A short walk along a country road just outside Ono brings you to a small workshop humming with sounds of the rhythmic beating of steel. A lone artisan sits pegging away at his work but calls out: “Welcome. Please come in.”
It is a sweltering summer day, but the artisan has been working diligently with the windows open. Wiping his face with a towel and bowing, he introduces himself as Osami Mizuike, maker of Japanese razors. This product could be considered the starting point of the Banshu Hamono brand since it was the first cutting tool to go into production after the Japanese sword. Unlike the sharp razor blades he makes, Mizuike is a mild-mannered man.
Softly he begins, “The Banshu Japanese razor is the oldest among blades made in Japan for daily use, dating back (almost 240) years. Though demand has fallen sharply, people who still lead traditional lifestyles keep using my razors with great care. For instance, maiko — apprentice geisha — apply special white makeup to go to work. Part of their daily routine is to shave the area at the nape of the neck in order to apply the makeup to best effect. They continue traditional methods of makeup, which calls for the traditional type of razor.” To feel how sharp the blade is, you only need to press it softly to your hair and gently slide it down. The blade will catch even the slightest scratch on the surface of a single strand, invisible to the naked eye.
“Today,” Mizuike continues, “many people shy away from using Japanese razors because they are so sharp. I wouldn’t be surprised if I turn out to be the only maker now. It also seems that fewer and fewer people are using Japanese scissors.”
Japanese spring scissors are made small enough to fit in the palm of a woman’s hand. The tiny tool used to be indispensable for weaving and sewing kimono. Production in Banshu is thought to have started in 1807, the mid-Edo Period (1603-1868), which makes these scissors the next-oldest bladed implement after the Japanese razor.
Having made flower scissors for nearly 70 years, Shoji Inoue is diligently polishing a sheet of steel alone in his workshop, whose old earthen walls evoke nostalgia. “Working this way, I get covered with dust. See how sooty my clothes are? But I do like to make shapely scissors for my customers, especially because most of them are women,” he says, smiling and tenderly gripping the pair he has just made. Its attractive curves, so fitting to the task of arranging flowers, captivate a user’s heart.
The razors and scissors of Ono were first made by local farmers to earn extra money. Helped by plentiful labor, the craft industry grew steadily, increasing demand for a widening range of specialized products, from sickles and razors to pruners and dressmaker scissors. Ono artisans’ quest for the best form for each item has culminated in the renown that Ono implements enjoy today.
You can decisively tell the true quality of a pair of dressmaker scissors when cutting into a piece of fabric — from the sharpness you feel through the handles as you tighten your grip, from the crisply clean cut and from the clear sound the blades make. Artisan Michikazu Hirose, who makes scissors to order, says, “Special orders won’t bring in much profit, but then I say to myself, ‘Who else could do this?’ And I find myself working on yet another pair. I just can’t help it.” He smiles self-consciously. Hirose also makes scissors called “True Left-handed,” which have the blades reversed and the handles fitted to accommodate left-handers.
Another workshop of Ono blade craftsmen, Kawashima Seikyosho, was founded almost 130 years ago. The establishment has kept up with the times by bringing out a new model of hair-cutting scissors. It has reduced frictional resistance to nil by means of a double ball-bearing screw system that connects the blades. Generations of Ono artisans have made just such continuous efforts to improve their wares in order to satisfy customers’ desires. The earnest efforts to achieve better functionality and user-friendliness have borne rich fruits; the blades are highly prized both for their pleasing forms and their sharpness.
The Tanaka brothers, Yoshitaka and Yasushi, makers of pruning shears, have followed in the footsteps of their father, who trained many artisans in the 1950s when the neighborhood abounded with smithies. Yoshitaka says, “If blades are made too hard, they will be too brittle to withstand many cuttings. If, on the other hand, they are too soft, they will not be able to cut into the branches. To attain an ideal sharpness for pruning, we have spent five years trying to determine the best temperatures for firing.” Even when the two work in different corners of the factory, one brother can tell from the reverberating sounds whether or not the other brother’s work is proceeding well. It goes without saying that their years of experience have sharpened their sense of hearing for a range of sounds in the beating of steel, as well as their sense of touch.
The metallic sounds emanating from Ono’s small factories and workshops continue today as they have for centuries. Sheets of steel continue to be transformed into tools at the hands of Banshu artisans with an intimate knowledge of their material. Like generations before them, they craft superb blades that are at once excellent tools and objects of ultimate functional beauty.
Yuka Morino contributed the text for this article. For more information, visit kanamono.onocci.or.jp.
For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.
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