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Alex's Articles

Buying stones

Every once in a while the different wholesales and miners will sell old stock from other mines, stone that they or their fathers bought or traded for years ago within the stone community in Kyoto. For the past 2 years, beginning in 2012 the gentlemen’s agreement regarding assigning and stamping specific designations of the stones origin was relaxed in regards to if a particular mine has been closed down and boarded up and abandoned by members of The Kyoto Stone Miners Association. Ink stamps for Shoubudani, Narutaki and Nakayama are the most frequently seen stamps. These mines are no longer in existence so a No Foul-No Harm attitude has been in place. The president of the Association Hitomi-san of Yagi and Imanishi-san of Kyoto are stamping their stones, those that they have identified as to have been mined from the Nakayama Mine with a kanji stamp that reads, “Nakayama“. These ink stamps are generic and newly made for them by one of the many craft stamp shops seen throughout Japan. These new stamps are not issued from the Nakayama mine (because there is not an actual mine at this date) have little to do and are separate from the copyrighted and registered ink stamps that the miners or wholesalers may have used in the past decades. The stamps are simply attributes.

In the past generations the stone miners who worked the mines sold their daily diggings directly to the wholesalers from the flatlands by weight. Buyers from Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and all of the major cities vied for access to the best quality stones. The majoirity of the actual wholesale action was conducted directly with the regular and faithful wholesalers of Kyoto, they would drive their trucks to the various mines and pick out stone by the lot. Relationships between miners and wholesalers went back several generations in most cases, and some access to particular stone was restricted by miners like Kato-san of the Nakayama Mine to a chosen few wholesalers.

Yanamoto-san of Gifu, a retired miner told me that Kato-san would have a one day a month event where the eight major Kyoto wholesalers would come up to buy stone at a staging site below the mine. On a “Take It or Leave It” basis Kato would have 8 piles of stones, each one designate to a company with a set price for each pile, the wholesalers had just this one chance to buy that month from Kato. What they did after the purchase, trading around or whatever was their business, but Kato-san had this method that he followed, everyone knew his system and evidently felt that it was an honor to have an invitation to be one of the eight.

The Nakayama mine was the gold standard in the field, and they could dictate their system that involved just these 8 wholesalers. The other miners in general were forced to be more creative and open, and to look beyond prestige Kyoto stone market to move their stock in quantity to cities like Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima and beyond. These wholesalers in the 20th century had salesmen with territorial routes that they traveled on a regular or bi-monthly that included retail stores like tool shops and specialty stores. Some routes were covered by motorcycle or salesmen traveling by train. The retail stores in turn sold to the general public. This layered system held up pretty well into the late 1970s, each participant respected the boundaries and clients of the multi tiered arrangement all based on the honor system.

Right up until the infant phase of the western style stick and frame 2x4 building trend of the 1960s, which was fueled by the introduction of light weight power tools, there was still an active trade in sharpening stones for carpenters, those heavy users of beefy stones. The traditional crafts continued to be in need of quality stones as well as those trades like barbers and sword polishers, but the power tool building boom of the 60s and 70s slowed down the stone trade almost to a halt.

The 1980s saw the traditional lines that separated wholesaler and retailer become fuzzy, those ancient lines in the sand where the wholesaler or miner never sold piece by piece as retail to the general public began to fade. It had always been the retailer who took orders from the public, and the wholesaler filled them at his end by supplying the retailer. Of course the miners were always totally out of the retail picture, but this too would soon began to change. Into the mid 1980s most of the wholesalers in Kyoto had showrooms, formally workrooms where tourists found their old fashioned and off the beaten path locations with authentic goods refreshing. Now that the wholesalers were selling retail from their shops, those traditional retailers with their prime retail locations in Kyoto and Tokyo began to suffer. Their tools and now their stones now looked too high at their retail price point as the wholesalers undercut them.

In the 1990s the “show scene” with flea markets, the Kezuourkai woodworking expo along with building seminars open to the public began to draw large crowds of enthusiasts and for the first time those few old time miners still alive got a chance to directly sell to the public. Mine owners like the Ohira mine's Ishihara-san was one of the first to do these shows, his mine was still open and producing good uchigumori suita stone. There were other miners also who did the shows if they were local to Kyoto but eventually several of them would begin to travel up and down Honshu following the circuit of shows as interest grew in the "hobby" of tool and knife use and collecting. There also popped-up a new breed of younger miners. These week-end part time miners who roamed the old sites picking up left over stone and processing it using newer cutting and lapping tools. By the year 2000 the distinction between the miners, wholesalers and retailer was eliminated, old fashion and a thing of the past.

