Essential implements for arranging hair in traditional Japanese styles

What are Kyoto boxwood combs?
Traditional Japanese hairstyles (Nihon gami) are impossible to style without combs. The comb is an ancient implement that has been found at Jomon period (c. 10,500 BCE–c. 3rd C. BCE) sites, and it is thought that combs made from boxwood (tsuge) were in use from around the Nara period. Boxwood combs do not generate static electricity, and are said to be gentle to the skin. The more they are used, the more attractive their amber color becomes, and their enhanced beauty makes them favorite possessions. The word in Japanese for comb is kushi, whose syllables also could be read as the numerals nine (ku) and four (shi). For this reason, Edo period (1615-1868) comb shops often used the number thirteen (jūsan), the sum of four and nine, in their shop names. Even today, there are still comb shops in Kyoto containing the name: Jūsan'ya ("Thirteen Shop," a pun on "Comb Shop") or Nijūsan'ya ("Twenty-three Shop"). Nijūsan'ya is a further pun: ten plus thirteen is twenty three, and one of the words for ten (jū or tō) is a homonym of a word for China (tō). So the name "Twenty-three Shop" is a pun on "Chinese Comb Shop." 
Characteristics of boxwood combs
Combs for traditional Japanese hair styles (Nihon gami) can be divided into two broad types: tategushi (vertical combs), whose handle is parallel to the teeth, and yokogushi (horizontal combs), which is either without handle or whose handle is perpendicular to the teeth. Because their functions vary depending on, for example, the length and number of teeth, there are many different types within these broad categories. If a comb is used for the purpose of improving the quality of the hair with oil, for example, it needs to be durable. In addition, decorative combs used as hair ornaments, in various materials and designs, arrived on the scene in the Edo period (1615-1868). In former times, women owned sets of boxwood combs as personal grooming implements, but nowadays, most people who buy the more specialized vertical combs (tategushi) are professionals such as hairdressers for maiko, geisha, and other women who wear traditional hairstyles, and hairdressers for male sumo wrestlers.  
Preparation of the wood
Traditionally, Kyoto combs were made from Satsuma boxwood grown in Ibusuki, Kagoshima prefecture. In recent years, imported wood has also been used; the choice of materials is closely related to pricing. The ideal wood for a comb comes from a boxwood tree that is around 35 years old. It is harvested at a time in August or September when the weather is hot but humidity is low. The wood is dried in the sun, its  core removed. After drying, a process called board binding (itajime) is carried out. Wedges of wood are fitted into a pie-like circle and bound together tightly with plastic parcel tape (in the past, they were bound with bamboo hoops). This process helps to correct any warps or malformations that may have occurred during the initial drying. In this bound form, the wood wedges are fumigated by smoking them for around ten days. The smoking process strengthens the wood and removes any insects. Because of this smoking, the boxwood sawdust gives off a pleasant, smoky scent. After that, the wood is stored away to cure for a minimum of five years, but more often one or several decades. After the wood becomes completely straight and sufficiently stable, the manufacturing of the comb can finally begin.
 Teeth carving (habiki)
After the piece of wood is cut to the approximate size, the first step is to carve the teeth. This is called habiki. The wood is clamped to the workbench and cut with a saw of the correct width for the teeth.
Teeth filing (hazuri)
Next, the teeth are filed (hazuri) to smooth and sharpen them. The file is placed between the teeth at the tip and bits are shaved off. The base of each tooth is also shaved between the teeth. When one side is finished, the task is repeated on the other side. The task is carried out with a metal file. The comb does not come out well if the teeth are filed “square on” first. Therefore, they are initially filed at an angle from the right and then at an angle from the left, and finally square on from the front.
When the teeth are ready, the back of the comb is shaped using a guide. Then the comb surface is sanded and smoothed with a tokusa (horsetail plant board) and, recently, an electric saw has come to be used. Finishing is done with a triangular filing rod (suribo)—a wooden triangular rod affixed with ribbed pieces of horsetail plant. A more recent technique is to smooth down the comb with sand paper, but this always leaves tiny scratches in the surface. Horsetail plant, which does not leave flaws, is thus the preferred choice, especially for high-quality products.
Muku leaf and Buffing brush (uzukuri)
In the final finishing, the comb is polished with muku leaves and a buffing brush (uzukuri) made from bunched fibrous roots of the broomsedge (karukaya) plant. The uzukuri was also used traditionally in the finishing of chests of drawers made from paulownia wood (kiri dansu). Polishing with an uzukuri brings out an understated luster. Nowadays, combs are often buffed with waxed cloth on a rotating electric buffer. 
