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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo shop's charming craftsmanship helps traditional flower hairpins bloom

"Tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair accessories using a sakura flower motif, including a "sagari" kanzashi resembling falling petals, right, and a silver "ginbira" ornament, left, are seen at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- Pink sakura flowers herald the arrival of spring across Japan, as well as a season of new beginnings for people who are just entering companies or schools, or have been assigned to new posts in line with the start of the fiscal or academic year in April.

    One scenic spot known for beautiful views of cherry blossoms is the Mukojima area in the capital's Sumida Ward -- a few minutes' walk from Japan's tallest tower Tokyo Skytree. When viewed from the top of the tower, the rows of cherry trees in full bloom along the Sumida River add color to Tokyo's downtown "shitamachi" area.

    Traditional hair accessories called "Edo tsumami-kanzashi," which bear a striking resemblance to small cherry tree twigs, can be seen beside Mamoru Sugino, 47, at Kanzashi Sugino (Sugino Shoten), a shop in this area which creates and sells these traditional hairpins. Other pretty ornaments with motifs of seasonal flowers in Japan, such as chrysanthemums, "ume" plum tree flowers, camellias, hydrangeas and wisteria flowers, were also on display at the shop.

    Tools used to create "tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair ornaments are seen at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)
    A piece of square silk is seen folded twice into a triangle with tweezers, as part of the process of creating "tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair ornaments, at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    "Tsumamu" means "to pinch" in Japanese, and the ornamental flower petals of tsumami-kanzashi are created by pinching and folding tiny square silk cloth about the size of postage stamps. It is said that the traditional craft began in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, and later spread to Edo, present-day Tokyo.

    In the old days, kanzashi hair accessories for women were created by using various material. Old hair clips made of silver and other metal, stone, or caramel-colored "bekko" material made by processing shells of hawksbill sea turtles still remain today. Meanwhile, there are no existing ancient tsumami-kanzashi created from "habutae silk," a kind of high-quality woven cloth which is used as the primary material for the traditional hairpins today.

    Although plain weave fabrics use one warp and one filing yarn each, "habutae" is woven using two warp yarns, which brings out softness and a glossy finish. While different types of cloth have different textures, silk is soft and absorbs glue well, making it easy to shape into various forms.

    It was toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate that production of tsumami-kanzashi hairpins flourished in Edo. For about 200 years since then, the traditional culture of these hair accessories continued to be passed down through the handiwork of unsung craftsmen.

    While the materials and procedures for creating the traditional hairpins have remained generally unchanged since the Edo period (1603-1867), the material used for paste is the sole factor that has been greatly altered. Starch paste made from rice was originally used, and this glue is still used to make traditional kanzashi crafts like those available at the Sugino Shoten store.

    "As paste made from rice is used to stiffen the silk, bugs and mice chew on the fabric. The ornaments also lose their shape when they get wet, and the cloth discolors through exposure to light. It's as if they are actual flowers in bloom for a fleeting period," said Sugino.

    However, the development of strong adhesives after World War II opened up the possibility to use fabric of various sturdy material, and expanded the range of ornaments using the traditional technique. The appearance of the finished item is said to differ greatly depending on the paste.

    Tsumami-kanzashi fabric hair accessories are used today to add a touch of color to celebratory occasions and events during one's lifetime, including weddings and traditional Nihon Buyo dance performances. Orders for the items are also concentrated during the season of coming-of-age ceremonies, graduation and entrance ceremonies, and Shichi-go-san celebrations, for girls aged 7, boys aged 5, and girls and boys aged 3, as the kanzashi are worn together with formal kimono.

    While all the ornaments are handcrafted, certified professional craftsmen who create kanzashi are aging, and the number of craftsmen in the capital has dropped to under 10 people. Meanwhile, there seems to be an increasing number of individuals who have been engaging in creating tsumami-kanzashi on their own as a hobby.

    Sugino's 45-year-old wife Satoko demonstrated the actual process to create the pinched flower ornaments. Material used includes several types of small silk cloth cut into squares measuring 3 centimeters each side, "himenori" paste made from starch, thick construction paper, and wire.

