A Travellerspoint blog

Day 14

Em forges a samurai knife!

sunny 8 °C
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Guest blogger today. I figured it was only fitting that Em should write about her experience.

We're up early to catch the train to Gifu-Hashima. The Shinkansen stations are always well attended, and mum and I pick up breakfast in the form of coffee and sandwiches from a little stall on the platform, which has a little Charlie Brown figurine playing a fiddle on the tray where you deposit your money.

The train is punctual, always, and we set up for the journey. In between stations the landscape is distant mountains, small sleepy villages, wide plains and forests of bamboo and trees I can't identify. Gifu-Hashima is one of the smaller stations that lacks some of the high-tech amenities of the bigger ones; Kyoto has automatic gates in the railing that opens as the train stops, but this one doesn't even have railing. We make our way downstairs to wait for just a little while until we're to be picked up by our teachers for the day. A bemused but very friendly man asks where we're from in broken English while we wait out the front, and wonders off muttering to himself, probably trying to work out what we're doing here of all places.

Again, small town.

The other members of our class arrive, and then Samuel- a French apprentice and one of the few westerners having been granted permission to study swordsmithing- comes to get us in a van, and we chat to him about where he's from (Paris) how many years he's lived in Japan (four and a half years) and how long he's been an apprentice for (just one year).

The workshop is nestled in a quiet suburb; the forge itself is over a hundred years old. There's an impeccable quiet of a workshop when you're opening it for the day; back in Canberra in my own work it feels like setting the presses, wetting paper, retrieving ink from the cupboards. Here, Masaki- the far more advanced apprentice supervising- begins work for the day in spectacular fashion. He hammers at a rod of iron, gradually heating it with friction delivered precisely in each strike. When the metal glows red hot, he touches a match to it, and immediately it ignites, to applause from all of us watching. He explains (and Sam translates) that it's the purest form of fire, and thus the only acceptable way to light a forge of this nature. The ability to strike iron until it's hot is also a display of technique in hammering, something we're about to learn for ourselves.

Our knives we're going home with are a high-carbon steel, which holds an edge very well, but is far too hard to practice on to start with. So Masaki instead gets us a rod of softer iron, and invites us to practice. Key points of concern: keeping a steady rhythm when hammering, using gravity to help our swings, and, critically, not hitting ourselves in the face with the hammer. That part doesn't need translation.

So I hop down in the pit in front of the forge, get given a hammer, and practice my swings. Masaki seems impressed, but to be honest a key part of being a good art student is being able to repeat things as they're shown to you. Forging is a subtle blend of minding the temperature of the metal, technique in hammering, and ones own endurance. After the other two (Charlotte and Friso) have had their turn, we select the base we'll be working from and start the first process; forging.

My first act of hubris for the day is asking for a heavier hammer. I had (erroneously) assumed that they'd err on the lighter side to coddle the beginners. I quickly learn that 'being able to hold a hammer' does not equal 'being able to use a hammer for long stretches of time', and I pay for it in a sore wrist for the rest of the day. The carbon steel is significantly harder than soft iron, and to make matters worse, I've been set up at a significantly smaller forge than the main one. The primary forge features a set of box bellows that are a hundred years old, the one I'm set up at is a few bricks and an electric bellows that turns on and off by being un and re-plugged. But hey, if I can make a knife here, I can make it anyway. The first few attempts have me drop the knife on the floor, but time and patience rewards me eventually, and I get the hang of it more or less. Of course, it's impossible not to feel self conscious when Masaki edits my work, but it's a rare treat to see competency in a manual skill this close up and well worth swallowing my pride over.

Step one of forging is making the handle. Traditionally, a knife is finished with what's called a 'snake's tail'. The first part of this is hammering the end of the knife into a long thin length, then the careful forming of a circle at the end, and then curling the whole thing back on itself. I get 80% of the way to completing it when the metal cools too much and snaps off entirely- to a chorus of 'oh no's around the room. Undaunted, I repeat the process; if you can do something once, you can always do it again, and there's no sense getting precious.

Next, hammering the blade itself. Instructions received, I climb down into the pit and start forging. A couple of swings into the first round and I suddenly feel something brutally hot on my wrist- some of the outer 'skin' of the knife has fallen down my sleeve. Masaki and I both panic momentarily, but the damage is minimal- a love-bite more than anything. I splash some water on the start of a blister and get back to work.

When that part of the process is done, we get a brief break where water and beer get passed around, and the apprentices applaud us on getting through the hardest part of the process. The forge itself is dingy and utterly beautiful, with soot on every available surface and a coiling dragon painted on the back of the door, watching us at the table. All around is evidence of how much use this workshop gets- on the wall is notable quotes, phrases, and aphorisms from the apprentices, along with a map of the world and some assorted gifts from other forgemasters. Above and to the right of the forge is a simple shrine, with calligraphy curling beneath painted directly onto the dirt wall. The other students disappear into the shop attached to the forge to enquire about buying knives, and we talk to Masaki for a bit; he's polite and a little awkward, but earnest and very personable. Originally from the north island of Hokkaido, his career started as a pastry chef, a path that took him into the far flung reaches of southern France (despite not speaking much English and any French). We remark that it's a colourful journey, to go from pastries to knives, and he laughs in agreement, but tells us that he loves his life and his work, as difficult as it can be.

In order to harden the knives, they first must be evenly heated and then quenched in oil. The only way to determine if the knife is hot enough to quench is through the colour, so the teachers assist us in this by cutting out every light in the room. All the doors roll shut, all the vents are closed, and only a single artificial light is left. I climb down into the pit again, and Samuel switches the light off.

The forge is much hotter than it was in the last stage, and the fire shimmers a ghostly blue, radiating heat that is just slightly too hot to bear. The usual rhythm of the box bellows is around the same as breathing, but the forge has to be kept as steady as possible while heating the knife in order to bring it up to temperature evenly. So each 'breath' is long and slow, while you watch the knife buried in the coals for the perfect gold-orange colour, the charcoal plinking like sand on glass. The whole process probably doesn't take more than a couple of minutes, but it swallows you while you're doing it. When it's done, I plunge it into the oil, and it ignites in a quick and vicious flame. Masaki carefully takes it from my tongs to finish the cooling. The light switches back on again.

Here we break for lunch. We eat in the house of the master's parents, which is an old-fashioned building- rice paper walls and a screen door meticulously decorated with a scene of a riverbank. Lunch itself is convenience store food: fried chicken, a hamburger patty with cheese, onigiri, and some edamame. The other couple taking the class are conservationists working in Africa, and we have an engaging conversation about the realities of the work they do, and the difficulty of managing public perception with ecological necessities. My hands are shaking as I handle the chopsticks, and I can't regret trying the heavier hammer enough.

Thankfully, the next two steps are far less arduous.

Next, we shape the knives. The blade part is handled impeccably by Samuel in the interests of time, but ensuring that the handle is free of sharp parts and is comfortable to hold is up to us. I immediately recognize the files we're using from my university (we use them to prepare our plates), and I have my handle finished in maybe a quarter of the time the others take. All technique and practice, that's all any of it is, and I do my best to assist Charlotte while mum backseat-drives from nearby.

We have the opportunity to choose something to be stamped into our knife. Others choose their name, but the process has made me mull on printmaking and art as a practice. I choose the word 'discipline', as I'm thinking of the printmaker Sister Corita Kent and her 10 rules for her classroom. 'To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way', as she says, and cultivating personal discipline is key to blacksmithing and printmaking and all other crafts. Learning from teachers, practicing the craft, putting hours into the boring tedious parts that make your arms hurt, all of these lead towards the ability to make something beautiful and worthwhile. I cannot express how grateful I am to participate in it here, and to follow in the footsteps of masters, however briefly.

The final step is sharpening the knife. We're given a whetstone and our almost-finished knives, the technique is demonstrated, and off we go. The atmosphere is cheery and jovial, during what is objectively a mind-numbing process. It's impossible for us as beginners to tell if we're any closer to finishing the damn things than we were five minutes ago, and we rely on Samuel's eye the entire time. He tests it on his hair when we're approaching the end; a good knife should be sharp enough to cut partially into hair and pull it without slicing through entirely. Samuel is one of only few foreigners permitted to study under a master. No gaijin apprentice has graduated the rigorous and demanding process to become a master yet.

We mill about after we're done in the same way you mill around after a fun party- we goof off threatening to steal the expertly forged knives on the wall and testing our knives on paper while the apprentices call us taxis back to the train station. Lots of bowing, lots of earnestly thanking our teachers and each other for the experience, and just a bit of rearranging bags and such to hide our knives in. Technically knives aren't permitted on shinkansen. Whoops.

We bump into Charlotte and Friso a couple more times as we go- once getting tickets, and then once as we're boarding the train back to Kyoto. We leave Gifu-Hashima behind us at high speed, pacing past sprawling suburbs and back into the countryside. Kyoto is just one stop away, and we're back in a taxi and back to our hotel before we know it.

Mum and I laugh that we smell like wood smoke from the forge, and there's soot still on my hands and under my nails. I understand why
Masaki and Samuel both uprooted to learn at this forge, and a friend of mine jokes about setting me up at a forge back home. Hey, maybe. Never a bad thing to learn a new skill, and I like being a Jack of all trades. Better than a master of one, no?


Posted by nattybats 10:37 Archived in Japan

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what an incredable experience Em,and thanks for telling it in your own wordsI could imagine you saying it as I read it.

by Jenny de Bont

Well done young Emalee and well written blog. Hope there is no drama getting that knife through Australian Customs. Make sure you declare it.

by greynomadm

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