Picking on Japanese history

Savitha Karthik | Updated on October 04, 2019

Word of mouth: Saruya’s toothpicks come wrapped in paper with a “prophecy” or other messages written on it   -  SAVITHA KARTHIK

A 300-year-old Tokyo store is proof of the country’s love for toothpicks

It’s said to be the oldest known human habit. Picking teeth. We’ve all been there, done that. The humble toothpick comes handy when the tongue can’t dislodge those annoying bits of food.

Studies have shown that human beings from prehistoric times have used stalks, wood or bones as toothpicks. Research teams have found grooves on fossil teeth belonging to Neanderthals. Over time, this primitive tool evolved from grass stalks, all the way to gold sticks encrusted with sparkling stones.

We learned this and more when we booked ourselves on a walking tour of two Tokyo neighbourhoods, Ningyocho and Nihonbashi, in the Chuo ward. Nihonbashi is home to a shop called Saruya, which has been selling toothpicks for over three centuries.

Just as we stepped out of the metro station, we saw a huge clock tower with puppets — a throwback to a time when Tokyo was called Edo. The early 18th century was part of the Edo or Tokugawa era, a 250-year period largely marked by stability. The warrior samurais moved to the cities of their feudal lords during this period. Eventually, the samurai became bureaucrats and administrators — and were soon the biggest patrons of the shops in the Ningyocho and Nihonbashi areas.

These areas continue to bustle with life. There are shops selling traditional Japanese sweets, amazake (fermented rice drink), senbei or rice crackers, incense, fans and kimonos. Yoshinobu Kurashina, our tour guide, explains that this neighbourhood still retains the old Edo charm. He points out that traditional wooden Japanese buildings — still to be seen in parts of the Chuo ward — are on their way out, which makes this neighbourhood all the more fascinating.

It is in this setting that Saruya, the toothpick store, is located. Established in 1704, it is now managed by the ninth-generation owner, Ryota Yamamoto. It is said that at one point there were over 200 stores selling toothpicks in the grounds of the famed Sensoji shrine. Today, Saruya — at 1-12-5 Nihonbashi Muromachi Chuo-ku — alone stands.

The early 18th century was a time when toothpicks gained popularity in Edo. “In the Edo era the economy was good, so some affluent people, including the samurai, could afford to buy toothpicks made by craftsmen,” the shop owner explains in an email.

What’s special at Saruya

The shop has on display not just toothpicks but also the earliest toothbrushes (made with wood from the willow tree). Saruya has confectionery toothpicks — longer ones used for eating sweets, apart from the regular variety. All the products at the shop are handcrafted from lindera umbellata, commonly known as the spice bush. They come in boxes, each toothpick wrapped in a piece of paper with a “prophecy” or other messages written on it. The wooden cases are brightly painted. The toothpicks, with names such as the ‘samurai set’, also come in printed pouches. A set can cost anything from 400 to 4,000 yen (₹265-2,650), depending on the packaging and the type of toothpick.

Healing properties

Toothpicks were commonly sold at Japanese Shinto shrines and were considered to have healing qualities. When a toothache or some other dental problem was cured, the toothpick would be returned to the shrine.

The book The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender, written by the noted Buddhism scholar Bernard Faure, mentions how people suffering from toothache would worship a stone statue of an old woman at the Sensoji shrine in Tokyo. The legend of this old woman, Datsue-ba, is linked to that of the King of Hell, Emma-ō. Edoites suffering from toothaches offered toothpicks to this deity in worship.

Markers of status

As Henry Petroski, author and professor of civil engineering and history, Duke University, writes in his book The Toothpick, Technology and Culture, these tools for oral hygiene were also markers of social status. Petroski cites Don Quixote, in which “the pride of a ‘poverty-stricken aristocrat’ kept him from letting it be thought that he was going hungry. Like a poseur he appeared on the streets ‘with a toothpick’, even though he had not eaten anything requiring its use.” There’s a Japanese parallel to this. “The samurai may have eaten nothing but he still uses his toothpick” is often used to convey the spirit of the warrior, but it also demonstrates how toothpicks were often a symbol of a person’s social standing.

Reflection in art

Toothpicks are so ingrained in Japanese culture and society that they have found reflection in traditional Japanese woodblock art — ukiyo-e prints. A print by Utagawa Toyokuni III (1786-1865), a celebrated ukiyo-e artist, shows a woman of great beauty holding a toothpick.

Where else but in Japan can something as simple as a toothpick represents art, history and culture?

Savitha Karthik is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru

Published on October 04, 2019

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