A Japanese Village Wants Tourists to Come for Heat, Soot and Steel

A Japanese Village Wants Tourists to Come for Heat, Soot and Steel

Last October, in the village of Yoshida, I stood in front of a tatara, a huge open oven filled with charcoal that raged with such controlled ferocity that it could have been a permanent fixture in Lucifer’s bedroom.

Deep in the belly of those orange flames was a growing and shredding ingot containing an exceptionally high-quality steel called Tamahagane, or jewel steel, from which Japanese swords were made for much of the country’s history. The existence of a usable ingot seemed unlikely and, if true, almost alchemical. All we had done for the past 20 hours was carefully shake iron sand and fresh charcoal onto the flames at intervals.

Yoshida is nestled in the mountains of Shimane Prefecture in central Japan and borders the always turbulent Sea of ​​Japan. For nearly 700 years, workers around Yoshida made jewel steel in places called Tatara-ba (literally “furnace places”) according to a grueling schedule – a schedule that sculpted mountains and rivers and generations of sooty men shoveling charcoal in loincloths , his forehead burned. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, production virtually stopped. Other methods were cheaper and more efficient.

At the height of its steel expertise, Yoshida grew to nearly 15,000 people. Today the population is around 1,500. Like many towns in the Japanese countryside, a mix of an aging population, low birth rates and the loss of industry has emptied the streets.

Recently, however, 24-hour reenactments of ancient iron-smelting traditions have been staged in Yoshida in a kind of colonial Williamsburg. The firings are run by a man named Yuji Inoue, who works for Tanabe Corp. works who owns the oven. “For us, the Tatara is a symbol and a pillar of urban development,” he told me, standing next to the flickering stove. Mr. Inoue and Tanabe Corp. attempted to transform Yoshida into a type of Tatara village that he hoped would create self-sufficiency, increase the population, and revitalize the city.

And so, with this idea of ​​the landscape regrowing, they fire up their oven a few times a year, invite tourists, and give birth to an ingot weighing about 250 pounds.

The open kiln stood on a concrete base in the middle of a room. On the longer sides were air intake pipes that fed the furnace, heating it to about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Shinto cleaning ropes hung around everything. Just before the fire was lit, a priest had blessed the entire place to wish good luck and safety.

Safety was of the utmost importance as around the flames milled at various stations a team of about 20 excited tourists, a mix of Japanese and a few foreigners, all dressed in very trendy dark gray overalls. These were people who paid about 200,000 yen, or about $1,500, for the chance to work in a tatara ba for a day and a night. (They were allowed to keep the overalls and a small piece of raw steel as souvenirs.) Their faces and hands were stained with charcoal.

Jewel steel is made by slowly scattering iron sand—alluvial (river-deposited) sand saturated with iron—over a charcoal pit. The tourists spent hours cutting the pine charcoal into precise pieces. Using shovels made of bamboo, they collected piles of charcoal and threw them onto the stove.

Standing off to the side was a man named Noriaki Yasuda. He was the designated conductor – called Murage – of this slow dance between heat, charcoal and moistened iron sand. In a bright blue jumpsuit, he stood out in a beautiful, almost poetic contrast to the flickering orange flames.

With fatherly concern, Mr. Yasuda observed the flow of air, the color of the fire, and the height of the charcoal, frowning and watching. Sometimes he would retreat to sit in his dark alcove, arms folded, still scowling and observing. It turns out that a lot of time is spent making steel using the Tatara technique.

Outside the all-encompassing warmth of the Tatara-Ba, the October mountain air felt like a tingling sensation on the skin. The sky was full of shooting stars. Shimane Prefecture is actually located in the hinterland of Japan. You can take a train to Shimane, but from Tokyo the journey is quite arduous. So it’s easier (and cheaper) to fly there. Of course I took the train. The 500-mile journey took about seven hours.

The area is best known for its amazing Izumo Shrine, a fundamental site in Japanese cultural mythology. Nevertheless, Shimane was one of the least visited prefectures in 2019. Only a fraction of all inbound tourists set out this year. Unlike places like Gion in Kyoto, which are now flooded with visitors, Shimane reminded me of Covid-era Japan, when international tourism was effectively banned.

“Steel is just iron with some carbon,” Mr. Yasuda told me. When I finally got up the courage to talk to him, a big smile lit up his face behind his mask. (Everyone was wearing masks, less out of Covid concerns and more because of the charcoal dust.) He casually led me to a blackboard in the back of his rest room and sketched out the basic chemical formulas of what happened in the kiln and how charcoal serves two purposes. First, it burns much hotter than wood. And second, its carbon atoms are essential to the formation of steel; Nestled between iron atoms, they increase the strength of the metal.

As I stood there watching the giant burning thing, I thought back to Akihira Kawasaki, the Japanese master swordsmith I had visited a few days earlier. I explained that I had never held a Japanese sword before and had never really looked at one up close. He nodded, took one of his shiny works from its sheath and placed it on a piece of red felt.

I picked it up and it felt like I was holding a black hole, like light was disappearing into the ridge of the blade, like light was turning on and on itself. My eyes couldn’t see the thing. It shimmered and reflected like a mirror and at the same time seemed to breathe in the world. Held up to the lights, the blade seemed to glow, as if illuminated from within.

I was fascinated. It was a thing of extraordinary beauty: delicate yet strong and terrifying in its sharpness. An atavistic chorus in the subcortical corner of my brain screamed, “Stay away from that edge!” As I carefully, gently, and with great concentration placed it back on the felt, I accidentally cut off a corner of the mat.

The gap between the smelting process and the final product of the sword was enough to make a thinking person faint. All that charcoal and sand, that heat, that sootness, that periodic removal of slag – contaminants that come out like molten lava, scooped up with shovels and carted away in battered old wheelbarrows to be dumped in a smoldering pile outside – from the ground of the oven. That this process of utter rawness could result in a Japanese blade so full of artistry and violence was a miracle of the highest order.

Back in the Tatara-Ba, after 20 hours of loading the kiln, the sand ran out and the process ended. A crowd of about 30 villagers, including several children, crowded into the blast furnace building. With the help of a winch, the concrete outer shell of the furnace was carefully lifted. The full force of the heat hit us all immediately. There was still a lot of charcoal burning inside. Beneath the bed of charcoal was a floor of liquid slag. And in the middle was what looked like a broken stone – the ingot that all this work had produced.

The crowd cheered. The ingot was brought to the ground and we all gathered around it to take a family portrait.

Can you revitalize a city through steel production in 2024? I don’t know. But Japan is littered with this kind of history, culture and crafts. The land is disappearing, but efforts like this are a worthwhile way to look back and appreciate what was – and build something sustainable and future-oriented.

There is also a practical aspect: Tamahagane cannot be prepared any other way. “It seems that modern steel production cannot produce the same thing,” Mr. Inoue told me when I asked why all the effort was worth it. “The Tamahagane is right up there as the highest quality pieces of the bar,” he said. These pieces are broken up and sent to a handful of swordsmiths across the country as well as to the museum shop in Yoshida. It turns out that Tamahagane also makes excellent golf putters.

Craig Mod is a writer and photographer based in Kamakura and Tokyo. You can follow his work on Instagram: @craigmod. His previous book, Kissa by Kissa, chronicles a 435-mile trek along the Nakasendo Highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. His upcoming book, Things Become Other Things, will be published by Random House in spring 2025.

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2024-04-18 09:02:43