Katana (刀) or the Japanese Sword

 

Karate class adventures

Today we joined Katada Sensei (my karate teacher at iCLA) on a little adventure to one of his friends in Kofu!  Katada Takashi has been more than just a teacher to me. Over the year that I have known him, he has taught me many things to do with the overall culture and Etiquette of Japan.

When we first met I would say I was somewhat boisterous or rather excited about being in Japan and studying martial arts with a World Champion.   Not speaking very good English we developed a sense of communication through, me talking and him agreeing with everything I said… Joking of course, (this did happen a lot though) the communication came through the dojo and practice karate. Growing a mutual respect for one another benefited, practically for Philip and myself in many ways. On many occasion we have been invited by Katada to events or trips and also to join the karate training with his team, (they’re all 3 dan and upward, training for the 2020 Olympics) which is pretty unheard of for two foreign novices.

P.s for those of you know don’t know what that is, here it is put in simple terms by ‘Our’ Philip – “if you are proud of your driver’s license, they’re like fighter pilots.” or my personal favorite “If you have no badges, they have 10.”

Katada for those of who know him is not only a master in karate but a keen connaisseur of everything Japanese.  Dedicating all free time to learning things like Sado, Iaido and the rest of his time to his young family. We have gained experiences in these fields because of Katada, in both Sado (or the tea ceremony) and Iaido (or drawing the sword) on a regular basis. Just two weeks ago we were able to try using a live blade for the first time thanks to Katada.

 

 

Because of these experiences, he asked both Philip and I if we would like to see how the katana are made. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity to see a swordsmith working metal!! Que today’s adventure!

 

Kofu’s Secret Sword Smith – Ito Shigemitsu

Not really sure if it’s a secret or not but it sounds more provocative don’t you think?

We jumped in the car and drove 20 minutes south of the campus and arrive at Ito Shigemitsu’s workshop/home. We introduced ourselves in the Japanese fashion of lots of bowing and saying your name. Then it was sword time!!

 

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He showed us first of all the raw materials for making the swords. Japan, of course, is an island with limited raw materials. They weren’t blessed, like many other places around the world with iron ore, so they had to get inventive. They were able to extract it from sand that was rich in iron like this.

 

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Of course, this made the process very time-consuming and costly. Spending several days over a charcoal furnaces (like the one shown below) the sand is spread over the top where it heats up and the iron sinks to the bottom and collects in a trough.  This is a very delicate process, the furnace needs to be kept at a constant temperature to avoid the iron spoiling and the sand being spread evenly to ensure optimum quality. After the firing, you are left with a slab of iron and other impurities. This is then broken and sorted into different groups, some are used for the softer core of the katana and others for the harder exterior.

 

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It is then heated, hammered and folded. This is what gives the katana its edge over other swords from around the world. This process is necessary to extract any impurities within the metal and to align the carbon, making it extremely strong. As the metal block is folded it creates lots of small layers, within the steel, giving it a pattern or skin. Of course, every sword smiths pattern is unique as they have their own individual way of folding the metal.

 

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The block is folded once more, only this time, a softer piece of iron is added (with a lower carbon content) to the harder steel exterior. The softer interior will eventually be hammered down and become the edge of the blade. Then it is heated and hammered into a rod that is the desired length for the sword.

 

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The reason for the soft centre and hard exterior has to do with strength and durability of the sword. The soft centre makes the blade flexible so your stupidly expensive sword won’t crack and break. The hard exterior is for strength, it still needs to pack a punch when you are chopping off heads, right? 

 

Then the rod is hammered on one side for the signature style single blade, this also is where the katana gets its curve. As only one side is made thinner the single piece of steel stretches on the blade side and contracts on the other giving it the curve you see. Then the blade is given a rough polish and coated in clay and heated once more to 800oC. This gives the blade its signature Hammon (or pattern/wavy line), then it is dropped into a bath of cold water dropping the temperature rapidly hardening the outer steal.

 

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Then comes the rigorous task of polishing and sharpening, this is normally done by a professional sharpener taking weeks of even months to perfect.

