Found In Translation

Let’s say I was offered one wish.  And that the wish had to be temporal, gluttonous.  It had to be something I could otherwise not likely have that could not be preserved.  It could be considered wasteful.

If this offer ever surfaced I would know my response before the genie could even intone a question: I would go to my Japanese hair salon in Fuchutown Hiroshima for a haircut from Kazuo.

But to better justify my choice I’d like to set the scene of a small suburban town outside of the city center of Hiroshima, Japan.  The shop is located around the corner from the Hondori Gochomae bus stop and kitty corner to the Mon Cheri bakery.  When the 7-11 convenient shop across the street closed down, for two days to renovate, the hair salon purchased flowers from it’s neighboring flower shop, Kana, to present the 7-11 with an enormous bouquet in congratulations.  They are that kind of shop.

The most novel aspect of this less trafficked street in sleepytown Fuchutown is the inordinate number of Hair Salons all within 3 blocks of one another.  There was “Birth” directly adjacent to the school I taught at.  “Snob” was located under my apartment complex.  “White Hair Salon Boutique and Dental Clinic” was stationed near the grocery store I shopped at daily and “Strand” shared a parking garage with the Mon Cheri bakery keeping it in direct line of sight of our hair salon that sends renovation flowers and has one element that sets it apart from every other hair salon on the block.

If Hair has a dog.

His name is Jack and I fell in love with him at first sight.  Him, certainly, but also the handling of him.  You see, I was so new to the city.  I was the only foreigner in my town and  I couldn’t speak Japanese.  This impaired my ability to buy food, mail a letter, get a hair cut.  And while I was wide eyed and excited to try all things Japanese I was lost and hungry, with unruly hair.

Tsubasa (left), Kazuo (driving cap)

But there was something just so universal about Jack.  It felt providential that he was taken my walks at the same time each morning that I would walk to work.  I’d pass and pet Jack and a stylist, a different twenty something Japanese man every time, would warmly greet me in formal English.  And this became a routine, enough for each one of them to wave wildly whenever I passed morning or not.  Jack indoors or out.  We exchanged no words other than Hello and Konnichiwa, but somehow those were enough to have me cross the street when I otherwise wouldn’t.  And more than enough to stop in, unchaperoned one April day and pantomime a haircut.

I might call that the best decision I will have ever made in Japan.

For a year following I visited this salon, If Hair, at least twice a week.  I befriended Koji who played drums and bass and bongos and studied enough English to ask if I liked Sly and the Family Stone.  I fell briefly in love with Tsubasa, a fashion forward stylist two years younger than I who studied enough English to ask me if I would like to dance.  I met the girlfriends of the rest of the styling team.  I began to teach them English, Thursday nights, in the back room while they practiced on human hair rested atop styrofoam heads.  They cut my hair regularly, once with a hint of pink in honor of the cherry blossom season.  In short they were really good to me.

When I left they saw me off and I thought fondly of them.  I sent them a letter once, sometime last year to ask after the business and their lives and Jack.  But I was back in the states and I had my hair cut by salon after salon, some comparable in quality and life went on.

Queue Derek and Natsuko – friends of old getting married in Hiroshima City.  In favor of adventure I worked out a way to visit (by being very fiscally responsible in the months leading to) and returned to Japan, in the same season I arrived, some two years after I left.

And I had adventures.  I reunited with friends of old, but I wanted to, had to, surprise my old shop.  So I woke early, practiced my Japanese in a bathroom mirror and nervously walked to If Hair.  Why was I so nervous?

When I arrived Tsubasa was at the door and greeted me with a standard Japanese welcome afforded all patrons.  I stood tall and looked him in the eyes before he recognized me and then… a homecoming!  Questions were tossed around.  I spoke broken Japanese, they broken English.  Jack dutifully did what he does best: demanded attention.  And everything felt like it was and I realized, much like the end of a good-great date, that I didn’t want to leave.  So I tried to suggest another meeting, but things got lost in translation and all I took away from the wonderful encounter was something to the tune of Friday 8 o’clock.  I said yes.  The salon is still open on Fridays at 8 so I imagined they wanted me to stop by before I left the country again.

Come Friday I did, stop by.  But here’s where things get … adventurous.  I didn’t know what I’d agreed to.  I arrived to a closed salon with a gaggle of stylists running around trying to clean up their stations.  They ushered me outside to an RV.  Not just any RV, but a bonafide RV that I knew well from childhood road trips and pictures of my father as a young man en route to a camp site.  This plan had order.  This plan had a plan!  So I followed instructions in whatever way I could, was guided to the RV the owner Kazuo drove, with his son in the passengers seat.  Tsubasa and a 16 year old shampooist who aspired to be the world’s greatest hair stylist sat with me in the back and we drove an hour away to the mountain village of Yamaguchi to eat at the country’s most revered and sacred chicken shack.

Yes.  This was definitely a hair heist.

I didn’t get home until midnight, only to answer to a very put off friend who kept asking how my hair salon could kidnap me.  And could if I would translate what was said but I can’t.  The owner Kazuo stationed me proudly at the head of the table and asked after Boston, my school, my work, my life.  He showed me the more ancient aspects of the dining pavilion.  He explained Japanese customs I wasn’t already accustom to.  When cold he made certain I had tea and a warm blanket.  And his hair stylists treated me with the kindness they always had.  And it wasn’t that they treated me like an equal.  It was something so much better and incredibly unnerving.  It wasn’t until the car ride home, sleepy and belly full that I became privy to what this relationship was all about.

They treated me like family.

Kazuo had always protected me as if I were his daughter.  And I felt safe and at home with the blurring lights of a Japanese highway, seated cross-legged on an RV bench playing tic tac toe with a dreamboat hair stylist and a young man with big dreams.

I detached myself from the game to lean toward the front of the RV, past the parted curtains to Kazuo’s cab to say, “Tadaima” (I’m home), nervously awaiting his instant, heartfelt rely “Okari nasai” (don’t leave us again).