Showing posts with label forging. Show all posts
Showing posts with label forging. Show all posts

Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Memoriam: Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei

Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei at his forge circa 1997 photo copyright Peter Boylan 1997

My dear friend and mentor, Nakagawa Taizoh passed away on November 16, 2017. He was 85. Nakagawa Sensei was an artist and teacher of the first rank. He was a swordsmith who made swords that were exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally functional. He was also one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met regarding Japanese art and culture. I want to share my memory of this wonderful man.

I met Nakagawa Sensei in the spring of 1992 while working on the Jet Program in Japan. My sister and I were riding our bikes home after getting haircuts in Yokaichi, Shiga, Japan, where I was living,when I noticed someone sharpening something on a huge, old fashioned grinding wheel It was the biggest grindstone I’d ever seen. We stopped and stared at the grinding wheel for a while when it occurred to me to look at what was being sharpened. It looked like a sword. Of course that couldn’t be, because guns and swords were illegal in Japan, weren’t they? As all of this was going through my head, the guy doing the grinding looked up and noticed us. He waved for us to wait for him.

He finished what he was doing shortly after that, and introduced himself as “Nakagawa”. Then he invited us upstairs for tea. He lived on the second floor of the two story metal building behind the workshop where he’d been working; up a steep set of metal stairs on the outside of the building.. Inside was a small room filled with books and antiques and yumi (Japanese bows) and posters for sword exhibitions and cats - and swords. Mostly it was filled with swords. He had a pile of unfinished blades in one corner of the room that quickly convinced me that swords must actually be legal in Japan. 

Nakagawa san made some tea for us and we started to talk. He took out a finished sword and started pointing out some of the features. Other than the fact that this sword was amazingly beautiful, I couldn’t appreciate it because I didn’t know what I was looking at. Remember that, up until a few minutes before, I’d thought swords were illegal. He showed us a couple of other blades and pointed out the pile of blades that were his experiments as the cats walked across the unfinished swords and flicked their tails against the finished ones.

Nakagawa Sensei cleaning one of his swords photo copyright Peter Boylan 2018

I don’t remember nearly enough of that first meeting, partly because I’d only been in Japan for a little over a year, and conversations were still difficult for me. I was still looking up a lot of vocabulary in my cool, new, electronic dictionary (a godsend after hauling around a paper dictionary all the time). I do remember that he gave me one of his business cards, which helped my understanding and gave me his first name, “Taizoh”. It also confirmed for me that he was a swordsmith! I was still quite green at figuring out Japanese etiquette on the fly, but I decided that a guy who was licensed to make swords deserved more respect than to just be called “Nakagawa San”, so I upgraded the honorific I was using to “Nakagawa Sensei”, which seemed more fitting. When we left he invited us to come back any time (at least that’s what I understood). As a parting gift, he gave us a pair of antique soba cups from the Edo period.

Nakagawa Sensei's business card

After that, I started visiting Sensei whenever I could. I was teaching English in the local junior high schools, so I’d visit after work and on the weekends. Sensei’s patience with my poor Japanese amazes me to this day. If he was working in his forge, he was happy to let me watch, and I was thrilled to be able to. I got to see a lot of incredible swords through Sensei. People would often bring him swords to look at and appraise. Sensei was friends with many sword collectors in the area and sometimes we would visit them together. I wanted to understand more about all the beautiful swords I was seeing and handling I found a copy of Leon Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara's The Craft Of the Japanese Sword and started reading. Our conversations about swords quickly become much more interesting and complex as I added to my sword-related vocabulary, but Sensei was still very patient with me as I looked up words in every other subject we discussed.

I had been training in Judo since 1985, but Sensei introduced me to the world of koryu budo as a result of our discussions; and the opportunity to handle so many fine blades made me want to understand them even more. I eventually decided that to fully appreciate these swords, I would have to understand how they were used.

Nakagawa Sensei was always happy to meet people and share his love for Nihonto. I introduced him to administrators at the local extension campus for Michigan universities (JCMU). The students were very interested in meeting Sensei, and learning about his art, and he was completely open to the idea. We arranged for a group of the university students to visit Sensei’s workshop to see him work and learn about swords, and Sensei arranged a side trip to see the collection of a great sword collector in the area. He happily shared an amazing experience with them that very few people anywhere can have.

