Posted on

Don’t ignore the quiet blades!

"If you give yourself a little time to focus your eyes and mind, these blades will reveal some incredibly beautiful features."

During the exhibition at Samurai Art Expo visitors will have the opportunity to see some exceptional swords. Some are immediately striking with beautiful sugata (shape) and breath-taking, complex hamon in billowing patterns, which clearly demonstrate the smith’s skill and mastery of their craft. Alongside these magnificent works will be others that on first appearance seem much more subdued and less interesting. You might be tempted to rush by these quiet and retiring pieces and focus exclusively on the louder “in your face” examples on show. DON’T!!

I had the good fortune to spend some time with a very experienced collector and to look at his beautiful collection of swords several Years ago. Over dinner, he told me a story which I think is worth repeating.

During a visit to Japan many years ago, he was very excited at being offered the opportunity to view a very important sword, a tanto by Shintogo Kunimitsu. He sat in great anticipation with beating heart and slightly sweating palms as this small blade was handed to him. He gulped, steadied his shaking hands and opened his eyes. “Huh?” He described what he was looking at as incredibly boring. He assumed that the blade’s fame was due to its association with a famous Daimyo rather than any artistic merit and left disappointed.

Some years later he was at another viewing and there was also a Shintogo Kunimitsu tanto there. It was so beautiful he said he sat with tears in his eyes studying it. He kept sending his friend back to the other swords so he could spend longer with it. On the 4th trip round his friend asked why he was taking so long as he had seen it before. It transpired that it was exactly the same blade he had dismissed previously. In his words “I was amazed at how much it had changed”. Though, of course it hadn’t really changed. In the intervening years, he had learned a great deal and was able to see the fine detail and craftsmanship that had eluded him during the first encounter.

blade1

For almost as long as I have been collecting swords, I wanted to study an Awataguchi blade. Their reputation is second to none; they had everything, I thought. I liked in terms of shape, hada and hamon, so when the chance came to spend some time with one I got really excited. It duly appeared on a dark and miserable January afternoon and I opened the packaging with trembling hands. And behold!! On first examination it was possibly the most boring piece of steel I had ever seen.

Awataguchi Katana
Awataguchi Katana

I was very confused. From everything I had read and heard about the Awataguchi school and from what I had been told about this sword, I knew that this was regarded as a high quality piece of work. I sat there for a long time, doubting my own abilities. I then became cynical thinking it was another example of the old story of “the Emperor’s new clothes”. I also thought maybe I should consider collecting stamps as a more fulfilling alternative.

Several hours later (actually 6) something changed. I can only explain it as my eyes finally focusing on the very fine detail of what I was looking at. Once I started to see the activity the fine detail became immediately clear. It had all qualities a sword by this smith should have and then more. Every time I have looked at the blade since that moment, I have seen something new. To me, it fully justifies the comment on the sayagaki which describes it as “A masterpiece of the Kamakura period”.

Awataguchi nashiji hada
Awataguchi nashiji hada

The reason for this somewhat rambling post is to hopefully make the point that we shouldn’t dismiss things on first impressions. When starting out in any field of art, there is a tendency to be drawn to the more dramatic and showy pieces. Their features are easier to see and it is relatively easy to identify and qualify what you are looking at. It is true that there are some very fine artworks, which might be considered “showy” or “Loud” (especially by ultra conservatives such as me!) and I am not in any way decrying the incredible craftsmanship that such pieces exhibit.

Within the exhibition, you will see a number of swords that will have an immediate impact on you when you look at them. Whether it is a flamboyant Bizen hamon or sparkling Soshu hada, you will not be disappointed in what you see.  However, also take some time to look at the quieter pieces, those with a suguha (straight) hamon or incredibly tight ko-itame hada. If you give yourself a little time to focus your eyes and mind, these blades will reveal some incredibly beautiful features. Look for fine activity within the ji-hada and the interaction between the hamon and hada, the activity that runs through both and also look at the shape. Then look at how all these elements come together to create something that is extremely beautiful. To achieve this combination of hada and suguha hamon is incredibly difficult, but it produces an incredibly beautiful result when the smith gets it right.

