The following is an old tale from Japan’s Toyama Prefecture. It’s not exactly a Christmas story, but includes all the classical elements a story shared on a cold winter’s eve must have: A beautiful maiden, a cranky blacksmith, an elemental creature, magic, weapons of death and destruction, an impossible challenge, and of course…, chickens. I hope you enjoy it.
Long long ago and far far away in a country in Japan called Etchu (modern day Toyama Prefecture) there was a large blacksmith’s shop.
The owner of the smithy, called “Master Blacksmith,” was well-to-do with many craftsmen working for him. He lived in a big house called a chouja.
Master Blacksmith had a single daughter of marriageable age, a rare beauty with almond eyes and long black hair shiny as a raven’s wing.
One day he announced to all the craftsmen in the area that he would give the hand of this daughter to the first suitor to forge 1,000 spearheads in a single night.
But no matter how skilled, every weapons blacksmith knows that it’s impossible to forge 1,000 spearheads in a single night, so his challenge went unanswered.
Master Blacksmith decided he needed to expand his offer and so put up a notice board describing his challenge alongside the main road for passersby to see, and waited for skilled craftsmen to appear.
Lo and behold an ogre that lived on a nearby mountain meandered by late one night and saw the notice. It did a little jig the way happy ogres do and gleefully exclaimed “Ha ha hee heee! A thousand spearheads is easy for meee!
The next morning, using the elemental magic that many ogres have, it changed his appearance to that of a young man and went down the mountain to Master Blacksmith’s house.
The Master looked doubtfully at the ogre in the shape of a young man and disdainfully said “What makes a young fella like you think he can make a thousand spearheads in one night?”
The ogre responded, “I can do it. I will surely make them before the cock crows in the morning.”
Thinking he had nothing to loose, the Master responded: “Then make them if you can.”
As the sun went down, the ogre in the shape of a young man went into the smithy, closed the doors, and began working.
Master Blacksmith heard sounds like the wind blowing from inside his smithy, but nary the sound of a hammer striking metal or the ringing of an anvil. Perplexed, he said to himself “What can he be doing in there?”
Slipping quietly around to the back of his smithy and peeking through a crack in the siding boards, Master Blacksmith was shocked as he had never been shocked before because he saw fire spewing from the young man’s mouth as he bent and folded and shaped yellow-hot steel in his bare hands like it was warm taffy!
Before his eyes a smoking stack of completed spearheads quickly grew. It became obvious to Master Blacksmith that all 1,000 spearheads would be finished well before dawn.
Fearful for his tender daughter, Master Blacksmith realized he had to do something to stop the strange young man from successfully completing the challenge, so he thought and thought and thought until his thinker overheated.
“The only way out of this mess I have made is for the cock to crow before all 1,000 spearheads are completed,” he eventually reasoned. Following this logic to it’s natural conclusion, he took a jar of hot water into the chicken coop where the chickens were all fast asleep dreaming of stretchy worms and crunchy beetles.
Desperate to make even a single chicken crow, he poured the hot water on the roost where the chickens slept soundly. The surprised chickens all woke at once in a panic with the hens squacking, cackling, and screaming while the roosters all crowed out “Cock-a-doodly dooooo!”
Hearing this racket from the chicken coop the ogre in the form of a young man became frightened, wailing out “I have been discovered!”
Instantly, the magic that had changed its appearance popped like a soap bubble revealing the ogre’s supernatural red skin, yellow horns, and shiny white fangs again. The ogre ran out of the smithy like ten stampeding bulls raising a cloud of smoke all the way back to the mountain where it came from never to be seen again.
With this, the blacksmith rubbed his chest and exclaimed in relief “I see, he was an ogre after all!”
“And just what is this?” he said as he walked fearfully over the shattered remains of the front door to his smithy and peered inside in amazement at the stack of smoking-hot, sparkling spearheads left behind by the ogre. Indeed, it turned out the red ogre had left behind exactly 999 completed spearheads, each wonderfully made.
From that day forward the blacksmith’s shop was famous for the quality of its spearheads, which are still known as “ogre-spears.”
And the blacksmith became wealthier than ever.
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For a change of pace, I would like to share this charming folktale from Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, of a sort traditionally told to small children.
We originally posted this little story about a year ago, but since those pesky pixies seem to have pulled it down, we are re-publishing it today for Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day holiday and because Tengo was such a great workman (or at least labor producer).
I have included photo extracts from the Kasuga Gongen Genki E (春日権現験記絵) scrolls painted in 1309 on silk using silver and gold paints, showing carpenters working on the Kasuga Temple jobsite.
My children and I enjoyed this story. Perhaps you and yours will too.