The early days, the dawn of the internet spurned stone tourists traveling the world with their computers. This new breed of buyers at first found websites in the English language hard to come by, and vast empty spaces of firsthand stone information were evident. International stone buyers were forced to learn some basic Japanese, while at the same time a few savvy, mostly younger Japanese entrepreneurs began to build small side business websites featuring stones and tools. The serious hobbyist phenomenon in Japan took over the old school traditionalists wholesalers and retailers in Japan who were too slow to build English speaking websites, the tide had turned.

The traditional hierarchy of miner-wholesaler-retailer system had became very, very muddy. It seemed to be better for the consumer price wise, but tough for the old timers as the new totally open market developed that had no boarders or restrictions. As it turned out, it became apparent that the new trend had compromised here and there in its rush to expand, the old school had one thing in common that lacked in the new internet world, selfrestraint.

I am not suggesting that all or the old timers were honest and or knowledgeable to a fault, or that the new comers are all dishonest and or stupid. What I am suggesting is that the old time system of hierarchy in Japan with its divisions allowed a certain amount of success to be achieved by some of those who lacked knowledge of the whole picture by the use of a shield. This shield created by the system to restrict or restrain vertical movement within the trades was a refuge for workers. Retailers were not expected to know all about mining and wholesalers where not expected to know all about advertising or running a store, and beyond casual conversation a lot of workmen simply could care less after working 6 days a week, 10 hour days from the time of their apprentice years of 12 to 14 years old to what others within the trade knew or were learning.

Miners were really just that, guys who dug holes. They knew everything that was important to their own diggings, but mostly lacked a greater specific knowledge of the science of geology, marketing or use of the stones they mined. Miners were not carpenters or furniture makers who specialized in sharpening, or barbers who knew what sharp really was. A good many of the mine owners of the late 20th century were late comers themselves who had left the families mine to become educated enter outside careers in other fields, only later to return to the family fold in order pick it up as adults what their fathers had left behind. Some miners did take college courses regarding mining and geology, but because of the nature of their mines geology, following the random nature of the seam of the stone bearing layers, most miner relied on sheer instinct and test holes to proceed.

The wholesalers were probably the most creative of the group. They covered moving large amounts of heavy stock, storage and maintenance of long term stock, processing, quality grading and sorting, final cutting and finishing, shipping, marketing, supporting by advise if needed to retailers and the miners, maintaining expensive urban shops and related commercial associations, down turns and up turns in the demand due to wars and such.

Retailers of sharpening stones, those who traditionally sold directly to the end user would by their very nature reside their business in cities and towns often some distance to Kyoto, they would most likely have never met a miner of the stones or visited a mine as these were not open for inspection. Most of their stone knowledge would come via the wholesales agent as to the exact origin of the stones and of their marketing qualities, although some of their perspective of the stones they sell might be garnered in the form of feedback from the purchasers of their stones as anecdotal information. Retailers were usually professional sellers, some of them may have been crafts persons in the past, but that transition would have been in the old days a transgression to a lower social position. Retailers or shop keepers of stones would have stones as only a portion of their merchandise, there were abrasive speciality shops in major cities but in general stones would have been one of the items in a tool store.

The above handlers of tennen toishi natural sharpening stones all maintained their place in the chain of the harvesting and distribution scheme, and as said before most knew what they needed to know in order to perform and within the social context. Each handler maintained a certain amount of integrity deemed necessary within a society who's base fabric prescribes that honor and family reputations are paramount, and regards Shame as loss of face, the first step towards self destruction often of the entire family unit. This social structure, based on shame however does allow the populace in general including the miners, wholesalers and retailers a certain amount of wiggle room so that an acceptable amount of fudging the truth, or the clever use of vague answers do not lead directly to the realization that the person being asked does not really does not know really know or even have a clue as to what he is being asked about.

In the west we might call it "being polite" not to ask specific questions that demand specific answers.

This leads us back now to the ink stamped stones that are now on the market.

For experienced users the sharpening qualities of any give stone can be judged in just a few moments if you have a test piece of steel, it could be a razor or knife or a tool that you know well. Stone buyers in the old days in Japan were allowed to test stones before purchasing, all of the trades expected this privilege to test the stones before buying. This helped to eliminate the need by the sellers to be experts in stone mining and stone sharpening qualities. After all the buyers knew the qualities they were looking for. Up until the 20th century, 700 years after their discovery, tennen toishi were not labeled or ink stamped. Throughout the last 100 years only a very few stones were ink stamped in regards to quality, and most ink stamps were at best only innuendos as to their historic pedigree or their sharpening characteristics. The names of the actual mines from which they were dug were considered far too specific for the average consumer. After all, these were just sharpening stones and the ink stamps would be quickly worn off and the sharpening speed was ultimately the most important factor. It was not until stone tourists(foreign buyers)became aware of the history of the mines that provenance became the focus of stone buying. The internet buyers of these stones have made the origin of the prospective stone in mind the often the number one question and the thread to follow in their quest of that perfect stone. This is not a fault per sae, but more of an attempt to make some sense of the source of these stones as well as a substitute for the way (if they knew it or not) that they were originally sold, on a Try It Before You Buy It basis.

