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Enchanting Edo: Without sweeping away tradition, Tokyo shop's brooms suit modern lifestyles

Junichi Takano, of Edo broom shop Shirokiya Denbe, speaks about the sense of abundance that one gains from using the same tool until it is well worn, including Edo brooms which last well over 10 years, in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- The year is approaching an end, with just about one month left. As Japan has a tradition of holding "big cleanups" in December, it may be time to tidy up your room and desk area. Brooms, which have been used in Japan from ancient times, may come in handy during this cleaning season.

    At a time when there were no electric appliances, traditional brooms using plants -- such as kochia or the bark of a hemp palm tree -- for bristles, were used in Japanese homes, many of which had traditional rooms with tatami mat flooring. These traditional Japanese brooms were compatible with the cover of tatami mats which were made of soft rush plants, and their continued usage brought out the gloss on the mats' surface.

    Shirokiya Denbe, an Edo broom shop in Tokyo's Kyobashi area, continues to create handmade traditional brooms. In a workspace in a corner of the shop, Ryosuke Kanbara, 41, a craftsman in his 11th year, was seen gracefully weaving a broom.

    Traditional Edo brooms, which use rare domestically grown grass deemed the highest quality, are seen at Shirokiya Denbe in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "This year's new grass has just arrived. It's green and has a nice scent, right?" he said. While Edo brooms have beautiful woven patterns, their basic function is in their utility. Kanbara remarked, "They are after all not art objects, but daily tools that derive their value from how useful they are."

    Although traditional brooms were made across the country in the past as essential household items, only a handful of places in Japan continue to create them, with Shirokiya Denbe being the only such shop in Tokyo. Junichi Takano, 48, showed us around the shop, and said that Edo brooms were characterized by a tough yet resilient nature born from high-quality 'hokimorokoshi' (a crop grass native to Africa and whose fruit are removed from the ears to create the bristles), as well as their lightness on the wrist when sweeping.

    Takano said, "The lightness when you hold the broom changes according to the balance between the bamboo handle and the woven-grass bristles. This is the same as how the weight of a baseball bat can feel different depending on where you grip it."

    Shirokiya Denbe craftsman Ryosuke Kanbara is seen making a traditional Edo broom in the shop's workspace in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    The method of weaving the brushes so that lightness is achieved by decentralizing the brooms' center of gravity was fostered over Shirokiya's long history. Takano said, "We think that it's one form brought to completion. There is nothing that needs changing." Contrary to its appearance, the long handle of the Edo broom was lightweight. The tightly woven bristles moved like a pendulum, and bounced like springs when swept against the floor. The work is all done by hand, and the shop's three craftspeople produce about 2,000 brooms in a year.

    "Once you become accustomed to using it, there is no other cleaning utensil that is as handy and easy to use as a broom," said Takano, who uses a broom at home habitually. He said that brooms are actually very suitable for modern times, where many people live in apartment buildings. Brooms do not require electricity or worrying about the length of a cord. As they do not cause noise or shaking, they can be used at any time of day without concern for neighbors. On top of this, sweeping can be done regardless of a room's shape, and even in narrow spaces, as well as areas with steps.

    "With brooms, you can take them out quickly and sweep when you want. Cleaning is no longer a chore," Takano said. If the bristles are damaged, the brooms can still be put to use by cutting them off, and once the brush is short, they can be used to sweep the front entrance. Brooms change their purpose as cleaning equipment throughout their lives, and after their duty is fulfilled, they don't even produce toxic substances when burned up.

    A standard Edo broom, right, and one with an alternative form, left, are seen at Shirokiya Denbe in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. The latter is made lighter by creating hollow sections. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "We have committed ourselves to lovingly and quietly focusing on creating traditional brooms made only from the natural materials of bamboo and kochia. They are now imbued with new value as environmentally friendly tools. After continuing to create brooms that were behind the times, society went through drastic change, and now we're at the present age's forefront. That's what it feels like," said Takano as he laughed.

    Nowadays, as we are all navigating new lifestyles, there may be unexpected hints from the lives of the past. Edo brooms are full of the wisdom of the Edo people, said to have had an eco-friendly way of living.

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

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    The Japanese version of this article was originally published on Nov. 24, 2020, and the ages of individuals indicated in the story are as of the publishing date.

    * * *

    Various types of traditional cleaning utensils

    - Brooms

    A craftsman demonstrates how to use an Edo broom at Shirokiya Denbe in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. Brooms with long handles should be held at a right angle, as the bristles are made so they sweep parallel with the floor. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    A craftsman demonstrates how to use an Edo broom at Shirokiya Denbe in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. Brooms with short handles should be held so that users' arms and the brooms' handles form a straight line. The bristles are cut so that the end forms a diagonal line. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "If you sweep only in the same direction, the bristles become bent or curved, so it's better to occasionally turn the broom around," said Kanbara. When done using a broom, it is recommended that you hang it on a wall.

    - "Harimi" Japanese washi paper dustpans

    Shirokiya's traditional dustpans called "harimi" are created by stretching washi paper across a bamboo framework of bamboo strips, and applying "kakishibu" dye made from fermenting juice extracted from astringent persimmons, which serves as a bug repellent. Its shape is modeled after a winnowing basket called "mi" used in farming, and the name "harimi" is a play on the phrase "mi ga hairu," which means "to work hard." The dustpan does not produce static electricity, unlike plastic or metal, and the collected dust can be disposed of neatly.

    - Reusing brooms to scrub dishes

    In the old days, scrubbing brushes used to scour pots and dishes were originally a bundle of unfastened bristles from old brooms that were tied together for reuse. Hemp palm had particularly been in wide use as scrubbing brush material as the fiber is firm.

    Another sort of "sweeping"

    While clearing away trash and dust is the primary role of brooms, they also serve as talismans that drive away danger, evil spirits, and illness. On Dec. 13, many temples and shrines across Japan carry out a cleaning ritual to expel physical and mental impurities that accumulated over the year, and welcome the new year with a refreshed state of mind.

    "Harimi" Japanese washi paper dustpans are seen at Shirokiya Denbe in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito) =Click/tap photo for more images.

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    Shirokiya Nakamura Denbe Shoten is located at 3-9-8 Kyobashi in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.

    The establishment was founded in what is now Tokyo's Ginza district in 1830 in the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1867), as a shop handling tatami mat covers. During the second-generation head's time, it relocated to its current location in Kyobashi, where bamboo-related businesses were concentrated. Shirokiya manufactures and sells various types of brooms and cleaning utensils.

    The shop's official website is at https://www.edohouki.com/

    It can be contacted via phone at 0120-375-389 (in Japanese).

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    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 "oshie-hagoita" will be published on Nov. 30.

    In Photos: Traditional Tokyo broom shop proving it can handle modern lifestyles

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