Let’s visit a blacksmith’s!

May 23rd, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information

Samurai’s katana with their lethal beauty have fascinated generations of foreigners. In the collective imagination a Japanese sword is synonym of sharpness and the smiths who forge those blades are shrouded in mysticism and legends.

With the end of the samurai era swords stopped being a part of Japanese life, but the unsurpassed techniques which lay behind their forging keep living in modern blades such as kitchen knives and saws. As a matter of fact, Japanese knives are praised by top-level chefs all over the world for their performance.

Hammering the metal

Mass production may have almost taken over the world of blades, yet some stubborn blacksmiths who keep making their knives the old way still stand. In Chino, the area spreading at the foot of the Northern Yatsugatake Mountains, you can meet one of them.
Sadamasa, a local smith’s specialized in blades used in farming and everyday life, has been in business for about 100 years. In the past as many as 10 artisans used to work here, providing the locals with all the blades they needed from sickles to kitchen knives. Nowadays Yusuke, the owner’s son, is the only one left.

Workshop detail

The first time I stepped into his shop, I felt like I trespassed into another world. It looked stilled in time, as if it had not changed one bit since the early Showa era. The walls and tools blackened by years of forging, the smell of steel and iron, the dim light seeping through the windows to illuminate the work space, everything told the story of years of blade-making.
What if I told you that you too can visit this unique dimension? Or even better, you can witness the smith at work and under his guide forge your own Japanese knife?
From now, that’s possible!

There is an activity that over the course of 2 days (3 hours per day) allow you to unveil the secrets of 100 years of Japanese blacksmithing and bring back home a knife made with your own hands. You want to know more? Okay, follow me…

Forge

From Chino station we walk for about 10 minutes until we reach an old shop with a sign saying “Sadamasa”. To welcome us are Yusuke, the smith, and his father, the owner of the shop. We sit at a table on the back of the shop and Yusuke’s father starts telling us about the history of Sadamasa and how his ancestors opened it many years before. After that, Yusuke takes over and introduces us to that day and the following day’s task. He also explains the features of Japanese knives and what makes them so special.

Metal after first hammering

Once we have acquired more knowledge on the acclaimed blades, we prepare for the tasks at hand and cross the yard at the back of the shop that leads to the workshop. When we open the door, we are catapulted in the world of blade-making. I am stricken by the metallic smell, the blackened walls and the silence, full of promises, while I wait in trepidation.

We pass through the old machineries to reach Yusuke’s favorite work position. There he lights the fire of the forge and while we wait for it to burn stronger, he shows us the metal bars we are going to use, iron with a heart of steel. He then puts the hammer into motion, the old-fashioned pistons breaking the silence, and expertly moves the impossibly-red incandescent metal under its weight forth and back, right and left, over and over again, until the bar has taken the semblance of a blade.

Hammering by hand

The blade, at that point cooled in cold water, is passed to us. We are to complete the forging by hand. We plunge the blade in the burning forge, lay it on the anvil and hit it rhythmically with the hammer to achieve a smooth surface. Unexpectedly, brute force doesn’t help you in this process as iron is extremely sensitive and too much force causes small bumps to form on the surface. Luckily, Yusuke corrects our mistakes and the end result is amazing.

Drawing the edges

The next step is to get rid of the oxide film which has formed on the blade by passing it under a shower of sand dust. When that is done, Yusuke takes the blade once more for the normalization process, which requires the skillful hands of the smith. We then cut the excess metal and model the knife final shape.

Finally, we proceed to the last step (of that day), the tempering!
First, the blade is polished so that during the tempering the heat can propagate all the way to the core. Second, we coat the blade with a thick layer of mud and pass it above the fire to let it dry (this is done to protect the blade). At last, we immerge it inside a hot bubbling substance that looks like magma and conclude by letting it sink into a barrel of oil to rest for several hours.

The job for that day done, we leave (but can’t wait to continue on the following day).

———————————————————————————————————–

The next day finally comes and we enter the workshop one last time. The tempered blade is there waiting for us.
During the tempering the steel shrinks, so we start by adjusting the warps with a small hammer; except the warps are really difficult to spot. The same blade which seems perfect when I look at it is found in need of many corrections when Yusuke’s trained eyes inspects it. (Craftsmen have such great abilities!)

After polishing

Putting an edge

 

Sharpening the blade

What comes after is probably the most important process of all: putting an edge to the blade! To avoid overheating the metal, cold water is constantly poured on it during the whole process. There is so much beauty in seeing the steel appear from under the iron, the shinogi (ridge) slowly forming.

At last, we sharpen the edge by grinding it against a wet natural stone. (This too is a very delicate work). The steam rising from the hot blade when it meets the cold wet stone is mesmerizing.

And… it’s done! We have really made a knife with our own hands and it’s glorious. To check the sharpness, we hold a leaf in midair between our fingers and pass the knife through it from above: there is no resistance, as if we’re cutting through air!

The handle applied, we put the knife in a box, say farewell to Yusuke and get ready to leave.
Every time I cook with this knife, I’ll remember this experience.

Putting on the handle

 

Details:
Period: all year
Time: 3h x 2 days (total 6h)
Capacity: Min. 1 person Max. 3 persons
Price: 24,000 yen/1 person
25,000 yen/2 persons sharing 1 knife
Includes: activity cost, 1 kitchen knife, English-speaking guide

 

 

For further information, contact Chino Tabi at ask8@chinotabi.jp

The final result

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast

March 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Ogawa Village’s reddish pink Tachiya cherry blossoms contrast with the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps.
As the snow slowly melts from the streets and sprouts begin to poke their heads out from under the ground, we’re all beginning to wonder: when will the cherry blossoms come? According to a new forecast announced last Tuesday, it looks like many areas of Japan will be seeing their cherry trees bloom a full ten days earlier than last year.
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Beautiful Winter Phenomena

January 19th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s forests covered in frost.

Winter is at once harsh, unforgiving, and mysteriously beautiful. While snow falls relentlessly on you, your precious baggage and the streets around you, it covers the landscape in pure, unifying white. While the cold seeps through your down jacket and numerous sweaters, it also freezes waterfalls and lakes in time, creating gleaming columns and plates of ice. While the wind burns and turns your face the color of ripe strawberries, it also covers trees in sparkling layers of frost. If you can brave the elements, the wonders of winter far outweigh the cold.

You can see winter’s charm all around Nagano, from beautiful snowy plains and white-capped mountains to frozen lakes and waterfalls. But there are some unique phenomena that are especially captivating during these chilly months.

Snow Monsters in Shigakogen

Trees in Shigakogen’s heights are buffeted by snow and wind, becoming towering, white beasts.


There are many legends of abominable snowmen, yeti, and other creatures ready to gobble up unsuspecting skiers and hikers during winter. Luckily, Japan’s snow monsters pose no such threat.

In Shigakogen’s Mt. Yokoteyama area, the tallest part of the highlands at 2,307 meters high, trees are swallowed up by mounds of snow and become amorphous, white monsters. Herds of them sit motionlessly on the mountain. Waiting for what? We do not know. You can view them from the mountaintop’s crumpet café, which sells delicious baked goods and coffee to warm up with while enjoying the scenery, or ski by them on your way down the mountain.

Utsukushigahara Highland’s Diamond Dust

Tiny snow crystals sparkle like diamonds in the morning sunlight.


Central Nagano faces the brunt of winter’s cruelty, regularly faced with subzero temperatures that freeze lakes, water pipes, and even your shampoo. But these frigid temps give rise to a fantastic sight called “Diamond Dust.” On very calm, cold mornings—around -15 degrees Celsius—the air is filled with millions of tiny snow crystals, which sparkle like diamonds when hit with the morning sun’s rays.

