KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #26 – Nobukuni (信国) School 1

The Ryôkai offshoot of Nobukuni was one of the schools that firmly established the Sôshû tradition within Kyôto, i.e. Yamashiro, but there is this decade-long discussion about its ancestor. Basic problem is that the earliest extant Nobukuni blades do not directly link to the alleged scholastic backgrounds and that the historic sources are either contradicting or so broadly defined that so to speak anything could be possible (for example that several Ryôkai smiths also signed with Nobukuni at a certain point in their career). The most common tradition says that the 1st generation Nobukuni was one of the “Three Great Students of Sadamune” (Sadamune-santetsu, 貞宗三哲) and that he was active around Kenmu (建武, 1334-1338) in Kyôto, at the instersection Gojôbômon (五条坊門) and Horikawa (堀川). This background is found in the Nôami Hon Meizukushi (能阿弥本銘尽) which was written in 1483, i.e. about a century after the first Nobukuni smiths had been active. This source also does not refer to his other scholastic background, the Ryôkai School, which is found for the first time in the Genki Gannen Tôken Mekiki Sho (元亀元年刀剣目利書) from 1570. This source sees the 1st generation Nobukuni as son of Ryô Nobuhisa and grandson of Ryô Hisanobu. The Kokon Mei Zukushi in turn whose data goes back to 1611 says that the tradition with Nobukuni being the son of Nobuhisa is incorrect and that he was actually the son of Ryô Kunihisa, i.e. Hisanobu’s brother and Nobuhisa’s uncle. And the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen lists him as direct student of Ryôkai whilst the Nihontô Koza says “either the son of Ryôkai or of Ryô Hisanobu.” And then Nobukuni Yoshisada (信国吉貞, ?-1640), the founder of the shintô era Chikuzen-Nobukuni School, stated in his genealogic claims from 1602 that his ancestor became during the Gen’ô era (元応, 1319-1320) a late student of Ryôkai and worked henceforth for several decades under the name of Nobukuni along Kyôto’s Gojôbômon. As indicated above, the statement of the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen that Ryô Hisanobu signed from the Jôwa era (貞和, 1345-1350) onwards with Nobukuni and that his son Nobuhisa did so too from the age of 43 onwards does not make things easier.

So how about the facts? The earliest extant date signature is from Enbun three (延文, 1358), followed by dates from Kôan one (康安, 1361), Jôji five (貞治, 1366), Ôan ? (応安, 1368-1375, the part with the year is illegible), and Eitoku three (永徳, 1383) as very last one that possibly attributes to the 1st generation. All these dates mean heyday Nanbokuchô and support at first glance the widespread assumption that there is too much a gap between the 1st generation Nobukuni and his alleged masters Ryô Hisanobu (or Ryôkai himself) and Sadamune. But only at first glance because I think that actually it all might go together. Just as a sidenote before we continue: I stated at the very beginning of this Kantei series that I will omit for the most part the biographical data of the smiths and that I am not going too much into historic detail, with the disclaimer that unless it is necessary for the understanding of what I am trying to communicate. Well, I broke that “promise” pretty quickly after we started because I realized that I don’t want to use a cookie-cutter approach and just throw in things like “sugata XY, kitae XY, hamon XY, bôshi XY…” What I want to provide is something comprehensible, replicable, something that allows you to follow my trains of thought rather than makes you feel urged to start from scratch by yourself. In other words, I do speculate quite often but I always try to provide an understandable foundation for my speculations. But let’s return to the topic.

Now the dismissal of the early Nobukuni always goes like “records say that the 1st generation was active around Kenmu (建武, 1334-1338) but there are no Nobukuni blades extant that can be dated back that far,” concluding from there that the 1st generation was active much later. But for me actually nothing speaks against the assumption that the 1st generation Nobukuni studied around 1320 with the Ryôkai School when master Ryôkai was in his latest years (as the Chikuzen-Nobukuni genealogy says), that he learned from Sôshû Sadamune much later, and that he enjoyed a long life and was still alive in the early 1380s. Sadamune was active from the very end of the Kamakura period, i.e. around Karyaku (嘉暦, 1326-1329) and Gentoku (元徳, 1329-1331), until about the Nanbokuchô-period Jôwa era (貞和, 1345-1350). Even when we dismiss the 1320 date and assume that Nobukuni emerged somewhat later from the Ryôkai School, we are still in the picture, i.e. him being active in Kenmu and being either the son of Ryô Hisanobu or Kunihisa. And another statement from the Kokon Mei Zukushi which says that Nobukuni started forging swords when Sadamune was of an old age and active around Enbun (延文, 1356-1361) does only dismiss the approach that he directly learned from master Ryôkai but fits in smoothly into everything else. Thus for the time being I think that there was indeed a Nobukuni who was active in the Kenmu era, that this nengô is maybe just placed too early and does not refer to his main active period, that he learned the Sôshû tradition of sword forging from Sadamune, and that he was still active when the Nanbokuchô period had passed its zenith.