Sensei shared his knowledge and passion for Nihonto with anyone who was interested and respectful. He also freely shared his swords. Shortly after starting iaido with Takada Sensei, I mentioned to Nakagawa Sensei that I was thinking about grinding a blade to use in trying tameshigiri. Nakagawa Sensei was dismissive of the idea. Instead he got up from where we were sitting on the floor of his front room and disappeared for a minute. When he came back he had a long, purple cloth bag in his hand. He handed it to me and said “If you want to do tameshigiri, use this.”

I opened the bag and took out a heavy sword in a shirasaya. As I drew the blade from the saya, Sensei told me “I made this but I won’t sell it. I think the steel is a little too soft. It’s good for you to do tameshigiri with though.” I protested that I couldn’t possibly use the beautiful blade I was holding for tameshigiri, but Sensei assured me repeatedly that it was fine for me to cut with this sword. I let Sensei convince me that it was ok.

At the next practice, I talked with Takada Sensei about doing tameshigiri and explained that I had a sword we could use without fear because it didn’t matter if I damaged it. Takada Sensei was excited by the idea and we started planning. A couple of weeks later we had everything we needed put together: sword, tatami omote rolled and soaked, some bamboo stalks, and stands to hold everything. Oh - and Nakagawa Sensei.

Nakagawa Sensei offered to come to keiko on the night we did the cutting. He picked me up in his car and drove to gym where we trained. Just in case there were any problems, Sensei brought along a couple special tools he had for straightening bent blades. Takada Sensei had a stand in which we could stack rolled mats horizontally. We set up the stand and stacked mats three-high on it. Takada Sensei went first, swung a big kiriorishi and cut through the top two mats with ease. Then it was my turn. I had only been doing iai for a few months. I raised the sword up and took a huge, muscular swing into the mats and managed to cut through two of them. I also managed to put a rather extreme bend in the blade. Fortunately, Nakagawa Sensei told the truth when he said it was ok for me to cut with the sword. He just smiled, took the sword from me and started straightening it out with tools he had brought. Then he handed it back to me and we did some more cutting.

Nakagawa Sensei had very high standards for what made a sword good enough to leave his forge. The sword we had used for tameshigiri, for all its beauty, strength and flexibility, did not live up to his expectations. He felt the steel in the blade was a little too soft for a proper sword, so even though he went to the expense to have it polished and mounted, he would never consider selling it. The sword wasn’t quite good enough.

As I got to know Nakagawa Sensei, he began to let me help around the forge. I did all sorts of little things like cutting charcoal to size (I never dreamed that charcoal has to be the proper size for various operations in the forge to go well. I still have a scar on my index finger where I managed to cut myself instead of the charcoal once.) Even though he had a power hammer that was mechanically precise, he would have me swing the big hammer for him from time to time, as much for me to experience doing it as for the pleasure of working as a team, I think. The big hammer differs from a western sledge hammer in that the haft is offset in the head. Instead of coming into the middle of the hammer so the head is balanced on the end of the haft, it comes in on one end of the head. This makes the hammer unbalanced and more difficult to control, but the offset head almost swings itself, making the strikes stronger with less effort. I wasn’t very good, but Sensei never seemed to mind my lack of skill, and I did get better over time.

In 1998 Nakagawa Sensei established a forge in Ihara-cho in Okayama prefecture. I was beyond honored when he asked me to help out with the dedication ceremony. The ceremony was to include a Shugendo priest and anoffering of traditional dance by a young boy. In addition, offerings would be made to the deity of the forge. Sensei would also ritually smelt and work the first piece of steel assisted by a group of deshi swinging the big hammers. Sensei asked me to be one of a pair of deshi swinging the hammers for him. No power tools would be used for the ceremony.

The new forge decorated and fired up during the dedication ceremony. Photo Copyright 1998

In the days before the ceremony, we prepared the new forge by sweeping it repeatedly and hauling up chairs for people to sit on. Ihara-cho is on top of mountain in rural Okayama Prefecture, and the forge was difficult to get to - up a steep slope that defeated some cars. We set up a platform for the altar with offerings, including kagami mochi (rice cakes), fruit and sake. We also hung traditional rice paper and erected standing green bamboo around the forge.

The shugendo priest blessed the forge and we hammered away at a fresh piece of ore. It’s difficult working the hammer by yourself but working in a man team also requires cooperation and coordination so only the hot ore is hammered and not anything else. Sensei directed the deshi where to strike and in what rythm by tapping with his hammer. After we had worked the ore into steel by hammering and folding it a number of times, Sensei quenched it in some water and we placed it on the altar as an offering. Then the young boy performed a traditional dance for the gods. The ceremony finished with us cutting up the kagami mochi and opening the sake for everyone to share.

