My Fulfilled swordsmith´s dream.


This article is written by Pavel Bolf & translated by Jan Benes

Tohoku, Japan 2013

When I started planning for a new trip to Japan this spring I had no idea, that its main purpose would become the opportunity to make a sword in the actual birthplace of Nihonto.
Original aim and purpose of the trip was mainly studying Japanese swords. Besides usual museum visits I decided to come to an annual exhibition of swords dealers and sellers of sword fittings taking place in Tokyo, called Dai Token Ichi. I have also informed several Japanese friends about my trip and intention to visit them.

Then the offer came, one that moved all the other activities aside. A friend of mine, who actually studies KOTO swords (especially HEIAN and KAMAKURA periods), came with an idea to combine my study trip with an opportunity to make a sword right in Japan.

We were already talking for some time about possibilities how to get my work to a country where law precludes importing swords from swordsmiths without license.

Many people from Japan interested in my works would like to see them for their KOTO character, however, the local legislative made the intention of introducing them my work quite impossible.

After a couple of internet meetings an interesting project had began. Its final goal was to visit area of TOHOKU in IWATE prefecture where I would borrow a workshop of a local swordsmith and make three blades.

The first one would be TANTO for MOKUSA-TO KENKYUKAI. Association of people studying swords, especially from Schools of the TOHOKU area. These are MOKUSA, ENJU and GASSAN. Tanto in Ichimonji style would be made from my own OROSHIGANE steel.

The second sword would be KENUKIGATA TACHI – a sword with integrated handle, which is a part of the blade and is therefore forged together with the blade.

Low hardening HOSO SUGUHA ending approximately 5cm before the handle mounting YAKI OTOSHI. This sword would be made for CHUBACHI ART MUSEUM in FURUKAWA, where it would be displayed next to originals. Also this sword would be made of my own steel.

The last blade would be smaller replica of WARABITE. This type of sword is from very early times of Japanese swordsmith´s history. It would be made as part of regional school project, where children from local school make traditional steel called TAMAHAGANE from iron sands SATETSU in traditional furnace TATARA.

This technique originated right in this northern part of Japan and later spread throughout the whole country. I would process this steel made by local children using technique of smith´s folding and create smaller WARABITE blade.



A Warabite


Sword Exhibitions

On this trip to Japan I was accompanied by colleague Martin Hornak from Slovakia, who is working as a polisher of Japanese swords and polishes also my blades; and also translator, interpreter and a friend, Honza Benes.

We have planned the dates of our stay, museums and exhibitions visits schedule, ordered Japan Rail Passes for train transportation in Japan, booked hotels, bought flight tickets and took off.

After our landing and some necessary procedures like passport control or check-in in our hotel we went to The Japanese Sword Museum, in Yoyogi, Tokyo. The exhibits are rotating on a regular basis and so every visit to Japan I had the opportunity to study different swords.

This year exhibition was formed by not so many blades than before and almost half of the display spaces were dedicated to sword hand guards called TSUBA. However, the selection of the blades was quite exclusive this time, mostly from KAMAKURA period.

It was possible to study excellent works, effects like UTSURI, KOSHIBA and such. Because this style of work is also aim of my effort as a swordsmith, I was very pleased with the selection. Among the TSUBA exhibits were many TOSHO and KATSUCHI, also my favorites.

We continued with Tokyo National Museum, in Ueno Park. The sword exhibition is rather small, however, the exhibits are of higher ranks as well. I was very pleased to see KOSHIRAE for KATANA in TENSHO style – one I already reproduced based on photos for one of my blades and it was interesting to see the original.

The next day we went to Dai Token Ichi. I was very surprised by the admission fee of 600JPY, which was very low, considering the extent of the event taking place on two building floors. There were hundreds of swords and infinite number of sword mountings.




We had the opportunity to study plenty of excellent blades. Holding a sword with rank Japanese National Treasure from 12th century in great condition and actually in original shape was quite an experience.

We only spared one day for this event, but next time we need to spare all three days the exhibition is taking place. The number of exhibits was truly amazing and it was not possible to go through them all in one day, not talking about studying them and absorbing the information.

I happened to purchase some great publications for excellent prices. Very good book of Sukashi Tsuba, 10 volumes edition of OSHIGATA, and some others. I also bought some original FUCHI and KASHIRA for the handles of my future works.

We only had one visit left – Namikawa Heibei company. Here I bought some materials for swords – handle braiding, ray skins for handles, some polishing things and other stuff. Martin bought some polishing stones.


Back to work

Next morning we met with organizer of the working part of our stay, Mr. Wataru Hara.

We took shinkansen train to IWATE prefecture in northern part of Japan. Due to the speed of over 300 km/h these bullet trains operate, it took us only about 3 hours. Our first stop was the CHUBACHI ART MUSEUM in small town called FURUKAWA, where we got by local train connection.

Here we met Mr. Chubachi, who actually covered the whole upcoming project. In this museum we went through all the exhibits in very detailed description. There were mostly HEIAN and KAMAKURA swords and we were given the opportunity to study pieces of our choice quite closely outside the showcases.

My highest attention caught a sword of MOKUSA School. Beautiful dominant structure of the steel, decent hardened line with many activities, distinctive utsuri.




After lunch and visit to local saké factory we continued by car further in Tohoku area. The way through local mountains was fascinating – steep slopes covered with greenwoods and pines, with many wild rivers and waterfalls, all in fresh autumn colors.

The way through these mountain sceneries took about 5 hours. We stopped in another regional museum with just few swords. One of them was another MOKUSA sword. I have spent most of the time here studying this one.

From here we went to Daito town in Ichinoseki-city district, Tohoku area, Iwate prefecture – place where the main purpose of our stay took place – sword production.

Our hosts accommodated us in local ryokan – traditional style hotel. I was pleased, because it meant traditional food and possibility to use hot ofuro bath every evening. After hard working day it was more than great.

That night Mr. Chubachi and Mr. Hara prepared another 3 swords for studying. Two Kamakura ubu tachi and one Nambokucho tanto, signed Bungo no Kunimitsu Tsune saku. He was a pupil of Bungo Yukihira and probably that was only one preserved piece.

Next morning we went to house of swordsmith master, Mr. Taira Sugawara. Although Master Sugawara is 94 years old, he is in good shape. After we became acquainted we had a short meeting with Master Sugawara, Mr. Hara, representatives of local press and members of Mokusa association.


Sugawara Taira san

Sugawara Taira san


We went through the goals of the project and time schedule of the works. I also had a look on the workshop. Because of his age Master Sugawara is no longer making swords. It was necessary to adjust the furnace and set up the old power hammer.

The preparations took almost whole day, but in the late afternoon I started to work on the tanto blade. I have brought already folded steel for tanto and kenukigata tachi from Czech Republic.

The reason was securing the character of the steel on swords of my production and also saving time necessary for processing the steel. It was only necessary to extend the packet of folded steel to a required length and forge tanto blade. I finished the work at about 6pm.

We said goodbye to Master Sugawara and went to the hotel. Shower, ofuro, traditional dinner and sleep. An earthquake woke us up, but it was shorter and weaker than the one we experienced in the hotel in Tokyo, so that we did not bother and slept until morning.

After a breakfast we went to master’s house, where we had a little meeting over a tea and we carried on working. I shaped the tanto. I made an o-tanto blade in Nambokucho style, kobuse construction with soft core.

Right after shaping I proceeded with hardening the blade in style of Ichimonji School – hardening of yaki tooth without clay. It is a way that requires a lot of experience.




The blade is hardened in the part of the cutting edge by correct heating of the blade, where the temperature necessary for Hamon line to originate is only in area above the cutting edge.