 

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Then we got to try out one of his swords. It was like getting a gun and shooting cans on a white picket fence in the wild west only, Japanese style. So with a katana, a wooden block, and a vending machine coffee can, oh and the aim was to slice it in half.

 

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Then Philip suggested we do some gardening and why not cut the tree’s (joking, of course,) trust the Japanese to take him seriously.

 

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Left the corner a little bare…

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Shigemitsu showed us some photos of an Australian group coming to visit his workshop. They got two swords and by striking them together were able to make sparks fly. Then he asked if we would like to try recreating this, Philip of course, jumped at the chance of destroying a ¥1,000,000 (or about 10,000 US Dollars) katana. To his dismay it was of course not the expensive katana we would be using but two blanks that were yet to be sharpened fully (still worth a shit load of money). Then Katada and Philip proceeded to destroy these two swords while I failed to capture the sparks on my camera… Gomen Shigemitsu gomen…

 

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There was actually some sparks, I just didn’t get it in time…

 

After breaking two swords we went inside to look at the real deal. Shigemitsu told us how his family had been making Katana for hundreds of years. He then produced this smaller blade and hand guard.

 

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These turned out to be over 300 years old made in the Edo Period by his great-grandfather! Absolutely amazing, the history and what beautiful pieces of craftsmanship.

Then he showed us one of his more recent works.

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This is the 1 Million yen jobbie right here… What an honor to even see such amazing pieces, let alone touch and swing them about!

 

What an experience, thanks, Ito Shigemitsu and of course Katada sensei!

 

Thanks for reading/looking!

Hope you enjoyed it!

Stephen

 

Poor guy was right back on the wheel as soon as we left, fixing those swords no doubt.

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Shingen Ko Festival! – 信玄公祭り (しんげんこうまつり)

‘The Largest Gathering of Samurai’ – Guinness World Records, April 2012.

 

As you have seen in earlier posts in the build up to the samurai parade we have been working very hard to prepare and finish the armour in time.

 

 

 

A short video of the coming up to the parade and the post about making the samurai armour.

https://lifesofar.org/2016/04/04/making-samurai-armour/

https://lifesofar.org/2016/04/07/homemade-samurai-armour-part-2-helmet/

The Big day – 9/4/16

 

After the long wait, it’s time to finally march in the Parade!  Held here in Kofu the city of my study year abroad. Convenient I hear you say…

 

 

The plan was to wake up nice and early, get the armour on and head into Kofu city centre on the train for the start of the parade.  All was going well with only a few costume hick ups, noting that the master craftsmen couldn’t fix with ease though!

After an hour or two of everyone getting ready, some worry worts putting on diapers, we made our way to the train station.

Diapers I hear you ask, yes diapers… Someone had the bright idea of telling everyone that the parade would last a long time and there would be no toilet breaks. Their solution was to wear a diaper (or 3, literally 3).  Don’t worry I can put your minds at rest and tell you that there were no accidents and everyone got home with a dry bum. Or at least I think they did?

 

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Of course, everyone in Yamanashi knows about the parade, but that didn’t stop the funny looks as we made our way to the train station.

The Parade Route

We started at the Prefectural office and marched through the streets to the castle for the opening ceremony.

 

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After marching to Kofu Castle we sat down on the green and listened to the opening ceremony! Then it was time for the full parade, marching around the city centre and off to battle we went.

 

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She thinks that’s bad, try living beside him.. 😉

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We had the great honour of being allowed to take part in the parade itself, but as if that wasn’t enough we also got to march with this man in our group!

 

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Kuninobu Takeda ’16th Generation descendant of Takeda Shingen’

One of the only living decedents of Takeda Shingen. Talk about amazing!

 

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Some of the other performances during the parade.

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After a few more hours of walking we were back to the starting point and it was time to grab a quick bento, oh and photos!

 

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For obvious reasons I couldn’t take any photos on the day, I have been given permission by everyone to use all of the photos and videos that  you see in this post.

