The cutting edge of Tokyo’s fashionably tressed


Every morning at around 9 o’clock, Naoko Hayashi arrives at the Toni & Guy Japan hair salon in Tokyo’s smart Minami-Aoyama district. The trainee, who joined the salon in April, sets to work on a wig, practicing how to curl hair. Just along the street at rival salon Kakimoto Arms, Noriko Yagi, a second-year apprentice, perfects the look of a wig she began styling an hour earlier.

As the two 22-year-old aspiring stylists literally brush up their skills, senior hairdressers are on standby to check on their technique. Other stylists start arriving one by one. Finishing practice about half an hour before their shops open (at 11 a.m. and noon respectively), both Hayashi and Yagi, along with their colleagues, tidy up and prepare for another long, busy day.

Soon the doors are open and the day’s customers stream in. Smartly dressed staffers welcome them with friendly smiles and greetings, then move quickly to the business at hand — beautifying the clients.

It’s a typical morning scene in the estimated 400 to 500 hair salons that line the streets of the posh neighborhood of Omotesando, which lies across the Harajuku and Aoyama districts in central Tokyo, and is based around the boulevard of the same name. If you stroll off the main tree-lined road and into the side streets, you are likely to see rival salons standing side by side, or even located in the same building.

The astonishing concentration of hair salons here is the densest in Japan and probably the world.

“Omotesando is the breeding ground of the latest trends,” says Tatsuro Watanabe, editor of Biyo to Keiei, a trade magazine for the hairdressing industry. “The area has attracted fashion houses since the mid-1970s and beauty salons, being part of the fashion scene, followed.” For many salon owners, a boutique in Omotesando is the ultimate status symbol, he added.

Omotesando’s beauty salons are often featured in fashion magazines, drawing stylish women and men keen to get the latest look. Seiko Toyokawa, a 21-year-old college student from Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, is one such style hound, who switches her allegiance among salons. “I visit different salons after seeing their styles featured in a magazine. I want to look just like the models do,” says Toyokawa, who recently had her long, layered hair colored reddish brown at Acqua, one of Harajuku’s well-known hair salons.

Customers in Omotesando are more demanding than their suburban counterparts, says Tomohiro Kobayashi, 27, the top hair stylist at Kakimoto Arms, who has also worked at the salon’s branch in fashionable Jiyugaoka, Meguro Ward. “I think they have higher expectations to what can be done to their hair,” said Kobayashi, who has about 300 regular clients a month, some of whom come from as far as Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures. “What I do is the same wherever I work, but nonetheless it’s stimulating to be working in this neighborhood.”

And as cool and creative as hairdressing may seem, behind the scenes it’s nothing but hard work.

For starters, you’ll be on your feet for long hours working nonstop and there’s little time to rest, or even to grab some lunch.

“I manage on a big breakfast and dinner,” explained Tomofumi Kunihiro, a 21-year-old apprentice at an Aoyama salon. “And I just had to get used to standing all day,” said the trainee, who was on Omotesando boulevard scouting for “cut models” so he could try out his skills on the real thing rather than just a wig on a dummy.

For Kunihiro, the rough, chapped hands he gets from constantly washing clients’ hair is the most unpleasant aspect of the job — a sentiment that is shared by most trainees. “I knew it was tough, and it’s tougher than I thought, but then I’m doing what I always wanted to, so the sense of fulfillment outweighs the pain,” he said.

A term of apprenticeship is part of the process of becoming a full-fledged hairdresser in both Western and Japanese salons, but how it works is somewhat different. Lincoln Wood, a 34-year-old Englishman and a top stylist at Toni & Guy in Minami- Aoyama, observes that more is expected of a trainee in Japan than in Britain as here they start working on clients much earlier.

Wood, who has worked in London and New York, says that apprentices in a London hair salon focus on learning the techniques of cutting, perming and coloring hair, which is done in specialist academies or after-hours at the salon they work for. During the three years of apprenticeship, trainees never touch a client’s hair except to wash or blow-dry it. Mainly, their job is to observe.

In Japan, trainees enter a salon after finishing one or two years at beauty school, where they have learned basic skills. While they are expected to keep practicing their basics in their spare time, apprentices also support seniors in coloring and perming clients’ hair (once they have passed tests in these areas), in addition to the routine work of hair-washing and blow-drying.

The organization of a salon is different, too. Western salons are more specialized, dividing the work of hair stylists and treatment technicians, but in Japan — with few exceptions, like Kakimoto Arms — most hairdressers will take all of these roles.

Wood speculates that these differences derive from the fact that Western hair is so varied; the range of treatments for Asian hair, which is generally straight and more uniform in color and texture, is more limited .

Speaking from his five years of experience in Japan, Wood highlights another significant difference between Western and Japanese hair-care culture. “Japanese salons are much, much better on their service, and pay attention to details,” he said, pointing to the shampooing and massaging often provided to customers. “In Western salons, the main priority is speed, whereas here, the whole thing is seen as more pleasurable.”

“Changing your hairstyle, or the color of your hair, can influence your feelings, your taste in clothes — and even people’s impressions of you,” said Harumi Iwakami, 30, a hair-color technician at Kakimoto Arms. “And for us, a hairstyle is something we create with our own hands. It’s an intimate job. So it makes us happy if our clients are happy.”