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2023.03 The Legacy of Tatara: The Culture of Japanese Ironmaking and Swordsmithing [PR]

Tatara is a traditional ironmaking method unique to Japan, handed down through the generations. In the past, this industry was centered around the Road of Iron Culture Area comprised of present-day Unnan City, Yasugi City, and Okuizumo Town in the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture. This mountainous region of western Honshu is near the Sea of Japan and has long been associated with mythology. In its heyday, this region, including this Road of Iron Culture Area, produced about 80% of the country's iron. With a history of 1,400 years, this region continues to produce the material called tamahagane (steel made from iron sand), which is necessary for making the Japanese swords known as katana.

 

A typical tatara ironworks town was featured in a famed animation studio’s classic film, while the tamahagane and charcoal-making industries were depicted in a recent hit manga and anime series. The opportunity to experience these unique aspects of Japanese culture is one of the highlights of a journey to the Road of Iron Culture Area.

 

The area has also been recognized by the Japan Heritage cultural heritage designation system, under the name Izumo’s Ancient Tatara Ironworks. By going on a Japan Heritage trip, you can experience tangible cultural heritage up close, and learn the stories of Japanese culture and tradition that make tatara unique.

 

The model behind the tatara-inspired setting in a classic animated film

 

Sugaya Tatara Sannai is located in Yoshida district, Unnan City, and offers a glimpse of a different world in its historic buildings. The term “sannai” refers to a village where tatara workers lived and made iron. Sugaya Tatara Sannai has Japan's only remaining tatara ironmaking facility, known as a takadono. Said to have been the inspiration for the tatara town in a famed animation studio’s classic film, this sannai transports visitors into the fantastical world of the past.

 

The takadono has a high ceiling to protect the building from flames of the furnace during tatara operations. Other ingenious mechanisms include a 4-meter-deep underground structure that controls moisture and retains heat, and a foot-operated bellows. The Sugaya Tatara was in operation for 170 years from 1751 to 1921. The white-walled storehouses of the Tabe family of ironworkers who operated the Sugaya Tatara, line the center of Yoshida district. The streets are also lined with shops selling ironware and local handicrafts, making for a pleasant stroll.

 

Sugaya Tatara Sannai, a community where tatara ironworkers lived and worked; photo by Satoshi Shigeta

 

The takadono where tatara iron was cast; photo by Satoshi Shigeta

 

Inside the takadono, with a furnace at the center where iron sand was loaded

 

White-walled storehouses of the Tabe family

 

The revival of tatara and tamahagane, the iron used to make Japanese swords

 

Unlike modern iron manufacturing which uses iron ore, ancient Japanese ironmaking used iron sand which was heated and reduced by burning charcoal to produce high-purity iron. The Road of Iron Culture Area was a major iron-producing region thanks to its granite (decomposed granite soil) that contained high-quality iron sand and its vast forests from which charcoal could be obtained.

 

In the latter half of the 19th century, the tatara flames gradually faded as the mass production methods of modern Western iron manufacturing were introduced. However, modern iron manufacturing could not produce tamahagane, the raw material for Japanese swords. Thus, in 1977, the fires of tatara were brought back to life at Nittoho Tatara in Okuizumo Town, which is overlooked by Mt. Sentsu, the mythical site where a deity vanquished the eight-headed and eight-tailed dragon Orochi, and attained a magnificent sword.

 

The tatara furnace is operated three times during the coldest time of the year, between mid-January and early February. During each of the three-day sessions, iron sand and charcoal are loaded in alternating intervals day and night, without rest. On the third day, about 2.5 tons of kera (lumps of iron) are taken out of the furnace. This act of removal called kera-dashi is the most powerful part of the process, and the superior steel extracted from the kera is what is known as tamahagane. The flexibility of the Japanese sword comes from both tamahagane itself and the skill of the swordsmith.

 

The Okuizumo Tatara Sword Museum has a full-scale model that shows how the tatara furnace works. Visitors can try operating a bellows and other equipment themselves. Japanese swords are also on display, and on the second Sunday and fourth Saturday of each month, visitors can watch a demonstration of forging a Japanese sword by a swordsmith  (confirmation required).

 

 

 

The fires of tatara were revived at a site with a commanding view of Mt. Sentsu.

