Soaking Japanese Natural Awasedo, yes vs no.

I have been asked about soaking natural japanese sharpening stones in water before use.

Although this is just an opinion, I tend to not be in favor of soaking natural awasedo stones. Someone has recently thrown out there that it is OK to soak these stones because they have spent millions of years in water already, why not now. It is true that the stones mined near Kyoto were “born” as sediment in pools of water, but the fact is that for the most recent tens of millions of years they have resided well above sea level and locked in the mountains under other rock, debris & soil as dry stone.

There is some seepage even in bedrock but because of the vertical nature of the strata that the Kyoto awasedo are mined from, any percolating water is incidental and temporary. These stones do not come to us from a pool of water, they come from a dry environment. There is one exception to this generalization however. If a mine shaft is dug below the valley’s water table, then there is a great chance of standing water accumulating in the mine itself.

I have a photo of one miner working in a raincoat within the mine, this was the last shaft dug in that mine, at the lowest elevation of the mountain. The shaft was shortly bulldozed and the mine closed. The stone extracted from this shaft is considered to be of inferior quality because of the extreme hardness of the stone when compared to the excellent quality that that mine produced at the higher elevations.

There is no reason to subject the sides and the back of a natural awasedo to a soaking in water. The top of the stone however does need to be hydrated, the purpose is two fold. The first is to use the water to carry away the swarf from the abraded steel, the second is to encourage the surface of the stone to soften thereby slightly dissolving the binder (clays) so they will reveal fresh and sharp grit particles. These actions do not require the soaking of a quality stone.

The world is full of ultra hard stone, and some will in most cases scratch and abrade steel, but if the active grit particles are so firmly embedded in the base stone and will not release they will: either become dull and ineffectual or will glaze over with swarf and in either case will stop cutting. The beauty of quality awasedo is that the friability of the grit and the fragility of the binder allows the grit to cleave and the binder to allow fresh grit to be exposed.

If you are using an super hard awasedo that is not generating any amount of slurry than there is a good chance that the cutting power of your stone is diminishing moment by moment below your blade. As this happens the actual sharpening or abrading process is exchanged with a polishing effect akin to burnishing. At that stage you will not be honing the steel but just shining it up. This could be your goal, but the sharpness and durability of the edge could be compromised by a form of “plastic deformation” to the steel where stresses may interfere with the original Martensitic formation within the steel as a displacive transformation occurs.

When you soak an awasedo your goal would do so to soften the stone. If the stone has distinctive sedimentary layer lines these may absorb water at different rates. The moisture could accumulate over a period of subsequent soakings and susceptible stones by their very stratified nature could separate along those stratification layers. A stone sealed on the sides and back would of course wick-up less water per usage, but some retained moisture could simply build behind the sealed sides and over time could create unintended results.

If there is someone out there who has soaked their awasedo stones over an extended period of time I would like to hear from them. Alx

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Working with Older Stones, Some Help

When dealing with stones that have no ink stamps it is nice to have some reference points to go back to. I am lucky enough have a few Nakayama that are ink stamped “Maruka” that date back to the first half of the 20th century, and here is an example how one stone can act as a sort of a Rosetta stone.

In both stones you can find similar indicators besides the color that in this case matches up pretty well. The circular “kan” pattern found in some chu-ishi-naori deposites, the typical Nakayama “kawa” or skin that displays rust colors along with deep black, and there is a specific sparkle in the sheen that actually reflects light like a prisim. The overall fineness of the stone should match up as a finishing stone. Also some Nakayama have these linear “Namazu” lines that are filled with a ligher color softer mineral.

Of course not all Nakayama stones are neither fine nor fast, and these qualities can only be determied by using them. The stones with the Maruka ink stamp that are genuine tend to have special attributes however because as a rule Kata-san, the previous owner of the mine, was stingy with his grading and stamped only a small percentage with this now famous inked signature. Smaller, chipped, cracked or inferior stones basically just went to the different wholesaler with no inked markings. I know of no other miner from the era who ink stamped the stone with the mines actual name, the wholesales had the ink stamps and they used them liberally. It appears in looking back that Kata was the only miner of that era who used an ink stamp as his sign of approval or endorsement, and funny enough this stamp refered to as the Maruka stamp does not even mention the proper name of the mine.  Alx

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The Ohira Mine, a visit.

Several years ago I had a chance to visit the Ohira mine at the invitation of its owner Ishihara-san of the Tamba region of Kyoto. He is the 5th generation to run the mine and he remembers his grandfather working at both ends of the process, at the mine and in the shop along with 20 or so other employees. The Ohira mine is a realitively new mine going back only a couple of hundred years, it is on the eastern side of Mt. Atago maybe 15 miles at most from downtown Kyoto as the crow flies. He drove the one lane, at times dirt road to the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell, and he asked me to promise not to tell anyone where his mine was to circumvent trespassers. He has had some problems, but to tell you the truth after hiking for 30 minutes up a steep unmarked overgrown path to get to the mine head, I can see that easier pickings for trespassers to fool with could be found somewhere else.

We walked up through a lovely forest as it was, with native chestnuts trees and nuts upon the ground which turned out to be large and meaty and tasty when roasted. Along the way we passed a couple of exploratory shafts like this one.

This could be one of many dozens of test holes used to search out the vein of sharpening stone material from which this mine is known for. Evidently when one mine shaft has played out it is guesswork to follow the vein that is generally about 20-40 meters within the mountains surface.

Above is what they are looking for, stratified stone from the particular sediments. As we came to a clearing I saw some of the gear needed to run a mine.

Seems pretty simple at first, but the snow in the winter and 98percent humidity in the summer, the bears and snakes, cave-ins, crushed fingers plus everything needs to be hauled down the hill definitely puts a spin on the easy part.  Like I said in his grandfathers time there were 20 or so employees, some were women and children who did much of the hauling. The bucked with a gas powered winch is a new thing, in the old days all the stone was hand carried down the mountian side or sledded down along chutes. The earlier shafts were at higher elevations too so farther to move the stone. Ishihara-san has one part-time employee but he himself does not work in the mine anymore. Most of the good stone is depleted and his main stock is uchigumori of which the Ohira mine is famous for.

Above are nearly paper thin pieces of uchigumori which are not cut with a saw but are actually coaxed with a dull chisel to seperate along the grain. The waste is enormous in making these and you need to start with a really pure piece of uchigumori toishi to begin with. The next step is to hand sand them until they really are paper thin, then a layer of mulberry paper is lacquered on the back with true urushi. All along this process there is more waste and broken pieces. The final product is a finger stone used by professional sword sharpeners in polishing (not sharpening) the surface of the sword to create a certain watery look. Ishihara-san told me the Office of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs visited his shop way in the mountains there to poll him on his estimate as to the amount of uchigumori left in his mine because this stone used in this form above is integral to the complete and correct restoration of historic samuri swords. Without this stone, and there is no manmade substitute for it, the history of the sword may vanish in its purest traditional sense as far as the polishing part goes.

Looking out from the mine into the valley where his house is located in a quaint village it does not look like much has changed in the last few hundred years, still men and women sharpen and polish steel with their choice of stone.

 I have bought stones from Ishihara-san for a few years now, he is the real deal and has been very generous with his time and knowledge.

Ishihara-san is a member of the Kyoto Miners Union, and maybe the oldest active member still working. I have sorted through thousands of stones in his shop to only come up with a few, and I am lucky enough to have a good collection from his grandfathers era when the stones were very fine and fast cutting. Blessed with five daughters but no sons, he will maintain the Mt. Agago shrine at his own expense but only time will tell regarding the mine.

Not all roads lead to Atago, a shame. This one did.   Alx

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Ever wonder what it is like to live in a Japanese Castle

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a samuri and live in a Japanese Castle? Chances are the daimyo or local king who owned it hardly ever went into it.

This little castle in the town of Maruoka, Ishikawa Prefecture looks like a cool place to hang out, it was built in about 1576 and is a good example of the “place of last resort” for the owner who lived like a king. His principal residence sat below the castle, a sprawling group of houses and buildings and garderns for his extended family and guests that sat between the middle and inner moat. His samuri had their homes ringing the area between the middle and the outer moat as his defense during times of peace. Daily the daimyo lived a peaceful existance, but in a time of war the defences went up beyond the outer moat, if it was breached by the enemy the samuri would withdraw to protect the daimyo, their employer, in force upon the palace grounds. If the middle moat was crossed the daimyo would have a choice to either help in the fight himself or to withdraw up into the castle keep called a boro tehshu-kaku, the highest viewing tower, up these steep irregularly shaped steps seen below.

