The Barber of Nagoya / by Anran Li

This summer, I worked for a very creative and forward-thinking firm, Kotaro Horiuchi Architecture. More importantly, I lived in a small suburb near the Shigahondori station in Nagoya. This has been my first time living in Japan for an extended period, and I truly appreciated having the opportunity to explore by myself.

About a month after I settled in, I had already run into cooking problems, gotten lost on multiple occasions, rearranged my room several times, pulled an all-nighter at work, and learned what it was like to eat a bad raw oyster. During the height of the summer heat in Nagoya, I decided it was time to have my hair cut and, on my way getting lost to home, passed by a wildly adorable hair salon. It was a creamy warm orange throughout with white clouds tiled on a blue ceiling. 

After having worked for a month in a completely devoid white room by myself, this shop was so bright and colorful I must went into shock and stared at the storefront for too long. A burly men talking to his friend outside stopped his conversation and asked if I was alright. I asked if the shop was open and, upon hearing it was, walked in. As I learned later, Ballerina Salon is famous in Nagoya for its sustainable and safe practices, especially in hair perms. Each and every ingredient is thoroughly investigated.

Imagine the kind of people who would make a pumpkin-colored hair salon named after the only type of orchid that has a fragrance. The owners of Ballerina Salon were every bit as personable and kind as they were fashionable and knowledgable. The husband, Ito-san, had studied hair design in New York and Chile under some of the world's forefront specialists, and recounted how he had missed home when apprenticing abroad. The wife had also studied with one of the most famous hair stylists in Japan. After my hair cut, they took me to eat at a Chinese restaurant across the street, the first of many meals and adventures we had together.

Ito-san was an avid driver in his early years. He attributes his newfound kind and peaceful demeanor to his wife, a bubbly and spirituous woman who, with his husband, works long shifts. Apparently, Ito-san still occasionally goes speeding with his crew in a Lotus parked behind his studio. I saw it the first couple of times and never guessed it was his car. Ito is also a nature and BMW enthusiast. On two occasions, Ito and I drove various latest-model fuel-efficient BMWs into the mountains. I remember the first time Ito invited me on a "trip to the woods." I told my parents and they were so certain I would be kidnapped and sold. It occurs to me now that I forgot to tell them when I decided to go on the trip, which would explain how surprised they were to hear that I was hiking in the Japanese Alps with two strangers.

As I learned from our various trips, dinners, and talks, Ito believed in the world. Take, for example, the process of hair perming, where chemicals are essentially baked into your hair to keep it in a certain shape. Ito believes that there is a way for perms to be non-damaging and yet beautiful. His salon is full of innovative, natural products like baking soda shampoo for your babies and dogs, ionizing toothbrushes, and the like. When discussing politics or the environment, Ito always believed that we shouldn't settle for the lesser of evils - that a "good" solution was always possible.

The Ito family's positivity helped me through an otherwise potentially dark summer. Without going into details, the firm I worked for had been doing some shady business and borderline abused their interns. To put this in perspective, as one of my professors had warned me, many foreign architecture firms overwork interns and treat them poorly. That being said, the previous interns had elicited a formal investigation from the government, and as soon as news of my employment was posted on the Facebook page, the interns contacted me to warn me against working there. During my time there, five interns came and left. Only one intern, Mohamad from war-torn Syria, stayed because he could not risk flying back and could not afford to switch residences. When Ito found out about our situation, he was determined to help. He offered to find Mohamad an interim job in the fashion business, and contacted some lawyers to see what kind of action could be taken. Unfortunately, because these kinds of internships are informal and typically happen under vacation visas, it is difficult to make a case. 

I am unaware of what actions Ito did to help Mohamad after I left Nagoya, but in the end, Mohamad safely moved to Dallas, and the employer stopped taking foreign interns. I tried to adopt the healthy and positive outlook the Ito family had in life. For example, I started investigating natural alternatives to everyday products, using baking soda to shower and wash my hair. I also began working towards a healthier self and set a goal of 8 hours of sleep and 3 meals a day. To compare, I slept every other day and ate only one meal a day during my first year at Stanford. When I came back from Oxford, I weighed a mere 120 lbs. In less than a year after being inspired by this amazing couple, I had gained 50 lbs and run a half marathon. 

More importantly, I learned to bring this positivity to the way I solve problems, whether it is a design prompt or a conundrum in life. I learned to never settle for a solution that is less than what I think is right. True, we might never find a fully ideal solution, but we should not settle for existing ones simply because they are acceptable or standard. We should always believe and work towards a better solution.

That was a fairly dense blog, but I learned so much from this kind couple. [In hindsight,] it is also the only blog I wrote in 2014, which either highlights its importance or belies the fact that I've literally cut the amount of time I have to work on projects by half now that I sleep and eat every day.

Here is a picture of a pug I found on the same street as the Ballerina salon. No transition needed.

More pictures of Japan (link)