So why have Japanese been flocking to the new ear-cleaning businesses? "They go to relax," says Yoshimi Sasaki, manager of the Akihabara branch of Yamamoto Mimikaki-ten, one of the biggest ear-care chains. Yamamoto Mimikaki-ten opened in 2006 and now boasts nine locations around Tokyo.
"It's so relaxing that three out of four clients, who are mostly men, fall asleep during the session," says Sasaki. "Because of all the stress people have and lack of real-world communication due to the Internet, they want to make a connection with someone and experience healing."
Using a "mimikaki," an ear pick made of bamboo, metal or plastic with a small scoop at the end, she gently and lovingly scrapes excess wax out of his ears. It takes one week of training to acquire proper ear-cleaning skills. Sasaki explains that it's important to learn the principles of optimal ear care, such as removing just the right amount of wax, which is vital to ear health.
"The ear canal has got fantastic protections," according to Andrew Sceats, a British ear care expert and author of "Ear Candling & Other Treatments for Ear, Nose and Throat Problems." "One of (these protections) is earwax, which we need because it is protective against things falling in, it lubricates the ear canal, and it's also antibacterial and antiviral," Sceats adds.
Some regulars, however, opted to skip the cut altogether, wanting only the ear treatment. Five years ago, Takahashi decided to make ear cleaning the main attraction of her business, calling it "ear este." Since then, Takahashi, who is also the head of the Japan Ear Esthetique Association, has been promoting her brand through lectures, the media, a memoir and two shops.
In 2009, she introduced ear este at her Tokyo beauty salon, Beatific. Though geared toward women, 40 percent of the salon's customers are men. Takahashi has also opened two ear este schools: one teaches women how to care for their loved one's ears, and another trains professional ear aestheticians with an 80-hour course, followed by a 10-day practicum. Beatific spokesperson Mami Takahashi explains that ear este not only reduces stress but can also enhance beauty and overall health.
Beatific's basic ear este service takes 70 minutes and costs ¥8,400 (about US$100). It begins with an ear wash, followed by massage of the ears, neck and shoulders. Then comes a meticulous ear cleaning, followed by more massage.
Other services include additional massage, facial, shave and "ear fortune telling," in which, by looking at an ear's unique characteristics, Takahashi claims to be able to divine a person's past and personality in order to advise them about the future. Some Japanese are lucky enough to have their own in-house ear cleaner: among a Japanese mother's many duties, keeping her children's and husband's ears clean is common.
The doctor placed a tiny camera in my ear and projected the image onto a monitor. He pointed out my eardrum as if he were a tour guide of some miniature world. The left ear was clean, but the right one ear had a chunk of wax that he deftly plucked out with tweezers as I watched, amazed. He told me I ought to abandon my primitive earwax removal device -- the Q-tip.
Though standard in the West, he said it actually pushes things deeper into the ear canal. This may explain why Sceats, the ear expert, who has peered into thousands of ears, says that Asians are generally better at ear care than Westerners. "The healthiest ears I've ever seen have belonged to Asian ladies," Sceats says, "because they have this tradition of looking after their ears." (CNN GO Asia)