(This article dates in 2014)
The photo shows the mark, " Nakayama" in a square and Kyoto Natural Sharpening Stone Union stamp.

Characteristics of stones

Japanese Natural Stones sharpening characteristics.

H or Hardness Scale Explanation.
H Level 6-8 is medium hard and these stones will self slurry under a blade with pressure.
A drop of water placed with a finger tip will sit proud for one minute and then begin to flatten and seep into the stones surface, within five minutes the drop will be gone. When using a diamond plate (DP) to lap or make a slurry the action is easy and fast.

H Level 9 is hard and requires concerted pressure and effort upon the blade to self slurry. A drop of water will sit proud for one half hour and then begin to soak into the surface. With a DP the stone feels hard and the slurry is thin even with 10 strokes.

H Level 10 stones are the hardest and will not self slurry even under extreme hand pressure.
A drop of water will sit proud and round on the surface for one hour or more. A DP glides over the stone, abrasion happens but very slowly and only with much pressure.

PS or Particle Size Scale Explanation.
PS Level 1-3 (500 to 2,000 grit) for bevel creation are best found in synthetic stones or with greater difficulty using Arato coarse stones from Japan from areas outside Kyoto or from individual or successive nagura types stones with appropriate grit levels. At this grit level steels will brighten but with dull finishes. With laminated blades some contrasting finishes can be created especially if slurries are utilized.

PS Level 4-6 (2,000 to 4,000) leave medium deep scratches that are easily removed.

PS Level 7-8 (4,000 to 8,000) leave finer scratches that are easy to remove and difficult to see with the naked eye but can be seen with a quality 15x loupe. These stones can a high carbon steel blade looking like polished aluminum to dull chrome.

PS Level 9-10 (8,000 to 25,000) leave the finest scratches at the lowest levels ie. 8k to 12k of particle size are difficult to see with 15x, under most optical microscopes at 100x are easier to see. The scratches at 12k to 25k or natural stones judged to be on par with these grit levels are difficult to see beyond the 15k level with most optical glass. The carbon steel or stainless will be bright and polished like a mirror.

S or Cutting Speed Scale Explanation. S Level 1-5 at the lowest level have no abrasion power but instead act as burnishing stones and the upper 5 Level are very slow to abrade tough steel.

S Level 5-7 will cut steel and remove previous scratches easily.

S Level 7-9 will cut steel and remove previous scratches easily and quickly.

S Level 9-10 will excel in the above and at the 10 level will amaze. Cutting speed can be quantified for personal reference by stroke count.

Japanese Stone Sizes Explanation Stone sizes in Japan are in millimeters and referred to as "grades" and the sizes stated are
the minimum dimensions which takes into account variables in Length and Width only. This grade system has its roots at the mine entrance, and is based on a working adults ability to carry a certain number of grouped and graded by size stones down an average
mountain trail on his/her back to the valley floor. Working adult refers to a man of average
strength. Women and children also labored but some adjustments of course made.

Grade Length Width Equivalent in inches.
#24 pieces 210mm 78mm 8.26 3.07

#30 205mm 75mm 8.07 2.95

#60 185mm 70mm 7.67 2.75

#80 180mm 63mm 7.08 2.48

#100 160mm 58mm 6.29 2.28

Razor 136mm 82mm 5.35 3.22

Koppa are by definition bits & pieces and are usually in small sizes

Sharpening Characteristics Explanations.

If all things are equal: a grit rich or silica rich stone will remove a measured amount of steel
faster than a grit poor stone will.
A soft grit rich stone will remove a measured amount of steel faster than a grit poor hard stone.
Like wise if all things are equal: a coarse stone will remove a measured amount of steel faster than a finer stone will.
In the same vain a slurried stone will remove steel faster than a non slurried stone will.
And again a stone used under running water (that rinses away any loose grit/slurry particles) will act finer than a stone with standing water, with or without a slurry.

Japanese natural sharpening stones are unique in the world of sharpening for handfuls of
reasons and one of those is their ability to take on different characteristics while in a state of being used dry, wet, with a slurry or under running water like at your kitchen sink.

One example of this would be that if any one particular high Hard Level Jnat(Japanese Natural)is used dry and without water their sharpening qualities are diminished and they will act more like a burnishing stone, but if that same high hardness level stone is used wet it will act as an abrasive stone. The same goes for coarse stones. Japanese awase-do (aka awase-to, tennen-toishi) really only cut with advanced actions when wet.