But let me underline all that, i.e. my above mentioned approach, on the basis of concrete works. Picture 1 shows the earliest dated work known by Nobukuni. It is a tantô that is designated as jûyô-bijutsuhin, signed in niji-mei “Nobukuni,” and dated “Enbun sannen jûnigatsu hi” (延文三年十二月日, “a day in the twelfth month Enbun three [1358]”). It has a nagasa of 27.5 cm, is in hira-zukuri, has a rather wide mihaba and a sunnobi-sugata, features a relative thin kasane, and a hint of a sori. So the sugata is typical for pre-heyday Nanbokuchô, i.e. pre-Enbun-Jôji. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with some masame-nagare towards the ha and shows plenty of ji-nie and chikei. The hamon is a classical Yamashiro-like chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that comes with a rather tight nioiguchi, starts with a yakikomi over the machi, shows only little hataraki like ko-ashi, and that ends in a sugu-bôshi with a relative wide and long running-back ko-maru-kaeri. The blade was once a heirloom of the Shimazu (島津) family, the daimyô of the Satsuma fief, and speaks truly for Yamashiro Rai at first instance and with the nagare-masame along the ha for Ryôkai at second glance.


Picture 1: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tantô, mei “Nobukuni” (信国), date see text above, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, nagasa 27.5 cm, a hint of a sori

Next in picture 2 I want to introduce the blade with the second eldest known date signature. It is a sunnobi-tantô or hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a nagasa of 31.2 cm, a wide mihaba, a noticeable sori, and a thin kasane. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame with masame towards the ha, plenty of ji-nie, and chikei. The hamon is a hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki that shows some hotsure along the monouchi and the bôshi is sugu with a smallish ko-maru-kaeri that features some hakikake. On the omote side we see a katana-hi with a soebi and on the ura side just a katana-hi. Please note that the tang is judged as ubu, although with the tip cut off, i.e. the hi are supposed to run like that into the nakago. Again, this blade is clearly more Ryôkai than Sôshû.


Picture 2: jûyô, tantô, mei “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Kôan gannen ni…” (康安元年二…, “second [month] Kôan one [1361]”), nagasa 31.2 cm, sori 0.2 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

After that, i.e. some time in the mid 1360s, Nobukuni finally started to apply the techniques of the Sôshû tradition which he had learned from Sadamune. The next known dated work namely (see picture 3), a jûyô-bunkazai tantô, shows a finely forged itame but which comes with an abundance of ji-nie and a ko-notare hamon in ko-nie-deki with a wide nioiguchi that is mixed with ashi and yubashiri. The bôshi is midare-komi and features a wide but rather pointed kaeri.


Picture 3: jûyô-bunkazai, tantô, mei “Nobukuni” (信国) – “Jôji gonen jûgatsu” (貞治五年十月, “tenth month of Jôji five [1366]”), nagasa 27.9 cm, sori 0.1 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

And then he went so to speak “full” Sôshû, as seen in the jûyô-bunkazai introduced in picture 4 which is regarded by many as the best work of Nobukuni. It is a wide hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi with a relative deep sori and shows a dense but overall rather standing-out itame that is mixed with a little ô-hada in places and that features plenty of ji-nie, chikei, and jifu, and Tanobe even mentions a nie-utsuri that appears towards the mune. The hamon is a quite nie-laden notare that is mixed with gunome, ko-midare, much sunagashi, some ara-nie, and a few kinsuji and the tobiyaki and yubashiri that appear along the yakigashira anticipate in certain areas a hamon interpretation that is often found on Nobukuni blades, and that is yahazu. In other words, the longer areas of yubashiri and tobiyaki that float in Sôshû-style over the gunome or ko-midare merge later with the ha and form gunome or ko-midare that fork into dove-tail shaped elements. The bôshi of the jûyô-bunkazai runs back in a long manner and shows hakikake and ara-nie. On the omote side we see a futasuji-hi and on the ura side a katana-hi with inside a suken as relief and a short soebi at the base. With this we have another approach that should become a characteristic feature of the Nobukuni School, and that is the trend to horimono. Incidentally, this masterwork was once a present of the Bizen Okayama daimyô Ikeda Tsunamasa (池田綱政, 1638-1714) to the Tokugawa family on the occasion of the birth of Tokugawa Ienobu’s (徳川家宣, 1662-1712) son Iechiyo (家千代, who died at the age of only two months). From that time on, the blade was a heirloom of the Tokugawa main line.


Picture 4: jûyô-bunkazai, tantô, mei “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 36.6 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 3.2 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

A very good example of the aforementioned trend towards elaborate horimono is the jûyô-bunkazai hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi that is shown in picture 5. It is basically of the typical 1st generation Nobukuni interpretation of the Sôshû tradition, i.e. dense ko-itame with chikei and plenty of ji-nie in combination with a ko-notare-based hamon in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-gunome, ko-midare, and sunagashi and a bôshi with a rather wide kaeri that features hakikake. The blade is shortened and bears a kinpun-mei attribution to Nobukuni on the omote and a no longer legible kinpun inscription on the ura side. As for the horimono, we see a ceremonial hat, a bonji, a rendai, kuwagata and a suken with elaborate sankozuka hilt on the omote, and a katana-hi with inside bonji and a suken as relief on the ura side.


