In the area around the old Nakasendo in Nagano Prefecture, also known as Hime Kaido, many traditional crafts born from the handiwork of farmers have been handed down. Among them is the Orokugushi comb from the Kiso area.
The history and culture of wood crafts nurtured in a land blessed with rich forest resources.
The Kiso region is located in the southwestern part of Nagano Prefecture. Trees have been an essential part of people’s lives in this land blessed with abundant forest resources.
During the Edo period, useful trees represented by the "Five Trees of Kiso" were strictly protected due to the forestry reforms of the Owari clan of the Edo Shogunate. Even under such strict rules, the people living in this area are said to have made effective use of the satoyama in their daily lives.
The mountains of Kiso, which have been protected and loved, have become one of the best forests in Japan, with high-quality trees that are used as sacred trees at Ise Jingu Shrine.
In addition, because it was a post town along the Nakasendo, various people passed through. Traditional wood crafts are thought to have developed as a result of this.
Among them, this time we are focusing on the Orokugushi comb which is said to have first been created about 300 years ago during the Edo period.
The Orokugushi comb, a traditional craft that spread all over Japan because of a legend.
The name Orokugushi comb developed from a legend passed down from the Edo period:
"Once upon a time, a girl named Oroku suffered from a headache. One day, when she visited Mitake Daimyojin to pray for a cure for her headache, she was told, 'If you make a comb out of Minebari wood and comb your hair, it will heal.' She immediately tried it and found that the headaches that had plagued her for many years had been cured. From there, it became popular all over Japan, and before long, the name, ‘Kiso Orokugushi comb' had spread all over the country."
The Minebari tree used to make Orokugushi Combs is officially called "Onoorekanba". As the name suggests in Japanese, this is derived from the fact that the tree is so hard that it can break axes. It is characterized by its high density, the fact that it sinks in water, and its viscosity. It is very strong and does not easily deform during processing, so it is the best wood for combs with fine teeth like Orokugushi Combs.
Additionally, it has a strong antibacterial effect that happens to be bitter to the taste. Many people think that this unique bitterness is due to medicinal properties that help to heal headaches and caused the above legend.
Currently, production and the number of craftsmen are decreasing, so every year craftsmen from the Kiso Village Orokugushi Comb Association provide technical guidance at places such as local junior high schools.
So this time, we interviewed the chairman of the Kiso Village Orokugushi Comb Association.
Fine teeth made at intervals of about 0.6mm. High technology put into making Orokugushi combs.
ーーHow long have you been working with Orokugushi combs?
It's been several decades since I became an Orokugushi comb craftsman. My family has been comb craftsmen for generations. Ever since I was little, I watched my grandfather and father create combs, so it was natural for me to enter the world of combs. I once had a different job, but I came back to the world of making combs because I thought, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
ーーWhat kind of commitment do you have to make Orokugushi Combs?
More than 20 types of tools are used to make Orokugushi combs. It's interesting to improve these with your own hands so that they are easy to use. The real pleasure of comb-making is finishing the teeth of the combs using tools that fit your own hand. The combs I make have a width of 8.4 cm with more than 140 teeth at intervals of about 0.6 mm. Concentrating on finishing and polishing is a commitment that has been handed down from generation to generation.
ーーWhat do you think is the charm of Orokugushi combs?
They have very fine teeth, so they are less likely to create static. Also, I often hear that it makes your hair shine if you keep using it.
ーーWhat do you see for the future of Orokugushi combs?
With the population declining and the number of craftsmen also declining, I think the current situation is quite severe. However, I would like to continue making them and share them with the world as much as possible. Training successors is also an important task. If there are people who are interested in manufacturing and want to become Orokugushi comb craftsmen, I would like to pass on my skills to them.
ーーWhat do you want people who experience making Orokugushi combs to feel?
I want them to feel the delicacy of handmade combs. Adjustments in millimeter units and manual work require a great deal of concentration. I hope they will enjoy this unique experience.
The Orokugushi Comb is a traditional craft that has been nurtured in the land of Kiso, which boasts rich forest resources. Take a peek into the world of craftsmanship while experiencing the traditions rooted in this land.