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The tamahagane are quite rough, small, flattened pieces that the swordsmith melts into a crimson mass in an oven heated to more than 1,200 degrees Celsius. Then the hour of the hammer begins. Clean, energetic, rhythmic hammer blows now fill the Gassan workshop. With a huge ferrule, Master Sadatoshi holds the glowing mass. His two apprentices raise their hammers and let them hurtle downward. Meanwhile the young master Sadanobu keeps the oven at temperature. With great focus they work the red, gluey mass: beat it out, fold it up, prepare it for another pounding. Master Sadatoshi orchestrates all the maneuvers to remove the impurities from the iron mass as thoroughly, as efficiently, and as rapidly as possible. Which works best when the iron glows red from the heat. Sometimes Sadatoshi plunges the mass into a liquid with straw and mud to keep the iron core hot. Then the iron is put back into the fire. This process must be repeated at least 15 times, often much more frequently. Because when you fold up the iron, you wind up with a doubling of the layers each time — i.e., two, four, eight, 16, 32. After 15 repetitions, you consequently have more than 32,000 layers in the conical mass of iron, which is the basis of that legendary efficiency, flexibility, and durability of Japanese swords. A result that is not achieved by means of magic or alchemy but rather through the use of strict logic – and it entails a great deal of effort. “It is a physically very demanding task that also requires a lot of mental concentration,” says Sadanobu. “Even when our two apprentices and I help him, our master creates only 20 swords a year.” Sadanobu suddenly goes silent. The time has come for exclusive insight into what is probably Gassan’s biggest secret. Usually a master only allows his successor to take part in the sword-curving process. Today Sadatoshi makes an exception for us. As a matter of fact, at first glance the activity seems anything but mysterious and straightforwardly simple instead. The master coats the heated sword with a sludgy mass and then dips it in a long water trough. And that’s all. Or, in other words, the curvature is created naturally because the sword is straight just before it is cooled in water. The intended effect only occurs through the difference in the rate of contraction between the two sides of the iron blade, the cutting edge and the rear edge. The only parameters for adjustment you have in this maneuver concerns the choice of the quantity of the sludge, how it is arranged on the cutting edge and the back of the sword, and the manner and way in which the master guides the glowing red sword into the water for cooling – at least in theory. In order to gauge the state of the iron accurately, Master Sadatoshi now asks that the curtains be drawn closed, shutting out daylight. For a long time his eyes are fixed on the sword in the furnace. When it glows sufficiently white at almost 800 degrees Celsius, he suddenly pulls it out and puts it in a water bath without hesitation. A little steam rises up, and it is a great moment to see how the sword gets its curvature. “It is really a risky process that can damage a half-completed sword,” says Master Sadatoshi. He smiles once again, apparently relieved of his tension. Gassan swords command high prices because of their high artisanal quality and their limited numbers. But that does not drive those who make them. “The estimates for our work,” explains Sadanobu, “are of a purely commercial nature in the here and now. A sword that has survived several centuries, by contrast, we consider to be a national treasure. In this respect, our work should not be measured solely by the thinking of our respective era.” And how does one recognize a particularly good Japanese sword? “It will not bend or break,” Sadatoshi Gassan interposes. “And a nihonto has to be sharp.” Where better to seek to understand that than with the very clan that has forged what is undoubtedly the best sword in Japan for the past 800 years? T 78


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