Whether you prefer the quieter work exhibited in Yamashiro and Yamato pieces, or the more flamboyant examples from Bizen, Soshu and Mino is very much a matter of personal preference. Liking one certainly does not exclude you from appreciating others. However, make sure you give yourself the time to look properly at these quieter, more subdued works. You might be surprised at how much there is to see!

During the exhibition, there will be collectors on hand who I am sure will be happy to describe and explain what is on display and to point out the features that make these swords stand out in terms of quality and craftsmanship.

Aoe katana sugata
Aoe katana sugata
Aoe katana hada
Aoe katana hada
Enju wakazashi
Enju wakazashi
Enju hada
Enju hada
Posted on

Exhibition Highlights Part 3

MusashimoTadamasashodai

Akasaka Tsuba

decorated with reeds, dewdrops and a lost stirrup on the Musashi fields.

TadatoraKiku

Akasaka Tsuba

Tadatora kiku.

"We hope that the various examples shown in these updates give you an indication of what will be on show at Samurai Art expo as part of the exhibition programme."

This is the last part of our comprehensive list of exhibits, which has been published in three parts over the last few weeks. Even so, it is still incomplete and further exhibits will be added as they are confirmed.

Alongside the excellent display of Iron Tsuba, we will have some beautiful examples of soft metal workmanship.

Nobuiye-hanare-mei

Nobuiye Tsuba

decorated with Morning Glory flowers and scrolls, Momoyama Period.

Previously within the collections of Noda Kiyoshige and Kobayashi Hideo.

Appears in the following publications:

Token Kinko “Mei-saku Shu Nobuiye Hen” Amiya Okura Soemon,1937.

“Tsuba Kansho” by Noda Kiyoshige, 1963, p.  100, 101.

“Kobayashi Hideo Bi o Nagameru Kokoro" (The  Heart in Search of Beauty) by Kobayashi Hideo, 2002.

Matsu

Tsuba Kiyo Sukashi Matsu

Mitsudomoe

Tsuba ko-Katchushi

Swirling clouds Nambokucho.

SuhamaniWarabite

Shiho-Suhama

consisting of four modified trefoils, steel, middle Muromachi period.

Previously within the collections of Sasano Masayuki, as well as of the Tosogu Bijutsukan and the Museum of Japanese Sword  Fittings in Tokyo.

Appears in the following publications:

Sasano Masayuki, “Early Japanese Sword  Guards - Sukashi Tsuba” Japan Publications,  Inc., 1972.

Exhibited at the Sano Museum.

Sangi

Sangi

Crossbars, steel, Muromachi - Momoyama  period.

Previously within the collections of Akiyama  Kyusaku, Sasano Masayuki and the Museum of  Japanese Sword Fittings Tokyo.

Appears in the following publications:

Sasano Masayuki, “The Sasano Collection Part One” 1994.

“Bushi no Ito Sukashi Tsuba” Sano Museum Mishima, 1999.

This tsuba was also exhibited at the Sano Museum, Mishima in 1999 and the Nihon Tosogu Bijutsukan (The Japanese Museum of Sword Fittings, Tokyo) in 1995.

Naminitorii

Yagyu-Tsuba “Nami ni Torii”

showing waves and a shrine gate, steel.

Previously in the collections of Sasano  Masayuki, Nihon Tosogu Bijutsukan (the  Japanese Museum of Sword Fittings, Tokyo).

Appears within the following publications:

Sasano Masayuki, “Early Japanese Sword Guards - Sukashi Tsuba”Japan Publications, Inc., 1972, Sasano Masayuki,

“The Sasano Collection Part One” exhibited at the Nihon Tosogu Bijutsukan (the Japanese Museum of Sword Fittings, Tokyo)  1995

Exhibited at The Museum of Japanese Sword Fittings Tokyo (Nihon Tosogu Bijutsukan).

TadamasaShiguretei

Akasaka-Tsuba “Shiguretei”

depicting an autumnal drizzle, first master Shozaemon.

Tadamasa, early Edo period, Juyo Tosogu.

Previously in the collection of Sasano Masayuki.

Appears in the following publications:

E. Kremers, “Tsuba in European Collections” 1993.

Juyo Token Zufu, 2012, Tosogu p. 11. Nihon  Token Hakubutsukan.

Exhibited in the Nihon Token Hakubutsukan, 2013.

