Travel

Sweeping beauties of Kumano's brush area

by Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello

Special To The Japan Times

In the soft morning drizzle, a handful of people line up before an altar-like mound of stones where a small fire crackles and hisses. Each person in turn throws a handful of old brushes into the blaze. The local garbage incinerator? No — this is ritual cremation.

“It’s in honor of the souls of the brushes for the work they’ve done,” a man explains.

This simple act reminds us that, while the concepts of mindfulness and gratitude have recently become modern buzzwords in the West, in Japan — with its ceremonies to show appreciation for everything from used kitchen knives to full moons — such notions have been ingrained in the collective psyche for centuries.

And so people bring their exhausted brushes to end their days here, at the pyre, a key event in the Fude no Matsuri (Brush Festival), in Kumano, a mountain town 20 km east of Hiroshima. It’s the O-Higan (autumn equinox) holiday. Visitors from far and wide throng the small town.

We are at the festival with Shin Takemori and his wife, Yumiko. Takemori is president of Chikuhodo Ltd., one of Kumano’s 80 family-run brush-making companies. The town is almost entirely dependent on its brush industry, so the Fude no Kokoro, or Spirit of the Brush, is a palpable force here. Alongside the brush pyre stands the Fudezuka stone tablet, Kumano’s most iconic monument, commemorating the town’s first brushmakers. The kanji carved into the stone read: “A brush dances to the wind of the heart.”

Kumano is one of those rare instances where a town has become a brand, synonymous with quality hand-crafted brushes. Of Kumano’s 27,000 inhabitants, 1,500 of them are fude-shi, or brush-making craftspeople. The town turns out a staggering 15 million brushes a year — 80 percent of Japan’s total brush production. The government has designated Kumano’s brush industry as a traditional craft.

When Japan won the Women’s Soccer World Cup in 2011, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan presented the team members with a set of Kumano makeup brushes. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the brushes “showcase Japan’s traditional craftsmanship and global brand power.”

So how did it all start?

“It began about 175 years ago, toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868),” explains Takemori. “This is a mountainous area, with little flat land for farming, so it was hard to survive in winter. To make ends meet, men used to go off to Nara Prefecture to work in forestry. They’d buy calligraphy brushes there and re-sell them on returning to Kumano.”

Around 1840, some enterprising farmers decided to learn how to make the brushes themselves. They combined different brush-making techniques they had learned on their travels, and developed the unique Kumano method.

In 1877, the introduction of compulsory education, which included calligraphy, triggered a surge in demand for calligraphy brushes. As sales soared, the reputation of Kumano’s distinctive brushes spread — and a brand was born.

In recent times, faced with declining demand for quality calligraphy brushes, Chikuhodo and many other Kumano companies have turned to producing high-end makeup brushes, while still using the traditional artisanal technique.

Thanks to this adaptability, Kumano’s brush industry has survived and thrived. Today, Kumano produces brushes for cosmetic, artistic and even medical purposes. They are exported all over the world, used by people from all walks of life, from Japanese schoolchildren to European painters and American fashion models. Takemori’s Chikuhodo company, founded in 1952, now employs more than 100 workers. Clients have ranged from Japanese cosmetics giant Kanebo to British art products manufacturer Windsor Newton.

“Touch them and see!” Takemori says when asked what makes Kumano brushes so special. We do and discover that they are so silky soft, it’s like brushing your cheeks with rose petals.

“Even today, Kumano brushes are all handmade,” he adds with pride. “That’s the secret of their softness.”

We are treated to a demonstration of this time-honored production technique at Kumano’s Fude-no Sato Kobo Brush Museum, where local craftsmen are in residence. The museum also houses the world’s largest calligraphy brush (a massive 3.7 meters long and weighing 400 kg), suspended from the ceiling.

Kumano brushes are one of Hiroshima’s most sought-after souvenirs, and the museum shop is packed. Aside from a surprising range of luxurious brushes, you can buy birth fude — a special brush for your baby’s hair — or have your name engraved on the brush of your choice. You can also try your hand at making your own one. They’ll even make you a souvenir brush from your baby’s first hair. As the Japanese proverb says: A brush that writes beautiful letters will make for a bright child.

