Japan Trip, March 2004

What follows is a report I published in three parts to Rich Turner's messageboard documenting my recent trip to Japan, and the great swords I was able to see. I put it here for interest's sake, maybe you will find it entertaining.

I had a great first day here in Japan.

My first stop was at the NBTHK to drop off a sword for shinsa, and another sword for sayagaki with Tanobe sensei.

We came unannounced which is not a good thing, but I had no choice as crossing the international date line had confused me greatly and I had mentioned that I would be there the day previous.

The downstairs exhibit at the NBTHK is always great. The selection today was quite impressive. There was a signed Shintogo Kunimitsu tachi, which is quite unusual and rare, as one sees more tanto from this grand-master. The jihada was a beautiful ko-itame that looked to me like it was made of silk. To the left was a greatly shortened work by Masamune which was originally a tachi, now a wakizashi, maybe around 54cm or so.

It was done in typical style, though not one of the better Masamune that I have been privileged to see (there is one in the USA which is better, and I have been lucky to been able to handle one of the Hosokawa relics that was a fantastic tanto).

Beside this was a beautiful Sadamune katana, looking very healthy. It was quite wonderful to be able to move down the line like this with the three great smiths in this lineage all side by side.

These were all Tokubetsu Juyo Token.

There was a fantastic Fukuoka Ichimonji on display that you could kantei from about 10 feet away. The hamon looked like flames, and it was gorgeous and in this one sword you could see easily the justification for the high reputation of the whole Bizen school.

To its left was a signed Mitsutada, also in nearly perfect condition, and a piece of high quality that shows his masterful skill.

Beside this one of my favorites, a Yosozaemon no jo Sukesada katana, with zokumei. The hamon was done in a style similar to a tanto I used to own, so it was beautiful to see. I sought to purchase a katana like this for two years but could never find one.

The next was a unique surprise, a signed ko-hoki Yasutsuna. The sugata being mostly preserved, though I recall it being slightly shortened was wonderful to see. Swords like this you rarely get a chance to see anywhere, so it was a real pleasure to get a gander at this work by one of the all time greats, signed no less.

This work had no papers or rank of any sort, but it was clearly sho-shin.

On to a large and beautiful Sukehiro, which was another easy kantei from a mile away, as it was in his signature style of Toranba with floating jewels. And beside that a Hankei that displayed beautiful chikei and a hamon which indicated his quest to capture the essence of Norishige.

Last on the sword tour was a Kiyomaro, which was exquisite and stood easily shoulder to shoulder with very fine koto works.

The kodogu on display in Japan are always a treat, because while there are often good swords outside of Japan if you know where to look, it is harder to find exquisite work of the fittings artists.

I am not so good in this area, but I can read some Japanese, and several on display were Tokubetsu Juyo tosogu. Give that we in the west are often happy to have a tsuba that will achieve Hozon, it is pretty clear the gap involved here.

Notable in the ironwork was a tsuba signed by Nobuie.

From here I had an intended quick visit with Tanobe sensei to give him my sword for sayagaki. After this he asked that we sit down as he wanted to show us some swords for our education.

This was really wonderful of him since my visit was unannounced and he was obviously very busy.

The educational experience started with a Juyo Token wakizashi by Kotetsu that showed his desire to emulate Go. After this was a Juyo Bunkazai (an Important Cultural Asset, a distinction granted by the government of Japan) katana by Kotetsu that looked like it was both in its original polish and stored untouched for its entire life. It felt like it was about 10 pounds and with this in hand you felt like you could cut down a tree or slice through a car. A wonderful, wonderful piece. Only slightly lesser was the third sword, a Tokubetsu Juyo Kotetsu.

So three of three Kotetsu, all sho-shin. I broke the for every 10 there are 11 fake rule.

The icing on the cake were two Inoue Shinkai that came next. One of these was Juyo Bunkazai again. It is always a high privilege to touch a sword like this, as they are important cultural assets. These are the class of swords that are not allowed to leave Japan, and it is always wonderful to see them, but to handle them is wonderful.