One of the best places to see this phenomenon is in the Utsukushigahara Highlands. Access to the highlands is very difficult during winter, but if you stay at Utsukushigahara’s Ougatou Hotel, you can enjoy this and other winter experiences first-hand.

The Omiwatari Lake Crossing

Lake Suwa’s Omiwatari is a rare phenomenon where ridges of jagged ice appear above the lake.


Lake Suwa in central Nagano has been a center of Shinto faith for over a millennia, being home of the shrines of Suwa Taisha (internationally known for their once-in-seven-year Onbashira Festival). Possibly due to the spiritual nature of this location, the lake has experienced a phenomenon called “Omiwatari” (roughly translated: the God’s crossing) for hundreds of years. When the lake freezes, sheets of ice expand and contract with changing temperatures, eventually cracking and forming a long, continuous ridge across the lake, usually between 30 centimeters and 1 meter in height.

Omiwatari usually occurs in late January or early February, but due to climate change there have been many years recently where it has not occurred. The last year in which the Omiwatari was seen was in 2013. Will it return in 2018?

Share your Favorite Winter Scenes of Nagano!

Did you have a chance to see some of these beautiful spectacles while traveling in Nagano? Share them with us on Instagram of Facebook with the hashtag #gonagano. If you have any other beautiful sights that we haven’t included, please let us know in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this topic, take a look at an earlier blog about five ways to enjoy the snow in Nagano.

Japanese Summer Festivals and Fireworks in Nagano

July 21st, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

An archer in the Nyakuichi Oji Festival in Omachi City.

The vibrant, lively atmosphere of summer festivals is one of the most memorable parts of Japan. The streets are filled with the bright colors of yatai stalls, yukata robes, and paper lanterns, and the sky lights up with brilliant fireworks. Musicians play traditional flute and drum songs as performers entertain festival-goers with dances and theater.

As summer approaches its peak, Nagano gears up for exciting festivals of its own. Enjoy traditional Japanese summer festivals along with events that are unique to Nagano.
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Best Museums and Galleries in Nagano

July 12th, 2017 by
Category: Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Zhuge Liang puppet in the Kawamoto Kihachiro Puppet Museum

It’s Japan’s infamous rainy season and that means that unpredictable, sudden squalls are just around every corner. You’ll get soaked, your laundry won’t dry, trains and buses may be delayed, and it can be hard to do anything outdoors on the weekends. When it’s too wet to climb mountains or have picnics, what else is there to do in Nagano?

Cafés, karaoke, and staring at the ceiling are some possible options, but there are also plenty of museums and galleries around the prefecture that feature interesting historical artifacts and beautiful paintings. Spend some of your rainy days brushing up on Japanese history and art in one of Nagano’s many museums.
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A Haven for Craft Beer in the Japanese Alps

April 7th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Information, Shopping

Specialty beer spotted during last year’s Onbashira Festival. (Reijin Brewery)

While beer is a relatively new beverage in Japan, it wasn’t long before locals embraced it and created the crisp, refreshing lagers that its major breweries are known for today. The Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, and Suntory brands can be found in grocery and convenience stores around the world, and one by one, new breweries are making their international debuts.
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Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.

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Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen

July 6th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

Our guide Uchino-san points out distant blue mountains.

On Saturday we set out for a tour of Kirigamine Kogen, one of Nagano’s central highland areas connected by the Venus Line[1]. The name Kirigamine means “the misty peak,” because the warm airs of Suwa regularly rise up here and condense into fog. On clear days, however, you can enjoy an amazing view from the top of Kurumayama, the tallest point of the Kirigamine area.

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Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

May 27th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

A view of the lake from the rooftop of the Clasuwa restaurant.

In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.

Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.

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Winter 2016 Illuminations and Festivals

January 29th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Areas of Nagano prefecture are getting ready for a series of festivals in February, and in that spirit I thought I would put together a list of current and upcoming events for the Winter season. Tear yourself away from the ski resorts for a night and visit some of Nagano’s other scenic spots!

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