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From Value One, Summer 2004 No. 05  

Sakaki-machi, located in the northeast of Nagano Prefecture some two hours from Tokyo by bullet train, is a quiet town with 17,000 inhabitants. It is surrounded by hills, and the Chikuma River flows through the middle of the town. The late Yukihira Miyairi, a famous swordsmith who was designated a Living National Treasure, was born in this area and established a sword-making school here, where he trained numerous disciples. Currently, there are approximately 300 swordsmiths in Japan and the approximately 30 swordsmiths originating from this area are teaching their art all over the country. We visited Kozaemon-Yukihira Miyairi, a master workman who inherited the consummate skill of the late Yukihira Miyairi.

Kozaemon-Yukihira Miyairi, son of the late swordsmith Yukihira Miyairi
Tamahagane, the steel used to make Japanese swords

Charcoal is burning strongly, fanned by air from the bellows. The swordsmith strikes the steel, which has been heated bright red, draws it out, folds it and draws it out again by striking it. Folding the steel once produces two layers, twice produces four layers and 15 times produces approximately 30,000 layers. This forging process, called orikaeshi tanren, produces the unique structure of Japanese swords, consisting of a soft steel core with lower carbon content called shingane, wrapped in a layer of hard steel called kawagane.
Tamahagane, the material used to make Japanese swords, is produced by a method called tatara, passed down for more than 1,000 years, in which the carbon content of high-quality iron sand from the Chugoku region is reduced through heating using charcoal. Japanese swordsmiths purchase tamahagane from Yokota in Shimane Prefecture, which is produced using the tatara method, then heat it and temper it at their own atelier to create Japanese swords.
"The most important thing in sword-making is reflecting the current age," says Master Miyairi. Japanese swords are considered to have reached their highest level of beauty and function from the late Heian period (794-1185) to the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392). Think into the far past, and the methods the swordsmiths of old used to make swords, and in what kind of age. "Touch the greatest Japanese swords, listen to the swordsmiths of ancient times, perceive things with your own body. Then, breathe 'today's age' into the steel." The traditional techniques live on today.


[Museum of Tetsu in Sakaki]
http://tetsu.town.sakaki.nagano.jp/
Location: 6313-2 Sakaki, Sakaki-machi, Hanishina-gun, Nagano; Tel: +81-268-82-1128
Closed Mondays and year-end and New Year holidays. Admission ¥600/adult, ¥300/junior high school students, free for elementary school students and younger
At Ueda Station on the Nagano Shinkansen line, transfer to the Shinano Railway and get off at Sakaki Station. The museum is a 3-minute walk from the station.

Visiting the Museum of Tetsu in Sakaki at the center of the town, one can admire up close a number of sword masterpieces by Yukihira Miyairi and others, and learn about the industries of Sakaki-machi. Actually, Sakaki-machi is famous as an industrial town supported by a large number of small and medium-sized companies that include auto parts manufacturers, precision instrument manufacturers and metal processing companies. Curator Osamu Miyashita jokingly points out that as more than 300 companies are concentrated in the town and "the town has a population of just 17,000, people say that one out of every 50 residents is a company president." A characteristic of the town is that many of its companies are spin-offs of plants that were relocated before the war.
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