The Tale of Tengo and Tenjin
Once upon a time there was a very good carpenter. But he was sad because he lived alone, so he asked the prettiest girl in the village to be his bride.
She did not want to marry, but to put him off without hurting his feelings, she decided to charge him with an impossible task.
“If you will build me a big house with 60 tatami mats in a single day, then I will marry you.” (60 tatami mats = approx 99 square meters = 1065 sqft based on the standard modern tatami mat)
The carpenter was shocked by this demand, but because he wanted her for his bride, he boldly accepted the challenge saying: “I will build you this house in one day.”
His voice rang with confidence as he said this, but he despaired in his heart knowing he could not build such a large and beautiful house in one day. He thought to himself “ What shall I do, what shall I do?”
But never fear, because as you have probably guessed, our carpenter was no ordinary fellow to give up easily. Before long he came up with a plan.
He made 2,000 dolls out of straw and breathed on each while casting a magical spell transforming them all into human carpenters.
The carpenter and his 2,000 man crew then went to work.
With the assistance of his 2,000 helpers, the carpenter completed building his bride-to-be’s house before the sun went down that day,
Overjoyed, the carpenter flew to the pretty girl’s house to tell her of his success. “I have finished the house you asked for. Please marry me now!”
“Truly?” she asked. Upon inspecting the work she found a big, beautiful house with 60 tatami mats, just as she had asked. “I will marry you.” she said.
And thus the prettiest girl in the village became the carpenter’s bride.
The carpenter and his bride then moved into their happy new home.
Afterwards, the 2,000 carpenters scattered throughout Japan to build houses, temples and bridges and teach many other carpenters how to build beautiful things for many years.
After several happy years had passed, the bride said to her husband “I have been silent up to now, but the time has come to tell you the whole truth. I am not really a human being, but an angel named Tenjin. I came down to earth from the kingdom of heaven. But the time has now come for me to return to heaven.”
The carpenter replied: “Ah, well, now that you mention it, I’m not a human being either, but a carpenter god named Tengo. Let’s both return to heaven together.”
So Tengo and Tenjin rose high into heaven where they still live happily ever after.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or twitchy Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.
The following is an old country folktale of the sort a grandfather would tell his grandchildren before bedtime. So imagine you are little boy or girl sitting around an irori fire with your family on a full-moon autumn night, with the wind rustling the dried leaves on the trees just outside the closed wooden amado doors, as your white-bearded grandfather tells you this tale. Don’t be frightened!
Long ago and far away a traveling merchant was crossing over a mountain in the country of Oki in Japan (Sanin area) at sunset. As he reached the highest point he came upon a large lone pine tree with a crotch at about twice a man’s height. Using a bit of rope he always carried, the chubby merchant managed to pull himself up into the crotch and fell soundly asleep as the darkness deepened around him.
Hearing a strange sound, the merchant woke suddenly and was shocked to see his tree surrounded by dozens of large, long-toothed goblin cats glaring up at him in the darkness and yowling. He panicked fearing the monsters would jump into the tree and attack, and him without any way to escape. But all he could do was sit in the tree and pray the goblin cats would just go away.
At some point the beleaguered merchant began to realize the goblin cats were not just yowling but were actually speaking words he could just make out.
“My fellow goblin cats” said the boss cat. “That plump human in yon tree is the perfect main course for our banquet tonight, but obviously we can’t wait here all night for it to fall out.” The largest cat proposed a solution. “Noble goblin cats, I tell you what; I’ll climb the tree and push the fat lump out. When he hits the ground you jump on him, and our feast will be secured.” Without waiting for a response from his demonic feline friends the goblin cat placed a stick against the tree’s trunk, extended his sharp claws, and using the stick for his first step, slowly crept up the tree trunk towards the intended victuals.
Hearing these strange words and seeing the boss goblin cat’s preparations, the merchant realized he was facing a sticky end best avoided, so he quietly unsheathed his long 9sun 5bu dagger (288mm, 11.3 inches) and readied it for the cat’s attack. (If you like blades, here are some links to YouTube videos of beautiful formally recognized historical examples: (Yoshimitsu tanto (designated National Treasure); A tanto by Sukesada of the Osafune School of Bizen in the “yoroidoushi” style intended to penetrate armor. A tanto designated as a “Tangible Cultural Property” with the name “Uebataima“.)
The plump merchant couldn’t see anything in the poor light, but he heard the frightening sound of the goblin cat’s claws cutting into the treebark as it climbed “Zaku.., zaku…, zaku..”
He thought to himself “Here it comes!” “Just a little more now!!”
