The Insanity of 21st Century Japanese Katana Swordmaking

by | Jan 17, 2021 | Arts, Featured, Japanese History, Traditions, Travel | 0 comments

WHEN YOU FIND YOURSELF sitting before a man with an unsheathed Japanese katana sword in his hand, it is best to take his words seriously. The master swordmaker Nakanishi-sensei retold a story once told to his master by the master before him, about the serious nature of guarding the secrets of their craft. It seems an apprentice once dared to test the temperature of the water used for quenching the steel after it was drawn from the fire and pounded into a  sharpened blade. He slyly stood near the trough and dipped his index finger into the water, but he was not sly enough. His master, assuming treacherous intent, quickly drew his sword and sliced the apprentice’s hand clean off at the wrist. Perhaps the punishment came too reflexively, as the master considered his apprentice, now writhing in pain before him. Indeed, his finger had felt the water temperature, but his brain remembered it. So his head was the next appendage to go.
japanese katana sword maker in kyoto

It should be noted that Nakanishi-sensei recounted this story with a mischievous gleam in his eye and ended it with a hearty laugh; nonetheless, I stayed at least a meter from the water trough with my hands thrust deeply in my coat pockets.

Standing in the workshop of the last active swordsmith in Kyoto Prefecture, it is unclear what era you exist in. There are no tools in the workshop that couldn’t have been made 100 years ago. The smell of charcoal, hot iron, and sweat are likely the same odors infused in the smocks of Japanese swordsmiths when their clients were actual samurai, not curious collectors of fine objects. Though the clients have changed, the men behind the craft remain the same: madmen obsessed with the quality of their blades.

I wondered what kind of person would dedicate themselves to a life of a swordsmith in the 21st century. After all, here in rural Kyoto, Nakanishi-sensei works alone every day, often in the dark, with heat equal to an incinerator close at hand. Yet, when asked about his favorite era of swords, his eyes light up like a a boy unwrapping an XBox on his birthday. He recounts his favorite era of swords in enough detail to keep us interested yet not enough detail to bore us to tears. Nakanishi-sensei is not just a master of swords, but a master of telling stories of the sword.

In the end, I concluded that Nakanishi-sensei was not mad at all, but a man who understood how to take a childhood passion and make it a lifelong pursuit. This passion drove him to complete his 10 year training period in 7 years and now drives his extensive client list, through which he has enough current orders to keep him busy for the next year. As he turned a finish blade over in his hands, I caught the reflection of the master in it. I realized that the image of the man in the blade was the master himself, exactly who and where he wanted to be.

 

making a japanese sword in kyoto

If you’d like to learn more about Japanese katana swordmaking in the countryside of Kyoto, please read the article by my friend and colleague Don Kennedy on Voyapon.com.

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