日本での一年間

May 18, 2011

The Judas Tree at Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

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.

A group of people gathered on the hill that overlooks the town to get a nice view of the tree. Everyone wants to see the tree just as the sun is going down, when it is said to be most spectacular.

The tree glowing red and the takadono that houses the tatara furnace to the right.

The one street that makes up the town, where a score of people still make their homes.

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March 24, 2011

Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

Filed under: Domestic, Interesting, Iron, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:09 am

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!

Sugaya

Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

street

A street in the iron town. People still live here, just as they have for hundreds of years. It snows a lot in winter, so they essentially get cut off from the outside world for a few months a year.

たかどの

This is where the magic happened, by which I mean they made the iron here. This building is called the Takadono (高殿).

furnace

This is the furnace used to make the iron. On either side are the bellows, which were once foot bellows and were later replaced with a water wheel system. The wooden planks in front of the furnace are covering underground tunnels. They would light a fire on one side of the tunnel and use the other side as a chimney to naturally dehumidify, so the furnace didn't explode.

odoba

This building is called the Odoba. After making the iron, and cooling it in a small pond (which I couldn't get a picture of because it was covered in snow), they took the meter long iron lump here. They would drop that big metal rod onto the iron to break it apart. Sounds pretty dangerous. I apologize that the picture is blurry. There was very little light.

odoba

The outside of the Odoba, where the big metal rod was used to break up the big iron lump.

motogoya

The smaller pieces of iron are then brought to this building, called the motogoya. This building is where the big boss lives. He was in charge of administrating the operation and counting the money. Also, right across from him, in the same building, people sort the iron and prepare it for shipment. There were also blacksmiths who worked in a building next door, but that building no longer exists.

tools

Tools used in the motogoya so sorting, packing, etc.

shrine

A little shrine dedicated to the god of iron. The Murage (村下) was the head of the factory, so to speak, and was in charge of the actual iron making, Before they started the iron making, the Murage would come to this shrine to pray.

river

The Murage would also purify himself in this river.

January 4, 2011

Tatara Iron Making

Filed under: Chuugoku, Domestic, Events, Iron — Tags: , , — myyearinjapan @ 1:10 am

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.

furnace

The face of the Tatara furnace. And the arms coming off the furnace's head attach to the mechanic bellows.

iron worker

One of the people in charge of the furnace watches over. His shirt says 'tatara.' Other people working their had shirts on which all the different tatara furnaces they had helped with were listed.

taking off the top

Taking off the top of the furnace. These people worked all through the night and probably for a long time before that, but we just showed up at the end to watch the finale.

exposed fire

Without the top, the fire is fully exposed!

iron?

Can you see the iron? Can you?

removal

Gotta remove the charcoal to get down to the iron, which ends up looking like a lump, called a kera. A big black lump. It was kind of anticlimactic really... But I guess this lump of metal will become a fine sword or some nice knives one day.

HA LAE

This is where they make the iron, HA LAE (Yoshida Village).

village of iron history

THE ILLAGE OF RO HSOR (The village of iron history). I think they need to consider making new signs.

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