 

Big Thanks

Bendik Aarsæther, BA Productions   ( https://www.facebook.com/baprodnorway/?fref=ts )

Saitoh Naoki, LANDSCAPE FILMS  ( http://amadeus43.wix.com/landscape)

Ellie Parker-Harbord  (@icemonkey65 on Instagram)

Josephine Dryden  (@josiedryden on Instagram)

Yuka Shimazu  (@yuc4t4n on Instagram )

iCLA   (https://www.icla.jp/en/)

Everyone else who helped make this possible

 

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Time to get the armour off and get the beers in! What an amazing day and what an amazing experience!

 

Thanks for reading/looking

Stephen

 

 

 

 

I’ll leave you with this..

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Homemade Samurai Armour Part 2 (Helmet)

(You can see the helmet in its complete stage above, this also happened to be when I was interviewed for CATV a Japanese TV Channel that is broadcast to over 800,000 people, no pressure.. )

The second part of my Samurai Armour instalment,

When constructing the armour I thought long and hard about the helmet as it really is the centrepiece for any samurai armour. There are such vast amounts of styles and variations when it comes to this part of the samurai armour it was actually very difficult to choose. After looking through lots of different resources online and in books provided by Watanabe sensei I found one and based my design roughly around it!

 

Making the horns

I started off by making a cardboard cutout of one side then using it as a stencil to make both sides identical. After cutting, tweaking and perfecting it I scored the outline on to the same black plastic sheets that were used for the rest of the armour. This would act as the support and backbone really of the horns.

After cutting out the insert I cut out two pieces of styrofoam in the shape of the horns. 20160226_122536

Then I worked them with the Stanley knife shaving the sides and rounding off both sides, then I used a fine course sandpaper and smoothed off the edges.

Then same then I taped and glued the two pieces together with the plastic cutout in between.

The next stage was to add cloth over the top of the black tape to allow me to spray them easier. Also, this was a chance to add an effect to the horns so they weren’t perfectly smooth making them more like an animal’s horn.

After many layers of glue (about 7 or 8) I started to smooth out the surface using sand paper then repeating the glueing process to take away the ragged edge of the cloth. After three or four more layers it was ready to have its final dry then paint!

After the paint had dried I attached the two pieces together and fitted them to my helmet. The final result looks pretty awesome I think anyway! Let me know what you think!

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(This is an older photo there has been more modifications made to the armour for example, all the blue thread you see has been changed to purple and the Takeda mon has been added to the hand guards)

Thanks for looking/reading

Stephen

 

Homemade Samurai Armour

Now where to begin….

So much has happened in the last 5 months since starting the samurai armour project.

Let’s start from the beginning, the first process was to cut out the paper temples from the guide that we were giving by Watanabe sensei (a master contemporary samurai armour craftsmen). After cutting out the templates I taped the paper onto the plastic plates – the reason for using plastic was for ease and it is much faster.

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After cutting out the all of the pieces the edges needed sanding off and all of the dots you see needed to be punched out.

The stage after this involves threading the pieces of plastic together.

Then it was a matter of threading these pieces to the main body plate and designing the body plate itself.

After all the various pieces were threaded together I could start to personalise my armour to be the way I wanted it! The samurai were famous for using decorative knots, (actually, most traditional Japanese things use knots in some way, from Sado to Kudo they appear in all shapes and sizes) I wanted to try out making some and using them on my armour. Coming from Ireland I was really interested in the Celtis and the knots that they made, I thought incorporating this would add a nice personal touch.

These are examples of the Celtic and Japanese knots that I tied. After some more tweaking I added the Takeda Mon (or crest) to the chest plate, I really think it works well and the end result is awsome!! IMG_4198

Now that the armour was nearing completion I wanted to make a start to the helmet.

Thanks for reading/looking

Stephen

 

Samurai, Samurai, Samurai (and my latest project)

When in Japan one must ‘Samurai, Samurai, Samurai’!!

When thinking about Japan we are all extremely interested in these figureheads from the land of the rising sun! The samurai over time has become a key focus for people from all around the world. When you think Japan, at first, you think anime, sushi, and samurai or was that just me?

So the samurai are a pretty big deal, even for the Japanese people this keen interested is shared. Many businesses try to see from the point of view of the samurai, shaping or changing their business accordingly and even your everyday Japanese person tries to live by the samurai’s code or ‘bushidō’.

