In Tokyo, a city where there are more hair salons than convenience stores, to stand out as one of the best seems almost impossible. Yet Julian Adler, owner of The Chop Shop in Kichijoji, has done just that.
Having received the Kami Charisma award for men’s haircuts the last three years running, a government-awarded Michelin Star equivalent for hairdressing, Julian’s career as a barber has taken him around the world and seen him cut hair in front of thousands of people.
Sitting outside The Chop Shop on a warm Tokyo summer evening, I spoke with Adler about his life before cutting hair, where his skills have taken him and his plans for the future.
From Germany to Japan
Born in Germany, life as the owner of a Tokyo-based barber shop is a long way from Adler’s childhood. But after arriving in Japan, he knew that he’d found a home away from home.
“My dad’s German and my mom’s Japanese,” he says. “I came to Japan when I was 14 years old. As a kid, I just liked the vibes in Japan. I liked baseball too, which is popular here, so that was nice.”
“I started cutting hair when I was 20 years old,” continues Adler. “I went to school in Tokyo to get my license, then did my training at a salon. For the first five years, I was also cutting women’s hair, but I found myself drawn more toward cutting men’s hair. To me, men’s hairstyles felt more like sculptures.”
Making the Cut
At the time, transitioning into full-time barbering was not straightforward in Japan. Many of the hairstyles associated with today’s barbershops, such as fades, were not yet popular, making resources and expertise hard to come by. Despite these difficulties, Adler wasn’t deterred. He set about finding his own way into the industry.
“I didn’t really know anything about barbering,” he tells TW. “Back then, there wasn’t much information in Japan, so I went on YouTube and found a Dutch barbershop called Schorem. It was posting tutorials on men’s hairstyles that no one was really doing in Japan, so I went out and bought all the tools and started imitating the videos.”
Of course, as with anything new, it took time for Adler to translate these tutorials from across the globe into something concrete here in Tokyo.
“At first, I started by practicing on a friend of mine,” recalls Adler. “It was bad. In the end, what started as a fade was just a buzz cut. From there I started training on some of my clients by offering them a discount until I was good enough to go full-time. After that, I worked to become the manager of a barbershop in Harajuku. Then in 2021, I opened The Chop Shop.”
While much of Adler’s career as a barber has taken place in Tokyo, his skills have also seen him travel the world, cutting hair on stage in front of large crowds in countries such as Taiwan, China, The Netherlands, Madrid and the United States, where he even cut hair live on the streets of Los Angeles.
“The biggest one was actually at Yokohama Arena,” remembers Adler. “I had to cut hair on stage in front of 2,000 people with a big screen and everything. It was kind of scary, being in front of that many people all watching what I was doing, but thankfully I couldn’t see them because of the lighting in the arena.”
Keeping Up with The Cuts
As with anything fashion-related, hair trends are constantly changing and evolving, meaning styles that were popular years ago may be less common today. While making a name for himself, and eventually opening his own business, Adler knew this all too well.
“As a barbershop, you have to be able to do something different,” opines the hairdresser. “You’re always thinking about the next trend. You have to see what other people are doing and use that to keep getting better, especially in Tokyo. Things are always moving fast here. In places like Harajuku and Shibuya, trends are constantly changing.”
From Pomade to the People
Much like bartenders, barbers often have close interactions with their clients. The barber’s chair is a place for people from all walks of life to sit, relax and have a conversation. This is an aspect of his work that Adler enjoys greatly.
“I’ve had some pretty interesting clients,” he says. “People like the rapper Joey Badass and the Formula One driver Kamui (Kobayashi). But to me, everyone is interesting. I get to meet people with jobs that I know nothing about. I can learn a lot from them. I don’t think people should see the barber and the client as separate. They should be more like friends. That’s how I learned to speak English, by getting to know my foreign clients.”
Plans For the Future
Yet even with all his success to date, Adler is far from finished with his barbershop endeavors.
“Next year I’ll hopefully start up a second barber shop in the city,” he says. “Something in the Hiroo, Shibuya area. I also enjoy designing, making things like hats. I’m currently in the process of hiring more barbers for the shop, so once that’s done, I can hopefully start making hats again too.”
Located at 2-13-12 Kichijoji Minamicho, Musashino-shi, The Chop Shop is open every day from 10am to 8pm.
Photos by Ben Cooke