Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

My relationship to reality has been so utterly skewed for so long that I don’t even notice it any more. It’s just my reality.

Ethan Hawke

The Taming of the Skew

Beloved Customer has of course noticed that it is easier to keep a blade stable when sharpening its bevel if you skew it on the stone. There is nothing wrong with skewing the blade so long as you understand the natural consequences of doing so and compensate for them appropriately. In this article we will examine some of those consequences.

The first and most immediately obvious consequence of skewing the blade when sharpening it is that the blade tends to wear-out, or hollow-out, the center area of the sharpening stone quicker. This is inefficient, wasting time and stones, but can be compensated for if you pay attention and work the blade evenly over the stone’s entire face. BTW, this is not a kindly suggestion but a commandment.

Second, it is human tendency to place uneven pressure on a skewed blade, with the natural result that the blade wears unevenly. Think about it.

In addition, the leading corner is exposed to more fresher, larger grit particles (which cut more aggressively) than the trailing corner. As a result, the blade’s leading corner tends to be abraded more, causing the blade’s edge to gradually become skewed or rounded in shape over many sharpening sessions. This is definitely bad, and is often mistaken for the work of those devilish iron pixies, especially in the case of kiwaganna and other skewed-blade planes, causing self-doubt and mental anguish (aka “going bananas”). But if you are aware this can happen, and pay attention, you can easily compensate for thereby avoiding months of expensive psychoanalysis by Dr. Alonzo and the need to consume massive pallets of his pretty purple pills. 

Third, and I have no way to confirm this, I am told by the guys with microscopes that diagonal scratches at the extreme cutting edge leave it a tad weaker, causing it to dull just a bit quicker.

The way to remove problematic diagonal scratches, BTW, is to make the last few strokes on the finishing stone perpendicular to the cutting edge.

So in summary, habitually skewing a blade while sharpening it is not ideal and should be avoided, but is not catastrophic. It will make one’s sharpening efforts a little less efficient and may cause blades and stones to become distorted, but these negatives can be dealt with, at some cost.

Please read the quotation at the top of this article and consider whether or not your sharpening reality has become skewed without your realizing it. Your humble servant confesses, and Dr. Alonzo can confirm, that his was indeed skewed for a long time.

These aren’t things you wouldn’t have figured out for yourself eventually, Beloved Customer, but now, at least if you pay attention, you’re a few years ahead on the learning curve.

In the worst case, at least ignorance isn’t an excuse anymore. And there’s always pretty purple pills to take the edge off (ツ).


Related image
Shakespeare’s Shrew, Katherine Minola, played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1987 movie. In this photograph she’s obviously watching someone skewing a plane or chisel blade while sharpening it. Clint Eastwood probably learned a thing or two from this lady.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may all my mental faculties become hopelessly skewed such that the only occupation I will be fit for is politics.

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Other Posts in the Sharpening Series

Japanese Planes – Mitre Plane 留鉋

#wood #woodworking #woods #金四郎 #留鉋#当時の値段#バイブス#宍戸建具店 #南相馬市#鉋
A Tomeganna Plane by Kinshiro (Kuriyama Noboru)

This is a brief post about an unusual Japanese plane made by an unusual craftsman and used in an unusual way, or at least one not seen often in the West.

The plane is called the “Tome ganna” written 留鉋 which means “mitre plane.” In this case, mitre does not necessarily mean just a standard 45 ° mitre as in a picture frame corner, but the planes pictured above are indeed intended to cut a 45 ° mitre for corner joints between two boards.

It is specialized for cutting a critical part of the secret dovetail mitre joint used for casework, and is a standard tool for cabinetmakers and sashimonoshi in Japan.

The plane rides on its beveled sides when shooting the mitre joint.
This page has illustrations of how to cut this joint the Japanese way using this plane. 

This job can be done using jigs and chisels, shoulder planes, or better yet, kiwaganna, but the tomeganna is better balanced and handier, can cut either direction more precisely and quicker, so is a must-have for advanced casework.

If you enjoy casework, the secret dovetail mitre is a challenging joint you really should give a try. The results are great fun, even if they aren’t flashy. 

