Visiting A Traditional Japanese Sword Smith
While visiting Japan recently, I had the opportunity to visit an old friend who represents one of the rarest and most beautiful facets of budo. Kawahara Sadachika is a traditional Japanese swordsmith, making gorgeous blades in a tradition that goes back unbroken for over a thousand years. Each of his blades is both a work of art, and a traditional weapon of the highest quality. It is always a wonderful day when I can sit and visit with him.
Like most Japanese martial arts students, I spend a lot of time studying the techniques of the styles I train in. Not nearly enough of us spend time learning to appreciate the skill, craftsmanship and artistry that go into many of the weapons we use. In truth however, the weapons of the classical Japanese warrior were, if anything, even more refined and developed than the arts they practiced. The tradition of the Japanese sword is twice as long as any of the extant martial traditions, with gorgeous blades that are clearly part of the nihonto tradition dating from the 900s.
Kawahara Sensei trained in the Gassan tradition of swordsmithing under Gassan Sadaichi. Today he works in a small forge he built on the side of mountain in rural Shiga Prefecture. The forge building is a simple, old style Japanese building with mud walls, many of which were damaged in recent typhoon.
The basic forge hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Metal ventilation hoods now cut down on the number of fires that burn down forges, and most smiths can’t afford to keep a cadre of apprentices to swing the big hammer that does all of the heavy work, so they usually have a power hammer tucked into one corner. It does the same thing an apprentice does. It smacks the same spot time after time while the smith puts the steel in the right spot.