For once a fittings book that is informative, in English and neither expensive nor hard to get. In fact, you can save yourself some time by skipping my review and just going to Amazon right now and ordering it for $22 to have it in your hands for a weekend read.
This is a 175 page paperback by modern mokume master Takahashi Masaki published in 2018. This is not a style of fittings that I had a particular interest in, but after reading Takahashi I keep coming back to them. This is not a book only about fittings, but covers all aspects of guribori and mokume. It goes back to Northern Song dynasty carved lacquer work, Ming and Qing examples and later sagemono. There are mokume pipe fittings, yatate, bowls, etc., which became staple products for metalworkers at and after the end of the Edo period.
There are illustrations and descriptions of about 20 each of guribori and mokume tsuba, and about the same of fuchikashira, kozuka and other fittings including a few koshirae and one each of mokume and guribori menuki.
Guribori fittings used to be readily available at US sword shows but have become rather scarce in recent years. I hadn’t given them much attention, but Mr. Takahashi has and there is quite a lot there to study.
Many mokume tsuba have gone to the west, and Takahashi has traveled extensively to study and document examples in European and American museums. The catalog he has created with this book would be a must have if it stopped there, but it’s only his starting point. He sets out to describe and reproduce methods that could have been used to create historical pieces.
He goes into detail about the extremely complex layering and twisting process behind the creation of the famous early mokume kozuka by Shoami Denbei.
And provides a sequence of process photos in recreating Denbei’s famous guribori tsuba:
Again, this is not all. There are histories and genealogies of the makers of these fittings (of which Mr. Takahashi is a part) and articles by several guest authors on the techniques behind creating the mokume billets in a variety of materials including recipes for pre-cleaning, fusion processes and patination.
The book ends with a chapter on jewelry which is what sustains mokume production in both Japan and the west these days. Checking the websites of several of the contributors, it seems to have boiled down primarily to wedding rings with none of the interesting pieces illustrated in the Mokume Textbook on display. That makes sense from a business perspective.
I ran across a passing reference to this book online and figured that it would be unavailable or at least difficult to get. I checked Amazon thinking that the chance of it being there would be slim to none, but there it was. The research and devotion to the art of mokume that Takahashi-san has is unequaled and having it in such a well done and accessible book is fantastic. Go get it.
In the April 10, 1997 Sotheby’s catalog the comments preceding the Phyllis Sharpe Memorial collection of early tsuba include the following:
“N.B. Masayuki Sasano always insisted that the ‘grading’ he gave in his hakogaki reflected his personal reaction to the tsuba, and was not an attempt to provide a universal quality rating system. His grades, as mentioned in the text which follows, are: Ka: Beautiful; Shu: Superb; Kei: Masterpiece.
These grades appear toward the bottom of his hakogaki to the right of his two seals.
His highest ranking, masterpiece looks like this:
I don’t know where the reading “kei” in the catalog comes from, the first character is normally read ketsu, or when combined with saku as above kessaku. It can also be translated as greatness or excellence (and can be used sarcastically to refer to “an amusing blunder”).
His middle ranking, superb:
And the “bottom” grade ka:
Although the dictionary definitions of kasaku include “good work” and “honorable mention” which sound somewhat less enthusiastic. I’ve never seen a poor or uninteresting tsuba with a Sasano hakogaki, so I think beautiful is fair enough.
I agree with the catalog notes that this is a personal and subjective system. From what I’ve seen I’d guess that Sasano-sensei was thinking about the tsuba in comparison to others of their type or at least definitely not imposing a hierarchical view where some groups “outrank” others. The kessaku example at top is for a small nidai Akasaka guard, the shusaku is for a very small and simple yamagane ko-kinko tsuba with kiku and other stamps and the kasaku is from the Yagyu tsuba in the previous post.
During a discussion with a reader about the appearance of Yagyu iron compared to other groups I started putting together this post.
The motif is yomogi ni shobu – a mugwort leaf flanked by iris leaves. In an a article accompanying the NBTHK American Branch exhibition of Yagyu tsuba at the 2005 San Francisco token kai I wrote the following about a similar guard (illustrated later):
“I don’t know the specific meaning within the Yagyu ryu, but the combination of these two plants figures in the Japanese tradition as offering protection from evil and bringing good health. The yomogi is also an herbal treatment to staunch bleeding and the leaves of the shobu rather resemble sword blades.”
References to these two plants together goes back to the 7th century as both medicine and talisman. In Merrily Baird’s Symbols of Japan:
“Heian aristocrats also viewed the fifth lunar month as particularly dangerous, and at that time they both wove mugwort and sweet flag into the thatch of their roofs and produced medicine balls (kusu-dama) of mugwort and sweet flag, which were then hung outside their homes.”
and “…traditional Japanese belief that mugwort and sweet flag are toxic to oni, the demons held responsible for spreading disease and maliciously attacking people.”
This motif appears twice in the Yagyu design books:
A closer look at the iron and finishing:
On earlier examples the ground typically has a slightly sandy texture, sometimes described as cloudy. There generally are not sharp edges – while the designs are not blurred, they tend to be smoothed over. Most will show some linear grain in the rim, but it’s usually fairly subtle:
This gets lost in later examples, often certified as kodai (later generation) Yagyu, but then comes back in force in the late Edo period where the copies made by the two Norisuke and their followers have prominent masame in the rim and even on the faces that look like a fine pastry dough. While the designs are faithfully followed, the overall appearance is quite different.
This guard is published in Eckhard Kremers’ Sukashi Tsuba in eurpaischen Sammlungen and has a hakogaki written by Sasano Masayuki.
This is the guard mentioned above that was part of the 2005 international exhibition:
According to my notes this one had similar linear forging visible in the rim.
And another published in Owari to Mikawa no tanko:
At the bottom edge of the first guard in this post:
This is a long one, and the study opportunity comes at the end.
I’d seen this tsuba on eBay before, listed by a Japanese seller, but didn’t pay much attention. When it came up again as an auction I noticed something I missed before.
The label on the side of the box looked like the ones Alan Harvie used on his collection. This is the only view of the box in the online listing. So, checking Alan’s sale catalog from Sotheby’s London, July 14, 2005 there it was:
“A KAMAKURA-BORI TSUBA, MUROMACHI PERIOD (C. 1500) of circular form with raised rim, the thin plate carved and pierced with a pagoda, warabi, flowers, hanabishi-mon and Genji chapter headings for Shigamoto and Agemaki, unsigned; with a tomobako, bearing a hakogai by Dr. Kazutaro Torigoe. 8.2 cm,
“Provenance Walter A. Compton Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 22nd October, 1992, lot 19
“LITERATURE Sebastian Izzard, One Hundred Masterpieces from the Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton, New York, 1992 £ 2,500-3,000
Not surprisingly there it is in the second Compton catalog.
“A KAMAKURABORI SUKASHI TSUBA MUROMACHI PERIOD (CIRCA 1500) The circular iron plate is pierced with a design of a stone lantern, a fern frond bud, hanabishi flower and Genji chapter crests (mon) and is carved in relief with a design of chrysanthemums, waves, fern scroll, pagoda, flowers, leaves and small and large dots of dew – height and width 8 cm, thickness 2.5 mm.
LITERATURE For a very similar example , see Joly (1912), no 9, pl. XI, p. 10. For the same design in brass inlay, see Shibata M,. Aigen-meisakushu (1961), no. 1 , p. 1.
Update: illustrations of both tsuba added at the bottom of the post.
One Hundred Masterpieces (1992), no 43.
“The pierced design of the Genji chapter mon at the top of the plate refers to the Agamaki chapter (on the face) and the Wakana no jo chapter (on the reverse) of Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel The Tale of Genji. Both chapters are associated with elements in the design: the block or lantern on the face, and the young herb or bracken shoot on the reverse. $4,000 – 6,000
Slightly different takes, but the same story. The photos from 100 Masterpieces:
The caption is essentially the same as the above. The price realized at the Compton sale in 1992 was $3,080. This was shortly after I started getting interested in Japanese swords. I remember Bob Haynes mentioning the last minute downward adjustments to the estimates in fear that the market was past its peak.
At the time certified top quality swords and fittings were very scarce at US sword shows. “A Juyo” at a show was cause for excitement and inevitably the sword was under a table or up in a room. If there were any Juyo fittings around I didn’t hear about them. Alan Harvie built up a really top class tsuba collection for the time. His sale did very well, but came a few years after the point when the flow of superb fittings out of Japan really started picking up. Prices were very high for these pieces compared to the recent status quo, but the quality was a world above.
Alan had a number of previously “unobtanium” tsuba that would have been grail pieces if his sale had come a little earlier, but by 2005 better examples could be had from Japan. Still, when this Kamakurabori guard sold, it was $4,560 out the door. Obviously 2005 was a long time ago when it comes to prices for fittings and the words “way down” describe the trend since then.
A lot has been written about pieces offered at online auction by sellers in Japan along the lines that if the piece was worth the price it’s listed at (or more) it would already have sold in Japan, and that is good advice. Of course it is also perfectly OK if the item is genuine and the interest level where you are is higher than it is in Japan to pay the online price even if it might not be the lowest possible.
So either at Alan’s sale or sometime later, this tsuba found its way back to Japan. Oddly the seller did not mention or otherwise photograph the hakogaki, the very tail end stroke of which is visible in the first photo from the listing. Many of the seller’s other offerings are pottery and the signed boxes are featured. The starting bid was very reasonable, so why not cross fingers that things are what they seem and see what happens…
I was the only bidder and luckily all panned out fine. After all of the inside collecting talk above, the reason I wasn’t particularly interested in that tsuba the first couple of times I saw it is this:
Very similar, but not the same. Slightly larger and the carving and inlay are a bit more refined. Supposedly ex. Sasano collection, but I’ve never found it published. Side by side comparison of the details of the two guards below.
You’re probably tired of reading by now and I know I’m tired of writing, so I hope the photos can speak for themselves. The one on the right seems to have a bit more care taken in each case. Two workers in the same shop? One worker on a good day and then a better day? Or early career/late career work (or the other way around)? Would Dr. T have given the other guard a kao with only one tick mark (first rate example)? As usual, questions remain.
Thanks to RKG’s sharp eye – The first guard does appear to have a notch cut out for a fukurin down around 7:00. There are no other signs of one having been on there and there wouldn’t have been much room for one. In some lighting the notch almost disappears, but it is there.
Update: Additional examples from the literature:
There are some losses to the sukashi elements.
An Onin style interpretation of the same design. There are a number of apparently closely related Kamakurabori and Onin suemon zogan guards. The iron ground used by the two are very different, so it’s probably more a matter of following fashion trends than a common origin.
This is a very large tsuba worked in something very like Kyo-sukashi style with a rinpa motif, signed Fusayoshi saku.
Among other less likely candidates Haynes lists two Myochin Fusayoshi (H 00525,6) an Echizen man (H 00528) and a Yamashiro Fusayoshi, date of ca. 1590, H 00530. Given the workmanship the last one seems like the best fit, but without specific examples to refer to, who knows.
The head on view shows that not all of the holes are drilled perpendicular to the surface and that their radial locations wander a bit.
Viewed from the front, the holes have a larger diameter for the top quarter or so of their depth rather than being drilled straight through.
An angle view:
On the back there is no “step” visible inside the hole, but instead some eccentricity in the outline with a sort of lobe in places.
That irregular shape makes me think of finishing with an abrasive loaded string that was worked at a bit of an angle. I haven’t been able to find anything on early metal drilling in Japan, but there is a fair bit available on wood drills.
These were used by rubbing between the palms of the hands. Some of the above drills would produce a conical hole if only worked part way through, but looking at the Fusayoshi, the drilling looks more like a distinct step rather than a chamfer where the diameter changes.
Pump drills were used to speed up the process.
Pump drills were also fitted to a framework to create in effect a drill press. Presumably something like that was not used on the Fusayoshi given that some of the holes are drilled at off angles.