There is of course so much history surrounding the samurai but I won’t get into that today. There is one samurai I would like to talk about in particular though and he goes by the name of Takeda Shingen. He was born and lived in the city Kofu, Yamanashi Which just so happens to be the place where I am currently studying! Takada was considered to be one of the greatest of all the Japanese samurai generals.

You may be thinking to yourself, where is he going with this?? But of course, the reason I am telling you about Takeda Shingen is to do with the legacy that he has left on to this day. As he was born and lived in Kofu there is a parade held in his remembrance. The Shingen-ko matsuri or Shingen Festival. During the 3 day festival that is held during the first week of April, every year participants reenact the march that Takeda Shingen and his soldiers would have taken every time they went to war. It also happens to be the most famous samurai parade in Japan and is technically the biggest in the world. Oh, and it’s in the Guinness book of records also!!

So again you ask, Why is he still talking about this Takeda guy and the parade?

Well as it just so happens one of my latest projects turns out to be making my very own samurai armour! Oh and marching in the Shingen festival… (no biggie right?????) A few months ago I was asked if I would be interested in making my own samurai armour and after making it be in the parade, I of course jumped at the opportunity. As the parade is next weekend I have basically completed my armour but I will make a post telling you about the processes in which I made the armour! I will attach a link here when I finish it!

 

Thanks for reading/looking

Stephen

All things Handmade!

Throughout the blog, I will undoubtedly be getting my hands dirty in some way shape or form! As I mentioned before my love of all things handmade is undeniable.

From a young age, my parents always encouraged me to be outside in the garden and working with my hands. At the age of seven I had my very first toolbox and plot of land in the back garden  (2ft square, still big enough for a little one) I would sit for hours hammering nails and screwing screws into random blocks of wood and at the same time waiting patiently for the seeds that I had sown to pop out of the soil as a baby plant!

One of my biggest passions lies in woodwork and I would love to follow it as a career path in the future. This along with my passion for music drives me more towards making musical instruments! To date I have made one (not so successful) musical instrument in the shape of a (kind of) Hurdy-gurdy!

Above see the process of making the hurdy-gurdy! At the top of this post there is a picture of my very own はんこ or Hanko -スティーブン or Stephen, the Japanese use these as a form of printed signature. I carved this out of Chinese Jade stone!

Have no fear there will be more posts to come #handycraft

Thanks for reading/looking,

Stephen

LifeSoFar

So, here we go..

 

Let’s start off with a provocative quote (as I’m sure you will soon learn that’s just the kinda guy I am!) that so happens to be my favourite. I was driving to work one day as I normally would along the A2 or the ‘Coastal Road’ as it’s known when I noticed the van in front of me. I can only assume was owned by some hippies or people wondering the country due to the fact it was covered in painted-on flowers, smiley faces and other rather naff symbols.  On the back was written,

Smile, it’s the second best thing you can do with your lips”.

I just think it is wonderful, make of it what you will…

So, I’ve been telling myself to do this for a very long time and today Saturday 2nd its seems to be happening!! (Now I actually have to post something tonight….)  I have done a fair bit of traveling throughout my short time on planet earth and would love to continue seeing the world, meeting interesting characters and helping others on the way! I’m originally from the small town of Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, but I am currently living in Kofu, Japan on a study year abroad as part of my degree.  I have various interests and hobbies, ranging from horticulture to mechanics to making music, travel and woodwork, my love of all things that I can do with my hands is endless.

As I’m sure you are all wondering, ‘Why are you starting this blog Stephen?‘ Well, I want to write down some of the goings on of my life here in Japan and in the near future (hopefully) about some of my adventures. I will also talk about little projects that I will be undertaking, be that making something from metal, plastic, wood or a combination of the three. If I’m outside in the garden I’m sure something might just make its way onto the page..

Well, I like to keep things short, sweet and simple, as I myself don’t like to be bogged down with reading so I will always try to keep it simple and if you even need or want more information I will be glad to help you out!

Happy looking/reading,

Stephen!