Original content Copyright © 2013 D. Brockbank

Ko-Yamashiro Gojo

designation: Juyo Token
period: Heian (ca. 1040 AD)
nakago: O-suriage with shallow kurijiri, old yasurime are unknown the new yasurime are slanted. Mekugi ana are 2, mumei.
nagasa:> 68.7cm
sori: 1.9cm
motohaba: 2.4cm
sakihaba: 1.2cm
hamon: Ko midare and ko choji, ko gunome mixed in. Shows ko ashi, well displayed nie, sunagashi, and kinsuji especially on the top half. Yubashiri and uchinoke are abundantly mixed.
kitae: Itame hada, elongated here and there. Well marked with Ji Nie. Nie utsuri is present.
price: -sold-

Today we go way back to the beginning of the koto period. Swords from this point in time are rare (to understate), and very special and significant works. This is a long writeup, so I hope you will take the time to cover what I find to be interesting ground. I only have some older pictures available at the moment, and will have new photos ready after my next photo shoot.

The first smith with signed extant works of the koto period was Yamashiro Sanjo Munechika. He worked in the mid Heian period, and around 987 he arrived in Kyoto from his home in Awataguchi. Until this period, or shortly before, Japanese swords were locked in the stagnant form of the straight jokoto which was a style imported either from Korea or from the Chinese mainland. Munechika is recognized as the founder of the Sanjo school, and is known to have signed his swords either Munechika or Sanjo but never both.

Around the time of Munechika's arrival, the Japanese sword went into a period of development, and the curved shape of the tachi we are familiar with arose. The Yamashiro swords of Munechika's time are gentle and elegant, reflecting the period of peace and tranquility in which they were made. These swords are also referred to as Ko Kyo, or Old Kyoto pieces.

Kyoto is nestled into an area surrounded by hills with a lake nearby, and the people of this time had dug out small canals to bring water into the town. This no doubt provided all the conveniences running water always brings people, and these same canals that exist today were probably used by swordsmiths in their art. Even today in Kyoto, Sanjo street still remains where the Sanjo school was. If you take the subway which runs parallel to two of these canals (one larger and probably more modern, and one very small and quite old), about five minutes from Sanjo station you can find Gojo.

The smith Arikuni of the Sanjo school was one of the students of Munechika, and one of his sons and students in turn was Kanenaga. Kanenaga was part of the Gojo school, a tributary of Sanjo. The son of Gojo Kanenaga is Gojo Kuninaga. The last two in this lineage are all that we know of the Gojo school at this point in time. The work period for the Gojo school spans 1028 to 1058, far back and early on in the history of the Japanese Sword.

There are not many extant works from this period in time. Sanjo Munechika made several famous swords, being credited with the Kokuho Mikazuki (the crescent moon Munechika, named for patterns in the hamon and jihada), and the lost Taka-no-So (Hawk's Nest Munechika, which was said to have been found in the nest of a falcon). Gojo Kuninaga made the famous Gyobutsu Tsuru-Maru; a sword called "The Crane". This sword is referred to in the NTHK Novice Course with glowing praise:

It has a highly elegant tachi shape and a flamboyant ko-midare hamon. The perfection of this work makes it without a doubt an outstanding sword amongst famous works.

Dr. Homma Junji was of the opinion that the Tsuru-maru Kuninaga is the foremost masterwork of all Yamashiro swords in existence. In other words, that the greatest of all Yamashiro works is a Gojo. And in addition, Yamanaka writes in the Nihonto Newsletter that this work of the Gojo school is one of the five best swords in all existence.

To understand the rarity of works like these, one need only to examine the NBTHK's Juyo Token index. All the smiths of Sanjo and Gojo schools combined account for 34 Juyo Token at the time of printing. Consider that a good Shinto smith like Omi Daijo Tadahiro or Nidai Echigo no Kami Kanesada by themselves have achieved around 80 Juto each, and understanding that it is not for lack of quality that these Ko Kyo pieces are not Juyo, but that they simply do not exist in large quantities.

