Approximately 600 kilometers south-west of the capital Tokyo is Osafune in Setouchi city. The origins of Japanese swords are still not accurately known, however it was around 1,000 years ago that the form of the present-day Japanese sword originated. There are various schools of sword making around Japan, and Bizen Osafune is one of the production regions with the longest history. Many of the high quality swords that still exist today were produced in this region during the 12th and 13th centuries.
In addition to the rich resources from the Yoshii river, like quality iron sand used as a raw material, and red pine used as fuel, Bizen Osafune was also a logistics hub and with it’s strategic transport links it became the center of Japanese sword production. Around half of the existing swords designated as national treasures are Bizen swords. Nowadays Japanese swords are no longer weapons, but appreciated both in Japan and overseas as items of beauty and symbolic protection.
The Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum is unique in Japan for not only the Bizen swords, but for the various artisans that work to create them. This is truly the home of the Japanese sword. Japanese swords are crafted at the hands of seven different artisans, each with a different role. The first process of making a sword is the job of a sword smith. A lump of iron is heated in a 1,300 degree furnace and then hammered, flattened, and folded in half with an 8 kilogram hammer. This process is repeated to forge and shape the blade.
After the forging process carried out by the sword smith, the Togishi sharpens and polishes the blade until it is smooth and beautiful. The blade is sharpened with 7 to 8 types of whetstones. Then there are 4 or 5 more finishing steps, including hazuya and jizuya stones, and nugui powder to further sharpen and polish the blade. For a blade length of about 70 centimeters, it takes from 80 to 100 hours of work to complete the polishing.
The Shiroganeshi makes blade collars, called habaki, that protect the blade inside from contact with the scabbard, preventing damage and rust. Swords are made from iron, so the habaki makes use of softer metals such as gold, silver, or bronze to prevent blade damage. Over 20 different types of files can be used to make the habaki.
The scabbard, or saya, is made by the Sayashi. A long block of wood is split in two and the shape of the blade is carved out of the middle. The two pieces are then joined with a glue paste made from rice. A Japanese scabbard takes around 4 or 5 days to make, more than a week if the design is complex. This worker also creates a wood handle, or tsuka, for the sword and fully wraps it in ray skin.
After the scabbard has been shaped, the Nurishi applies lacquer to give it a beautiful water-proof finish. It takes about 1 to 1.5 months to paint the base layers. On top of that are the intermediate coatings, of which there are about 10 layers. For finishing, the saya is rubbed in gloss and polished with his bare fingers. Once the the saya is glossy, the lacquerer knows it is finished. This process takes about a day, but the whole lacquering process lasts around 2 to 3 months.
It is the Chokinshi’s job to engrave the blade, the blade collar, and the guard with words or pictures. They are often asked by the client to engrave designs of natural things such as plants and flowers, or divine beasts like dragons or phoenixes. Nowadays, portraits of people are not as popular as before. The Chokinshi could have an inventory of anywhere from 200 to 2,000 types of chisels for different tasks.
It is the Tsukamakishi’s job to reinforce the handle, to add decoration with a wrapping of ray skin overlaid with braids made from silk, and to make the handle easy to hold and manipulate. The Jabaramaki, or diamond braiding method has a high level of difficulty, but it’s result is very beautiful.
Japanese swords are still made today in the traditional methods. There is no metal item in the world that has been elevated to the level of fine art like swords have. The visitors to the Bizen Osafune museum are sure to be spellbound by the magical beauty of Japanese swords. Japanese sword artisans further improve and refine their inherited skills while maintaining true to tradition, maintaining their pursuit of new techniques so that they can be the best at their individual crafts.
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