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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