Nanbu Houki – Wa-Youhuku broom

I bought the Wa-Youhuku broom made by Takakura Kougei on June, 2015. No hesitation at all then. I was keeping consuming desire to obtain the broom since I have witnessed that my PIACENZA cashmere coat had restored its shining texture as it was like the brand-new. So, finally I ordered and had it in my hands.
We all know what Houki (“brooms”) are like. Until 1960’s almost all Japanese households had been using them. We had cleaned up our tatami floors with brooms before electric vacuum cleaners were introduced. Also, we all know what clothing brushes are like such as Kent and others. Many makers have been producing them and I tried so many types of brushes too. They are not only used for removing dusts on clothes, but finishing up the texture to be shiny by straightening the fabric. In my case, I have been using several types of brushes according to the purposes for use on wools, silks, cashmeres, and Kimonos. Even for my hats, I have been using a different type of Kent brush.
Houki is made by bundling ear tips of the plant, broom corns that belongs to poaceae. The cloths brushes are made by implanting hog bristle or horse hair. Both brush manufacturing methods should ideally keep the straight line of ear tips or hair. Having said that, you can see the ear tips of Nanbu Houki are frizzled. Why? Clothes or carpets, in either case, they tangle dusts in web at micro level. If ear tips of the brush were straight, it would release the dust once caught in a brush through the clearance between ear tips, resulting in the dust would still remain in the fabric. The frizzled ear tips are able to arrange the fabric line straight in one direction, raking the dusts tangled in any directions. Their ear tips are not only flexible but also hard to break. The frizzled ear tips have characteristics to conflict each other, softness and robustness.
Planting is conducted twice a year, around 20th, May, and 10th, June, while harvesting continues from 20th, August to the end of September. For other seasons, the artisans just keep on braiding the Nanbu Houki by hand at workshops surrounded by deep snow. Only three artisans are capable of hand-crafting Nanbu Houki. The size of plantation is 1.5 hectare. It is not until the end of summer when the frizzed ear tips can be grown out of fresh green materials.
We brought the car down the drive from Tokyo to Kunohe village in Iwate prefecture where Takakura kougei is located. It took us approximately 600 kilometers to reach there. We left Tokyo at 10pm on 19th, August, and arrived there at 8 am on 20th. Kiyokatsu Takakura looked different from when we first met in Tokyo. He neither expressed the impression of an artisan nor dress himself like an artisan. He was merely a farmer wearing working clothe for field works.
They had started cropping already and I soon realized that my oversight about the plant. I had seen it already on my way of driving to come to the site. The raw material for Nanbu Houki that I was supposed to caught in my sight. I have been writing articles about agricultural products for over twenty years, visiting many sites all over Japan. Born and grown up in the middle of Tokyo, I was even unable to distinguish the difference between rice fields and vegetable fields in the beginning of my career. But now, after twenty years experiences, I can tell any kinds of weeds or grasses, or the names of harmful insects in fields.
“Look, there are corn fields here”. I was even guiding to the team staff, pointing outside the car. What I misunderstood for corns were the plant called broom corns. They are the materials for Nanbu Houki. I had known the poaceae family plant for brooms, which is related to rice, and had visited the cultivated fields for covering articles on magazines. Therefore I was totally assumed myself to be guided into such fields of poaceae-rice family oriented plant. However look at the fields in front of me, it’s a corn field. Their stems are too long for rice, which are the distinct characteristics that I overlooked. The broom corns for Nanbu Houki still belong to poaceae, but it’s another type of family related to corns, which never produce fruits like sweet corns. They are only grown to crop the ear tips and cropping is all done by manpower, never used any agricultural machines or even sickles.
Standing in the field proudly, Kiyokatu Takakura said, “Not all areas in Japan can produce the broom corns like ours having ear tips frizzled. Only this area, Kunohe village of Iwate prefecture in North East of Japan, can grow it, because we have the harsh weather where the temperature ranges widely from warm air to cold air. This condition makes our land keep the finest product quality.”
Yes, what he said was true. I realized the biggest mistake I made then. Iwate is cooler than Tokyo past the 20th of August. That is why I had selected to wear the summer suits that must have been felt a bit hot and humid in urban city, but okay for northern Japan, and avoided choosing casual clothing suitable for mid-summer. I visited Takakura Kougei, wearing the summer wool suits made by Hickey Freeman with the shirts and tie by Turnbull and Asser inside. I tried to be polite, honoring the etiquette, as a gentleman does when he visits his friends. In the morning my judgment was right, but in the afternoon it turned out to be wrong, and I was in regret. It was hot, really hot. The temperature reached as at the ones of the midsummer by the time 1pm, when we have finished observing harvesting and moved into the watching stage of threshing to remove small berries on ear tips.
The temperature has risen to 34.5 degrees. Kiyokatsu Takakura added, “We have the lowest temperature to 18 degrees below zero in winter.” I could assume the extremely hot weather in summer as opposed to the freezing coldness in winter. Also, they have rainy season in June and the summer starts at the same time. As the rain continues for a long period, there must be some chilly days here when the temperature records around 20 degrees, for example, in Tokyo.
“In June, the cold wind blows down over the mountain areas in Iwate prefecture. That’s called Yamase. The wind gives much effect on ear tips of broom corns to be frizzled. ” It’s warm in spring, hot in summer, cool in autumn, and cold in winter. This is the circumambulation of Japanese four seasons. However, it’s warm in spring, cold in rainy season, extremely hot in summer sometimes, followed by short autumn and severely cold winter. This is how seasons rotate in Kunohe village.
It’s not only that. I was convinced that they had four seasons in a day too. When we walked around Kunohe village, we found many beautiful flowers: morning glories, sunflowers, and alcea rosea. Kunohe was colored by summery tone on that day, while it certainly displayed many autumn plants over there: cosmea, platycodon grandiflorus, and miscanthus sinensis growing. We heard buzzing of cicadas and saw papilio protenor flying around, when I listen to the sound of nature more carefully, could hear crickets’ song. Also, dragonflies were dancing in front of us. The summer insects and the autumn ones were living together in Kunohe.
This peculiar landscape, as well as the conflicting sounds of insects, may not continue so long. It may last only for several days around 20th of August. It’s autumn in the morning, while it’s summer during daytime, at the sun set here the autumn comes again. Summer and winter do not take turns, but they are chasing each other back and forth in Kunohe. The reason why their broom corns can have the frizzled ear tips is not only due to the temperature difference between four seasons, but the summer and the autumn chasing each other during the harvesting periods of the August. “It’s really necessary to have the warm and cold temperature difference in summer to grow the frizzled ear tips”. The words of Kiyokatsu Takakura have implied the climate factors causing such effect are rather complicated, and not as simple as the ordinary cycle of the four seasons.



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