January 28, 2011

Hairy Dilemma

I wanted to have a little chat about hair in Japan. Namely, finding a hair stylist that doesn't make you feel suicidal.

In my nearly 6 years in Japan I have been to countless salons. I tried going to salons that were really just for Japanese clients, "Foreigners accepted" but staff are only Japanese, English or Japanese service with multicultural staff, and finally a "by foreigners for mostly just other foreigners" salon.

Up until last year, every salon I went to in Japan was an utter disaster. My hair often looked like a freakshow and I spent a lot of time crying myself a river. I realize such things can happen even in your home country (good stylists seem to be a somewhat rare animal anywhere), but I find the ratio can be much lower here. Let us examine the things you need to think about before you venture off to hunt that elusive being; the fabulous stylist.

#1) Your hair type

If you are of asian extraction, or tend to have very thick, coarse hair, you are in luck. The stylists in Japan tend to use techniques and dyes that were meant for that hair type, NOT the more delicate caucasian hair. This doesn't seem like a big deal (I mean hair is hair, right?), but it can spell DISASTER depending on what's done to your head.

My hair disaster story その一:My first trip to a hair salon was about 3 months after I'd arrived in the country. I was studying at a small, but rather famous language school and decided to be adventurous by getting a haircut in a Japanese salon. Having only been in the country for 3 months and having little to no grasp of Japanese language, it probably wasn't the smartest idea to mess around with my hair. Hindsight...20/20, yadda yadda.
The stylist I was assigned to was a very hip looking young man in his early 20s who looked like he moonlighted as a host -- don't they all? He did his very best to speak slowly and use any random English words he knew (ex: "SUTAIRUお決まりですか?), but most of what he said was totally lost on me. Luckily -- or so I thought -- I had brought a few magazine photos with me to show what kind of cut I wanted. The young man scrutinized the pictures for all of five minutes (Ah! Berry, berry cool! Good sutairu!) and began to cut huge chunks of hair from my head with a scary looking razor. Given that I'd wanted a light trim with a little layering around the bottom, this wasn't good. I couldn't explain that he wasn't doing it the way I wanted, and had to sit there in miserable, English silence until he finished. And ladies and gentlemen, that haircut wasn't cheap.

I had no notion at the time that styles suited to asian hair wouldn't work with mine, so I had no way to know that the layered look I'd picked out of a Japanese magazine from the supermarket would make me look like Sideshow Bob. The stylist treated my hair like Japanese hair  -- sure, it's all he knew -- and feathered my hair with a razor. This caused my hair to frizz up like I'd been electrocuted, and damaged my hair to boot.

Advice? If you are a whitey like me with fine or curly hair, make sure you choose a salon that has staff experienced with cutting foreign hair before you commit yourself to the chair (just speaking piss-poor Eikaiwa English isn't enough). Also, don't assume that any styles you see in Japanese fashion or hair mags will work with your hair type. Japanese hair is very straight and usually coarse, so it tends to look good with lots of texture, layers, etc. These styles do not work on western hair (usually) unless tons of products like anti-frizz, straighteners, thickeners, texturizers, etc. are used in daily styling. Do you really want to go through all that prep each morining when just getting out of bed for work requires superhuman effort?

#2) Japanese hair dye

After a few bad salon experiences on the cutting side of things, I decided to try this salon I'd seen reviews for online. The salon, which to be kind I will not name here (ask me by email if you're interested!) has both Japanese and foreign stylists. It advertises as a great salon for expats, since non-Japanese speaking people can get their hair done with an English speaker. It also claims to be very reasonable price-wise and boasts a large selection of foreign brand hair dyes. Kay, this was true about 5 years ago, but the salon has since suffered several changes of staff (and if rumor is true, an owner change) along with a multitude of other problems. Right now, in my opinion, the only thing keeping that place afloat is their old reputation and loyal customers who just tough it out when they have a bad experience there.

My hair disaster story その二:I had been in Japan for about two years before I finally moved to Tokyo. Big city! Lots of foreigners! I was sure that in Tokyo, a place famous for cutting edge fashion, I would find a ton of salons to suit my needs and could pick and choose. The time had come not only to venture back to a hair salon for a cut, but to get a color as well!

I researched a few salons that had English speaking staff (was NOT going down the "berry berry cool" road again) and found a salon I shall refer to as "XXX". I was still a little worried about what kind of job XXX would do, but a foreign friend told me she'd been there a few years ago and had a really good experience. I made my reservation by phone (which despite their claims to bilingual service, I could only do in Japanese) and the next weekend, off I went!

