40 degrees in Kyoto

God damn it is hot as hell.

The title of this post has nothing to do with the content. This is about some swords I saw, just riffing. But it’s like an oven outside and I am not going out again so I’ll just write this.

One of the blades I saw recently that impressed me to the extreme is a katana just over 70cm with a gakumei of Nosada (the nickname of the 2nd generation Mino Kanesada).

Izumi no Kami Kanesada is one of the very small number of Sai-jo saku (top grade for skill) and Sai-jo O-wazamono (top grade for cutting ability) smiths. This is a very small list of about seven smiths if I remember correctly. 

Kanesada though is something special. 

He is a Mino smith and a lot of Mino blades are just journeyman pieces that are meant to kill and do so without breaking or bending, fulfilling their mission but lacking some artistic integrity. 

Of all the Mino smiths that come after Shizu, he I think is the most interesting and most skilled though he is working around 1500 AD, i.e. the absolute dark ages of sword making.

Kanesada made great jihada and beautiful hamon, and came up with his own styles based on what he was taught by his teacher. He also was very proficient at copying the Rai school, which is very weird. What is a Mino smith doing copying Rai? None of the others did it. Just him.

So he is like this genius stuck out in the middle of nowhere with idle hands, and no real challenge in front of him, so he picks up this idea that he’s going to copy something that is completely outside his training and tradition. 

A lot of his Rai copies have passed Juyo and it’s been noted in a lot of books that he does this. 

This blade I saw which will appear soon on a Japanese website, I feel like this is his masterpiece. Unfortunately though it is suriage and gakumei, it won’t pass Juyo but this does not compromise the quality of this blade. I am the first one to say that you have to have some caution when dealing with suriage Muromachi and Shinto pieces due to the big valuation hit. This blade other than the gakumei is mint condition and extremely beautiful.

The most impressive part to me though is that he seems to have made a successful Ichimonji copy with this sword. Not only is the hamon very good and in Ichimonji style but there is choji utsuri. The jihada ties it back to Mino but it has Kanesada’s trademark fine controlled kitae which is not something that other Mino smiths were able to replicate. 

Overall the blade is really wonderful. It will be expensive, it won’t pass Juyo, but whomever buys that will have something extremely interesting and rare. It also speaks overall to the skill of the smith. 

I once had a blade by  him that had sanbonsugi hamon and I speak about it quite often because it is the only one I’ve ever seen (and I look at all the Juyo oshigata). He was apparently brothers-by-choice with Kanemoto and this is a standared Kanemoto hamon. So it feels to me like he is kind of like a jazz musician. I used the word riff above, and with Kanesada, it feels like he could just riff and get into the groove and manifest what he wanted. He could clone his brother’s hamon, copy Rai or Ichimonji apparently when he felt like it. But mostly he worked within his own style.

Mino is generally regarded as somewhat inferior to the other koto traditions though it was one of the most successful, but the work of Kanesada, along with Shizu, Kinju and Kanemoto, all stand out from that generalization.

Shimazu Masamune

I got to see some interesting Masamune blades in Kyoto in two museums. The Kyoto National Museum is showcasing the Shimazu Masamune, this is one of the blades from the Kyoho Meibutsucho: the most famous blades in Japan during the Edo period.

The oshigata is a bit underwhelming but I guarantee to you the blade is not.

There are a lot of girls in Japan playing a video game that is themed with famous swords, and some of the Japanese sword dealers call them token girls. Some of these girls were there commenting on the jihada of this sword (sugoi!) and they were entirely right. 

It is in mint condition which is unusual for these blades, as many of them are worn down at this point. 

When I saw this I spent about 20 minutes trying to get a good understanding of it separated by class, and I wrote to my friends that it was a dead ringer for the Tokubetsu Juyo Kaneuji that I have on my site.

The documentation from the museum said it was lost for 150 years and recently discovered. Maybe in the context of Japanese official writing it was lost but Albert Yamanaka saw the blade and wrote about it. While I was standing there and enjoying the blade one of my friends messaged back that Yamanaka had access to it, and said he thought it was a Shizu and it was for sale at the time for 15 million yen (1960s would be the time frame). 

This blade had been presented to the Shogun and was valued at 200 mai (gold pieces) and went back and forth from the Shogunate as well as to the Emperor and then exited the Imperial Collection when Emperor Meiji gave it to the Marquis Inoue. At some point after WWII it ended up in private hands. Probably where the Japanese lost track of it officially was when it went into the Imperial Collection but obviously there was private knowledge about the blade and where it went from there.

Where the blade does not meet the criteria for Masamune is in the hamon, where there should be more hataraki but the jihada is magnificent and full of hataraki as on the Kaneuji on my site. The modern attribution of my blade and Yamanaka’s gut instinct on this Masamune align as did my own observation.

The Kyoto National Museum has it on exhibit and it is worth your time to see the blade and think about it yourself. It is truly excellent and in a great state of preservation and is certainly a Soshu masterwork.

