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Beauty in Japan is serious business. This might be the explanation for why “beauty salon” in Japanese shares a kanji character with both “graduate school” and “hospital.”* The treatment you’re liable to get at a Japanese beauty salon often far outpaces that of Western salons; typically you can expect a thorough scalp massage and drink service at the very least, and shoulder and hand massages and in-depth style counseling are not uncommon either.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Here is a list of differences between Japanese and Western hair salons:

The expert shampoo service

Getting a thorough shampooing – and yes, spell check assures us that is a word – is pretty common across the board, but what sets Japanese hair salons apart is the ample attention paid to your scalp during your visit. Sure, that sounds weird, but you’ll be too appreciative to be embarrassed as your Japanese stylist spends many minutes massaging your scalp and identifying problem areas. Usually, your stylist will ask you if any areas are especially itchy or sensitive and investigate for you, all while expertly massaging and scrubbing, sending tingles down your spine the likes of which you only thought possible in the bedroom.

The Coupons

Since, as we’ve established, beauty is serious business in Japan, it goes without saying that it’s also a cutthroat business. For you, the consumer, this is nothing but a good thing; anywhere you go in Tokyo you’ll see smiling 20-somethings handing out fliers and tissues, often associated with hair and beauty salons. Look closely and you’ll see that many of the fliers contain special offers, from heavy discounts for first-time visitors to completely free service if that person on the street happens to think you’d make a good hair model.

Drink Service

At pretty much any decent Japanese hair salon you go to, drink service is part of the deal. Sure, you’re paying more for the privilege of getting your hair cut than at Western establishments, but in exchange you can enjoy a wide variety of drinks. Most of the time, this is limited to a few tea options and coffee, but really fancy places have been known to offer champagne and other classy beverages free of charge.

The “Cape”

Most western salons have a selection of protective drapes that they wrap around you and clasp at the throat. Your hands are pretty much stuck underneath the drape and if you want to, say, respond to a cell phone message, you have to awkwardly stick your hands out of the sides of the drape, all the while exposing your legs and hips to a relentless onslaught of hair clumps falling from your head. In Japan, they offer a type of cape with convenient arm holes that let you freely gesticulate and answer cell phone messages to your heart’s content without ever exposing your clothing to that hard-to-get-rid-of freshly cut hair.

The Crazily Specific Questions

“How many centimeters do you want it?”

“Are you planning on using hair wax every day or just sometimes?”

“Do you want to be able to put the front of your hair down when you feel like it, or do you want it up all the time?”

Not all of the differences are for the better. In an effort to give the most personalized service they can, Japanese stylists will ask a range of bizarre and super specific questions that might grate on you and make you want to scream, “I have no idea! You’re the expert!”

Your humble writer, as a man, usually walks into a styling joint with a simple request: “Make it shorter.” So it can be baffling and annoying when your stylist seems to be second guessing his/her every styling decision, asking increasingly specific questions about how you want your hair to look when you really just want them to make it look cool. A lot of guys walk into a salon looking like they just rolled out of a dumpster and want the stylist to make months of growth and on-and-off washing look like you actually give a damn about what you look like. We don’t care how many centimeters it ends up being, okay?

So, have you ever been to a Japanese beauty salon before? What are the differences in your mind? What are the pros and cons of Japanese salons? Let us know in the comments.

*“Beauty salon” (biyouin, 美容院), shares its final character with “graduate school” (daigakuin, 大学院) and “hospital” (byouin, 病院).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons