Long Hair, Leather Chairs, and Magical Hands in Iwaki

This post is a little bit about the small daily obstacles I face as a foreigner in Japan, a little bit about the comfort of being in the hands of a trusted friend in a foreign home-away-from-home, but mostly about a posh, soothing, sensual hair experience.

A year and a half after living in Iwaki, I’ve somewhat gotten used to the cozy half-anonymity that comes with being an ex-pat in a small city. Despite this, I still have moments of self-consciousness for not quite knowing how to do the simplest grown-up tasks to take care of myself. Included in that (very long) list is knowing how to call in a for a hair appointment. For the past several months, I let my hair grow out into a shapeless tangled mess to put off stumbling through phone conversation with a complete stranger in my broken Japanese and mumbling, American-accented babble.

Eventually, even I had to admit that it was time to do something about this hair. I saved up my pennies and started thinking about how to make this phone call. I spent a two days procrastinating on asking someone for help on how to make an appointment for a haircut with a preferred stylist. I spent another three days procrastinating on finally making the dreaded, awkward phone call.

Ring, ring.
Voice on the other line: Hello, Mod’s Hair.
Me: Uh, hi, I want to make an appointment…
Voice: OK, for when?
Me: …is this Suzuki-san? Hi! This is April!
Suzuki-san: Oh, April! Long time no see! Wow, your Japanese has gotten better!
Me: Long time no see! No, no, not at all!
Suzuki-san: When would you like to come in? …

To my delight, Suzuki-san, the man who always cuts my hair, answered the phone, and remembered me. He knows that he’s the only one who does my hair in this town. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to use my newly learned word (“担当, in charge of).

Back home, I’d sometimes spend as little as 20 minutes at some budget haircut place, pay as little as $10 to as much as $20 for a cut, no shampoo, no blow dry, no nothing. The hustle and bustle of these shops are no different from a suburban supermarket—bunch of mom-aged white ladies in yoga pants, twittering about their kids and gossiping about celebrities on the front pages of trashy tabloid magazines. Growing up in the capital of Suburbia, San Diego—Chula Vista—these types of haircut experiences was all I knew.

Flash forward to Mod’s Hair in Iwaki (and Tokyo, Paris, and London, according to their fancy black and white logo). I walk into the sleek shop and am greeted at the door by a well-groomed assistant and stylist. He takes my bag and coat, greets me by name, and escorts me to small, individualized cubby of a waiting area containing a chair and a small café-type of table. On the table is a stack of fashion and hairstyle magazines, which I suspect Suzuki-san handpicked for me from their library of hair literature. Suzuki-san is busy, so I entertain myself with the magazines. Nearby, a teenaged girl is sitting at a small coffee table in her own waiting area cubby, looking into a mirror, tousling her hair, and flipping through a different set of magazines.

After a few minutes, the assistant escorts me from my table to a changing room, where I slip into a black robe. From there, he walks me to my favorite chair in Iwaki—and probably in the world.

This black leather chair is where all that’s good, peaceful, and sacred in the world come together to join for a masterful experience. I take my seat at the throne; he daintily drapes a fluffy bath towel over my legs for decency; he lowers the back of my cushy seat until my head is perfectly positioned over the sink and my neck is comfortably nestled in the neck rest.

The limitations of my writing ability hinder me from adequately describing what happened in the next 20 minutes, but I’ll try my best. He turned on the jet hose to release warm water at just the right pressure—just hot enough, just strong enough. I felt my entire body relax, going almost completely slack. He softly asked me if the water was too hot, if I was comfortable, and if there were any adjustments he needed to make. I could barely answer; I was already lost. He soaked my hair and massaged my head. Now and then, he changed my position by lifting me by the base of my head. He lathered my hair with musky, spicy-smelling shampoo—nothing fruity or flowery, which I was grateful for. When he was all done and my hair was rinsed out, he did it again: a second round of shampoo.

Next came the conditioner. And then oils. And more hot water. And finally, a soft, but firm, towel dry.

As if that wasn’t enough, he then led me to another leather seat, this time in front of an accordion of mirrors. I was ready to get down to business and have my hair be hacked away, but he had other plans for me. He squeezed something out of a white bottle labeled “head massage” and started kneading it into my scalp. I closed my eyed. He pressed and mini-karate chopped different areas of my skull—I felt other parts of my body tingle as he circumnavigated around my crown. The left side of my head seemed to activate nerve endings in my arms; the right side sent shivers to my legs, the base of my head sent my neck and back into submission. It was like a hair salon version of acupuncture therapy or palm reading, where the lines on your hand branch out to mysteriously connect with seemingly obscure appendages of your life. And he didn’t stop there; he worked on my next, my shoulders, what he could reach of my back… all while I sat upright in that leather chair!

At the end, he said “otsukaresamadeshita”, a formal greeting reserved for the end of a long day which roughly translates to ‘thank you for your hard work, you must be so tired’.


And finally, finally, I was ready for the haircut. Suzuki-san worked his magic on me, all the while chatting with me about all my friends, my latest travel adventures, and work, all of which he somehow remembers on his own. He even remembered when exactly I was last in for a haircut (about 7 months ago) and what haircut I got. I watched him snip and measure and chat with a faint smile on his lips and in his eyes. This is a man who is good at and loves his job, I thought to myself.

Two hours after I walked into the doors of the salon that evening, Suzuki-san and his assistant took turns blow drying and styling my hair. When they finished, they brushed me off to get rid of fallen hairs on my robe and face and escorted me to the changing room once again, where they had hung my coat and prepared a box of facial tissues and lint roller for me to clean up anymore small, stray hairs. I got dressed and stole one last glance at the vanity. I emerged from the changing room and saw that my bag was waiting for me at the reception desk. After this myriad of services with small touches of thoughtfulness, Suzuki-san showed me the invoice—a brilliantly modest price of $42USD. I paid, all the stylists in the store bade me farewell and thanks, and Suzuki-san walked me to the door.

He stood at the doorstep, asking me to take care and waving goodbye until I was no longer in sight.

So went my experience with my twice-a-year friend in my temporary home, Iwaki, with Suzuki-san at Mod’s Hair.