1.7.2 Horimono (engravings)


Let us continue with the engravings that are usually found on a Japanese sword. As mentioned at the very beginning, I will skip historic background as much as possible and focus on what you see on blades and what is essential for kantei. As for horimono, an excellent and detailed overview in terms of terminology and religious significance had been written by Gabriel Lebec just last year and is available as PDF here. So if you want additional and background info on this subject, this is where you go. Important for kantei conclusions drawn on the basis of horimono is to know that engravings other than hi basically follow two approaches: The one is the belief that certain religious symbols provide good luck, offer protection from evil or harm, and/or underline what the sword wearer beliefs, and the other one is to personalize and decorate a blade. Well, it can be said hat virtually all horimono have some kind of religious background and that over time just the degree of detail and repertoire increased. In short, deities were in the beginning often justrepresented by their bonji (Sanskrit character) but were later on fully “carved out” in a picturesque manner. And the detail of such engravings can be truly amazing! And stylized religious symbols were later in time no longer interpreted in an abstract and abbreviated but in a full and more “realistic” manner. When it comes to Japanese depictions, we differentiate between three degrees of elaboration or abbreviation: 1. shin (真): “formal,” “full,” or “most elaborate;” 2. gyô (行): “semi-formal” or “intermediate degree of elaboration;” and 3. (草): “informal,” “free,” or “abbreviated.” For the definition of horimono (and other Japanese arts as well), these terms are used as prefixes, e.g. shin no …, gyô no …, and sô no …

An important aspect of horimono is the fact that hey do not necessarily had to be added at the time the blade was forged. That means, every later owner of a blade was able to decide to have it enlarged by whatever engraving (or groove). This was sometimes done to hide certain flaws, for example open fukure blisters in the shinogi-ji, or to “push” an unsigned blade into a certain direction. For example, a blade whose workmanship suggests Nanbokuchô Sôshû might have better chances to receive an attribution to the great Sadamune if enlarged with futasuji-hi as several blades of this master show this kind of grooves. Also important to know is that as far as swords are concerned, classicism had always been a choice. So a smith or client from whatever period, let’s say late Muromachi or mid-Edo could have made or ordered a blade that models on classical Kamakura masterworks, including their horimono, or if not modelled on a concrete example, made or ordered an elegant blade that got a classic touch by adding an ancient-looking engraving at its base. And with this, we arrive at the question of what was/is considered as classical? As a rule of thumb it can be said that classical horimono are those that had emerged before the end of the Kamakura period. Often quoted examples of what is thought to be the oldest horimono are a suken as relief in a hi on a blade of Bizen Tomonari (友成), the bonji for Fudô-Myôô on top of a suken on a blade of Ko-Hôki Ôhara Sanemori (大原真守), and the relief of a kurikara, a bonji and the a deity as relief (experts argue on what deity is depicted), or a crane that bites into a pine cone on blades by Bungo Yukuhira (行平) (see picture below). That means we are as early as in the late Heian or very beginning of the Kamakura period with these smiths. What is obvious at these earliest horimono is that they focus pretty much at just the base of the blade and that they are quite simple.

Tomonari             Sanemori                  Yukihira          matsukui

From left to right: Tomonari, Sanemori, Yukihira.

