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From Value One, Spring 2009, No. 24  


Yoita town in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, takes pride in its more than 400 year tradition of Yoita-forged cutlery. The tradition began when Naoe Kagetsuna, lord of Yoita Castle, brought a swordsmith from Joetsu in the 1570s to this locality. Kagetsuna ranked among the senior vassals of Uesugi Kenshin and was the father-in-law of Naoe Kanetsugu.

Today, Yoita is known, along with Miki City (Hyogo Prefecture), as one of the leading production centers of carpenters' tools, including planes, chisels, adzes, and axes, in Japan. Yoita's cutlery is characterized as being "hand-made by craftsmen without using a machine" (according to the Yoita Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Even today, highly reputed carpenters specializing in religious architecture are still using tools made in Yoita.

Japanese-forged cutlery, not limited to Yoita's products, has a combined structure of steel and base iron. Extremely hard cutlery steel (yasuki hagane), which constitutes the edge, and soft and tenacious base iron, which makes up the body, are heated and melted in a furnace at about 1,000C and then joined by beating. Repetition of this process gives the product a uniquely sharp edge. Mr. Seisuke Mizuno, a craftsman specializing in planes, declares, "Long experience and intuition tell me how I should control the temperature in quenching, the most difficult aspect of my job. I can never make two same planes."

Another unique feature of Yoita's cutlery is found in the choice of the basic material. "Base iron made in or before the early years of the Meiji era (18681912) is the best for planes because it is very soft and easy for carpenters to sharpen. But it is almost impossible today to find such a material. So, whenever I hear of an old bridge being torn down, I go to the demolition site to see the iron used in it with my own eyes and buy the old iron together with my colleagues," says Mr. Mizuno.

Adzes are dubbed living fossils of carpenters' tools. The adze is shaped like a stick with a handle having an edge at the tip. It is one of the oldest tools used in carpentry in Japan, examples of which are discovered in the remains of ancient tombs. Today, Mr. Junichi Takagi is the only surviving adze craftsman in Japan. A master with 56 years' experience reveals the depth of the world of smithery, saying, "Anyone can make an adze if he or she practices the art for 10 years, but one cannot claim mastery unless carpenters appreciate what one makes. Still, I train myself hard everyday to improve my skills."

Two kinds of iron that are different in property are heated and beaten into a single product. The craftsman's hands blow life into it. It is only the forged cutlery worked out in this way that can produce a cut unparalleled in the world.



The process of laying the groundwork by heating the base material in a furnace (Mizuno Plane Works)



A plane made by Mr. Mizuno with the characters for taru o shiru (meaning contentment with a little, a favorite phrase of Naoe Kanetsugu) engraved




Yoita Museum of Local History and Folk Culture
4356 Yoita-otsu, Yoita-machi, Nagaoka-shi, Niigata
Tel: +81-258-72-2021
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., closed Mondays
Admission: ¥300 for adults, ¥150 for children

Tenchijin, NHK's year-long historical TV drama series now on the air, is based on a biography of Naoe Kanetsugu, who was the lord of Yoita Castle during the age of provincial wars. At the Yoita Museum of Local History and Folk Culture (nicknamed the "Kanetsugu-Osen Museum") in Yoita town, Nagaoka City, which is one of the settings of the drama, a statue of Kanetsugu and a replica of his feudal helmet decorated with a design symbolizing ai (love) are exhibited among others, attracting many tourists every day. Many items of Yoita's unique forged cutlery, including Japan's biggest plane, are displayed.
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