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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo shop's traditional boxwood combs enrich hair and state of mind

Three types of "brushing combs" -- the main products of Yonoya Kushiho which can be run through the hair smoothly to a remarkable extent -- are seen at traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. Customers can choose from three types whose teeth are spaced apart at different widths, based on the nature of their hair. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- Traces of the old town of Edo can be found around the avenue leading up to the entrance of Buddhist temple Sensoji in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's most iconic tourist spots. Signs for "dance costumes," "festival goods," and "traditional sensu fans" are lined up along the street, while people in traditional attire and rickshaws for tourists pass by. Nestled in this nostalgic townscape is Yonoya Kushiho, a shop specializing in handmade boxwood combs that has a history of over 300 years.

    In the establishment, which also houses a workshop, shop head Yutaka Saito, 40, uses a handmade file to carefully craft the combs' teeth one by one.

    In the old days, high-quality combs were made of boxwood. Besides being robust and fine-grained, the material is characterized by its elasticity. "It's not easily bent, and hair breakage rarely occurs when you brush your hair with it. Boxwood combs are gentle on the hair cuticles," said Yutaka's 40-year-old wife Yuzu, who has long hair herself.

    An artisan at traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho uses a handmade file -- a wooden stick with the inner parts of coarse rough horsetail stems applied to its edge -- to smoothen and adjust comb teeth one by one at the establishment in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Yonoya's combs are created from "Satsuma-tsuge" boxwood grown in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Kagoshima, which is said to be of the highest quality in the country. Boxwood material grown in the warm area is exposed to smoke and dried before undergoing the process of grinding comb teeth. For "brushing combs," the shop's main product, there are around 60 teeth on "fine-toothed" combs that are about 15 centimeters long. A file is used to smoothen and adjust each and every tooth of the comb by hand.

    The comb, which has been filed and made smooth to the touch, is soaked in high-grade camellia oil for three to four days. Yuzu opened one of the cabinet drawers of the shop to show that it was filled with camellia oil.

    "Kanzashi" hairpins created at boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho are seen at the shop in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. The accessory on the left has turned into a rich color due to many years of usage. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "By thoroughly absorbing the oil, the comb's moisture and luster gets brought out. Even if you continue to use them for a long time, they won't get bent, or curve, and they also gradually turn into an amber color, which gives users a sense of affection toward the combs. The more you use them, the more charm is brought out," she said.

    Yutaka, who is in his 17th year of the craft, hopes to pass down Japan's traditional culture of using boxwood combs. During the Edo period (1603-1867), amid a culture where men and women alike grew out their hair, specialized hairdressers were in charge of styling people's hair. Thus, various combs served as tools designated for such professionals, rather than household goods.

    However, society changed during the Meiji Restoration as Japan transitioned to a modern state. Following the 1871 decree that abolished hair regulations for men, their hair got shorter while women also began to tie their hair up in a Western style. Furthermore, when celluloid and other plastic products began to be circulated in the Showa period (1926-1989) at a cheap price, shops specializing in the production of boxwood combs decreased drastically. Twenty or so establishments existed in Tokyo in the years between 1945 and 1954, but there remain just two today. Yonoya is one of the shops that has carried on its business to the present while enduring a crisis of a lack of successors to take over the business.

    Yutaka Saito, head of traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho, holds material, left, that has yet to undergo the complete process of smoothening each comb tooth, whose edges are later rounded off to create the finished form shown on the right, at the shop in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "Boxwood combs have continued to be used by Japanese people in their lives for a long time. They tend to be viewed as precious craftworks, but in the end, they are everyday items. Like the idiom, 'visit the past to develop new ideas,' I'd like the Japanese people to restore a mindset that allows oneself extra time and room to take care of their hair thoroughly and leisurely," said Yutaka.

    The caramel-colored wooden combs seem to speak to us in such a way inside the shop, which seems to be frozen in time.

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

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    A word of wisdom: Hints for the new can be found by visiting the past

    Yutaka Saito emphasized that while people's lifestyles and hairstyles have changed over time, his shop, Yonoya Kushiho, has not started to make products that are completely new. During my visit, I got a sense of his strong determination to protect the material and fundamental methods used to create the end product, as well as Japan's long tradition of caring thoroughly for one's hair with high-quality boxwood combs.

    The beautiful pattern of growth rings can be seen on the back of a boxwood comb in this image taken at boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Amid the "permanent wave" trend of the Showa period (1926-1989), the sales of new "perm combs" designed for this hairstyle began. Though a new hairstyle was introduced, the product itself was not new altogether, said Saito. He revealed that perm combs actually borrowed its form from "kamoji" combs, which were tools used by professional hairdressers to unknot and redo traditional nihongami hair.