The excellent Mr. David Charlesworth has even produced a video sold by Lie-Nielson about how to make this joint, although he uses a jig and a paring chisel to good effect.

This is a link to a pricelist and pictures of our limited number of planes by the famous craftsman Kinshiro. You might find the story and photographs interesting.


If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or conveniently and profitably “misplace” your information.

Hammers to Use With Chisels Part 3 – Hammer Weight

Top: 375gm Yamakichi gennou head by Hiroki with new osage orange handle. Bottom: Ryoguchi-style gennou head by Kosaburo with a seasoned handle of the same osage orange. This same hammer was shown in Part 1 of this series when it was fresh and nuclear-flash yellow. With time and exposure to sunlight the color has changed to this pleasant brown. Thanks Matt for the OO!

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In previous articles in this series about hammers to use with our chisels, your most humble and obediant servant discussed the varieties of hammers and the types of faces suitable for using with our chisels. In this article we will examine not only hammer weights but other factors to help your chisel work go more efficiently.

Beater & Beatee

You can usually tell when a hammer is too light for the job because the chisel or nail isn’t moved much and the beater bounces off. But it’s the other end of the weight scale that causes more serious problems so let us consider the case of too heavy hammers so we can bracket the Goldilocks weight: Not too heavy, not too light, but just right.

Some people like to use heavy hammers for striking chisels. 2~3-lb ox-killers are good for some jobs, but there are a few things you should consider before defaulting too such a heavy lump.

Is the impact force produced by a heavy hammer really necessary to drive a chisel? Not so much. But not everything we do must focus exclusively on efficiency: swinging a hammer is good exercise and it burns calories, something those with excess “ dignity,” such as your humble servant, could use more of. However, maintaining one’s supermodel figure is not adequate justification for using excessively heavy hammers in light of other factors we must also consider.

Besides the herculean strength of your mighty arm and the chisel’s durability, you should also consider the durability of your body. Swinging a hammer that is too heavy can over-stress muscles, tendons, bones and joints, stresses that can make workdays long, nights painful and your work sloppy, if not now then certainly as you age.

But if the weight of the head is a good balance with the work you are doing, and you have a good handle on your hammer or gennou, things just go better. A word to the wise. We will look at this more in the final post in this series.

Let’s consider the movement of the hammer and the flow of forces that result starting at the beginning. Accelerating the hammer towards nail or chisel creates stresses in muscles, tendons, bones and joints. Obviously, it is wise to keep these stresses within acceptable limits, especially if you need to repeat this movement hundreds or even thousands of times in a day. It should likewise be obvious that a hammer that is overly heavy makes limiting these stresses difficult.

Now that we have the hammer moving, let’s examine what happens when it stops as it strikes nail or chisel. Is wacking the nail or chisel as hard as possible the goal, or is the goal to drive the nail into the wood, or to motivate the chisel to cut wood an appropriate distance? If the latter, then there is a practical limit to the impact force required. In other words, driving the nail so deeply the wood is damaged unnecessarily, or the chisel so deeply it cuts all the way through, or even binds in the wood, is not useful, but is a waste of time and energy that damages our work product and our bodies, and that harms precision rather than improves it.

These forces and the positive and negative results are easier to control if the hammer’s weight is balanced with our bodies, the nail or chisel, and the wood. Heavier is not always better.

Another factor to consider is the nature of the beatee. Nails are one such victim, but they don’t have feelings while chisels do, so I encourage you be sensitive to your chisel’s needs when selecting a hammer weight.

Our chisels are hand-made professional-grade tools intended to be used by craftsmen who demand the extra sharpness and cutting longevity only hard, fine-grained steel makes possible. Therefore they are not as tough as the soft, sharpened Chinese screwdrivers sold by the big corporations as chisels that amateurs are accustomed to nowadays. Accordingly you should select a hammer weight that won’t damage the blades or splinter the handles of your fine chisels even if you must use them all day for days on end hard enough for the impact forces to make the handles hot. You may be as strong as John Henry, but a 2-lb hammer will destroy most any chisel given time and determination.

Weighty Matters

Of course, the harder the wood, the deeper the cut, the wider and heavier the chisel, the heavier the hammer needed. But what is an efficient hammer weight? Let’s consider at some guidelines next.

Oiirenomi & Mukomachinomi Chisels

For most commercially-available woods you are likely to cut with your oiirenomi chisels or mukomachinomi (mortise chisel), 260gm/9oz is a good place to start when using narrower width chisels 18mm and less.

300gm (10.5oz) to 375gm (14oz) is probably good for wider chisels. BTW the standard carpenter’s hammer in Japan weighs between 375gm (14oz) to 450gm (16oz), but this is too heavy for most precision work using oiirenomi in furniture, cabinets, and joinery work.

Atsunomi Chisels

For the heavier atsunomi chisels from 18mm to 24mm in width, 375gm (14oz) ~ 450gm (16oz) is usually a good weight.

For wider atsunomi chisels, 675gm (24oz) to 750gm (26oz) is good. Maybe as heavy as 937gm (32oz) for motivating wide 48-54mm chisels when cutting hard woods if you have experience, strong wrists, and speed is not important. Yes, within limits, lighter weight hammers tend to accomplish more work quicker.

As Captain Barbossa explained the Pirate’s Code, these are “more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.”

In future posts in this series we will examine factors such as how to use hammers and chisels efficiently, and how to avoid injuries.


PS: We have also published another series of articles about making a handle for your hammer that fits your body and will work most efficiently for you, beginning HERE. So let’s talk some more soon.

Harrrrg. Your hammer’s that heavy?!

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may fingers become beatees.

Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes

Festina Lente Doors in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

Long-term consistency beats short-term intensity.

Bruce Lee

We have discussed many details about sharpening in this series, and while this may be the shortest article of the bunch, it is by no means the most insignificant. For some it will be the most difficult technique to master, so classical references shouldn’t prove too onerous.

If Beloved Customer pays attention to their blade’s movement when sharpening, you will notice how each reversal of direction tends to cause the bevel to rock forward and backward on the stone’s face. And what happens when we let the blade go rock-n-rolla? That’s right, the crapulous bulging bevel rears its ugly head and spits stinky sticky stuff in our eye.

Using short strokes, somewhere around 1-½ inch in length, makes it much easier to keep the blade from rocking.

A Gentle Reader named Oskar observed that, following the logic in the previous sentence, shorter strokes result in more, not less, reversals in stroke direction, and therefore shorter strokes should lead to more rocking rather than less. I concur with Oskar’s analysis and conclusion and am adding the following clarification to avoid confusion.

A short stroke produces smaller changes in the angles of one’s joints during the stroke compared to the changes during a longer stroke, making it much easier to maintain the bevel at the correct angle on the stone’s face. In other words, the angles of ones the joints in hand, wrist, arm and shoulder change less during short strokes than in longer strokes, making it easier to manage joints and tendons yielding greater repeatability.

In addition, shorter strokes tend to focus one’s attention on properly indexing the bevel on the stone during each individual stroke, attention that tends to wander more during long strokes. It’s that darn badger again.

鑿研ぎ #14_e0248405_1553630.jpg

Please note that this analysis is simply your humble servant’s opinion, and perhaps not a weighty one at that because I am not a physician, nor have I conducted the physiological studies and dissections upon which a rigorous opinion should be based.

I know that making short strokes feels inefficient, and it is compared to a machine, but Beloved Customer is probably not a Cyberdyne Systems product with a titanium alloy combat chassis. However, with practice, you will find you are able to increase the distance and speed of each stroke, especially as your focus and hand-soul coordination improves and your wrists and elbows relax and become trained.

Long extravagant strokes on rough or medium grit stones are for sharpening axes and kitchen knives, not chisels or planes.

The exception to this rule is the finishing stone, as mentioned in the previous article.

Festina Lente

In conclusion, and in order to improve your classical education, let’s review our latin lesson from the previous article: “Festina lente” translates directly as “make hast slowly.” It is defined in the dictionary as “proceed expeditiously but prudently.” We chose to translate the phrase as “Slow is smooth; Smooth is fast. ”

At least two Roman emperors, one Pope, and the powerful Medici family of the City State of Firenze Italy, back in the days when emperors, popes, and noble merchants had real power measured in armies they controlled and cities and continents they ruled, thought these two words important enough to include in their mottos and coats of arms. The words even appear in the original French version of the tale of the “Hare and Tortoise.”

They are also relevant to sharpening if you are clever enough to understand why.


Bug-nibbled woodwork in the Laurencian Library in Florence Italy with the Medici’s motto of Festina Lente and the turtle with a sail carved into it.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my food turn to ashes in my mouth (a very ancient curse indeed).

Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction

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If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

Lao Tzu

When using rough stones ( ≤1000grit), and especially when learning basic sharpening skills, it is best to sharpen the bevel in one direction only, lifting the blade off the stone, or at least removing all downward pressure, on the return stroke. The reason for this seemingly inefficient movement is simply that, at least for most people, and until one’s hands and wrists beceome trained, trying to abrade the blade on both push and pull strokes is likely to cause the blade to rock creating the bilious bulging bevel.

There are certainly exceptions to this rule, and we actively encourage Beloved Customer to try to develop the concentration and muscle control required to sharpen in both directions on rough and medium stones, but be aware it may take some years. In the meantime, remember the ancient adage and imperial moto: festina lente, which we chose to translate as “Slow is smooth; Smooth is fast. “

Part of the difficulty of sharpening in both directions is the resulting loss of concentration: the swing of the thing and angle of the dangle are hard to sense. Perhaps another part of it is due to the difficulty of controlling the complicated and constantly-changing angles of bones and joints. Both of these natural mental and physical tendencies can be overcome by talented and determined people given time and daily practice, but in the case of everyone your humble servant has ever spoken with on the subject, it takes years of focused on-the-job practice, and extreme concentration at first to overcome pre-existing bad habits and to avoid developing importune muscle memory.

Which Direction?

At this point you need to make a decision, unless you have already made it inadvertently. That is, whether to sharpen on the push stroke (pushing the blade away from you) or on the pull stroke (pulling the blade towards you). Most people choose the push stroke, as do I, but in reality the pull stroke is actually a little more efficient because the pressure tends to focus closer to the bevel’s front instead of back, and rocking is reduced. Whichever direction you choose, use it consistently.

However, as mentioned in previous articles in this series, and this is critically important, when it comes to the final finishing stone, work the blade back and forth in both directions. The finishing stone is not abrasive enough to change the bevel’s shape, and since you need to polish the last few microns width of blade’s cutting edge, a very tiny amount of unintentional rocking is actually helpful.

Training Techniques

If Beloved Customer is determined to develop the ability to sharpen on both push and pull strokes, your humble servant can share some helpful guidance that was given to me many years ago by a sword polisher.

The first step in training yourself is to begin by lifting the blade from the stone’s surface entirely on the return stroke (either push or pull depending on your preferred direction). All the things mentioned above apply. Becoming proficient with this technique is foundational. Strive to project your senses into the blade traveling over the stone, indeed right down to the last few microns of the cutting edge, becoming Zen Master Bubba.

When you are able to create a sharp edge while maintaining a flat bevel consistently and without much concentration using this “one-way” technique, then move on to the second step, which is to keep the blade in contact with the stone on the return stroke, but relieve all downward pressure. Begin slowly with full concentration and strive for smooth motion. It’s at the transition from one direction to the other where Murphy will toss a banana peel under your heel.

And finally, when you have mastered the “light-touch” technique, try applying downward pressure in both directions, beginning slowly at first and with full concentration striving for smooth motion.

Remember, don’t grip the blade like a thrashing alligator, but hold it lightly in your hands like a small bird: too tightly and it will be crushed; too loosely and it will fly away.

Don’t lock your wrists or elbows, but actively and consciously rotate them to keep the blade’s bevel always perfectly flat on the stone (your stone is flat right, right?). This is very important.

And don’t forget to use your thin stainless steel straightedge and brass bevel gauge frequently to check the bevel for flatness and proper angle.

And as always, relentlessly beat down your inner badger, brutally crush and sow salt on bad habits, and don’t allow new bad ones to take root.

Sadly, this is a skill that, once learned, tends to deteriorate with time unless practiced frequently. As with cherry blossoms, muscles, tendons and eyes are neither static nor eternal. Setsunai, desu ne.


If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my wife be plagued with runners in her hose.

Hammers to Use With Chisels Part 2 – Hammer Faces

The Jabberwock! Not just a beautiful face.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!

Lewis Carroll

This is the second post in our six-part series about hammers to use with our chisels. As with all the tool-related articles we publish, this one is based on past communications with, and in response to direct questions from, our Beloved Customers. Your humble servant hopes that not only Beloved Customers (may the hair on their toes never fall out) but Gentle Readers too may gain something from these articles.

We sell limited quantities of hand-forged professional-grade chisels to professionals who use them to please their customers and feed their families.

We are tickled pink when amateurs purchase our products, but our target customer is the experienced professional woodworker. If you do your part our chisels will provide faithful, reliable service until, after many decades, nothing is left of the blade but a nub. But to achieve this longevity, and to avoid smiles turning upside down, we insist Beloved Customers use flat-faced hammers to motivate our chisels as a condition of our warranty. It’s that important, at least for the professional that uses his chisel even after the blade and handle become hot.

375gm gennou by Kosaburo with a black Persimmon handle resting on a Go board. The head is a classical style seldom seen nowadays.

In the previous post in this series we looked at the Japanese gennou hammer with its two faces: one domed and the other flat. In this post we will examine these two styles of hammer faces in more detail. We will leave waffle-faces to the Belgians for now.

The Domed Hammer Face

Does this domed face look perfectly centered to you? Does it looks smooth? Can it be improved?

Few people in industrialized countries outside of Japan have any experience with flat-faced hammers since manufacturers automatically grind a convex or domed striking face on their hammers nowadays. It’s simply what consumers are accustomed too. But I daresay few have ever considered the ramifications of the dome.

A domed face on a hammer has some advantages, of course. For instance, when one needs to “set” a nail with it’s head just below the flat surface of the piece of wood into which the nail is driven. But does a domed face help the hammer drive nails faster or straighter? Does it help reduce the ratio of bent nails to straight nails? Does it motivate chisels more efficiently? No, no and no.

Another more questionable feature of the domed face (depending on your viewpoint) is that it makes it difficult to judge the accuracy of one’s alignment of the centerpoint of the domed face and with the centerline of the hammer head. Who, pray tell, profits from this ambivalent construction? I’ll give you one guess, and it ain’t me or thee.

Indeed, if your working hammer tends to bend a lot of nails, I recommend you carefully examine its face with a square for centricity and uniformity. “Doh! (palm to forehead). No frikin wonder,” may well be your genteel reaction.

While it may seem passing strange, we strongly recommend Beloved Customers use a hammer with a flat striking face to motivate our oiirenomi chisels, atsunomi chisels, and mortise chisels.

So why is a domed-face hammer a problem when striking Japanese chisels? Simply because it tends to focus the impact forces on a relatively smaller area on the wooden handle than a flat-faced hammer does accelerating the wear and shortening the life of the handle.

In addition, and especially if you are skilled at hitting the handle dead-center a high percentage of the time, a domed face will actually encourage the crown to try to jump off the handle and to become beaten up, sometimes even dangerously deformed, eventually damaging the handle.

The Flat Hammer Face

While your humble servant is inordinately fond of the Japanese gennou hammer, it is by no means the only viable option. Indeed, you can easily modify most any decent-quality, properly-hardened hammer to have a flat face by simply abrading it with a grinder or sander.

Be sure you make the new face planar (flat) and truly square to the hammer’s centerline because a tilt to the left or right will make doing precise work inexplicably difficult and may lead to insanity. I once knew a “frugal” carpenter (read “cheap jackass”) who insisted on using a hammer with a skewampus face. The cumulative corrosion to his confidence caused his wits to wander into the weeds (iambic pentameter?). A sad but too common story, I fear.

