Tokyo travels and going sword shopping

1-custom.jpgI always find returning from Japan to be disconcerting. For a start, there’s a nine hour time difference, so by the time I’ve gotten over the jet leg on arrival, it’s usually time to go home. This time has been unusually trying . . . I’ve come back to a mountain of work and other demands on my time. This is of course a good thing, and it would be incredibly churlish of me not to realise just how privileged I am, so I’m not whining – just explaining why the blog has had to go on the back burner for a few weeks.

This was my tenth trip to Japan, and like always, it was quite different to previous trips. The only thing that gets easier is that my Japanese is slowly and torturously improving and my knowledge of the Tokyo rail network is starting to come together. There are hundreds and hundreds of train stations in Tokyo, criss-crossing a huge area. The place gets described as a city but actually, it’s really a series of cities that have slowly grown together and now occupy a huge area. For someone coming from Dublin – where you can walk from one side of the city centre to the other in around 30 minutes – Tokyo is inconceivably huge.

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The reason I was in Tokyo, as usual, was to study kobudo, or old martial arts. I don’t often write about that here, because I have a separate discussion forum from the dojo I oversee and training gets talked about a lot there. This time around, there is an experience that is partially based in training that I would like to relate, but isn’t strictly speaking a dojo matter, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I’ve been interested in Japanese sword for a very long time, but only really engaged fully with learning properly in the last three or four years. It’s been a fascinating exercise, but it’s slowly become obvious that you can’t really practice swordsmanship without a proper sword.

Now, if you asked my wife about swords, she’d roll her eyes – I have about ten. (When I said I wanted to get another one, she said, “why do you need more than one?” to which I replied “Why do you need more than one handbag or pair of shoes.” She replied. “Touche.” Seriously though, my wife is increidbly supportive of my weird habits). None of the other ‘swords’ I have are actually real swords – they are training replicas that look authentic but actually have soft alloy metal blades that don’t hold a sharp edge. These are the ones we use in taijutsu training – training that involves close quarter grappling with weapons – rather than sword specific training. The reason is that the blades are safer to train with, because they are essentially soft. This also means they are easily damaged.

However, there are many differences between an alloy training blade and a real sword that extend beyond the material the blade is made from, to do with balance, feel, lethality and more. So I’ve wanted to acquire a blade for a few years, but the problem is that real ones are extremely expensive. Sword making in Japan is a government protected activity – sword smiths are only allowed to produce two swords a month in order to artificially inflate the price of them and hence make the industry viable. It takes many many years to learn how to make a Japanese sword and you are looking at around a €10,000 to commission a licensed smith to make a new one specifically for you.

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Today, the sword industry is mostly kept afloat by art collectors and aficionados – some sword collectors are actually trained in their use, but not many. These are considered art objects and the pinnacle of the development of this art form is considered to have been reached several hundreds years ago.

I won’t go into the many many ways that swords are identified and classified- people can and do write books about the subtle variation of the shape of blades, the forging techniques used to give different parts of the blade different physical characteristics and strengths and the famous smiths who forged them in the past. However, on this most recent trip, I was fortunate to be able to acquire a really nice sword.

The experience of acquiring this sword had a value in its own right for me, as it involved a visit to a . . . well, if I say arms dealer, you might get the wrong impression. A very respectable man who deals in Japanese antique weaponry. I don’t have good enough Japanese to negotiate such an encounter, but was able to rely on the help of two friends who are long term residents of Japan and who happen to be both sword nuts and extremely highly skilled exponents of multiple martial arts.

I was also able to bring some of my students along to observe – an experience I would have killed for in the past. We got to handle many many old weapons, worth many thousands of euro. Because I had come equipped with the cash to purchase something, I felt it appropriate to make some demands on the gentleman’s time, and so he pulled out spear blades, daggers, arrow heads, halberd blades, and many many swords. We got to examine lots of weapons before the one I eventually bought leaped out at me.

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In the car on the way to the shop – which is actually just a room in this private dealer’s house – I had commented to my friends that I knew I needed to be very lucky. I had cash with me, but I wasn’t going to buy a sword just because I was there. It was a lot of money for me, so it needed to be the right sword, one which ‘spoke’ to me as a budoka. In other words, I needed to be lucky because the sword dealer needed to have both the right blade and the right blade in my price range. I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d left without anything, but luckily, luck was with me.

It’s a tachi (old style of sword that looks extremely similar to but predates the katana) that comes from the end of the Muromachi period. It’s not dated exactly, in the way that some swords actually are, but that probably puts its manufacturing date at around the middle of the 15th century. It’s currently housed in shirasaya, which means that it’s encased in a plain wooden storage scabbard and handle, but I am shipping it to the US this week to a specialist artisan who will build a new koshirae, or mounts and furniture for it.

I’m excited by this and also feel privileged to be able to give this sword a new lease of life – it’s a beautiful thing in its own right, but it’s also very old, and a lot of people have owned this over the centuries. There is a school of thought on such matters that says that we don’t own things like this, but rather temporarily take care of them. By remounting it, I am giving it a new lease of life, as this sword will hopefully still be around and looked after in another 450 years.

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With the assistance of the experts, I picked out a tsuba (sword guard) and the various bits and bobs that are used to make the new tsuka. These are all edo-period (17th century) antiques, made by craftsmen who worked in metal before the machine age and hence hand made everything.

It’s not a signed blade, so is known as a mumeito and its value as an art object is diminished, but because of this, its price became accessible to me. The blade is in excellent condition, with no flaws, but in a sense I don’t care about that. The person who made this sword did it as a commission for a samurai who wasn’t looking for something to put on his mantelpiece – he was looking for a functional weapon that he knew his life would depend on.

The physical features that have become valued over the years as examples of artistic expression in blades like this came about because of the strength or flexibility they impart to a blade – in other words, form followed function, and became valued after the fact. A nice looking sword that snapped in battle or chipped or bent was no use to anyone.

Obviously, the days of this tachi being used in battle are long long gone, and hence this will only ever be used as a display piece or in kobudo demonstrations, but in a real sense, it offers a connection to the past.

So that’s it for now. I will probably publish some pictures of the newly mounted sword when I get it back from its fit out in a few months time. Thanks to Mathew for the pictures in this blog entry – I’ve managed to break my camera and will be blogging about that one later, but for now, I’m relying on the kindness of others.

3 Comments
  1. Interesting post, Alex.
    —————————————-
    There is a school of thought on such matters that says that we don’t own things like this, but rather temporarily take care of them.
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    This reminds me of somethign that often happens in classical music, where families who own valuble intruments (strativarius violins,etc) often give them to talented young musicians for the length of their career, as a kind of grant.

    This works for both parties, as apparently if someone good plays an instrument for a length of time, the sound quality of the intrument improves. Coversely someone who couldn’t play well would have a detrimental effect.

    I know a bloke who got a very valuble cello this way. He used to have to buy 2 plane seats whenever he went on tour with the orchestra.

    Anyway, best of luck with the mountings, can’t wait to see it when its done.
    Happy Birthday, by the way.

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