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Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya is one of the holiest shrines in Shinto. It is dedicated to the Susano Omikami, and to the Kusanagi Tsurugi, the Grasscutter Sword given to the Japanese Imperial Family by Amaterasu Omikami, the Goddess Of The Sun, and Ancestor of the Imperial Family. The Sword is actually enshrined in the Honden of the shrine. Only priests and miko girls (shrine maidens) are allowed to approach the Honden.

On the 5th, 6th, and 7th of July, a special matsuri was held to honor Susano Omikami and the Kusanagi Tsurugi. A temporary forge was constructed so that katana could be forged on the grounds of the shrine within sight of the Honden. This was only the third year that this has been done. I was lucky enough to hear about this unique festival because the deshi (apprentice) of my friend Kawahara Sadachika was to be assisting in the forging.

The 5th and 6th were spent forging the actual blades, while on the 7th top polishers came and polished the blades. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend on the 6th, but that alone was a tremendous treat. I had in tow a wet-behind-the-ears college student from the Michigan Universities Center in Shiga Prefecture, named Mike Low. It's nice to have someone along on these things to remind me of how exciting many things in Japan were the first time I saw them.

July 6th was very hot, with temperatures well into the 90's (F), which when combined with the heat thrown off by the forge, made the day a very thirsty one for the smiths. When we arrived the fire was hot, and the deshi were heating a block of steel, called the tsumadai. This is the stage at which the steel is folded. On the previous day, the deshi, lead by master smith Furukawa Kiyoyuki, from Nagano Prefecture, had prepared raw tamahagane (basic, unrefined ore) by hammering it into small pieces that they could sort by carbon content and construct the raw tsumadai block.

The tsumadai is then very slowly heated to hammer welding temperatures. This process is the most critical one in the forging of a blade, because if there is anything wrong with the block at this point, everything that follows will be wasted effort.

What we had the pleasure of seeing on this day was the repeated hammering and folding of the steel. Contrary to popular myth, the steel in Japanese swords is not folded thousands of times. It is generally folded between 10 and 15 times, and certainly never more than 20. The reason for this is that after 20 folds the steel becomes too homogenous, and loses the layering that is critical for making a Japanese sword. Now, while the steel is not folded thousands of times, it does have thousands of layers. The tsumadai is usually made up of 30 ­ 50 individual pieces of steel, and every time it's folded, the number of layers doubles. Even figuring starting from just 30 pieces in the initial block, and only ten folds, you end up with 30,720 layers in the blade.

The forging was being lead by Furukawa Kiyoyuki Sensei. He had 5 deshi along to assist him. These deshi repeatedly heated and folded a block of steel, and when it was ready, Furukawa Sensei quickly shaped it into a blade. The shaping takes surprisingly little time compared with the folding process, taking place in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.

After doing the rough shaping with a hammer, Furukawa Sensei finished shaping the two blades that had been prepared in the two days of forging. For this he used files and scrapers. The files he uses are standard metal files, just like the ones at any hardware store. The scrapers though are pretty much unique to Japanese swordsmiths. In order to have a tool that is strong enough to cut through the steel of unhardened blade, the smiths make a two handled scraper out of a piece of a hardened sword blade. This can be a piece of a sword that developed a flaw, or it can be made just for this purpose. Either way, the metal of the scraper will have undergone the yaki-ire process, making its edge significantly harder than the steel of the sword being shaped.

While Furukawa Sensei was doing this, the deshi began heating another piece of tamahagane. While all this was being done, Fujiwara Toshikazu, the deshi of my friend Kawahara-san, began inviting people to come around behind the forge and try swinging one of the long handled hammers used to hammer the metal during the folding process. These hammers have always looked quite wild to me. Unlike western hammers, the long handled sledge hammers of Japan do not have the handle set in the center of the hammer's head. Rather, it is set back about ¾ of the length of the head from the striking face. This makes the hammer very unbalanced, and a bit tricky to use.

Watching the deshi pound the tsumadai with these hammers was interesting because even though I know a couple of sword smiths, and have spent months helping them out, I'd never seen one of these hammers actually used before. It requires at least two deshi, in addition to the smith, to work at a reasonable rate with these hammers. Unfortunately, very few smiths in Japan ever have more than one deshi at a time, since being a sword smith is considered dirty, dangerous and dull, as well as being a rather low paying profession to go into. Every smith I have ever seen uses an electric motor to swing his big hammers for him. Without power hammers, making Japanese blades would be so expensive that no one but Bill Gates could afford one.

