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 ”). 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 ”), 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 ”), 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 yô, 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.