The salon, which is tiny, is not too far from Harajuku and Omotesando. I walked there in the blaring heat on a muggy summer day and arrived sweating like a pig. My stylist, who was fresh off the plane from Australia (literally. She'd arrived maybe a day before and I was her first client), was unfriendly, and worst of all, overbooked. The entire time she was working on my hair, she'd leave me for 20 minutes at a time or more, to cut other people's hair, or do their colors, etc. The salon had decided to only have one stylist work on a Saturday and the poor girl was alone with a wall of back to back clients.

I told Aussie girl that I wanted to go back to the same shades of red I'd had in college. I'd brought a picture to show her. I was willing to spend the cash to have the same two shades of red in my hair and even the blonde highlights, if she had time. The girl rudely said it was impossible to do it all in one day (not true) and she was going to give me a red that would match the brighter shade in the photo. She then disappeared for over 30 minutes while looking for a suitable dye to match. Turns out they didn't have a red in the "foreign dyes" that came anywhere close and she was going to use a Japanese made dye instead. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have run screaming out of the salon right then.

She slathered my hair in the dye, but some plastic on it, and proceeded to leave me long past the setting time of the dye (the alarm on the timer she'd set went off a good 10 to 15 minutes before she came back to check on me after cutting other people's hair). The burning/itching sensation of my scalp was really bothering me before she finally came to check how the color was setting. With a slightly panicked expression, she sent me off to the hair washer guy and asked him to put a special conditioning mask in my hair after washing it. When I got back to the chair and she began to dry my hair, I saw to my horror that my brunette had turned to Ronald McDonald red. Literally, my hair was a primary color. It was all I could do not to cry.

The biggest slap to the face came when it was time to pay up and leave. The website of the salon clearly states the prices of every treatment they do and I was charged about 9,000 yen over anything quoted on the site. When I asked them about the extra money, they said they'd given me a conditioning treatment (which was NOT requested -- it was to counteract the damage done by the Japanese dye being left in too long, and that was the stylist's fault) and also because the Aussie girl styling me was their new "head stylist" -- as of 8 o'clock that morning -- and therefore cost more than a junior stylist. None of this was discussed beforehand.

Advice? There is a reason foreign salons advertise that they have foreign brand hair dyes. Japanese dyes were meant to be used on coarse hair that is naturally BLACK. It is the strongest stuff you can imagine and very damaging to fine hair. It also will not come out or fade unless you go to a salon and have them actually strip all the color off with a chemical process. Since I have very fine hair, that was not an option for me. Do your homework. If the salon doesn't mention foreign dyes on their site, call and ask. And if the stylist says they don't have the shade you want, don't settle for the Japanese substitute. You will regret it. You should also discuss prices for anything you want done beforehand so you don't get a nasty shock at the end.

#3) Don't believe that "cut hair in the states" = a good stylist for foreign hair

After the Japanese hair dye disaster, I tried everything to get that red dye out of my hair. I was afraid to go back to a salon, so I tried lots of home remedies to lighten my hair. When none of those had much effect, I said, "Screw this bullsh*t!" and went out to buy some foreign hair dyes at the pharmacy. Japan now carries a selection of box hair dye from home like Feria, L'Oreal, etc. I figured those were tried, tested and true (my high school pictures are a series of mutating colors) and that I would just cover up the damn red by going back to dark brown. I must have used five boxes in a row in gradually darkening shades of brown, and the red showed up like clockwork after about the third time I washed my hair.

I decided I needed a master colorist, someone who knew foreign hair and how it reacted to dyes. For about four months, the search seemed hopeless. Then, one day I read a review on someone's blog saying this stylist in Tokyo had lived overseas and cut hair in the states. He spoke English and apparently did a really good job on things like haircuts. I was sure he was my man, so after a quick English reservation process, I was off to ****.

My hair disaster その三:I met with the English speaking stylist, Mr. K, and consulted him about my hair situation. He agreed that the razors, Japanese dyes, etc. were all totally wrong for my hair, and he understood why I was having a hard time finding a good stylist. "Japanese stylists just aren't used to foreign hair and don't know how to treat it," he said.

I told him I wanted to get rid of the red and go lighter...maybe strawberry blonde? Impossible, I was told. My hair was too fine to strip. It would all break off. Bleaching my hair all at once would also have terrible results. "What I can do," he suggested, "is put in tons of blonde highlights and just keep increasing them over time until your whole head is lightened." It sounded like a plan, so I agreed. And then Mr. K pulled out an antique monstrosity known as the highlighting cap. For those who were born after the 1950s and have no idea what I'm talking about, Imagine a rubber swimming cap (or tight shower cap) covered in little holes. The stylist puts that on your head and then proceeds to use the equivalent of a crochet hook to pull strands of your hair through those holes. I don't think I need to tell you how painful it is. Or that you shouldn't use it on people with longer hair (which I had at the time). It was like someone was tearing all my hair out by the roots, but only one or two strands at a time. I think it took the man about an hour and a half to get all my hair through, by which time my nose and eyes were miniature Niagara Falls.

