I had my hair done for the first time in Osaka a couple of days ago (in K Studio New York). My roots and split ends were getting completely out of control and I really needed to do something about them, given that we have now lived in Osaka for 3 months and my hair has not seen a pair of scissors or hair dye since Brighton. The reason for my 3 months of hairdresser-free period was – as always – that I didn’t know where I could find a hairdresser in Osaka who spoke English. In addition, I was a little worried that my extremely fine hair would not tolerate the same treatment as the Japanese ladies’ hair. So, when I saw someone recommending on the internet a hair salon in Osaka whose owners had lived in New York for 20 years, I booked an appointment as quickly as my son finishes a plateful of octopus tentacles.
The phone call to the salon was promising. The receptionist spoke good English, and the salon was located just north of Umeda – the central train and subway station in Osaka. So all I had to do a couple of days later was to take the main subway line (Midosuji) from ours straight to the hairdressers. When I got to the hairdressers, the welcoming was the same as in many shops in Osaka. The receptionist and an army of staff greeted me by the door as soon as I stepped in. In fact, several of them ran to the foyer to welcome me. The sight of people running who work in the customer service and hospitality industry is not unusual in Japan. In all customer service or hospitality contexts the person ‘serving’ a customer is beyond helpful. So, if you are a customer at the till in a supermarket and the cashier notices that there is a miniscule blemish on one of the apples that you are about to purchase, they will point the blemish out to you, and run with their Japanese tiptoeing style to the fruit aisle to replace the ‘faulty’ apple. In England and Finland, the cashier would not point out any blemishes on apples and if there was something obviously very wrong with your purchase, such as an overflowing conveyor belt of milk from the milk carton that you are about to buy, you would be lucky if the cashier pointed you in the direction of the milk aisle where you can go and get your replacement carton.
Anyway, in the foyer of the hairdressers, the staff offered to take my handbag for me. Having lived in England for 14 years means that I will not willingly hand over my handbag to anyone I don’t know, or at least first have a quick inventory as to how much money and other valuables I have in the bag. I trust no one even though I very well knew that my bag and everything in it would have been safe with the staff in that salon. Because I decided to hang on to my bag I got some suspicious looks from the salon staff. I was asked to sit down and have a consultation with the stylist and the colour technician. The stylist, Hiroshi and colour technician, Keiko, were the owners of the salon, a couple, I’d say in their late 50s, who had lived in New York for 20 years. They were very friendly, but the consultation turned into a description as to what they needed to do to my hair so that it looks fuller rather than asking what I wanted to have done to my hair. The euphemism they used was: ‘you hair is like feather’. Thanks. By the way, I think you meant: light as a feather. I’m pretty sure they were thinking that me back combing my hair in my desperate attempt to make it appear slightly ‘fuller’ just sends a clear signal to other people, hairdressers in particular, that I have thin hair. Instead of back combing it, I could have just worn a sign around my neck saying ‘I am practically bald’. In any case, the consultation turned into the New York team telling me what their line of action would be. And since my hair looked like a scarecrow’s hair do on his bad hair day, I went along with their plan.
I was then escorted to a changing room and given a gown. So there I was in the changing room confused and panicking, because I wasn’t sure what to do. You see, I didn’t know whether to take my clothes off and wear the gown over my bra and knickers or to put the gown over my own clothes. I think it was the fact that I was asked to go into the changing rooms to put the gown on that confused me. I mean, if I was to wear the gown on top of my clothes why was I standing in a changing room cubicle? You see, nothing is obvious in Japan. Because people and the conventional way to behave differs between Japan and many European countries the hairdresser’s cubicle was not the first occasion when I was wondering how I should behave. For instance, during the first couple of weeks in Japan I was confused as to what one is supposed to do with their chopsticks (a) when you want to put them down mid meal and (b) when you have finished eating? Were there any rules as to where you should put them? Similarly, I am sure some Japanese people are confused as to what to do with cutlery in those contexts, which of course are so obvious to us that we can’t understand that someone might not know the 25-past-5 rule (stating the obvious, this is the position that your cutlery should be put when you have finished). In fact, I have seen Japanese people do something weird with their cutlery, and not only in relation to not following the 25-past-5-rule. For instance, in at least two posh restaurants they have served coffee in a cup and saucer so that the spoon is in front of the cup, not behind. A schoolboy error in cups and saucers, in my opinion. Also, walking while eating/drinking! No one over here eats or drinks while walking. You must stop to eat or drink. It is considered bad manners if you stuff your face in the middle of your journey to work. And when you buy frozen stuff in the supermarket, you get a token from the cashier. It took us a while to figure out that you need to take the token to the ice dispenser which gives shoppers ice for the token, so that you can take your frozen products home without them melting in the heat. How the hell is one supposed to know these things? Well, it’s often trial and error. So when I was standing there in the hairdresser’s cubicle wondering whether to strip or not, wearing my clothes underneath the gown did not seem obvious. In the end, I decided to play it safe and wear the gown on top of my own clothes.
Unlike in the UK where my hairdresser first colours my hair, Hiroshi cut it first. While he was cutting my hair, he told me about him moving to London for 2 years in the 1980s, and then to Paris, and then ending up in New York, and opening a salon with his wife there. And this salon was not as little as the salon in which I was sitting north of Umeda station. Their New York salon apparently had over 25 members of staff and him and his wife had done many celebrities’ hairs while in New York. Famous names like Naomi Campbell, Kate Winslet, Sarah Jessica Parker and Keira Knightley were mentioned. And Madonna.
