things”, I would not know any better because this is the first time I have been to the barber. Everything I know is based on what I have seen in the movies. I cursed myself for not talking it over with Uncle Tony. I decided to just go with it and let Takashi do his thing. My only fear was that it would cost me my whole paycheck. The shave was followed by a long shampoo and conditioning session. Of which my head was placed face down into the sink. A difference I had not noticed until I went to other hair salons.

We were now into the deep cuts of Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 classic. It seemed like I knew every song on that damn album. Had it been that long since I spoke English to anyone? Do the smallest bits of my cultural upbringing surface in full detail when they are threatened with extinction? Does the face of massive cultural diversity put more value on the information you’re familiar with? I even started to wonder how “sideburns” got their name. I’m sure there must be a movie about that I thought.

Then the blow drying began. This is where Takashi works his magic and does all the subtle twist and turns until I magically begin to look like Martin Sheen. After what seemed like another 2 hours, he picked up a mirror and held it behind my head. I looked into the mirror… that looked into the other mirror… that looked back at the mirror. Somehow through this maze of reflections I was looking at the back of my head. Everything looked good to me. Takashi asked me something in Japanese that I did not understand. He gave me a look that said, “If you don’t look exactly like Martin Sheen… I swear to that barber pole, that I will have my father come out and hit me with the 7 iron until I have done it correctly.”

I assured him that Martin Sheen was more than I had hoped for, and thanked him. I was assuming we were done and was wondering why I was still wrapped up in towels and things. Just like when I thought things were done in my gas station story, we must remember we are in Japan.

Takashi then loosens the towel around my neck, and begins giving me a shoulder massage. This honestly startled me like a hot towel to my face. It took a few minutes for me to adjust and “relax”. It was not just a shoulder rub, he spent about 20 minutes on my shoulders and arms as if I had just finished a triathlon. I began to wonder if this is what happens at all the barber shops in America. Perhaps the world. It was just another thing from Japan that has helped me shed light on my own experiences. Or, I should say, the lack of experiences.

After the massage, I was dusted-off with baby powder, and helped up. I was like a new person. I felt like taking the old man out golfing and asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The whole thing cost me about 60 U.S. dollars. Which was very high for me at the time, but not as crazy as I thought it was going to be.

Takashi bowed to me and gave me a small box. An “omiyage.”  Inside the box was a high quality nail clipper with the name of the shop on it. I was not sure if he gave it to me because he felt bad for my gift-giving language screw-up, or if every customer gets one. I bowed and thanked him.

Nail clipper from the Sato Barber Shop in Nagoya Japan.
Nail clipper from the Sato Barber Shop in Nagoya Japan.

As I was walking back home I took the clipper out and examined it more closely. It was heavy and looked very expensive. It says, “理容サトウ.”

理容 (riyou) – Barber

サトウ (Satou) – Family Name (written in Katakana)

On the box it said, “Made in Japan.” I still use today.

I survived my first trip to the Japanese barber shop. Unfortunately I moved before I was able to go back to Takashi. In fact, I never went to the same barber twice in all my time in Japan. Those stories are compiled in a collective story called – The Japanese Barber Shop.


This story is part of my True Stories series.

You can reach the main True Stories menu by clicking this link.




Copyright info: She’s So Unusual. Album art Copyright Portrait Records. TM Revolution photo. The images are is used as the primary means of visual identification of a topic in article.