April 14, 2009

by Chiho Inaba; Yukari Maruoka


Kanzashi are traditional Japanese hair ornaments, and their origins date back to the Jomon era. In ancient Japan, people believed that the power to counter a curse dwelt in the point of a stick. Consequently, they began wearing small pointed sticks in their hair as good luck charms. This story relates to us the origins of kanzashi.

During the Nara period, the influence of Chinese culture, in particular that of Sui and Tang, was reflected in the design of fashion items, ornaments and kanzashi. In China at this time, it was common for men and women to pay attention to their hairstyle, and in Japan, also. This lasted until the Heian period, when the fashion went back to long, straight hair and kanzashi began to be used less and less. This was all to change, however, in the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods. Throughout these times, an increase in criminal behavior led to the banning of clothing that covered one’s face or head. As people could not walk out wearing hats or other headwear, they started to take a real interest in hairdressing once more. This can certainly be connected to the development of new hairstyles and kanzashi during these times.

Around the middle of the Edo period, hairdressing became very popular and so did the changing designs and types of kanzashi. In addition to the basic forms, there were a lot of ornamental varieties. The materials used were as diverse as wood, ivory (from elephant tusks), tortoise shell, horses’ hooves, and in some rare cases, even glass. There were many shapes on offer, too: thin, wide, round, flat, short, and long. Of course, there were also numerous designs to choose from. However, most ordinary people couldn’t buy the most expensive ones, and they were only really for those of the samurai class and higher.

Kinds of kanzashi

Kanzashi of the Edo era can be separated into several categories, and it is possible to find some interesting antique ones in shops in Kyoto. The main, and distinguishing, features are that they come in either fork-shaped or single-stick varieties, and the ends can double as ear picks. Here are some examples and explanations:

Mimikaki kanzashi

These are basically ear picks with a decorative handle end, popular among more common folk of the time.

Matsuba kanzashi

These are called ‘matsuba’ because they are shaped like fallen pine cones. They are also a simple variety similar to mimikaki kanzashi.

Tama kanzashi

These usually have a single ball made of coral or jade on the top, although lots of other materials are also used. They are one of the most popular types, even today, and come in a number of different sizes.

Hirauchi kanzashi

These usually have a thin, silver or gold body and are produced with a flat, circular design. They are also made from wood or tortoiseshell, and often decorated with symbols or flower patterns.

Hana kanzashi

Hana kanzashi are most famously worn by geiko and maiko, and feature strings of dangling flowers made of silk. These are very much a seasonal kanzashi, and in fact there are different ones for each month of the year.

Birabira kanzashi

These are mainly made of metal with a fan-shaped top part. They have numerous interesting ornamental features, like long weeping chains that tinkle when moved, with tiny figures of birds or butterflies at the bottom.

How to make a cute hair arrangement with kanzashi

Gather your hair up in one hand.

Twist hair into a tight knot.

Focus the tip of the kanzashi on the point where you wish to insert it.

Move the topknot into desired position and insert the kanzashi.

Check to make sure hair is fixed firmly in place.

Designing your own kanzashi

Kanzashi can be found in certain specialist shops in Kyoto, and in addition, some shops sell the individual parts to allow you to design and produce your own kanzashi. To choose and make your own kanzashi is very exciting, so why don’t you give it a go!

The Tetsuo Ishihara Museum of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles

In this museum, in the Gion district of Kyoto, you can see over 200 examples of kanzashi and also 115 different hairstyles from Japanese history. The building also houses the Kurenai Sakkou Make-over Studio, where you can be transformed into a maiko, geiko or tayu (courtesan). This is a really unique experience and well worth a visit.

Museum prices:

Adult 600 yen

University student 500 yen

Junior/Senior high 400 yen

Elementary 300 yen

Opening hours: 10.00 am ~ 5.00 pm

Location and contact details:

Shirakawa Building, 2F Yamato Oji Shijo Agaru Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0079

(about 5 mins walk north of Shijo Keihan Stn, or 5 mins walk south of Sanjo Keihan Stn, on Nawate Street)

Tel/Fax: (075) 551 – 9071

Email: [email protected]

www. 6.ocn.ne.jp/~yamato93/

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