It resulted in beautiful, natural hardening line with other effects, such as utsuri (a shadow line above the HAMON line). There were about 10 spectators during the hardening process.

Evidently I surprised by chosen style, because most of present swordsmiths are using clay which actually determinates the hardening lines, even when choosing Ichimonji style.

The character of the hardening is lacking its natural look and supportive hardening marks are not originating. I heated up the blade in the required way and quenched it into the water.

After that I polished the blade on hard stone ARATO which disclosed the hardened structures.

The steel slowly revealed beautiful hardened line in old Ichimonji style. After creating a polished window on the side of the blade another effects showed up – crystal structures NIE, KINSUJI lines, UTSURI above HAMON and beautiful structure of the steel called HADA (pattern of the steel – result of folding).


Ichimonji choji, ji nie, ha nie, sunagashi, kinsuji, utsuri

Ichimonji choji, ji nie, ha nie, sunagashi, kinsuji, utsuri


I was satisfied with the result; it was a beautiful tanto in old style. Master Sugawara examined the blade quite closely and after him also all present participants. Master publicly commended the work.

Apart of other things he said: “This is a true NIHONTO, it is a beautiful Japanese sword. It could be even considered an artistic sword”. One by one Master named all metallurgical activities he saw on the blade. It was obvious, that doubts about abilities and skills of a foreigner in areas of traditional Japanese culture are scattered.


The Kenukigata Tachi

I had the harder part of the project in front of me – KENUKIGATA TACHI.

Next day Martin, Honza and I we cut charcoal for tachi forging. Charcoal was actually delivered in form of burned trunks of a diameter about 20cm and length c. 1 meter. For purposes of forging pieces of about 3-5 cm are required.


Martin cutting charcoal :)

Martin cutting charcoal 🙂


I started to extend the bar for the future blade and my Czech colleagues carried on with charcoal preparation. Master Sugawara has returned them twice for that some of the pieces were still too big. After that no further control was necessary, they cut the charcoal very precisely.

During a lunch break there were some interviews for local press and TV. In Japanese history this was the first time that foreign swordsmith had been invited to forge a sword here. With regards to that it was exceptional project watched closely by local media.

After lunch, which was almost always in Master´s house in form of lunch boxes, I started to forge and shape the blade. After previous success with TANTO blade, the number of spectators increased, with some professionals among them. One of them was a local polisher, Mr. Shizuo Miura.

He paid great attention to Martin, who was working on the window on the TANTO blade. He gave him some precious advice. Shaping the blade was finished in about 3 hours.

I made some shape corrections of the flat parts of the blade using a file. At about 6 pm the dusk was already falling. We prepared a furnace for hardening, and brought water in the quenching tub. I prepared a paste of clay and placed it on the blade.



Removing the clay at the edge


The hardening on this blade was supposed to be HOSO SUGUHA, so approximately just 3 mm high and straight hardening line HAMON. I dried the clay above the flames and started to heat the blade. There were many spectators in the workshop, including Master Sugawara.

Apparently they realized the complexity and importance of this step. I heated up the blade and quenched it in the water. In a couple of seconds it was over. There was no crack sound. I pulled the blade out of the water and cleaned the surface from the clay.





The blade has significantly curved and along the cutting edge there was whitish straight line. It was like as if the time stopped in the workshop. Nobody made a sound. I sat behind the stone and polished the surface of the blade.

Hamon started at about 4 cm from handle mounting and went on in full length at about 3 mm. Exactly according the specifications. I and all present people we were very happy from the success. It was time for ofuro, dinner and sleep.

Next day morning I corrected the curvature and shape of the blade. The curvature was very big. Using hammer hammering flat parts between the back of the blade and its “rip” (shinogi) the blade extended and made the curvature smaller.

Master Sugawara took over for a bit. He put down the little prismatic anvil from the log I placed under it. He placed it upward on the ground and only stabilized it with the log from behind. On side of the prism has been adjusted into a slight lens shape.

