When I travel to the city of Kyoto, less than an hour’s train ride from Nara-machi, to visit the flagship store of the Hiroshima-based brush company Hakuhodo, I’m drawn into the world of exquisite beauty brushes. The store is a modern white box, with glowing display cases and a skylight reminiscent of a James Turrell installation, in contrast to the staid Ippodo tearoom across the street. In Kyoto, brush making has all but disappeared — the remaining three fude shokunin are too few to merit dento kogei designation — but the city is known for its traditional arts and high culture.
Hakuhodo uses the word “fude” liberally to describe its hundreds of makeup applicators, which look like highly specialized versions of cosmetics brushes sold in department stores around the world. They are priced according to their materials, and range from approximately $15 to several hundred. One powder brush, enclosed in a plexiglass case on the wall, has Hello Kitty painted in lacquer and gold dust on its handle (and costs roughly $800). I choose a tiny fan brush for removing mascara clumps (when I try it later with Japanese Dejavu Fiberwig mascara, it makes me look like I’m wearing false lashes), and a double-sided brush-comb for eyebrow grooming that has a 24 K gold ferule attaching it to a pleasantly weighty handle lacquered the same shade of vermilion as a shrine gate.
A polished saleswoman shows me how a popular eye shadow brush works differently depending on the hair it’s made from. Kolinsky (a kind of weasel hair banned in the U.S.) applies soft, gentle color, and can be used for concealer and gel shadows. Horse applies the shadow more thickly, building it up faster. And goat is good at depositing glitter and vivid color. She explains that tufts of synthetic hair are well suited for applying foundation quickly and blending liquid color, but natural hair picks up more powder. A long, thin brush for drawing on swoops of eyeliner looks like the menso fude in Tanaka’s shop, designed for painting the face on a doll; its soft, flexible hairs take professional skill to control, but can make a fine line of unparalleled elegance.
Most of Hakuhodo’s brushes are, in fact, yofude, or Western-style brushes distinguished by a metal ferule holding the bristles in place. Kumano, the city in Hiroshima where they are manufactured, first made its name with paintbrushes — and now cosmetics brushes. Hiroshima farmers who worked in Nara during the off-season used to bring home fude to sell for extra income, and in the early 19th century, the Kumano domain sponsored Nara artisans to teach these farmers the craft of brush making. Now, 80 percent of Japan’s brush manufacturing is done in Kumano. The process is divided into discrete tasks, each assigned to a different artisan, so it’s easier to outsource to a machine or overseas factory.
Tanaka says doing every step herself, entirely by hand, is inefficient; but it makes you care about the whole process. She’s dedicated to continuing the tradition of Nara fude, but her friend encouraged her to add makeup brushes to her repertoire. A small glass case in her shop displays lip brushes like the ones depicted in 19th-century ukioy-e paintings of courtesans, and round powder puffs made of soft pink-colored goat hair set atop a stout cypress handle that look like those of Kumano brushes. These she calls “burashi,” a Japanized pronunciation of “brush,” to distinguish them from fude. (I buy an itachi lip brush with a handle made of bamboo and water buffalo horn, but it’s so beautiful I’m afraid to use it.)
As passionate as she is about Nara fude, Tanaka tells me she would discourage almost any young person from taking on the decades of study, dirty, painstaking labor and uncertainty that come with a career making brushes. She earns enough to keep her shop open, but it was her husband’s salaryman job that supported their family. I ask why she’s stuck with it all these years. She replies, “Because it’s still fun and interesting.” In her heart, she says, she wishes her daughter (now a mother, too) could find the same joy in making fude.