And about to slurry or not to slurry. A slurry comprised of loosely bound grit particles suspended in water, often acting as bundles of bound grit will act coarser and cut faster strictly depending upon the mechanical action that created the slurry. A #400 diamond plate will make a coarser acting slurry than a #1200 diamond plate. A nagura or slurry stone cut from a similar piece of tennen-toishi can if harder than the base stones encourage the base stone to contribute slurry more freely, or if the nagura is softer it will itself provide the majority of slurry particles. This is the principle for which the Nagura Progression System is based and this system will only work marginally well with other base synthetic or natural stones like Coticules, Arkansas and the other slate stones. The Japanese dedicated natural nagura tend to favor being paired with the natural awasedo found near Kyoto because both the base and nagura components will encourage the crush of the clays that release the silica grit of each other.

In all the world the Japanese tennen-toishi are unique because of the slurry component and the way it can be exploited. For centuries the clay binders that comprise the glue that holds the stones grit in place has been manipulated by sword polishers, carpenters and barbers to suit their needs and requirements. No other stone will react with such characteristic and predictable ways as the natural stones that the mountains in and around Kyoto offer.

(The photo shows the size of the stones.)

Mikawa Nagura

The truth is, that most fellows follow a Mikawa progression including a Koma with a tomonagura as their final slurry source. Nearly everyone has found that the sheer quality of a super tomo is finer than that of the grit of even the best Koma Mikawa nagura and this is why their last slurry is from a tomonagura.

The Mikawa nagura can provide a progression of grit that you can build a method upon, and thousands of fellows do this and they have since 1952, the year that Iwasaki-san of Sanjo visited the Mikawa mine for the first time. These same fellows into the modern era were led to this method by several different guru who promoted super hard Honyama base stones and a Mikawa progression as the only way to hone razors, and that most of these guru were, for their own reasons, strongly set against the use of a diamond plate to raise a slurry from the base stone for honing.

The first proponent guru was Iwasaki-san of Sanjo, a famous blacksmith that forged superb blades in the 1950 thru the 1970s, an era before the invention of the diamond plates we now all use. During his lifetime the famous Honyama mines of Kyoto had mostly closed, and the stones used by the finest carpenters in the world, those there in Japan, and the multitude of barbers still honing their razors with these domestic natural stones cherished their investment in their stone collection beyond our current conception. I would agree that these early craftsmen would have cringed at the idea of using a diamond plate to raise a slurry from their precious commodity if they did possess a diamond plate. Most of these mostly men could only afford to buy a few stones in their lifetime, stones were rare then and the market was dictated by a couple of handfuls of wholesalers in and around Kyoto. These craftsmen lapped their stones with the 3 stone method, and tradition told them to leave their tools sharp before they went home at night. This was a different breed, and I worked with a few of them as a carpenter apprentice in the late 1970s. We worked 6 days a week from 8am until generally 5pm, or 13 days in a row if the job at hand required it, 12 months a year. These men ate, drink and breathed their tools and their trade. Iwasaki-san was of this generation, he never saw a diamond plate and although unequaled in his trade, he was very traditional until 1952.

I use this date of 1952 as a marker. This is the year that Iwasaki-san actually visited the Mikawa mine site for the first time, met with Asano-san the head of the Barbers Union and a wholesaler of barbering tools and supplies to discuss and observe the different qualities of the white (shiro) stone firsthand at the mine. Before 1952 the main use for shiro Mikawa nagura was in sword polishing, and that was mainly only Koma and Buchikou. Barbers and carpenters only used small softer pieces of Honyama stone to raise a slurry on their base stone. Iwasaki-san, a kamisori blacksmith with a scientific bent was looking for a way to codify the honing of his razors, and he had examined and realized that there were different grades of Mikawa nagura that might be useful to study further.

I test hone and shave from each and every stone I sell, and I do this by testing the actual grit of the base stone by raising a slurry made with a well worn out #600 Atoma diamond plate that acts similar to a #1200 Atoma, but mellower. This way I am testing the components of the base stone itself instead of from an alternate grit source like the Mikawa nagura. The Diamond Nagura DN method is the purest way I found to unlock the hidden qualities of the Honyama base stones, and this is one reason why I own lots and lots of Mikawa nagrua but do not promote it so strongly.

