Report by a Tokyo Lover

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Resplendent in gorgeous kimono, their hair elaborately coiffured and adorned with exquisite ornaments, Geisha entertainers and Maiko (Geisha-in-training) present one of the most mesmerizing images of Japan’s halcyon days. These hair ornaments (called kanzashi) can be made of metal, shell or fabric; those made of fabric, called tsumami kanzashi, are created by folding small squares of silk cloth into various petal shapes, much like origami, and assembling these into beautifully intricate designs, including not only delicate flowers but also majestic cranes, carp leaping from waves, and other images from nature. Originating in the Edo period (1603-1867), tsumami techniques were originally used by maidservants in the imperial court and eventually spread throughout Japan. While tsumami kanzashi are today most famously worn by Maiko, they are also worn by young women on occasions celebrating the changing seasons, such as New Year festivities, or for the coming-of-age ceremony, weddings, or classical Japanese dance performances, as well as by young girls dressing up in traditional kimono for Shichi-Go-San, a ceremony to celebrate their reaching the milestone ages of three or seven.
The craft flourished well into Japan’s golden age of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, but as opportunities to wear kimono in contemporary Japan have decreased, demand for classical hair ornaments has sadly diminished, along with the artisans who create them, and today only a handful of tsumami kanzashi artisans remain. There are, however, Japanese people endeavoring to not only preserve but breathe new life into this nostalgic craft, and I was fortunate to meet some when I visited TSUMAMI-DO in Asakusabashi, Tokyo, for an introductory lesson in tsumami-making.

The only store in the world specializing in tsumami handcrafts

TSUMAMI-DO’s proprietor, Masayuki Takahashi, grew up surrounded by tsumami handicrafts and artisans, as his father was a merchant who sold hair ornaments for New Year and Shichi-Go-San celebrations. However, as demand for tsumami kanzashi declined, the number of artisans also declined, and Mr. Takahashi feared that this beautiful craft that has continued from the Edo Period would die out. In order to revive the art of tsumami, he felt that a new generation of tsumami artisans needed to be nurtured, and the way to do this was to share the craft with the general public in the hope that tsumami handicraft specialists would emerge in time. He therefore established TSUMAMI-DO as “the only store in the world providing authentic tsumami-making experiences”. In addition to supplying all the materials necessary for creating classical tsumami kanzashi as well as contemporary tsumami accessories, such as hair pins, mobile phone straps, and earrings, the store offers regular tsumami workshops for anyone interested. From silks dyed using methods dating back hundreds of years, the store emphasizes authenticity in all aspects of tsumami-making, providing support for both tsumami fans and budding artisans.
With its cheerfully retro façade, TSUMAMI-DO is easy to find. Beginners’ workshops are usually held on the first floor, which is filled with displays of flowers and other parts for tsumami handicrafts, as well as ready-made tsumami accessories. An upstairs workroom is lined with cases displaying a breathtaking collection of exquisite tsumami kanzashi created in the early to mid-1900s by artisan friends of Mr. Takahashi’s father, exuding a sense of nostalgia for the “good-old-days” of Japan’s not-so-distant past.

The only store in the world specializing in tsumami handcrafts

There are two basic Tsumami folding styles: maru-tsumami (“round” petals) and ken-tsumami (“sword-shaped” petals). As beginners, we would be learning the “easier” maru-tsumami style. Our first task was to choose a design from a selection including hair clips, elastic bands, magnets or mobile phone straps with either a flower or butterfly design. The butterfly design was enchanting, but I chose the equally adorable flower hair clip as it was supposedly the “simplest” design.
Next we picked five colors to use in our chosen designs. With the wide selection of colors and limitless combination possibilities, this was an enjoyably daunting task. I eventually chose blue/yellow hues for one clip, for my elder daughter, and pink/purple hues for another, for my younger daughter. The only tools that we really used were large and small tweezers, a board with a thick layer of rice glue, a wooden stick for spreading glue, and a damp towel for wiping sticky fingers.
Holding the tweezers like chopsticks, we then folded each 3cm2 piece of cloth into tiny triangles, which we then placed in the glue on the board. (This glue takes a long time to set, allowing for multiple do-overs). The relatively simply process did require some dexterity to get the folds just right, and I became a bit frustrated with my clumsy fingers. However, our teacher kindly assured us that there was no rush, and as everyone worked at their own pace, sharing friendly encouragement, I was able to relax and enjoy the creative process.
Once all the petals were on the glue board, they were arranged one-by-one on the base of the hair pin, and then gently tugged into position and plumped with the tweezers. This also required a sense of balance and much concentration, but thanks to our attentive teacher’s patient guidance and hands-on assistance, eventually a flower took shape. A dab of glue and a pearl bead in the center, and the first hair clip was done! Even at my slow pace, the two flower clips took only two hours or so to complete. (One accessory usually takes 40 minutes to an hour-and-a-half to finish.)
Seeing the one-of-a-kind hair clips I had created for my girls, I felt a surge of joy and fulfillment. Workshops are open to anyone from age six upwards, and so I’m sure I’ll be back with my daughters so that they, too, can experience this beautiful craft—and I can make my butterfly clip!

(Workshops are available in Japanese or English, but must be booked in advance by e-mail or telephone.)

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