Before I introduce one by one the most common engravings, I want to address the question of which blades from which schools or smiths are likeliest to show horimono? And in this case I mean horimono in terms of more elaborate decorations and not just suken. Well, chronologically speaking, more elaborate horimono are very often seen at the Nobukuni (信国) school followed by the Hasebe (長谷部) school and the Bizen Osafune smiths from master Kagemitsu (景光) onwards. That means we basically start not before the mid to late Nanbokuchô period with elaborate engravings. The Bizen smiths in general are known for adding relative often horimono what applies to the Kozori group (小反) that emerged towards the end of the Nanbokuchô period as well as to the Ôei-Bizen, Eikyô-Bizen, and Sue-Bizen groups. The Sôshû smiths too are famous for their horimono and that concerns the master smiths after Masamune, i.e. Hiromitsu (広光) and Akihiro (秋広), as well as the entire Sue-Sôshû group. Another candidate whose blades show almost always any kind of horimono is Heianjo Nagayoshi (平安城長吉), or to be precise the later smith who was active around Eishô (永正, 1504-1521). When it comes to the end of the Muromachi period, we find – apart from the Sue-Bizen and Sue-Sôshû smiths – relative many elaborate horimono on works of the Yamato Kanabô (金房) and Shitahara (下原) school. And at the transitional time to the shintô era, we find many engravings on blades made in the vicinity of the supposed “founder” of the shintô, Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿), e.g. at Horikawa Kunihiro (堀川国広) and Hizen Tadayoshi (肥前忠吉) and on blades of their immediate successors like Dewa no Daijô Kunimichi (出羽大掾国路) and his Mishina colleague Etchû no Kami Masatoshi (越中守正俊). Not to forget Echizen Yasutsugu (康継) and the Shimosaka (下坂) school where he came from. Somewhat later in shintô times, Kotetsu (虎徹) and Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna (粟田口一竿子忠綱) are famous for adding elaborate horimono, stating that proudly on the tang via the phrase hori-dôsaku (彫同作) what means “horimono by the smith” in contrast to horimono engraved by a specialized horimono artist like it was often the case at the earliest Hizen smiths. And as for shinshintô times, first and foremost Hosokawa Masayoshi (細川正義) and Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤) must be named. But I would like to repeat that this “list” concerns schools and smiths that are known for adding elaborate horimono. That means, more simple and classical engravings are found throughout all periods and schools. Anyway, if a certain school or smith is famous for a certain horimono or certain horimono interpretation, I will point that out again in the corresponding chapters. Having that said, let me now introduce in alphabetical order the most common horimono. And not to make this blog post disproportionally long, I will add comparisons of individual horimono interpretations as PDFs.

bonji (梵字) – Sanskrit character(s). Might be used alone or in combination with other engravings, for example on top of a groove or suken or in between two grooves that have been “interrupted” for the purpose of adding a bonji. It is almost impossible to point out a certain school or smith that is very famous for adding bonji but I would say Nobukuni, Heianjô Nagayoshi, Hiromitsu, Akihiro, the Sue-Sôshû school, the Osafune school, the Ôei-Bizen school, the Sue-Bizen school, Umetada Myôju, the Horikawa school, Dewa no Daijô Kunimichi, Etchû no Kami Masatoshi, Hizen Tadayoshi, Echizen Yasutsugu, Higo no Daijô Sadakuni (肥後大掾貞国), Kotetsu, Suishinshi Masahide (水心子正秀), and Taikei Naotane.


Daikokuten (大黒天) – One of the Seven Lucky Gods associated with wealth and prosperity. Sometimes also just referred to as Daikoku. He is usually interpreted as relief and depicted standing on two bales of rice. Usually seen on blades of Horikawa Kunihiro, Dewa no Daijô Kunimichi, and Kotetsu. A Daikokuten horimono is sometimes also soon at Hiroyoshi (広賀) from Hôki. ComparisonDaikokuten.


dokko (独鈷) – A single-prong vajra hilt. Such a vajra hilt is a weapon which is used as a ritual object to symbolize both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force). The dokko can be found as horimono itself or with one prong elongated to a ken sword, an interpretation which is referred to as dokko-ken (独鈷剣) or short dokken (独剣) (see bottom picture below). This kind of horimono is for example sometimes found at blades of the Sue-Sôshû school but is much lesser seen than its “famous” counterpart, the sankozuka-ken, i.e. the three-pronged vajra hilt. ComparisonDokko.



Fudô-Myôô (不動明王) – Guardian deity primarily revered in Vajrayana Buddhism or in Japan respectively in the Shingo, Tendai, Yen, and Nichiren sects. He is usually depicted in a fierce manner, holding a sankozuka-ken or kurikara, a sword with a dragon coiled around it in the one hand, and a kensaku (羂索) rope in the other hand. The flaming nimbus or halo behind the statue is known as the karura (迦楼羅) flame, after a mythical firebreathing birdlike creature, the Garuda (jap. Karura). His seat, the banjakuza (盤石座 , lit. “huge rock base”), is considered an appropriate iconographic symbol to demonstrate the steadfastness of Fudô-Myôô. A Fudô-Myôô engraving is also seen at quite many schools and throughout all times so it is hard to name any name here. ComparisonFudoMyoo.


hatahoko (幡鉾・旗鉾) – Lit. “banner spear.” Symbolic weapon used in esoteric Buddhism to decorate an altar place. The spear or lance is sometimes also referred to as Bishamon-ken (毘沙門剣, lit. “Sword of Bishamon”) or just hoko (鉾). A hatahoko engraving is pretty rare. The one shown below is found on a Hizen Tadayoshi blade and was added by the horimono-shi Munenaga (宗長) who had refined his craft under Umetada Myôju.


kensaku (羂索) – Rope of Fudô-Myôô and other guardian deities which symbolizes the keeping at distance of enemies of the Buddhist teachings and the catching of new believers.


kurikara (倶梨伽羅) – According to legend, the guardian deity Fudô-Myôô (不動明王) once had to fight a deity from another religion, the dragon king Kurikara, written with the same characters as stated above. He changed himself into a flaming sword but Kurikara did the same and the fighting went on without a winner. But then Fudô-Myôô transformed into the dragon Kurikara, wound himself around the opponent’s sword, and ate it from the top. Also referred to as kenmaki-ryû (剣巻龍, lit. “dragon winding around a sword”). There are quite many kurikara interpretations but basically we differentiate between three approaches that follow the shin-gyô-sô mentioned at the beginning, i.t. shin no kurikara (真の倶梨伽羅, “full” or “realistic kurikara”), gyô no kurikara (行の倶梨伽羅, “more or less abbreviated kurikara”), and sô no kurikara (草の倶梨伽羅, “abbreviated,” “stylized,” or “abstrac kurikara”). A shin no kurikara is often seen on blades of Nobukuni, Heianjô Nagayoshi, of the Sue-Bizen school, at Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Hizen Tadayoshi, Echizen Yasutsugu, Higo no Daijô Sadakuni, Suishinshi Masamune, Hosokawa Masayoshi, Taikei Naotane, and at the shinshintô and gendai Gassan school. A gyô no kurikara can be found on Nobukuni and Heianjô Nagayoshi blades, at Kagemitsu, the Sue-Bizen and Sue-Sôshû schools, Echizen Yasutsugu, Kotetsu, Hizen Tadayoshi, Taikei Naotane, and Tairyûsai Sôkan (泰龍斎宗寛). And a stylized sô no kurikara is typical for the Hasebe school, Nobukuni, Heianjô Nagayoshi, the Kanabô school, the Sue-Sôshû and Sue-Bizen school, the smiths around Osafune Kanemitsu, Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Echizen Yatsuugu, Hizen Tadayoshi, the shintô Hôjôji school, Ômi no Kami Tsuguhira (近江守継平), Harima no Daijô Shigetaka (播磨大掾重高), Yamashiro no Kami Kunikiyo (山城守国清), and Taikei Naotane. And please note that Heianjô Nagayoshi often combined a gyô no kurikara and a sô no kurikara or two differently stylized sô no kurikara distributed on the two sides of one blade. The same peculiarity is seen at the Kanabô school. But it has to be pointed out that sometimes it is hard to say if a kurikara is shin or already gyô or gyô tending to . A variant or certain characteristic interpretation of a kurikara is the so-called harami-ryû (孕龍, lit. “pregnant dragon”). Here, the body of the dragon is somewhat at distance from the sword and with a curve of the thigh which makes it look like as if the dragon is pregnant. Such a harami-ryū is often found on swords by Nagamitsu and his Osafune main line successors. ComparisonKurikara.


 shin no kurikara


gyô no kurikara


sô no kurikara



myôgô (名号) – Names of deities engraved onto sword blades, for example of Hachiman-Daibosatsu (八幡大菩薩) oder Marishiten (摩利支天). Known for engraving myôgô are for example Kagemitsu, Kanemitsu, the Sue-Bizen smiths, Heianjô Nagayoshi, Horikawa Kunihiro, Echizen Yasutsugu, and Yamato no Kami Yasusada (大和守安定).


rendai (蓮台) – The rendai is the lotus-shaped platform or lotus blossom seat beneath a Buddha image. A rendai was engraved to sword blades by itself or in combination with other horimono, for example a suken or bonji.


