The swordsman cometh

Finally, the day draws nigh!

After almost seven months, my sword is nearly ready! Regular readers of this blog will know that amongst many other things, I’m a bit of a Japanese sword nut. I’ve studied the use of the Japanese sword for several years and on a trip to Japan earlier this year, I decided it was time to pick up a real one.

I have quite a few imitation swords that are functional in that I can train with them, but they are factory made and really, not comparable in quality to the real thing. So I saved up for a few years and with a wad of yen burning a hole in my pocket, I picked up an antique authentic nihonto (Japanese sword) in Tokyo.

As a budoka, finding a usable sword is a little like catching lightening. You have to try to find a sword which not only ‘speaks to you’ and which feels right to use, you also have find one that you can afford and also that has fittings in good enough condition that it’s safe to use. Very old or wasted fittings are extremely dangerous, because if not looked after, the blade can actually fly out of the handle when it’s swung.

Anyway, because of this, I took the decision to buy an antique blade in shira saya. What’s a shirasaya? Well, briefly, for those who may not have come across such things before, real Japanese swords are manufactured as a collaborative effort between at least four or more people. There is a smith who makes the blade, a polisher who gives the blade its final shape and also ‘polishes’ it using a series of fine stones to give it its final appearance and sharpness. This is then sent to a guy who makes a shirasaya, a plain wooden storage case that holds the blade and allows it to be transported or inspected.

The shirasaya is just a temporary storage case – the sword next needs to have koshirae (furniture) made for it – a wooden handle needs to be carved from two pieces of a particular kind of wood to exactly fit the nakago (tang) and this handle then needs to be encased in specially prepared ray skin and then further wrapped using tsukaito – a kind of silk or leather lacing that gives the handle it’s distinctive diamond-patterned grip.

The blade itself also needs a wooden scabbard custom carved for it to give it an exact fit, and this then needs to have various bits and bobs added to it to strengthen it, before it’s lacquered to make it weather proof. In addition to the handle and the scabbard, the sword also needs various specialist craftsmen to make a tsuba (sword guard) as well as the various washers and other metal items used in its assembly.

As you can tell, it’s a lot of work and it’s extremely hard to find people up to the task of carrying it out now. In Japan it costs many hundreds of thousands of yen (or thousands of euro) to get this done for you. However, my plan was to get the sword in Japan, and then have the koshirae made for it in the US, where there is rather oddly enough demand for such services to support the existence of a few specialist craft companies.

So that was six months ago, when I got the sword back to Ireland and shipped it off the US. And then yesterday, the e-mail I’d been waiting for – it’s ready.

: )

I’ll post more here when it arrives. Perhaps with some pictures, if there’s interest.

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