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Japanese Swords: ‘Tatara,’ the Traditional Iron and Steel Culture of the San'in





The traditional dance performance of Iwami Kagura tells the story of the discovery of steelmaking in Izumo, Japan, through the metaphor of the deity Susano-o quelling the eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent dragon Yamata no Orochi.


I was treated to a beguiling performance of this story when I visited the spiritual and mythical origins of the San'in, in Shimane prefecture, in Part 1 of my trip to the steelmaking region of Japan.


The next day, I went on to visit some of the original iron sand-rich metalmaking villages of Shimane prefecture. Before the introduction of western steelmaking, Shimane prefecture was a central production hub of Japanese steel, called watetsu, using a process referred to as tatara-buki. The clay furnaces in which the steel is smelted and the sites that house them are generally referred to as tatara.




The rivers that run through these villages are red in color as they are still strong with the iron deposits that come down from the mountains. Many of the other natural water sources that flow down from the mountains, historically utilized to separate the sand iron from the lighter silt and sand, are now beautiful features in the landscape.


One of my stops was the Historical Museum of Iron (Tetsu no Rekishi Hakubutsukan) in the Yoshida-cho area of Unnan City. It is a small, quaint museum from a bygone era in the middle of a very traditional Japanese-looking village. The village was originally owned by a wealthy watetsu-producing family in the Edo period (1603-1868). The museum shows a very informative video on the history of Japanese traditional steel manufacturing that has an English narration. The museum also has many artifacts with explanations about Japanese steel production.


The steel-producing family heads were known as tesshi, and the men in charge of the furnace and steel production are still known as murage. The families that owned these small production communities still live in the vicinity.


The properties, although no longer producing the traditional metals, remain as grand gardens with beautiful ponds and waterfalls. The village and museum were reminiscent of the old copper mining villages of Cornwall, in Great Britain, a beautiful reminder of a once-thriving community that still retains its elegance, although it is long past its era of mining.


As I traveled around the San'in region, we went over and through mountains and I was treated to many grand scenic views of the countryside. On several occasions I saw steps beautifully sculptured into the hillsides that were used to create tiered rice fields called tanada. Tanada are well known for demonstrating the harmonious relationship between the Japanese and nature.



The tanada of the San'in region provide not only an exemplarary illustration of this harmonious relationship, but also show how the tatara steel manufacturing method works amicably with nature and natural resourses. The tanada in the San'in region are mostly the result of the mountains and hillsides being mined for iron sand, then later converted into tiered rice fields.


This history also brings home the fact that each tatara itself is made from natural clay bricks, and the charcoal is provided from sustainable forests. The tools used in the tatara process are all made from natural materials, and/or metal that comes from the tatara.  


Next on my list was the Sugaya Tatara in the mountainous part of Yoshida-cho. It is an inactive but very well-preserved traditional steel production site that has been designated as an Important Tangible Folk Cultural Asset by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.


As expected, a beautiful red river ran alongside the site, and dilapidated wooden water wheels and ducts, untouched for many decades, sat nearby. The building itself is a work of art with very small overlapping brown ceramic tiles covering the large tiered roof. Next to the tatara was a large katsura tree, said to be where Kanayago, the female deity of metal, landed after flying off the back of an egret.


As with most tatara sites, a small shrine dedicated to Kanayago stood beside the river. Kanayago is said to be a jealous deity. Men were encouraged to worship alone and women were discouraged from entering the steel production sites.



Inside the building there was a fully constructed clay tatara furnace of approximately two meters in length by one meter wide, and about one meter high. There were also some helpful explanations, raw materials, and tools for viewing.


After the Sugaya Tatara, I went on to the Oku-Izumo Tatara and Sword Museum. It houses many interactive tatara displays, giving visitors the opportunity to try various types of traditional bellows and learn about the tatara steelmaking process.


There are also some swords on display, many of which were made by local swordsmiths of the Kobayashi family. I was allowed to take part in forging with swordsmith Sadatoshi Kobayashi, as well as treated to a lecture on steel and swordmaking. My visit was punctuated by a sensational sword martial arts cutting demonstration by resident swordsman, Yasuo Yoshihara.


Next was a visit to the main Kanayago Shrine, in the Hirose village part of Yasugi City. The shrine has a peaceful but very powerful feeling to it and appears much older than it actually is. The pathway up to the shrine is lined with offerings of large slabs of iron and steel, called kera, that were made using the tatara method.


Inside and around the shrine are smaller shrines and places of worship that are stacked with smaller peices of pig-iron and slag. It is obviously a very important place, where metal manufacturers pray to the deity for good steel and iron production.



In Part 3 of my trip, I visit the Oki Islands, where the cloistered Emperor Gotoba was exiled and spent his final days. In the legend of his life, it is said that he also made, or at least quenched, swords there.



(Click here to read the Part 1 of this series in English, and here to read Part 1 in Japanese.)


Paul Martin is a Japanese Sword Specialist. This is Part 2 of his series on traveling the historical region of Japanese sword steelmaking.




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