Suddenly the merchant saw the cat’s face just as it leaped at him with hooked claws extended and salivating fangs bared, but the merchant’s dagger pierced deeply into the big goblin cat’s abdomen releasing a fountain of blood, killing it instantly. The cat’s body collapsed in the same tree crotch with the merchant.
The goblin cats surrounding the base of the tree yowled and screeched like the demons from hell they were as they circled the tree’s base, shredding the bark with their wickedly sharp claws, then yowled and screeched some more. At last one of the evil creatures calmed down enough to say “It seems tonight’s dinner is more formidable than we first thought.” Hearing this, the merchant pushed the dead goblin cat’s limp and sticky body out of the tree so it landed with a wet thump right in front of furious goblin cats circling below.
Looking at their expired leader’s body, the goblin cats all jumped twisting into the air, cutting with their claws, spitting, frothing, screeching and yowling even harder. Then one said angrily “Now dinner’s gone and done it! This means war!” Spitting, hissing, and screaming things I won’t repeat to you children the goblin cats all scrambled up the tree towards the merchant getting in each other’s way and making a real hash of the job. In the confusion the merchant, who wasn’t really all that good with weapons, used his dagger to hack and stab every goblin cat that came within his reach killing and injuring more of the monsters.
The surviving goblin cats stopped their reckless attack and huddled panting and bloodied at the tree’s base arguing how to deal with this difficult menu item. “What shall we doooooo! What shall we doooooo!!“ they yowled up at the sky in frustration.
As they gradually calmed down one cool cat said “We must avenge these foul murders even if we all die in the attempt.” Another cat added “I’m not afraid to die but I worry about what will become of our mates and kittens if we are killed.”
The cool cat thought for a minute and finally said “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s go ask the blacksmith’s granny for help.” And with that all the goblin cats sped off into the dark like greased lightning.
Seeing his chance to escape, the merchant sheathed his dagger, gathered up his pack, and started to climb down from the tree. But before he could lower himself all the way down from his perch in the tree he heard the rhythmically chanting voices. In the dim light of the rising moon the merchant could just make out a palanquin born by six goblin cats chanting in cadence and surrounded by many others approach and stop beneath his tree.
“This is the place, Granny.” “Please knock that fat human out of this tree so we can eat him at our banquet!” beseeched the goblin cats.
The palanquin door slowly slid open revealing not a human grandmother but a huge white goblin cat of great dignity wearing a sleeveless kimono with a snow-white shawl over its shoulders. The monster rolled its large eyes in disgust at the smaller goblin cats and said “What is wrong with you useless ninnies?! Can’t you even take care of a pitiful human like that? You bunch are hopeless as yakuza.”
She paused her berating of her fellow goblin cats, and gazing up into the tree said “Well, I suppose I must knock this human out of the tree myself. Such a bother! You useless idiots stay out of my way now.”
With one voice the smaller goblin cats all yowled “Thank you Grandmother!”
Grandma cat removed her white shawl and handed it to the closest younger goblin cat, then began carefully testing her claws on the tree trunk. When her claws were ready, and without a second look up at the trapped merchant, she slowly began to climb the tree.
Let me pause here, children, to catch my breath and wet my whistle….. Ahh, thank you Hanako, an excellent libation indeed! Your mother’s sake brewing skills improve every year. And you helped, did you? An excellent child. Well done. Just one more sip.
Ah yes, and where was I? That’s right. The huge white goblin cat, who did not look anything like a granny at all, was slowly climbing a tree high in the moonlit mountains, one sharp claw at a time, to kill a plump, tasty human who had repelled and killed several precious members of her goblin cat yakuza gang.
So far the frightened merchant had bravely driven off every attack, but this time his legs were shaking with dread at the memory of the many goblin cats and the boss goblin cat that had attacked him already, but to make things worse, now a huge white monster goblin cat had arrived in a deluxe palanquin no less, and was climbing his tree! What terrible creatures they were! Can you imagine it little children?
Once again he heard the zaku.. zaku… zaku sound of claws cutting into the tree coming closer, but this time the pace seemed slower than before, perhaps because the newly arrived goblin cat was older and bigger. The poor merchant’s whole body shook like a leaf with fear.
It’s getting closer…. It’s almost here!!
But after another minute passed the big goblin cat still hadn’t reached his roost, so the merchant began to hope he might be able to to fend off the monster with his blade.
He gripped his knife tighter in his sweaty hands… and raised it over his head… just like this!
Suddenly the big goblin cat’s huge eyes appeared right in front of the treed human’s face. Gyaaaaaaa! he screamed in fear.
The monster struck out with its wicked, curved claws cutting the shocked merchant’s face deeply. But the merchant recovered his senses, and despite his injury, cut about wildly with his knife.