Superior quality Mikawa nagura like Koma is just about the same cost in dollars as a super quality piece of Honyama nagura or a larger Honyama base stone per gram, and Koma is near impossible to buy now. I have found that a slurry made using a DN will perform each and every step that a full 4 stone Mikawa progression will, and faster for about the same cost. This DN slurry one stone progression can be performed with the slurry made during the lapping of your Honyama base stone. Many fellow laps their base stones with a diamond plate and just wash the slurry down the sink, unused as waste. Yet they will take a $50 piece of Mikawa nagura to make a slurry and use it for just a few minutes, followed by two or three successive nagura slurries and wash those down the sink as well. Using the already present Honyama slurry created from lapping provides your with the best of both worlds, a flat stone and a highly grit rich slurry component. Creating a slurry made with a Mikawa nagura provides you with  slightly dished or irregular stone surface and a short term single use (1 of 4 in a progression) slurry component that is rated on a scale of 1 to 4.


Hiking up to Shobudani

Yesterday we hiked up through Takao to the Shobudani mine side a 20-30 minute climb up through trees, brush following a trodden dirt path that at times wsaz hard to follow. After we reached the rindge almost immeditely and over the crest of the ridge we found a digging site facing Shobudani Saga area. What we first saw was a protruding and partially collapsed ledge of liht colored yellow and white stone jutting out above the
descending mountain side so that the out of character light stone was easy to see through the trees. The face of the shelf of was under cut from digging and collasping stone and was about 30 feet high by 40 feet wide with large extensive blocks that had detatched adn lay at the feet of the ledge.

There is evidence of some excavation at the lowest points but so much rubble being present has filled up much of the area below. The angle of the sheet as it emerges suggests that if follows the slope of the
opposite side of the mountain facing Takao and back down into Umegahata. If that is so then the portion seen might be the upper edge of the Oozuku and Okudo faces.

The stone seen on the surface at this location is exposed to the elements and there is lots of oxidation and flacking in its makeup and has no use as sharpening media as it lays. There may have bees some tonage
removed at earlier stomes and some good stone may still be in the ground. A natural exposed outcropping of the Tamba Terrane like seen here might have been a historically early sighting of what we now think of as HonYama toishi. Ridges are relatively easy to walk, are traversed as passes and because of the exposure
and the thinness of the topsoil under foot, sightings of exposed stone is no uncommon.

About 40 vertical feet below this first sighting my partner Emiko and I spotted another dug area that had all of the signs of a man made mine shaft. An actual oval shaped 5ft high entrance cut into hard stone and extending in a perfectly straight but less than vertical incline directly into the mountain side. Without any aids
I could see 50 to 60 feet down into the shaft and spotted a lighter colored stone there as a reference.
Because of the juxtsposition to the above ledge of awasedo type stone and the rubble tailings scattered about and the shape of the tunnel this without a doubt could be considered a Shobudani mine location facing Shobudani pond down below. These two occurances were found within about 100 vertical feet of the ridge
line that separates the Umegahata and Shobudani valleys.

In the years surrounding 1375 the city of Kyoto was expanding. These mine sites are now almost within the city limits, and in those early days ancient holy sites were already established with communities of woodsmen, stone men and hunters traversing these mountains as they were called upon to do.
Outdoorsmen are keen to spot many things when out and about. Game and natural resources abound in
these forested mountain sides, I spotted a wild boar myself and there is no reason that the first awase toishi were not just stumbled upon on a ridge top. On the ridges sub soils are only inches to a few feet deep, stone
is seen here and there. For modern mining these remote locations are costly, in ancient times labor was
willing and ready and included women and children to carry loads down the trails.

In my talks with Ishihara-san of Kameoka, the owner of the Ohira mine, he was quick to point out that the earliest mine tunnels of his mines dating back 175 years were at the upper reaches, and that as those digs were depleted they moved down the mountainsides following the plate of awase toishi as best they could. In
these lower elevation mine openings the subsoil can be as deep as 40 feet and requires lots of timber work within before you reach the shelf of stone to dig.

This day we continued down the mountain side to try and relocate some other mine openings that we had found the previous day. As we followed some light trails here and there that were just a bit better than game trails we found several other excavations along the way at lower elevations. All we found, about five in total,
were leading more or less as we were heading in the general direction down towards the first and lowest mine tunnel that was near the valley floor. This first and lowest mine shaft I found the day before was really
exciting for me because after a hot day of hiking, approaching the mine after scrambling up a hillside the thermal column of air rolling out to it was dramatic. The ambient temperature that day was about 75, I estimate the cold tunnel air to be in the low 40s, and there was a definite force behind it like it was being pushed. This shaft and the other 4 tunnels I found above it were all dug at downwardly inclined angles.

One shaft above this first one, another 40 or 50 feet above on the mountain was well defined for the first 20 to 30 feet up to where I saw some sunlight from above in the darkness. Following up on this I found it was
filtering down from a higher up tunnel that had collapsed shelf above it that was very raw looking. This area looked unsure under foot so I worked around it with caution. These two mine shafts along with the raw shelf
and rubble took up an area of about a 1/4 acre as it rambled up the slope. I did see one more shaft that was shallow up beyond these lower openings.

