Forging a blade into Japan’s metallurgic history

The delicately curved single-edged katana sword is an icon of Japan for many. Indeed, swords have been central to life in Japan for most of its history. Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, a sword that belonged to the mother goddess, Amaterasu, has been one of three items imperial regalia since Amaterasu sent it to earth with her grandson Ninigi nearly three millenia ago (or so legend has it). Japanese warriors, eventually known as samurai, have carried swords ever after…until the Haito Edict of 1876, which banned swords for everyone except former daimyo lords, the military, and the police.

Needless to say, Japan’s 2,500 year history of swords meant it had very fine swordsmiths, blacksmiths who beat and folded heated metal into blades that they polished to extremely sharp edges. In fact, the history of swordmaking in Japan dates from only 700AD, leaving the origins of that ancient sword from the gods to legend. Traditionally, Japan’s swordsmiths worked in their forges wearing white cotton kimonos and black hats similar to those worn by Shinto priests, a symbol of the sacred work of sword-making. Relying on the legend that the original sword was a gift from Amaterasu, all others were equally regarded as having a relationship to the gods.

When these talented craftsmen lost their market because of the Haito Edict, they needed to develop new products or starve. Predictably, they decided to beat their swords into plowshares.

Tsutsumi Production, a forge in the Fukushima castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, already had a history of producing farm implements, most particularly garden hoes, and could readily retool. These days, the family-run business also offers visitors a chance to make a souvenir letter opener (think if it as a miniature katana) with prior arrangement.

As a major center of samurai culture, the Aizu-Wakamatsu area has long been known for its quality blades. At the Tsutsumi forge, there is also a story dating back to Japan’s Warring States Period (1467-1615) that is used to explain their prowess at producing garden hoes. As the story goes, a princess, the daughter of an esteemed lord, had to run for her life when her father was defeated in battle. She survived by hiding herself among common villagers, working alongside them in their fields. But one farmer noticed that she was struggling to use a heavy hoe and then recognized who she really was. Appreciating what a kind and hard-working young woman she was, rather than expose her, the farmer helped her remain incognito by having the local blacksmith design a lighter, but durable, hoe blade that would enable her to work effectively alongside the others. Tsutsumi has dubbed its blade the Hime-kuwa or Princess Hoe.

Together with three companions, I had a go at smithing, pounding a rod of red hot metal to form a letter opener. I have to admit, swinging that heavy hammer left me breathless, but exhiliarated. And I now have my very own handmade letter opener.

An experienced blacksmith oversaw our work and instructed us in what to do. He was waiting for us with rods of metal heated red hot in a small coal fire just next to the anvil.

We took turns standing in a pit in front of the anvil (my big feet barely fit!) and beating our metal rods into blades. Clutching one end of the rod with tongs, we would strike the red hot end with the heavy hammer over and over until the smithy judged that the metal needed to be reheated. He would shove it back into the coals and pull a different rod out for the next person to work on.

After several rounds of beating and heating and beating again, our smithy tutor judged that our blades were sufficiently formed. He then heated the other end so that we could pound out the handle, which didn’t get pounded quite as thin. This was easier because the tongs could grip the flat blade better than they held the round rod.

In the final stage, the red hot handle end had to be twisted to make it more decorative. This was a process that required a couple of people to hold while one twisted. The twisting took a bit of force!

Our blades with twisted handles still didn’t look like much when we had finished, but the smithy assured us that he would polish and sharpen and generally finish them off.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later a small parcel arrived in the post, my finished letter opener, with the characters for Aizu etched into its blade. It came in a pretty cloth cover, with a commemorative photograph and a nice hand-written note. It is a thing of beauty and whenever I use it, it evokes happy memories of a fun experience in an old castle town.

The forging experience takes 60-90 minutes and costs JPY12,500 and is only available on weekdays. Advance reservations are required, by phoning (0242) 22-0308. There is an English speaker on staff, but to avoid any possible misunderstandings, it may be best to use Japanese to make the reservation.

© 2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
We’re thrilled if you share this; if you want to re-use in any other way, please request permission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s