Saturday, June 10, 2017

A tale of two swords

Wakizashi (katateuchi) with shirasaya, Yasutsugu Sandai (c.1650)

One of Morihei Ueshiba's innovations in developing aikido out of Daito-ryu jujutsu is that he integrated traditional sword practice into the empty-hand tradition.  In any case, training with bokken (wooden sword) has been an important part of my aikido training with all of my teachers.  It isn't just trying to master the particular techniques and kata, but the way it extends your focus, your ki, past your body, and the way connection through the blade with your training partner is at the same time subtle and powerful.  It made little sense to me early on, but now I think it's an essential part of my training. 

Almost 20 years ago I knew a blacksmith who had a real katana, from about 1800, and one evening I went out in his yard and practiced some suburi (basic cuts) and various parts of aikido sword kata with his sword.  As soon as I was walking with that blade out to a clearing, I was aware of the smallest details in my movements.  I was focused.  It was real.

After that experience I wondered if an aikidoka like myself could buy a katana.  Now, as with a lot of things in my life--musical instruments, rugs--I am drawn to old things.  And I looked into it and saw that actual antique traditional katana are terrifically expensive, and so I forgot about that for years.  I have plenty to learn with just my body, and a bokken is absorbing enough.

But in a casual internet conversation a few months ago, I found out that it was possible to do as I have done with violins...go around the masterpieces of Japanese swordsmiths into some interesting old swords that could be made usable for aikido sword practice.  In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the making of katana became a growth industry as a result of the civil wars that were ongoing, and that there were many blades from this era (even as incredibly old as that seems) that were from unnamed smiths and may not be in perfect modern art polish, but they were real working swords from 500 (!) years ago, and thanks to the wonder of eBay, it is possible to procure something like this (if you had someone knowledgeable advising you--this is an important part) and assemble a koshirae, a working mounting of the sword, for under $1K.

So I started saving my pennies.  Several months ago I was talking to friend who is interested in native plants, and as I was giving her some plants, I recalled someone telling me that her father was an important kendo sensei, so I asked her if she knew about swords and had any advice for me.  She said, I have a sword.  And seemed to have decided then and there that this sword was for me.  I was hesitant--I mean, I wasn't asking for her to give me a sword!--and told her that if this sword were something I could train with, that I would love to purchase it, but...

This was not one of her father's swords, which she had given away to his students.  She said that because of her father, a sword collector had told her years ago that this sword was for sale nearby and she should buy it.  So she did, and she had it polished, and put away in her closet for the next 30 years.  When she brought it to me and I saw the blade, I realized two things... One, that this was not a katana, it was just a little shorter than 2 shaku (the minimum blade length for a katana, about 23.8 inches), though definitely long for a wakizashi (short sword).   And the other realization was that this was a serious sword.  Like that katana I handled years ago, this blade...demands your attention.

I thought that both of us needed more information, though she thought I should just have it, so I took it to the sword master who polished it thirty years ago, who is still in the Puget Sound area.  Konno-san immediately recognized it, and pointed out many features of the hamon (the wavy line you can see on the right, towards the edge in the photo above--this is where the layers of hard steel in the center emerge from the springier steel enveloping them).  Though the blade is not signed, he explained that there was no doubt that this was the third generation (Sandai) of the Yasutsugu line, whether Edo (the grandson of the founder) or Echizen (the third son of the founder), he was going to do more research... The Yasutsugu were personal swordsmiths to the Tokugawa shoguns, so this turns out to be a very fancy sword.  It seems to be a type of sword made from the late 1500s into the 1600s, a katateuchi.  It is not a stout blade used for hacking and stabbing like a standard wakizashi, but a smaller, very elegant version of a katana for one-handed use.  These first three generations of the Yasutsugu were exceptional makers, not only mastering the process of making copies of older Kamakura-era swords, but also working with new types of blade designs, as with this sword.  They even experimented with the integration of steel from the recently-arrived Europeans into their traditional tamagahane.

When I asked Konno-san whether this could be mounted with a two-handed koshirae (what I am trained to use) and used for training, a wave of amusement passed over his face, and he gently but firmly said, "You do not train with a sword like this."  The shirasaya (the storage scabbard it has, which you can see in the top image) was "the proper way to keep this sword."

He continued to point out important features of the blade and then we relaxed for a moment.  He had apparently overheard me mention to the other owner of the business that I played the violin, and he asked me if I knew about violins and would I be willing to look at some violins he had.  Hm, OK...  I am certainly no violin appraiser, but I can tell what a lot of things are, and I can easily tell the difference between something special and the garden-variety cheap violin, so I was happy to do it.  There was a bag of bows, in which possibly one of the eight could be made to function at all.  The violins were in various states of disrepair, mainly cheap c.1920 student instruments from Central Europe.  One seemed actually to be a refinished late 18th-c. Saxon violin, which I pointed out that in its prime was a very nice violin.  Alas, it had an unrepaired back sound post crack, which I explained to them using the sword term--it was a "fatal flaw."  I thought about what I had read on sword etiquette, that you should point out the best qualities of a sword, so I lingered on some beautiful figure in the maple of several of the violins.  While I was honest about these violins, I tried to put it in the best positive light, the remarkable quality of the work given that it was done in very primitive conditions, and these craftsmen were paid for their work by the dozen and could make a violin in a day.  It is in fact true that some of these South German and Czech violin makers (many just in winter--they were farmers the rest of the year) made great fiddles with what must have been breathtaking speed.  Most of these violins, to be honest...were not so good, but I didn't need to say that.  But it's true that you remember the great ones you've played!

After this digression, we returned to the swords.  I thought that my friend should decide what she wants to do knowing about this sword so, in addition to finding out the history of it, I wanted to find out how it could be sold--my friend should made the decision about, really, what to do with this, knowing all the options.  Apparently the first step would be to get a shinsa from one of the two official Japanese sword-expert organizations (NTHK or NBTHK)--an official certificate of evaluation of exactly what the sword is.  How the violin world, and--OMG!--the antique oriental rug world, would benefit from organizations that were the equivalent of NTHK/NBTHK!!  And then, they said, with that you would be better off selling an unusual masterpiece like this in Japan, because Americans are mainly interested in katana (mea culpa).

About the time that the other owner (an American sword collector, who also is an advanced iaidoka and European fencer...) was telling me how this could be sold, Konno-san said...again, gently but firmly... "You should not sell this sword.  You need to study this sword, it will teach you, and when you understand this sword, then you will appreciate it."  He must have told me some version of that four times. 

When I came home, I reported to my friend what they had said about her sword.  She said, "You see, you don't own a sword.  You take care of it for awhile and then you pass it on.  Konno-sensei was right, you need to study this sword.  If you sell it, then give me some money, but you should listen to Konno-sensei."

Domo arigato gozaimashita.

Next month, the other sword.

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