Osafune in Okayama: The land of Japanese sword – Part 1 –
Bizen country, its main area was southern part of the present Okayama prefecture, was very famous for swordsmithing.
It’s also famous for pottery called “Bizen-yaki”, but in this post, I’m going to focus on swordsmithing only.
Swordsmiths in Bizen
There were a great number of swordsmiths in Bizen.
According to several websites, it seems there were more than two thousands in total during “the old sword period”, which was before 1596.
It was more than four times the numbers in Mino (the present southern part of Gifu prefecture), the second biggest swordsmithing area in Japan.
Swordsmiths in Bizen were outstanding not only in numbers but also in their skills.
In the early Kamakura era (1192 – 1333), Emperor Go-Toba (1180 – 1239) loved Japanese swords so much that allegedly he even involved himself in making swords after he was forced to renounce the throne.
The cloistered Emperor established his smithery and summoned top-class sword craftsmen every month in 1208.
These swordsmiths were called as “Ban-kaji” (swordsmiths in attendance).
According to the book entitled as “(Shouwa) Mei-zukushi” or “(Shouwa) Mei-jin”, which is the oldest existent directory of swordsmiths
*, seven of twelve swordsmiths were from Bizen.
In another story, although I couldn’t find the resource, two craftsmen were invited each month, so twenty-four in total and eighteen of them came from Bizen.
Now, almost 80 percent of existent swords forged before 1596 are Bizen swords, and around 40 percent of the swords designated as national treasures or important cultural properties are Bizen.
*– The book “Mei-zukushi” –
The year “1423” (the 30th year of “Ouei”) is shown in colophon of the book, but the year “1316” (the fifth year of “Shouwa”) is clearly printed in context.
So, the existent book is not the first edition.
You can read it here.
If you want to see the list of “Ban-kaji”, select Frame Number 37, two names each for every two months.
Or Frame Number 42, it’s the same list, but one per month.
This is probably the biggest reason why so many swordsmiths were in Bizen.
To forge a sword, iron ore was used in the early times, then iron sand superseded.
“Kibi” (area including “Bizen”) had been known as a major iron-mining area.
In a Japanese poetry, the phrase “magane-fuku” (iron-working) was used as an epithet for either “Kibi” or “Nifu”, acclaimed iron-making places.
See the poetry no. 1082 in volume 20 of “Kokin Wakashuu” (Collection of Japanese old and new poetry), which had been edited since 905 for around ten years, for example.
Actually, iron-production seemed to be low in Bizen
*, but at least they could easily get iron from surrounding areas.
Also, there were many good trees to burn to refine iron.
In a record in 796, there is a description saying, “Iron isn’t produced in Bizen. We have got to buy iron somewhere else to pay for tax.”
There is the Yoshii River in the area, where many ships had been running.
It was quite accessible for people, materials, fuels, etc.
In Fukuoka, a town along the Yoshii River, there was a marketplace.
So, a good marketing channel had been already established.
Osafune was one of the highly developed sword-making areas in Bizen.
Unfortunately, most swordsmiths were killed in the catastrophic flood in the 16th century.
It is said only a few of them survived.
However, you can still see how Japanese swords are produced in a museum and a workshop in Osafune.
I’m going to write more details in the next post.
How to get there
From Okayama station, take Akou line.
Get off at Osafune or Kagato.
It’s about 30-minute ride.
Single (One-way) ticket costs 410 yen from Okayama to Osafune and 500 yen to Kagato as of November 2014.
I took a train to Kagato because it looked nearer to the museum and the workshop and the fare was the same from where I got on, but trains to Kagato only run once or twice per hour.
Kagato is the next station to Osafune from Okayama, and there is a train which terminates at Osafune.
So, more train runs to Osafune and there seems to be a cycle rental shop near the station according to some websites.
It’s a desolate station.
Only the front door of the first car was open when the train arrived at Kagato, and the driver collected my ticket.
There are almost nothing around, although I saw a few restaurants.
A (bit smelly) public Japanese traditional toilet (a hole on the floor) is by the station.
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