Following this, a great surprise awaited. Everyone who wished to, was given the opportunity to help fold the tsumadai. This was something that I had not expected at all, and it came as a great surprise and pleasure. Mike, the college student with me looked like he was going to start flying just from thinking about it.

The actual forging of a blade is NOT exciting. It is extremely hot, sweaty, repetitive, and painstaking work. When the tsumadai came out of the fire, the lead smith would place it on the block of steel that is used for an anvil, and tap the anvil with a small hammer. We, the assistants, would take turns striking the tsumadai after each tap. When the steel became too cool to work properly, the lead would tap the anvil quickly several times, signaling the assistants to stop.

Everyone present who wanted to had a chance to swing a hammer. Those who did made up an interesting assortment. There were young office ladies in their company uniforms, several older men, some of whom had worked in smithies when they were younger and Japan wasn't an economic powerhouse, and even a couple of old ladies. One tough old girl was 83, and she still got up and gave it a try. Furukawa Sensei and the deshi were wonderfully patient and tolerant with everyone, even the gaijin with the thick accents.

After he finished shaping the blades, Furukawa Sensei handed them off to Fujiwara-kun, to apply the tsuchi (mixture of soil, ash and polishing stone dust) to the swords in preparation for the yaki-ire. This looks a lot like the painting you did with mud and sticks as a kid. The difference is that the mud is prepared a lot more carefully for this. All the ingredients are put in a mortar, mixed with water, and ground with a pestle to achieve a fine texture. Then they are slowly applied with a small blade. The hamon on both swords made during the Hono Tanren were suguha, or straight hamon, with no fancy effects. When all of this was done, the swords were leaned against a wall, and everyone went to find something to eat for dinner. We had several hours to go until it would dark enough to see the color of the blades being heated clearly and easily, so the yaki-ire wasn't scheduled to start until 7:30.

After dinner, Takayama Takeshi Sensei, the organizer of this hono tanren, was kind enough to talk with me a bit about the Atsuta Jingu Hono Tanren. Takayama Sensei first organized a hono tanren at Atsuta Jingu in 1996, as a way to honor the Susano Omikami and the Kusanagi sword, as well as to help people develop a better appreciation and understanding of the Japanese sword.

Even in Japan, few people are at all knowledgeable about Japanese swords. As Takayama Sensei explained it, until the end of World War Two, there was a close connection between Nihonto (Japanese swords) and the Japanese people. Sadly, since the Occupation the Japanese people have become separated from Nihonto, to the extent that today few Japanese really understand or appreciate them. Even most kendo practitioners know little or nothing about real swords, being more interested in the competitive aspects of kendo than it's relationship to actual swords and their use.

Takayama Sensei therefore established the Atsuta Jingu Hono Tanren as a means of restoring the close relationship between Nihonto and the Japanese people. One of the primary goals of the Hono Tanren is to educate people about the history and craft of the Nihonto. To this end, Takayama Sensei assembled a group of smiths, polishers and habaki makers to perform the Hono Tanren.

A "hono" activity is anyone performed as an offering to the kami. In the case of the Hono Tanren, the craftsmen offer not only their skills, but also the products of their skills, polished, mounted blades. It is Takayama Sensei's intention that by giving people the opportunity to watch, and take part in, the production of Nihonto, that they will develop a better understanding of swords in Japanese history, and begin to restore the classical relationship between the Japanese and Nihonto.

According to Takayama Sensei, there are "three points of the Nihonto:

First as weapon

Next as a spiritual object

And third as a work of art.

He told me that for a Japanese blade, "Seishin wa ichiban daiji." or "Spirit is the most important." This is to say that the spirit that the smith puts into the blade is the most important thing. This is a difficult idea for many non-Japanese to grasp, but within Japanese culture and religion, any work of great art and skill is said to have a spirit of it's own. This is especially true of swords. There are stories of swords with all manner of powers, and in the book "The Japanese Sword" Sato even recounts that one tanto was believed to have such a powerful spirit that the shogun would keep it pointed at areas where he thought trouble was likely to occur, because the spirit of the blade would quell revolt before it started.

To appreciate Nihonto, according to Takayama Sensei, one must understand that them in the light of aesthetics, the skill of the craftsman, "kokoro" or "heart-spirit," and beauty. To him, "the Nihonto is the peak of Japanese art and spirit." Because of this he has made it his life work to spread the appreciation of and understanding of Nihonto throughout Japan again.

Takayama Sensei's closing words were

"It is extreme to say, but all of Japanese culture is in the Nihonto."

Peter Boylan, Mugendo Budogu, Shiga, Japan