The Shinkai was quiet and also very robust and perfect, with the ideal signature "Inoue Shinkai" indicating a work from his last period of life, after he had become a lay priest and no doubt was at the height of his skill.

The next work was a copy of Go by Shinkai, I believe this was a new discovery and according to Tanobe sensei would become Tokubetsu Juyo with ease. It was covered with beautiful ji nie that looked like someone had flecked them on by pulling back the bristles of a paint brush dipped in black paint and releasing them in the proximity of the sword.

Tanobe sensei knows that I have a liking for Soshu swords, so he had pulled these out that showed the Shinto masters reaching for the old koto Soshu masters.

After this came a signed O-Sa tanto, that had a perfect nakago and one mekugiana. It was also a new find by some very lucky soul, so had no papers yet. Another shoe in easily for Tokubetsu Juyo. I have seen better construction on high works by Soshu masters, but a sword like this is wonderful because it is so typical, and lacking in destruction caused by time that it can be held as one of these few examples of the smith's complete work.

This is why an ubu nakago is important. When a sword is altered or shortened, it is like a painting by Da Vinci that one has cut the middle part out of and thrown away the rest. It is still wonderful on its own, but it does not represent the full expression of the smith.

Beside the O-Sa was a Sa Yasuyoshi for comparison. This was also well signed, and a larger size tanto of the Nambokucho period, typical in shape. It was Juyo Token.

After that was a very great Yamato tanto... signed, and now the smith escapes me. I do not know Yamato very well, so it is easy for me to forget. Hocho Sadatsugu? It was Sada something. When one gets to see so many good swords it can be overwhelming.

He brought out a beefy Gakumei Niji Kunitoshi. I asked him which of the theories he backed (that Rai Kunitoshi and Niji Kunitoshi are one in the same, or different), and he said he is a proponent of the one smith theory with Niji Kunitoshi being the early work. This thrilled me because I think this too. This sword was a Jubi I think, and owned by the Tokugawa. Still had a nice impressive habaki with the mon. It was very meaty and in old polish, but the hamon was very beautiful.

This was followed by a ko-Ichimonji that was signed. The smith slips my mind now, I will look it up. The hamon was gorgeous, and is the type that is called to mind when seeing the choji hamon of Niji Kunitoshi. It was just elegant and everything perfect.

He brought out then the NBTHK possession, a kinpunmei Sukezane, which was followed up with a Fukuoka Ichimonji with the most amazing utsuri. He gave me the name, of course I have forgotten, it looks like thumbprints.

I forgot how many of these were Jubi and Bunkazai, but it was rare that he brought a piece out that was anything lower than Tokubetsu Juyo.

That was the end of my NBTHK visit.

From here we went to the Eisei Bunko museum, which has a show that closes in a few days. This was the most incredible collection on display, all Hosokawa relics. It started with a painting by Musashi the swordsman, then to one of the kokuho (national treasure) Hocho Masamune. I knew exactly what I was looking at and started practically jumping up and down. It is exciting to see something you have recognized from pictures and to know what you are seeing immediately.

There were five Kokuho I think in the room, the next was an incredible Mitsutada, then a signed Bungo no Kuni Yukihira saku with extremely old tachi koshirae and the most unusual and exquisite horimono at the waist. Ubu, but some small damage to the nakago, just an incredible piece of art. Both of these were Kokuho.

The Mitsutada had on display the origami from Honami Koon. Also wonderful.

Then there was a Bunkazai signed Moriie, a signed Nosada that was almost identical to mine (but not cut down), a Kokuho Iesuke, signed, an unremarkable Kanemitsu (suriage), various mountings, and some marvelous work by Nara Toshinaga and several of the mainline Goto masters, and a fabulous tsuba by Kaneie (there was a Nobuie on display at the NBTHK).

The real killer of the group though was a kokuho Norishige tanto, signed. It looks like the twin of the Tokuju Norishige daito that was on display in San Fran, it had the same hamon to my memory, just bursting with energy. A beautiful signature, deep and confident and extremely well preserved. With quite amazing koshirae as well. The koshirae would be Tokubetsu Juyo.

Also interesting to note was that the Hocho Masamune had very similar koshirae to my Yasumitsu tanto.

That was the first day only. Today I am off to Kamakura.

...

After a non-sword day, I was able to get to the Tokyo National Museum yesterday. On display was a very fine selection of swords by any standard. Upstairs in the general Kamakura display was a great signed Niji Kunitoshi tachi. This seemed to be around 70cm so may have been a kodachi for this time period. The nakago was ubu and signed, and this is really quite rare for this smith as so many signatures have been lost to shortening.

The hamon was complex and beautiful, Niji Kunitoshi is really one of the smiths who produces fabulous work. One is looking for a choji hamon reminiscent of Ichimonji style and this did not disappoint. It was also filled with all kinds of activity, sunagashi inazuma, and clouds of nioi around the nie hamon.

Downstairs showed a chronological display of fittings and of swords. The swords in particular showed many Kokuho blades and Juyo Bunkazai blades as well.

In the Shinto section were some of the usual culprits, Kotetsu and then Rai Kinmichi as well as Echizen Yasutsugu (a great work).

The koto section was quite thrilling though, starting with a long signed Kanemoto. This had a hamon of the type that shows the nidai starting to form sanbonsugi. The fully formed sanbonsugi is more something one expects in the line of smiths following the great nidai (shodai Magaroku).

Following this was a masterpiece by Bizen Yasumitsu from the Oei period. Then it started to get really exciting because the second sword was the meito National Treasure Kitano Go. There are eight famous swords by Go from days of yore, and this is one. It is overall flawless with a beautiful hada. I have seen three Go Yoshihiro at this point and all have been truly wonderful, making him my favorite smith.

The hamon on this sword was particularly interesting as it had all kinds of activity moving in and out of it, so it was like someone had drawn a line of fire along the ha. Dark gorgeous chikei crossed in and became fabulous inazuma and uchinoke. This sword also had a massive kiri near the kissaki. Someone struck this sword as hard as you can with another, and it is nice to see that a smith as artistic as Go has works that have also shown to be true nihonto in practical use.

Following this was a signed Enju Kunitoki. One like this sold a couple years back for about $250,000.00. It was not nearly the best sword in this exhibit, probably only about sixth on the list, because it was followed by the fabulous Kikku Sadamune. This is the famous Sadamune (there is a picture on Jinsoo's site) with the small engraving in the nakago. It is really graceful, with an elegant and quiet hamon and shows off his beautiful precise and quiet hada.

Going from super great, to super super great, next was the very famous meito, the Hirano Toshiro Yoshimitsu. This is a signed tanto by the greatest maker of tanto to have lived. It has a well known history, as it was presented to Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then by the Maeda family, then Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, then passed down through the Maeda family. It is always a treat to encounter such a famous object, and it is the first Yoshimitsu I have seen.

Following this was a signed Sadatoshi that was quite excellent, then a Heian period piece by ko-Bizen Masatsune. This sword was signed, and had been preserved so that it was in a shinshinto like state. Ubu nakago, this one piece would represent such an excellent collection of nihonto, not only for its fabulous workmanship, but the ubu condition of course allows it to show the style of the times perfectly.

Last and definitely not least was the real icing on the cake. A chokuto sword that was about 1300 years old, the very famous Heishi Shorin Ken. This sword in legend was owned by the prince Shotoku. You may have seen in your sword books a picture of three court nobles standing with their hands in their sleeves, one an adult and two children flanking him. The adult has a straight sword hanging tachi style, and this picture is important because it shows the style of the times for wearing swords. The adult is Prince Shotoku.

