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Don’t ignore the quiet blades!

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.


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

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Exhibition Highlights Part 3

Exhibition Highlights Part 3

Akasaka Tsuba

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

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 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.

Tsuba Kiyo Sukashi Matsu

Tsuba ko-Katchushi

Swirling clouds Nambokucho.


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.


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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Don’t limit your thinking!

Don’t limit your thinking!

At risk of sounding like an ageing hippy, I think the best music ever was performed between 1965 and 1976. During that period musicians and their fans were compartmentalised. If you liked heavy rock music (I did), you couldn’t like Motown and heaven forbid you should be caught out listening to “top of the pops” and all that “commercial” rubbish. Strangely, as time moves on, the compartments and classifications become increasingly flimsy and ill defined and I start to find I enjoy all sorts of other work. Is Rock Music from the early 70s still the best there is? Absolutely. Is it all there is? Absolutely not.

As in Music, there is a danger of allowing oneself to become too focussed on a very limited period, school or style of Japanese antiques. I seem to have gained a reputation for only liking ultra conservative Yamashiro workmanship and believing the only colour for lacquer in koshirae is black. I admit there is some truth in this and I have for many years focussed on Yamashiro koto work and later work, such as Hizen, that has its origins in this style.

There really is nothing finer than a Yamashiro suguha hamon on a tight ko-itame hada covered in ji-nie and enclosed within a gentle and dignified sugata. Or a beautiful koshirae with black lacquered saya and Iron tsuba

Sorry, I am getting carried away!

In recent years, I have been able to visit different collectors and attend different society meetings. As well as enjoying meeting some very friendly and knowledgeable people, I have also taken the opportunity to look at some beautiful artwork. The more I looked, the more I questioned my single-minded approach. I was seeing stunningly beautiful work from the Bizen tradition, incredible Osaka Shinto blades and wonderful later work from Satsuma and then Shin-Shinto masters. In fact the more I looked, the more I realised how limiting my methodology was.

There have been beautiful swords and fittings made throughout all sword periods and masterpieces produced within many schools.

Now comes the challenge. When starting out you are confronted with a vast range of work from different periods, traditions and schools, which can be extremely daunting. It therefore makes perfect sense to focus on one area to start with and learn as much as you can about that. However, in adopting this method (I did) there is a danger of becoming too blinkered in your approach and missing beautiful work that is staring you in the face.

In the exhibition at Utrecht and on the commercial stands, there will be an incredible diversity of items. While it makes sense to go with a plan as to what you want to see or may be looking to purchase, be prepared to be diverted. Sometimes allowing emotion (i.e. “I just like it”) to govern your choices can be every bit as rewarding as following a set plan. Take this opportunity to look at pieces you might not normally consider and see what makes them special. If it isn’t immediately apparent to you, ask someone else for their opinion. By doing this, you are less likely to miss something really special and will learn a great deal more in the process. We will rarely have the opportunity to study of such quality and diversity so let’s make the most of it.

Just for the record, in my opinion:

Black Sabbath were undoubtedly the best band in the 1960s/70s

and Yamashiro Awataguchi smiths were undoubtedly the best smiths ever. But I must admit that there were other exceptional works produced by other artists as well!! 

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What makes a good Tsuba?

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.

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.

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.

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Event Highlights

Event Highlights

In earlier posts I have stated that the exhibition at Samurai Art expo will offer visits an excellent opportunity to see high quality workmanship. I wanted to share with you some of the items that have been offered for show. 1. 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.  This is the only tokubetsu Juyo example another  is Juyo bunkasai and the property of  Tsukubasan-jinja (Prefecture Ibaraki), ex collection of the Daimyo Family  Yanagisawa, published. “Aito Hyakka / Sen  –  100 swords of 100 collectors“ Hayashi Eiroku / Schuppan Tokyo 1972

2. Ishiguro Masayoshi soroi-kanagu
jûyô-tôsôgu 25. März 1987
kachô-mushi no zu soroi-kanagu
En suite Set of Flowers, Insects etc
daishô-fuchi, mei: Ishiguro Masayoshi saku (石黒政美作)
menuki, divided tanzaku-mei: Ishiguro – Masayoshi (石黒政美)
kozuka and kôgai, mei: Jugakusai Masayoshi (寿岳斎政美)
It had been a heirloom of the Shimazu-Famiy (島津) for whom Masayoshi worked from Edo.

3. Hirata Jinbei,
1st Shimizu master Tsuba depicting an owl on a tree in Suemon Zogan, Juyo Tosogu. Ex coll. Hosokawa Gyobu-ke, Komeno Kenichi, Publ. “Higo Kinko Taikan”, “Higo no Kinko”, “Works of Hirata and Shimizu” by Itô Mitsuru, exhibited 1953 Matsusakaya, first exhibition of Kodogu after WW II, exh. at Tokyo National Museum, exh. At Kumamoto Bijutsukan, aso. Also other works by this particular Master and his descendants,
Manifold standard literature published Sukashi tsuba throughout the ages from famous Japanese collections, exhibited at the Sword Museum Tokyo, Sano Museum, Mishina and other places including Juyo Tosogu

4. 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 are tanto (three have progressed to Tokubetsu Juyo). There are 3x Juyo bunkasai and 3xJuyo bijutsu-hin and 1, a signed daito, Kokuho.

5. 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

6. Mainline Gotô-works by all generations including Juyo tosogu

7. Juyo Tensho koshirae, Exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum exhibition Uchi-gatana koshirae 1980, from the Hosokawa- and Matsui-Family heritage with provenances of famous Japanese collections

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

From this brief snapshot you can see that the exhibition will offer the visitor a unique opportunity to see items not normally on public display. To see work of this rarity and standard outside of Japan (or even inside) would be extremely difficult.
As the content is being finalised I will add additional information.