While visiting Japan recently, I had the opportunity to visit an old friend who represents one of the rarest and most beautiful facets of budo. Kawahara Sadachika is a traditional Japanese swordsmith, making gorgeous blades in a tradition that goes back unbroken for over a thousand years. Each of his blades is both a work of art, and a traditional weapon of the highest quality. It is always a wonderful day when I can sit and visit with him.
Like most Japanese martial arts students, I spend a lot of time studying the techniques of the styles I train in. Not nearly enough of us spend time learning to appreciate the skill, craftsmanship and artistry that go into many of the weapons we use. In truth however, the weapons of the classical Japanese warrior were, if anything, even more refined and developed than the arts they practiced. The tradition of the Japanese sword is twice as long as any of the extant martial traditions, with gorgeous blades that are clearly part of the nihonto tradition dating from the 900s.
Kawahara Sensei trained in the Gassan tradition of swordsmithing under Gassan Sadaichi. Today he works in a small forge he built on the side of mountain in rural Shiga Prefecture. The forge building is a simple, old style Japanese building with mud walls, many of which were damaged in recent typhoon.
The basic forge hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Metal ventilation hoods now cut down on the number of fires that burn down forges, and most smiths can’t afford to keep a cadre of apprentices to swing the big hammer that does all of the heavy work, so they usually have a power hammer tucked into one corner. It does the same thing an apprentice does. It smacks the same spot time after time while the smith puts the steel in the right spot.
My friend Grigoris and I spent wonderful day with Kawahara Sensei talking about swords and looking at some blades he made. Each one is wonderful display of master craftsmanship, exquisite functionality and subtle beauty. He cleaned each one carefully for us so we could appreciate every level of it’s detail.
And the details are spectacular. I only wish my photography skills were anywhere near what is required to take detailed sword photos. The hamon and jihada stand out clearly and beautifully, so that the craftsmanship and artistry that are combined in making a nihonto are wonderfully visible.
As an iaido practitioner, I evaluate swords from both an aesthetic point of view and practical point of view. The sword has to both look good, and feel good in my hand. Kawahara Sensei is a master of making beautifully balanced swords. They are a pleasure to hold in the hand and to swing. Don't even bother asking if they will cut, because they cut slightly better than your average scalpel.
After Grigoris and I had looked at every blade Kawahara Sensei had for us to look at, and we managed it all without drooling on the swords, he took us to the forge, which is on one end of the low structure he built as a workshop. He let us handle some of the equipment, including the big hammer used by apprentices and assistants to do the heavy pounding on the steel as it is folded to drive out remaining impurities and to get the layers of steel just right.
That hammer is a monster. It weighs somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds (5-7 kilograms), and has zero balance. I’ve swung plenty standard Western style sledge hammers.
After we’d looked around his forge for a while, Kawahara Sensei fired it up for us. The fire pumps out a lot of heat on a warm fall day. It takes a surprisingly long time to get the fire right, because it’s not just the heat of the fire, but the earth and brick that contain the fire have to get to the right temperature as well, otherwise the environment won’t be right for working the steel.
We watched while Kawahara Sensei carefully prepared the fire and got all of his tools arranged. Then he slipped a lump of tamahagane, the raw steel that is used to make a Japanese sword, into the fire and watched it until it changed color to just the right shade that meant it was ready to work. That's when we got the surprise. Kawahara Sensei told us to grab the big hammer and swing it for him.
I have to say, that offset haft makes controlling it far more work than the hammers I’m accustomed to that have the shaft connecting to the center of the head. Keeping the hammer swinging in a controlled arc draws on a whole bunch of muscles I don’t normally think of as being involved with swinging a hammer. On top of that, this is precision work.
You have to hit the steel squarely with the flat of the hammer’s head. You can’t hit at an angle because that will change the shape of the steel and the pattern of folds that the smith is working on. When you’re hammering a spike into something, that’s not a concern. If you’re angle is off a bit, the spike if fine. With steel for making a fine sword, even small angles count. Fortunately the steel we were working on wasn’t that far along in the process, but we were still expected to do it right, which is a lot harder than it sounds. In addition, the smith will signal where he wants each strike by tapping the steel with his smaller hammer. He uses the hammer to set the pace and signal the strikes and to tell us when to stop.
Grigoris and I took turns swinging that hammer for about an hour, all the while working the lump of steel flatter and flatter. Fortunately for us, the steel would cool fairly rapidly, and then it had to go back into the fire for a few moments to come back up to a temperature where it could be worked. Kawahara Sensei told us during one of these breaks that in the past a smith would have 3 or 4 assistants swinging hammers so no one would get too tired. That is certainly easy to believe. With the heat of the fire in front of us, and the sun coming in from behind, we got tired and hot quickly.
Eventually the steel got hammered to the point that Kawahara Sensei wanted, and he gave us the final signal to stop. Then we watched while he cooled the steel, put out the fire and cleaned up the forge area.
It was a fantastic experience, and even if we weren't that skilled with the hammer, I look forward to visiting Kawahara Sensei again. I want to look at the swords he's created and to help him make some more. Hopefully I'll be better with that big hammer the next time. And if anyone is interested in buying a sword from Kawahara Sensei, please feel free to email me.