The big white goblin cat jumped up onto a limb of the tree and deftly swatted away the merchant’s frantic blows with her huge paws.
In between blows the man and the goblin cat spat curses and gasped for breath covering each other’s face with stringy spittle.
Although it seemed like the battle continued for hours, in less than a minute the merchant had been driven out to the end of the tree limb with no room to retreat. Suddenly, one of the goblin cats down below called out in despair, “Oh no, the sun is rising!”
Hearing this, the big white goblin cat stopped her attack, jumped down from the tree, stepped briskly into the palanquin, slid the door closed, and raced down the mountain road followed by all the other goblin cats scrambling like cockroaches in the sunlight.
As the sun began to rise in the East, the panting merchant collapsed back into his tree crotch. He thought about running far away from the terrible place until he recalled how afraid the goblin cats had seemed of the morning sun. And he thought of getting revenge for his injuries too, but confident there were enough hours of daylight left to make a decision, he collapsed back into his tree crotch and fell into an exhausted sleep. As he slept, he remembered the goblin cats that had first surrounded his tree saying something about the blacksmith’s grandmother.
When the sun was high and bright, the merchant climbed down from his tree, sore in every joint and with deep and painful cuts on his face, and followed the path down the mountain the goblin cats had taken. After he had walked a while he began to hear the “tink tonk tink tonk” sound of a hammer striking metal. Soon he came upon a small blacksmith’s shop with a house nearby. Inside the smithy was sweaty man hammering away at a hoe blade.
“May I ask you a question, good blacksmith?” said the merchant. The blacksmith paused his hammering, looked over the cut and bloody merchant and responded “Yup, what do you want?”
The merchant said “I heard there was a grandmother living around here….” The blacksmith pointed his hammer towards the house and said “Well, maybe. My granny is been sick and hasn’t left the house over there in a long time.” He raised his chin, squinted his eys at the disheveled merchant, just like this, and asked sharply, “What’s your business?” The merchant calmly answered “I have something to deliver to her.” The blacksmith then asked “Who is it from?” The merchant said “they didn’t give their name, just handed me this package and left.” The package the merchant was holding contained a whole yellowtail tuna fish he had bought at a fishmonger’s shop on the way. It wasn’t a very fresh fish though, and stank badly.
The blacksmith gave the merchant a distrusting look, when from inside the house they heard a hoarse voice croaking out “Saburo!” The blacksmith’s name was apparently Saburo because he called back “Yes, grandmother?” The voice answered “What’s going on?” Saburo answered “Somebody brought you a big fish, grandmother.” “Well, what are you waiting for, bring it here.”
With that, Saburo accepted the stinky fish and took it inside the house. When he returned, the merchant whispered to him explaining the events of the night before and pointing at the deep cuts on his face and arms as evidence. But the blacksmith would not believe the strange story and responded “That’s ridiculous!” “But I tell you, it’s true” said the merchant. “If you doubt me, just take a look for yourself.”
The two men then walked around to the back of the house as quietly as a pair of tiny mice wearing fuzzy bunny slippers, slid open the shoji doors into grandma’s room just a crack, and peered inside where they saw an old woman wearing a white kimono sitting up on her futon. The old woman reached out to the package containing the fish, brought her nose close, and smelled it “sniff, sniff.” As the two men watched, she greedily snatched the big raw smelly fish from inside the paper packaging and began to greedily bite off large chunks and swallow them.
With this, the merchant slammed open the shoji door, and jumped into the room. Saburo was too shocked to do anything but let out a roar of indignation. Surprised by the sudden noise, grandma turned back into her true form of a huge, white goblin cat, but before she could attack or flee, the merchant drew his sword and cut down the monster which leaked rivers of bright blue blood and died right there, thank you very much.
Saburo was so shocked by seeing his grandmother change into a monster and then die in a puddle of blue blood he could do nothing but stand there with his mouth hanging open as flies buzzed in and out.
Finally, the merchant asked “How long has she been alone in this room?” Saburo closed his mouth, opened it again, and said “About three years now.” “Three years, huh? Well your real grandmother is nothing more than bones by now, I wager.”
At the merchant’s urging, the blacksmith and his neighbors searched the house, and towards evening they found a pile of white bones wearing the Blackmith’s grandmother’s kimono under the floor, meaning the big white goblin cat had killed grandma and had been passing itself of as her for 3 whole years.
A sad but all too common story. Time for bed now my little ones.
(A folk tale from Oki Province)
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“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.
A wise man once said that every tool with a cord or a battery ends up in the landfill. I don’t know where my electrical woodchucks will end up, but I doubt any will find their way into museums.
The second I open a pretty powertool’s box, its value plummets to the basement never to recover. Was it a good investment? Perhaps it would be if I still made a living with them, but not so much now.
And sure as eggses is eggses, a year or so after opening that darn box a new and improved version of my little electronic piggy will be on the market wearing high-heels, a short skirt, and too much makeup. They tell me that’s progress….
Buying a power tool feels to me like bringing a shiny-eyed puppy with a furiously waggling tale home knowing I will abandon it later. It doesn’t seem right anymore.
And then there’s the financial and environmental aspects. While necessary for many jobs, power tools often cost more to have professionally repaired than to buy a new replacement. What’s with that? And the replacement batteries for those cordless beasties are not only ridiculously overpriced, the chemicals in them are poisonous forever.
Necessary? Perhaps. Long-term value? Not so much.
But handtools are different, IMHO. The quality ones are useful for generations. Many are even beautiful. Perhaps their resale value will not rise, but over time the good ones hold their monetary value. Especially the handmade ones. And I like to believe their intrinsic value will increase many times.
Ever think about how much money you spend on useful things that give you pleasure? Steak? Coffee? Beer? Donuts (mmm…. donuts)? Vacations? Big-screen TV’s? By comparison, quality tools are cheap, last a long time, are practical, promote healthy activity and productivity, and don’t make us fat, sick, dull, send us into a ditch, or raise our insurance rates.
A chisel may nick me now and then, but I will never fly my plane into a mountain.
And speaking of planes, remember when you were finish planing that piece of pine? The sharp blade; the sole tuned to perfection; the tight mouth. Whispy, translucent shavings boiled out of the plane’s body releasing a sweet evergreen smell and leaving a shimmering surface on the board.
And do you remember cutting those dovetails in cherry? Your favorite saw followed the layout line without hesitation, stopping the cut at the perfect depth. Something magical about that saw…
And how about your favorite paring chisel? Do you remember what it felt like shaping that mahogany neck, and the sight of the slowly emerging elegant shapes the sharp slender darling cut so effortlessly? Remember how it felt more like a part of your hand than an inanimate thing of metal and wood? Now that’s a blade!
Quality tools give me a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. How bout you?
Sadly, not all is blue bunnies and fairy farts. She Who Must Be Obeyed relentlessly counts the cost but sternly rejects the value of the woodworking tools I love. Her feminine mind can rationalize spending a fortune on cloth and thread and needles and the latest, greatest computer-controlled Swiss-made sewing machine with a 4-dimensional laser-guided unobtanium armature and smoothie blender attachment, but her eye narrows, turns sickly yellow, and dribbles poison at the sight of my latest plane or chisel.
Estrogen poisoning, I fear. Need to get that checked…
Will the things we buy now, use for a span of days, and leave behind when we go to the big woodpile in the sky be valued by our grandkids, or will they be sold to buy video games?
The bones are rolling.
I just know that I cherish my father’s old tools, and they still work pretty darn good.
Cheap at twice the price, says I.
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.ow. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.”
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings”
The story of C&S Tools is not one of a business looking for products to sell, or of a manufacturer looking for buyers, but of craftsmen looking for better tools.
I have lived and worked in Japan for many years, and learned about Japanese woodworking and Japanese tools from serious professional craftsmen called “shokunin.” They included primarily carpenters and joiners, gentlemen that were obsessed with the performance of their tools. They influenced me to seek out the best handmade woodworking tools available, including chisels, planes and saws because better tools help one work more productively while making the job more pleasant. I am still absolutely convinced that is true.
I bought many different brands of tools back in the 8o’s and tested them. I asked craftsmen who’s skill and work impressed me what brands of chisels and planes and saws they used. After years of trying various brands, in the end, I concluded that Kiyotada and Ichihiro made the best chisels and Yokozaka Masato made the best plane blades available at the time. Over the next ten years, I disposed of my other chisels and planes and built up sets of chisels and planes by these blacksmiths.
My work has required me to move many times. In 2009 I was transferred back to Tokyo from Southern California, but the moving company mistakenly placed all of my chisels and planes in storage in the US instead of shipping them to Tokyo, so for several years I did not have access to them.
I no longer use my tools to feed the family, but still enjoy woodworking as both hobby and therapy to help maintain my sanity, so life in Tokyo without my tools was lacking something important. I tried to purchase a few of my favorite tools by Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka but found they were no longer available, and because of the Kezuroukai effect, even used ones had doubled in price. Only Yokozaka-san was still alive, but once again, the Kezuroukai effect resulted in long waiting lists and inflated prices for his planes. I eventually purchased a 10pc set of oiirenomi chisels from a retailer I trusted under the brandname Kiyohisa because, while the retailer warned that Kiyohisa’s products were nowhere near as good as Kiyotada or Ichihiro, he insisted that the Kiyohisa brand was as good as it gets anymore. They were fairly expensive.
