The Art of Fire and Stone.

One of the most rarest opportunities in all of our experiences in Japan was being invited into the home of Matsunaga Genrokurou to witness part of the process in making a samurai sword! Matsunaga Genrokurou, a master sword-smith and martial arts master, is in his 60’s and works from his home making Japanese swords.

Matsunaga Genrokurou

During this visit, we learned a lot about him and about the long history of sword making in Japan. Here are a few unique and interesting pieces we took away from our conversation:

  • There are about 200 out of 500 master sword-smiths left in Japan today.
  • Matsunaga has no apprentices working with him in his shop and is worried who will eventually take over.
  • He has had visits from the Ambassador and CO of Boeing Airlines.
  • Industrial dust from the cutting does not get separated with the combustibles for trash. You have to pay more to get of rid of it, making the process a more expensive one.
  • It takes 4 years (used to be 5) working as an apprentice to become a sword-smith.
    • Every day an apprentice makes the fire and makes breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the master (only lunch is provided for the apprentice).
    • No vacations are allowed.
    • Apprenticeships are unpaid.
    • As an apprentice, you do not work every day.
  • A sword-smith knows when the fire is ready by the color.

— the making of a Japanese Sword —

  1. some instruments and materials for tempering a Japanese sword: iron sand (from tamahagane, or other melted down iron sand instruments, big hammer, small hammer, chisel, level, etc.
  2. fuel and akutsukuri (rice straw ash): cut pine charcoal (or chestnut charcoal) into 3cm cubes.
  3. piling preparation for firing: 
    1. break tamahagane into pieces and choose pieces containing high levels of carbon.
    2. pile the pieces tightly on the lever.
    3. wrap the pile tightly in washi (Japanese paper).
    4. pour muddy water over the wrapped pile and sprinkle with rice straw ash.
  4. firing: place the pile in the middle of the furnace. Use the bellows gently, taking about 30min heating the pile slowly. A sword maker knows when the pile is ready.
  5. temper folding: in order to make one sword, about 9kg of tamahagane is required. Tamahagane is folded and hammered out between ten and fifteen times, and the finishing temper folding is done about eight to ten times. After the temper folding, the final weight of the sword is usually only between 800g and 1,000g. In other words, the final weight is only one tenth of the original tamahagane.
  6. sunobe firing: 
    1. put water on the tempered metal and hammer it out, the metal will pull together. Hammering out this metal to the length of the sword is called sunobe.
    2. using a small hammer, make the shinogi, and bring out the ha, or cutting edge. This process is called hizukuri.
    3. the sword-maker has in mind the ideal form of the sword. To produce this image the sword-maker does not use a ruler, and relies only on the hammer. The three lines of the mine, shinogi, and ha, are the determining elements of the sword. At this point the sword maker concentrates fully on the work.
  7. finish: from the hizukuri to the finished sword, put the sword in a vise and file the mine, boushi, and smooth out the ha. Smooth out the minemachi and hamachi.
  8. tsuchitori: put on rice ash and wash the sword throughly. Take off all the oil with the ash, dry, and put on yakibatsuchi, mud.
  9. yakiire: for the yakiire, cut charcoal of about one third the size of that used for the first firing. Fire the furnace very hot. Heat the sword from the base of the blade to the tip to about 800 degrees C. This is a difficult thing to do. Afterward, cool by putting the sword in water.
  10. aitori and sorinaoshi: after the yakiire, there is the “ai wo toru” process. “Ai wo toru” is one of a kind restoration of flexibility. Hold the sword above the flame of the forge for a long time, until the water will bounce off the blade, at about 180-200 degrees C. The iron will become more flexible and less brittle. In addition to this, the blade will be guarded from nicks. Saws and chisels also undergo this process.
  11. kajitogi:  the sword-smith polishes the sword and sharpens it to a certain extent to make sure there are no flaws.
  12. tamesigiri: from the point of view of the sword-smith, the sword should be able to cut well wherever or whenever the sword is tested. To have confidence and to take responsibility for the sword, the sword-smith tests swords by cutting. This is called tamesigiri.
  13. finishing the nakago: since the nakago will not be polished, it is a place on the sword which will stay the same forever. Therefore, great care must be taken in its finishing.
  14. meikiri: the chisel is about 7cm long and the edge is relatively obtuse. Usually the sword-maker makes the chisel. The sword-maker uses a hammer to hit the chisel and cuts the mei into the nakago. The mei is cut with the hammer’s weight, not with muscularly powerful strikes. Once the mei is begun, it is finished quickly.

Not only did we get the opportunity to watch part of the sword making process but we were also able to witness the testing of these swords’ durability!


— glossary of Japanese words —

  • aitori                      “ai wo toru” or restoration of flexibility by low heating
  • akutsukuri            rice straw ash
  • boushi                    the rounded tip the blade
  • ha                            the cutting edge
  • hamachi                the base of the ha, where blade and nakago connect
  • hizukuri                 hammering out the shinogi and the ha
  • meikiri                   chiseling one’s name into the nakago
  • mine                       the non-cutting edge
  • minemachi           the base of the mine
  • nakago                   the part of the sword which has no edge, and is in the hilt
  • shinogi                   a barely raised line near the middle of many swords
  • sorinaoshi             restoration of flexibility by low heating
  • sunobe                   hammering out the metal to the length of the sword
  • tamahagane         melted down iron sand
  • tameshigiri           testing the sword by cutting
  • tsuchitori              process of preparing the blade and spreading mud on it
  • washi                      Japanese paper
  • yakibatsuchi        mud to spread on the blade before firing
  • yakiire                    heating the blade and then cooling it quickly in water


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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