Picture 5: jûyô-bunkazai, kinpun-mei “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 38.1 cm, sori 0.6 cm, motohaba 3.4 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


 When we take a look at the entire body of work of Nobukuni, and not only of the 1st generation but of the entire school, we learn that they placed a firm focus on shorter blades, i.e. sunnobi-tantô and hira-zukuri ko-wakizashi. Long swords are rare, and this is all the more true when we go back to the early Nobukuni smiths who had their main active periods before Ôei (応永, 1394-1428). So looking at these very rare Nanbokuchô-era tachi reveals that unlike short blades, it seems as if the 1st generation Nobukuni no longer used his Ryôkai-based Yamashiro style for them, i.e. they are all pretty much soshuesque, at least as far as the hamon is concerned. Picture 6 shows a tokubetsu-jûyô tachi that is ô-suriage and that comes in the typical heyday Nanbokuchô sugata which is a wide mihaba, a relative shallow sori, a thin kasane, and an elongated chû-kissaki. The kitae is an itame mixed with masame that shows ji-nie and chikei and the hamon is a nie-laden shallow notare that is mixed with gunome, ashi, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The nioiguchi is wide, bright, and clear and the bôshi runs on the omote side with a yakikomi over the yokote into a suguha and appears on the ura side as notare-komi, both running back with a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 6: tokubetsu-jûyô, katana, mumei, attributed to Nobukuni, nagasa 69.7 cm, sori 1.5 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

A more flamboyant long sword of the 1st generation can be seen in picture 7. The blade is ubu, has a tachi-sugata with a toriizori, a relative thick kasane, and a chû-kissaki and shows a kitae in itame that tends to nagare on the omote side and that shows much chikei and plenty of ji-nie. The hamon is a ko-nie-laden ko-notare that is mixed with gunome, ko-gunome, ashi, connected , sunagashi, kinsuji, and some gunome that are about to turn into yahazu (but not yet fully). The bôshi is midare-komi with a brief ko-maru-kaeri. So from the overal sugata and the interpretation of the ha we can place this blade to the latest active period of the 1st generation and it connects very well to the works of his immediate successors.


Picture 7: tokubetsu-jûyô, tachi, mei “Nobukuni” (信国), nagasa 67.9 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

The last blade that I want to introduce for today is more Sadamune-like in terms of its sugata and ha (see picture 8). It is an ô-suriage tachi with a relative wide mihaba, a shallow sori, and a very much elongated chû-kissaki that might already come under the category of an ô-kissaki. The jigane is a rather standing-out itame but which tends very much to nagare-masame and that shows ji-nie. The hamon is a nie-laden shallow ko-notare that is mixed with gunome, kinsuji, and sunagashi and the bôshi is sugu-chô to midare-komi that features a pointed and late starting kaeri with hakikake. On both sides we can see towards the bottom of the tang the remnants of the suken relief in the bôhi.



Picture 8: jûyô, wakizashi, mumei, attributed to Nobukuni, nagasa 54.5 cm, sori 1.4 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune



I have saved the discussion about the succession of generations or rather the counting of generations for the next part as it would have been too confusing to pack all that into this first chapter. Also horimono and the distinguishing features of Nobukuni signatures will be addressed next time so please stay tuned.


Brief Update

Dear Readers, I want to give you a brief update what is going on at the moment and what is partially propagated via Facebook and the Nihonto Message Board. First of all, we have a green light with the Nobuie project, the translation of a 40+ article series Itô Mitsuru san (the author of the three Higo books) published starting over 15 years ago in the Tôwa Magazine. I really (and I mean really) appreciate the fact that we have more than 60 participants in this project and I hope that we are able to maintain this “momentum” for other upcoming projects. As indicated, I have already started with working on the project and I will be provided with further (color) pictures from Itô’s collection of Nobuie tsuba. These pics are not featured in the original series but should show you our effort to make this project as comprehensive as possible (by adding more pictures for your reference). And I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my friend Eckhard Kremers, the initiator of the whole Nobuie project, for being elected new president of the European Branch of the NBTHK.

Apart from that, I would like to inform you that I was just commissioned by the NBTHK with translating the catalog to the upcoming special exhibition on the Ishiguro School that will be held from July 27 to October 30th at the Sword Museum. A great honor of course for me and everyone who is into Edo kinkô and machibori should watch out not no miss this one as the Ishiguro School is so to speak as good as it gets in this respect.

In this sense, June will be pretty tight for me and I honestly thank you in advance for your understanding if certain things might take longer as usual. Well, I know that I have been quite slow lately but this is because I still work wholeheartedly on other projects too, like Fukushi and my very own Gendaito one. Also my Kantei series will be continued as I am writing the first chapter on the Nobuie School these days. And on top of that, I will be in Orlando next month and I look very much forward to meet my friends and all of you who make it to the show!

An interesting gassaku

In the last Tôken Bijutsu, the May issue of 2016, Imoto Yûki (井本悠紀) introduces a gassaku, a joint work between Mishina Kaneyuki (三品金行) and the 11th generation Aizu-Kanesada (会津兼定), which is insofar very interesting as one side of the blade shows a kitae in itame mixed with mokume whilst the other side is in pure masame. Now some might wonder how to forge a blade so that one side has a completely different forging structure than the other one. But if you remember all the different blade constructions, it is actually pretty simple and I like to take this brief article of Imoto as an opportunity to elaborate a little on that and on the context of this gassaku.

Now first about the forging. We know several blades of Kanesada where he explicitly states on the tang that they are forged in hon-sanmai (本三枚), although he uses the term shin-sanmai (真三枚). For example, a katana that he made in Ansei four (安政, 1857) at the age of 20 which is featured in Toyama Noboru’s book on Kanesada that I had the honor to translate a couple of years ago (and which can be purchased here). And Imoto introduces a mei of Kanesada bearing that supplement which is dated Meiji 35 (明治, 1902) and which also comes with the information that he made it at the age of 66. As most of you know, the forging technique of hon-sanmai uses three different steels, two outer layers of kawagane, a shingane core, and an additional hagane at the cutting edge (see picture below). Usually the smith forges the two outer kawagane layers identically but from this gassaku we learn that one smith, Kaneyuki, forged the one layer whilst the other, Kanesada, forged the other one, by each of them sticking to their traditional technique (well, Kanesada also often worked in other kitae but masame was one of his trademarks). And the blade is also signed that way, i.e. Kaneyuki signing on the omote, the side which is in itame-mokume, and Kanesada on the ura, which is the one in masame. So either one of the two, and I assume it was Kaneyuki, took all the prepared steels, bundled them up (the process called tsukuri-komi [造り込み] or kumi-awase [組み合わせ]), and forged this bundle into a blade. The blade itself by the way is a hira-zukuri wakizashi with a nagasa of 39.4 cm, a sori of 0.7 cm, showing a nie-deki hamon where gunome sections are connected with notare and suguha-chô and which is mixed with togariba and plenty of kinsuji and sunagashi.


And as mentioned above, I want to elaborate on the context of this joint work a little. I have already stated in this article that Kanesada proceeded to Kyôto in the seventh month of Bunkyû three (文久, 1863) where he received five months later the honorary title Izumi no Kami (和泉守). The Mishina family was, as we know, so to speak in charge of handling the awarding of honorary titles with the court, expressed through their own special honorary title of Nihon Kaji Sôshô (日本鍛冶宗匠・日本鍛冶惣匠). Now we know from records that Kanesada worked in the tenth month of that year in the residence of Kaneyuki and it is assumed that such a stay belonged to the procedure of receiving a honorary title. In other words, the Mishina family probably wanted to see live the talent of the smith before forwarding any suggestions to the Imperial household. Usually, these stays are always described as “someone refining his craft in Kyôto” but most of the smiths doing so were already fully trained masters at the height of their career. This just as a side note.

Now Kaneyuki had studied with the 10th generation Iga no Kami Kinmichi (伊賀守金道) whom he later succeeded, under the name of Kinmichi, as 11th generation of that lineage. He himself had received his honorary title of Ômi no Kami (近江守) on the 20th day of the tenth month Bunkyû three (1863), i.e. at the very time Kanesada was staying in his house. Now we don’t know exactly when he succeeded as 11th generation Kinmichi (Fukunaga Suiken assumes it took place before Keiô two [慶応, 1866]) but what we do know is that the gassaku wakizashi is already signed with the additional honorary title Nihon Kaji Sôshô, which he had received from Kinmichi two months earlier, in the eighth month of Bunkyû three (1863). Also we know that Kanesada returned to Aizu in the second month of Keiô one (1865) what allows us to narrow down the production time of the undated gassaku wakizashi between the twelfth month of Bunkyû three (1863), the time Kanesada had received the title Izumi no Kami and by which the blade is signed, and the second month of Keiô one (1865) when Kanesada left Kyôto.

Last but not least I want to introduce another interesting anecdote in this context. In my above linked article on the last of the Kanesada, I mentioned that Kanesada witnessed the so-called “Hamaguri Gate Rebellion” (Hamaguri-gomon no hen, 蛤御門の変) which took place in 1864 and where royalists rebelled against the Tokugawa at the Hamaguri Gate of the Imperial Palace. Now in the course of this incident, the residence of the Mishina family caught fire and was seriously damaged (as were large parts of Kyôto, see picture below). After the rebellion was over, the Mishina family sent out letters to all their former students, who had scattered all over the country in the meanwhile by the way, not asking for but (by their choice of words) rather demanding a contribution to the reconstruction of their forge 😉


KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #25 – Ryôkai (了戒) School 2

Ryôkai was succeeded by his son Hisanobu (久信) who is – due to the fact that he often signed just with the prefix “Ryô” – mostly referred to as Ryô Hisanobu (了久信). The Kotô Meizukushi Taizen says that he was born in Kagen one (嘉元, 1303) and died in Ôan seven (応安, 1374) at the age of 73. Again, we have here dates which don’t add up and apart from that, the source also mixes up Hisanobu with Nobuhisa (信久). That is, it lists Nobuhisa as son of Ryôkai and Hisanobu as his successor whereas all other sources state it the other way round, i.e. Nobuhisa being the son of Hisanobu. Hisanobu being the son of Ryôkai is also proven by dated and signed works which will be addressed in the following. First, there is a pretty famous tachi extant (see picture 1) which is signed kakikudashi-style “Ryôkai Kagen sannen sangatsu hi” (了戒  嘉元三年三月日, “Ryôkai, on a day of the third month Kagen three [1305]”) on the haki-omote, and “Yamashiro no Kuni-jûnin Kurôza…” (山城国住人九郎左…) (rest cut off) on the haki-ura side. This mei was for a long time interpreted as showing Ryôkai’s first name, being Kurôzaemon or Kurôzaemon no Jô but in more recent years another tachi has been found (see picture 2) which is signed “Kurôzaemon no Jô Hisanobu saku – Kagen ninen uzuki hi” (九郎左衛門尉久信作・嘉元二年卯月日, “on a day of the fourth month Kagen two [1304]”). So Kurôzaemon no Jô was obviously the first name of his son Hisanobu and not of master Ryôkai and the Kagen three tachi is thus obviously a gassaku. Incidentally, the Kagen two tachi by Hisanobu bears somewhat apart from the actual mei and interpreted in a completely different way the name “Ikkai” (一海). Some speculate that this was the nyûdô-gô of Hisanobu but the NBTHK says that it is a kiritsuke-mei, i.e. added later. Well, and “final proof” for Hisanobu being the one of Ryôkai delivers a naginata (see picture 3) which is signed “Ryôkai shisoku Hisanobu – Tokuji sannen tsuchinoe-saru jûgatsu muika” (了戒子息久信・徳治三年戊申十月六日, “Hisanobu, son of Ryôkai, on the sixth day of the tenth month Tokuji three [1308], year of the monkey”).

Now let me introduce all these blades, beginning with the gassaku which is designated as a jûyô-bunkazai, owned by the Atsuta-jingû, but preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum. It must have had a magnificently long nagasa because it measures 82.6 cm in its shortened condition. It has a deep sori that tends to koshizori, maintains a little funbari, tapers noticeably, and ends in a ko-kissaki. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with masame-nagare and fine ji-nie as well as a shirake-utsuri appear. The hamon is an overall rather subdued suguha to hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-midare, some ko-chôji, ko-ashi, and that features a rather tight nioiguchi, and the bôshi is a thin sugu to midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 1: jûyô-bunkazai, tachi, mei see text above, nagasa 82.6 cm, sori 3.0 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

The Hisanobu tachi with the Ikkai supplement is shown in picture 2. This blade too is with a nagasa of 84.0 cm pretty long. It has a wide mihaba that tapers noticeably, a deep koshizori with funbari, and end in a ko-kissaki. The jigane is a ko-itame that is mixed with a conspicuous amount of masame and features fine ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a suguha-chô in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with some ko-gunome, ko-midare, ko-chôji and ko-ashi and has a subdued nioiguchi. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri and tends to a little bit to a sansaku-bôshi. The omote side bears a bonji with below a suken, and the ura side a bonji with below gomabashi, both of them running as kaki-nagashi into the tang.


Picture 2: jûyô, tachi, mei see text above, nagasa 84.0 cm, sori 2.8 cm, motohaba 2.95 cm, sakihaba 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Picture 3: The naginata which explicitly states that Hisanobu was the son of Ryôkai. It is owned by the Tokugawa Museum, has a nagasa of 42.8 cm, and is interpreted in the typical Ryôkai style.

Another signed tachi of Ryô Hisanobu is introduced in picture 4. It has a long nagasa too, tapers noticeably, but the kissaki tends to chû. Its jigane is a standing-out itame that is all over mixed with nagare-masame and that features ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-gunome, hotsure, ashi, , and sunagashi and appears subdued in places. The bôshi is sugu with a ko-mar-kaeri.


Picture 4: jûyô, tachi, mei “Ryô Hisanobu” (了久信), nagasa 83.7 cm, sori 2.6 cm, motohaba 3.1 cm, sakihaba 1.6 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

An interesting blade is shown in picture 5 (click on the pic to get to the website), interesting insofar as that it is very similar to the shôbu-zukuri tachi of Ryôkai shown in picture 8 of the previous chapter. Hisanobu’s blade is ubu but unsigned, has a nagasa of 67.3 cm, a high shinogi, and shows a ko-itame that is mixed with much nagare-masame and some ô-hada in places, even formingsome mokume swirls here and there. This time a faint nie-utsuri appears and the hamon is a subdued hoso-suguha with ko-ashi, and the bôshi is sugu too and runs out as yakitsume.


Picture 5: tachi, mumei, attributed to Ryô Hisanobu, nagasa 67.3 cm, sori 2.5 cm, motohaba 2.94 cm, shôbi-zukuri, iori-mune


Now let’s talk about Hisanobu’s tantô. An often quoted work is the tantô shown in picture 6 that is dated Enkyô three (延慶, 1310). It is a so to speak standard hira-zukuri tantô for that time, showing moderate to smallish dimensions, an uchizori, and a jigane in dense ko-itame that tends to nagare along the mune and that displays a midare-utsuri. This midare-utsuri is in my opinion linked to the interpretation in midareba. I mean, we see a ko-notare-based ko-gunome in nioi-deki that is mixed with ashi and that features a mizukage, thus quite a flamboyant interpretation for the Ryôkai group. The bôshi is midare-komi too and runs back in a ko-maru-kaeri. So when we bear in mind that the latest known date signature of Rôkai is from the previous year and take into consideration that not that many works of Hisanobu are extant, we can speculate that he might have mostly worked for his father. This is also supported by the fact that we are facing a pretty inconsistent signature style of the characters for Ryôkai, I am hinting at daisaku-daimei, and this might go hand in hand with the tradition that Hisanobu signed himself with “Ryôkai” one or two years after his father had died, so at least according to the Goto Tebiki Shô (如手引抄). Well this work was published in the Kan´ei era (寛永, 1624-1644), more than 300 years after Hisanobu’s active period. Incidentally, the known date signatures of Ryô Hisanobu, which are pretty rare, span just from Kagen (嘉元, 1303-1306) to Enkyô (延慶, 1308-1311).