Sadly, the Kiyohisa chisels were not only inferior to Kiyotada’s products, but of poor quality even when compared to cheapo tools, with some blades chipping unduly, others rolling their edges, and still others with poorly-performing differentially-hardened cutting edges. Absolutely hopeless. I took them back to the retailer and demanded a refund, but he responded that Kiyohisa products did not have a warranty. I since learned that this blacksmith does not warrant any of this products. As you can imagine I lost faith in that retailer’s opinion and the products they sell. You can probably imagine my opinion of Kiyohisa too, so I won’t inflict you with the rant.
At this point I started buying many different famous brandname chisels and tested them to destruction. The standard against which I compared them all was the excellent Kiyotada products forged by Shimamura Kosaburo, a blacksmith who was at one time lauded by metallurgists as being the best chisel blacksmith in Japan. I have yet to find a better chisel, but I tried. The testing criteria were initial sharpness, durability (resistance to cracking and chipping) and edge retention ability.
The testing process I employed was to sharpen each 24mm chisel’s blade to 10,000 grit, and cut mortises with it in a Japanese hardwood called Keyaki (zelkova wood). I would abuse each chisel to determine how tough it was, and examine the edge after cutting each mortise. If the edge rolled or dented (and many did), then I knew it was too soft and rejected it. But if it chipped, broke, or performed well, I took it to the next step where I re-sharpened it and continued to cut mortises until the edge chipped or dulled. I rejected those chisels that readily chipped or quickly dulled. Most of the newly-produced chisels sold under famous brand names, and all the chisels produced in Miki, which were too soft, failed these comparative tests utterly.
It was an expensive process but I learned an important lesson, namely, that brandname has nothing to do with quality or performance; The true source of quality and performance in edged tools is rather the blacksmith himself, his experience, skill, and rock-solid dedication to quality. Sadly, this common-sense logic is not applicable to mass-produced products. The key point is that most “brandnames” are sold by wholesalers and retailers to “markets” that have no direct voice, whereas blacksmiths sell to “customers” that give them direct feedback. Accordingly, the quality and performance of a blacksmith’s products directly impact his personal reputation and self-respect, as illustrated by the example mentioned above, whereas most wholesalers and retailers have little at stake.
If a tool wholesaler’s primary market is amateurs located in far-flung countries outside of Japan, then appearance and a reputation of his brandnames, inflated by marketing, have much greater influence on his profits than blade quality. Indeed, few amateurs in any country know how to properly use and maintain professional-grade chisels. Even in Japan, amateurs carelessly damage blades blaming their failure on the blacksmith and making it a warranty problem for the wholesaler and retailer. Therefore, when marketing exclusively to inexperienced amateurs either domestically or internationally, the wholesaler’s surest path to profitability is to sell mass-produced blades that are softer and more resistant to damage than blades intended exclusively for professional woodworkers. Blades sold primarily to amateurs overseas do not need to be hand-forged from the best materials but can be mass-produced using less-expensive steel at lower cost resulting in higher profits. That is the Miki way of doing business, very much in the style of MacDonalds. Do you like kangaroo meat?
I had learned an expensive lesson, and so putting it to good use, I next went looking for real live blacksmiths instead of famous names. I focused on traditional blacksmiths unaffiliated with the large wholesalers, working in small smithies who continued to produce chisels and planes for professionals using traditional blacksmithing techniques, and did not stoop to mass-production. I had set myself a time consuming challenge that couldn’t be accomplished using the internet or telephone alone. I bought more chisels and damaged more blades. I spent weekends on trains going all over Japan visiting woodworkers and blacksmiths, inspecting forges, and checking QC techniques and steel stockpiles. At last I found 3 chisel blacksmiths and one plane blacksmith that consistently produced only the professional-grade tools I wanted with real-world performance approaching that of Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka.
I should add that Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka’s tools were expensive even when they were alive and producing daily. But since the tools I was seeking were to be secondary, perhaps temporary tools, I was willing to sacrifice appearance for lower cost on condition that the tools satisfied my performance goals. The blacksmiths I found did not make the prettiest blades, but they all cut like crazy and kept cutting a long time without dulling or chipping.
During this process I was in communication with professional woodworker friends in the US that know how to use and maintain Japanese planes and chisels. I told them of my adventures and even sent them some of the tools I found to try. After testing the tools they too wanted some. Word of mouth spread and one thing lead to another.
