Combing through antiquity for quality

by Kazuko Ide

Unlike in those days when everyone wore kimono, Tsutomu Takeuchi’s customers today are somewhat limited in number: hairdressers for sumo wrestlers, theatrical coiffeurs and makers of Japanese coiffure bridal wigs, and a few longtime aficionados.

Takeuchi is the 14th generation proprietor of Jusan-ya, a store specializing in tsuge-gushi, boxwood combs, since its establishment in 1736. “Plastic combs are made by pouring the mixture into a mold. We fashion each comb according to the features of the particular piece of wood,” says the craftsman, sitting in his storefront workplace. Next to him, his son is busy planing the palm-sized pieces of boxwood.

The compact store, facing the south end of Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo’s Ueno, displays combs of all shapes and sizes, as well as ornamental hairpins and earpicks made of boxwood. The name of the store literally means 13, derived from “nine” and “four.” The two numbers can be read as ku and shi, making up, when combined, the Japanese word for comb.

The time-consuming art of comb-making has not changed much since it was perfected in the Edo Period. After the partially dried pieces of boxwood arrive from the tree-growers in Kagoshima Prefecture, Takeuchi straightens them using steam and a press. The pieces are then smoked with boxwood powder and left to dry between five to 10 years.

“The wood finally settles down and is ready for use,” says Takeuchi, who has been making combs for 42 years since the age of 15. Using an electric circular saw, the craftsman cuts into the planed wood to make the comb’s teeth. Using files of varying sizes and material, from metal to wood, covered with shark skin or dried plant skin, Takeuchi smooths the sides of each tooth down to its base. When he is done, he cuts out the comb shape. After some more planing and polishing, using deer bone, plus a coating of camellia oil, the comb with the golden luster is complete.

The boxwood comb is known for its durability, derived from the dense nature of the wood. When a German owner of one of Takeuchi’s combs dropped it during a yachting trip, he had to jump into the water to retrieve it, after waiting in vain for it to surface. As part of the comb’s “indescribable appeal,” Takeuchi explains that it does not cause static electricity nor snip the hair. The comb’s weight and smooth teeth allow the user to run the comb through the hair without force.

According to the craftsman, the refined technique of comb-making and hairdressing in Japan owes it to the development of the multi-styled traditional Japanese coiffure. Although 17 comb-makers were found in the district before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Jusan-ya is presently the only store in business selling handmade ware.

The proprietor says that until about 30 years ago, there was a certain rapport between the comb-makers and the customers, who were familiar with the craftsmanship. Takeuchi points out that people today rely on the price of things to make decisions. Consequently some choose the inexpensive combs, that are either mass-produced or made from imported boxwood, instead of his ware, which are priced between 3,000 yen and 11,000 yen. Takeuchi says he wants to sell his combs “only to people who really want them.”