Visit to ... Usui-san, the blacksmith

Mr. Kinzaburo Usui

The train came out of the long tunnel .... indeed, a much longer tunnel than Mr. Kawabata ever saw, and a much faster train than he ever rode. I was riding the Jo-etsu shinkansen, on my way to Niigata-ken to visit the workshop of Mr. Kinzaburo Usui, the craftsman who forges the blades for my carving knives. Unfortunately for my identification with the novel however, it was late May, and as I reached the village and made my way down the road towards his workshop, the only things that told me that I was in snow country were the sheds covering the sidewalk in front of the shops and the spray nozzles in the center of the road, which are used during the winter to make snow-plowing unnecessary.

My visit to the block planer Mr. Shimano at his home in Tokyo's Shitamachi district a couple of months ago had been a journey backwards in a time machine. What would I find here, amid the famous Niigata rice fields, where the young, fresh green crop was just now poking above the surface of the shallow water?

It is just before noon, and nobody answers my 'gomen kudasai' at the entrance to the workshop. I doubt that they can hear me. The very earth itself is shaking, as a giant mechanical hammer pounds on a bar of glowing metal in the gloom inside. I move towards it, and then see Usui-san there, standing between the mouth of the forge and the anvil upon which the huge hammer is repetitively falling. He is drawing incandescent bars of steel one by one from their fiery bed in the forge, and holding them on the anvil to be squeezed like pieces of child's playdough into the shape he wants. The thudding force of the machine dominates everything. It pounds and pounds in an unvarying rhythm, like some kind of infernal mechanical drum determined to beat its way deep into the earth. Usui-san looks up, nods a greeting, and then continues with his work. How can he endure this noise? At last the final bar comes from the forge, passes under the hammer, and is cast onto the floor to cool down in a pile with its predecessors. The hammer stops - but we still cannot speak. Although my eyes tell me that the room must have become silent, my brain cannot seem to believe it, and it is some time before we can converse.

We make our way through the shop to a small reception room, passing as we go huge machines that dwarf the two of us, lined up one beside the other. I am basically familiar with forging and metalwork processes, yet I am unable to identify most of these tools. They are covered with control panels .. buttons .. video screens, and are obviously the latest products of Japanese factory automation technology. Later in the afternoon one of the workers will demonstrate some of them for me, and I will see rods of hard steel grasped, manipulated, and then sliced and carved completely automatically as easily as my wife handles a ripe daikon. I have indeed stepped into a time machine again, but this time I think I must have pressed the 'forward' button!

Usui-san is very friendly, and we are soon deep in discussions of steel carbon content, annealing temperatures, and forging methods. He is the third generation of his family working in this business, and has spent years of study developing his knowledge of metal forging processes. He drags out books filled with microscopic level photographs of different types of iron and steel, explaining to me just why it is that a specific amount of carbon must be present in the metal, and how it must be forged at just a particular temperature. There are no 'secrets' here, just deep knowledge acquired over many years of hands-on experience. He has done his homework well. The package of a few blades he sent me last year were an order of magnitude better than those I had been using from other makers. In ukiyo-e work, it is essential that the printmaker's knife be kept at the keenest possible edge for carving the thin lines, and as a result, I have worn these six blades down to small stubs. Usui-san brings out a small package ... another dozen of these beautiful blades. He gives them to me, along with a couple of larger chisels that I had requested. He will accept no payment. When I try and press the issue, he tells me that these are not really from their normal stock, and that they no longer consider themselves in the business of making this sort of tool. As is the case with pretty much every business in this country, they are desperately short of labour. Making these blades is very labour intensive, and he and his workers simply cannot afford to spend their time on products which are of interest to such a small (and poor) market.

The labour problem is of course the driving motivator behind these rows of electronic giants that I see crowding the workshop, but unfortunately the market for woodcarver's tools is just too small to justify developing a process for utilizing such technology for their manufacture. When these dozen blades are worn down ....

I have been thinking about this, and perhaps sometime in the future I will be back here, peering into the forge myself, trying to estimate the temperature of the steel by its cherry colour, and then hammering it to the shape and thickness that I want, under Usui-san's watchful eye. How about it, Mr. Usui? Do you think I could learn how to make these blades? If you can spare some time, I'd like to give it a try.

Late in the afternoon, loaded down with his gifts and the memory of his hospitality, I make my way back to the station and am soon flying back towards Tokyo. These precious blades that I carry will gradually give up their life over the next year or so in the creation of the prints you are receiving. A large part of the appeal and character of these prints comes from the crispness and delicacy of the carving ... which comes from the sharpness and elasticity of the steel ... which in its turn, comes directly from Usui-san's deep knowledge of his craft. Usui-san, thank you very much.


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