I have a day job, so C&S Tools is not focused on maximizing profits. We sell our tools for the standard retail price in Japan plus PayPal fees of 4.1%, without a gaijin or export markup. It’s more of an excuse for me to spend time with the Japanese blacksmiths and other honest craftsmen I respect.
Unfortunately, our blacksmiths are not getting younger. All are in their late 70’s and 80’s. Production will not continue much longer, so if you are looking for professional-grade chisels and planes at a reasonable price, as I was, then don’t wait too long. No one knows when the “grey rain-curtain of this world will roll back and all will turn to silver glass,” as the old wizard put it.
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant, Stan Covington
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Warning: This is a special Halloween post, but it may not be suitable for children.
In keeping with the Halloween season, I want to share this story about an unfortunate woman on the way back home.
The Japanese people have loved scary stories of all kinds for as far back as we know. Judging by the increasing popularity of horror movies in the USA, this is not a unique tendency.
True to form, this story includes themes common to many Japanese horror stories, such as lonely places and good food, helpless women and ropes, and a sad ending, indeed everything a scary Japanese folk tale needs.
As you read it, imagine you are a little boy or girl in a dark and drafty room in an old farmhouse tight against a bamboo forest. Big smoke-blackened wooden beams twist through the space overhead. It’s dark outside and chilly; the wind is softly blowing outside making the bamboo and paper-covered shoji doors rattle, and the few remaining dry leaves rustle. Mother has just finished cleaning up after the simple evening meal. You’re still a little hungry, but it was enough. A small fire is burning in the square sand-filled irori in the center of the room where Mother and Grandmother cooked dinner. The family is relaxing around the fire, and you are leaning against your mother or father as Grandmother tells this old story. I won’t insist you enjoy it, but I hope you can grasp the atmosphere of rural Japan in past centuries.
Long ago and far away there was a woman named Osei. She was 25 years old.
She had traveled from her home to visit her parents in a different village for several days. It was a half-day journey for a woman, normally one her husband or younger brother would have accompanied her on, but they were both too busy to travel with her this time.
Anyway, let’s walk along with Osei on her lonely path through a dim bamboo thicket at twilight.
Suddenly a man appeared by the side of the path, as if he had been waiting for her. Osei screamed in surprise.
The man was huge and looked just like you would imagine a bandit would be with a long, unkempt beard and wearing a dirty sleeveless kimono. He grabbed Osei’s slender arm violently and dragged her in among the thick bamboo stalks. Osei screamed like a banshee on fire but the thick silent forest swallowed the sound without an echo. Only a fox and the mice he was hunting nearby heard Osei’s calls for help.
Osei struggled frantically to free herself from his iron grip, but without stopping the man just looked back at her admonishingly and said “Calm down, I’m not going to eat you! I just want you to be my wife.”
The large, dirty man held tightly to one of Osei’s arms, while Osei’s feet and free hand scrambled in the fallen leaves on the forest floor trying to get back to the path. Hearing his words, she managed to gasp out “Wait, wait! I can’t be your wife, I already have a husband and two small children waiting for me at home! Please let me go!”
Without releasing her the man stopped and with a puzzled expression said “Think about it. There is only endless drudgery waiting for you at your husband’s drafty hovel. And the best you will have to eat is rough barley rice and pickled greens, right?” “But if you come with me your life will be easy. You can relax indoors all day and eat delicious foods. That’s a lot better than your life now, I wager.” He made other strange arguments about nice clothes and servants, but Osei didn’t hear a single word, she just continued to scream and struggle.
Giving up on trying to convince Osei with words, the man tied her up, threw her over his shoulder, and strode purposefully away into the bamboo forest. After a while, the forest opened up to a clearing with a single house. The house was large and well made, like a Governor’s mansion.
The man carried her into the house and lowered her onto the floor. Looking steadily into her eyes he firmly said “You are now the woman of this house. Your life here will be easy, so long as you don’t go outside. You will have delicious things to eat and a new silk kimono to wear everyday. Then you will understand that what I have said is true. Even if you think I am lying, stay here for just one month anyway, and after that you will be free to go. So stop all this hysterical wailing.”
Osei continued to cry, but after a while dinner appeared. It was everything the scruffy bandit said it would be.
Osei grew up on a farm and was a poor farmer’s wife so she had never even seen such luxurious food before. But thoughts of her husband and children made it impossible to eat a morsel, so she just sat in a corner of the room and cried in despair.
But humans are calculating creatures unable to live on affection alone. After three days she became so hungry she finally relented and ate a mouthful of food.