The care and technique that went into cutting the delicate openwork over this large guard is remarkable. I have to wonder whether the wandering placement of the holes was an aesthetic choice. Without magnification, the step in the diameter of the holes far from obvious so it’s hard to see that as being done for looks. The reason for that and the irregular exit holes on the back eludes me.
Not Japanese, but Clickspring has another great video on a possible process for making early metal drill bits:
The video on making a pump drill with a bronze spindle weight is also very interesting, but a bit farther afield from what appears to have been used in Japan.
So, back to tsuba – it is also interesting is that the rinpa has 30 points but there are 36 holes. The mismatch does add visual interest as the pattern goes in and out of phase. There are many significant numbers in Buddhism, but I haven’t found any special meaning to 30 and 36, although 5 and 6 have multiple meanings and are factors of those numbers. 108 is also meaningful, which is one tenth of 30*36, which is probably a coincidence… I’ll stop there.
When I came across this guard I knew that I had seen something similar before and had a feeling it might have been at the Dai Token Ichi. I still have some of those catalogs and found that it was not similar, but the same guard.
I balked at the Tokyo show price back in 2002. It’s hard to imagine that it was that long ago, but nice that it came around again.
Update: Looking through Toban Shokan Kotetsu I found a similar Fusayoshi saku tsuba. This book is a modern copy (likely copy of copies) of an early tsuba book from 1736. The tsuba are realistically drawn, not schematics. The thickness of the sukashi on other illustrated guards varies as you would expect in the real thing, so this one was presumably that finely cut in reality, which is rather similar to the above.
I don’t understand the meaning of yagosei before Fusayoshi saku. Literally it means 8 year old child. Yatsugo can mean octuplet, which doesn’t seem to apply here, with 6 design elements inside of a 7th. Yachitose (substituting te for ko) means 8,000 years, but stands for “eternity.” This is presumably a stand in that expresses something related but not literal.
A return to the more elaborate end of the early soft metal tsuba spectrum with another small shakudo nanako example made with very different technique from the recently posted early Muromachi example.
Kikyo (bellflower) at the top left and Nadeshiko (pink) at bottom left. The zufu describes the other flowers as Kiku, but the shape of the leaves are different than usual for chrysanthemum. Aster is another possibility, but given that there are karakusa on the back with different leaves maybe the kiku blossoms aren’t meant as a literal representation of the plant.
Update: Reader question about jakago. See photos by Satomi Grim below. Its use as a purely decorative motif probably has a bigger life than its literal meaning, but it started as a sort of basket weave construction used to hold rocks in place to stabilize river banks (enthusiastically replaced by concrete in modern Japan). In this tsuba it might imply that the plants are growing along a river bank or may just be there for its own sake. The same form is used in domestic baskets, packaging, etc., as well.
(end of update…)
Both sides of the seppa dai have small patches of what would at first just appear to be wear, but looking closely are metal overlay.
Occasionally on early kinko guards there are a few rows of nanako sown on the seppa dai that appear to be a test to get a feel for the material before starting in on the main part that will be seen. This isn’t the same, but might it be something related?
Going through Mr. Lundgren’s book recently I came across a very similar tsuba I had forgotten.
It looks very likely to me that it by the same individual. That is interesting enough, but note that on the backside seppadai there is also a “test patch” but in a color that relates to metal on that tsuba. The front side seppa dai has been modified to the point that it’s hard to say if it also has one.
Could this have been a final check of the preparation work to ensure that the adhesion of the iroe to the ground would be good before proceeding with the main work? That was a relatively new technique at this time but would soon replace uttori zogan.
It would be interesting to compare the two in person… any ideas?
A large Kagamishi tsuba with early style hitsuana.
A very simple design that would work equally well in either orientation. It appears to me to be cast, but a previous owner’s label attributes it to ko-kinko. In some cases it can be difficult to say whether a piece is cast or carved.
Not much to see on the rim, but for the record.
And a detail view with traces of black lacquer remaining.
A similar guard with likely later modification.
And a not so similar guard from Sasano-sensei’s Kagamishi book that combines similar decorative motifs.