He applied the highlighting dye and left me to my own devices. The smell was incredible. It was like huffing bleach right out of the container. I was certain the walls of my lungs were going to melt from the fumes.

The next best part after getting my hair through the holes in that cap? Pulling it off. It was like someone was tearing all my hair out by the roots, but this time all at once.

After the wash and conditioning, he began to cut and style my hair. I will be fair and say Mr. K isn't that bad at haircuts, so if all you want is a trim, he's a safe bet. Just don't let him come near you with his rubber cap that belongs in a beauty antiquities museum.

My hair after he was finished still looked patchy and red, but now with lots of blonde highlights to almost make it look orange. My hairstyle and opinion of stylists in Japan were taking heavy blows.

Advice? Again, just because a stylist speaks some English, it doesn't automatically make them a good stylist for your hair. Also, when getting reviews from people, make sure that they got the same treatment you want. I mistakenly thought an excellent experience with a haircut meant he was a good all-rounder stylist and that my dye job would go off without a hitch. Even if they do get the same treatment, take it with a grain of salt. Maybe what works for them won't work for you. Also, don't trust old Japanese stylists who basically have the life philosophy and vocabulary of a Santa Monica surfer circa 1994.

#4) If you want it done like they did at home, get someone from home!

I basically gave up on stylists and getting my hair done for a year or so after Mr. K and his rubber cap of pain. I think I only got a cut once because I was doing a shamisen concert and wanted to look good for my photos. I ended up with bangs so short I looked permanently stunned.

It wasn't until last year that I asked my friend where she gets her hair done. I noticed her color and cut always seemed to be quite good. She's blonde, and a very natural, lovely blonde, so I had physical proof already that her stylist does good work. She was a bit reluctant to tell me at first, I think because she was afraid of what would happen if I hated the work of her stylist and rained sh*t down all over the salon, but in the end she made good with the name and address. After speaking to a fab sounding Aussie on the phone (Tokyo is crawling with Aussies, isn't it? So fun!), I was in.

The salon is near Azabu, and while small, is an excellent place. The two main stylists are both foreign, so you don't have to worry about language barriers when trying to explain what you want. They also do a great job with dye. I'm pleased to say my hair is now a lovely, rich brown and that horrible red is just a distant memory (and a few photos). My stylist is funny, shares a lot of the same interests as I do, and is someone I enjoy talking to. He also cuts a mean bang and I never stop getting compliments on my "Devil wears Prada" hair.

Final words: Use the gaijin network (didn't I tell you we're all connected by 7 people or less?) and find someone who's had a recent good experience at a salon getting the same treatment (cut, perm, dye job, etc.) that you want. Ask detailed questions about their experience. Don't just settle for, "the stylist did a good job."

Also, if you have damaged or delicate hair, it makes sense to find a foreign stylist, even if English speaking Japanese ones are available. They know hair like yours and are used to dealing with it. Going to an inexperienced Japanese stylist can lead to disastrous results. Another word of warning is be prepared to pony up the cash. Most salons in Japan will set you back between 4000 to 10,000 yen for a haircut. Dye jobs will set you well over the 10,000 yen mark. This runs true for both Japanese and foreign owned salons. I suggest shopping around online to see what the price ranges are like. Also, since my experience at XXX a few years ago, I sometimes print up the price menu of the salon off the internet and bring it with me when I go in. That way, if anyone tries to overcharge me, I can just whip the page out and show them I know exactly how much it costs.

If you have any funny stories of bad hair experiences in Japan, send them in! I'd love to read them!

Next post: DIY gel nails!


  1. Thanks for this. Can you pass on the name of your hairdressing salon? I've had my hair done once in Tokyo and, while it wasn't a disaster, I really don't like the orangey reds they use here.

  2. @kathrynoh: I go to Gold in Azabu Juban. The owner and other main stylist are both from Australia and they don't use Japanese dyes at all as far as I know.

  3. OMG I am SO glad I read your post! My (Japanese) husband and I jsut moved back to Japan after having lived abroad for 30 years. I'm a blond but at age 49 I now "cover my gray". I have not had a trim or touched up my roots for 3 months...and believe me...it is TIME. I ALMOST bought a Japanese hair dye the other day but then had this feeling that maybe I should do a little research...how about ordering foreign hair dyes on the internet...is that a possibility? I can deal with just letting my hair grow out again....but I'd rather not have it half gray and stringy looking....

  4. Connie,

    I'm sorry about the late reply! I'm sure you can order hair dyes through rakuten.co.jp or another online shopping site. You can also buy Feria by L'Oreal in most drug stores.

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