I was in my hair salon to get my roots touched up, and a vision of old Japan walked in for a complicated upswept hairdo. She was wearing a single woman’s kimono, which has long “sleeves” (the part that hangs down under the forearm). Miss Japan’s kimono was white with springtime colors, shades of pinks and blues on the design at the bottom of the hem. She came to the salon before a special meeting with her future in-laws, a pre-wedding ceremony. After she had her hair done, I watched her chit-chat with the staff and have her photo taken while I waited with my rejuvenating hair well-secured in plastic wrap.

The one male staff member came over and asked if I wanted something to drink. I tried my old-fashioned word on him: Ohiya o kudasai. (Please give me cold water.) [See here for previous discussion of ohiya.] His face went blank, he looked like he wanted to say something, and then went away. Miss Japan was getting wrapped up in her light summer overcoat, which had many internal and external strings to tie in bow knots. She was beaming under her hairdo piled up and decorated with pins and flowers. Then, as she shuffled off in her zori (traditional sandals), I noticed the background music was Ne-Yo’s “Because of You.” I looked up to read a little Japlish on a sign next to the mirror: “Ruche 2007 Birth Hair Campaign.” This sign means to encourage Japanese women to get a new hairstyle or color; it’s not a suggestion to recreate the natural, je m’en fou fuzz one sports when emerging from the womb. I was suddenly aware that we were having an international hair salon moment brought to us by American R&B and the fine folks at Ruche.

Then my guy came back. He had cold hojicha (roasted green tea). Ah, yes, hiya means “cold,” so he had decided that I must have meant cold tea. I sat looking at the glass for a while, wondering if I should say something. Instead, he asked me if I wanted a shoulder and head massage.

Head and shoulder massage come free with a cut in Japanese salons. This is no perfunctory trapezius pinch performed by an untrained shampoo girl. No, in my experience the massage is an extended shiatsu session with a lovely thumb walk down my upper spine’s pressure points, a vigorous clapping on the shoulders, and full head squeeze. Of course, this comes after the shampoo girl has completed her work: she washes and rinses my hair, places a hot, wet, rolled towel under the back of my bent neck and the same on my forehead, and then rubs my temples for a moment. After that she drapes a dry towel over my head, and rubs out my ears, a soft little exploration of the folds of my pinea. It is only after I am returned to the styling chair that I am ready for the shoulder and head massage. With all this extra attention, having my roots refreshed and a haircut in my salon takes quite a long time. This is a medium-priced salon in a medium-sized city. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese hairdresser.

My stylist, Junko, was ready to start cutting my hair. As she combed my wet hair with her fingers, I asked her about ohiya: “Does it mean ‘cold water’?” She smiled and pulled a chunk of hair out horizontally and snipped it. “Yes, but it’s an old word that no one uses anymore. It’s an old lady word, a 50-year-old word.” I nodded, “That’s about right. My teacher is older than that.” She smiled indulgently at me through her terribly hip rectangular eyeglass frames and looked back at my hair. What Junko doesn’t know is I’ve decided I enjoy the startled look on the faces of young waitresses and hairdressers when they hear old words come out of my foreigner mouth.

I’m inexpert and semi-illiterate here, so I must learn language and culture like a child, through play and exploration. I often take a walk in the old neighborhood down the hill from my modern suburban development. I pass an old dilapidated traditional Japanese house. It rests alone, boarded up, but it was once a modest, but beautiful home. The front entrance has an expensive cedar pole under the eaves of the entrance, and next to the house is a huge craggy boulder to adorn the garden. These two details and the bare bones of the expensive but dead plants in the garden tell me that someone once spent money on and gave love to this house. My husband and I fantasize about buying it, restoring it, and sitting in the garden drinking sake while we gaze at the moon. Of course, we don’t live in an old Japanese house. We live up the hill in a 5-year-old house that has insulation, underfloor heating, and a computerized bathtub that I can program for some future hour to be filled and kept hot. I’m comfortable in my house, but I keep looking down the hill at the old house, wondering why its owners are letting it rot.

My Japanese teacher has promised to teach me more old words. I like the idea of her waging a one-woman war against linguistic obsolescence. It’s a losing battle against the natural progression of language. Yet, older Japanese people tell me these changes are happening very quickly. This is no progression of idiom: the Japanese language is losing words that describe their culture.

I am aware, however, that Miss Japan with the fancy hair and the white kimono will have to be obsessive about keeping the kimono clean and about wearing it properly. She will go home after her meeting with her future in-laws, undress and carefully pack away the kimono. A kimono is sent to the dry cleaners rarely, if ever, because it would harm the fabric and the process would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. So, kimono are worn like one would wear a piece of art. They are passed down in families and grow in value with age. Once she’s packed away the kimono like a museum curator, she will gratefully pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She’ll text her best friend that she got through the big meeting okay without messing up too much on the etiquette. Maybe she’ll order a pizza because she doesn’t feel like cooking. It’s a lot of work being a Japanese bride.

I can throw ohiya around like a child because I don’t have to get dressed in the language or do the work of maintaining it. I wonder what other words I can try on.

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