The sword has a beautiful ko-nie suguba hamon, and the kitae looks like ko-itame, and is beautifully forged. Overall, the sword has a bit of reverse curvature, and I speculate that this is from polish. When a sword is tempered the hard hamon expands somewhat and creates some of the curvature of the sword. When polished, some of the curvature is released as the hamon is polished down. For this reason, smiths looking to create straight tanto have to start with something that has a bit of reverse curvature, then temper it so that it curves just a bit, as the first polish will bring it down straight. Or so I have read in Sato Kanzan's lecture notes.

So it is possible that the reverse curvature of this blade has come about in similar fashion.

Anyway, it is beautiful to see a sword like this so masterfully made, because it shows that the tradition of high quality steel work must project very far into the distant and lost past.

...

My trip is winding down, and I did some window shopping at Ginza Choshuya... a beautiful Muramasa wakizashi was on display, Juyo and higher quality than what I have seen before. The prices seemed very reasonable here, and the past couple of shops I had seen left me feeling kind of upset... prices definitely are on an upswing here, and I think it is anticipating an improving Japanese economy.

My last stop for the day, and for the trip, is certainly not the least, since I paid a visit to Kurokawa san at Sokendo.

Kurokawa san is one of the best dealers in Japan. Walking up to the front of his shop, you can see a daisho on display. They have beautiful fittings done in Tokugawa mon, and the two swords are outstanding. The shirasaya are on display, with Homma sensei sayagaki done in such a way to show they are a set.

The two swords are each by Nagamitsu, and of excellent quality. So this pretty much represents the pinnacle of what one could want in Nihonto. Beautiful daisho fittings, matching daisho token by one of the representative Bizen smiths, capped off with Homma sensei sayagaki.

A fitting introduction to what is inside, as Kurokawa san is a big fan of Bizen swords and boasts a collection which is formidable to say the least.

The swords downstairs had very good prices, so if anyone is to visit soon, I would make Sokendo a first stop. They range from koto Nagamitsu (the important one) to Hizen Tadayoshi, to some lesser Shinshinto smiths. All swords were in top shape, even the lesser smiths, tending to have matching fittings.

There was a misunderstanding, and he had been expecting me in the morning. Even so he had kept his shop open for me, which was very nice and I felt very embarrassed for the misunderstanding. Tea was brought, and I was invited upstairs to see a presentation of swords.

What came out was really quite remarkable.

This is an understatement.

There is nothing quite like being treated to a show by Kurokawa san in this world.

Two Aoe swords were brought out, both Juyo Token, as I had expressed an interest. I am lacking details at this point, and as you read through this you will understand why... it is overwhelming. Both of these swords were fantastic and wonderful, Juyo Token.

From here came out a wonderful Juyo Yosozaemon Sukesada, which is the only piece co signed by his son Genbeinojo. It is a hitatsura piece, which is nice to see as it shows the range of Yosozaemon. One can almost see father and son stretching together to see if they can embrace this fashion coming out of Soshu... a concurrent period piece by one of the Soshu smiths in hitatsura was brought out for comparison and it was an interesting contrast.

When these went away, four beautiful O-suriage swords came. They showed a range of workmanship, from choji to an active suguba. One had the thin kasane and wide mihaba of Nambokucho. This I thought Rai Kunitsugu. One had one of the finest kitae I have seen in a sword, and I thought this to be Awataguchi.

All in the end were Rai Kunimitsu. A great display showing the range of style and skill of this great smith.

Next came a fantastic Fukuoka Ichimonji. This I was able to kantei instantly, and I am very comfortable with much Bizen kantei right now though I only own one Bizen sword. It was remarkable in all ways, the utsuri was so vivid it looked painted on. Next was a Yoshioka Ichimonji which I also got... this was followed by another Fukuoka Ichimonji, and then a display of three swords.

These three were interesting, as they showed a range of workmanship that was hard to relate to each other. The first was in the style of Kagemitsu, the second looked to me like it showed Soshu influence and the third was more plain with a notare like hamon. All three were Bizen Kanemitsu, and could be tied together by the Boshi. The middle sword though was in Ichimonji influence, and the third sword was his Soden Bizen style. It is hard to attach Soshu influence with Kanemitsu, one has to look at it mostly in the sugata, and this can be subtle.