This tower sat at the highest position within the moated grounds, it only has one entrance and was stocked and supplied. If the daimyo retreated to the tower a select corp followed him as a final defense and once inside they fought with the advantage of height. This tower looks from the outside to have two levels or floors to it, but there are actually three and they are joined by almost vertical stairs. Each level has a main room, in this case about 30 x 30 feet square, the lower floors have small hidden side rooms for samuri to be stationed in, the upper floor is slightly smaller and is just one room.

Depending on which way the seige progressed, the daimyo would move up a level along with his immediate family and the wooden stairway would be removed from below and destroyed as a trapdoor was inserted from above. The upper floor with a 360 degree view of the his land harbored a private setting if needed for the honorable deed.

As you can see, the average day of the daimyo did not include hanging out in the castle like some of us would think he did.  alx

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The Road to Umegahata & The Ozuku Mine

Yesterday my wife Emiko and I took the JR bus from Kyoto station up Hwy 162 out of Kyoto’s Utano ward, through Narutakihonmachi and up into the village of Takao. The bus took us a little further up into the mountains and we got out at Umegahata Nishinohatacho, the base of the path that leads to the Jingo-ji Temple, a 8th Century Shinto shrine deep in the cedar forest and in the lower reaches of Mt. Atago.

Much of the history regarding Kyoto was formed in these mountain temples and shrines that served as monasteries for those who held the faith with an iron fist if necessary. The main temple was down in the newly formed capitol of Japan, Kyoto, but these mountain enclaves served as the safe haven for the hardy souls. This area is referred to as Yamashiro, translated as Mountain Castle, and the mountain temples were used as castles of last resort to guard against the still yet wildness of the political/religious masters of Japan. Of course now we took a bus, but in the old days this was a steep march following a rugged river and this is why some of these early structures still exist in some form or another.

I have been using sharpening stones from this area for 35 years now, so this was an exciting trip to the HonYama where many of the famous mines were located. It is not commonly known that most of the awasedo toishi stone mines of Kyoto are located on privately held land, and that the miners are simply leasing the mineral rights on a year to year basis. This land was deeded by the Emperor and occupied by the various Shinto and Buddhist religious sects over the last 1500 years, and they have been stingy in relinquishing their properties. The fee collected for the mineral rights is relatively modest and is in most cases a mere formality as the owners look at the miners maybe a little bit like as caretakers or “a warm body on site” to keep tabs on the land. In any case the original use of the stone was reserved for the sharpening of the swords of the Imperial household, this was in the early days of the 1300s. Common people had no access to this special stone until the late Edo Period and then is was mostly rejected pieces.

From the Jingo-ji site we walked back down the twisting road we had earlier ridden up in the bus so in order to approach the Umegahata area from the uphill side, and to continue down to Takao village. The mountains here remind me of the “gold country” of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California near Grass Valley, Columbia and down towards Yosemite that are rough and peopled by rugged working class individuals and or established families. As you can see in the photos below it is beautiful but narrow and steep and although as the crow flies, close in, it is not on many tourist maps.

After much walking and climbing we finally did find one location that rung true to our goal.

Below is a gate and a sign, the translation reads “Ozuku Toishi, please contact by phone ____ Mr. Kato“, but the phone number had been rubbed out. The driveway is well maintained and thanks to Google Photos and the link here   the actual mine site with various tin roofed buildings can bee seen if you search carefully around using the top tool bar’s Hybrid button under the captioned name Umegahata Kubotanicho, and on the left side of the highway marked Umegahata Rengetani and then click on the Satellite Imagery button (maybe under an advertisment) just to the left of the Hybrid button. This location is all commonly held local knowledge, and there is a sign on the road, but for me to give any more precise details might be construed as treading on privacy rights so I will restrain myself. I was also told by a retired miner that part of the original Nakayama Mine site is now covered over and has a Junior High School built on top of it, this is a clue.  Enjoy the photos. Alx

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Shaving in Japan, again

The very first time I ever shaved in Japan was New Years Day 1979 and it was in a public bath in a small city named Komastu, yes the tractor companies home base. It was a little tense at first, not because I was again like in a high school shower, no it was because most of the guys here in this bath house were yakuza, and they knew that I knew who they were. Lots and lots of body tatoos just like your would imagine. The thing is that the ofuro bath house was just down the street and around the corner from their office building, and it was the nearest one to my house. I ended up going there at least 3 times a week for 6 months and off and on for the next few years.

