From a tiny city south of Osaka, comes 200 years’ worth of tradition in the artisan creation of fude, or brushes. A beauty enthusiast’s dream – Kumano has become the birthplace of some of the world’s most coveted makeup brushes.
The city is famed for its collection of hiking trails that span miles across the mountainous Kii Peninsula and were traditionally pilgrimage routes for emperors and samurai. Now, sporting a UNESCO World Heritage Site badge, the trails are open to the public to walk the mossy stone steps among the gigantic trees that lead to the three Grand Shrines of Kumano.
Japanese makeup brushes are world-renowned for their quality and craftsmanship, and 80 percent of them are created in this little city – that’s around 15 million per year. The tradition is nearly 200 years old, beginning with farmers who masterfully created calligraphy brushes and booming when the formalised education system started. It’s since the 1960s that the makers – or fude-shi – really took hold of the beauty industry.
When the tradition began, families would be making brushes at home with houses all over the city who had mastered each step of the process. These techniques have been handed down through generations and now factories are staffed by artisans in different stages of the makeup brush production. With the majority being completely handmade, it’s a process that requires skill and a dedication to quality.
Part of the process, and perhaps the most difficult to master, is hanzashi which removes unwanted hairs from the brush. This involves having to feel out any that are blunted by being cut or snapped. It uses an old-school tool that’s essentially a blade that is run along the surface of the brush to help remove hairs by hand. It’s potentially dangerous to an untrained person so requires a sensitive touch.
Japanese makeup brushes have a global reputation for their supreme quality. They’ve inspired the kabuki brushes that are a staple in everyone’s collection and brands like Spectrum, Sigma and E.L.F have their own signature versions. Kabuki brushes got their name from Japanese kabuki theatre where makeup was heavy, yet flawless – something the brushes are perfected for with their dense bristles.
As the Savile Row of makeup brushes, some of the world’s best beauty brands have their brushes made in the city. From Suqqu – a favourite of global makeup artist Lisa Eldridge – to Youtube sensation and artist Wayne Goss.
There’s a lot that makes these makeup brushes special. They are mostly handmade often using animal hair. It’s a slow process that includes choosing the texture of hairs for its purpose (stiffer for an eyebrow brush and softer for foundation). Each fibre is carefully arranged to ensure the natural tips of the hairs are never cut or snapped, guaranteeing a silky soft finish.
It’s not just the hair. The bristles are tied and set into the ferrule (metal bit) to ensure they hold together for longer and they’re designed to be perfectly balanced in the handle, making them easier to hold and use.
Inevitably they come at a price, but the countless five-star reviews hint that they are worth the investment. Perhaps the most well-known brand to create these makeup brushes is Hakuhodo. They still use the name ‘fude’ which pertains to the traditional skill and technique involved in maintaining the brush tip, promising more control and the flawless foundation application that dreams are made of. Hakuhodo began in Kumano, using these techniques. They even offer a gold-plated option if they didn’t already feel luxurious enough.
Other brands that boast the same quality include Rae Morris, with her innovative magnetic collection and Japanese beauty powerhouse Shiseido.
The makeup brushes are such a big part of the city’s culture that Kumano hosts an annual festival called the ‘Fude Matsuri’ to honour brushes in writing and medicine as well as beauty. In the festival, masters take to traditional calligraphy and old brushes are burned in a ceremony of thanks, honouring them for the ‘work they’ve done’. Thousands of people gather from all over Japan, armed with their retired brushes ready to throw on the fire.
If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of Japanese makeup brushes, these are a great place to start: