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There are more beauty salons in Japan than there are konbinis (convenience stores). Currently, the ratio is around 250,000 beauty salons to 56,000 konbinis. In Omotesando, Tokyo, a battleground for beauty salons, it is said that there are more than 300 within a kilometer radius.
The Japanese obsession with beautiful hair goes back to ancient times, with different historical periods known for different artistic and experimental hairstyles. One notable example of hair art that remains deeply rooted in Japanese society today is the so-called 'geisha hair', which differs depending on social status, age, and other factors.
To get a closer look at Japanese hair art over time, Prissilya Junewin, a Berlin-based, Indonesian-born Chinese photographer, visited three cities in Japan and documented hair artisans’ craftsmanship through different generations and specialisations.
This article is the first in a three-part series that looks behind the scenes of their work and philosophy. First stop, Kyoto wigmaker’s Kyokatsura Imanishi.
Kyokatsura Imanishi, Kyoto: hair art traditions passed down through generations
Among the many unique regional cities of Japan, Kyoto holds an exceptional position. In the local redlight districts, such as Gion, there are an abundance of ‘teahouses’ where geishas entertain their customers every day. They are known for their secrecy, and many do not allow first-time visitors without a recommendation from their regular customers.
Thanks to this system, the industry remains shrouded in mystery. Yasuo Imanishi and his son Yasunori are two of the few people who are allowed to intervene in such a mysterious world. They specialise in making wigs for geiko (senior geishas), differently from maiko (junior geishas), who have their hair done with natural hair. A whopping 90 per cent of all geiko in Kyoto are their clients.
Salon founder Yasuo is a veteran with 70 years of experience in this field. Shortly after the war, he started training at a wig shop in his neighbourhood out of a need to simply make a living. ‘I didn’t know anything about wigmaking back then,’ he says. ‘When I started my training, there was a high demand for Japanese wigs, after the usual New Year’s break we had to work without a day off until summer, from 8am to midnight. I worked three times as hard as others.’
After his training, he independently opened Kyokatsura Imanishi in 1966. Currently, the store is run by his eldest son, Yasunori, who has over 30 years of experience.
Yasunori half-jokingly describes himself as ‘naive’. ‘Many people in the field train elsewhere before taking over the family business, but in our case, I was trained at this store from the beginning because of my father’s policy of not wanting me to follow other people’s methods,’ he explains.
His father has never taught him any of the techniques or know-how verbally. ‘I have never been told by my master to do this or that,’ Yasuo says. ‘Without any guidebooks, I had to learn by watching every step. I just did the same thing to my son, not meddling with him too much, but letting him learn by practising.’
Most of their daily work consists of the maintenance of geiko wigs delivered from the teahouses. ‘Geiko use their wigs every day and re-tie them once a month. Most of them have to be returned within a day or so,’ Yasunori explains while his father sits next to him, constantly combing the hair of a wig. ‘When we arrive at work in the morning, the first thing we do is untie all the wigs and wipe off the old grease. Then put on new oil and use our antique hot iron to straighten the hair. Then we curl the hair and tie it up again. We do this process endlessly, from morning to evening.'
Their wigs are highly regarded by discerning geiko in Kyoto for their meticulous craftsmanship and carefully composed shapes that suit the look of each customer. ‘We know most of the faces of the customers who send us their wigs in for maintenance,’ they say. ‘If we don't know their faces, we ask for a portrait and work on it based on the photo,’ Yasuo continues. ‘To some extent, I can adjust the hair following their requests to make a face look a certain shape. However, we believe that our clients come to us because they like our style, so usually, they let us do what we think is best.’
When we asked the Imanishi family about their future prospects, they replied with concern: ‘We don't know yet.’ Like other traditional crafts, the future of this industry remains uncertain. ‘After all, our core client base is geiko, but their numbers are decreasing nationwide. Since the geisha world is declining, our business is also naturally downsizing. Sadly, that is the reality.’
The family are now focusing their efforts on promoting wigs for weddings. ‘Back in the day, when the economy was booming, many brides and grooms spent a lot of money on their weddings, and there were a lot of orders for wedding wigs. But nowadays, the number of people who hold weddings themselves is decreasing, especially for brides who dress in traditional Japanese style, which is less than 20 per cent of the total. That’s why we have started an Instagram page and are uploading videos to YouTube to promote our products,’ says Yasunori.
‘I became a part of this important Japanese culture without noticing it,’ Yasuo replies when asked why they kept working as wigmakers for such a long time. ‘In the past, we used to have seven or eight employees, but they have all left and are now working other jobs; the situation is the same for other traditional craft stores around me, so I desperately hope one of my sons will eventually take over and keep this tradition alive. That is my motivation now.’
Hearing this, his son laughs and intervenes, ‘Really? To be honest, this is all I can do. It’s all I’ve been doing for so long. But when geiko and the brides send us messages on social media thanking us for our work, that motivates me.’
Yasuo nods in agreement and says, ‘When the customers are happy, we are happy too, and that's what matters to us.’
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