Wump, Wump, Swish, Swish: The Poetry of a Japanese Haircut

WILD haircuts are not unknown to Tokyo, where some young men shave their heads on one side and let their hair grow long on the other. Mohawks are an oddity but can sometimes be seen on the back streets of Shinjuku, where all the counterculture types congregate. Elvis haircuts can be seen on the streets of Harajuku on Sundays.

For the most part, though, the conservative hairstyles of people in the business world predominate: that is, short, simple cuts - a barber's dream. But expecting the process of getting a simple haircut to be a simple matter can lead to a few surprises.

Living in Tokyo for a year, there eventually came a point when I had to put my fears of foreign barbers aside and get a haircut. Thinking of how I would instruct the barber in my faltering Japanese was a bit unnerving.

I memorized some key phrases: "I want a haircut. Cut it short. Cut more off. I part it on this side." I was taking no chances. I imagined going into the barber's, saying a quick line in Japanese, having it misinterpreted, and coming out with a Mohawk.

The barber nearest my work was around the corner on a side street. The shop was old and the window dark with dirt, but inside, the parquet floor was clean and it looked much like any barber's shop in the United States. There weren't any customers in the shop - not a reassuring sign.

"Irashaimase (welcome)," a middle-aged woman said affably, getting up from a chair where she had been reading. Sweeping the other corner of the room was a young man I took to be the woman's son.

The woman approached me with a warm, welcoming smile. I backed away instinctively, the way a pig might shy away from a smiling butcher. In rapid Japanese she asked me a question. I didn't understand a word, so I fell back on one of my memorized phrases. "I want a haircut," I said in slow and careful Japanese.

The woman led me to a chair with maternal care and motioned for me to sit down. She wrapped the ubiquitous barber's sheet around me, and tucked it into my collar. She was ready to begin.

"Wump wump wump," went the sound of her hands slapping the top of my head. My eyes opened wide, and I stared at the woman in the mirror. She was calmly slapping down my hair like a baker with a stubborn lump of dough. She circled the chair, continuing to whack the top and sides of my head for a few minutes until I thought all sensation had been driven from my scalp, and everything appeared a bit fuzzy.

This was a clever plot, I thought. She really doesn't know how to cut hair. She is trying to deaden my senses so I won't feel it when her scissors miss their mark. Then an even more horrible thought came to me. What if this really wasn't a barber shop at all. It had looked like one from the street, but then all the signs were in Kanji (Chinese characters), which I didn't understand. Had I mispronounced the phrase I'd used? Sometimes the incorrect inflection of a single syllable can change the entire mean ing of a word or phrase. It was possible that I had stepped into some kind of a holistic massage parlor, specializing in scalps. "Oh no," I thought. "How much am I going to have to pay this time?"

I looked furtively at the counter in front of the mirror for the telltale scissors, but saw only tall jars of red, green, and orange ointment, which I had taken to be hair tonic, but now looked strangely like a magician's elixirs. Were they some kind of massaging oil? There were hair dryers and combs, and these, although I could imagine all sorts of odd uses for them, reassured me that this must indeed be a barber's shop, however unorthodox.

After slapping me around she began a deep, thorough massage of my scalp. I thought this was unusual, but I was no longer complaining. Then, instead of putting an ordinary towel around my neck the woman draped me with a steamimg hot one. I squelched a howl. My scalp had experienced more sensations in 10 minutes than it usually does in an entire year, and she hadn't even taken out the scissors.

I typically rank barbers right after dentists in my list of least favorite people to visit. If they're not wrenching out your hair by its roots with too quick strokes of the comb, then they're snipping off the tops of your ears with their scissors. Combine these normal techniques of torture with a host of new ones, and you have an original experience that I was quickly deciding to forego. After all, I reasoned, my hair wouldn't get that long before I returned to America.

While I was contemplating running from the shop, the barber made her move. From a thin drawer hidden beneath the counter she pulled a pair of gleaming stainless steel scissors. Their edges looked razor sharp. The rapid "swish swish" sound they made as she nimbly played with them in her fingers attested to their well-tuned and oiled mechanisms. A shudder shot through me as I eyed them closely.

From a large jar of dark green liquid she pulled a long black comb with about a hundred prickly bristles, which I imagined were needle sharp. She shook the comb. The acidic-looking green stuff sprayed across the floor. I wondered at the slipperiness of the liquid. I envisioned her slipping on it, losing her balance, careening toward me across the floor, arms flaying wildly, a torturous comb in one hand, stiletto-like scissors in the other. But before the muck could cause such a catastrophe, the young man

mopped it up.

The woman approached the cutting stage with great calmness and assurance. She must have nerves of steel, I thought. She leaned down to face level, peered in my eyes, and asked a question quickly.

"Cut it very short," I stammered in Japanese.

To my amazement she began cutting and snipping with such gentleness and dexterity that I actually began to relax. The comb pulled smoothly through my long, knotted hair; the scissors cut it quickly and cleanly. She held the locks of hair as tenderly as an injured bird. I never thought a haircut could be executed so poetically.

In 15 minutes, my hair was cut to a crisp, snappy shortness. It was conservative, yet becoming. After she had cut every hair to its correct length and put each one in its proper place, she mussed it all up again with a final massage. After this quick rub down she placed a set of fingers on my head and proceeded to slap them sharply with her other hand. Realizing this was all part of the experience, I was able to sit back and enjoy.

To finish, she wiped down my hair with another hot towel (thereby removing all those itchy hairs that manage to find their way down your shirt) and combed it to glistening perfection.

All this for a measly 1,200 yen ($5). I would be keeping my hair very short in Japan, that was certain.

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