Last week I had a chance to visit an extraordinary place in the heart of Ginza that, although filled with silence, can tell you a thousand stories of victory, fortune, defeat, and abandonment. Welcome to Ginza Seiyudo (銀座誠友堂)―a quaint antique shop with a long tradition, specializing in Japanese katana (日本刀).
After arriving at the second floor of the Ginza Five Building (銀座ファイブ), right above Ginza Station (銀座駅) on the Marunouchi Line (丸ノ内線), I was quite surprised to find myself enveloped in the calmness of the myriad antique shops that set up shop there. It was a pleasant change from the bustling atmosphere of the busiest shopping venues of Tokyo. But it wasn’t until I entered Seiyudo that I really felt that the place was special.
The store greeted me with a purification basin (手水舎; temizuya)―the Japanese believe that a katana holds the soul of its owner, and with the concept of purification by water rooted deeply in the Japanese culture, it is only natural that it would be there in a place where so many swords are gathered.
Seiyudo has a collection of over 200 ancient swords, some dating back over 1000 years, and most of them having been passed from one hand to another over the centuries. I could also see a display of old muskets and pistols, as well as unbelievably detailed scabbards and hilts. Although each and every item in the store is for sale, it is also a place of art and a sort of balm for the soul. You don’t need to lend your ear too hard to hear the swords telling their stories.
The shop representative, Mr. Shono, whom I had the pleasure to meet and speak with, confirms this idea. He spoke about how his passion for katana began in early childhood, and how he continued to love swords by allowing the child inside to stick around as he grew up. “The katana are living beings,” he says, “and they are calling to each other. It is rare to encounter weapons with the same family crest―and in just one month, I managed to collect five of them. It was sheer luck”.
His true devotion shows when he takes a katana in his hands, explaining how to fully enjoy its beauty. It didn’t take me long to understand―I was handed the sword and the moment I looked at the perfect surface of the edge reflecting the light, my heart had gone calm and all my thoughts melted away. It was a sensation similar to the goose bumps one gets when listening to a beautiful piece of music or looking at fine works of art.
After all, a katana truly is nothing less than a work of art itself. Making a single sword entails a lengthy process (rarely taking less than one year), involving many artisans and craftsmen, not to mention the obvious fact that only the most wealthy could afford them. When wars ended, there would be a shift in the social balance―the warriors lose their fortunes, and the merchants gain sufficient funds to order more swords. Therefore, the shape, length, and purpose of the katana changed with the times as well. Some of them were made simply for the sake of art; I was awestruck by the amount of work that must have gone into creating each individual part of the sword, from the tiny decorations on the hilt to the stunning golden scabbards.
Close inspection on some of the katana made it apparent that a clever craftsman put two different decorations on two sides of the sword’s guard, as to create a complete picture. This hard work shall not be left unappreciated and anonymous―under the hilt of the sword, the name of the maker and the date the sword was made are inscribed.
Let’s not forget the real purpose of katana, though. It is meant to be a dependable weapon, which decided whether you would live or die. It was forged from steel selected by the swordsmith, then the chunks of steel were rolled and folded on top of each other several times to create layers. This process is what made the Japanese sword such a fearful weapon, which was demonstrated to me by Mr. Shono―who sliced through a piece of paper with a sword as if it were warm butter. Although katana are still being made, the general techniques currently employed cannot be compared to those used in the past; the secrets have unfortunately died with time.
Finally, I asked Mr. Shono about how his clients usually choose their swords, when there are some many to choose from. Smiling, he answered simply with a Japanese saying: “Sori ga au” (反りが合う, literally, “a scabbard fits its sword”) ―meaning that two people’s respective characters fit well with each other. The same goes for katana―it is love at first sight. Personally, I couldn’t agree more. Don’t hesitate to visit the amazing Ginza Seiyudo to indulge yourself in the beauty of katana, and, if you’re lucky, to meet your one and only.
*Seiyudo offers overseas shipping. Please take note that to buy a Japanese sword, you need a permission slip issued from your country of residence.
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