Working the first steel in the new forge with Nakagawa Sensei Photo Copyright 1998 Peter Boylan

Sensei loved to discuss art and politics and culture and history. Because of my passion for martial arts as well as for swords, we spent a lot of time talking about the relationships among traditional arts in Japan, budo and swords. Being surrounded by swords while talking with a master swordsmith who also practiced classical Heki Ryu kyudo and was also very familiar with many of the classical sword arts and much of their internal politics didn’t leave much room for me to hang onto illusions about the world of swords and martial arts. I traded my myths about unbreakable swords that could cut through anything for the fascinating truth of swords carefully crafted by smiths, polished so finely that the grain of the steel becomes visible, and wielded by people who may be masters of the art of swordsmanship but are still quite human.

What else can I say about a man who was a talented sculptor and a university professor before he became an incredibly skilled swordsmith? As a skilled practitioner of Heki Ryu kyudo, Nakagawa Sensei had participated in some extended endurance shoots. Though he never tried the 24 hour shoot, he successfully completed some of the shorter ones. He owned a Ming Dynasty bowl while living with three cats. The bowl got broken. The cats were excused and forgiven.

Nakagawa Sensei in his living room, the pile of swords in front of him, and his Ming bowl on the bookshelf. The cats were hiding. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2018

He enjoyed Japanese green tea and soba noodles. He worked in a charcoal dust covered forge and got absolutely covered in charcoal dust himself when working. Nonetheless, when he cleaned up to go out, he was one of the most stylish people I have seen, with a personal sense of elegance that was wonderful to the eye. We would visit art museums in Kyoto and the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya to see the paintings and sculpture as much as to see the beautiful swords they often had on display.

Nakagawa Sensei was a great smith. I once watched him turn down a commission for five swords because it was a boring commission. The buyer wanted five matching swords, and the idea of making five nearly identical swords didn’t interest Sensei at all. On the other hand, he made a beautiful omamori tanto and gave it to my wife and me to commemorate our wedding. He could tell you the carbon content of a piece of ore by looking at it (really! I challenged him on this once and he fired up his grinder, handed me a book with spark patterns for steel and proceeded to accurately identify every piece that he sparked on the grinder).

One of the things he allowed me to help him with was gathering old steel to use in making swords. When old temples and shrines were being renovated we would go and gather up the old nails and iron fittings with a huge magnet. Then we would go through and sort the pieces into traditional Japan-made steel and western-made steel. With a little study, you can tell the difference between the two easily. I spent many pleasant hours collecting and sorting steel while Sensei did things that took far more skill than I ever acquired.

I will always treasure my memories of helping Sensei in the forge and sitting with him in his living room surrounded by swords and cats and yet more swords, talking about everything under the sun.

I miss you Sensei.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.

精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

Fine Martial Arts Equipment, Books and Videos

Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.

In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.

In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forging As A Training Image In Japanese

Forging is a common metaphor when talking about training, whether it is in the martial arts, the military, or anywhere else that people learn to handle stressful encounters. This is true in Japan and the West.  We speak of forging character. In English, when we speak of forging it refers to shaping something. When we forge a knife, we are hammering it into the proper shape. “Forging character” implies developing personal character in a situation of stress and pressure.

When the Japanese talk about forging,tanren 鍛錬,  they have a somewhat more complicated image non-Japanese do. It’s not just the idea of beating hot metal into shape, and hardening the steel. There is a critical step before this in the process of forging a sword. You have to hammer and fold the steel many times before the steel is ready to be shaped. This process usually takes as long or longer than the process of shaping the blade.  

The idea is that the Japanese go through this repeated folding and hammering of the steel to create a multitude of layers in the steel. These layers of hard and soft steel make a blade that is both able to endure severe impacts and hold a sharp edge. Steel that is homogenous will either be soft or hard.  Soft steel will absorb impact without cracking or breaking, but it bends easily and a sharpened edge will dull quickly.  Hard steel will hold an edge well and resist bending, but it is brittle and liable to crack if struck hard. The ancient Japanese technique of layers of hard and soft steel makes for a blade that has hard layers that will hold an edge and soft layers that will absorb impact.

