Learn how to make samurai katana blades in this Japanese forge

One of the many swords you can get to see and hold in the showroom. — Photos: S. INDRAMALAR

Situated in a nondescript yet picturesque spot in Kyotongo City in Japan’s coastal region of Tango, is a forge or smithy that makes traditional katana by hand.

These are the kinds of swords that were carried by the samurai back in the day.

The Nihon Genshosha forge is the collaborative venture of Tomoki Kuromoto, Tomoyuki Miyagi, and Kosuke Yamazoe – three friends who met in Tokyo some years ago, as apprentices of Yoshindo Yoshiwara, a renowned master sword maker.

To become a swordsmith in Japan, one needs to complete a training course offered by the government’s Agency For Cultural Affairs, and undergo an apprenticeship for at least four years with a licensed swordsmith. Although the trio didn’t envision “swordsmithing” as their vocation when they first started their training, they confess to truly falling in love with the ancient craft during their apprenticeship with Yoshindo.

Of course, they were also inspired by the samurai movies and period dramas they watched in their childhood which, they said, made them curious to learn more about the history and meaning behind the weapon.

Their goal is to breathe new life into the ancient art of katana-making and celebrate its heritage.

The workshop looks like a barn, complete with a large, heavy sliding door that is almost always shut. As soon as we arrived at the place, our group of curious visitors was directed to a small hill that would then lead us to the Nihon Genshosha. We were greeted by Yamazoe at the top of the hill (okay, it was really more like a steep slope), who then led us into the workshop.

Tamahagane, which means 'precious steel' in Japanese and is prized for its strength, sharpness and beauty.Tamahagane, which means 'precious steel' in Japanese and is prized for its strength, sharpness and beauty.

As he slid open the doors of the warehouse, we felt like we were entering a sort of sacred space: It was almost pitch dark, except for the fire from the furnace (and some dim lighting dotting the high ceilings), and very quiet.

In pride of place was the furnace with the roaring pine charcoal fire spitting some serious heat. Kuromoto and Miyagi were hard at work pounding a piece of steel, while Yamazoe explained their work to us.

The two men, he said, were executing a process called “tanren”, one of about 15 steps involved in the making of a katana blade.

Tanren, or forge folding, involves heating a special type of steel called tamahagane, and repeatedly pounding it with large hammers (weighing about 7kg each), to remove impurities from the steel, thus making it stronger, Yamazoe explained in Japanese. Thankfully, we had an interpreter along with us.

Leading the work for the day was Kuromoto: As the “yokoza” (person managing the flame), he was the head of the day’s production. In the tanren stage, his job was to heat the tamahagane until it is red hot – about 1,300°C –before taking it out of the flame (using a super long pair of pliers) for Miyagi and Yamazoe to swing their hammers and pound repeatedly.

Sparks flew with each resounding clang of the hammer.

The pounding continues until the steel reaches its optimal strength, which can sometimes go on for days.

The sword-making process is indeed a laborious one. Once the tanren is done, another process takes over where the hard steel is wrapped with a softer one to protect the integrity of the blade. This is followed by “hizukuri”, which involves shaping the sword with a single hammer, and “yaki-ire”, a process that further enhances sharpness by heating the blade to 800°C before quenching it in cold water.

“It is a very long process. Making one sword can take months which is why we only produce a limited number of swords a year,” Yamazoe said.

The samurai sword is beautifully curved and extremely sharp, with a single-edged blade that is made with the same techniques used centuries ago. The blade is curved for a rather practical reason.

According to a website called Kyoto By The Sea, the Japanese curved sword was born during the Heian period (794-1185). Until then, swords made in Japan were straight, most likely inspired by those made and imported from the Eurasian continent. But as fighting styles changed, Japanese swords became curved to make it easier to access while one is riding horseback.

‘Making one sword can take a few months which is why we only produce a limited number of swords a year,’ explains Yamazoe. — Photos: S. INDRAMALAR‘Making one sword can take a few months which is why we only produce a limited number of swords a year,’ explains Yamazoe. — Photos: S. INDRAMALAR

Later, improvements were made to swords in accordance with the time periods. For example, during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties when the idea of meritocracy prevailed, Japanese swords were made long and grandiose in order to show off one’s skills.

Then came the early modern age of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when society became stable, and elegant shapes were preferred.

Although sword forging is one of Japan’s world-class traditional crafts, its value is not well understood and the demand is shrinking. As a result, the number of swordsmiths who pass on the tradition to the next generation is also decreasing.

We were each given a turn at hammering the red-hot tamahagane that day. It took a lot of effort to lift the wooden hammer even a little bit, but the encouraging cheers of the three artisans made it impossible for us to give up.

Actually, it was quite a fun and fulfilling experience: nothing quite like hammering something to get rid of any pent up anger or frustration, after all.

The three smiths met while they were apprentices in Tokyo and formed a bond.The three smiths met while they were apprentices in Tokyo and formed a bond.

Sharing heritage

It is not uncommon for tourists to find their way to the workshop for a tour. After all, it is one of the most authentic Japanese experiences that you can find today.

This is especially intriguing for travellers who prefer an off-the-beaten-track adventure, opting for trunk roads instead of the highways. The Tango province is located north of Kyoto and is slightly mountainous, with scenic views of the coast and the Japanese countryside. It’s really quite an idyllic spot for creative ventures of artisans.

It fact, it was one of the reasons the three metropolitan boys (who hail from Osaka and Tokyo) decided to build their business in Tango. The land on which they built their warehouse was formerly the home of Yamazoe’s grandparents.

The trio set up shop there for many reasons, but a main one was because of the area’s ancient iron-making history. Apparently, a sword from the Kofun period was excavated in town of Kumihama, which is part of the city of Kyotango.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Yasaka there are said to be archaeological remains of an ancient iron manufacturing complex.

Apart from the workshop, there is also a showroom where visitors can view some of the swords the young men have produced, as well as other products they have crafted out of the tamahagane.

Travel notes

Getting there: From Kuala Lumpur, fly to the Kansai International Airport, the nearest airport to Kyoto. Take a bus or train to the Kyoto Station. From there, take the limited express train to Amanohashidate Station (about two hours), then change to the Kyoto Tango Railway for Mineyama Station (25 minutes). Finally, take a taxi to Nippon Genshosha (20 minutes). Alternatively, get a local travel agency to make all the necessary ground transport arrangements for you.

What to see and do: Check out the San’in Kaigan Geopark and Kotohira Jinja Shrine (the only shrine in Japan with Komaneko or guardian cats), Kotohikihama Singing Sand Museum, soba noodle making workshop, Kyotango guided walk and more.

Websites: gensho.jpn.com and visitkyotango.com

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