We were told before we went up the mountain that there was an accident at the Shobudani mine earlier on, no date given. And that this is reason why the mine closed. The way this told, and by whom, suggested an opinion based on a factual occurrence. I personally know one miner who was caught in a cave-in, so I believe
this part of the tale. Being this was why the mine was closed, maybe but maybe not. I would suggest however that if someone was indeed below when this shelf collasped, they very well may have been injured.

In walking around the Nakayama mine site the first thing I noticed was the vast amount of rubble scattered about as an almost uniform layer instead of soil. That site was graded after the mine closed using heavy
equipment to make it safe. There still are at least two open mine tunnels that I found, one mine entrance that was sealed with a stone wall across its face, and I suspect another mine shaft which I be was the owners last incursion which failed because of water intrusion. I suspect that there were a good number of other early and ancient mine entrances at Nakayama that were bull dozed over and filled in by Ishihara-san and the rest of the crew who helped Kato-san secure and close up the mine. This is not the case at Shobudani.

Shobudani is a wild place still, thousands of acres of wilderness in the ancient Saga region of Kyoto. The Shobudani mine was not a single mine shaft or entrance, but instead was a working property that over hundreds of years increased in scale as the minerals were payed out by extraction from one mine entrance to the next. The Nakayama mine and the other mines like Okudo and Oozuku and Ozaki were all closed for the same various reasons: extraction became too costly, the stone source became depleted, environment
regulations regarding watersheds and road building were enforced, labor costs increased, informal granted mineral rights altered, the demand for expensive natural stones diminished.

I will suggest here that the most influential reasons why the thread of the stone mining culture came to a
close surrounded the of the dirty and dangerous nature of this business, it is not one that you can easily
jump into as an adult. It is hard being underground day after day if you were not weened into it as a youth. In some cases like Ishihara-san who has 2 daughters but no sons, the end his family maintaining the mineral rights is at hand. And the money is not really there like it used to be. This is not a sexy business.

(The picture is a steep hillside view of old mine in Umegahata.

Stone market in Japan

To begin with since the World War 2 a lot of the strictly defined relationships between maker/wholesaler/retailer have become fuzzy.

It used to be before 1950 or so, that each had his own niche and that was where you remained just as your father did in the trades.

The miners were at the low end, the retailers at the upper and the wholesalers made their profit in volume. Each party graded the stones as they went along, the miners in piles, the wholesalers in stacks and the retailer on clean work tables. The miners knew their stone from their own mine but did not really know anything about sharpening with them(these are very crude generalizations)and the retailers knew what the general craft community needed in order to perform their amazing tasks. There were no Home Depot stores then and the average household did not have or have a need for razor hones or finishing stones, so over 90% of the stones from the mines went to craftspeople.

In the mine the miners could tell which strata they were digging in, not with shovels but with crowbars, each stone was trimmed with a geologists hammer and any waste was tapped off. Waste was not carried down the mountain for processing but instead just dumped down the hillside. The Ohira Mines owner Ishihara-san told me in his grandfathers day the family had about 20 workers, 3 or 4 at the top of the hill, same at the bottom, so the remaining 15 or so mostly local village women and children hand carried in backpacks all of the stone down to a wagon at the bottom, I can attest that at least an hour hike back up. None of the mines had roads because the mountains were too steep. Some mines developed sleds on skids and now cables.

The miners graded stone on site looking for razor/kamisori stone/toishi because that was the most valuable, and separated uchigumori, tomae-asagi, suita of various strata. Lots of hand work including hand chipping the backs, cutting by hand in the old days or sawing in the shop. Hard, dirty, dangerous and degrading work. No miner every became rich, most lived nearby the trail up to the mine and were rice farmers on the side. This was a traditional craft, lots of pride in doing a good job but no real glory. I was told by Yamamoto-san, a retired mine owner that “out of an honest ton of raw stone found in the thick & rich veins of the mines at their peak, only 10% was useable for sharpening; with 99.9% of that ten percent dedicated for tools like chisels and hand planes; and only 1% of that ten percent suitable for razors.

The wholesalers would come up into these valleys(oh, I forgot the poisonous shakes, snow and bears) and buy stone in bulk whether it was slabbed up or raw by weight or eyeballed. All of the stone was just pennies on the dollar. It was trucked to Kameoka, Kyoto or Osaka for finishing and stamping and distribution. The wholesalers had sales staff that had routes and job sites that they serviced, some guys had a route that included a whole region, some just a major city and they serviced their clients as accounts and revisited their clients twice a year or more. All the wholesale profits as I said were made in volume and I am sure up to this point everyone had back troubles. Most stone was moved around the country by train. Horses were used for some local drayage until the 1950s.