This great blending of the properties of hard and soft steel was not the reason Japanese smiths started repeatedly hammering and folding their steel though. They were driven by something else that colors the Japanese concept of forging. The steel used to make Japanese swords is probably the lowest quality, most impure and contaminated stuff to pass for steel in the world. It’s called tamahagane. It’s made by collecting iron bearing sand which is then melted in a crude earthen smelter by adding charcoal directly to the material being smelted. As in any smelting process, most of the impurities and stuff that isn’t iron melts and runs off. The classical Japanese smelter isn’t very efficient or effective though, so a lot of impurities remain in the resulting steel, as well as an abundance of unburned charcoal bits. No self-respecting smith would touch this stuff.

In Japan it was all they had, so they figured out how to make it work. Their solution is slow and takes an incredible amount of effort, but the outcome not only transforms the steel into high quality material, but creates all those layers that make for a stronger, sharper blade with the incredible patterns in the steel that contribute to making Japanese swords the most beautiful in the world. The patterns on the surface are subtle and complex, giving a picture of the complexity and beauty of the internal structure of the swords.

How does heating and folding the steel get rid of all the impurities and chunks of charcoal to leave the beautiful, layered steel with a grain like wood? The smith heats the billet and hammers it out so it is long enough to be folded in half. Every time the smith strikes the metal, glowing bits are smashed off of the billet and go flying into the air. Those glowing bits aren’t steel.  They are impurities, slage that would removed in more effective modern smelter. As the smith repeatedly hammers, folds and hammers the steel, more and more of the impurities are driven out of the steel.  Occasionally splinters of unburnt charcoal rise to the surface as well.  These pieces have to be raised up with the tip of a file and pulled out with tongs.  After 10 to 20 repetitions of hammering the billet out to the proper thinness and then folding it in half, the steel is pure and the layers have been welded together by the force of the hammer.  Sometimes you will only have half as much material as what was there before you started heating and hammering.

All of this has to happen before you can begin to shape the blade.  This image of forging, where you have to heat and hammer the metal to purify before you begin shaping it into a blade is an important one when you think about training in Japanese martial arts.  The image of tanren is one whereby the student has to be purified and have all the slag and residual garbage driven out of her before she can begin to be shaped into a martial artist is an important difference.  The western image is that we take students and they are ready for forging.  The Japanese image is one where the student has to be prepared before they can even begin to take the shape of a martial artist.

This explains a lot about some of the traditional stories of teachers having students do seemingly ridiculous things for weeks or months before they begin teaching them martial arts. These stories are about how teachers prepared their students to learn the art, in the same way that a smith prepares a block of steel to be able to take the shape of a sword.  Students rarely come into the dojo perfectly ready to learn.  I know I wasn’t ready to learn in anything approaching an optimal manner when I started, and I have seen very few students who were.  This image of tanren gives us another, and more accurate, view of the role of the teacher.  

We don’t just teach students our arts.  New students come in eager to learn budo, but most of them really aren’t ready to start learning.  I know I wasn’t.  Most people who come into the dojo don’t know how to stand or even how to breathe (unless they were lucky enough to play a wind instrument or sing in choir).  Before a student can begin learning budo, they have to learn to do things that are fundamental to all of life, but which don’t seem to be considered worthy of teaching anymore.  We have to teach them how to breath and how to stand and how to walk.  

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I played trombone for 10 years before I started judo, so I had the breathing part down solid.  I only had to learn how to stand and walk.  I worked on good posture and basic walking for months before I really got it.  Learning to counteract 20 years of bad habits acquired while slumped on the couch in front of the TV, or slouching over the desk while pretending to do your homework takes time.  These kind of habits are buried deep, so learning to break them takes work.  

This is where the idea of 鍛錬 tanren starts to make sense.  We all have habits and traits, both physical and mental, that get in the way of learning good budo.  We really can’t start learning budo until we get rid of these counterproductive habits and traits. You don’t put the foundation for a building on on sand.  You don’t form a sword from ore that is still loaded with slag.  You can’t really learn budo until you get rid of the counterproductive habits and traits you’re carrying.  You can’t learn budo if you’ve got a bad slouch or you can’t breathe fully and efficiently.  The teacher’s job is to hammer and forge you to help you get rid of these traits so you can start learning.  Once you learn how stand up and breathe, then you can start learning budo.  This preparation, that’s part of the forging process.  That's tanren.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting A Traditional Japanese Sword Smith

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.