Monday, December 25, 2017

Off to Tosa Yamada to find out more about Tosa Blades

The first step in making a sickle:
wedge steel in between the iron, melt
it in a forge that is of 1000 degrees
Celsius, and hit it with a hammer.
   There are many different kinds of blacksmith shops in Kochi, producing anything from sickles and saws to knives and axes. Various essential tools supporting Kochi’s forestry industry have been made by these blacksmiths, and Tosa-hamono (lit. “Tosa Blades”) is famous for these tools.
   Our destination today was a blacksmith shop just a few minutes by car from the Tosa Hamono Exchange Center in Kochi Prefecture’s Kami-shi Tosayamada-cho, past the expansive greenhouses growing spring onions and chives. There, Mr. Satoshi Yamashita, a craftsman well-versed in the traditional art of Tosa Uchi-hamono, was in the process of making a sickle.

   We asked Mr. Yamashita, a professional blacksmith, about the Tosa-hamono. According to Mr. Yamashita, these Tosa sickles were actively exported, mainly to Southeast Asia, up till thirty years ago. However, orders from overseas have been drastically declining in recent years due to mechanical development. Furthermore, the tradition of using wood within homes for things such as heating up the bath, is also disappearing. With this decrease in wood usage, the demand for cutting down trees is also being lost. Therefore, the need for handmade blades, including sickles is decreasing. However with regards to knives; orders are coming from countries such as Germany and America, because of the listing of Japanese cuisine as one of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages in 2013. Recognition towards handmade bladed tools has been changing, partially owing to the influence of Japanese cuisine.
Finishing touches are made to the raw
blade with a grinder before quenching it
in water.
   We asked Mr. Yamashita, “Which bladed tool sells the best in an era where the need for these tools is disappearing?” to which the answer was, “Kitchen knives.” He brought up the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which had been showcased on local television, and said with pride, “That fish knife is a Tosa-made knife.” The appeal of Tosa-hamono is in the sharpness of the blade, which is why these black, double-edged blades are popular with men. Even so, the fact is that even Tosa-hamono kitchen knives are not selling well. People who cook at home tend to prefer stainless steel kitchen knives, and they also like to eat out. Stainless steel does not rust and thus can be used as and when one likes, and because they are cheap they can be disposed of when they are no longer sharp. On the other hand, Tosa-hamono rust easily and require maintenance on a regular basis. Even though they cut much better than stainless steel knives, their users are limited to professional chefs or those who go fishing as a hobby.
Receiving orders with
designs drawn out
from frequent customers
from all over Japan
(notably Kyoto, Osaka,
Kyushu and Shikoku)
   When asked about the appeal of hamono, Mr. Yamashita answered, “Nowadays, the stainless steel knives sold at supermarkets are made in a factory where they are produced in large quantities using molds. Thus, they all look the same and do not have individuality. However, Tosa-hamono are all handmade, and therefore each blade is unique. The blacksmiths are able to answer to their customers’ needs, adjusting the blade’s thinness or thickness, part by part. Furthermore, through the process of forging, the blade’s internal structure is atomized, making it sharper. Since everything is handmade, mass production is not possible. That is the biggest difference between Tosa-hamono and stainless steel knives.”
   “How do you think the future of Tosa-hamono looks?” we asked. He said that Tosa-hamono have already taken on a near-perfect shape as they have a history to them, having been through the hands of many smiths. The shapes of blades are similar throughout the world, but the shapes of tools used for agriculture or forestry differ from country to country, and region to region. By making use of the knowledge that they have cultivated while accepting requests for specific orders for sickles, these smiths will continue making their blades carefully so as to live up to their customers’ standards.
   These tools, created carefully one at a time by a single blacksmith from their initial metal state, are being recognized by people from overseas. We could sense the flow of time and loneliness from Mr. Yamashita's words as he said, “People’s way of life has changed with regards to agriculture and forestry.” Yet we could also feel the collective weight of the Tosa people’s tradition as he added, “Work that requires cutting things will never go away.”

   In Tosa Yamada there is the warmth and comfort of a blacksmiths forge. We hope to visit again, to meet once more with such an interesting character.
Kochi Kencho CIR Teo Valerie

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