Small and large mom & pop hardware stores were everywhere pre-1950s and they sold mostly dry goods and stones for kitchen knives, the tool shops were also plentiful because Japan was a nation of arts & crafts to the extreme and in towns and cities men were constructing the largest wooden buildings in the world and every single house using hand cut and sawn jointery and no nails. The carpentry trades were the largest users of sharpening stones and the demand was high because a carpenter could wear out a stone in a season or two. There were barbers on every corner and every 10 years or they needed a new set of stones. The retailer usually allowed the wholesale sales person to price the stones for the shop even using the wholesales stickers. Shop keepers knew what type of stones he could sell but again new very little about using them or the difficulty of mining them.

Many of the mines closed over the years of modern and those that didn’t were depleted from the over burden of WW2’s demand for abrasives. In the 1950s everything began to change: hardly any miners or mines, the use of power tools and stick framing hit the wholesale business and eventually the urbanization of Japan hit the small stores more and more as the decades advanced.

Because I buy wholesale in Japan I need to follow some of the same guidelines that they do in Japan in grading stones. I do mark them up to allow for some profit but I am working off a set purchase price myself. Because of my inexperience I do make mistakes and have to take a loss sometimes.

I feel that cutting speed is King, fineness is Queen, and stone size is the Prince. So in a process of elimination I use these factors, pretty much the same ideas posted by the members here already:

Large top deck trumps small top surface
No cracks trumps some cracks
All whole & square corners trumps chipped corners
Fineness trumps coarse Cutting speed trumps slow cutting speed
Thickness trumps thin Nakayama trumps all other mines
Color stones trump bland stones

Those are the basics.

Eastern mines almost always trump Western mines
Older stock or even used stones can trump the obvious newly made up stones
Highly figured granular patterns generally trump plain monolithic patterns and colors
Kiita trumps most everything
Renge trumps plain
Nashiji trumps plain
Most anything trumps light gray
Old stamps for me trump new fresh ink stamps

That’s the gist of it.
There are aesthetics involved, everyone chooses an appealing entity, and I would rather not follow trends. I am not an actual collector so a really pretty stone also has to have good sharpening abilities. I know that this was sort of long, if you feel fatigued, I suggest you stay away from my blog.


(The photo is a closed hardware store in Japan in Kanazawa, Japan.)

Stones of Kyoto

The Ultra Tamba Terrane, a shallow sedimentary layer of rock in the mountainous central region on the island of Honshu lays in a SW/NE direction. Within this terrane are the origins of stone suitable for the purpose of polishing swords first discovered in 1190 at the dawn of the Kamakura Period and exploited without interruption until the middle of the 20th century by individual mining firms.

Although there may be some exceptions, you will find that in modern times and olden days that most all of this mountainous land near Kyoto containing this ancient layer of stone was and still is owned by the various sects of the Buddhist and Shinto religions. Over the centuries these sects have chosen to lease out the mineral rights to miners instead of working the land themselves and all this was conducted essentially on a verbal agreement and for what amounts to a small fee. There are scant written recordings of the continuous development regarding the mining rights by the succeeding generations of specific families these many hundreds of years but there has always been
great pride in the traditions and oral histories that have passed on down amongst the miners. It has always been dirty and dangerous work with few rewards beyond the lifestyle it provided for the mine owners and the local village workers included children and women who traditionally carried much of the heavy removal burden of the stone down the mountain sides.

The first recorded discovery in 1190 also lacks some details and largely concerns the presentation of some quantity stone to the Regent in Kyoto for his inspection and approval which resulted in a title created “keeper of the mine” for the finder Honma Tou-zaemon Toki-nari along with the exclusive rights to mine the stone on the spot of discovery. In 1230 the first recorded grant was issued for the sole purpose of mining this stone for sword polishing, and for the next 500 years or so all of the best stone extracted was reserved for this end use.

This first awase-do discovery happened near the steep rural mountain village of Umegahata along what is now along highway 162 near within an area locally called Yamashiro (Yama=mountain, shiro=castle) on Shobudani mountain which is a minor peak but actually more like a steep hill. Some of the later Yamashiro outcroppings exploited during
the next several centuries would appear to us on a modern map to be within the city limits of Kyoto. As time went on other mines would be developed to the east and west of Kyoto and scattered here and there throughout Japan as the Tamba is just a part of a much larger geological terrane that reaches into eastern Japan and into a small area of Russia.

The main extraction however for the finest finishing stones resided in this general location and emanates out from the western edge of the city limits of Kyoto and extends for about 25 miles to the west and out beyond the town of Kameoka. Using of Mt. Atago as a center landmark you will find in the stone trades are the terms; higashi-mono or east of Atago mountain mines, and nishi-mono or west of Atago peak mountain mines. Mono actually translates as “things” but among stone people they are all thinking about source mines.