The anvil stopped ringing after every hit and the efficiency of every hit has increased several times. He showed me for some more time how to do it correctly and returned the hammer and the blade in my hands. This advice saved me quite a lot of work.

The shape correction took about one hour. Martin then took over and started the construction polishing. He also made a window on the side. It showed hardened line with crystals of NIE on its borders, with tiny KINSUJI lines and UTSURI.



Martin at work


That afternoon Mr. Chubachi came to the workshop. The sword was for his museum. He examined the blade for long time and discussed it with local professionals. The work on this sword was over for me. We were offered to visit close tamahagane manufactory.

We went along the Satetsu Gawa river (Satetsu river). The iron sands used for TAMAHAGANE manufacturing are mined and extracted from this river. As I already mentioned the tradition of using SATETSU for making steel had originated right here and later has spread across the whole Japan.

In regards to this tradition there is a school project, where students are getting acquainted with steel manufacturing and are actually trying to put the theory into practice. The manufactory about 15 minutes by car had 3 TATARA furnaces. There is also SATETSU site.

We received a commented tour about steel production and I received about 10 kg of steel for experiments. When we got back to Daito town we only had time for ofuro, dinner and went to sleep. Next day was our last working day. WARABITE was on the schedule for that day.

I had about 3 kg of TAMAHAGANE produced by the students. I heated up the steel but it began to crumble under the hammer. Too high carbon content. We had to close the project…. or proceed with re-melting the steel again in order to reduce the carbon content. That is actually my specialty.

With some preparations the whole process of re-melting took about one hour. The steel was malleable. I prepared a packet formed with several plates of re-melted steel welded to a bar for easier manipulation.



Forging the billet


The process of cleaning and homogenization of the steel by folding had begun. Welding the first packet from many smaller segments is the most difficult part. It was successful and I continued with another six folds, forging a bar and then blade in shape of WARABITE. By that time there were about 15 spectators in the workshop.

Upon the request of the chief of the steel production program I did not harden the blade. It was dedicated for children to be displayed in local school and when the blade has hamon, it is considered a weapon. After forging I adjusted the shape and polished it on stone.

It seems that the steel is good, as it was almost clean after only 6 folds. It had nice HADA. There was a final press conference with photo shooting with the swords and so. The day was over. We expressed Master Sugawara for the support and landing us his workshop. We said goodbye to all participants.

Throughout those few days there has originated various friendships. Taking leave was rather emotional and I hope that I would return to Daito town in Ichinoseki and again meet with people who gave me this special opportunity, many precious advice and support during the work.



The next day we left Ichinoseki taking Shinkansen to Kyoto. Sightseeing, gardens and shrines took 2 days, yet we have seen just very small part of what Kyoto offers. Important was a visit to master polisher, Mr. Joji Tamaki. Matrin received a lot of precious advice.



A small fortune on polishing stones


It was quite interesting to see workshop of a professional polisher and his equipment. The collection of polishing stones was remarkable. He let us examine beautiful ubu tachi from Ryokai Yamashiro. Master Joji Tamaki is also making Oshigata – hand made record of the sword.





The precision and detailed expression was amazing. In late evening hours we moved to Tokyo. Next day we met with Master Takashi Iiyama, Master in making handles for swords and braiding. After lunch we visited his workshop where he showed us various styles and types of handles and braiding and demonstrated the final knot.



Finished tsuka by master Takashi Iiyama


His approach towards us was very nice and friendly. This was our last day and after our return to the hotel, we started packing. The next day morning we went to the airport and left for home. Besides of two suitcases of material and books I brought a lot of new experience and information.

I would like to thank you all, who participated on preparation of this project or took part in it; all professionals and masters in fields of expertise related to swords for their helpfulness, openness and willingness to share their knowledge; all the others for expressed or hidden support.

I do not want to use names because there would be many of them and I would not like to have forgotten on anyone. Thank you all of you.


Swords we could study on:

Other source :