Having your hair cut in that salon was not quite like it is in the salon I go to in the UK. In hairdressing, like in everything, Japanese people like to work in teams, and there are often many workers participating in a job that in Europe would be done by one person. For example, I noticed a team of gardeners (8 to be precise) preening a small patch of greenery in the centre of Osaka yesterday (see photo). I’ve never seen more than one gardener at any given time even in big parks in Finland or England. But, when Hiroshi was cutting my hair an assistant stood about 1 metre from us in case Hiroshi needed assistance. And every so often the assistant would come, take the blow dryer of the wall and blow the cut hair off my shoulders. Or he would come and brush the cut pieces of my fringe on my face with a big blusher brush. And every 2 minutes he brushed away any hairs of the floor around my chair. I felt a bit like my hairdresser was a surgeon or a dentist, whose nurse was there to assist him with the ever so delicate operation. It was great!
After the haircut, the wife, Keiko, started working on the colour of my hair. Or actually it was the wife and another member of staff. Whilst the wife was colouring my hair, the assistant handed her the pieces of foil that she was using to separate the highlights from the rest of my hair. Also, every time she had brushed the colouring on the strip of hair she handed over the brush to the assistant who then scooped a new blob of colouring on it, and handed it back to her. The tray of foil and hair colour was right next to her. So, she probably could have as easily lifted the pieces of foil herself and scooped the hair colour from the bowl about 30 cm from her hand, but like I said, Japanese people like their team-work.
After the hair colour has done its job it is washed away. This washing operation is usually quite uncomfortable. I mean, anyone who has had their hair washed at a hairdressers so that you sit in a chair that slightly tilts back and the nape of your neck rests in a cold and hard sink with a gap resembling an up-side-down U does not exactly fall into the definition of relaxing and/or enjoyable experiences. In the Osaka salon this was different. You see, the chair tilted back so much that I ended up lying on my back and my head was resting on a heated piece of furniture (head rests are not the only heated items in Japanese bathrooms – I’ve talked about their space-age toilets before). Importantly, my head was not resting on the uncomfortable sink with an upside-down U-shape. Having my hair washed in that salon in that horizontal manner was lovely. So, Marc and Helen’s Helen, if you are reading this, and if your salon doesn’t already have these types of mega-relaxing sink-chair combos, you should mention them to the owner – and don’t forget the heated headrests.
When they had finished with my hair, I didn’t look like Naomi Campbell, Kate Winslet, Sarah Jessica Parker, Keira Knightley or Madonna – I still looked like Vanessa Feltz, but at least I looked like Vanessa Feltz with a world class hair do, albeit perhaps with an 80s twist. I am not sure whether that was the stylist’s take on the current trends or whether he’s never moved on from his time at London’s Vidal Sassoon salon in the 1980s. In any case, my hair does look a tad thicker than it did. So a job well done I suppose. (See photo below, taken in an electrical store this evening).
Lastly, when I was leaving the salon, the hairdressers and their assistants came to see me off at the tills, and one of the assistants even followed me out of the salon, offering me an umbrella (because it was raining), and bowing and thanking in English and in Japanese. The same happens in pretty much all shops. If you buy something, a member of staff follows you outside the shop and hands over your goods there. If you are in a department store they follow you to the edge of their concession and hand over your purchases. So, when I went to the Body Shop straight after I had been to the hair salon, the Body Shop shop assistant followed me to the front door and handed me my carrier bag of shopping when I was leaving, thanking me several times (doumo arigato gozaimashita). I suppose thanking is considered a must also in England – probably to even more ridiculous proportions than in Japan. When I first moved to the UK, 14 years ago, I used to work as a shop assistant in a (Elizabeth David) cook shop. I knew that English people loved their pleases and thank yous but a typical interaction between a shop assistant and a customer at the tills was not what I was prepared for. Most of my friends have heard me rave about this over the years when I have wanted to illustrate that perhaps the Brits could tone it down a little. But here it goes again.
Customer walks to the till and hands over a rolling pin.
Customer says: Thank you
I take the rolling pin and say: Thank you.
I put it in a carrier bag and place it on the counter and say: Thank you.
Customer says: Thank you.
I say: £9.50, thank you.
Customer says: Thank you.
Customer hands over £10 and says: Thank you.
I take the £10 note and say: Thank you.
I hand out the change and say: 50p change. Thank you.
Customer says: Thank you.
Customer takes the carrier bag and says: Thank you.
I say: Thank you.
While walking towards the exit the customer says: Thank you.
I say: Thank you.
I used to know what people in Finland do and say in these contexts but I don’t any more. However, I think I can safely say that neither a Finnish shop assistant nor a customer would say thank you as many times as their English counterpart would. What I do know is that I never used to think that Finnish shop assistants or customers are rude. 14 years in England has changed my perception. I’ve come to expect to hear at least 10 thank yous when buying a rolling pin, Le Creuset saucepan or even a Mars bar.
I will end this blog post by mentioning that not only do Finnish people (when speaking in Finnish) sparsely use the phrase thank you they also never use the word please; the reason being that there is not a word for please in Finnish. I am sure, most of you British readers will find this snippet of information nearly as shocking as if your Finnish acquaintance asked you to join them in the sauna, naked.
Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post.