Hair care from topknots to tints


To all outward appearances, Hair Salon Kitadoko is as modern as the Shibuya Cross Tower skyscraper in which it’s located. As befits these times, too, it has a toll-free number for customers to call for appointments, as well as a Web site.

Only after stepping inside does one encounter a tradition going back 132 years. Framed sepia photographs adorn the walls. A getabako (shoe box) is provided for customers who may feel more relaxed with their feet in slippers. And the cozy waiting area is supplied not only with the latest newspapers and magazines, but antique copies of “I Am a Cat” and other literary classics by Soseki Natsume, a former customer — but more on that later.

A visit to Kitadoko, it soon becomes evident, involves more than just a shampoo and trim; it’s a stroll down the memory lane called “Westernization.”

On the ninth day of the eighth lunar month of 1871, the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Meiji, the government issued the Danpatsu-rei (hair-trimming advisory), which informed males of status throughout the empire that they were henceforth permitted to remove their traditional topknots and relieved of the requirement to carry their swords.

That same year, Kitaro Funakoshi opened his barber shop in a three-story, Western-style building in Tokyo’s Hongo district, across the street from what had been the Edo residence of the powerful Maeda clan from Kaga, present-day Ishikawa Prefecture — and which would soon afterward become the campus of Kaisei Gakko, forerunner of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo).

Indeed, no less a personage than Marquis Maeda himself gave the shop its name — then later, as the style caught on among the aristocracy, he went there to have Funakoshi remove his own topknot.

Seal of approval

Finally, on March 20, 1873, the shorn style was accorded the ultimate seal of approval, when it was announced that His Imperial Highness the Emperor Meiji had adopted the zangiri (cropped hair) tonsorial style of the West. (Two weeks earlier, the Empress had forsworn the formerly fashionable practice of haguro to make her teeth look black.) By 1876, only 40 percent of the capital’s male population still wore their hair in the old manner.

With few, if any, shops in Tokyo having such a noble pedigree, Funakoshi prospered, and boasted 18 chairs and employed a staff of 20. It became so well known that students at the Imperial University would often self-deprecatingly refer to their institution as, “You know, that university opposite the Kitadoko barber shop.”

Among the former students who became Kitadoko’s lifelong patrons was Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), the most popular novelist of his generation, who immortalized the shop in such works as his 1905 book, “Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I Am a Cat)” and “Sanshiro” (1908).

By the Taisho Era (1912-26), its regular denizens’ upward mobility and social status led Kitadoko to move into the prestigious Nihon Club in Marunouchi, where it prospered until 1975 before transferring to its current location in the Toho Seimei building — “at the request of our regular customers,” says Chiyo Funakoshi, Kitadoko’s fifth-generation proprietor.

A graduate of nearby Aoyama Gakuin University, Funakoshi held a white-collar job before starting work at the shop in 1990. She took over as manager from her father 10 years ago, and set out to become an authority on good grooming. “Actually, my manual dexterity was not that good, so at first I felt I wasn’t well suited for this kind of job,” she admits. “But I kept practicing until I got to the point where I could manage all right.”

Today, Funakoshi counts corporate executives, entrepreneurs, doctors and others of high social standing among her clientele, about 90 percent of whom visit by appointment. In addition to her 4,800 yen charge for a basic cut and shampoo, many make the time and shell out 8,000 yen for a “relaxation course” in one of Kitadoko’s cozy chairs.

While clearly focused on maintaining her family’s proud tradition, the white-smocked Funakoshi — the first female in the family line to manage the shop — has been fine-tuning Kitadoko’s services to keep abreast of the times, including by offering a hair-tinting treatment to help aging customers maintain a more youthful appearance.

“We have such a nice clientele, I get immense satisfaction from pleasing them,” she smiles. “I really do feel fortunate.”