A giant snake as swordsmith

The following legend comes from northern Echigo province, or to be more precise, from the village of Itoigawa (糸魚川, present-day Niigata Prefecture) on the Sea of Japan. During the Nanbokuchō period this area was for a certain period under the control of Nitta Yoshisada who was appointed as military governor of Kōzuke and Echigo provinces in Genkō three (元弘, 1333) by Go-Daigo. When Ashikaga Takauji moved three years later to Kyōto to fight against Yoshisada, he left behind his underage son Yoshiakira (義詮, 1330-1367) in Kamakura because in the case that Takauji died he should be his successor as shōgun. Takauji assigned Uesugi Noriaki (上杉憲顕, 1306-1368) as Yoshiakira´s guardian and made him beside of that military governor of Echigo province in the fourth year of Ryakuō (暦応, 1341). This office was continuously held by the Uesugi family until the Muromachi period.

The river Himegawa (姫川) which flows into the Sea of Japan at Itoigawa has its source in Shinano province which lies to the south of Echigo. The river was the main traffic artery for the transportation of salt but for Uesugi Kenshin – the then lord of Echigo province – it was also a potential route of entry of an army of Takeda Shingen, who in his turn controlled Shinano province. Thus Kenshin erected along this strategic important area the castles of Fudōyama (不動山城) and Nechi (根知城). Because the constant danger of war between the Takeda and the Uesugi there was of course an increased demand for weapons given. Itoigawa was also a station on the Hokurikudō (北陸道), the main road which runs along Japan´s north coast, and so the supply of raw materials was secured.

Well, in one of the numerous forges the protagonist of the following legend, an ageing swordsmith, was active. Unfortunately he had no son who could continue his profession but he had a daughter which was the most beautiful young women in Itoigawa, if not in whole Echigo. She had many admirers and a lot of the young men of the village made her marriage proposals but the old smith made great demands on his future son-in-law: “He must forge me 1,000 sword blades in one night when I should give him my daughter!” Of course none of the potential candidates was able to meet this requirement but one evening a young warrior visited the forge, accepting the challenge. The old man was happy because it was the very first who even tried it and in addition, it seemed to be a well match for her daughter: he was strong but with delicate features and also the daughter was immediately enraptured. “Until tomorrow morning to the first crowing of the cock I will forge you 1.000 blades but I for my part have one condition too: Please leave me alone and make sure that no one enters the forge or even secretly watch me at my work!” The smith agreed and the young man set to work immediately. He fired the forge and soon a wild and uninterrupted hammering was audible in the whole village. The old smith felt mind of worried and so tiptoed to the forge to peep through an opening in the wall.

Horrified of what he saw he shrinked back: A giant snake folded the blades and a smaller acted as assistant! “I should give my daughter to this monster? Never,” thought the smith but time was short to the first crowing of the cock. But the smith was quite smart. He took a kettle with hot water and went to the hen house. With the chisel he opened a small hole in the height of the bamboo pole on which the cock sleeps every night. Slowly he poured the hot water into the hole and when the rising water level reachet and warmed the feet of the cock he thought it was the morning sun and started to crow. The giant snake was angry because it has succeeded to finish 999 blades to that point and vanished without trace together with its assistant.

So the old smith had rescued his daughter and won in addition also alot of swords he could sell. He examined the work of the snake and was very pleased because all the blades were excellently forged. But what made him wonder was that all tangs were signed with “Naminohira Yukiyasu” (波平行安). According to tradition it was the smith Masakuni (正国) from the Yamato Senju´in school (千手院) who went around the Eien era (永延, 987-989) to Kyūshū to the village of Naminohira in Satsuma province (present-day Kagoshima prefecture). The most famous representative of the school of the same name was Masakuni´s son Yukiyasu (行安), who is traditionally dated to the Kankō era (寛弘, 1004-1012).*1 But there are no records found which mention a later smith of the Naminohira school (the school was active to the very end of the Edo period) which had worked at any point in time in Itoigawa. The origin of this legend could be that Itoigawa – as important port on the Sea of Japan and a station of the Hokurikudō – traded with the remote Kyūshū provinces and that in this way blades of Yukiyasu came to the northern Echigo province.

The probably most famous Yukiyasu blade– there were several generations active with this name – is preserved in the Sanage-jinja (猿投神社) in Aichi prefecture about 25 km to the east of Nagoya. It is a slender, very elegant and classical tachi of the Heian period (see picture below). The blade is unshortened and bears the signature “Yukiyasu” chiselled boldly in large letters. From all extant and signed blades of the Naminohira school this one is considered to be the oldest one. From the early 1920s the blade was with its mounting (see picture below) for a long time at display in the war museum Yūshū-kan (遊就館) of Tōkyō´s Yasukuni shrine (靖国神社). But when the Pacific War changed to the disadvantage of Japan, it was brought back to the shrine. Since that time it was hardly shown to the public and according to some reports the condition of the blade is also not that good. Unfortunately there are no records of the Sanage-jinja extant which mention how the sword came into its possession or by whom it was offered.

Pic36

jūyō-bunkazai tachi, mei: “Yukiyasu,” nagasa 70.9 cm, sori 3.03 cm, shinogi-zukuri, ubu-nakago in kijimomo shape, slender blade, deep koshizori, strong funbari

Pic37

Hyōgo-gusari tachi-koshirae (兵庫鎖太刀拵) to the Yukiyasu blade above. Late Heian period but unfortunately some fittings and the chains (kusari, 鎖) which gave this kind of mounting its name are no longer extant.

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*1 There was also a Senju´in smith who signed with Yukiyasu so there is the theory that it was he and not Masakuni who went later to Naminohira on Kyūshū. The workmanship of early Naminohira blades, i.e. of the Ko-Naminohira school (古波平, lit. “early Naminohira school”), is quite close to the workmanship of Yamato blades.

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