Of these 34 Juyo Token, ten works are from the Gojo School (three of which are Tokubetsu Juyo); that is they are either Kanenaga or Kuninaga. Seven of these ten are Kanenaga, two are Kuninaga, and the one discussed herein and featured in the oshigata that follows, is the tenth.

Both Kanenaga and Kuninaga are highly rated swordsmiths. Kanenaga is Sai-jo saku in Fujishiro, and 2000 man yen in the Toko Taikan (20 million yen for an excellent condition daito), while Kuninaga is considered Jo-jo Saku, but also 2000 man yen.

Both smiths are considered among the leading swordsmiths of the period of the earliest Japanese swords. Their work can be found amongst the Juyo Bunkazai, and Juyo Bijutsuhin, as well as featured as one of the top blades in the collection of the Emperor of Japan.

Gojo Tachi

Tachi of this time period are very light in the hand. With their ko-kissaki and elegant tapering sugata and torii-zori, one can easily imagine them being worn by nobles at court. They have a feeling of quickness, and one can also imagine them being used by warriors against lightly armored, or unarmored opponents. Their graceful sori has contributed to their consideration as sacred swords.

This particular sword is beautiful, it is elegant, it is healthy and nearly fault free. The only problem I can cite is that the boshi on one side is a bit faint. For a nearly thousand year old sword though this is well within the realm of the expected and the acceptable.

The nakago is suriage and the signature has been lost to time, rather than shortening. You can see on the oshigata the boundary between the original nakago and the "new" one. I feel that the signature is still somewhat there, and one of my long term projects has been to find an X-ray scanner that will let me examine the density of the metal to see if traces of a signature still exist somewhere on the nakago. Faint outlines can still be made out, and in the right light they look like the Kane character. It is hard to tell though if this is wishful thinking or something more.

The yubashiri on this sword appear as soft clouds of vivid nie. The hamon is densely packed with activities, though it is not wide and easy to mistake for a suguba hamon, it is actually ko choji and careful examination will reveal this, along with beautiful ko gunome workings. There are lines of nijuba and sanjuba, and the hamon shows uchinoke so wonderful that when I first showed Chris Leung this sword for kantei in Kitchener, he looked at it put it down, and had to leave the room he was so overwhelmed. On the way out, he exclaimed "Sanjo Munechika! Sanjo Munechika! That is a real sword! That is a real sword!" It was fun for me, knowing how close he came to nailing the kantei within seconds of appraisal.

When I spoke to the late sword expert Cary Condell in the USA about this sword, he expressed his admiration by remarking that it was "like finding a Vermeer." This of course prompted an immediate Googling and rapid education on Vermeer... but now I digress.

The jigane on this sword is gorgeous and fine, and so well wrought that for a very long time this sword used to carry an attribution to Awataguchi Kuniyoshi (this school is well known for, and probably the highest ranked in excellent jigane). When this sword became Juyo Token in 1971 it was attributed to the more rare and earlier Gojo school, which is what it carries now.

Considering the eight Juyo Gojo tachi, this is likely the only one that exists outside of Japan. As well, at close to 1,000 years old, it stands amongst the oldest koto nihonto, and owing to the extremely few ko-Yamashiro blades that exist, it may be the oldest Yamashiro school sword currently outside of Japan. This is obviously a claim that is difficult, if not impossible to verify, but entertaining to make.

What is clear however to anyone familiar with Nihonto, is that such a sword as this in and of itself is something very special. Since it came to me it has been the centerpiece of my personal collection.

Additional Comments

This sword was auctioned in 1936 by the Bungo Mori Daimyo family, along with its koshirae which, regrettably, are now lost. At the time of the auction the sword was considered to be by Awataguchi Kuniyoshi, and this is known because a copy of the original auction certificate still exists, and is pictured here.