I was given a long tachi with a beautiful choji hamon that was very active, and looked like Fukuoka Ichimonji at times. This sword reminded me of a huge Yasumitsu I have seen previously, that some people have kantei-ed as Nagamitsu, so when pushed for my answer I chose Nagamitsu which was correct. It is kind of unusual workmanship for Nagamitsu, and a bit of a trick, so I was happy to have sorted it out. It is kind of funny that I had to rely on Yasumitsu copying Nagamitsu as my light in the dark.

Now, Kurokawa san placed three more Nagamitsu on the table. How many people can do this?

As they came out, and they were handed to me, he would say, "This was the sword of the fifth Shogun." Then "This was the sword of the eighth Shogun." Each had Tokugawa mon on their habaki...

When these were cleared away a fifth Nagamitsu was brought out. All showed a remarkable range and all were tied together by the boshi. When I gave an incorrect kantei he always drew me back to the boshi and said "San saku boshi." I am pretty clear on what Nagamitsu's boshi looks like at this point. What a great education.

So counting the two other on display in his window, I saw seven Nagamitsu with him.

Then next a Kamakura Ichimonji that I missed. I thought Yoshioka Ichimonji... was told no. Said Fukuoka Ichimonji... was told no. Got scared and punted. It should have been one I could have gotten... it was also signed and Juyo Bijutsuhin I think (Juyo Bijutsuhin is an Important Art Object, this is the older classification that predates Juyo Bunkazai and is no longer issued).

This sword was followed up by a Chikakage that was also signed, and a ko-Bizen Norifusa that looked like a Shinshinto sword. Perfectly preserved.

A Kiyotsuna came out that I thought was either Awataguchi or Shintogo Kunimitsu. It was a daito with perfect beautiful hada. When I gave my kantei he laughed and said it was what everyone said because the jigane was so good on this sword. It was signed as well.

A really wonderful thing came next. An Osafune Mitsutada. This is the first I have gotten to handle and the third I have seen. His work never disappoints, it is wonderful and exuberant without going over the top as Fukuoka Ichimonji can go. So it always maintains its balance. This work was important because it was owned by one of the famous samurai clans, the Mori, and in fact, by one of the sons of Mori Motonari, maybe the most famous Bushi. The sword was Juyo Bunkazai I believe. A very fantastic piece.

A Moriie came out somewhere in there, and was a piece I could not get not having experience seeing him. Moriie has been famous for a long while and was a popular gift to and from the Shoguns.

A great Rai Kunitsugu came out, but did not hold pace with the fabulous Bizen pieces.

Another supreme treat, and I mean supreme, was an ubu, signed ko-Hoki Yasutsuna. Kurokawa san took it out and said, "This is from the oldest swordsmith." It was beefy and heavy like a Shinshinto blade. I do not remember the length... maybe 78cm or something like this. Huge sword, still showing funbari, and the kind of thing that is the jewel in the crown.

Lastly, because of my fondness for Soshu, came two Shintogo Kunimitsu tanto. Both were signed, one with hi and one without. Very perfect things, my favorite being the one with ito suguba. How I would love to have something like that.

He took three hours of his day out for me in this display, and though I tried to short circuit it as I felt it too generous he insisted on doing this as education for me. I have bought swords from him in the past, so it is not a walk in from the street kind of thing, but even so it was the warmest and most friendly experience I had in Japan.

My day before was spent waiting in lines registering swords, and waiting for rude clients of other sword dealers who were lounging into my own appointment time (and wiping it out completely)... so to have the opposite experience really made my trip.

I will repeat again, whatever the budget, if you want to buy a great sword on a trip to Japan, make Sokendo your first stop. They have items starting at 300,000 yen and then going all the way to this signed Yasutsuna (not for sale hee hee) so there is something for everyone here.