SEKI, Gifu Prefecture—A cutlery shop is offering tourists from Japan and abroad real-life experience in forging weapons of war, a tradition that dates back centuries in this central Japan city.
A traditional Japanese-sword forging studio was completed earlier this year at Cutler Sanshu, which was founded 80 years ago.
Sources said this is the only private-sector facility of its kind in Japan that accepts visitors, with the exception of theme parks and similar establishments.
The annual number of foreign visitors to the shop has surged to more than 10,000, up from only several dozen about a decade ago, shop officials said.
In early March, visitors were using their smartphones and cameras to record blacksmiths in white costumes striking a bar of red-hot raw steel with sledgehammers. Each blow produced a shower of orange sparks.
Among the visitors were seven influential bloggers from such countries as China, Vietnam and Canada. They had been invited by the Japan National Tourism Organization to join a tour aimed at promoting the charms of Japan’s provincial areas.
The participants later picked up sledgehammers to experience the forging process. They were also briefed on the history of swordsmithery that has led to today’s cutlery industry.
Cheesie from Malaysia, who has 240,000 followers on her social networking website, said the wonderful craftsmanship of the art enabled her to learn about an unfamiliar aspect of Japan.
The city of Seki has a history of sword making dating back well beyond the Muromachi Period (1338-1573).
Kazuhiro Yoshida, the 46-year-old president of Sanshu who took over his family business in 2000, has visited travel agencies at home and overseas to promote the allure of Seki’s swordsmiths and cutlery.
"The culture of swordsmithery that has been passed down unbroken is unique to Seki," Yoshida said he thought when he decided to build the forging studio. "I want visitors to have experiences with a real feel, including the smell of charcoal and the heat."
The city-run Seki Traditional Sword Smith Museum also hosts sword-forging sessions that are open to the public. But they are held only monthly, which Yoshida found unsatisfactory.
Fujiwara Kanefusa XXV, a 61-year-old swordsmith whose real name is Katsuo Kato, and his son, Fujiwara Kanefusa XXVI, a 39-year-old who was born Masafumi Kato, as well as their apprentices appear in Sanshu’s open sessions.
Kanefusa XXV, while adhering to traditional sword-producing techniques, has tried his hand at novel attempts, such as making a sword for an exhibition that combined Japanese blades with "Neon Genesis Evangelion," a hit anime series.
Many women who have developed an enthusiasm for Japanese swords through a popular online game that personifies famous swords are among visitors to the shop. But Kanefusa XXV remains reserved in his appraisal of the phenomenon.
"Japanese swords remain something unfamiliar for a majority of the population," the swordsmith said.
Seki’s smithing industry began in the late Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1336-1392).
In its golden age, the city was home to an estimated 300 sword makers.
When demand fell with an 1876 law banning the wearing of swords, some of Seki’s swordsmiths switched to civilian blacksmithing, laying the foundation for the city’s cutlery industry.