Picture 6: tantô, mei “Ryô Hisanobu” (了久信) – “Enkyô sannen jûnigatsu muika” (延慶三年十二月六日, “sixth day of the twelfth month Enkyô three [1310]”), nagasa 23.9 cm, uchizori, hira-zukuri, iori-mune, preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum

But the majority of Hisanobu’s tantô is in suguha, like for example the blade shown in picture 7. It is with a nagasa of 26.2 cm of standard length has no sori. The motohaba is with 2.42 not really on the narrow side for a tantô but when you take a look at the width of the tang, the condition of the ha-machi, and the thinness of the ha, I think that this blade has lost some substance. It shows a finely forged ko-itame that is mixed with ko-mokume and nagare and features ji-nie, a shirake-utsuri, and even a few chikei. The hamon is a hoso-sugha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with sunagashi and fine kinsuji and the bôshi is sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri.

RyoHIsanobu7Picture 7: tantô, mumei, attributed to Ryô Hisanobu, nagasa 26.2 cm, muzori, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune


Genealogy of the Ryokai School

Now Ryô Hisanobu was succeeded by his son Nobuhisa (信久) who lived, according to the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen, from Bunna one (文和, 1352) to Ôei 26 (応永, 1419). He signed in the syntax of his father, i.e. with “Ryô Nobuhisa” (了信久) and worked allegedly also in the same style, although I have never come across any of his works. Well, Tsuneishi goes pretty much into detail but the problem is, he just addresses a “3rd generation Ryôkai” and does not say if he means Nobuhisa or not. Apart from that, most other sources don’t count an exact succession of generations of the Ryôkai lineage or just say that Ryôkai was the 1st generation and Ryô Hisanobu the 2nd, period. Tsuneishi introduces even more generations, i.e. a 4th generation who was active around Jôji (貞治, 1362-1368) and a 5th generation who was active around Ôei (応永, 1394-1428). For a better overview, I have compiled a genealogy of the Ryôkai School that is provided above. So Tsuneishi describes the 3rd generation as working basically in the style of his father and grandfather, hardening a hoso-suguha but which shows less nie and that comes close the a pure nioi-deki. He further states that his nioiguchi is not tight and dull (he uses “dim, blurred”), that most extant works show a “tired yakiba,” a weak and roughish hada, much masame towards the mune, and a shirake-utsuri. His tantô are smaller dimensioned and show a hoso-suguha that is mixed with ko-gunome-midare which is more “busy” than the ha of the 1st and 2nd generation. And he concludes that the 3rd generation also does not match the quality of his two predecessors.

Anyway, the old-established Yamashiro schools were all fading by the end of the Nanbokuchô period. The Awataguchi School had “long” been gone. The Rai School had just “disappeared” or had scattered to the four winds (Nakajima, Echizen, Higo) and its remaining smiths were outshined by masters, for example from the Hasebe and the Nobukuni School, who adjusted their work very much to the new Sôshû tradition. The Ryôkai School shared the same fate. Their own offspring Nobukuni overshadowed all other Ryôkai students and the son of Hisanobu’s student Yoshisada (能定), i.e. the 2nd generation Yoshisada, moved eventually down to Kyûshû where he became the ancestor of the so-called Tsukushi-Ryôkai group.

KANTEI 4 – YAMASHIRO #24 – Ryôkai (了戒) School 1

According to tradition, Ryôkai (了戒) was a very early son of grand master Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊), born when Kunitoshi was only 17 years old. He entered priesthood at an early age of 16, taking the very name Ryôkai, but returned later to secular life to forge swords, allegedly not only with his father but also learning from Ayanokôji Sadatoshi (綾小路定利). As always, there are several traditions and theories going round. One says that he was actually a Nara smith who came to Kyôto to study with Kunitoshi. Another one suggests that he started a normal career as a swordsmith and entered priesthood only later in life, whilst sources who follow the approach that Niji Kunitoshi and Rai Kunitoshi were different smiths say that Ryôkai was the son of the former and thus the brother of Rai Kunitoshi. Well, when we take a look at the extant date signatures of Ryôkai, which start from Shôô three (正応, 1290), followed by date signatures from Einin (永仁, 1293-1299) and Kagen (嘉元, 1303-1306) to Enkyô two (延慶, 1309) as the latest, we learn that he was active at about the same time when Kunitoshi signed in sanji-mei. We know that Kunitoshi was born in 1240. So when we follow the tradition that Ryôkai was born when Kunitoshi was 17 years old, we arrive at Kôgen two (康元, 1256) as year of birth for Ryôkai (or at Shôka one [正嘉, 1257] if we follow the Western way of counting years). This date (Kôgen two) is also forwarded by the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen by the way, what means that not all of its data is far-fetched. This in turn means that he was 34 when he made the earliest extant dated blade from Shôô three (1290) what sounds very plausible. The Kotô Meizukushi Taizen also says that Ryôkai died in Shôkyô four at the age of 72 but the Shôkyô era (正慶, 1332-1334) only lasted for two years, and apart from that, if you count 72 from Kôgen two (1256), you arrive at 1328 (or 1327 according to the Japanese way), what in turn would correspond to Karyaku three. Taking into consideration that Ryôkai’s known date signatures end noticeably before those of Kunitoshi (of whom we know date signature up to 1321), I tend to think that he might have died before his father and indeed in the Karyaku era (嘉暦, 1326-1329). Or in other words, the Kotô Meizukushi Taizen might be right about his age at death but not about the year he died in.

