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In the English-speaking world, the term "kanzashi" is sometimes applied to the folded cloth flowers that traditionally adorned tsumami kanzashi or to the technique used to make those flowers.
Kanzashi were first used in Japan during the Jōmon period. During that time, a single thin rod or stick was considered to have mystical powers which could ward off evil spirits, so people would wear them in their hair. This is also when some of the first predecessors of the modern Japanese hair comb began to appear.
During the Nara period, a variety of Chinese cultural aspects and items were brought to Japan, including zan (written with the same Chinese character as kanzashi) and other hair ornaments. During the Heian period, the traditional style of putting hair up was changed to wearing it long, tied back low. It was at this time that kanzashi began to be used as a general term for any hair ornament, including combs and hairpins. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the hairstyles changed from the taregami (垂髪), or long straight hair, to the wider variety of "Japanese hair" (日本髪 Nihongami) which made more use of hair ornaments.
Kanzashi came into wide use during the Edo period, when hairstyles became larger and more complicated, using a larger number of ornaments. Artisans began to produce more finely crafted products, including some hair ornaments that could be used as defensive weapons. During the latter part of the Edo period, the craftsmanship of kanzashi reached a high point, with many styles and designs being created (see Types of kanzashi, below).
Nowadays, kanzashi are most often worn by brides; by professional kimono wearers such as geisha, tayū and yujo; or by adepts in Japanese tea ceremony and ikebana. However, there is currently a revival among young Japanese women who wish to add an elegant touch to their business suit. There are many varieties and many styles of wearing kanzashi. The way a geisha wears her kanzashi indicates her status immediately to an informed audience according to the type and location of the kanzashi. Maiko (apprentice geisha) usually wear more numerous and elaborate kanzashi than more senior geisha and progress through several hairstyles where the kanzashi must be worn in a fixed pattern.
Tsumami kanzashi has been officially designated as a traditional Japanese handcraft in the Tokyo region since 1982. Traditionally trained professional artisans typically undergo five to ten years of apprenticeship; from 2002 to 2010, their estimated number in the country decreased from fifteen to five. However, the petal-folding technique has become a popular hobby, due to instructional books, kits, and lessons from sources such as the Tsumami Kanzashi Museum in Shinjuku. Some students have bypassed the traditional apprenticeship system to establish themselves as independent professional artisans of tsumami kanzashi in Japan.
Kanzashi are fabricated from a wide range of materials such as lacquered wood, gold and silver plated metal, tortoiseshell and silk, and recently, plastic. In fact, early bakelite kanzashi are highly valued as collectibles.
Basic kanzashi shapes
- Bira-bira – also called Fluttering or Dangling style, these are composed of metal strips attached by rings to the body of the ornament so that they move independently, pleasantly tinkling (which is sometimes accentuated by additional bells or long chains of silk flowers called shidare).
- Kogai – A two piece kanzashi made of Bekko (tortoiseshell or artificial) or other materials such as ceramics or metals that feature a design on each end. Kogai means sword and refers to the shape of two pieces make up this kanzashi (a sword and its sheath). They are often sold as a set with an accompanying kushi comb.
- Tama – Ball style kanzashi. These prong style kanzashi are decorated with only a simple colored bead on the end. Traditionally a red tama is worn October–May and a green tama is worn June–September.
- Kushi are comb kanzashi. These are usually rounded or rectangular combs made of tortoiseshell or lacquered wood that are often inlaid with mother of pearl or gilding and placed into a mage (bun-style hairdo). The spine of the comb is often wide in order to allow maximum space for a design, and in many cases, the design will extend into the teeth. "Flower-combs", also called hanagushi, are made by gluing folded pieces of silk to a wooden base comb and are a popular, non-formal alternative.
- Kanoko Dome – are heavily jeweled accessories crafted with some or all of the following: gold, silver, tortoiseshell, jade, coral, pearls and other semi-precious stones. While the general shape is rounded, they are also found in other shapes, with flowers and butterflies being the most popular. The kanoko dome is worn at the back of the wareshinobu hairstyle of the junior maiko and has two prongs that hold it securely in the mage.
- Ōgi – Also called Princess style, are metal, fan-shaped and kamon-imprinted kanzashi with aluminum streamers held in place by a long pin. These are usually worn by maiko in the hair just above the temple. New maiko wear two on the day of their debut (misedashi).
- Tachibana – Is a kanzashi made with two silver pins. It is worn by maiko with the wareshinobu hairdo.
- Hirauchi – Ornament with a flat rounded decoration.
- Maezashi – Also called Bira dome, is an ornament worn over the Bira-bira.
- Miokuri – Is a Metal strips shaped ornament.
- Bonten – Round silver ornament with a pink touch.
- Kanoko – Bright colored fabric tube.
- Chirimen tegarami – Is a triangular fabric node.
