An ancient tradition of blades of the highest quality, made possible by superior smiths and the natural abundance of the region

The history of Bizen
The ancient province of Kibi (of which Bizen was the easternmost region; now Okayama prefecture) possessed excellent ironmaking technology, which helped make Kibi into a powerful state. The region is blessed with all the vital ingredients needed for Japanese sword making: iron sand, water, and charcoal of Japanese red pine, which has excellent thermal efficiency. Osafune district in the city of Setouchi, where the present day sword museum is located, has been renowned across Japan as the production site of quality swords since the Kamakura period (1185–1333).
What is a Bizen sword?
Research on Japanese swords since the Meiji period has revealed five different features or styles based on the regions in which they were made: Yamashiro (Kyoto prefecture), Yamato (Nara prefecture), Bizen (Okayama prefecture), Sagami (Kanagawa prefecture), and Mino (Gifu prefecture. The characteristic styles of these five regions were passed down from master to disciple and from one region to the next. These are collectively known as Gokaden (five traditions of swordmaking). 
The history of Bizen swords
During the latter half of the Heian  period (794–1185) the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan emerged as the two major warrior clans, with the tachi sword rapidly becoming their weapon of choice. More and more swordsmiths producing various tachi sword styles began to appear in the province of Bizen, which is also the location for quality iron sand. After the passing of Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199) in the Kamakura period, Empoeror Gotoba (1180–1239) promoted swordmaking in his bid to counter the Hōjō clan. With the Hōjō clan winning the Jōkyū War (1221) and seizing power, the techniques of making tachi swords — which were the main weapons in these battles — developed further, reaching a pinnacle in the history of Japan’s swords. With the changes in of warfare methods taking place during the latter half of the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and the Nanbokuchō period of Northern and Southern Courts (1333–1392), infantry replaced cavalry and the lighter, shorter uchigatana (katana) swords also became complementary to the long heavy tachi swords. After the outbreak of the Ōnin War (1467–1477) uchigatana sword became the main weapon and demand for this type of sword peaked. To satisfy this demand, many swordsmiths begain residing at Osafune; it is said that there were so many of them that area boasted “thousands of smith shops” between Kamakura and Muromachi (1392–1573) periods. 
Features of Bizen sword
The province of Bizen was located far from Japan's political center throughout its history, allowing it to prosper regardless of the political state of sovereignty of the day. The most typical Bizen blade has a steel surface grain called itamehada (wooden board grained) with a unique pattern called chōji (clove-shaped) on the blade. This pattern is a feature of Bizen swords and it is what makes Bizen swords special.  
The establishment of the Bizen Osafune Sword Museum
The museum first opened in 1987 as Bizen Osafune Museum, but reopened in 2006 as Bizen Osafune Sword Museum to focus its exhibits on Bizen swords. The museum offers visitors a chance to see live demonstrations of the making of Japanese swords as well, making it the only museum in the world that allows its visitors to not only appreciate famous swords on display, but also to see with their own eyes how beautiful Japanese swords are made with exacting traditional craftsmanship.
Bizen Osafune Swordsmith Workshops
Next to the museum are the Bizen Osafune Swordsmith Workshops in which museum visitors can watch two accredited sword masters forge swords. The workshops are typical of those in which a swordsmith would work, and they let visitors see with their own eyes how the masters forge tamahagane (steel made from iron sand or black sand), and forge and quench blades among the flying sparks.
The job of the sword polisher
The blade into whose forging the sword master has poured all his soul and energy is polished by a sword polisher known as a togishi. The blade becomes sharp and shines after it has been polished.
The job of the saya maker
There are two types of scabbards used for Japanese swords. The formal sword mounting (koshirae) is usually lacquered and comes with a full set of metal sword fittings, such as the tsuba (guard). The plain wood scabard for storage and long term protection is called a shirasaya. The koshirae is for outdoor use, while the shirasaya is for preserving the sword when not on display or in use. The making of shirasaya (or saya) requires meticulous craftsmanship. The wood used for plain scabbards is dried magnolia wood that has aged for ten years or more. Magnolia wood is chosen for its lack of oil and its ability to shut out magnetism. More importantly, it is also easy to work with and prevents the sword from rusting.
The job of the lacquerer 
Because Japanese sword sheath is a practical item, it is vital that it can withstand long use. It is also important to make the final finish beautiful. A graceful sword mounting requires between two and three months of great labor to finish.
The job of the hilt wrapper
The tsukamaki is the leather or cord that is wrapped around the sword hilt (handle) to reinforce it and make it easier to swing the sword by providing better grip. In ancient times, sword hilts were wrapped using lacquer tree bark or wisteria vine, but during the Edo period (1615–1868) people began to use leather to cover the hilts and to wrap them in diamond-patterned braided silk cord. Ray skin was also used to reinforce the handle and ensure that the wrapped braid remained in place, without slipping. High-quality ray skin with a glossy, bumpy, pearl-like surface was rare. Though ray skin was extremely expensive in those days, it was thought to be the only kind of leather to offer all three elements required for the hilt: reinforcement, holding the wrapping in place, and aesthetics.
The job of the metalwork artisan
The same steel used to forge the sword is used for the tsuba (guard). The making of the tsuba includes design tracing, carving, and polishing. To add color to the tsuba, metals such as gold, silver or copper are inlaid into intricate designs.
Passing down the craft to future generations
“Japanese swords contain elements of almost all genres of traditional Japanese craft, with the exception of ceramics. Since they are functional objects, the shape and weight of Japanese swords are naturally important — they embody the beauty of function. All the elements including the hilt, metal fittings and lacquering made for the sword have a meaning. And the energy and passion the craftsmen put into making a Japanese sword is extraordinary,” says Mr. Ueno Tetsuya, the curator of the museum.
Future of Bizen Sword
The museum was in the news when the The Evangelion and Japanese Swords Exhibition opened at the museum in 2012 and it received 47,000 visitors in two months. Normally, even special exhibitions at the museum only attract about 5,000 visitors, so this number was tremendous. Of the six exhibitions shown a year, three are special exhibitions, and special events or exhibitions oriented toward young people are held in summer. The museum has also held exhibitions related to games and anime, such as Sengoku Basara (“Devil Kings”) and Sengoku Musō (“Samurai Warriors”).
The Bizen Osafune Sword Museum
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by Bizen Osafune Sword Museum & Setouchi City

Text written by Ueno Masato

Movie by:Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

Exhibition created by Kittaka Misaki, Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

English Translation by Eddy Y. L. Chang

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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