    Kamoji combs' teeth had wider spaces between each other compared to regular combs as their purpose was to roughly undo knotted hair. As more women permed their hair, they needed something to replace fine-toothed combs, whose teeth would get tangled in their curls. Thus, hints were taken from the wide spacing of kamoji combs, which allowed wavy hair to glide through easily and suited permed hair well. This idea developed into Yonoya's perm combs, which have about 20 teeth on 14 cm combs, as opposed to 15 cm fine-toothed combs that have around 60 teeth.

    Saito said that while kamoji combs had temporarily disappeared after hairstyles became westernized during the Meiji period (1868-1912), they were revived in the form of perm combs -- a good example of the Japanese idiom 'onkochishin,' meaning 'visit the past to develop new ideas.'

    A boxwood comb is seen soaked in camellia oil at boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Yonoya also boasts a collection of business casual hair accessories. Saito mentioned that while accessories coated in lacquer, which were worn to match traditional kimono attire, would be too heavy for an office setting, the natural light caramel color of boxwood would work well as a tiny ornament to add to the hair in such an environment. Again, the shop makes use of Japan's prized material that already exists, in spite of changes in the settings for which they are used.

    Before the coronavirus pandemic, many foreign tourists from countries such as France, Italy and Spain, apparently visited the shop, including those who came specifically in search of the high-quality boxwood combs. Some of these individuals would visit the store more than once -- the latter occasions to purchase hairpins to wear on their hair, which had grown long after they took good care of it using Yonoya's combs.

    Though they may take slightly new forms, the essence of these traditional combs has remained unchanged, as the shop has gained new customers. I hope that Yonoya will keep revisiting the past to create new products while spreading and protecting Japan's hair care traditions.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    Comb types

    Decorative combs with beautiful wood carvings that serve as hair accessories are seen at traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    "Vertical combs" which have been used since old times by professional hairdressers to arrange traditional Japanese hairstyles, are seen at boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. The combs are custom-made, with the length of teeth and spacing adjusted to order. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Yonoya's combs come in various shapes. The main kind are "brushing combs," which consist of three types -- "fine," "medium," and "wide" -- based on the width of space between each tooth. "Perm combs" have an even wider spacing, and customers can choose products based on the length and style of their hair. The shop's lineup also includes "setting combs," which are combs with handles used for parting and styling hair, and "decorative combs" used as hair accessories, some of which have openwork designs or have been coated with lacquer, while others make use of the boxwood's original color.

    Professional styling tools called "vertical combs" with a broomlike shape are also sold at the shop. These are used by hairdressers specializing in traditional Japanese hairstyles as well as those with sumo wrestler clientele.

    * * *

    Japanese box tree

    Pieces of boxwood grown in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, in southwestern Japan, which has been exposed to smoke and dried is seen at boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    The Japanese box (Buxus microphylla var. japonica) is an evergreen shrub that grows in warm areas of west Japan. As the material is hard, since old times, boxwood has been used for a variety of items, including combs, abacuses, "biwa" lute picks, hanko stamps, and shogi pieces.

    The fine-grained wood grows slowly, and it takes about 50 to 70 years for it to become thick enough to use as material for combs. Afforestation has been taking place in Kagoshima Prefecture to ensure a stable supply of Satsuma boxwood, said to be of the highest quality among its kind.

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    Camellia oil

    Camellia oil products sold at traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho are seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Camellia oil, or oil taken from the seeds of camellia plants, is a must-have item with boxwood combs. The oil has been used as a cosmetic to protect women's black hair. As it is gentle not only on the hair but also on the scalp, camellia oil is also used in shampoo. As for boxwood comb care, applying camellia oil to the comb and teeth is the most effective way to keep the comb in good condition.

    * * *

    Yonoya Kushiho is located at 1-37-10 Asakusa in Tokyo's Taito Ward.

    The shop's official website can be reached at https://yonoya.com/

    Mitsusaburo Minekawa, the great-grandfather of Yutaka Saito, head of traditional boxwood comb shop Yonoya Kushiho, is seen at the age of 82 in this photo taken from the Mainichi Graphic's Nov. 25, 1973 edition. The shop currently remains as it was at the time of the photo. (Mainichi/Taro Nakamura) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Yonoya Kushiho was founded in 1717 during the mid-Edo period, and the business is said to have started near the Yushima Tenjin shrine, located in the present-day Bunkyo Ward in Tokyo. In 1916, Mitsusaburo Minekawa, the great-grandfather of current shop head Yutaka Saito, relocated to Asakusa, and opened the establishment that now operates as Yonoya Kushiho. Mitsusaburo was apparently known as a "god" for his skilled technique, while his son Mitsumasa was called a "distinguished craftsman." The works of the earlier masters can also be seen at the shop, which was built facing north to prevent the products' exposure to the sun.

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal 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 of the articles, 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 user-friendly text primarily targets elementary 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.

    The next "Enchanting Edo" story, on Edo Kiriko cut glassware, will be published on Sept. 14. The original Japanese story can be read at https://mainichi.jp/maisho/articles/20200526/kei/00s/00s/004000c

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