30 May 2012

Japan II - the Swordsmith

May 5th saw us off on the Shinkansen from Ueno station to Fukushima, where we were to meet Ota-san, our guide and interpreter for the day.  We were initially a little worried about visiting that area, due in no small measure to the earthquake and tsunami that occurred last year, though Ota-san mentioned when questioned about it that the media had completly over-played the issue.

We certainly saw no sign of any devastation and although the 'quake and the tsunami were bad, Ota-san just remarked that..."we're used to these things.  We clear up the mess and get on with life, it's no big deal''
Food for thought indeed...

In Japan 1, I mentioned that Tokyo was big.  The first couple of pics were taken from the windows of the train and show just how crowded the buildings are.  The astonishing thing is that the view from the train window didn't change much in 90 minutes...and that's travelling at 180mph!  There may have been a few rice paddies to be seen, but it's essentially 'built up' all the way from Tokyo to Fukushima.

Having arrived at our destination, we were met by Ota-san and transferred by taxi to Fujiyasu-san's forge, some distance outside the city, where there was in fact a little countywide to be seen.  I've always had a fascination for old Japan, which was probably initiated when I read 'Shogun' years ago and for me, nothing quite sums up the era of the Samurai than their swords.  There are plenty to be had in the souvenir shops and they do look the part...but in all cases, they're fake.  Not the 'real deal' or even anything halfway close.

 Make no mistake though, what I saw that day at Fujiyasu-san's forge was unquestionably the genuine article...100%

Fujiyasu-san (in the white shirt, seated) has been making swords for the last 40 years and each blade attempts to emulate those produced by the masters hundreds of years ago.  Nothing was ever written down, so the process is a bit 'by guess and by God' although as Fujiyasu-san is a follower of the old religion, it's probably something else!

We arrived to the sound of the hammer ringing on an anvil...a sword was in the process of being forged.  The billet of steel was being hammered to shape by Fujiyasu-san's 'disciple', (or assistant) Yuya Nakanishi-san who'd been working for him  for the last seven years...

...without pay and with two days off a year.   Staggering as this seems, as a maker in the old tradition, this is always how it was done, though it remains to be seen if he'll be replaced when it's time to set up his own forge.

After brief introductions, I was summarily put to work wielding the hammer... and bloody heavy it was too!  Fujiyasu-san has a smaller hammer which he uses to tap the anvil three times.

Tap, tap, tap and then BANG...the big sledge drops.

Tap, tap, tap...BANG!

Tap, tap, tap...BANG!

... and this goes on until it's time for the billet to be returned to the heat.  Fujiyasu-san works in the dark, operating his hand powered bellows, so that the temperature of the billet is determined purely by eye and by the noise and flame generated within the furnace.  After I had a couple of sessions it was time for...

...both of use to wield the hammers.

Tap, tap, tap...BANG, BANG!

Tap, tap, tap...BANG, BANG!

Making a sword is a very complicated process and one that I don't fully understand, but a meander through the first page on this site illustrates the procedure far better than my feeble attempts.   Fugiyasu-san though,  makes his own 'tamahagane', the raw steel made from 'santesu' (black sand) and red pine charcoal which is eventually used to forge the blades (and I have a small sample in a plastic bag)

It takes around two weeks to forge a blade and after the blade (above) has been roughly shaped...

...it's time for the initial polishing on waterstones.  Nakanishi-san is shown in the pic working on a straight blade.

From our conversations with Ota-san, it seems unlikely that Nakanishi-san will be replaced...after all, would you work for seven years for no pay and two days off each year?  In which case  Fujiyasu-san has the option to use a foot operated spring forge hammer (shown above) but it seems unlikely that he will as it's counter to the old tradition of sword making.  The sad though inevitable conclusion that can be drawn is that Fujiyasu-san will stop making swords...either that or he needs to offer his disciple a commensurate wage and conditions of service, though that is beyond the remit of this Blog.

The last stage in this complicated process is to obtain the 'hamon' or decorative pattern on the blade.  This is achieved by applying a fine slurry of charcoal and ore to the blade, after which it's fired in the forge for the last time.  I'm shown in the pic using a bamboo spatula to coat a small tanto, or dagger and believe me, the process is a lot harder than it appears!

Once the blade has been roughly shaped, it's sent of to another craftsman (the polisher) so that when it's returned...

...it's a thing of true, but deadly beauty.  I had to be extremely careful not to touch the blade, not only because it's mind numbingly sharp, but any finger marks would eventually turn to rust...hence the cotton pad in my left hand.

Over lunch,  Fujiyasu-san mentioned that a completed sword takes two months to make as after the polisher, it's sent onto another craftsman who makes and fits all the other accouterments such as the scabbard and handle fittings.  Once complete, the sword is worth...

...3,000,000 JPY or roughly £30,000  and if you're a serious collector, probably worth every penny.

That's not quite the final story though because after lunch, Fujiyasu-san went outside and brought in a peculiar banana shaped bundle and he asked me to hold one end.  He then tugged on the other end and produced a blade that was around two metres long!

Suitably gob-smacked, he asked me (having previously discussed filthy money) what I thought it was worth?

With much 'umming' and 'aahring' and sucking of the teeth, I hazard a guess....10,000,000JPY perhaps?

'Ah, so, not too bad, good guess'  said Fujiyasu-san... 'now double it'

The day ended with me giving a gift of Scotch whiskey in a small box which I'd made in the 'shop much earlier.  Needless to say, it was suitable appreciated.

As a footnote to this long and complicated entry, it seems that in the not too distant future, Fujiyasu-san is likely to become a Japanese 'National Treasure'.  If that is the case, everything he makes, or has made will instantly double in value.

Got a calculator handy?...you do the maths!

28 May 2012

Japan I - Toyko, the home of Mario

Three weeks in Japan is going to take a lot of documenting, so this is going to be the first of quite a series of entries on the Blog.   If you've nothing better to do with your time and want to gain an insight into some of the quirkier idiosyncrasies that make Japan fascinating...then stay tuned!

A twelve hour flight from Heathrow to Narita, Toyko, which to be fair to Branson Air, was very good, still left us washed out and bleary eyed by the time we'd cleared all the formalities.  We then had to sort out our Japan Rail (JR) passes (of which more later), book reserved seat tickets on the Shinkansen for the 5th May (of which a lot more later) and finally find our way to the Narita Express, a direct JR non-stop line into the centre of Toyko and beyond and then to our first hotel at Ikebukuro.

Except it wasn't running.

 Much deep bowing and apologies from the young lady at the desk, but no, there'd been an accident and it wasn't running...so sorry.

So there we are, completly bewildered in a totality alien (or it seemed at the time) environment, with no apparent means to get the 100 miles or so from the airport to the hotel.

Great, just bloody wonderful! Bugger!

A little sign language though and some help from another member of staff found us on the JR slow train into Toyko central, where we had to change trains (eeeek!!!) to find our way to Ikebukuro, where the Toyoko Inn hotel (shown above) could be found about about 10 minutes from the station.

Toyko is big.  If you thought London or any any of the other major cities in the United Kingdom were big, they pale when compared to Toyko.

It's big, period.  In fact the vast majority of the Japanese are crammed into the coastal plain between the mountains and the sea and at the last count, Toyko central's nearly 12.5 million people (with a density of 5655 k/m) comprises almost 20% of the countries population.

Greater Toyoko is a complete and continuous conurbation almost from Narita to way beyond Yokohama, which is nearly 50 miles away.  Forget all frothy notions of rolling green English fields, with lambs skipping around and daffodils under oak trees.  In this part of Japan, any flat land will have a building on it and if it's not a building, it'll be a rice field. More to the point, it's so densely packed that the next building or house will be squashed in tight (a matter of feet) against it's neighbour.

Sounds like a bit of a nightmare, but there you'd be completely wrong.  The Japanese, being the people they are have managed to make Toyko and indeed the whole of Japan an enthralling and exhilarating place to visit but there are three crucial words you need to take into account...

Order, harmony and obedience...and those three words go a very long way to explaining the national psyche, but not all, as we shall see.

Just to illustrate.  There are no old cars and no dirty cars.  Traffic sticks rigorously to the speed limits and throughout the tour, I never saw any car overtake another!  There is no litter anywhere (and I don't exaggerate)  There is no graffiti...none.  There are no fat people (and apologies if the scales grown when you get on them)  In fact the best way to encapsulate the atmosphere in a nutshell is to imagine a scene from a Jim Carrey film, 'The Truman Show'...the whole country is like Switzerland on steroids!

Toyko is vast (but you know that already), however it's not quite as mind numbingly vast when you consider that for all practical purposes, it's a series of smaller 'towns' linked together by the sprawl of the conurbation which is in turn linked by the rather excellent (of which more later) rail network, thus we have places like Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno and Asakusa which are all part of Toyko but  which have separate identities in themselves.

Amongst the sea of skyscrapers are several ancient gardens which provide an oasis of tranquility.

The pic above was taken from the 42nd floor of an office block and shows the Hama-rikyu Gardens, one of the oldest in Japan and adjacent to the world famous Tsukiji fish market.

Remember order and harmony?  All the many gardens we visited throughout the tour were stunning and laid out in a meticulous, calming way...

...with many of the full sized trees being trained to conform to a particular style (the one shown above was  outside the Imperial Palace) with Alyson...

...in a couple of shots, with the Palace in the background.

To take just one further example, the pic above shows the world famous Shibuya crossing, taken as I was going across it.  Doesn't look much from the ground, but when it's seen from the railway station...

...you can see the tide of humanity crossing, and remember, this wasn't the rush hour.  Then it becomes something very different!

As our first taste of Japan, I found Tokyo and it's inhabitants fascinating and so much more could be written, but I haven't quite finished with it yet as the next exciting instalment will reveal but for that, you'll just have to be patient.

And what's all the stuff about Mario?...again, patience is a virtue.

To be continued.

01 May 2012

Scantily Clad Dancing Girls...

Just when you were nodding off...that's caught your attention!  As avid perusers of this on-line dirge, if you've been really smart and paying attention, will have noticed that I mentioned that yesterday's post would be the last for a while.

Apologies.......I lied.

The fact is that there was a rather unusual event happening in town that I wanted to go and see. As the appalling, wet weather of the last few days finally turned into a glorious Spring afternoon, I decided to hop on the Blokebike and see what was going on at the cathedral (which also happens, by the way, to be my most favourite building)

So there was a choir (Military Wives)...

A smartly turned out military band....

....and those scantily clad dancing girls, who performed their own delightful version of pole dancing, but this time of course, the traditional, ye olde English Maypole Dance.

These little ones were no more than five or six and they proceeded to...

...weave the most intricate cat's cradle with their tapes...

....so that eventually almost the complete pole was interwoven with yellow, green and white ribbons.

However, all of this was a bit of a sideshow, delightful as it was, because the real star of the afternoon was...

...HM The Queen, who paid a visit to Salisbury as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  Although the pics are a slightly our of focus, the main point is that I was there on the day and saw HM, which won't happen again in my lifetime, or  indeed hers.

God Save The Queen.