A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Monday, November 07, 2005

Well actually, it wasn't the ancient Chinese Wu Tang sword style at all, but this weekend I had the chance to visit a real live togishi, or Japanese sword sharpener. There are less than 100 togishi left in Japan today, so it’s quite lucky for me that there is one living only 20 minutes down the road from Ono.

A small slice of the foreign community were invited to Umeda Shuji’s house, where he studies, grinds and polishes Japanese swords and daggers for sale to museums and private collectors across the world.

His house was a beautiful traditional dwelling, made of wood, set amongst tall cedars, and moss covered rocks, in a small village called Heisenji. Through our American interpreter (none other than the nihongo jozu Bran Pan Man) we learnt that it takes at least two weeks to finish each blade. The work is done purely by hand, and through a series of 10 whetstones, (large lumps of grindstone) the blade is filed down, sharpened, and finished with an elaborate wavy pattern displaying the tempering of the steel.

As the whet stones alone cost over £200 each, it was no surprise that the swords themselves fetch at least £4000 a piece. When asked why he chose to live at Heisenji, a small rural village at the foot of pine covered mountains, he said

“The most important thing is that this is a place where you can still hear the owls hoot at night.”

Umeda not only works on new swords, but also reconditions ancient blades.

“This sword has definitely killed someone” he mused, whilst showing off a 600 year old katana (samurai sword).

These days, his swords are no longer used in battle, yet Umeda proclaims that they are still powerful as a form of art, rather than a weapon.

“The power of the sword is in its beauty, because people are drawn to it. Born from sacred water and fire, a Japanese sword is imbued with human spirit”.

I found it enlightening to hear that this sword sharpener considers himself an artist, rather than a metal worker. Apparently he needs pristine water and clean air to carry out his work, and through a meditation like focus, he creates his own personal world in which he becomes enveloped, whilst working the blade.

There was one thing that didn’t quite add up though. Umdea San gave us leave to explore his house and grounds whilst he was talking to a second group of visitors. Amongst the lush garden of his tranquil abode, with a mountainous backdrop, and tall pines shading the sliding doors of his ancient home, we spotted an M-16 assault rifle, casually leaning against the window frame.

I suppose in this age of convenience, despite having an armoury equipped with some of the sharpest blades in Japan, the modern day samurai now prefers to pop a cap in an assailant’s ass, rather than slicing him up Wu Tang style.

Looks like Tom Cruise really was the last Samurai.


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