MusashinoTadamasanidai

Akasaka-Tsuba “Karigane Musashi-no”

Showing a goose, reeds and  dewdrops on the  battlefields  of  Musashi. By the 2nd  master  Tadamasa.

Previously within the collection of Sasano  Masayuki.

Appears within the following publications:  Tosogu Yuhin Zufu Shoyu Kai, Vol. 8, 1989.

HirataJinbeiTaka

Hirata Jinbei “Taka no Zu”

decorated with a hawk on a pine tree, early  Edo period by the 1st master Shimizu family.

Previously within the collections of Hosokawa Gyobu-ke, Komemo Kenichi, Sasano Masayuki and Ito Mitsuru.

Appears in the following publications:

Ito  Mitsuru, “Works of Hirata and Shimizu” 2007.

HirataJinbeiFukuro

Hirata Jinbei

decorated with an owl on a pine tree. By 1st master Shimizu family, from early Edo period.  Juyo Tosogu 1964.

Previously within the collections of Hosokawa  Gyobu-ke, Komeno Kenichi and Komeno Fumio.

Appears within the following publications:

“Higo Kinko Taikan”, 1964.

“Higo no Kinko”, 1978, exhibition catalogue of the Kumamoto Bijutsukan.

Ito Mitsuru “Works of Hirata and Shimizu” 2007.

Exhibited at “Tsuba no Bijutsu Ten Matsusakaya” Tokyo in 1952 and at the first exhibition of Kodogu after WW2 at the Tokyo National Museum in 1963. Thereafter exhibited at the Kumamoto Art Museum in 1978.

HirataJinbeiryu

Hirata Jinbei “Ama-ryu to Tama”

decorated with a sky dragon holding a jewel. From the early Edo period, by the 1st master of the Shimizu family.

Previously within the collections of Hosokawa Gyobu-ke, Komeno Kenichi and Komeno Fumio.

Appears in the following publications:

“Higo Kinko Taikan”, 1964.

“Higo no Kinko”, 1978, exhibition catalogue of the Kumamoto Bijutsukan.

Ito Mitsuru “Works of Hirata and Shimizu” 2007.

Exhibited at “Tsuba no Bijutsu Ten” Matsusakaya in Tokyo, 1952, as well as in the first exhibition of Kodogu after WW2 at the Tokyo National Museum in 1963. Also exhibited at the Kumamoto Art Museum in 1978.

We hope that the various examples shown in these updates give you an indication of what will be on show at Samurai Art expo as part of the exhibition programme. As previously mentioned this list is not complete, but amongst the work already identified there is a Tokubetsu Juyo daito, 6 Juyo blades and an equal number of Juyo Koshirae and fittings. Alongside these are other examples of craftsmanship, many of which have been illustrated in Japanese reference texts, which are exceptional works. There is a great deal to be gained from studying them first hand.

We hope to see you there and will be happy to discuss any of the work on show with you.

Posted on

Exhibition Highlights Part 2

daisho_koshirae_edo_period

Daisho Koshirae from the Edo period

juyo_tensho_koshirae

Juyo Tensho koshirae

Exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum exhibition Uchi-gatana koshirae in 1980.


The following is a compilation of earlier post highlights, supplemented with confirmed exhibits and images. All of these works will be on display on Saturday 16th June at our educational events.

This is part 2 of 3 of our comprehensive list of exhibits, which will be published over the coming weeks. Even so, it is still incomplete and further exhibits will be added as they are confirmed.

Alongside the excellent display of Iron Tsuba, we will have some beautiful examples of soft metal workmanship.


O-Wakazashi Omi no  Kami  Minamoto  Hisamichi

Tokubetsu Hozon 2000.  

A member of the Mishina school, Hisamichi produced very individualistic work incorporating beautifully refined hada. This piece showcases his work at its best.

Several Higo koshirae from the Hosokawa- and Matsui-Family heritage with provenances of famous Japanese collections will be shown.

sword_sketch

Yamato Hosho katana

Juyo Token.

Yamato blades are rare, Hosho blades incredibly rare. In more than 35 years of collecting I have only seen one other Hosho daito and that was a designated Tokubetsu Hozon in Japan at the DTI. This is the first Juyo example I have ever seen.

wakizashi_joshu_jyu_kunihiro

Wakizashi : Joshu Jyu Kunihiro/Keicho 13 Nen 8 Gatsuhi

Juyo Token 52.

Kunihiro is regarded by many as one of the fathers of Shinto. This piece shows exceptional workmanship and it is easy to understand why it was awarded Juyo status.

katana_sakakura_gonnoshin_terukane_enpo

Katana: Sakakura Gonnoshin Terukane Enpo 9 Nen 2 Gatsu Kichijitsu

45th NBTHK Juyo.

Another stunning Shinto masterpiece by a smith that is too often overlooked.

naoi-shizu_katana_koshirae

Naoe-Shizu Katana and koshirae

The Naoe- Shizu school was founded by pupils of Kaneuji. Their work offers an interesting illustration of the transition from the early Yamato-Shizu work to the mature Mino style. This is an excellent example of their work.

It is shown together with its koshirae, which is of very high quality.

ishiguro_masayoshi_soroi_kanagu

Ishiguro Masayoshi soroi-kanagu

Juyo-tosogu March 25th 1987

Kacho-mushi no zu soroi-kanagu
(En suite Set of Flowers, Insects etc)Daisho-fuchi, mei: Ishiguro Masayoshi saku (石黒政美作)
Menuki, divided tanzaku-mei: Ishiguro – Masayoshi (石黒・政美)
Kozuka and kogai, mei: Jugakusai Masayoshi (寿岳斎政美)

This sword had been a heirloom of the Shimazu-Famiy (島津) for whom Masayoshi worked since the Edo period.

Watch out for next week's post, which will detail the special tsuba coming to Samurai Art Expo!

Posted on

Exhibition Highlights

The following is a compilation of earlier post highlights, supplemented with confirmed exhibits and images. All of these works will be on display on Saturday 16th June at our educational events.

This is part 1 of 3 of our comprehensive list of exhibits, which will be published over the coming weeks. Even so, it is still incomplete and further exhibits will be added as they are confirmed.

Alongside the excellent display of Iron Tsuba, we will have some beautiful examples of soft metal workmanship.

BizenFukuoka-IchimonjiYoshimune

Bizen Fukuoka-Ichimonji Yoshimune

"tokubetsu-jûyô-tôken" 28. April 2000
tachi: Mei  Yoshimune (吉宗)      (ca. Shôgen 正元, 1259-1260, Province Bizen)
with uchigatana-koshirae

There are few signed tachi by Yoshimune and this is the only tokubetsu Juyo example. Another one is Juyo bunkasai, which is the property of  Tsukubasan-jinja (Prefecture Ibaraki) and belongs to the ex-collection of the Daimyo Family Yanagisawa. Published.

"Aito Hyakka / Sen  -  100 swords of 100 collectors" Hayashi Eiroku / Schuppan Tokyo 1972

AwataguchiNorikuni

Awataguchi Norikuni

A daito with three attributions to the smith, including a sayagaki by Tanobe Michiro Sensei, in which he describes it as "A Master Work of the Kamakura period".
There are eight Norikuni blades on the Juyo register. Four of them are tanto, three of which have progressed to Tokubetsu Juyo. There are three Juyo bunkasai and three Juyo bijutsu-hin and one, a signed daito, Kokuho.

SadakatsuKogarasu-Maru

Sadakatsu Kogarasu-Maru

Made to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Empire.  It is a copy of the famous Heian period work of the same name.

MumeikatanaAoe
MumeikatanaAoe

Mumei katana attributed to Aoe

Designated Juyo Token at the 13th shinsa held in 1965.

The blade has a faint shu mei and a Sayagaki by Honami Kozon attributing the work to Aoe Tsunetsugu. The accompanying papers confirm this is a smith working at the end of the Kamakura period, not the ko-Aoe smith of the same name.

MumeiNaginataNaoshiShikkake

Mumei Naginata Naoshi attributed to Shikkake

Designated Juyo Token at the 46th Juyo shinsa held in 2000.

The blade has a sayagaki By Tanobe Michiro sensei describing it as "An important treasure from the beginning of the Nambokucho period."

MumeiO-suriagewakazashiEnju

Mumei O-suriage wakazashi attributed to Enju

Designated Tokubetsu Hozon.

Sekishi Naotsuna

Juyo Token.

Naotsuna is listed in some references as one of Masamune’s 10 brilliant pupils. Whether he studied under the master or not, his works show incredible Soshu influence.