With hana kanzashi, the long fluttering flower is characteristic of maiko. These are created from squares of silk by a technique known as tsumami (pinching). Each square is folded multiple times with the aid of tweezers and cut into a single petal. Flowers are made from these folded fabric petals and may contain anywhere from five petals to 75 or more, depending on the particular flower made. A 'hana kanzashi' is a cluster of these flowers, and may or may not include bira-bira and/or long streamers of tsumami petals, fashioned to look like hanging wisteria petals. Generally, hana kanzashi are worn in pairs, one on either side of the head, often with a complementary kushi and/or with several individual flowers scattered about the hair.The flowers are glued to backings of metal or cardboard that are attached to a wire and are bunched together to make bouquets and other arrangements. Additional detailing of stamens is created by the use of mizuhiki, which is a strong, thin twine made from washi paper, and is often coloured and used for decorative works.
Geisha, and especially maiko, wear different hana kanzashi for each month of the year.
The seasons dictate which kind of hair ornament is worn in Japan. Usually this applies above all to the geisha and maiko, who tend to be the only Japanese women to wear kanzashi often enough for seasonal changes to be noticeable. Since maiko wear more elaborate kanzashi than their senior geisha, seasonal changes are even more important for them.
- January – The design of January kanzashi differs from year to year, but usually has an auspicious Japanese New Year theme. Shōchikubai is a popular choice, a combination of pine (shō), bamboo (chiku) and ume (bai) plum blossoms, (green, red and white) which are usually associated with celebrations. Other popular additions to the January kanzashi are sparrows (suzume), spinning tops and battledore paddles (hagoita).
- February – Usually trailing deep pink, or sometimes red, ume plum blossoms, which are to be seen everywhere in Japan at this time and symbolize young love and the approach of spring. Another less common theme is the pinwheel and the flowerball (kusudama) that is worn for Setsubun.
- March – Trailing yellow and white rapeseed flowers (nanohana) and butterflies, as well as peach blossoms (momo), narcissus (suisen), camellia (tsubaki) and peonies (botan). A rare kanzashi featuring dolls that are used to celebrate the Hina Matsuri (Girl's Day Festival) can also be seen during this month.
- April – Trailing soft pink cherry blossom (sakura) mixed with butterflies and bonbori lanterns, signaling the approach of summer. Cherry blossom viewing at this time of year is a major cultural event in Japan. Also, kanzashi consisting of a single silver (or sometimes gold) butterfly (cho) made of mizuhiki cord are common.
- May – Trailing purple wisteria (fuji) and flag irises (ayame), usually in blue or pink. Irises denote the height of spring while wisteria is a flower often associated with the imperial court (wisteria viewing parties have been celebrated by Japanese nobles since the Heian Period).
- June – Trailing green willow (yanagi) leaves with carnations/pinks (nadeshiko), or less commonly hydrangea (ajisai) flowers. Willow is a traditional image associated with geisha. This month is the rainy season in Japan, and therefore willow (a water-loving tree) and the washy blue of hydrangea are appropriate.
- July – Kanzashi featuring a display of fans. These will usually be of the round uchiwa variety, but occasionally folding fans (sensu) are also featured. The fans refer to the Gion Festival which takes place at this time. This is a huge event held at the Gion geisha district in Kyoto, which involves large parades of portable shrines (mikoshi) and dances. Fans are a staple component of keeping cool during the Japanese humid summers. The motifs featured on a maiko's fan kanzashi vary each year, in line with the festival. There are common themes such as dragonflies and lines denoting swirling water. Other kanzashi worn during July are the fireworks kanzashi and tsuyushiba (dewdrops on grass).
- August – Large morning glory (asagao) or susuki grass. The susuki grass appears as a starburst of spines. Senior maiko wear white-backed silver petals and junior maiko wear pink-backed silver petals.
- September – Japanese bellflower (kikyō). The purple tones are traditionally associated with autumn. Often these will be mixed with bush clover.
- October – Chrysanthemum (kiku). These are well loved in Japan and are a symbol of the Imperial Family. Senior maiko will wear one large flower while junior maiko will wear a cluster of small flowers. Typical colors include pink, white, red, yellow, and purple.
- November – Trailing autumnal leaves that are usually composed of the very popular Japanese maple. Maple viewing is the autumnal equivalent of cherry blossom viewing in Japan. Ginkgo and liquidambar leaves are also seen.
- December – The Japanese make mochi at this time of year, and often decorate trees with them to represent white flowers. It is thought to be good luck to wear kanzashi featuring mochibana, or rice-cake flowers. December kanzashi also feature two maneki, name plates used by kabuki actors, which are initially blank. Traditionally, maiko visit the Minamiza Theatre and ask two of their favorite Kabuki actors to autograph them with their kabuki nom de plume. Kanzashi for senior maiko feature green bamboo leaves while junior maiko have a colorful assortment of lucky charms.
- New Year – At this time of year all maiko and geisha wear un-husked rice ears in their coiffure (maiko wear it on the right while geisha wear it on the left). These kanzashi also feature eyeless white doves. The maiko and geisha fill in one eye and ask somebody they like to draw the other for good luck in the coming year.
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