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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 April 2006, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
A spring clean the Japanese way
By Christopher Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

The Japanese have a reputation for inventing new technology and exporting it to the rest of the world. But as Christopher Hogg discovers at a Tokyo beauty salon, there are some things in Japan which may not be to everyone's tastes.

A woman's ear being cleaned at the Mimi Kurin salon in Tokyo
Customers can relax in the lime green chairs of the Mimi Kurin salon
I was always taught not to put anything in my ear smaller than my little finger.

Twizzling cotton buds around the inside of my ear canal could cause damage. So I just did not bother to use them or in fact to pay much attention to what kind of condition my ears were in.

That might be the reason why, when I found myself sitting in a comfortable chair staring at a screen onto which the contents of my ear were being broadcast in glorious technicolour, I felt so nauseous.

I had come to try one of Tokyo's newest hi-tech treatments for Japanese businessmen with time on their hands.

In a tiny salon called Mimi Kurin (which means ear clean) on the third floor of a building near one of the city's biggest stations, they will scrape the gunk out of your ear with a scoop attached to a miniature camera.

You sit down in a lime green chair and try to relax.

In front of you is a flat screen television with what looks like an image of the sun, an orange circle slightly out of focus against a black background.

As my masked therapist scraped away the detritus I got to watch the whole experience in all its wide-screen horror
As the therapist picks up the tool though you realise what you are watching is the image broadcast from the tiny camera she is holding.

The picture shows your ear getting closer and closer as she approaches, and then in seconds the tool is down the hole and inside.

Now I am sure I do not have to tell you that it is not a pretty sight in there.

Your ear canal is about 3cm long. The woman treating me was determined to remove as much as she could from inside.

As my masked therapist scraped away the detritus I got to watch the whole experience in all its wide-screen horror.

Tricky technique

It tickled, but not in a good way.

It felt like the scoop was going way too far down inside my ear although to be honest that might have been just the effect of watching my aural spring clean on the monitor in front of me.

Maria told me she was a college student studying anthropology.

This was a part-time job. The training had taken a month to get the technique just right.

"Why on earth do you do this all day?" I asked her.

"I like to do something different," she said "something out of the ordinary."

Apparently most clients are male, in their thirties or older.

When I asked why, my therapist laughed. "The men are less good at the cleaning out," she told me. "Women are better at it."

Ear cleaning in Japan is traditionally a family activity

Just as I was about to rebut this scandalous slur on my sex, she wheeled herself round on her chair to the other side and stuck the probe in my left ear.

The sight that greeted us was truly horrible.

I am not sure I can do justice to just how bad it was. Let us just say it looks like someone had left a pile of old baked beans sitting there in my ear canal.

It might have been my imagination but I think even Maria the therapist flinched.

Perhaps this was not the right moment to suggest she was being sexist.

Grandmother's ears

Ear cleaning in Japan is traditionally a family activity.

My friend in the next booth Miho told me her father had an especially good technique when she was a little girl, resting her head on his lap while he dug away with a small wooden scoop.

Later she showed me one of the scoops in a chemist's shop.

It was about 10cm long with what looked like a miniature powder puff on the end that is used to brush away the dust.

"You can't buy these outside Japan," she told me. "When I lived in London I had to get people to send them to me."

In this part of Tokyo, near the railway station, there are a range of diversions for businessmen who have an hour or so to waste
For Miho, a hi-tech ear clean brought back memories from years gone by.

She used to do it for her grandmother, because as a young girl her eyesight was so good that granny trusted her to do the job more than anyone else.

At the salon though it was clear that Miho's ears were in better shape than mine and she was soon onto the head and shoulder massage that comes after the treatment.

Hi-tech distractions

Outside, a salaryman, as they are known here, a besuited, middle-aged man was sitting patiently waiting his turn.

In this part of Tokyo, near the railway station, there are a range of diversions for businessmen who have an hour or so to waste before their next meeting. It is a maze of neon and flashing lights and the narrow streets are lined with tall signs advertising all manner of services.

Around Shinjuku there are private rooms with internet access, others where porn videos are showing and karaoke bars, sex shops and pachinko parlours where spare time can easily be gambled away.

Or you can come to a salon like Mimi Kurin for an ear clean. The major selling point of course is that it is new, and hi-tech. Two things the Japanese love.

Finally finished and hearing in stereo for the first time in months, I joined Miho outside to pay the bill, quite reasonable I thought for what I had put the poor therapist through.

I was handed a plastic card with all my details printed on it. Clearly she thought I needed to become a regular.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 15 January, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Japan
23 Mar 06 |  Country profiles


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