Naginata Tachi. Mei: Hishu  Kawachi no kami  Fujiwara  Masahiro (Nidai)

Considered by many to be the best Masahiro, the Nidai was the contemporary of Omi Daijo Tadahiro and worked closely with him.

His work is of exceptional quality even when viewed alongside other Hizen work.

Posted on

What makes a good Tsuba?

What makes a good Tsuba?

It’s a title that might be asking for trouble but bear with me a while. At Samurai Art Expo, in the exhibition and on the commercial tables, visitors will have an opportunity to see tsuba and other fittings of high quality and great beauty. When viewing all these important pieces, I thought it might be worth pausing to consider what characteristics make one tsuba better than others.

With swords it is easier. It is generally accepted that much of the intrinsic beauty within a blade is a consequence of the smith trying to improve its functionality. It is a classic example of form following function. Thus the shape, the hardened edge and the welded pattern all contribute to its efficiency as a cutting weapon. With a tsuba the function is simple; it prevents the user’s hand sliding on to the blade when they are using it. This being the case, a simple iron disc would suffice. Clearly the design of tsuba goes well beyond functionality. It effectively becomes a work of art where the composition plays a major role in the overall quality of the piece.

Two of the key elements to consider in assessing fittings are material and composition.

Material- As with swords, a good tsuba requires good raw material. If the material used is sub-standard it is impossible to achieve the desired patination and finish, which contributes so much to the finished piece. If the raw material is bad, the resultant tsuba will be as well. Taking this to the next stage, the patination and finish of the piece is equally important: the richness of colour and lustre achieved contribute enormously to the beauty of the end product.

1.) Tadamasa Shiguretei
5.) Tomimatsu, Shigemitsu

Composition- While good material is essential, it is far from being the whole picture. There are many examples of fittings being made from top quality material that still fail to inspire the observer. Unlike swords, tsuba are far more about art than functionality. Assuming the materials to be of high quality, it is the composition that differentiates the great from the ordinary. This is of course very subjective and we all have our own ideas as to what constitutes a good composition. This is why there is such diverse range within tsuba manufacturing. However, there are some basic pointers to consider:

  1. Would it make a good painting? If the answer is yes, it suggests the balance of the component parts is aesthetically pleasing and works for the observer.
  2. There are two areas, in which Japanese artisans excel in regards to composition. The first is in taking a large subject and fitting it into a limited space. Whether this is a towering willow on a sukashi tsuba or a horse on a kodzuka, they manage to fit a vast subject into a very limited space without making the end result look crowded. The second key factor is the use of negative composition. They are not afraid to leave empty space within a composition. At first, this seems to contradict the first point, but in fact it compliments it. Some of the best examples of the art take a single object, reproduce it beautifully, then surround it with space. This approach creates a considerable impression of depth and magnitude.
  3. The final thing to consider in composition is the use of a partial subject. Recently described to me by a friend as the difference between starting with a tsuba and making a design to fit it or starting with the design and placing the tsuba within it. As with the points above, seeing part of a composition rather than the complete picture can greatly enhance the feeling of space and depth. It is a technique often successfully used in painting and one which adds greatly to the aesthetic of a tsuba.
Nami ni torii
3 copy

To summarise the above: the creation of tsuba goes far beyond their functionality. In many ways they are more of a work of art rather than a purely practical way to prevent losing your fingers.

As an artwork there are two key things to consider. Material (quality, colour and finish) and then composition. As with all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so what I like you might not and vice versa, but the basic rules on composition hold true regardless of subject. When looking at the very many fittings at the event, consider these factors and see if you agree.

By Paul Bowman

Posted on

Art Sword?

"The best way to understand what makes a sword special, is to look at the very best examples you can. Once you identify the features that make such blades special and valuable, it becomes easier to identify such characteristics in other swords and gain some idea of their quality and value."

image

When walking around the trade tables at Samurai Art Expo, you might hear comments such as “that is a beautiful sword” or “It’s just right” or “it is an art sword” and you might justifiably ask “What?” Describing weapons as a thing of beauty may at first appear strange. While it is true that some weapons, particularly firearms, are often exquisitely decorated. These terms are being applied not to any decorative effect, but to an edged piece of steel whose purpose is to cut in the case of Japanese swords, so starting out in this field and describing a cutting weapon as art or as beautiful appears counter intuitive.

When looking at swords, there are a number of features that help identify their origins and their age. These are, in order of examination: Sugata (shape), jigane/hada (the forging pattern of the skin steel) and hamon (the pattern of the hardened edge.) Each of these features plays a part in making the Japanese sword the most effective cutting weapon ever manufactured. However, it is well documented that smiths throughout history have regarded their craft as a spiritual calling. They have gone far beyond the making of a functional weapon. They have worked at their craft, manipulated the raw material to create something that, at its best, is not only a supremely effective weapon, but a truly beautiful work of art.

There is great diversity within the range of Japanese blades and all collectors have their preferred style of sugata, hada and hamon. One can argue for many hours about the relative merits of each pattern. However, it is the way these different aspects of a sword interact that take it from being a weapon to the realms of art. In the very best blades, these elements come together in perfect harmony, creating a visual landscape in steel -  something unique and stunningly beautiful.

image2
image3
image4

The best way to understand what makes a sword special, is to look at the very best examples you can. Once you identify the features that make such blades special and valuable, it becomes easier to identify such characteristics in other swords and gain some idea of their quality and value.

The best, some would argue the only, way to fully appreciate the complex beauty of a Japanese blade, is to hold it and view it in a single light source.

Events such as Samurai Art Expo, offer the individual the opportunity to look at some of the very best examples of swordsmith craft. As a visitor you will have invested both time and money to attend, so make sure that you gain maximum benefit from the event by looking at as many works as you can and asking questions. Everyone at the show is there to promote the subject and to encourage people to join them in what is a fascinating field of study.

By Paul Bowman

image5
Posted on

The rambling thoughts of a foolish hermit

Kyu_no_Gomon_Kanshiro_nidai

The title above formed part of a sayagaki on a sword I bought many years ago. Needless to say the use of this title did not fill me with great confidence as to the authenticity of either the attribution or contents of the shirasaya. However, while sitting in an office in the far north on a very frosty morning to start something new, it feels somehow appropriate.

The objective of this blog is to try and stimulate thinking and ideas and to offer some pointers relating to the up and coming Samurai Art Expo event. Time is precious and the opportunities to take part in such shows as this, particularly in Europe, are few and far between. It is important that visitors gain the maximum benefit they can from the experience.

I want to start with a brief discussion on fittings. For more than 30 years I have been a serious sword collector and student. I confess that my passion for swords has failed to generate equal enthusiasm for tsuba or small fittings and I often ask myself why.

With swords, collectors and students alike are very fortunate, even sitting in isolation as I am, with a few clicks of a mouse it is possible to view exceptional examples of a swordsmith's craft online. Many of these examples appear on commercial websites where Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo blades appear regularly and in many cases are beautifully photographed and displayed. I often click on to examples that set my pulse racing and stimulate me to research a particular school or smith. Fittings offer a different story. I can trawl through hundreds of examples on websites without seeing a single piece that excites me. I therefore decided I am not a fittings person!

BUT….. On rare occasions I have visited collectors and been fortunate enough to see some superb fittings. Looking at and holding a fine iron sukashi tsuba or beautifully crafted soft metal work created exactly the same excitement as seeing good quality swords. I left those meetings fired with fitting enthusiasm, trawled all the websites I knew and….. nothing, back to “I am not a fittings person”.

I believe the reality is that you rarely see really good quality fittings for sale on websites either in Japan or anywhere else. That doesn’t mean what is available is bad, far from it, but it does mean we are deprived of seeing the beautiful colours and textures achieved by top craftsmen in the best examples of their work. Why this is I don’t know, but for some reason you do not see top quality work on general sale. I also believe the quality of what is being sold is lower than in the past. A review of old auction catalogues confirms this, I think.

At Samurai Art Expo, alongside the commercial stalls, the NBTHK EU and Token Society of GB will have an exhibition, which will include some of the finest tsuba and other fittings from within private collections. I have been lucky enough to see some of these pieces in person and they are stunningly beautiful.

This exhibition and the lectures on the subject running throughout the day will offer visitors an unequalled opportunity to look closely at the best of the craft. Hopefully, it will help guide future study and purchases and enhance the enjoyment of studying this field of art.

by Paul Bowman