ryû (龍・竜) – Plain dragon that do not wind around a ken. A very common variant of the “plain” dragon is the horimono subject tamaôi-ryû (玉追い龍), the lit. “gem hunting dragon” (see picture below). According to Japanese mythology, the god of the sea in the shape of a dragon (ryûjin, 龍神) had two magical gems – the “ebb stone” kanju (干珠) and the “tide stone” manju (満珠) – with which he controlled the tide. Later he presented them to his son the demigod Hoori no mikoto (火遠理命). A legend says that later empress Jingû (神功天皇, 201-269) was in the possession of the two gems and as she was not able to control the tide, she crossed the sea, had her enemies drowned and conquered Korea. Historians assume that already back then elements of the Indian Cintāmaṇi (Jap. nyoi-ju, 如意珠) were adopted, a wish-fulfilling jewel equivalent to the philosopher´s stone in Western alchemy. A tamaôi-ryû is for example relative often seen on blades of Kurihara Nobuhide (栗原信秀) and of the shinshintô/gendaitô Gassan school. And dragons in general are typical for Nobukuni, Umetada Myôju, Horikawa Kunihiro, Hizen Tadayoshi, Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Kotetsu, Taikei Naotane, Tairyûsai Sôken, as well as for the mentioned Kurihara Nobuhide and the shinshintô/gendaitô Gassan school. Another characteristic dragon horimono has to be mentioned, that is that of a jôge-ryû or nobori-kudari-ryû (上下龍) where two dragons are egraved on each side of the blade, one facing upwards ( or nobori), i.e. towards the tip, and the other one facing downwards (ge or kudari), i.e. towards the habaki. A nobori-kudari-ryû might be found on blades of Umetada Myôju, Horikawa Kunihiro, Hizen Tadayoshi, Echizen Yasutsugu, Kotetsu, Awataguchi Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Nanki Shigekuni, and at the shinshintô/gendaitô Gassan school.



sankozuka (三鈷柄) – Trident vajra hilt. Such a vajra hilt is a weapon which is used as a ritual object to symbolize both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force). The vajra is essentially a type of club with a ribbed spherical head. The ribs may meet in a ball-shaped top, or they may be separate and end in sharp points with which to stab. The sankozuka has now three ribs unlike the dokko which has one rib or prong. A ritual ken sword with such trident vajra hilt is referred to as sankozuka-ken (三鈷柄剣) accordingly. A sankozuka-ken horimono comes in many different interpretations. As a rule of thumb it can be said that at the Nobukuni smiths, the tip of the sakozuka-ken is quite deeply cut and the engraving is often combined with a bonji on top. At the Sue-Sôshû school, the tip of the ken is rather pointed whereas it is more roundish at the Sue-Bizen, Sue-Mihara, and Sue-Seki schools.


santai-butsu (三体仏) – Also referred to as sanzon (三尊). Buddha triumvirate with Buddha in the middle accompanied by two Boddhisattva. On paintings the triumvirate is usually depicted side by side but on a narrow sword blade the figures are engraved below of each other.


shiketsu (四橛) – A shiketsu is a utensil used in esoteric Buddhism. It is a kind of post, mostly of copper, which symbolically encloses the four sides of an elevated platform on which religious and/or ascetic practices are performed. The shiketsu is a rather rarely seen horimono and might be found on the opposite side of a kurikara, for example on Sue-Bizen blades.


suken (素剣) – Lit. “plain ken.” Simplified horimono of a ritualistic ken sword which just depicts the outlines of the blade. Suken can come alone but are often accompanied by other engravings like a sankozuka hilt, tsume claws (see tsume-ken), a rendai base, or a bonji. Also it can be interpreted as relief in a hitsu. A suken is one of the classical horimono and thus also found on pretty early kotô. As it was very common, it is again hard to name any particular school or smith who was “famous” for adding a suken. Noticeably wide suken with an obtuse-angled tip or two such wide suken arranged in takekurabe manner are for example seen on blades of Nanki Shigekuni (南紀重国) (see bottom two pictures below).



tsume () – Lit. “claw.” The claw-shaped protrusion often seen on suken. But a tsume can also come by itself or in combination with other horimono, e.g. gomabashi.


tsume-ken (爪剣) – A suken with a tsume claw at its base.



In conclusion I want to say that horimono-kantei is a field of reseach on its own and I have to admit, I haven’t been into engravings that much to elaborate on the subtle differences of the claws and scales of kurikara dragons of the depth of suken for example. But that is on my list of future studies to do and I will present results of research of course here on my blog.


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