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 Tatara Iron Town
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.
This is where the magic happened, by which I mean they made the iron here. This building is called the Takadono (高殿).
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.
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.
The outside of the Odoba, where the big metal rod was used to break up the big iron lump.
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 used in the motogoya so sorting, packing, etc.
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.
The Murage would also purify himself in this river.