8 May 2011 Visit to a sword-smith
This weekend I went with my friends Stephane and Jeffrey to visit my new friend Pierre, a fellow long-time Japan resident who has been studying katana-making for the past five years. He is preparing to become an officially-licensed katana smith in a month or so, and when he passes the test he will be only the second non-Japanese to do so (and the other guy was so long ago he’s already dead).
Pierre lives in the mountains of Wakayama in a very beautiful location; about three hours by car from Kyoto. The people in the little hamlet he lives in were friendly without exception, maybe because each and every single one of them knows Pierre and the details of his life. Such is the fate of a lone gaijin in very remote Japan.
This is the view about 10 meters from his door.
One interesting thing Pierre said was how many crazy people approach him about the Japanese swords; especially foreigners, since he’s one of the few non-Japanese to be traditionally trained in the art. Japanese swords attract a lot of crazy people who are into the more violent aspects, he says, and it’s easy to believe. He, however, is interested in the craft and technology of their making. Apparently the best swords were forged in the 13th century or so, and even though we have a molecule-by-molecule metallurgical understanding of the process now, people still can’t make swords nearly as good as those 13th century ones. (The same is true of shakuhachi, by the way. Some modern shakuhachi are nice, but they just don’t have the character and depth of the old ones.)
He made a quick little demonstration blade for us, although when he does it for real it’s anything but quick. He performs every part of the process, from forging multiple raw lumps of ore into a single bar, to shaping the bar into a katana ready to be polished. He even cuts his own charcoal into five different sizes depending on which stage of the forging it’s used for.
I was surprised with how small the forge itself was. This is his smaller one, but he showed us the large one he uses for full-sized swords, and it wasn’t much bigger.
He’s renting out a smithy that has been here for more than 100 years. I’ll post more photos from the inside later.