Sally Fisher

A tangled mass of scandal, hair-raising competition, bizarre rituals and deep pockets, Tokyo's salon industry is in a class by itself. Sally Fisher and Maki Nibayashi got the buzz.

New Yorkers will share their most intimate secrets with two professionals, a shrink and a hairdresser, and pay hundreds of dollars on their way out the door. But in Tokyo a new cut is one of the few bargains available in the world's most expensive city and does not involve baring your soul at the washbasin. "And there's more hair stylists here [in the high fashion areas of Shibuya and Minami-Aoyama] than anywhere else," says Hayato Tanoue, who has three salons, including one in New York.

Indeed, the number of professionals beautifying hair in Shibuya and neighboring Minato-ku is staggering. There are 860 salons in Shibuya alone, which is one for every 230 residents, while Minato, with the next highest concentration, has 567 - or one for every 250 - odd people. Tokyo is studded with 16,000 shops that call themselves "hair make," as all stylists do make-up as well. And the salons in four of Tokyo's most fashionable wards outnumber all of downtown Los Angeles with 2500 and central London's 2600.

Japanese hair is up to five times thicker than the average Western strand, and of the total 12 tones of color from deep black to bright blonde, the natural hues span just the three deepest. Tokyoites in particular want their hair to look less Asian and have more movement in it, hence the recent fads for coloring and razor cuts to give some swing. And unlike gaijin, Tokyo men and women aren't afraid to try a radical array of treatments, going from color to perm to straightening to bleach in a matter of weeks.

Elissa Galbraith and Estelle Viscovich at Sin Den in Harajuku say that even with their training in color they have to look twice at some girls to see if they're Japanese or not. "Six years ago color was only used by punks who went for blues and bleaching... it was risque. But in the last two years there have been a lot more colorists from overseas coming here," says Estelle. Elissa adds that highlights for Japanese are really new, and "trends in hair take a bit longer to arrive from overseas." The women have worked with Wella and Redken in Tokyo teaching coloring techniques.

Most clients of the funky Tokyo salons in Aoyama, Harajuku and Shibuya are aged between 20 and 30 and spend about JY12,000 ($96) every five or six weeks. "(But) in New York and London clients think nothing of spending $200-$300 at a famous salon. Here, the clients tend to be younger and don't spend that sort of money, and once they get to 40, they're married and don't care how they look anymore," Hayato says.

A cut above
The haircut experience in Tokyo is based on the idea that styling makes you feel beautiful on the inside, too. As you wait for your hair to be washed, a tissue is gently fixed to your forehead so you don't make eye contact with the assistant-considered uncomfortable for both-and you get a bonus head and shoulder massage afterwards. "The design of the salon is very important," says Ryo, who goes only by his first name at his ultra-cool salon, afloat. Water streams down panes of green glass that invisibly support the stylists' mirrors and hipster young things smile and offer iced tea. "Our front door has the look of the pages of an opening book, and once inside the foyer is intentionally small and narrow. It then opens out to this room which helps clients relax… it's about enhancing clients' inner beauty," he explains of the expensively understated Minami-Aoyama salon.

A few blocks away, the pint-sized manager of elf in Shibuya, Takako Katoh, says there are so many hair stylists "we have to work hard to differentiate ourselves." She says having your technique featured in glossy hair make magazines and getting your work on TV is great for business, but it can't beat word or mouth. About half of elf's clients are young men, and because so many people come to Tokyo from the rest of Japan to live and work, they are eager to get tips from magazines on where to go. She regards her greatest skill as being able to shape hair. "Japanese have square skulls that are very thick at the top and the back of the head is flat. I can cut someone's hair so their head is more rounded, and this makes them very happy," she says. "I'm a sculptor," says the woman who was set to become a painter before her aunt talked her into styling.

Georgia Jacobs

Every morning Katoh and her ten staff have chorei, or the morning meeting where they stand in a circle and go through the day's targets and notices before shouting, “onegai shimasu" and bowing deep bow. This ritual is repeated at night, with the meeting reviewing the day, before the staff either start their long commute home or go out for a bite. "My work colleagues are my friends, too," explains Katoh, who gives her age as 20-something and is in the rare position of managing a funky salon when mostly only men take charge. On a day off, she and her female workers attend kimono class, where they learn to dress themselves and others in the elaborate outfit, or she works on magazine and TV shoots. "A 12-hour day is a good one, it's usually 16 hours, six days a week. But this is the best career to have and there's nothing else I would rather do."

Stylists in their 20s are earning more cash than their conservative high school pals who are now apprentice salarymen, staying in the office all day, wearing dark suits and getting drunk with the boss. Pay for assistants or apprentices is around JY100,000 a month, which is abysmal and below the breadline in the world's most expensive city. There is scant membership in the beauticians' union and most stylists don't know its name. "Anyway, it has no power," scoffs Ryo, who spends his days off working at hair shows, promoting afloat. But after an assistant earns their license and then finishes a three-year training program in a salon, they can make from JY2 million a year to JY12 million depending on ability and profile. Some earn a straight percentage of the salon's take, and others get salary plus a percentage.

