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Dark, shiny hair is considered a Japanese cultural beauty ideal, and it is believed that “beautiful hair can make any woman beautiful.” For this reason, hair care also adheres to rituals, including the use of an essential tool, tsugegushi (boxwood combs).

It is believed that each strand of hair carries spiritual energy. Wooden combs in Japan were once believed to have shamanic qualities. Women would use them to groom their hair, thinking that the combs would gather each strand’s spiritual energy. Traditionally, women would be given a set of these combs when they married. Geisha also have a history of using them as hair decorations. Today the use of these combs is less common.

Boxwood is naturally oily, so the combs made from the material are anti-static, avoid breakage, and are gentle on the scalp. The combs come in two styles: tategushi (vertical) and yokogushi (horizontal). Tsugegushi are used to create every possible hairstyle, from the slicked-back topknots of the sumo wrestlers to the perfectly precise up-dos of the geisha.

Traditionally, boxwood combs have been created from 35-year-old trees. The wood is harvested in August or September when the weather is hot but humidity is low, then dried for three years. The process from start to finish can take up to 60 steps. The Japanese government officially recognizes close to 200 traditional national industries, and comb making tops the list.

Every 20 years boxwood combs are sent to the Ise Shrine in Japan, where they are ritually burned in sacrifice to the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Photo: Agathe Marty via Unsplash

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