Before we come to the workmanship of Ryôkai, I want to elaborate on his standing in the sword world, or on his ranking if you want. There are 5 blades of him that made it jûyô-bunkazai (3 tachi, 1 tantô), no kokuhô, about 90 jûyô, and 2 that passed tokubetsu-jûyô. In comparison, Rai Kunitoshi has 4 kokuhô, 17 jûyô-bunkazai, more than 200 jûyô, and about 30 tokubetsu-jûyô. But we have to bear in mind that (due to the fact that Kunitoshi was the grand master of a bustling workshop) there are in total more blades of Rai Kunitoshi extant than of Ryôkai, so these numbers are relative. An interesting aspect of Ryôkai’s ranking is gained by looking into contemporary records. For example, the Chûshin Mono (注進物), a report on sharp swords from the entire country compiled on request of the bakufu in Shôwa two (正和, 1313) which contains the name of 60 smiths, does list Ryôkai but not his father Rai Kunitoshi. Well, the emphasis of such early works remains to be seen as for example, the Chûshin Mono lists for Yamashiro also Sanjô Kokaji Munechika, Awataguchi Kuniyoshi, Awataguchi Hisakuni, Ayanokôji Sadatoshi, and kiku-gyosaku, and therefore I tend to interpret sources like that as mere guidelines for what kind of swords are “appropriate” to be owned by (and presented to) the contemporary high-society rather than referring to their effective sharpness. But just due to the fact of being on this list, you can get an idea of how high Ryôkai’s blades were regarded these days.


Now to the workmanship of Ryôkai. In general, it can be said that the sugata and jiba of his works, and that means both tachi and tantô, are pretty close to Rai Kunitoshi. However, many of his tachi are more on the slender side, showing a noticeable taper, a deep sori, and a smallish kissaki, and it is assumed that it is this trend towards a more classical elegance might be the reason for why some assumed he studied with Ayanokôji Sadatoshi. But at Sadatoshi’s slender tachi, the koshizori is more pronounced and straightens more out towards the tip. Apart from that, some of Ryôkai’s tachi show a somewhat higher shinogi (and partially also a higher iori-mune) what in turn might have been the reason for assuming a Yamato origin. This is further substantiated by the fact that Ryôkai’s jigane is basically the Rai-typical ko-itame but which tends to a certain extent to nagare and might even show masame here and there. In addition, we usually see shirake or a shirake-utsuri on his blades and not the nie-utsuri from Rai main line. Also his hamon is a hint more narrow and subdued and has a lesser emphasis on nie than that of Rai Kunitoshi. So we have here again the junction where you were following the Rai Kunitoshi road but then come across nagare-masame and shirake and have to fork to one of the Rai sidelines like Ryôkai or Enju. And then the hamon and bôshi should tell you, in the ideal case, if you took the right exit. But of course, sometimes it can be very had to tell if a blade is a Rai Kunitoshi, an early Rai Kunimitsu, or a Ryôkai.

One of his most representative works is the signed tachi that is preserved in the Tôkyô National Museum but which does not hold any status (see picture 1). It is ubu and in this case, the sori tends more to koshizori, also running into a pretty curved kijimomo-style nakago. We see funbari and a ko-kissaki and the kitae is a dense ko-itame that features masame, shirake, and some jifu. The hamon is a suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-midare, ko-chôji, and ko-ashi and the nioiguchi is rather subdued. The bôshi is a midare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 1: tachi, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 79.98 cm, sori 2.7 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Also very representative is the jûyô tachi that is shown in picture 2. It is ubu too and preserves like the previous blade its long nagasa of 80.3 cm. It tapers, shows funbari and its jigane is an itame that is mixed with masame-nagare and that shows ji-nie and shirake. The hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki which tends a little to shallow notare and that is mixed with ko-midare, , some kinsuji, and many ko-ashi. The nioiguchi is rather tight and subdued and the bôshi is a slightly undulating sugu with a ko-maru-kaeri whereas the ura side features hakikake. Thus with the rather wide ha with its abundance of hataraki and the quality of the jiba place this work pretty close to Rai Kunitoshi. By the way, this blade was one of those that were submitted to (and passed) the very first jûyô-shinsa in 1958. It was once a heirloom of the Hisamatsu-Matsudaira (久松松平) family, the daimyô of the Iyo-Matsuyama (伊予松山藩) fief.


