Collection: Kanzashi

Kanzashi - A Testament to Grace, Tradition, and Artistic Splendor

Kanzashi are elaborate hair ornaments that are often worn with traditional Japanese clothing. There are many different types of kanzashi, depending on what they are made of and how they are attached to the hair.

Kanzashi History

Kanzashi appeared in Japan during the Jomon era. At that time, a thin stick or pin was believed to have mystical powers and was used to ward off evil spirits. This period also saw the appearance of the ancestor of the Japanese ornamental comb.

During the Nara era, many elements of Chinese culture were imported into Japan, such as zan (which is written with the same Chinese character as kanzashi) and other hair ornaments.

During the Heian period, the traditional style of hairstyles changed from wearing hair in a bun on the top of the head to wearing it long and possibly tied lower.

The term kanzashi began to be used as a generic word for all hair ornaments, including combs and pins.

Then, during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, hairstyles changed again from taregami (垂髪?), consisting of long straight hair, to the wider variety of styles, referred to as "Japanese hairstyle" (日本髪, nihongami?) which employed more and more ornaments.

The use of kanzashi became more widespread during the Edo period, as hairstyles became more imposing and complex and featured a greater number of ornaments.

The various craftsmen produced finely decorated works, some of which could be used as defensive weapons (such as carved metal pins).

The art of kanzashi culminated at the end of this period, with the creation of many styles and patterns of ornaments.

Today, kanzashi are most often worn with traditional costumes by brides, women who wear these costumes on a daily basis, such as geisha, tayū and yujo, or practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony and ikebana.

However, some young Japanese women who want to add a touch of elegance and originality to professional outfits may opt for kanzashi.

The types and styles of kanzashi each have meanings, allowing a connoisseur to deduce from a geisha's hairstyle her status and other information, based on the ornaments chosen and their positions.

Maiko (apprentice geisha) usually wore more kanzashi and more elaborate hairstyles than their elders, and their hairstyles followed strict traditions, with specific patterns formed by these ornaments.

Tsumami kanzashi was officially designated as a traditional craft in the Tokyo area in 19822.

Professional craftsmen initiated according to the traditions go through an apprenticeship period that can last from five to ten years.

Their number in the country has declined sharply from an estimated fifteen to five from 2002 to 2010.

However, the folding techniques used to create tsumami kanzashi flowers have become widespread, thanks to explanation books, kits and tutorials offered by the Tsumami Kanzashi Museum in Shinjuku district, for example.

Some students have bypassed the traditional apprenticeship system and established themselves as independent professional kanzashi tsumami makers in Japan.

Different Kanzashi Styles

  • Bira-bira : also called "floating style" or "pendant", made of either metal bands attached by small rings to the body of the ornament, jingling against each other with the movements of the head (sometimes accentuated by small bells); or long chains of silk flowers, called shidare.
  • Kogai : made of two pieces of bekko (natural or artificial tortoise shell), or other materials such as ceramic or metal; it has a decoration at each end. The word kogai means "sword" and refers to the shape of two pieces that make up the kanzashi: a sword and its scabbard. They are often sold with a matching kushi comb.
  • Tama: Pins with a colored ball, or bead, at the end. According to tradition, a red tama is worn from October to May and a green tama from June to September.
  • Kushi: These are kanzashi combs, usually round or rectangular in shape and made of tortoise shell or lacquered wood. They are often inlaid with mother-of-pearl or gilding, and placed in a mage (a macaroon or bun). The solid part of the comb is often wide, to leave room for the decorative motifs, which frequently extend over the teeth of the comb. Flower combs", or hanagushi, are made by gluing folded silk petals to a wooden base, and are a popular and less formal alternative to kushi.
  • Dome kanoko: accessories heavily encrusted with precious elements, akin to jewelry; they may include gold, silver, tortoise shell, jade, coral, pearls or semi-precious stones. Their most common shape is round, but flowers and butterflies are also among the most popular. The kanoko is worn on the back of the wareshinobu, the hairstyle of the young maiko, and has two pins that hold the jewelry firmly in the mage.
  • Ōgi: also known as "princess style", refers to a metal pin with fine metal threads on it. The head of the pin is fan-shaped and may have a kamon on it. They are usually worn by maiko in their hair, just above their temple. New maiko wear two on the first day of their initiation (misedashi).
  • Tachibana : made of two silver pins, it is worn by maiko with their wareshinobu hairstyle.
  • Hirauchi : is a flat and round decoration.
  • Maezashi : also called dome bira, it is worn on the bira-bira.
  • Miokuri : made of metal bands.
  • Bonten : round silver ornament with a touch of pink.
  • Kanoko : tube of brightly colored fabric.
  • Chirimen tegarami : a triangle shaped fabric knot. 