I shaved with a straight razor back then, and old German blade with a natural color bone handle, I still have it. And this was the razor I took to the ofuro. I was the only one there with a western straight but a lot of men did and still do shave with these little, but very sharp disposable straights. Of course I had a small strop with me too, no tatoos but at least I had a strop. Well, a small strop. But they didn’t have one!

From that very first day until today I have felt that shaving at a japanese bath house is one of the very best places on earth to shave, and I always get an excellent shave when I do. To begin with you have just soaked for 10-15 minutes in abnormally hot, hot water. Usually in the 42-46 degrees Celsius (110-115F) range, so talk about hydrated beard stubble. Then you got the endless supply of even hotter water if you want it to rinse in, choices in free shaving cream and your own little sit down to shave at mirror. Have you ever sat down to shave? Here are photos of where I bathed and shaved today on the 17th floor of my hotel. click on the photos for larger versions.

The soothing mineral water, an outdoor pool where I sat in the rain, and again I got a excellent relaxing shave afterwards. Alx

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Trip to the Feather Razor Co. Museum

I was very lucky recently to be able to travel to Seki, Gifu Prefecture and visit the Feather Company Museum. Seki is known as a blade makers town going back into the Edo Period when the blade of choice was a sword, now a days it is kitchen, craft and all kinds of professional blades including shaving or kamisori as they are called in Japan.

Click to enlarge the photos or click on the links to see large photo montages.

The Feather Company is the preemenent razor maker in Seki and has been a strong force since 1932 in the japanese market. The musuem houses as you can see in the following photos, an extensive collection of period shaving equipment along with more recent additions like disposal razors, advertising and snippet of some of the manufacturing processes required to make razors. Click on the link below to view a large group of razor images.

The thurst of the museum is to display a comprehensive overall view of shaving in the 20th century and this also includes the stones to sharpen the blades. Here are three photos of stones in a display case that came to the museum directly from barber shops and the display includes place cards with the name and location of the barber shops. Click on the photos to see larger images.


Notice the variety of the color of these stones. Of course all are fine enough and have been proven in use to be true razor hone, but the colors yellow “kiita”, white “shiro”, asagi “blueish green with a tint of yellow” to dark grey “kuro” that can boarder on black describe the honing style and taste of the particular barber. These are all pre-WW2 mined stones.

The next two photos show larger commercial or professional shop stones, these are both kamisori tennen toishi, true razor hones that were designated as such right from the mouth of the mine. The top photo is of a particularly pure yellow kiita with an urushi sealed backside that is about 35cm wide, the second is also a kiita of a brooding deeper tone with some foggy mauve coloring that is a grade 24 size pushing 28cm long x 9.5cm wide by 6cm thick.

These are the type of stone that might be used in a factory situtation where shaving is not going on but most likely sharpening all day long for trade. Next is a photo of a boxed kamisori toishi along with a piece of Gifu nagura. The urushi lacquered box sports a family crest and this type of stone was used in a home of some substance.

Below is a handsome group of tennen toishi including a dramatic living edge specimen Nakayama kiita flanked by two massive kuro tomae grade 24 stones for proofing blades.

The last photo of this group contains a display from the science gallery of the museum showing surgical scaplels, skin graft kanna and osteotomes all next to an “aka” or red tomae of such intensity that it appears brown/purple of the richest darkest hues. This would be a surgical steel stone. The aka stones are not the hardest by any means but are amongst the fastest cutting stones as described by the color catagory.

All of the stones in the 7 photos above pre date the 1940s when the last of the original veins were still being followed and dug in the Yamashiro Umegahata region of Kyoto from the old mines like Shobudani, Narutaki, Nakayama, Okudo, Kizuyama and may upon examination include excellent early examples of Ohira & Shinden takings.

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My Credo

If it could be said in a few words, be assured, I will use many.

                                                                                               my credo, Alx




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japan in summer

now I am in Japan in September

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