Showing posts with label katana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label katana. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Swords, Budo, and the centuries

My friend Kawahara Sadachika is a sword smith in Japan (he's a Buddhist priest too, but that's an entirely different story).  I managed to squeeze in a visit to his house in the Shiga countryside during a business trip last month.  He is always a tremendous pleasure to visit.  His home is on the grounds of the temple he cares for and it is always lovely.  It's called Nenpo-ji and was built in 1712.  Here are some pictures of the temple.

Kawahara Sensei is gracious and wonderful gentleman.  I've known him for about 15 years.  Hopefully I'll get to visit him again soon when he is working in his forge.

This time though we looked as some swords he has made, as well as a beautiful Nanbokucho Period blade that he was studying.  I always enjoy looking as Japanese swords, because each one is so unique, not just in shape and history, but also in appearance.  Each has a unique hamon (temper line) and jihada (steel grain).  We looked at a couple of nice blades that Kawahara Sensei had made.  They have a wonderful, lively jihada.

It is always a pleasure to watch him work with blades, even just to clean them.  He does it with a sense of respect and honor towards the blade he is handling that is truly impressive.  In the above picture he is working on a wakizashi that he made.  It's a lovely piece, and my picture below doesn't do it justice.  I really need to take a better camera on my next visit.  The picture is fuzzy, but the blade itself is delightfully clear with a lively, active jihada.

We talked quite a bit about the beauty of the blades, and in particular about the Nanbokucho tachi that he was studying.  It's a really fine blade with a wonderful shape and general appearance, as well as beautiful detail.

As we were talking about the incredible craftsmanship and beauty of this particular blade, Kawahara Sensei commented casually that he would be satisfied if he could ever make a blade of this quality.  This stuck with me because I have heard similar sentiments from another friend of mine who is also a sword smith.  Nakagawa Sensei has said to me many times that he “wants to make a sword that someone will look at in 1000 years and say 'He made a beautiful sword.'”

At first I thought of this just as wanting make something of quality, which is in itself quite a worthwhile objective.  Later it struck me that Nakagawa Sensei and I had been looking at, appreciating and talking about swords made a thousand years or more before we were born.  Sensei has every reason to consider what someone a thousand years from now will think of his swords.  It is quite reasonable to believe that some of his swords will be around in collections in the 31st century and that people will be sitting around looking at them and commenting on the grace, power, balance and beauty of his swords.

It’s quite common to talk about future generations, but how many of us really consider the future that far out?  Who seriously considers what someone one thousand years in the future will think about their work?  Who among us has reason to think about things that far in the future?  But if we practice budo, there is a good chance that a thousand years from now people will still be practicing the arts we practice, and they will be the descendants of what we teach. 

If you practice a koryu budo, you are practicing something that is already hundreds of years old.  Ogasawara Ryu kyudo is already nearly a thousand years old.  Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s, while Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu trace their origins to the 1500s, and Shinto Muso Ryu dates from about 1610.   When we start considering our practice in the scale of hundreds of years rather than decades, that should impact how we practice and what decisions we make.  Can we think about the arts we practice with a longer view than just a few years that are easy to imagine?  Can we imagine someone a thousand years in the future doing what we are doing and benefiting from it?  Can we make decisions about how we practice recognizing that what we choose now may influence how people train in the distant future?  Should we?

So what does it mean to practice with an awareness of hundreds of years of tradition leading up to us, and of hundreds of years of practice flowing down from us?  To me it emphasizes everything that we are doing, and it explains why teachers can seem so conservative.  It places even more importance on me getting it right, so that when I demonstrate for someone, or teach someone, I’m passing on the lesson correctly.  If I’m a poor student, I can only be a poor teacher as well.

The fact that after hundreds of years and revolutions in the technology of combat the koryu arts are still practiced and appreciated by people, and people still find so many relevant lessons is testament to the depth and enduring value of the lessons they teach, and the effectiveness of the way they teach their lessons.  It also suggests that whatever imaginable and unimaginable revolutions we have in combat, the lessons of the koryu we practice will continue to be relevant.  Scary thought there. 

We are teaching stuff that will be important for someone hundreds of years in the future.  I can see it pretty easily though.  The little lessons are the techniques and kata that we practice.  Those may or may not be directly relevant to anyone.  But the big lessons about movement, posture, timing, spacing, positioning, zanshin, and rhythm, these lessons I expect to be relevant as long as there are beings in conflict.  I find the idea of being part of a stream that stretches back hundreds of years, and will flow on for hundreds more to be an incredible thing.  It makes me awfully small, but with a huge responsibility.

Knowing that these lessons remain relevant after centuries, and will continue to be relevant is also tremendously exciting.  It means I’m not just preserving a fossil.  The art is useful and alive and contributing much more to student’s lives than just preserving a memory of things long past.  As long as people are people, there will be conflict, and it will involve blunt sticks, clubs, bladed weapons, chains and ropes.  The capacity for violence is part of who we are and I don’t think any amount of wishing is going to make it go away.

I’m ok with that.  I’m also ok with training that helps deal with that capacity.  I find the idea of training in arts that have successfully helped people deal with the capacity for and actuality of violence for hundreds of years reassuring and fascinating.  I’ve been studying budo for more than 25 years and I still learn something new every time I step into the dojo.  The arts are that deep.  From talking with my teachers, the ryuha they train in are deep enough that even after training for 2 and 3 times as long as I have, they are still learning new things and discovering new depths.

This is what we take part in and contribute to when we train in koryu budo.  We partake of living lessons about how to deal with some of the most fundamental of interactions.  These lessons have been refined over centuries, and now they are very effective and efficient.  Our job as students and teachers of these arts is to pass on faithfully what has been given us, but just as faithfully, to refine those lessons where we see a need.

Koryu budo have survived, seen a decline for a few brief decades when nearly all interests in Japan turned to all things shiny, new and modern, and are seeing a resurgence as a more balanced view valuing both that which is modern and new and those things which have shown resilience and worth over time.  The growth of koryu budo internationally in the last 2 decades is easily as great, and possibly greater, than that of gendai budo in the first several decades after their introduction the world outside Japan.

Those of us lucky enough to be involved in these arts have the responsibility to maintain the high standards of practice that have come down to us.  We also have to help our arts adapt to the changing world, but we must not change the arts just for the sake of change or temporary popularity.  Arts that are well-maintained, well taught and well practiced, that adapt wisely, will surely survive many, many more centuries, and continue to have value.  We are part of the current of these koryu, and students in centuries to come may well look back and see us as having had some small part in continuing the flow of these arts into their future.  If my name is remembered a thousand years from now in some list of koryu teachers, I hope it is remembered as having served the ryuha well, and not for having tried some fancy new trick that lacked sustaining value.