One of the challenges I didn’t foresee upon moving to Japan was getting my haircut. For some reason, the idea that this seemingly mundane task back home would become an almost overwhelming obstacle had never crossed my mind. Setting aside the language barrier, which is already a huge challenge, there are also a few Japan-specific elements I had never considered. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) my hair has continued to grow at a steady rate, forcing me to make my bi-weekly trips to the barber. It’s been about three and half years since I first stepped into a Japanese salon, at the time full of doubt and uncertainty. Since then, I’ve compiled a list of recommendations to make your trips to the salon all the smoother. I should note, some of these recommendations are geared more for those with limited Japanese. In any case, below are some of the most important, in my opinion, and in no particular order:
Bring a Photo
There are tons of Japanse language resources out there, and lots of people will tell you getting your haircut is an excellent language learning opportunity. This may be true, but if you’re anything like me, you prefer not to deal with a bad haircut in order to get said practice. This is why you should definitely bring a photo of what you want your hair to look like. A photo of yourself from before, of a celebrity with a similar hairstyle, or even just a google photo of a random person online. In general, this is good advice even when there are no language barriers. Bringing a picture helps your barber or stylist to understand exactly what you have in mind.
In my experience, Japan is no exception. In fact, I find my barber prefers working from a photo, jumping right into work with only a few questions. As a result, I am almost always more satisfied with the result. So if you’re worried you will look silly or might offend someone by bringing a photo, don’t. Just bring the picture and make life easier for everyone.
Study Some Conversation Topics
For those of us who are still in need of real-world Japanese practice, I’ve found that salons/barbers tend to be great places for just that. For me, however, the practice doesn’t come in the form of describing my ideal haircut. Instead, I’ve found that nearly every barber I’ve ever been to is a great conversationalist. Regardless of what my Japanese level has been over the years, all of the stylists I’ve ever been to were great at compensating for my lack of Japanese vocabulary. What’s even better is I’ve rarely gotten the feeling that this conversation was out of obligation. Whether this is some kind of universal trait all barbers here share, or they are simply all curious,
I find talking to my barbers to be a super pleasant experience.
That being said, it’s on you to have a list of questions and topics at the ready to make this happen. Usually, it’s as simple as asking how their day is going, or what they do for fun. In any case, just come with some ideas at the ready and be sure to study up beforehand to make the most of the interaction. Also, be ready to push yourself and stray from this list.
One final point on practising Japanese with your barber/stylist. I tend not to have the same barber every time I go, thus many times I end up having repeat conversations. This has been amazing as it has given me a chance to gauge my progress and to try words or sentences I had previously been uncomfortable using.
Research Pricing and Know What You Want Beforehand
This seems fairly obvious, however, it’s worth going into some detail here. There are tons and tons of hair salons in Tokyo (sometimes I feel there are more salons than restaurants) and consequently, there is also a wide range of prices. This does not mean that the more you pay the better your haircut will be. By far my worse haircut here cost me just under 4000 Yen, which was way more than I had wanted to spend. But because I didn’t do my research and just walked in assuming a men’s haircut wouldn’t be too bad, I ended up getting roped into it and was very disappointed with the end result.
If you have short hair and aren’t very picky, like me, there is no reason you should be paying some of the prices listed at many of the salons around Tokyo. Instead, you may want to check out one of several budget salon chains. Here are a few of the more popular ones:
The one I’ve been going to for the past year is 11cut. The full price of a cut there is around 1700 Yen, but they have a sort of monthly coupon cutting that price to 1000 Yen. For as long as I’ve been going, I have not had a visit without the coupon.
In terms of quality, 11cut is not too bad. I find it really depends on who I get. Of course, you can make a reservation with specific stylists, but I am pretty horrible at planning. In any case, the staff there aims to finish cutting your hair within 10 minutes but will take the extra time if you have a very specific request. One final note on 11cut and other budget chains: make sure you plan for a short wait if you walk in. Because of the price, these places tend to be busier.
Regardless of where you choose to go, it’s important to know exactly what you want beforehand. This ties into my earlier point of bringing a photo. If you are unclear about what you want, your stylist/barber will likely not put their own twist on things to save the day. Coming from a barber back home that would advise me when I am making a bad call, or recommend I go with a certain style when he noticed I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted, this was actually very annoying for me. While it’s true I am responsible for know exactly what I want, it’s always nice to have a stylist that has some say in all of this. Well, don’t expect too much of that here if your language ability is limited. If you do plan on describing your perfect haircut, be sure you are able to describe it perfectly, or you will likely not get what you expect.
My only other advice on the subject is to try walking into a place when they are busy and seeing the kinds of hairstyles they are cutting at the moment. See if anyone has similar hair to yours and if anyone is getting a haircut that is like something you want.
I repeat, don’t tip. In general, Japanese society frowns upon tipping. This is true for barbers, taxis and restaurants alike. There are a few places which have adopted more of a western culture which do accept tips, however, these are few and far between. So after you get your haircut, no matter how satisfied you are and no matter how friendly your barber was, just don’t do it. I’ve actually offended a previous stylist by trying to tip. They were all smiles until I dropped the T-word, at which point they quickly changed attitude, turned it down, and rushed me out of their salon.
Find an English Speaking Salon
If all of this is simply too overwhelming, and you’d rather not risk a bad haircut, your safest bet is to find an English speaking salon/barber. There are actually plenty scattered around Tokyo if you look for them. Many of these locations have stylists who have been trained in overseas, or who have worked abroad for several years. The one caveat is, these places tend to be a bit pricier (at least for my tastes).
If dealing with a higher price point just isn’t for you, English-speaking staff is still not out of the question. While they may not market themselves as such, some places actually do have staff with some English skills. Many times, staff will understand at a minimum “haircut” English, which is enough to get you by. Don’t expect this to be the norm though, so make sure to explore a few shops and ask around first.
Below are a few popular salons that market English-speaking staff around Tokyo: