by Ian de Stains OBE

I am a man of very few indulgences. My needs are simple, and I am satisfied by simple pleasures. I’m not one for spoiling myself, but I do enjoy treating others when appropriate. However, I confess there’s one indulgence I absolutely wallow in, and I do it once a month.

The traditional Japanese barbershop is something akin to the barbershop to which my father took me when I was a schoolboy in Britain. Nothing at all like the unisex parlors that are the norm today, they’re down to earth and practical. They even have the red, white and blue barber’s pole (though admittedly most of them are now electric optical illusions).

I’ve been going to the same barber for about 20 years, and even after we moved house a few stations away, I’ve made the monthly visit back to his shop, cycling there and back the better to fool myself that I’m taking exercise. It’s a small place—two chairs, though he’s always worked alone—in a small backstreet, with just enough room at the front for the bike. The shop is filled with potted plants that he tends with same dedication he has for his customers. Most of us, I suspect, are regulars, and he has a knack for remembering which subjects we’re happy to chat about and what we prefer to have on the TV, which is never off.

Not for him the shears and clippers; scissors of all shapes and sizes, satisfyingly glinting on the tray beside the chair as ordered and as daunting as the instruments in a dental clinic, each to their purpose. The razors,too—for no visit here is complete without a shave—and this is where the real indulgence comes in.

It begins with the application of an emollient and then an extremely hot towel that’s wrapped around the entire jaw and left to soften the beard and open the pores. Before that’s had time to cool a second towel, even hotter than the first, takes its place before the barber applies a liberal amount of lather, the better to help the blade’s work. Of course he uses only straight-edge ‘cut-throat’ razors, which he strops to an almost impossible sharpness and which he wields with an apparent abandon that simply proves his mastery of the tonsorial craft.

This being Japan, it isn’t only the jaw that is shaved, but the ears and if need be the forehead: these little things matter more when a gentleman reaches a certain age. But that’s not all: more hot towels, a soothing balm (unscented of course) and then, the crowning moment that might make it all worthwhile. A powerful massage of the neck and shoulders and right through to the crown of the head leaves you positively glowing. I can’t think of a better way to spend 45 minutes once a month, and all for ¥4,000. Indulgence? You bet!

Ian de Stains is the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The views expressed in this column are strictly his own and are not necessarily endorsed or shared by the Chamber.

photo by szlea