Now we are entering another of the great old Yamashiro traditions, that is Rai. I have summarized most of the traditions concerning the alleged school’s founder Kuniyoshi (国吉) a while ago here, for example that he was from Korea and became naturalized in Japan and that the school’s name Rai goes actually back to that context. Just one more note here, Honma points out that all the early Kyôto schools are either referred to as by and/or signed with the name of their production site, i.e. Sanjô, Gojô, Awataguchi, Ayanokôji. Only the Rai smiths used their family name what, according to Honma, somehow distinguishes them from the other local schools and what might suggest that they did not emerge from any of them. So we end up again at the immigration approach. Incidentally, the first smith who actually signed with the character for “Rai” was Kunitoshi but who was active towards the end of the Kamakura period. When we just stick to the facts then all we can say is that the Rai school emerged in the mid-Kamakura period and is stylistically most likely linked to the Awataguchi school, which had been the dominating Kyôto school of sword making at that time. Apart from that, experts see today Kuniyuki (国行) as founder of the school but that just on the basis of the fact that the earliest Rai works available go back to his hand. He was the son of the aforementioned Kuniyoshi who remains on paper the ancestor of the school. None of his blades have survived but there is a single puzzling blade going round – once owned by the sword polisher Hirai Matsuba (平井松葉), who was the younger brother of Hon’ami Nisshû – that might be his work (see picture 1). Honma says, apart from that the deki is excellent, that the overall workmanship in suguha in ko-nie-deki mixed with ko-midare is clearly Kyô and about contemporary to Awataguchi Kuniyoshi but the mei is completely different from that of the Awataguchi master and that the mei can’t be brought in line with any of the other known Kuniyoshi smiths of that time, e.g. from Yamato. So Rai seems most likely but as even the old oshigata collections leave out Kuniyoshi, we just don’t have enough data to say for sure that the mei is that of Rai Kuniyoshi or not. Well, one of the very few oshigata of Rai Kuniyoshi can be found in the Kokon Mei Zukushi (see picture 2). It is a tantô with a furisode-style nakago and a slightly undulating suguha but the mei is not a definite match with the mei of the tachi in question, although it has to be mentioned that the signatures of early oshigata collections were captured with a certain artistic freedom (i.e. they were copied with the brush and not rubbed like we do it today).
Picture 1: tachi, mei “Kuniyoshi” (国吉), nagasa 71.8 cm
Picture 2: Rai Kuniyoshi as seen in the Kokon Mei Zukushi
Satô in turn introduces this tachi as being a work of the Rai ancestor and describes its workmanship as showing a sugata with an iori-mune, a koshizori, and a compact ko-kissaki with a slightly standing-out kitae in itame mixed with nagare, a hamon in suguha-chô that has a rather subdued nioiguchi and that is mixed with ko-midare and a few chôji and kinsuji, and a bôshi with a relative widely running-back ko-maru-kaeri. He also says that there is another tachi with an ubu-nakago of Rai Kuniyoshi extant but which is yakinaoshi. The oshigata shown in picture 1 also strongly suggests the existence of a prominent utsuri (maybe one of those antique looking utsuri with antai that is also seen on some blades of Awataguchi Kuniyasu and Ayanokôji Sadatoshi) and the tapering, strongly curved tang and the slender interpretation with the ko-kissaki speak for a blade that dates early Kamakura or to the transition from early to mid-Kamakura at the latest. Before we go over to Kuniyuki, I want to quote Tanobe on this matter as he says that the blade shown in picture 1 looks in terms of sugata and jiba surely older than Kuniyuki but even upon closer examination, he can not attribute the mei with reasonable certainty to Rai Kuniyoshi. But that is just how it goes, i.e. even if many indicators point towards Rai Kuniyoshi, we are talking about a single blade here with no other references to compare with whatsoever.
Thus we arrive at Kuniyuki (国行). He is traditionally dated somewhere between Jôgen (承元, 1207-1211) and Shôgen (正元, 1259-1260), but the former seems a bit early. That is because we know a blade by his alleged son Kunitoshi that is dated Shôwa four (正和, 1315) and that is signed with the additional information “made at the age of 75.” So Kunitoshi was born in 1240 and it is rather unlikely that Kuniyuki had the prime of his life 30 years earlier, i.e. in Jôgen. So something around Shôgen seems more fitting. By the way, the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen says that Kuniyuki died in Einin five (永仁, 1297) at the age of 79. So if we believe in this statement for a little, then he was 22 years old when Kuniyoshi was born. Anyway, the Shôgen era brings us right to an important aspect when talking about Kuniyuki, and that is that even if he was the actual founder of a school, we are, as mentioned, already in the mid-Kamakura period. So we are facing a different body of evidence than we did with the founding smiths of the Awataguchi school. These smiths were namely active from the end of the Heian to the very beginning of the Kamakura period, i.e. at least two generations earlier. In other words, the somewhat later active period makes a big difference when it comes to the pure number of extant works. But not only that, Kuniyuki entered the then sword world in a quite impressive manner because we are talking about more than two dozen blades that are jûyô-bunkazai or jûyô-bijutsuhin (one of them is kokuhô), more than 80 that are jûyô, and 17 that are tokubetsu-jûyô! So regardless of his scholastic background, he became without a doubt one of the greatest masters working in Kyôto at that time. Apart from that, his active time around the mid-Kamakura period also marks a noticeable shift from classical and elegant to powerful, and that applies both to sugata (e.g. ikubi-kissaki) and jiba. Accordingly, we have early works of Kuniyuki which are more unobtrusive and later works which are more magnificent and I want to introduce them in a chronological order. Incidentally, there are far more magnificent than classical blades of Kuniyuki extant.
The first two blades I introduce kind of connect to the aforementioned blade that is signed “Kuniyoshi” and to some of the Yamashiro/Kyôto masters who have been active a little earlier than Kuniyuki, e.g. Awataguchi Kuniyasu and Kunikiyo and Ayanokôji Sadatoshi. Blade number one shown in picture 3 is long, ubu, and of a slender and very elegant tachi-sugata but the (deep) toriizori (i.e. not koshi that bends down towards the tip) and the not that much tapering mihaba tell us that it is a mid and not an early Kamakura work. The kitae is a ko-itame mixed with mokume and nagare that shows plenty of fine ji-nie, much chikei, some jifu, and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden chû-suguha-chô that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-chôji, some angular elements, ashi, yô, uchinoke, fine hotsure, sunagashi, and kinsuji. The nioiguchi is rather wide and the bôshi is a shallow notare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri with some fine hakikake. Please pay attention to the small crescent-shaped uchinoke that appear here and there right atop of the habuchi. These so-called karimata are often seen on works of the three above mentioned smiths, i.e. Kuniyasu, Kunikiyo, and Sadatoshi, and are one the one hand an important characteristic feature of Rai Kuniyuki, and on the other hand a strong stylistic indicator that connects him as indicated to the earlier masters.
Picture 3: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), nagasa 82.7 cm, sori 3.0 cm, motohaba 2.8 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
The blade shown in picture 4 too shows a very elegant and slender ubu tachi-sugata with a prominent kijimono-style nakago. The kitae of the “wet-looking” steel is a ko-itame mixed with some ô-hada and nagare that features plenty of fine ji-nie, fine chikei, and a nie-utsuri. The hamon is a mix if ko-chôji ko-gunome and ko-midare that shows some ko-gunome and ko-notare along the upper half and that comes with plenty of ashi and yô, small and punctual yubashiri along the yakigashira, nijûba in the monouchi area, fine kinsuji and sunagashi, and plenty of ha-nie all over the blade. The nioiguchi is bright and clear and the ha gets somewhat thinner towards the base and along the upper half. The bôshi is sugu with much hakikake and the kaeri is so small that it almost appears as yakitsume. Again, please take a look at what is going on parallel and above to the habuchi and compare that with the blades introduced here and here.
Picture 4: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), nagasa 76.6 cm, sori 2.7 cm, motohaba 2.75 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Next a blade (see picture 5) that shows one of his other characteristic interpretations, and that is a suguha-chô with a large amount of smallish and densely arranged chôji which are accompanied by an abundance of ashi, yô, and karimata. Please note that none of the chôji protrudes prominently and that the ha is as mentioned perfectly suguha-based, i.e. overall straight with not much ups and downs (what distinguishes him from Ayanokôji Sadatoshi as he applied more ups and downs along the ha and apart from that, his bôshi usually shows prominent hakikake). This interpretation, also due to the fact that some jifu appears, might remind of Ko-Bizen at a glance but the sugata would be different as Ko-Bizen blades usually come with a koshizori that bends down towards the tip and also karimata are not associated with Ko-Bizen. And the bôshi is a hint to wide for Ko-Bizen. This blade of Rai Kuniyuki by the way was once a heirloom of the Ogasawara family (小笠原), the daimyô of Buzen´s Kokura fief (小倉藩).
Picture 5: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), nagasa 74.5 cm, sori 3.0 cm, motohaba 2.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Another of the very typical interpretations of Kuniyuki is seen in picture 6. This is his only work that is designated as a kokuhô and the blade is regarded as one of his greatest masterworks. The bôhi runs as kaki-nagashi into the tang and there is a mekugi-ana at the tip of the tang but this ana is a so-called shinobi-ana and the nakago is indeed completely ubu (also proven by the sankozuka-ken that is carved as relief in the hi which is exactly where it was intended to be, i.e. not half-way in the tang). The blade has a wide mihaba, does not taper much, has a relative thick kasane, a toriizori, and a stately chû-kissaki. The kitae is somewhat standing-out but dense ko-itame with plenty of ji-nie, some ô-hada along the haki-omote side, and a midare-utsuri. The hamon is a wide and ko-nie-laden suguha-chô that tends a little to notare along the monouchi and towards the yokote and that is mixed with ko-chôji, ko-midare, many ashi and yô, karimata, and at this blade, we see something that should become a characteristic feature of his school, and that is muneyaki. The bôshi tends to notare-komi and has an ô-midare-kaeri with hakikake and the nie are a hint more emphasized in the bôshi than in the rest of the ha. The blade was once a heirloom of the Matsudair family (松平), the daimyô of Harima´s Akashi fief (明石藩), and is thus also nicknamed Akashi-Kuniyuki (明石国行). Today it is owned by the NBTHK.
Picture 6: kokuhô, tachi, mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), nagasa 76.6 cm cm, sori 3.0 cm, motohaba 2.95 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Picture 7 shows one more stylistic approach of Kuniyuki and that is an almost pure suguha or a suguha-chô which is mixed with fewer elements and/or shows some shallow notare over its length. The blade is designated as a jûyô-bijutsuhin and has its mei preserved via orikaeshi. The tachi is rather wide, does not taper much, shows a toriizori, and ends in a stately chû-kissaki. The ha is mixed with some ashi and plenty of yô all over the blade and most of the mixed-in ko-midare focus on the very base, that means, right after the koshi the ha appears almost as pure suguha. Interesting here is that we see prominent nijûba before the yokote and throughout the sugu-bôshi, which runs back with a neat ko-maru-kaeri (or almost a chû-maru-kaeri on the haki-omote side). The nijûba are insofar very interesting as they connect him on the one hand to Awataguchi Kuniyoshi (see here), and on the other hand as this element was taken by his son-in-law’s son Kunimura (国村) to Higo where it was continued by the local Rai offshoot, the Enju school. But Enju works would show some masame along the hada and a shirake-utsuri.
Picture 7: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tachi, orikaeshi-mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), nagasa 69.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune
Now to another noteworthy aspect in Rai Kuniyuki’s oeuvre, and that is that there are apart from a couple specimen hardly any tantô extant by him. This is insofar interesting as his contemporary Awataguchi Kuniyoshi was a great tantô master and produced quite some and so did their successors Yoshimitsu and Rai Kunitoshi respectively. There are also no tantô of Ayanokôji Sadatoshi known and neither are much of pre-Awataguchi Kuniyoshi smiths (with the exception of Hisakuni). So with this and the aforementioned stylistic proximity to Sadatoshi in mind, it is conceivable that Kuniyuki has been active just a hint earlier than Awataguchi Kuniyoshi (who is dated around Kenchô [1249-1256]). But this is very speculative as it is quite possible that he made a decent number of tantô but which just did not survive. Anyway, I want to introduce one of these extremely rare Kuniyuki tantô, a blade that makes one think of Nanbokuchô or beginning Muromachi at a glance. It has a sunnobi-nagasa of 30.7 cm, a sori of 0.2 cm, and is in hira-zukuri with a mitsu-mune and a wide mihaba of 2.8 cm. The kitae is a dense itame that is mixed with some ô-hada in places and that shows jifu and plenty of ji-nie. The steel is clear and the hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare with a wide nioiguchi that is mixed with gunome, ashi, yô, shimaba, kinsuji, fine sunagashi, and yubashiri. The bôshi is midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeru with a few hakikake and kinsuji. Both sides bear a katana-hi with tsurebi and the tang is ubu. So this entire interpretation (sugata and jiba with much midare) seems to anticipate the style of Rai Kunimitsu and Kunitsugu, i.e. even skipping his son Kunitoshi. The blade was once a heirloom of the Shimazu family (島津), the daimyô of the Kagoshima fief, and was given to them by shôgun Tsunayoshi on the occasion of the marriage his adopted daughter Takehime (竹姫, 1705-1772) to Shimazu Tsugutoyo (島津継豊, 1702-1760) in Kyôhô 14 (1729).
Picture 8: tokubetsu-jûyô, tantô (modern classification is wakizashi), mei “Kuniyuki” (国行), measurements see text
Apart from that, there are a few stout kodachi and, what seems to be, uchigatana of Kuniyuki extant. Picture 9 shows such an uchigatana (it is according to the modern classification a katana) and signed so, i.e. in katana-mei, and was thus worn edge up. The blade is wide and stout, ends in an ikubi-style chû-kissaki, and features unlike his tachi a koshizori. The kitae is overall rather standing out and covered with ji-nie and appears on the omote side as itame, and on the ura side along the lower half as itame-masame and on the upper half as ko-itame mixed with mokume. There is a vivid midare-utsuri and the hamon is a notare-chô in ko-nie-deki with a wide nioiguchi and is mixed with chôji, gunome, and many ashi and yô. The bôshi is midare-komi with a somewhat “tied up” looking kaeri. On both sides we see a wide bôhi with soebi and the tang is a little suriage. So with the relative flamboyant interpretation with midare-utsuri we might think of Bizen for a moment but there are just too many nie for a Bizen work of that time, i.e. of the mid-Kamakura period.
Last but not least I want to recommend taking a look at the pictures at Darcy’s site here to get an impression of the steel and the almost “supernatural” forging quality we are talking about here. And I want to close by quoting Darcy that “this kind of sword is what shows us that the Kamakura period was truly the golden age of sword making.”