Lot’s of people first starting out with Japanese swords often get very confused when katana terms get thrown their way. People talk about the tsuka, tsuka-ito, tsuba, and a couple that don’t start with a “T” (haha), mekugi and menuki! If you aren’t familiar with Japanese sword parts already, you may be confused now and have no idea what any of these are. That’s good though… That’s why I’m writing this. You will have a reference point so when you are buying your first real shinken from a Japanese swordsmith for about $30,000 or a non-Japanese made katana from somewhere like Bugei or Kult of Athena, you will know what they are talking about in the description.
But let’s get on with the meat and sushi of the matter…
I’ll start off with an image that Hiroshi Takahashi of Hokke Saburo graciously let me use. Give them a visit at http://hokkesaburo.com/en/ and if you would like a real Japanese made shinken, give them a shout.
This image is a wonderful example of all the parts of the blade in my opinion. But there are more parts to a katana than just the blade. Read below for a list of all the odds and ends and a quick description of each.
Saya – The saya is a scabbard in all it’s glory. This is what houses the blade when not in use. Even though the saya is not a direct piece of the actual sword itself, no shinken was complete without a saya. The saya was sometimes elaborately decorated and other times was just made very practical. Family swords passed from generation to generation sometimes had a very nice decorated saya.
Sageo – The sageo is the cord that is wrapped around the top of the saya often featuring a fancy knot. That is simply what the sageo is.
Tsuka – The hilt… The handle… The grip… The part you hold onto! Made of wood. Wrapped in Same (see below). Wrapped with tsuka-ito (see below again). Common lengths are 11″, 13″, 14″, and 15″.
Same – This is rayskin. Yes, it is real rayskin. It is white in color and you can see it beneath the ito. The tsuka is first wrapped in Same, then ito.
Tsuka-ito – This is the wrapping you see on the tsuka with diamond shapes in the middle. It comes in many colors but the most popular are black, brown, and sometimes white or red. The most common materials for the ito is cotton, silk, and leather. There are a few different ways to wrap the ito, including the battle wrap, but they are all very specific and it takes practice and lot’s of patience to master the ito.
Fuchi Kashira – No shinken is complete without these. The fuchi and kashira are a very big part of the shinken. The kashira is the piece you find on the bottom of the tsuka that the ito goes through when wrapping. The fuchi is found right below the tsuba (see below). They both help hold it all together and are often decorated with designs. Here is a image of fuchi kashira from Bugei Trading Company.
Tsuba – This is what many refer to as the crossguard of a sword. There are many designs when it comes to the tsuba. Some are practical while some have very ornate and intricate designs with gold inlays and such. Probably the most popular tsuba design is the Musashi designed by Miyamoto Musashi himeself. You can see a pic of it below.
Menuki – These are charms wrapped under the tsuka-ito. The placement of the charm depends on the individual and where they want it. The design of charm is also determined by the individual. The charm either expresses themselves or is a family design. It could also have been chosen by the swordsmith and could have been his trademark. These are one of the items that many people decide to customize, along with the fuchi kashira and tsuba.
Mekugi – This is the other “M” work that people often mix up with menuki. This is simply the bamboo pin or pins that hold the tsuka and nakago together. How many mekugi there are depends on the shinken in question. Some have 1 while others have 2 up to 3.
Habaki – This is found directly above the tsuba on the blade. It is made of different types of metals. Nowadays, you find it made of brass or iron. You can also find it made of silver on more expensive blades and on some very old family swords, even gold. This piece helps make the blade sturdy when it’s all put together.
Hamon – This one really gets some people upset or confuses them. The reason it upsets them is because they buy a $250 “Japanese Katana” with this really pretty uniform wave design on the blade and think it’s just the perfect “real” katana. Then I step in. I tell them it is fake. I tell them that it is etched on the blade using a process other than heat treating the blade with yakiba-tsuchi (the clay used to make a hamon). Then I tell them that their katana that they believed was used by the samurai themselves is just another production blade made by Chinese laborers. I don’t tell them this to be mean or rude, but I am passionate about Japanese Shinken and I don’t want people to be misled.
***If you are going to buy a $250 sword with a fake hamon, and sometimes even real hamon made by heat treating and quenching with yakiba-tsuchi, you must understand that it is not a REAL Japanese shinken. A real Japanese shinken is made by a master JAPANESE licensed swordsmith with generations of knowledge. They have mastered the art of sword making and breathe life into each and every sword that they pound out of tamahagane. They are expensive and highly treasured pieces of art.***
But anyways, the hamon is made by heat treating and quenching the blade with a special clay mixture called yakiba-tsuchi. There are different types of hamon, some wavy and some straight. It all depends on how the swordsmith applied the yakiba-tsuchi.
Hada – This is the grain of the steel. That is it.
Bo-hi – This is a groove in the sides of the blade. See a pic of a bo-hi blade below.
Well, in conclusion, I hope you learned something or I hope you found what you came here for. There is so much going on with a Shinken that sometimes it can be overwhelming. But, with time and effort into learning about shinken, you will find that you start to understand all the parts of the sword, what they are, and what they are for.
I thank you for choosing my site to take a minute to learn about the masterpiece that is the Japanese shinken.