If you are modifying a standard hammer with a standard handle, you may benefit from tilting the face’s plane a bit inwards towards the handle, but there is not adequate space in this post to discuss this modification in more detail.

Whatever you do, be especially careful to avoid overheating the hammer’s face while grinding/sanding it; Too hot and the temper will be damaged softening the hammer’s face and ruining it. Seriously. Even a wooden chisel handle will eventually mushroom a steel hammer that has lost its temper. Here’s a guideline: If the hammer’s face becomes becomes too hot to touch with your bare finger, its temper is at serious risk.

Finally, once the face is as flat and square and smooth as you can make it with your grinder or sander, be sure to polish the face because a smooth face wears out the chisel handle slower. A final polish with 320 grit W/D sandpaper is adequate. We polish ours even finer on sharpening stones. Overkill? Yup. Why bother? Because we like purty hammers and they deserve our love. Don’t worry, the polish won’t make the hammer’s face slippery, unless you spread butter over it as the March Hare did to his watch.

By the way, once you your flat-face hammer is ready, try driving nails with it. You will find it works a lot better for everything except setting nailheads below the board’s face. A nailset works better for that job anyway.

We hope our Beloved Customers will take this article to heart for the sake of their chisels.


In this post we reviewed two types of hammer faces: domed and flat. We also considered the advantages and disadvantages of each, and explained why a flat face is best for beating on Japanese chisels, and gave an example of the brutish damage a domed face can inflict on a poor innocent chisel. Like me, some of you may have shed a tear at the sight, but I bid you take heart because we also instructed you in how to convert a common domed-face hammer of any sort to a more genteel and polished flat-faced hammer at no cost, one that will also drive nails better without butter. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

To motivate chisels efficiently, the hammer must not only have a flat face, but it must be of the appropriate weight. Of course, the harder the wood, the deeper the cut, the wider and heavier the chisel, the heavier the hammer needed. But what is an efficient hammer weight? We will examine some options in the next post in this series. Please stay tuned, my beamish boy.

Until then, I have the honor to remain,


A hand-forged square gennou head by Hiroki with a handle made from a traditional Japanese handle wood called “Kamatsu” (Pourthiaea villosa) meaning “sickle handle, also called “Ushikoroshi (“cow killer”). Despite the appearance, the head is one-piece of uniform steel, not a jigane body with forge-welded steel faces. BTW, if someone tells you that hammers with forge-welded faces are superior, direct them to the closest legal marijuana dispensary so they can maintain their waking psychotic dreams.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may a Bandersnatch fruminate all over my face!

Cherry Blossoms In Asakusa

“And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze,
And so the blossoms fall, and so my days …” 


As I walked near my home today I was pleasantly surprised to see plum trees and even a few cherry trees working on their beautiful spring dresses. It reminded me of a day in April when my wife Kazuko and I went to Kappabashi street in Tokyo to buy a seiro, a dumpling steamer made of fragrant bent Akita Cedar wood and bamboo.

I don’t share her fascination for computerized sewing machines, smoothie blenders, and fuzzy bunny slippers, but she is an excellent cook and I would be a fool to deny her every possible assistance in obtaining any food-prep tool she desires.

Kappabashi Market

The entrance to Kappabashi Street, a center for kitchenware and restaurant supplies in Tokyo. If you enjoy cooking and the tools used in that contact sport, you must visit this huge shopping area.
The primary goal for the day: A cedar and bamboo seiro for steaming yummy dumplings. Mmm…. Dumplings.
A dish store in Kappabashi named Komatsuya. The wide angle lens makes it look bigger than it is, but the sheer volume and variety of dishes is not exaggerated.
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A knife store in Kappabashi. When professional chefs in Eastern Japan buy the tools of their profession, this is where they go. There are 8-10 such cutlery stores like this, all selling the world’s best food prep knives.
A bride going for a ride in a human-powered rikisha at Kappabashi.