Handing on tradition
Sometimes decorative patterns are carved onto combs by specialist craftsmen in places like Kyushu and Osaka. Expertise is required to carve detailed decorations onto such a small surface and, in recent years, as the craftsmen become older, fostering successors has become an urgent matter. The same is true for the comb makers themselves. The processes for comb makers today are somewhat eased by the modern tools often used in various stages involved in making combs. The cutting of teeth, for example, is now generally done with an electric saw, whereas in the past teeth were cut with a hand saw.  Some textures and finishes, however, cannot be achieved with modern tools. Also, combs used in festivals and religious rituals (such as those used as an offering in the Sengū ceremony at the Grand Shrine of Ise and those worn by the Saiōdai in the Aoi Festival) are polished using horsetail plant or muku leaves, in accordance with traditional hard-won skills.    
Comb types: tokigushi (detangling combs) & sukigushi (fine-toothed combs)
Boxwood combs are not only for neatening hair. Their form is suited to the creation and fixing of Japanese hair styles. In addition, there are slight differences between the combs made in the Kansai and Kantō regions (Kyoto/Osaka area vs. Tokyo area), including in the names used and in the shape of the comb spines. I would like to touch on just some of this here. The type of comb most familiar to us is probably the horizontal tokashikushi or tokigushi comb, used for untangling and straightening hair. It is usually about 16 cm long; the number of teeth and their thickness varies; one can choose a comb suited to the particular characteristics and volume of one's own hair. A sukigushi has fine teeth and is used to clean the hair and remove unwanted matter such as dandruff. The bottom comb in the photo is known as a bingushi and it is used to train the hair on the temples (bin) to the left and right after the hair has been neatened.
Comb types: bindashi (sideburn puffers)
These vertical combs, shaped like forks, are specifically for use in hairdressing and are called bindashi. In the world of Japanese hairdressing, the word bin refers to sections of hair at the temples which are combed out and then carefully arranged and put up.  The handle part of the comb is used to arrange these puffed shapes at the temples and swelling hair at the nape of the neck and back of the head (called tabo, or tsuto in the Kansai region), as well as to insert fallen hair pieces back into the temples.  
Comb types: naginata (pole sword) & hamaguri (clam)
The top comb and the middle comb, with their ends at an angle, are known as naginata (the name literally means a swordlike blade with a long pole handle). Naginata can be used to make fine adjustments to a hairstyle anywhere on the head. The chunky semicircular comb at the bottom is called a hamaguri (clam) because of its shape. It is used to put the finishing touches to a top-knot.  
Types of comb: sujidate (vertical toothed)
Sujidate are vertical combs for tidying the hair. They vary in terms of the thickness and number of their teeth. In addition, some sujidate combs are used by Nishijin weavers in the production of silk tapestry weave textiles. Such combs have narrow, evenly distributed teeth because they are used to beat down the weft threads.
Types of comb: Genroku
Genroku combs (named after an Edo period era) are used to finish the surface of a hairstyle and to retouch the surface of a hairstyle that has been disturbed. Comb teeth are of varying thickness and varying number. The hair is tidied, first with the broadest teeth, then with progressively finer teeth, and finally the finishing comb is used for tidying the hair. Those shown here are called “demon teeth” combs and are characterized by jagged teeth. They are used when the hair is already roughly styled.
Types of comb: chonmagegushi  (top-knot comb)
The middle comb with teeth of different widths on the left and the right is a hakekoki—a specialist implement for fixing men’s mage or chonmage top-knots. It is used to adjust the very top of the motodori (gathered hair). The top and bottom combs are bingushi.    
Types of comb: spatula sujitate & motoyui tōshi (hair-tie picks)
The top comb is a spatula sujitate. As suggested by its name, it has the form of a sujitate comb with a spatula-like handle. The long thin chopstick-like picks are called motoyui tōshi or mottoi tōshi. When the hair is gathered and tied on top of the head, this top-knot is called a motodori. The  hair tie that holds it in place is a motoyui or mottoi. The motoyui tōshi is a pick used to get through the middle of the motodori and tie the motoyui.
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Kyoto boxwood combs Jusan-ya

Supported by Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

Photo by Akagawa Yotaro and Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

Text written by Yamamoto Masako(Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))

Exhibition created by Taoka Yuri, Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Yamamoto Masako & Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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