    First, the paste is spread evenly on a board. The silk cloths are folded into small pieces and by using tweezers, are affixed onto the glue surface, so that they will absorb it. The fabric is then folded into a shape resembling flower petals; mainly using either the "maru-tsumami" technique which is modeled on round flower petals, or the "ken-tsumami" technique, also known as "kaku-tsumami," which calls forth the image of thin pointy petals.

    Small pieces of folded silk cloth are seen soaking in glue, as part of the process of creating "tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair ornaments, at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. The cloth pieces in the foreground are "maru-tsumami" round flower petals, while those in the back are "ken-tsumami" pointy flower petals. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)
    Folded pieces of silk are being attached to a circle-shaped construction paper base, as part of the process of creating "tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair ornaments, at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    Satoko said, "The basic shapes of flower petals are these two. These are turned into various flowers." After the fabric absorbs the glue well after letting it soak for several minutes, they are attached to a tiny construction paper base one by one and made into flowers. Many of these small flowers made in this way are joined together and firmly fastened with thread; and the accessory is complete.

    "For beginners, I recommend the ume flower shape that uses five 'maru-tsumami' petals," said Satoko. As it is basically simple handicraft, it is apparently fitting for people who are good with their hands and appreciate a process of making items little by little.

    Since the Meiji period (1868-1912), as there have been fewer occasions to wear kimono in Japan, opportunities to use kanzashi accessories have also decreased. While traditional Japanese clothing is only worn on special occasions nowadays, Satoko designed a hair accessory using the tsumami technique which can also be used in everyday settings. Although it looks like a bouquet at first glance, it is actually made of 10 to 15 tsumami ornaments. Individuals can match them with normal Western-style clothing while selecting and arranging their own style. When not worn in the hair, they can be decorated like ikebana.

    An Arenca series package containing "tsumami-kanzashi" traditional hair ornaments, which resembles a bouquet, is seen at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    "In this digital age, tsumami ornaments are extremely analog products that are created entirely by hand, but this is precisely why you can enjoy creating unique works. We'd like for people to enjoy using these crafts in various ways," said the Suginos.

    Such an earnest wish is contained in these small hair accessories which bloom brilliantly.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    The Japanese version of this article was originally published on March 23, 2021, and the ages of individuals indicated in the story are as of the publishing date.

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    "Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom along the Sumida River" (Sumidagawa hanazakari), an ukiyoe woodblock print from the series "Famous Places in Edo" by Utagawa Hiroshige, is shown in this image taken from the digital archives of the National Diet Library.

    The Mukojima area in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, where Sugino Shoten is located, is on the other side of the Sumida River from Asakusa, which has been a busy entertainment district since the Edo period. "Mukoh" means "the other side," and this is where the district got its name. It is thought that the scenic beauty of cherry blossoms along the banks of the Sumida River has its roots in the Edo period, when eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune planted them in 1717, or the second year of the Kyoho era. It is said that the sakura were also planted with the purpose of making the embankment sturdy by having a large number of visitors who came to see the cherry blossoms every year tread on the ground. The district was also used as the subject of many ukiyoe woodblock prints.

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    Kanzashi Sugino (Sugino Shoten) is located at 3-20-7 Mukojima in Tokyo's Sumida Ward.

    Mamoru Sugino, right, and his wife Satoko are seen at Sugino Shoten store in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    The store was founded in 1948 by Mamoru Sugino's grandfather Yoshimi as a shop selling accessories and other goods. From Meiji, the Sumida Ward area was a hub of the textile spinning industry, and Sugino surmised that the shop initially sold handkerchiefs and masks. The shop went on to handle production and sale of hair accessories and artificial flowers, as there were tsumami-kanzashi craftsmen in the area which was close to a "hanamachi" geisha entertainment district.

    The store's official website can be accessed at https://sugino.business.site/

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    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series puts a spotlight on traditions, crafts, artisan's techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The family-friendly text primarily targets grade school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    "Enchanting Edo" will be published every other Tuesday.

    In Photos: Traditional flower hairpins at Tokyo shop add charm to special occasions

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