|period:||Heian (ca. 1040 AD)|
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 write-up, so I hope you will take the time to cover what I find to be interesting ground.
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 chokuto 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 branch 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 by signed works, though other names have persisted in old documents. 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 Mikazuki Munechika (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). The Mikazuki was owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga's general who completed the unification of Japan in the Muromachi period, and afterwards was an Heirloom of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Today it's in the Tokyo National Museum and is a Kokuho (National Treasure). The Taka-no-So though lost, exists in spirit in a copy made by Echizen Yasutsugu.
Gojo Kuninaga made the famous Gyobutsu Tsurumaru; a sword called “The Crane”. It's currently the property of the Emperor of Japan and is in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho as one of the most famous swords of the Edo period. 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 and 17, and 16 Juyo Token respectively at the time of writing. Consider that a good Shinto smith like Omi Daijo Tadahiro or Nidai Echigo no Kami Kanesada by themselves have achieved 140 and 80 Juyo each. 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.
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.
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 兼 character. It is hard to tell though if this is wishful thinking or something more.
Some blades attributed to Heian smiths appear to be more from the Kamakura period. Records can be conflicting and names can be handed down through lineages, but there is little doubt to the ancient status of this sword when the shape and nakago condition are considered.
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 a senior collector this sword for kantei in Kitchener above 15 years ago, 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.
By looking at the Mikazuki Munechika above, it's possible to see how closely this blade resembles it, and the hamon on this blade is particularly antique looking and the kissaki the smallest over all the Gojo attributed works. Because of this, my personal opinion is that this work and its attribution with the DEN qualifier needs to be understood as overlapping with Sanjo school and possibly even Munechika especially as the NBTHK also took care to point out that it is in his style. This blade is almost a twin for the Mikazuki except for it's slightly shortened size, and even the crescent moon shapes of the Mikazuki can be found in the hamon of this blade.
To attribute a mumei blade to Munechika is something that would be sticking one's neck out much too far for any expert, however. The next closest that we will ever get is an attribution like this one to Gojo or to Sanjo. The only three Munechika we have left are two Juyo Bunkazai and one Kokuho blade left by this great master, so acquiring a Munechika will never happen for a western collector and as mentioned, I don't think anyone will stick their neck out to attribute a mumei. Because of all of this, this sword needs to go to someone with a high degree of scholarship who can understand the limitations and flex in appraisal and will understand Tanobe sensei's statement about this blade resembling the work of Sanjo Munechika and put it all in context. There isn't anything really quite like this that can be bought.
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.
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 is one of the oldest Yamashiro school swords currently outside of Japan. Of the 16 that have passed Juyo, this one does appear oldest and this is confirmed by Tanobe sensei who wrote into the sayagaki that it evokes Sanjo Munechika himself. Not all of the Gojo swords will do that. Two of these 16 have passed Tokubetsu Juyo, the highest ranking available from the NBTHK. Another six Gojo are Juyo Bijutsuhin, and three are Juyo Bunkazai, all of which shows the importance of this school.
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.
There are two clans that are transliterated as Mori in English, the Môri (毛利, with a long O sound) based in Aki and Nagato provinces and the Mori (森) descended from Genji (Minamoto).
The Genji Mori originate in Sagami province (Soshu). This family descended from Emperor Seiwa of the Genji lineage of the Minamoto clan. This was a very powerful line of warriors and warlords who include Minamoto Yoritomo, the Kamakura Shogunate founder, Ashikaga Takauji, the Muromachi Shogunate founder, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Edo Shogunate founder whom we commonly refer to as the first Shogun (since he ruled after final unification of Japan). The branch that settled in Bungo was descended from the Uda-Genji through Namazue Takahisa and had previously been in Owari.
There is some confusion as there is also a fief of Mori, as well as the two Mori clans and their various branches. Mori Takamasa who ruled the fief of Saeki in Bungo province was a compatriot of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Saeki at this point had 60,000 koku. Since he was on the wrong side in the civil war against the Tokugawa, the family had their revenues reduced to 20,000 koku under the Tokugawa Shogunate but maintained their status in Saeki. This branch of the clan is said to have changed their name.
The Mori clan (森氏 Mori-shi) was a family of Japanese people descended from the Seiwa Genji. Their line descended from Minamoto no Yoshiie (also known as Hachimantaro) through his seventh son, Minamoto no Yoshitaka, proprietor of Mōri-no-shō in Sagami Province. His son, Minamoto no Yoritaka, took Mori as his surname when he retired, and Yoritaka's son Yorisada continued to use the surname.
During the Sengoku period, the Mori served under Oda Nobunaga. Mori Yoshinari fought with Nobunaga for Kiyosu Castle, and with his son Mori Yoshitaka joined the campaigns against the Saitō, Azai, and Asakura. Father and son died in the battle against the Azai-Asakura armies, and Mori Nagayoshi, second son of Yoshinari, became head of the house.
Yoshinari's son Nagasada, known as Mori Ranmaru, died with Nobunaga in the Incident at Honnō-ji.
The family became daimyo under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and for five generations headed the Tsuyama Domain in Mimasaka Province as tozama daimyo. Nagayoshi had lost his life in the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute. Their descendants became viscounts in the Meiji peerage. Wikipedia
There is further a bit of confusion with the Mori fief as the Mori clan ruled Saeki fief in Bungo, but the Mori fief in Bungo was ruled by the Kuroshima daimyo.
The Kurushima family, which ruled Mori during the Edo period, were the descendants of the Kurushima who formed part of the Murakami pirates of the Inland Sea, during the Sengoku Period. Kurushima Nagachika (later called Yasuchika) held 14,000 koku of territory at Kijima in Iyo Province. In 1600, he sided with the western army; however, as his wife's uncle was Fukushima Masanori, Honda Masanobu was able to arrange for a special disposition allowing Nagachika's domain and family to remain unmolested. The family was moved to the Mori region of Bungo Province in 1601, and granted the same 14,000 koku of landholding.
The Kurushima family remained as lords of Mori until the Meiji Restoration. During the Boshin War they supported the Kyoto government, and were assigned to guard the abandoned daikansho at Hita (日田). The domain was abolished in 1871, first becoming Mori Prefecture, before being absorbed into Ōita Prefecture, where it remains today. In 1884, the Mori family became shishaku (子爵, viscounts) in the new kazoku nobility system. Wikipedia
A bit more research will be required in order to properly understand which of the daimyo Tanobe sensei confirmed as the owners due to the overlapping names and use in Bungo.
Appointed 1971 - Session 20
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.
Itame hada, elongated here and there. Well marked with Ji Nie. Nie utsuri is present.
O-suriage with shallow kurijiri, old yasurime are unknown the new yasurime are slanted. Mekugi ana are 2, mumei.
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.
This sword bears a long and detailed sayagaki 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.”
第廿回重要刀剣Dai niju kai Juyo TokenJuyo Token Session 20
山城國五条物Yamashiro no Kuni Gojo Mono
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
古京物ノ名品也珍重Ko-Kyo mono no meihin nari chin cho.It is a precious old Kyoto masterpiece.
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.
豊後國森家舊蔵品Bungo no Kuni Mori ke kyu zouhinFormerly in the collection of the Bungo no Kuni Mori family.
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.
探山鑒並誌Tanzan kan narabini shirusu (kao).Tanzan appraised and ascribed (seal).