Heirloom An Ode to the Kamenoko Tawashi, the Turtle Brush
Natural, natural, everything natural. I’m a sucker for it, Shinto-ish environmentalist and object-worshipper that I am.
I’m hung up on a scrub brush. It’s a tawashi, specifically the Kamenoko Tawashi from Nishio-Shouten Co., Ltd., made in Japan. A tawashi is any brush of stiff natural fiber used for washing, usually dishes and pans. This one comes in a package that resembles a small, cheddar-colored bag of chips, about the length and width of an adult hand with the thumb folded in. A sweet illustration is ringed in red at the package’s center—a turtle with its head craned back, as if the animal had just been surprised from behind.
The Kamenoko Tawashi name refers to the brush’s specific shape, said to evoke a baby turtle—though I would never have said so were it not for that drawing; I didn’t know until now, when I googled it, that kamenoko means “baby turtle” in Japanese. The brush is most commonly formed by twisting palm-husk bristles around a stiff wire, which is doubled back to form a bushy U. The ends are secured into a loop about the size of a nickel, useful for hanging on a hook. The design pleases me. I think it resembles not a turtle but a woodland creature you’d best not touch, a hedgehog maybe, curled in sleep.
With the right curator, the tawashi might have been featured in MoMA’s Good Design shows of the midcentury, the ones that canonized the balloon whisk, the Lexikon 80 typewriter, and the Slinky. (“Is there art in a broomstick?” wrote Time in 1953 . “Yes, says Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, if it is designed both for usefulness and good looks.”)
Since I bought my first Kamenoko Tawashi in 2016, I’ve owned only three or four. They may as well be the same, like the beloved dog that dies only to be replaced by an identical dog. One brush takes ages to become gunky or gross. After many months, it begins to emit a faint metallic, scrambled-egg-like funk, the bristles develop permanent bedhead, and I know it’s due for a swap.
Here, I could go into how the Kamenoko Tawashi has been crafted , not manufactured, since 1907, how, according to the brand’s website , the husks are soaked for four to six weeks before being separated into fibers, which are then coiled in a “delicate process that can only be done by hand.” But I knew nothing of this when I bought my first at a well-curated, Japanese-expat-owned home-goods shop, aptly named Tortoise General Store, in Venice Beach four years ago. I only knew I recognized the brush from my childhood and needed it.
My dad grew up in Hamamatsu, a city midway between Tokyo and Kyoto, in Shizuoka Prefecture—a wet, green land that sprawls out, a spreading of hands, from the inland mountains along the curling tail of the Tenryū-gawa toward the sea. I knew little of the place when I was young, nothing of its past, and little of its present, just the tourist-bureau intel my family was in the habit of repeating: Suzuki, Yamaha, citrus, unagi.
But I knew my family’s neighborhood of Ike-machi, navigating its streets of concrete midrises, past the cigarette-embalmed kissaten, the cult-like granite church, the Brazilian bank, the fryer smell of 7-Eleven. Down into the underpass below busy Ote-Dori toward city hall, drawn as if through osmosis into the rushing suction of cicada chatter that announced Hamamatsu Castle Park. Past the elementary school, up the stone steps, around the antiwar memorial, and through the gate to the tea garden. It seemed ancient but was only a recreation; it had in recent memory been a zoo.
A real bit of castle survived, instead, outside the door of my dad’s childhood home; an old stone wall formed half of an alley between the house and a parking garage. From the alley, the door led in and up a narrow staircase to the sunbathed kitchen, tiny and red-tiled, where I might have seen a tawashi, though I can’t remember one. Instead I remember breakfasts, crowded and confusing, and especially the bread, one of my earliest sensual memories: two fingers on its softness, tugging through a fried egg’s yolk, deep orange, flecked with soy sauce. The air is filled with shokupan smell, mingling with butter from the eggs and mirin from the night before—and a sour note, a hint of mildew, tatami on a wet day.
Each time I land at Tokyo-Narita on my way to visit family, I’m stopped short by something like the smell of that kitchen. But it’s just the edge of it, as if the scent has elongated and distorted with time and distance.
Since buying my first turtle brush in 2016, I have never been without one. In this way, I seamlessly became, through that one purchase, the kind of person who uses a Kamenoko Tawashi. I thought I was related to such a person. It turns out I am not.
In this way, I seamlessly became, through that one purchase, the kind of person who uses a Kamenoko Tawashi.
My obaachan, Chieko, was in high school during the Second World War. Or at least, she would have been, but the sieges prevented it. American planes targeted Hamamatsu, which was a strategic port and center of industry. Ike-machi was mostly razed by the time the United States dropped atom bombs on two other ports and centers of industry, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chieko was not quite sixteen.
Like most who could, the girl who’d become my grandmother escaped to the mountains, staying with relatives and returning to Hamamatsu City to work and find food on the black market. She had three younger siblings to support. By luck, she was not with her two older cousins when bombs fell one afternoon in October. By chance, she saw the boys the next morning at the hospital before they died. Or by luck, because they were almost unrecognizable.
After Japan surrendered, Obaachan never went back to school. She met a young man named Keigi, the son of a shoemaker, who had come from the mountains to Ike-machi. They married, and she set about helping him with the Okamoto business of selling shoes. She gave birth to my father and my two aunts. She got good at tennis and calligraphy. When her kids had grown, she took English lessons.
