The old post town of Yabuhara in the central mountains of Honshū has been known for its fine-toothed wooden combs, or orokugushi, since around 1700. Each handcrafted piece is beautifully hewn from a species of indigenous alder, and sports as many as 120 teeth in a span of less than five inches. The story centers on the community of comb crafters in this town near the end of the Edo period (1603?1867), set against the backdrop of a major earthquake as well as the political upheavals that ultimately resulted in the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. It begins in 1849, and follows the tale of Tose, 16 at the outset, who is the eldest daughter of the town’s most accomplished comb master, Gosuke.
Gosuke comes from a long line of comb makers. In spite of his reputation as a master, and despite his spending full days at his craft from before breakfast until late at night, stopping only for meals, his daily production barely pays for the next day’s rice to feed his family, leaving nothing to set aside. His wife Matsue maintains the household with help from their second daughter Kiwa, a year younger than Tose. For her part, Tose helps with the finishing work on the combs her father produces, always paying close attention to everything he does. Her younger brother Naosuke, who showed signs of talent early on, had died the previous year at the age of 12; since the expectation was that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, the family has been thrown off balance. Tose would very much like to acquire the skills of her father, but her mother holds to the view that comb-making is man’s work and is firmly set against it. Kiwa is also opposed, out of fear that should her older sister’s marriage be delayed, it could stall her own prospects as well.
When Tose is 18, the family receives a marriage proposal for her. The go-between is a distributor of Gosuke’s combs, and the prospective groom is from a well-to-do farm family with large landholdings. It’s an advantageous alliance for the family, so Tose resigns herself to accepting the match and leaving comb-making behind, knowing that her father can ultimately find an heir to his trade by selecting the man who will become Kiwa’s husband. But when the date for the nuptials begins to draw near in the new year, Gosuke himself apologizes to the go-between and calls the wedding off. For the first time, he praises Tose’s skill. In anger, the distributor withdraws the favorable terms he had been giving Gosuke, and others in the community scorn Gosuke as well for sacrificing his daughter’s best interests to his combs.
Before long, Kiwa gets married and moves away. Nearly ten years later, when Tose is 30, she finally gets married as well?to a man three years older who has apprenticed himself to Gosuke. A baby follows in due course. Then Gosuke succumbs to illness, and the family business is passed on to Tose and her husband.
There are also two very important supporting characters in the story. One is Genji, the son of a hardscrabble farmer and the childhood friend of Tose’s late brother. Genji is arrested on charges of aiding anti-government agitators, and dies in prison. The other is Princess Kazunomiya, daughter of Emperor Ninkō and the later wife of shogun Tokugawa Iemochi?a political marriage designed to foster reconciliation between the imperial court and the shogunate. The princess passes through Yabuhara on her journey from Kyoto to Edo. Gosuke realizes from events surrounding her marriage that the transformations the nation is undergoing portend big changes for the world of craftspeople as well.