The Japanese sword or “katana” is one of the most iconic images of Japan around the world and the masters who make these weapons in the traditional way are becoming increasingly rare. In Gifu, however, you can spend the day with a government certified master swordsmith and even try your hand at the forge as you make your own knife!
If you want to become a blacksmith the first step is to get yourself to Gifu-Hashima station, easily reached by shinkansen, just 30 minutes from Kyoto. Taro, the blacksmith who’ll be your teacher for the day, will pick you up and drive you to his nearby forge.
When we went we had an incredible time! After changing into some work clothes, Taro took us into the forge and explained the process to us. Making the knife involves 4 stages; forging, shaping, sharpening, and hardening.
Before we started making the knives we got to have a bit of practice at the forge with some softer metal to give us an idea how to shape the metal once it was glowing from the forge and then it was time to start on our own knives!
The first step was forging the knife. The forging process is very much what you imagine when you think of a blacksmith, heating the metal until its glowing orange in the forge and then hammering it into shape on the anvil. We started by making the handle, which needed a long thin strip hammering out so it could be curved back on itself in an s shape. Taro was a great teacher and we both managed to get the tricky folding of the metal around the edge of anvil without too much difficulty (which we were incredibly proud of!)
After the handle we then made an indent for our fingers between where the grip and blade would be, using a metal bar and an assistant with a sledgehammer!
Next we were back at the forge to make the blades of our knives, hammering out the shape and then getting the blade to taper out into the edge, again Taro explained each step really well and helped smooth things along when needed.
While our knives were cooling down, Taro’s wife (who used to be a chef) came back from the local fish market and prepared us a feast for lunch! There was, sashimi, onigiri and octopus which were cooked in one of the forges! As well as making katana blades Taro also makes his own beer and we washed down our lunch with a few glasses!
After lunch it was time to get back to work and we started on shaping the knives. This involved working with a file to smooth away any sharp edges on the handles so they felt comfortable to hold and then Taro took care of the first sharpening as it is done on a machine. Before we moved on to the final stage of hardening we had our names engraved in the handles in Japanese characters.
The last step is hardening the steel, we had to heat the metal until it was glowing yellow for its whole length, which meant the forge burning hotter and longer than before and us steadily pumping the bellows and then pulling the knives out of the forge and quickly quenching it in oil. Finally we watched as Taro slowly heated the blades again in the oil to temper them and keep them from becoming brittle.
Once they’d cooled for the final time we had our very own hand made knives! The entire day was incredible and we had the best souvenirs we’ve had from anywhere!
If you have any interest in Japanese swords and would like a glimpse into how they’re made it’s an incredible experience and you should definitely give it a try!