Ojichan had a fear of flying, so she left him in Hamamatsu and traveled with friends to Lisbon, London, Paris, New York, then to Westfield, New Jersey, of all places—repeatedly, because her son had fled the family business and had a new family there.
Along the way, Obaachan learned to sew. I have countless pouches that she’s made of scraps of red, navy, pink, and gray cloth, sweet florals and solids and traditional motifs. When I was three, she brought me a red kimono that she’d sewn over several months. She makes some of her own clothes, easeful, unadorned: smocks and house coats I envy, designed for both usefulness and good looks .
She loves sewing, loves fashion. Less so chores, tidying, cooking. Her food feeds my soul, but I will be the first to admit that it is less than exceptional. So it is odd that I think of her often at the kitchen sink, the gale force of her stubbornness suctioning her to the task at hand.
On visits, I go to help her clean up after dinner and she edges me out, a ninety-year-old woman who barely comes to my shoulder. With the ferocity of acute impatience, she wields a common kitchen sponge, the kind with the floppy foam interior and the synthetic netting around it, passing it over dishes with an alarming disregard for detail. The sponge is repulsive, its foam dotted with gray speckles, its netting tattered.
She does not use a turtle brush. She does not clean with natural fibers of any kind. She makes ample and repeated use of the same plastic cling wrap, and she seasons her miso soup from an instant packet. Except for her sewing room, the house is a mess.
I ask my dad about the Kamenoko Tawashi. Does he remember them? He laughs, yes, but he hasn’t seen one since he was tiny. They’re for rich people who are eco-conscious, because they’re expensive.
But I say, actually, they’re not, especially considering their longevity. They cost more than a plastic sponge, I say, but—and he cuts me off. Well, that’s what matters, he says. Dismissed.
So it’s not my dad’s or my grandmother’s tawashi that I buy in Brooklyn or Los Angeles at the admittedly eco-conscious, white-owned lifestyle store, the sort of store that sells things with which to cleanse as well as clean. But when I see the Kamenoko on the shelf among all the tan, brass, and cream things I want to disdain, I’m gripped by nostalgia. I know I have seen it before.
Yet when I visit Ike-machi, a tawashi is nowhere to be found. Maybe I saw one at another relative’s, or in the back-of-house at a temple once upon a time. Maybe it only reminds me of Japan, or I only think I’ve seen it. Maybe I’ve confused it for something else.
Maybe it only reminds me of Japan, or I only think I’ve seen it. Maybe I’ve confused it for something else.
In 2018, I saw the Kamenoko Tawashi at a home-goods store on Smith Street in Brooklyn. I suppose, as I write this sentence, that it is exactly where I should have expected to see the brush in New York. Nonetheless, it surprised me. You may have picked it up at one of these stores yourself, the stick-stiff bristles prickling your skin with a pleasant harshness before you set it back beside the toothbrushes with charcoal bristles, satchels of Palo Santo, adaptogenic chocolate bars, and artfully displayed copies of the latest it-cookbook, something about Salad.
I want to rescue the tawashi from these stores, which do not seem to understand it. They flatten their goods, then they absorb them. They imply a bland spirituality that seems to lay aesthetic claim on a gloss of East Asia—Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan blurring toward the same ineffable ethos. It is only the style of substance. I want to think I know better.
The Japan I know can be a grimy, dingy place, redolent of mildew, air thicker than any American July, hot and anxious and boring as hell. A place to be loved, not idolized. My Japanese landscape is home to public phones the color of green Now and Laters, the smell of urine from doorless public restrooms, bumpy-bedded rubber slippers with plaid tops that my ojiichan once sold, slices of shokupan smooshed into yolks the color of a blood moon, tackiness and kitsch and clutter.
Some of these things you’ll know about. Some of them remain mine, things no self-declared “Nipponophile” thinks of when they think of Japan. Things no one but me, a granddaughter of Chieko, pines for.
I begin to distance myself from the white-walled, sun-dappled stores where I buy Kamenoko Tawashi brushes, ordering them instead from a Japanese retailer I find online. I’m turned off by the way those stores seem interested in the sanctity and purity of everyday work, which is nothing like my experience of Japan, nothing like my grandmother’s sponge, which must have cost her about a hundred yen, or less than a dollar.
But it is too simple to say that the tawashi fetish is a white American phenomenon. The imagined old ways of doing things, and of doing them in a highly curated way, has come to Japan as well. Linen napkins and stoneware and natural bristles are all the rage in the hip stores in Tokyo. Natural, natural, everything natural. I’m a sucker for it, Shinto-ish environmentalist and object-worshipper that I am.
And as much as I try to tell myself, smugly, that the tawashi is just a part of my routine, this essay proves otherwise.
At Tortoise, I recognized the tawashi and loved it, loved it perhaps because I recognized it—its familiarity offering a secret status imparted on me by no one other than myself. I’ve wanted a clean heritage, a clear shape, but my memories reveal something both truer to life and harder to trust. Sometimes—often, actually—I wish for a neater story. But I don’t know that it would give me clarity. And it would not clean my kitchen sink.