We take a break at the museum’s excellent restaurant, where scrumptious lunch sets containing traditional treats, including green-tea soba, tempura and the Inland Sea specialty, anago meishi (conger eel and rice), are served in ornate lacquer boxes.

Outside the museum, the early morning rain had stopped, just as NHK TV unerringly predicted it would by noon. The damp mountain air is now alive with the smoky tang of yakisoba (pan-fried noodles), octopus dumplings and skewered squid sizzling on grills at colorful yatai stalls. At other stalls, local companies sell their brushes at knockdown prices.

Food aside, the festival is a vibrant celebration of the Spirit of the Brush and all things calligraphical. There are exhibitions, calligraphy contests and demonstrations of sumi-e (traditional ink drawing). We watch in awe as an expert’s hand conjures a perfect bamboo grove with just a few magical strokes, brush and ink seeming to act with a life of their own, indeed dancing to the wind of the heart.

A host of young volunteers stand by to help visitors learn some basic calligraphy strokes or design their own postcards with Japanese stone-paint.

The heart of the festival is the 10th-century Sakakiyama Shrine. Like many old shrines, it lies at the top of a steep hill. It’s 99 steps to the top, up a path known as Brush Avenue, which is festooned with 10,000 brushes — some pencil-thin, others as big as brooms — hanging down around head-height, “so everyone can touch them and feel their softness,” Takemori tells us. At the top, alongside the shrine, a magnificent, gnarled cedar towers over the torii, looking like it’s been there longer than the shrine.

We head back down to the broad esplanade below the shrine, where clusters of brilliant red higan bana (literally equinox flowers, better known as spider lilies) are “fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” as the poet William Wordsworth said of his daffodils.

A large crowd gathers for the festival’s high spot: a demonstration by a master calligrapher. Like a Japanese Jackson Pollock, the master paces barefoot around his “canvas” (a large vinyl sheet spread on the ground) in a balletic whirl, wielding a heavy brush longer than his arm. His assistant stands by with an ink-pot, big as a barrel. In large graceful strokes, the master composes his message.

Each year the task befalls a different master and their message is eagerly awaited by the onlookers. Every year it’s different — an enigmatic haiku from hermit poet Matsuo Basho, a message of solidarity with the victims of the Fukushima earthquake, a simple prayer of gratitude to the Spirit of the Brush. The sheet is then hung up for all to view.

As the master bows to the crowd and applause fades, Takemori’s wife, Yumiko, leads us down a side street to a small building that looks like a private house. But as we leave our shoes at the entrance and step behind the noren curtain, it’s like we’ve passed through a portal into a parallel universe. We find ourselves in a charming Kyoto-style teahouse, crammed with all manner of ornaments and scrolls depicting maple branches, plume grass, full moons, crickets and rabbits — all reflecting imminent autumn. There are only half a dozen low tables in the room. Luckily one of them is free, so we kneel before it on the tatami floor.

Through the broad picture window lies a garden, with koi pond, pine trees and concentric circles of raked gravel. It’s a little raft of calm amid the boisterous waves of the festival beyond the door. The kimono-clad owner sets down bowls of frothy green matcha tea, and some delicate fudemusume (brush-shaped cakes), served on paper napkins cut into maple leaf shapes. We compliment her on the decor and she tells us she changes it each month, in harmony with the changes in nature.

Back outside, an explosion of fireworks heralds the arrival of a lively procession, led by a brightly decorated bamboo boat. Kids shriek as a scary devil character runs among them. Inside the boat is the kami, or spirit of the local deity. Men in colorful happi coats chant as they haul it up Brush Avenue (all 99 steps), back to the shrine. There, the kami will rest until the next Autumn Equinox, when Kumano will once more fall under the Spirit of the Brush.

The Fude Matsuri is held on Sept. 23 in Kumano, Hiroshima Prefecture. Kumano brushes are sold at department stores and large stationery stores in Hiroshima, as well as in Hiroshima Shinkansen Station and Kumano’s Fude no Sato Brush Museum. Getting there: Kumano is 45 minutes by bus from JR Hiroshima Station and 35 minutes from JR Kure Station. Alternatively, take a train from JR Hiroshima Station to Yano, and then a bus from outside Yano Station.