In front of the Takadono, the building housing the last extant Tatara iron furnace, there is a tree. In the winter, the tree is a bare, skeletal eyesore. But during March, leaves slowly begin to appear, and for 2 days in early April, the trees leaves magically turn red, as if the tree itself is on fire. (Shall I call it a tree that burns but is not consumed?) It is called a Katsura tree, also known as a Japanese Judas tree. After the red color fades, the tree turns yellow and then slowly becomes greener and greener throughout the rest of April.
May 18, 2011
March 24, 2011
Back in January, I wrote a post about seeing Tatara Iron making. Turns out that the Tarara iron making I saw wasn’t the real deal. Well, some people don’t consider it the real deal. The furnace they used was considerably smaller than the furnaces they used to use for Tatara iron making. Real Tatara iron making didn’t take one day and one night, like the process I witnessed. The process took 3 days and 3 nights. It wasn’t until the 4th morning that the iron was ready. I visited the last extant iron furnace (I visited 3 times in the past month, actually), which was last used to make iron in 1921. It is located in Yoshida town in the Okuizumo area of the Chugoku mountains. The Iron town is called the Sugaya Tatara Iron Town.
I explained in my last iron post a little bit about how they make the iron, but here’s a quick refresher: Iron sand is taken from nearby rivers and local mountains. The iron sand, along with charcoal, was put into special furnaces made by layering sand and charcoal and heated to extreme temperatures. To build and use the furnace takes over a week. Special foot bellows were used to stoke the fire throughout the process. The iron produced with this method is supposedly of very high quality and is used to make Japanese swords, knives and other things. One important quality about this iron is that it can be manipulated at much lower temperatures then iron made by other processes.
As I mentioned before, this iron town was the basis for the iron town in the movie Princess Mononoke. In the movie, women work the foot bellows. When I visited the iron town, I asked if women ever worked the foot bellows here. The guide looked at me like I was crazy and said, No way, this was really hard labor!
January 4, 2011
The tatara iron making technique has been used in Japan since the 6th century. Iron sands taken from local rivers were put into special furnaces made by layering sand and charcoal and heated to extreme temperatures. To build and use the furnace takes over a week. Special foot bellows were used to stoke the fire throughout the process. The iron produced with this method is supposedly of very high quality and is used to make Japanese swords, knives and other things. Most of the tatara production was done in the Chugoku mountains in the Okuizumo region where iron sand was plentiful in the rivers. The last old tatara furnace stopped production in 1921 and was in this region, in Yoshida town. The people who worked the furnace all lived together in a little isolated iron town, quite off the beaten path from the major cities.
If you’ve seen the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke, then you’ve seen Tatara iron making before. If you’ve seen the movie, do you remember the women powering the bellows, pressing down together on a wooden plank while holding onto ropes? That’s tatara iron production. Hayao Miyazaki and his animation team came to this region and learned about the iron making process and the life in the iron town when designing the iron town in the building. (Although they scouted a different place for the location, yakushima island in Kagoshima prefecture.)
In the past few years there has been a push to preserve this old iron making technique. All the old iron workers from the iron town were sought out and interviewed. They questioned them in detail about the entire process of making the iron and also about life in the iron town. There are now tatara furnaces producing metal once again. But they have modernized it a little bit. No more foot bellows. They now use machines. These new tatara furnaces, called modern tatara (現代たたら), are restricted to a few locations and in most places, furnaces are only built once, maybe twice a year. The furnace we saw is put into use once a year, in November. You can’t tell from my pictures but the area I was standing in was crowded with people who had come to see the magic. I was actually standing there wondering why they let so many people come and watch because it was pretty dangerous and we were just getting in the way the whole time. But I feel very lucky that I was able to see it.