 

The flames of the tatara furnace

 

Kera-dashi, the process of removing iron lumps from the furnace

 

High-quality steel known as tamahagane

 

Japanese sword-forging demonstration

 

Japanese sword exhibit at the Okuizumo Tatara Sword Museum

 

Tatara country, the embodiment of sustainability

 

This region of Shimane Prefecture has a beautiful landscape of terraced paddy fields. An embodiment of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the terraced paddy fields were created to make use of the sites where mountains had been partially dug out to obtain iron sand, the material used for tatara ironmaking. Small hills in the terraced paddy fields with sacred sites like shrines and graves were left uncut, and can still be seen in places such as the Haraguchi settlement in Okuizumo’s Inahara district. In nearby Ohara, there is an observation deck that overlooks the terraced paddy fields.

 

The Haraguchi settlement is a 7-minute drive from Okuizumo Tatara Sword Museum, while the observation deck is a 10-minute drive.

 

To obtain the charcoal needed for ironmaking, sections of the mountain forests were logged in cycles of about 30 years so that charcoal could be sustainably and perpetually acquired. As a result, lush forests remain to this day. The cultivated lands developed on the former mining site also produce buckwheat for the famous Izumo soba. Be sure to try some during your trip.

 

A small hill in the middle of a terraced paddy field in the Haraguchi settlement

 

Terraced paddy fields in Ohara, a vestige of the tatara industry’s sustainable practices

 

Izumo soba, a local specialty

 

A museum that explores tatara ironmaking

 

The Wakou Museum is Japan's only comprehensive tatara museum and is located near the port of Yasugi. The town flourished as a shipping port for the delivery of wakou, raw steel containing a very low level of impurities that was produced through tatara iron manufacturing across Japan. The museum also functions as a visitor center for the entire Road of Iron Culture Area, making it a good place to start your trip.

 

The process of tatara ironmaking is introduced through a video shown in the museum. The museum exhibits the tools and furnaces used in such ironmaking, as well as a giant bellows. It is said that the exhibits in the museum were used as references when a certain world-renowned classic animated film was made. You can try operating the bellows yourself, and experience holding a genuine Japanese sword.

 

At the museum store, visitors can buy Yasuki Hagane knives and similar products developed and manufactured by Proterial Yasugi, Ltd., which passes on the legacy of tatara ironmaking techniques.

 

The Wakou Museum in Yasugi

 

Tatara furnace and bellows exhibit

 

A museum visitor tries out the bellows.

 

Guests can experience holding a Japanese sword.

 

Yasuki Hagane knives

 

How to get there

 

Izumo Airport provides convenient access to the Road of Iron Culture Area from airports around Japan; alternatively, take the Limited Express Yakumo train from Okayama Station.

 

Izumo Airport is about 90 minutes from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, 50 minutes from Itami Airport in Osaka, and 70 minutes from Fukuoka Airport. From Izumo Airport, it is approximately 20 minutes to Unnan City, 60 minutes to Okuizumo Town, and 40 minutes to Yasugi City by car. It is also possible to fly to Yonago Kitaro Airport from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to get to Yasugi City. By train, take the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to JR Okayama Station, then transfer to the JR Limited Express Yakumo to reach Yasugi Station in about 2 hours and 20 minutes.

 

To reach Sugaya Tatara Sannai, it takes about 25 minutes by car from Kisuki Station on the JR Kisuki Line. The Okuizumo Tatara Sword Museum is a 15-minute walk from Izumo Yokota Station on the JR Kisuki Line. The Wakou Museum is a 16-minute walk from JR Yasugi Station. Rental cars and taxis are both convenient for local transportation within the Road of Iron Culture Area.

 

Related Links

 

Road of Iron Culture Area

WEB:https://tetsunomichi.gr.jp/lang-en/history-development-tatara/

 

The homeland of tatara ironworks and Izumo mythology

WEB:https://unnan-tatara.jp/en/

 

The Official Okuizumo Travel Guide

WEB:https://okuizumo.org/en/

 

The Wakou Museum

WEB:http://www.wakou-museum.gr.jp/en/

 

Official guide for traveling Japan: Travel Japan Okuizumo Tatara Sword Museum

WEB:https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/2317/

 

Shimane’s Ancient Tatara Ironworks

WEB:https://www.japan.travel/en/japans-local-treasures/shimanes-ancient-tatara-ironworks/

 

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