Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Samurai Swords, A Collector's Guide to Japanese Swords

I mentioned a long while back that I was growing interested in Nihontou (Nee-hon-toh) 日本刀, or "Japanese swords", and possibly collecting them as I do kimono.

However (you sword collectors out there can stop laughing! ;) ), my naive enthusiasm was squashed as I soon learned actual antique katana, etc. prices make kimono look cheap!

I knew I wanted to learn more anyway, but haven't had a chance until I recently ran across the 2009 book Samurai Swords: A Collector's Guide to Japanese Swordsat my local Barnes and Noble ($14.99).

Written by Clive Sinclaire, a collector of 40 years, kendo instructor, and a Chairman of the To-ken (Sword) Society of Great Britain, this book is a densely-packed introduction to the world of the Japanese sword. He covers history, construction, preservation, sword etiquette (did you know you are supposed to bow to a sword you're about to examine?), and a variety of interesting facts.

For those of you interested in kimono, I would compare this book with Liza Dalby's seminal work Kimono. It's a ton of information written in a half-casual, half-scholarly style that gives you the basics but also allows you to delve much deeper.

One of the most interesting parts for me wasn't in the text: it was the flipped mirror image photographs of the bare blades (no guards or wrapping) of various antique swords. Beyond making me laugh at my $50 knock-off I take with me to kimono-dressing panels, the swords are gorgeous and intriguing in their simple, deadly beauty. It reminded me of looking at prototypes of cars: all curves, metal and sheen.

Despite this beauty, however, Sinclaire is quick to point out exactly what they were meant for and keeps a fairly neutral, even-handed tone throughout the book, giving more facts than opinion and not sinking into the "Mystical Magical Japan" fluff some Western authors fall prey to.

An unusual example from the history section: To test a newly made Japanese sword several hundred years ago, an official tester used it on either living convicts or the bodies of convicts who had been given the death penalty. The results of the test (for example, how many bodies the sword made it through) were inscribed on the blade as a ranking system of sorts.

On a less gruesome note: if you've ever wondered, like I have after seeing the terms tossed around, what the difference between a katana and a tachi is, that's here too. Generally speaking, a tachi is a longer, lighter sword meant to be worn and used one-handed on horseback, slung with the cutting edge down, and a katana is worn as part of a man's clothing, worn with the scabbard pushed through the side of the obi with the cutting edge uppermost.

(As a note, my copy says "A Collector's Guide" while the ones I'm finding online are "Practical Guide", but the ISBN numbers are the same: ISBN 10 0-7858-2563-0, so I'm guessing it's just different cover runs.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Big Hello to New Visitors

If you got here today from my "Real or Fake" or "Draw Better Kimono" tutorial from DeviantArt, welcome! I've been collecting kimono for over ten years and lived in Japan for almost five. I blog mostly about kimono but occasionally other traditional aspects of Japan as well. If you're looking for something in particular, all of my entries except the oldest have tags and you can use the search bar over on the right.

If you don't find what you're after, feel free to drop me a note and I'll help if I can. Thanks and have a great day!

(For my regular visitors, I was recognized today with a Daily Deviation over on DeviantArt for one of my kimono tutorials posted a few entries back, which basically means that tutorial is one of their showcase images for the day. It's really awesome they did that and I'm very thankful to dA for the honor!)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unusual Finds: Yukata and Pleather Obi

I bring two unusual finds this week! For the tall girls out there, there's a "5L" size new women's yukata over at Ichiroya. Note the crosshatch texture of the fabric, a typical feature of nicer yukata which, if I remember right, helps give the fabric a bit of stiffness.

The other is pre-tied men's obi over on Ebay, which aren't rare at all, but these are made out of something I've never seen used for obi before: synthetic leather, an apparent nod to trendy modern fashion?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ichiroya: Gorgeous Black Houmongi!

For Westerners new to kimono, many expect all kimono to be covered in cherry blossoms or other super-Japanese motifs, to the point that some suspect "non-Japanese-motif = fake".

While traditional Japanese motifs are found on a lot of kimono, there are plenty that feature more "modern", abstract, or neutral designs and are most definitely real kimono. :)

Below is a beautiful example of such, recently posted on Ichiroya: I'd buy it but it's a smidge too short for me!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Kimono, Haori, Obi, Nagajuban Seasonality Chart

Traditionally, kimono and other items are worn according to certain seasonal guidelines. Just like you wouldn't wear a wool coat in August in Texas, you wouldn't wear a lined kimono in July in Japan.

Like the Western "no white after Labor Day" rule, in recent years the strict edges of the seasons have blurred a bit as Japan's weather has grown warmer earlier in the year, but for the most part the guidelines are still followed. Here's my translation of a general chart explaining when to wear what:

The sheer fabrics are worn with a solid, opaque kimono underneath, just to be clear. ;)

If you're a kimono newbie, haori are the shorter jackets worn over kimono, and nagajuban are the underwear kimono put on first under the kimono.