A dye-ing breed
One of the biggest money-making styling outfits in town is acqua, the Harajuku salon with a Minami-Aoyama offshoot that is the birthplace of the karisuma (charisma) hairdresser-a stylist who cuts Japan's tarento's priceless manes. If you call for an appointment, one of the four should-be models working the Harajuku phones pointedly asks if you're a regular or "newcomer." If you're an acqua virgin, expect to wait one month for a no-name stylist. But for a celebrity hairdresser who's been on TV, sliced an actress's tresses or trimmed before thousands at a Budokan hair show…your split ends can wait two months.

The Harajuku salon refused a Metropolis interview, "We don't want/need any more advertising," says the press officer. But there was a time acqua couldn't avoid it when partner Masayuki Aoyama became the first karisuma-and then a blackmail victim. Aoyama and his partners starred on the wildly successful and now defunct Fuji TV show, "Scissors Series," in the late 1990s. Stylists were pitted against one another to create their best hairdos in real time. Aoyama's personality and flashy razor-cutting technique, where the hair is cut on the angle and layered heavily to give it movement, made him a star.

Takako Katoh, from elf
Sally Fisher

But soon after, Aoyama's lack of a beauty license, which all hairdressers must have, was exposed by a jealous competitor. The show's producer, Koichi Ishimoto, was forced to quit his high-paying job. Miffed that his Porsche may have to go and that his mistress was lowered to paying for her own clothes, he dropped into acqua in late 1999 with a couple of stand-over guys, demanding JY300 million in lost income. Aoyama called the cops and started brushing up on the beauty license rules, earning the scrap of paper the day his old producer was busted. The infamous Aoyama still works at acqua and for JY8000 will cut your hair and another JY16,000 will give you curl and color.

Hayato has been called a karisuma but says it's now old hat. A karisuma “might do 30 clients a day but only spend ten minutes with each client. They do the same cut, like a razor cut that's very bad for the hair. It's just a factory," Hayato complains. "They're dead, no one uses this word anymore. I'd rather have more customers than be karisuma," Ryo says dismissively and Katoh from elf agrees, but the driving force pushing the ever-morphing salons is something that Japanese customers desperately want but will never achieve. Industry pundits may claim karisuma are dying out as a breed, but there are still plenty to be found at salons such as Hair Dimension and Beautrium in Minami-Aoyama.

As Japanese women and men discovered permanent hair color, they are now moving into full bleaching or highlighting, a la Destiny's Child and J-Lo for the women. But when it comes to talk of the future trends, the hairdressers just cannot agree. Aki Watanabe of Watanabe Hair Dressing in Shibuya says that the new trend for men is a soft Mohican, think footballer and Mr Spice, David Beckham. "But not punk with a shaved head but a soft one with peak at the top and also some color through it, especially blonde, but not all of it, in chunks."

Katoh predicts more unisex hairstyles, with lots of layers, shorter, ash brown color and bleach highlights. Ryo says for women the bob, soft wave, beige hair with some orange in it and for men yellow color, not blonde but bright yellow. "Everyone here wants to look Western, which is good for business," says Hayato.

Address book:
acqua, Jingumae 1-10-23 1F Fontaine Bldg, Shibuya-ku, 03-3478-3131.
afloat, 5-10-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-5778-0387.
elf, Jinnan 1-5-7, 2F Akansas, Shibuya-ku, 03-5728-2185 and Jingumae 5-48-7 Shibuya-ku, 03-5468-0630.
Hayato, 3F, 5-9-3 Minami Aoyama Minato-ku, 033498-9113 and Nishi Azabu 03-3406-8255.
Sin Den, 3-42-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, 03-3405-4409
Watanabe Hair Dressing, 03 3405 1188, Jingumae 3-25-6 Shibuya-ku
Beautrium, 3-14-2, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-3402-6132
Hair Dimension, 5-7-23 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-5467-3021



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384: Hair
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358: Two-faced
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- Foreigners make up less than one percent of Tokyo’s population. It is wise to check that your stylist has experience with foreign hair.

- Hair coloring products are formulated differently for the local market. They tend to have stronger pigment, and are used with weaker peroxides. “Hair manicures,” popular semi-permanent vegetable dye can permanently stain the hair

- The range of colors available is much smaller here than overseas. Luckily, the color market is rapidly expanding, and there are now many more colors than the traditional dark browns of a few years ago. Even with new color, though, the choice is limited.


- Go to a salon that specializes in foreign hair. If you don’t speak Japanese, book with a stylist who speaks English. Bring pictures of styles and/or colors you like.

- Ask for a thorough consultation before a perm or color. Remember to ask:

1) How often will I need to have this maintained?
2) How much will it cost today and at future visits?
3) Will this damage my hair?
4) Will I need any special home hair care to keep the style looking good?

- Be aware that home hair colors and bleaching kits are formulated for Japanese hair. They will behave differently on hair that is naturally lighter or finer, which means on most foreigners.

If you run into trouble with your color, seek the advice of a professional straight away.