There were a couple of other swords, one of which I’d like to have looked more closely at as it is an Aoe Naotsugu to my memory. But they placed this blade entirely in shadow so it was not possible to see anything.

Nijojo

I stopped to walk through the gardens at Nijo castle in spite of the heat. Somehow other people were enduring in long pants. Why does someone go out with a parasol in 36-40 degree weather and wear long pants? 

Anyway at the end, near death, I went into the gift shop to try to find something I could buy to wipe the sweat off my face and there beside the 400 yen “warrior towel” that I bought and cans of coke etc., was a display of swords.

This display made me angry.

Some of the swords were upside down. That is they were displayed with the mei facing the wall. Katana should not be displayed with mei facing the wall, in particular it means they are resting on their edge. This is only something that should happen with a signed tachi, and, very carefully. 

The blades that were there, half were tilted forward in the racks, carelessly, so the viewer was presented with the mune. It was not possible to see the jigane or hamon properly, even given the crappy viewing conditions, presenting the mune forward is careless and insulting to the work. 

Kotetsu is well known for his fabulous craftsmanship in the mune. Please enjoy.

There was a collector’s name on the display and he seems to not have checked to see what they did with his swords. So, score a negative point for this guy to send his swords and not follow up with what they did with them. It did justify to me the feeling that I have when we do take some of these treasures out of Japan because often times they will be protected better one outside than they were inside. As in this case, these are not being cared for at all.

One of my clients takes about 15 minutes to carefully oil and return his swords to the shirasaya. It is overkill but he is being respectful and careful and you cannot but smile and nod and say, this is a guy who understands and no swords will ever be damaged under his care. This is not to say that Japanese cannot do it either as recently I showed a sword to a Japanese collector. This gentleman took out a cloth and wrapped his head so that no drop of sweat could fall on it. He wrapped his mouth so that no spit could ever fall on the blade. He bowed to the blade 10 times before examining it. I have never seen as much respect and adoration lavished on a blade as this elderly gentleman gave. 

This exhibit beside the snack bar of five or six swords included a Muramasa, which may be signed, but I can’t tell because it was upside down, a Kotetsu with a cutting test, but I couldn’t check it because I was looking at the mune and the sun shining in from the windows reflected glare back at me off the glass. There was a Rai Kunitoshi, displayed the opposite to the upside down katana … since it seems to be a signed tachi, it too had the mei facing the wall and so was upside down and on display as a katana.

The shirasaya was carelessly displayed below it with the tsuka falling off the tsunagi and it appeared to be a Tokugawa relic. It looked genuine to me but in this environment was impossible to check.

Enjoy the glare. Top: upside down Muramasa katana, middle: Masamune, bottom: upside down Rai Kunitoshi tachi.

In the middle of all this being walked by without a glance by grandmas seeking their snacks, was as a blade with a Honami attribution to Masamune. I can’t verify which one it is supposed to be. I checked all of the documented ones and none matched the nakago of this blade. Offhand I’m not sure which Honami put the kinzogan in either. 

This one at least was displayed with the mei forward.

What killed me though is that the blade is very obviously rusting.

Someone needs to go into the office of this institution and take the head person in charge and punch them in the face, drag them over, and tell them to treat these objects with respect. Especially since the institution has them on loan from a collector.

My feeling after seeing this and the people walking by, was pure anger. They put more effort into documenting a tree on the grounds and putting up signs making sure nobody walks on the grass, than they will to make sure a blade attributed to Masamune is not sitting there rusting while a Kotetsu is tilted forward and a Muramasa displayed backwards and a Rai Kunitoshi is sitting on top of its sagging improperly displayed shirasaya.

It was revolting and embarrassing and angered me to untold levels.

This blade is not likely a legit Masamune but that does not matter. Looking at it through the glare I couldn’t really tell but I thought at best it was Naoe Shizu. Even so, such a blade qualifies for Juyo and is a 600 year old masterpiece that should be cared for. And that is what was lacking in this carelessly slammed together “exhibit.” 

Nobody cared.

I will be writing a letter when I get home. It was sad to see this happen to what seems to be a fine selection of swords, on loan from a private collector. 

Sometimes people ask me, how on earth could people have made a great 80cm signed tachi suriage and just thrown away the signature without trying to preserve it? Such people usually follow this up with a conclusion that surely the signature was never there.

And I say, no, the signature was there. They just didn’t care.

Go to Nijojo and see for yourself. This exhibit shows you how signatures got lost and discarded. Carelessness and lack of knowledge and the immediate need to use something, all of this contributed to the discarding of signatures of master swordsmiths on old tachi when made suriage. This exhibit shows you how shortsighted mentalities cause this kind of damage. As such it is a great education, just not as what the owner thought it would be when he put forward his blades to display.

They should take a lot more care with their cultural inheritance than this exhibit shows and there are no respectful words to use for people who don’t have any respect themselves. Such people should not be responsible for maintaining objects of cultural importance. Such as a castle and 600 year old swords.

 

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