plus, dandruff—a.k.a. the lipstick-on-your-teeth of scalp problems
Welcome readers, old and new!
By the time you read this, I should again be happily ensconced in my apartment in beautiful downtown Tokyo, where I’ll be trying to remember how to use the microwave. (I’m actually in the Azabu-jūban neighborhood, which feels as exotic as it sounds.) Please hit the little ❤️ above to ensure I don’t blow up my kitchen.
I’ve found many reasons to love Tokyo, where I spend around four months a year: my family, of course; the fascinating ancient culture; the world-class restaurants and extremely fresh supermarket sushi; and the toilets—those intimate mini-spas for your butt.
But there’s another, less well-known reason to love Japan: the shampooing you can get at almost any hair salon.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Japanese head spa treatment, popularized in the U.S. about five or six years ago. Often referred to as a facial for the scalp, the treatment can include the analysis of the scalp and hair, something called “detoxing the follicles,” and massaging the head’s “beauty points.” It also tends to involve the application of various products, like oils and conditioners, a steam, and a shampoo.
Purported benefits include a healthier scalp, shinier hair, and a restored spirit. As for the healthier, detoxed follicles, dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD, a head spa enthusiast, says, “I don’t know if the [treatments] do anything more than extra-conditioning.” But they’ve done wonders, she says, for her relaxation. Lucy McBride, MD, agrees. “I can’t think of a mechanism by which having your scalp massaged with oils or your hair conditioned would promote hair growth or increase thickness. It’s just not rooted (no pun intended) in evidence,” she said. But she confirmed that feeling relaxed might be an overall boon to health and well-being.
When I was in Tokyo last spring, several friends encouraged me to try the head spa experience. But I wasn’t tempted. Because the shampoo at the middle-of-the-road salon where I have my weekly blowout (shampoo + blowout = around $23 USD) is uniquely luxurious.
At first, I found the experience astonishing. I’m accustomed to the kind of shampoo I got at my local Drybar. At best, that involved a spritz of water, a random shmush of shampoo, and then a rushed rinse. Once, a stylist spritzed only the top of my head before applying shampoo to my mostly dry hair. I know these blowout places are the fast food of hair styling, but my shampoo experiences there? Like a very underdone Big Mac.
But in Tokyo!
Follow me as I’m led into a darkened room.
Relax into a contoured lounge chair, reclined into position in front of a sink outfitted with a padded bar on which to rest your weary neck. (So there’s no discomfort from your neck resting on the lip of the sink—which, in my experience, is standard at even the poshest salons in New York.)
A narrow rectangle of tissue is placed over your face to protect from an inadvertent splash (and maybe to encourage nodding off). Your hair is wet thoroughly, the spray nozzle making many orbits around the scalp.
Shampoo is applied, more water added, then more shampoo to create a satisfying froth. After which magic happens: a scrub that follows some kind of head map covering every inch of the scalp. There must be a standard pattern all salon employees follow, because the head map is always the same.
Just when you’re thinking, sadly, it’s almost over, it begins again. The shampooer says something softly in Japanese. It might be, “Your head is so lovely, I just want to work on it a little more.” A spellbinding moment of massage follows.
“Okay, okay?” asks the shampooer sweetly. Two thumbs up.
A thorough rinse before conditioner. Another rinse. Then the shampooer steps away and returns with a damp, hot towel, placed tenderly over your hair, adding a gentle ear massage.
The warm towel is removed, folded, and placed under your neck. A light towel-dry follows.
Dreamily, you say, “Arigato!” and the shampooer says, “Arigato gozaimasu,” bowing slightly and smiling as if you were the one who just gave her the best shampoo of her life.
And you know what? This adds to the sense of well-being you’ve accrued, because your happiness with the service has increased her happiness, too, after a job so well done and appreciated.
Now, a reader question about a hair issue that hasn’t been on my mind lately—but might be on yours (and is frustratingly on hers): Dandruff.
The beauty Q&A in this post is available only to paid subscribers. For full access to all posts—and if you value reader-supported work—please become a paid subscriber at the currently discounted rate of $40/year. If you can’t afford a subscription, email me at valeriemonroe.substack.com and I’ll comp you one, no questions asked. 🙏🏼