Sword Holding

Sword Holding

We often get requests from travelers who want to visit a “swordmaker” based on their casual interest in the Japanese sword, or katana.   However, the world of swordmaking in Japan is not quite a spectator sport and, for the most part, unless you’re truly a collector or a potential purchaser of a sword (which runs upwards of $20,000), visiting a swordmaker is just not easily done.  There are, however, a few festivals and exhibitions throughout the year that include public displays of swordmaking.   One is in the Nagano area, in the town of Sakaki, where a series of workshops are done during a two month period in the late spring.  Another is in the town of Seki, where traditional Japanese sword making is demonstrated to the public at the Cutlery Festival every year.

Another option, though, for a true aficionado is a visit to one of the many artisans on the periphery of the sword world – including those artist masters of the various fittings and elements.  We had one such opportunity with a visit to a master sword polishing school.   This ancient discipline has been handed down for generations and hundreds of years.   The polishing of swords is an art, and the practitioners in Japan apprentice for years before going out on their own.  In addition to understanding all the nuances of polishing, they also must become experts on the history of the swords they polish, the evolution of metallurgy, the creation of their own tools and even geology (since polishing is done with a variety of stones, each more finely grained than the last).

The most unusual aspect of the polishing is the set up for polishing, with a bench that allows the polisher to perch part of his body on one foot, wrapping one toe around the base and then balance the sword in front on him.   Below I’ve included a picture of my guinea pig boyfriend trying to manage the correct position – not recommended for those without significant yoga practice and strong feet.

The best part of the visit, though, for someone with a true love of swords, was an opportunity to learn how to correctly hold and examine a sword and, in the course of doing so, to handle blades as old as 800 years.   Sword collectors in Japan take great care with their collections and regular and correct polishing is necessary to maintain the blade.   Visiting a sword polisher was an interesting way to gain a greater understanding of the depth of love the Japanese have for their katana.

Correct way to examine a blade

Polisher apprentice – course stone stage

Examining the hamon of 13th century blade

This is not normal… or easy!

Fine stone polish

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