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I It is a divine May day in Sakurai, a city in western Japan that is beautifully nestled between sacred mountains and in which time truly seems to have stood still. It is peaceful here, secluded, idyllic. Our destination is tucked away on the edge of a village, at the end of a very narrow path: Gassan Nihon-to Tanren Dojo, the most distinguished workshop in the art of forging Japanese swords. Master Sadatoshi Gassan receives us amicably. He is a renowned swordsmith with imperial honors, charged with forging the offertory swords for ceremonies at Ise Grand Shrine, an ancient Shinto holy site revered throughout Japan. Sadatoshi’s physical appearance radiates a great, quiet dignity whereby the master, not uncommon among the Japanese, is a reserved character. In the many hours that we spend together on this day, he hardly shows any emotional impulse at all. Now and then he gives us a smile. And despite, or perhaps because of this, he emanates a very special allure. Sadatoshi has devoted more than 45 of his now 68 years of age to the art of sword-forging. The sori, the backward curvature of the blade that is so characteristic of the Japanese sword called the nihonto, explains Sadatoshi, was originally wrought for use by the cavalry. Because of this unique curvature, the riders would have found it easier to strike from the backs of their horses at their opponents on the ground. The name Gassan comes from the eponymous sacred mountain in the northern region of Honshu, where the roots of the clan can be traced back to the twelfth century. Mount Gassan was one of the greatest landmarks of a syncretic variant of Buddhism, Shugendo- , at the center of which stood the worship of mountains and the pursuit of spiritual awakening through discipline and long journeys. “The Gassan sword,” says Sadatoshi, “was developed at that time for these disciples so that they could defend themselves. It always served to protect its owner – it was not there to kill people.” Nevertheless, the Gassan swords gained their excellent reputation in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Japan was subjugated by a cruel faction of powerful suzerains and swords did not merely serve for the defense of one’s own life. In the middle of the 19th century, shortly before the reign of the samurai known as the shogunate transitioned into a monarchy, a change of location for the legendary Gassan sword forge was in order. A legendary swordsmith brought the art with him when he moved from the provinces to Osaka, the capital of West Japan. There the head of the clan, Sadakichi Gassan, revived the typical hallmark of the ancient Gassan sword, the ayasugi-hada. It is a whirled-rippled pattern on the surface of the sword body. The ayasugi hada is the result of numerous forged, folded, and polished layers of iron, thus making it a fitting trademark for the Gassan swords in every respect — fitting because it indicates their solid construction along with their flexibility and suppleness in equal measure. The Gassan sword thus experienced its renaissance in 19th-century Osaka. Today — six generations later — Sadatoshi notes the sword’s cultural philosophical background: “As early as the Edo period in the late 17th century, a stable time without any wars to speak of, the Japanese sword began to take on an artistic aspect. It had long ceased to be just a weapon.” Actually, the forging of a Japanese sword is still a comprehensive art involving the collaboration of several parties – not only the smiths but also the grinders and the artisans who create the sword boxes and ribbons that are used to present and protect these metallurgical masterpieces. “I think,” says Sadatoshi, “that the samurai of that time enjoyed the sword in a similar way to how the man of today appreciates cars or watches.” Sadatoshi smiles and looks over at his son Sadanobu, as if silently signaling the start of the next phase of the process. Or perhaps the philosophical continuity that exists among successive generations in this ancient culture. Both of the Gassan masters now usher us into the heart of the clan — a workshop that is dominated by a stove and chimney and where their two apprentices are already waiting for us. The main ingredient in the forging process is tamahagane, a molten iron designed especially for Japanese swords that is obtained by using a primitive metallurgical method: In a clay oven fired with charcoal and supplied with air by means of foot pumps, iron sand is melted so as to extract the carbonated iron. The production of tamahagane traditionally takes place in the Shimane Prefecture, located 300 km from Sakurai. It is overseen by The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords, an organization that ensures this precious kind of iron is available exclusively to traditional swordsmiths. In Japan, the sword isn’t considered just a mundane weapon. It is a symbolic, philosophical, and spiritual object rather than a material one. The Samurai ruled Japan from 1192 to 1867, nearly 700 years. Their various clans first sat down together mainly as representatives of the — as you might call them today — leading generalissimos. Later there were also poorer delegates who did not belong to the nobility. The Samurai armed themselves and grew into a major force in Japan, feared for their martial arts and their preferred weapon: the nihonto (“sword”). 76


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