Are these the Bugattis of brooms?
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The workbench in Azusa Fukushima’s studio in rural Ibaraki, north-east of Tokyo, is her own invention, proportioned exactly so that thread can be pulled taut against her own weight. Cotton – dyed with natural Japanese indigo, persimmon, or madder – is bound around stalks of dried sorghum grass. With each stitch, the bundle finds its shape: a classic “clam”, or hamaguri-gata, which echoes a spray of sorghum. The result is an object of natural and utilitarian beauty, appreciated by a growing community of makers and buyers from east London to LA.
Japanese broommaking can be traced back to the Edo era of 1603-1868, reaching its height around 1900. Ranging from handheld table sweeps to pocket-sized handbrushes and long-handled brooms, the traditional tools for making them are largely in the hands of older artisans, aged 70, 80, even 90; some have six decades in the craft, while others have taken it up upon retiring from farming. Fukushima fell under the spell after meeting master broommaker Sakai Toyoshirō at college. Five years on, she is one of a younger generation of artisans working to revive the craft. From the single field she rents in the fertile shadow of Mount Tsukuba, the entire process is her undertaking: seeds are sown as the snow melts, sorghum cut during the heat of the summer, and brooms woven throughout the darkening days until the return of spring. In the first year, an aphid outbreak followed by a cold summer yielded Fukushima enough sorghum for only five brooms. “Almost every day is a staring contest with the weather app,” she says.
Greater luck – and a steadier production – has followed. Since 2019, Fukushima has sold through north London homeware emporium Foundland, following a visit from British owners Arthur Mingard and Sarah Khalaf. Half a dozen of Fukushima’s designs form part of Foundland’s Doing collection, which also features Harimi dustpans (£40), made from folded layers of washi paper.
Sachiko Smith of Brighton-based retailer Two Persimmons began importing Japanese brushes out of personal necessity. “Good brooms are hard to find,” laments the Tokyo native. “I didn’t find them in the UK – I didn’t like the plastic bristles that collect material inside. And I didn’t want a plastic dustpan.” Even upmarket models from Germany’s Redecker she found lacking (“I wouldn’t call their ones with replaceable wooden heads brooms: they’re brushes with long sticks”). The alternative was to import her own, “first for friends and family, and then selling online”. Smith’s collection of artisanal sorghum brushes is by Shirokiya Denbei, a seventh-generation family broommaker still manufacturing in the heart of Tokyo.
In LA, the growing market for Japanese homewares has led the longtime Venice institution Tortoise General Store to take up larger premises in Mar Vista. Its array of perfectly adapted, pocket-sized brushes for shoes and kitchen includes a doughnut-shaped, coconut-fibre brush ($16) and a Torlon Keyboard brush ($12), from Tokyo-based Kanaya Brush. And still more contemporary riffs are found through Nalata Nalata in New York. Highlights include Makoto Koizumi designs for Asahineko: a nestling brush and dustpan set ($100) made of hinoki cypress wood and horsehair, as well as a beguiling Y-shaped futon brush. For the co-founder of Nalata Nalata, Angélique Chmielewski, there is mindfulness to be found in the company of these age-old designs. “When I use them, they make me feel like time slows down.”
East London retailer Straw’s relationship with Japanese brushes began in October 2020, yet Straw’s chosen product is not a sorghum but a shuro brush (£9), made from the palm fibres of Trachycarpus fortunei. Distinct from sorghum’s tougher, carpet-scrubbing fibres, the finer, elastic bark fronds of shuro, as well as its water resistance and plant oils, make it primed for tending natural floors and fragile objects. Shuro brooms are also a hit with the brand Nawaki, loyal proponent of Japanese gardening tools; the Oxford store Objects of Use (its umbrella-handled Tosaka broom is £105); and Smith’s Two Persimmons. The unique design she stocks hails from the mountains of Ehime, western Japan – the work of Nakamura Koji. “They are the Lamborghinis of brooms!” says Smith.
Whether a standard bushou or a long-handled chohou, a broom is never simply a broom in Japan. As for their popularity abroad, the rise of home-working has been one major encouragement: household chores have arguably never seemed more central to our sense of wellbeing and purpose. But for most non-Japanese customers, these are often pieces “you can just hang on the wall”, says Smith. Chris Yoshiro Green, owner of west London Japanese homeware shop Native & Co, recalls being approached for a large order of shuro brooms for the launch of the White City TV Centre showroom, in 2017. “Presumably, they weren’t for upkeep purposes,” Green jokes. “I don’t see them using them on a regular basis.”