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:
Not done recently…