There were foods from both the sea and the mountains, wonderful dishes she had never seen before much less tasted. She didn’t forget her husband or children for even a second, but rationalized that the separation would only be for a month. As the days passed she began to eat regularly a little at a time.
Osei spent each day alone in her room simply eating and reading picture books the man brought to her, so she was not especially bored.
Most importantly, the man did not pressure her for physical relations, so the tension between them gradually relaxed.
Eventually, however, Osei had read every picture book several times and was left with nothing to do. She was bored.
One day as the smelly bandit was taking his usual afternoon nap she snuck out of the house as quiet as a mouse wearing fuzzy pink slippers. She slipped from the veranda into a large garden with a big white kura warehouse off to the side. She heard voices from inside the warehouse, and what sounded like rain dripping from a leaky roof. Osei was curious and peeked into the warehouse’s open doors. What she saw inside shocked her so badly she had to kneel to keep from falling over.
What Osei saw in the kura was dozens of bound women hanging upside down from the ceiling beams by ropes around their ankles as naked as the day they were born. Every single one of them was plump and sweating a yellowish liquid from their hair follicles and face which fell into a clay pot placed on the floor below each woman making a “drip, drip, drip” sound.
Osei was deeply ashamed at her indolence while these women had been suffering so close by. She began to cry at the sight. One of the women noticed Osei and whispered “Run! Hurry run away! If you don’t escape you too will end up hanging here with us while he steals your body’s oil!” With that all the hanging women looked at Osei pitifully and said as one “Run and bring us help!”
Osei was so shocked at first she couldn’t respond to the women’s pleas, but after a few minutes she did manage to stand and run away like a scared rabbit as fast as she could. As she fled through the forest and thickets daylight failed and she became even more fearful, but she continued running until at last she saw a light in the distance. It was an old farmhouse. She ran to the door and banged on it loudly until an old snaggle-toothed white-haired woman slid open the door.
“What’s the matter; why are you so panicked?” the old woman asked Osei. Reassured by the old woman’s concern Osei quickly explained what had happened.
“Well, come inside dear. I had no idea such a scary ruffian was skulking around these mountains,” said the old woman. “Oh no, I hear someone coming!” she suddenly barked, and pulled Osei inside sliding the door closed with a loud “clack!” Osei peeked through a crack at the doorframe and indeed saw a large figure running through the dark bamboo forest towards the house. “That’s him! That’s the man! He’s coming!” she gibbered in a low panicked voice.
The old woman guided Osei to a ladder going up to the house’s attic. “Quickly now, climb this ladder and hide above. There is a pile of hemp bags in the corner. Climb inside one of them and stay very very quiet until I get rid of that animal. I will hide the ladder so he won’t find you.”
Osei climbed the ladder, found the pile of bags, and curled up inside one as small and quietly as a potato bug. She could hear someone banging on the door below, and the old woman saying “I’m coming, I’m coming! Wait a second!” As the door slid open she heard the large man’s voice saying “A woman just came here, didn’t she!”
The old woman responded “No one but you has come here today.” The man’s voice said “Don’t lie, I saw her!”
“How could you see anything in this darkness?” said the old woman.
“You have an oil lamp burning inside. I saw her shadow at this very door when you opened it just now!”
“You must have seen my shadow twice,“ the old woman argued.
The man was angry now and spit out “I’m no fool! No way I would mistake an old hag like you for a young woman even in the dark.” “You’re trying to steal the woman I was preparing!”
The old woman lowered her voice, but Osei could still hear her response “Haven’t you got enough women already? Couldn’t you share just one with your old mother?”
The man continued to argue with the old woman, but eventually he calmed down and spit out “ Just this once, then, mother.” “Where have you hidden her?”
“In the attic,” responded the snaggle-toothed old woman pointing upwards with a finger and grinning. “Inside one of the bags. And while your at it, would you be a good boy and hang a new rope for me?”
“You know, you’re a lot of trouble for such an ugly old hag!” responded the man’s voice.
Hearing this Osei tried to escape from the bag, but before she could get away she was wrapped in rope. The bag was suddenly and powerfully torn open and she was pulled out, only to be tied with a thick, rough rope around her ankles and suspended through a hole cut in the ceiling above the hallway below. Clearly, the rope and hole had been prepared well in advance and used before.
Osei looked around and saw the ruffian and his mother looking back at her. Of course, they appeared to be upside down. Looking at the floor below, Osei noticed a large clay pot placed directly below her with what appeared to be some yellow oil in the bottom.
Before long, a slow drip, drip, drip, … of oily sweat fell from Osei into the pot.
A sad ending to an all too common story of suffering.
(A folktale from the island of Kikaijima, located between Kyushu and Okinawa)
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 profitably “misplace” your information.