Kaminari Mon (Lightning Gate)

From Kappabashi we walked to nearby Sensoji Temple, famous for the Kaminari Mon aka “The Lightning Gate” in Asakusa. Crowded with tourists, but good to see every few years.

The huge paper lantern hanging inside the Kaminari Gate at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. H3.9m x D3.3m x 700kg (1,543lbs). A dragon in clouds is carved into the base.

After purchasing the seiro and other essential items at Kappabashi and visiting Sensouji Temple and Kaminarimon, we went to a little restaurant and enjoyed a nice lunch. After lunch we traveled a little further afield to view the last hours of the year’s cherry blossoms.

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms have an important place in the hearts of the Japanese people. The seasons change suddenly here and cherry blossoms seem to explode into bloom. For a few days the trees are bright and fluffy and glorious, but as quickly as they appear the individual petals fall to the earth leaving green leaves behind. The fallen flower petals decorate parks, sidewalks and ponds and flow down the rivers in spinning, colorful rafts.

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The Japanese people love to walk underneath blossoming cherry trees, and where possible, spread a blanket under the flowers to enjoy lunch and few adult beverages with family and friends.


Since ancient times, as evidenced in literature, poetry (see the famous example above), and artwork, the budding, bloom and fall of cherry blossoms have been seen as a metaphor of all living things, including humans. Cherry blossoms represent a quiet, elegant, pure life with an inevitable, unselfish, beautiful ending. The cherry tree shares its bright raiment with everyone; The blossoms dance in the wind that scatters them. No complaints, no regrets, just the cycle of life.

Modest pink cherry blossoms close to the end

One of my favorite memories is of walking home from the train station late one night after a long day at work. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing. Fallen cherry blossom petals formed a soft, beautiful snowstorm that whirled around me in an unexpected and sudden blessing of nature.

Setsunai 切ない

Lest any druids or tree-huggers among my Gentle Readers be offended, I will not say that trees do not have emotions, but I think we can agree their language skills are limited. Humans however definitely have emotions and lots of words, so allow me to delve a little deeper into the Japanese language and the emotions cherry blossoms evoke in the hearts of many Japanese people (at least the mature ones). If there is even a little bit of an artist or poet hiding among the dusty barrels in your soul’s basement you should find it interesting.

There is a strange word in the Japanese language pronounced “Setsunai” and written 切ない The direct translation of the characters means “can’t cut.” Strange, right?

The dictionaries translate the word as “painful” (both physical and emotional); sad; or even “heartrending sorrow.” But when used in the context of something as beautiful and inevitable as the budding, flowering, falling, scattering and often muddy end of cherry blossoms, it is used to express the emotions of the quite, sad, unavoidable end of a beautiful thing that once gave joy, a natural event that repeats every year. Not hopelessness or despair, in this case, but sadness after beauty.

A human life is (hopefully) much like this cycle. A baby is born and becomes a happy, energetic child. It grows into an adult, is productive and loving, and imparts beauty into the world. The adult grows old; its beauty and energies change. And the day comes when each human’s physical existence fails and their spirit is carried away, perhaps dancing on the wind like the petals of a cherry blossom. Beautiful on the one hand, sad on the other, but definitely setsunai.

Knowing cherry blossoms will appear next year and the cycle of life will continue tempers the sadness at the loss of such great, unselfish beauty, and gives one hope for the future, at least for a while.

I invite you to read Onitsura’s poem at the top of this blog again. Simple but setsunai indeed.

A craftsman, upon realizing a chisel, plane or saw blade won’t cut may jokingly call it “setsunai,” but not in the poetic sense.

The End of the Day

We enjoyed a beautiful day at Kappabashi and Asakusa, complete with a lunch of tempura soba for me and some sort of raw fish for my patient wife. Life is short and sometimes hard, but it has its beautiful moments. I pray you have many such moments, and that your blossoming will be joyous and your dance on the wind graceful.

Fallen cherry blossoms floating quietly on the Shakujii Park pond. A beautiful ending to a short life. Who could ask for more?


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