Kanzashi during the Seasons 

Japanese traditions advocate adapting the type of kanzashi to the season. This is mainly true of geisha and maiko, who are the only Japanese women who wear kanzashi often enough for the seasonal patterns to be meaningful. Since maiko wear more elaborate hairstyles and kanzashi than geisha, seasonal arrangements are even more important to them.

  • January: the design of the January kanzashi varies from year to year and generally covers the themes of good omens and the Japanese New Year. The shōchikubai pattern is a popular choice, combining pine (shō), bamboo (chiku) and ume (bai) flowers. The colors, green, red and white, are those usually associated with celebrations. Frequent variations include motifs of sparrows (suzume), spinning tops and rackets from a traditional game of shuttlecock (hagoita).
  • February: usually ume flowers with deep pink, or sometimes red, details; these flowers are seen throughout Japan at this time of year, and symbolize budding love and the approach of spring. Another theme, less common, is the windmill and flower ball (kusudama) worn for the Setsubun festival.
  • March: white and yellow rapeseed flowers (nanohana), butterflies, as well as peach blossoms (momo), daffodils (suisen), camellias (tsubaki) and peonies (botan). A rarer kanzashi, featuring the dolls used in the Hina Matsuri festival, can also be seen during March.
  • April: cherry blossoms with soft pink accents (sakura), mixed with butterflies and bonbori lanterns, to signal the approach of summer. The cherry blossoms at this time of year are a major cultural event in Japan. We also often see kanzashi with a simple butterfly (cho) made of golden or silver mizuhiki string.
  • May: purple wisteria flowers (fuji), and blue or pink iris (ayame). The iris represents the climax of spring, while wisteria is often associated with the imperial court (wisteria viewing events were popular with Japanese nobility since the Heian era).
  • June: green willow leaves (yanagi) associated with dianthus flowers (nadeshiko), or more rarely hydrangea flowers (ajisai). Willow is traditionally associated with geishas, moreover, it is a tree that loves rain, which is appropriate for this month of the rainy season, as well as the blue color of hydrangea.
  • July: kanzashi showcase fans, usually of the round uchiwa style, but also sometimes foldable (sensu). They refer to the Gion Matsuri festival, which takes place in this period. It is a famous event held in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto, and consists of parades with mobile shrines (mikoshi), and dances. Fans are then a crucial element to cool down during the hot and humid Japanese summers. The designs of the maiko kanzashi change every year, depending on the theme of the festival, but the most common ones are dragonflies or curved lines representing water swirls. Other kanzashi worn in July represent fireworks or dewdrops on the grass (tsuyushiba).
  • August: large belle-de-jour flowers (asagao), or susuki grass looking like a ball of thorns. The older maiko have silver petals lined with white, while the younger ones are lined with pink.
  • September: platycodon (kikyo) flowers, whose purple tones are usually associated with autumn. They are often associated with a Japanese variety of clover.
  • October: Chrysanthemums (kiku). These flowers are very popular in Japan, and symbolize the imperial family. The most advanced maiko carry a large flower, and the youngest an assortment of small flowers. The most common colors are: pink, white, red, yellow and purple.
  • November: Clusters of autumn leaves, especially of the palmate maple, or Japanese maple. The glowing maple leaves are the autumnal equivalent of cherry blossoms in Japanese culture. Ginkgo or liquidambar leaves are also represented.
  • December: rice cakes, mochi, traditionally made at this time by the Japanese, who use them to decorate trees, the little cakes representing white flowers. It is therefore auspicious to wear kanzashi representing mochibana, flowers made from these rice cakes. The December kanzashi also include two maneki, the nameplates used by kabuki actors, which were originally blank. The maiko go to the Minamiza Theater to ask for autographs from their two favorite actors. In addition, the older maiko carry kanzashi with bamboo leaves, while the younger ones carry various colorful good luck charms.
  • New Year: For this festivity, maiko and geisha wear branches of unhulled rice, on the left side for geisha and right side for maiko. They also wear ornaments in the shape of doves, without eyes. Traditionally, geishas and maiko draw one of the two eyes, and ask a dear person to complete the second one, in order to bring them luck for the new year.