The Legendary Blacksmith Masamune
Masamune is one of the most renowned blacksmiths in medieval Japan for creating some of the most beautiful swords in history. During the 13th century there was a master swordsman who stood out from the rest. A blacksmith whose creations were so characteristic that he did not need to sign them, because everyone knew, just by seeing them, that they were his creations.
“There are no mistakes in blacksmithing, only rapid design modifications”.
– Adlai Stein
To the proud samurai, there was no possession more precious than his katana. A katana was placed in the samurai’s room on the day of his birth and a katana was also placed on his deathbed upon his death. Throughout his life, the samurai used to sleep with his katana near his pillow and carry it with him wherever he went.
And so, a mixture of efficiency and tradition, it became one of the most emblematic weapons in the world. However, as such, it is not without its ups and downs, and its history is replete with experimentation and constant improvement. The knowledge was usually passed from masters to blacksmith apprentices, which made them bear the responsibility of giving a quality result.
The difference between a good katana and a low quality katana almost always lay in the skill of the blacksmith. A good blacksmith could create strong, sharp weapons, but an authentic master was able to forge swords like no other. As a result, blacksmiths usually left their signature on their creations as a seal of quality.
However, during the 13th century there was a master swordsman who stood out from the rest. A blacksmith whose creations were so characteristic that he did not need to sign them, because everyone knew, just by seeing them, that they were his creations. A blacksmith with a deep sense of religion who, it was said, was able to imbue his swords with great spiritual power.
From uncertain origins, Masamune is one of the most renowned blacksmiths in medieval Japan for creating some of the most beautiful swords in history. Little is known of his life before his leap to fame, but it is believed that he came from the Okazakii family. It is also said that his master was the blacksmith Kunimitsu, because his style has many similarities with the one of this. However, there are no concrete facts about his beginnings.
The Art of Forging a Samurai Sword
How was a sword forged in medieval Japan? Certainly, the methods are not exactly the same as today, much less the materials.
In those days, steel was often impure, which meant complications in forging a weapon suitable for battle. Working with these materials required not only the right tools, but knowledge and skills capable of bringing out the best from the worst. As a result, the creations were often deficient, brittle, and ineffective. So the blacksmiths had it really hard to deliver quality.
But they say that a calm sea does not make good sailors.
In such a convoluted time for weapons forging, Masamune built a reputation for the superiority and beauty of its swords. He is said to have mastered the art of ‘nie’ to perfection, a technique known for leaving in the sword a particular pattern of lights that shine like ‘stars in the night sky’. It is also known for its magnificent style of notare hamon (the undulations along the blade that give this a unique and characteristic shape, such as the fingerprint of the weapon), along with the remarkable mastery he had over other techniques.
Such was the value of his swords that they went down in history as authentic works of art, even crowning large catalogues of swords for sale. Today it is common to refer to his creations as authentic “Masamune’s”, just as one speaks of an artist’s painting.
The Mysticism Around Masamune
Being someone so relevant, it is logical that the figure of Masamune is enveloped in a halo of mysticism. This can be seen not only in the fact that supernatural powers were attributed to him, such as imbuing his swords with a kind of divine power, but also in the numerous stories and legends that surround him.
One of the best known, for example, involves Masamune and one of his students: Muramasa. This story tells that one day Muramasa challenged Masamune to some sort of competition. In this, they would both forge a sword and then see which one was the best.
Once the swords were forged, the test consisted of suspending them on a small creek with the edge of the blade pointing against the current. Thus, Muramasa’s sword gracefully cut off absolutely everything that came across it; leaves, fish, even the very air, while Masamune’s only cut leaves.
Seeing the results, Masamune’s student sang victory ahead of time. But instead of getting a satisfactory answer from his teacher, this one simply sheathed his sword and smiled.
The student, confused, could not understand why his master was acting so, until a monk who had been seeing everything explained to him; his sword, extremely sharp, cut absolutely everything that came through without problem. Masamune’s sword, however, was superior, for it was able to discern what to cut and what not to cut, so that it chose on its own not to harm innocent creatures. Masamune’s sword was good and fair, while his student’s was evil and bloodthirsty, capable of cutting off both a leaf and a human head with complete indifference.
There are several versions of this tale. One of the more realistic ones emphasizes that in Muramasa’s sword there were remains of leaves, while in Masamune’s there were not. Others, on the other hand, say that Masamune won because his sword was capable of cutting leaves with such grace that they would join together again after a short time.
Much has been said and believed of Masamune and his extraordinary swords throughout history. Perhaps that is why it is almost ironic that so little is known of one of the most emblematic figures of medieval Japan.
However, if there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that he left an immortal legacy as one of the greatest swordsmith that ever existed.
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