■Mr Inada Kentaro – The modern Artisan and Higo Zougan

Impressed by the teachings and words of Mr. Oota, it was time to find out more about the craftsmanship of Kumamoto. It was time to meet a real Japanese craftsman. Inada Kentaro lives deep within the mountains in order to practice is profession, Higo Zogan, and create extraordinary pieces. As one of the most famous craftsmen in the city, he is part of the legacy and tradition of the region. Higo Zogan is the art of engraving intricate designs into a metal base and has been practiced in the region for over 400 years. Kentaro is known for creating engravings on samurais swords that display different styles and patterns that define the heritage of the samurai. When we met him in his home, Mr. Kentaro showed us the variety of inlays he has the ability to produce and impressed us with his immense humbleness. He explained, “I am not a master yet. I needed 15 years to get there where I am right now. But perhaps I would like to be close to the master level.”

While connected with the samurai and their legacy, Higo Zogan is not just about building weapons for conflict. Traditionally inlays had a deeper meaning. They were a sign of heritage, status, skill, and technique. The samurai tried to avoid fighting with their sword. The inlays helped. Once someone saw the engravings, they would be reminded of their legacy and rethink the decision to fight. “And only once you take the sword from the case that all ends,” Kentaro said. It was important for samurai to act with dignity, balance, and respect. The craft continues to emulate that spirit.

While the craft is most commonly related to sword engraving, anything that can be formed from steel, gold, or silver is considered Higo Zogan. Kentaro is there to bring a client’s vision to life. Because he creates tangible objects, Kentaro is constantly connected to the world around him.

■Mr Kanemitsu Kimura – the swordsmith and his craft

After learning about the Hosokawa family, the samurai, Iaido, and Higo Zogan is was time to finally meet the person that makes the tool that connects them all— The sword-smith.
Mr. Kanemitsu Kimura is a special sword-smith. He is a 10th generation craftsman that truly lives and breathes his work. Tall as giant, with big hands, and a humble smile, he invited us to his families home and workshop. The smell of burnt wheat was still in the air when we walked around the mansion and passed his father’s Koi pond. These fish gave us the first glimpse into the beauty of this work and the harmony of mind and body that is needed to master it.

“This craft was always around since I grew up and my wish always was to continue this tradition. I don’t even remember the first time I came in contact with crafting swords. It has always been there forming the day I was born.“ Kimura said about his introduction to sword making. To create one of these swords, Kimura needs up to 15 days, and the overall process to finish it can take up to three years. His method requires 10 different steps to bring a sword to fruition. From choosing special Kumamoto steel, to wrapping it in mud and wheat, to melding the materials together, a perfect sword needs time. Every part of creating the sword is dependent on its intended usage. A martial art expert needs a different type of sword than a family that wants to represent their legacy. It is up to the sword-smith to present the client a sword best fitted for their needs. Of course, the samurai played a big role in the history of the craft.

“The purpose for carrying the sword was for battle but during the peaceful the Edo era, it became part of status. A kind of fashion, a symbol of your personality,” Kanemitsu Kimura said. To create a perfect sword one needs not only perfectionism, but also a belief in the combination of nature and human creation. There are many aspects that a human can not impact while making a sword and it took Kimura time to understand this. For example, there is a wave-like design on each one caused by putting the hot metal into water to help it cool down. Every sword is different. This is an integral step— one where the sword-smith meets alchemy and creates something that is both contrived, yet natural.
“Nature and the sword-smith connect, and I love to think about that. It’s different every time. It’s diverse like nature itself, and It also depends on the sword-smith. To be and think natural is the most important thing. If I am nervous or unbalanced or fight with somebody, it would affect the sword. It’s important to be balanced and have a calm mind,” he said. Mastering the craft requires the same attitudes needed to become a samurai, an Iaido master, or an accomplished artisan.

After speaking with Kimura, it was easy to look at everything I had learned and understand what made Kumamoto such a particular place on Japan’s map: A humble mind; a dedication to culture, tradition and craftsmanship; the will to perpetuate legacy and educate the next generation about it. A sword takes 15 days to physically make, but to actually learn the steps required to do so, it can take up to a lifetime. There are numerous other crafts and people involved in the process of it. Everyone has a unique story to tell, traction to carry, rules to follow, and mindsets to keep.

From the samurai to Kumamoto castle, the city and prefecture breaths tradition. With every stroke the sword-smith forms his sword, every move the Iaido master makes, every tea ceremony the domain lord holds for guests, and every object the artisan makes, this culture is kept alive.

Kumamoto is a magical place and the characters you can meet there are inspiring like no other. It feels as if you are entering an untouched part of Japanese history. The true spirit of the samurai is alive and will never leave this town.