The greater Mori clan has important historical roots in Japan, as Mori Terumoto was one of the council of five regents along with Tokugawa Ieyasu that governed in the years before the Tokugawa Shogunate and after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The most famous Mori Daimyo was his grandfather, Mori Motonari.

Quoting from www.samurai-archives.com:

[Mori Motonari was] one of the greatest warlords of the mid-16th Century. Under his leadership the Mori had expanded from a few districts in Aki to rule over ten of the Chugoku's eleven provinces, and Motonari was known even in his day as a master of wiles and trickery, a warlord whose schemes won as many battles as his soldiers. Interestingly, he is best remembered for an event that probably never took place-the 'lesson of the three arrows'. In this parable, Motonari gives each of his sons an arrow to break. He then gives them three arrows bundled, and points out that while one may be broken easily, not so three united as one. The three sons were of course Takamoto, Motoharu, and Takakage, and the lesson is one that Japanese children still learn in school today.

The Mori kamon seems to signify this tale, of three as one.

Juyo Token

Appointed 1971 - Session 20

O-suriage mumei katana. The Gojo School came from the teachings of Sanjo Munechika and his school. From this Kanenaga and his son Kuninaga are known. The production of these two are rare, but some are famous daito and tachi.

These works are mainly ko midare mixed with ko choji, ko ashi and fine kinsuji. Sunagashi is added to the above, becoming nijuba and sanjuba. This work shows classical grace and is representative of the old Kyo Mono style. This sword can not be determined if it is Kanenaga or Kuninaga but the work shows the Munechika style of the old Kyo Mono and the workmanship is very good.

Please click on the oshigata to the left to get a high res version, which reveals the complexity and detail in the hamon of this sword.

Tanobe Sensei Sayagaki

This sword bears the longest and most detailed sayagaki of any I have seen by Michihiro Tanobe sensei. His glowing comments easily reveal his opinion of the sword and its similar style to Sanjo Munechika. And in his personal words to me, "You have a very, very good blade."

  1. 第廿回重要刀剣
    Dai niju kai Juyo Token
    Important Sword Session number 20
  2. 山城國五条物
    Yamashiro no Kuni Gojo Mono
  3. 但磨上無銘也時代平安末
    Tadashi suriage mumei nari jidai heian matsuyo.
    Although shortened and unsigned the period is the late Heian.
  4. 姿態優美而地刃京気質著ク
    Shitai yubi shikashite jiba kyo kishitsu ichijirushi ku.
    The form is graceful and the the Kyoto character is very obvious in the yakiba and jihada.
  5. 殊ニ焼刃ノ状ワハ古雅且宗近ノ遺風有之候
    Koto ni yakiba no jou ha koga katsu Munechika no ifu ari kore sourou.
    Particularly in the yakiba, the condition is one of classical elegance, and furthermore in the tradition of Munechika.
  6. 俄ニ兼永國永ノ何レカハ特定シ難キト
    Niwaka ni Kanenaga, Kuninaga no nani rekaha tokuteishi gatakito.
    For this, it is very difficult offhand to specify either Kanenaga or Kuninaga.
  7. 雖モ出来見事而格調高ク
    Sui mo deki migoto shikashite kakuchou taka ku.
    Even so, the workmanship is magnificent and highly dignified.
  8. 古京物ノ名品也珍重
    Ko Kyo mono no meihin nari chin cho.
    It is a precious old Kyoto masterpiece.
  9. 刃長貮尺二寸七分有之
    Hacho ni shaku ni sun nana bu ari kore.
    Edge length is 2 shaku 2 sun 7 bu.
  10. 豊後國森舊蔵品
    Bungo no Kuni Mori ke kyu zouhin
    Formerly in the collection of the Bungo no Kuni Mori family.
  11. 平成壬午歴神無月下浣
    Heisei mizunoe uma reki kannazuki gekan.
    Present era, year of the horse (2002), calendar October, last 10 days of the month.
  12. 探山鑒並誌
    Tanzan kan narabini shirusu (kao).
    Tanzan appraised and ascribed (seal).