Picture 2: jûyô, tachi, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 80.3 cm, sori 3.0 cm, motohaba 3.0 cm, sakihaba 1.65 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

Another signed tachi of Ryôkai that is almost ubu is shown in picture 3. The blade was shortened to 71.0 cm but keeps its rather deep sori (which tends again somewhat to koshizori). We still see a hint of funbari, a noticeable taper, and a ko-kissaki. The jigane is an itame with a conspicuous amount of masame and features ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a gentle suguha in ko-nie-deki with a little shallow notare and is mixed with ko-gunome and some faint nijûba in places. The bôshi is sugu to notare-komi with a ko-maru-kaeri.


Picture 3: jûyô, tachi, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 71.0 cm, sori 2.3 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, sakihaba 1.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune

The tachi in picture 4 is one of Ryôkai’s highly classical, calm, and unobtrusive interpretations. It is ubu and signed, slender, has a rather deep koshizori, tapers noticeably, shows funbari, a high shinogi, and a ko-kissaki. The kitae is a densely forged but also somewhat standing-out ko-itame that is mixed with nagare-masame, some ô-hada, and jifu. In addition, ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri appear. The hamon is a suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with a little ko-gunome, ko-midare, ko-ashi, , and some fine kinsuji and sunagashi. The nioiguchi and the entire ha are more subdued. The bôshi is a narrow sugu with a brief ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken at the base and there are several tachi of Ryôkai known that bear such a short suken or koshibi at the base.


Picture 4: jûyô, tachi, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 75.65 cm, sori 2.8 cm, motohaba 2.85 cm, sakihaba 1.5 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune


Now we come to his tantô, the most famous of course the meibutsu Akita-Ryôkai (秋田了戒) which is designated as a jûyô-bunkazai (and was even holding the status of kokuhô for a while, i.e. until many designations were reassessed by the Agency for Cultural Affairs after WWII). The name of the meibutsu goes back to the fact that it was once work by Akita Sanesue (秋田実季, 1576-1660) who held the title of Akita Jônosuke (秋田城之介). Later it became an heirloom of the Kaga Maeda family. There are several tantô extant by Ryôkai which are interpreted in kanmuri-otoshi-zukuri. The jigane is an itame that is mixed with masame and that shows ji-nie and some shirake-utsuri. The hamon is a suguha in ko-nie-deki with a tight nioiguchi and nijûba and the bôshi is rather pointed and features a rather wide and long running-back kaeri, also with nijûba.



Picture 5: jûyô-bunkazai, tantô, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 27.2 cm, muzori

An outstanding tantô of him can be seen in picture 6. It is tokubetsu-jûyô and is with the moderate dimensions, the uchizori, and the curved furisode-nakago quite classical. The jigane is a dense ko-itame with fine ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri and the hamon is a chû-suguha in ko-nie-deki with some ko-ashi, , and nijûba in places that features a tight nioiguchi. The bôshi is sugu with a rather wide ko-maru-kaeri. On the omote side we see a suken with on top of it a bonji and on the ura side gomabashi, both running with kaki-nagashi into the tang. The tang is ubu by the way, so the second mekugi-ana and the kaki-nagashi of the horimono do not speak for a suriage in this case. There is no nagare-masame or “weakness” in the jigane and so this tantô comes pretty close to Rai Kunitoshi.


Picture 6: tokubetsu-jûyô, tantô, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 24.9 cm, very little uchizori, motohaba 2.35 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune

As it will be addressed in the next chapter, the Ryôkai lineage also made some naginata and a shortened one, a naginata-naoshi wakizashi, can be seen in picture 7. It is relative wide and bears on both sides a central shinogi-hi, i.e. a groove that runs along the shinogi. The jigane is a dense ko-itame with some nagare and ji-nie and the hamon is a hoso-suguha in ko-nie-deki that is mixed with ko-gunome, kinsuji, and sunagashi. The bôshi runs out as yakitsume and taking into consideration the overall course of the ha, we learn that this was once a shizuka style naginata (more on that interpretation here).
Ryokai7Picture 7: jûyô, naginata-naoshi wakizashi, mumei, attributed to Ryôkai, nagasa 40.6 cm, sori 0.9 cm, motohaba 2.9 cm, iori-mune

But Ryôkai also made some more uncommon blade shapes, like for example the one in shôbu-zukuri seen in picture 8. Well, the blade has a nagasa of 68.2 cm and is classified, due to the position of the mei, as tachi but it might well be one of these longer uchigatana that come mostly in hira-zukuri that were made by some of the great Kamakura masters for a higher ranking clientele (like the Nakigitsune-Kuniyoshi, see here). The blade has a relative deep sori and shows a dense itame that is mixed with nagare in places and with ô-hada along the upper half of the omote side. In addition, ji-nie and a shirake-utsuri appear. The hamon is a suguha in ko-nie-dei that is mixed with some ko-ashi and fine sunagashi and kinsuji and that shows some ko-gunome along the monouchi. The bôshi is formed out of these ko-gunome elements and runs back with a short ko-maru-kaeri and some hakikake.

Ryokai8Picture 8: jûyô, tachi, mei “Ryôkai” (了戒), nagasa 68.2 cm, sori 1.8 cm, motohaba 2.7 cm, shôbu-zukuri, iori-mune