The original use of the term Hon Yama as I said before spoke of the area where the first stones were found by Honma(sir name), but a sort of dual meaning has evolved in more modern times to include and describe the mines which were all right in or near Umegahata on Shobudani mountain as Hon Yama mines or Hon Yama stones. The term Hon Yama would later in the 20th century be further adulterated to include many other mine locations and or even to mean “in the spirit of” the original location.

I conjecture that the first stone was simply found on the surface of the ground as loose rock by Honma-san, likely atthe higher elevations or even at the very crown of a mountain itself where the stone lays bare to erosion. Whether the finder picked it up while searching for such a rock with sharpening abilities or just happened to figure it might be useful is unknown, but it is certain that at that time in Japan the sword culture was in full bloom and sharpening stones were in demand.

Nakayama (naka=middle or middle yama=mountain) being the center point in the of that ancient area, was located generally in the middle in relation to the city of Kyoto and the further away peak of Mt. Atago.

The higashi-yama mines are the oldest of the famous mines and the first stones found were within walking distance of Kyoto. These early caches of awase-do were logically reserved for polishing swords but eventually things loosened up during the late Muromachi and early Edo periods. At that time all of the stones from the Hon-yama were controlled by the Honami clan, a very powerful clan who also acted as the officials in charge of grading the swords of the Shogun. The Honami clan opened up and developed mines outside of the Yamashiro, and in the middle Edo
period began free up and allowed some stones to be used for sharpening chisels, plane blades and razors by commoners.

With the emerging influence of the powerful Edo Period merchant class, more and more quality stone was allowed to filter out into the various trades. Because of this new found market for quality finishing stones, mining increased, while at the same time the actual battle use of swords decreased. The Edo Period was a time of peace and prosperity, the building trades with their localized guilds were busier than ever with the mining industries following all trends hand in hand. The mining regions were expanded and some mining techniques were improved but mostly the workers just got busier and worked harder and with more employees.

The crush and demand for abrasive materials to fulfill the needs of the Japanese armies and industries during the three big early wars, the Sino-Japanes War , Invasion of Taiwan of 1895, the Russo-Japan War 1904-05 and two World Wars that followed quickly depleted what would have in peaceful times and normal demands taken hundreds of years into our future to do so. The finest and oldest mines closed down one by one, and as they did the city of Kyoto spread a little further into the mountains. The traditional higashi-mono mines of Umegahata are closed, only a few newer wishful thinking shafts are being picked here and there. The great stone has been removed and all the mountains have been walked by miners looking for new deposits. In the nishi-yama mountains to the west of Mt.Atago some mines are still in limited operation. All of them are scaled back with either family members working the digs and cutting shop, or like the Ohira mine, that two generations ago had 20 full time employees and now only has one part time worker.

The coupe de grace for the traditional mines was the advancement of quality synthetic stones for the various trades, and the prevalent use of power tools in the building trades. Natural awasedo sharpening stones are still favored by many of the traditional crafts people who's time tends to be secondary to the quality of their work. Tea house
carpenters, furniture makers, knife makers, and sword smiths all relay on a particular attention to the finish on their tool edges and the resulting sheen they leave on their finished products which they perceive can only come from using natural stones. The Japanese governments office on culture for instance is keen on the inventory of uchigumori stone, the only abrasive product in the whole world known to create the various traditional surfaces finishes on historic Japanese swords. The Ohira mine is the last source of true old style quality uchigumori.

In closing it should be noted that although no new mines have been opened recently, and no new veins of high quality awasedo stones have been found, the ecological demands and limits involved in opening a new mine are a factor to deal with. The traditional mines were dug into the steep hill sides with small entrances and the tailings or waste stone was simply dumped over the side near the mouth of the tunnel. Modern environmental rules prevent the building of roads on these fragile and very steep hill sides, the potential water run off into local streams is an issue associated with the general erosion and waste disposal. Traditionally harvested stone was moved down into the valley on the backs of workers, or sleds on skids were used, then in the 20th century high tension cables were strung for zipping small quantities at a time. These are all very slow and costly ways of moving a heavy product from point A to B. Labor laws no longer allow children to work in the mines as the once did, and wages in Japan's busy industries are too high for this type of low volume work. And finally the makeup of the stone found in these mountains is not granite, nor is it any other structurally sound stone, all the digging is through sedimentary stone and this stone does not favor safe digging conditions. Tunnel cave-ins are an issue, the use of dynamite is not favored because it causes micro fractures in the awasado. So it all boils down to lots and lots of heavy manual labor in dangerous and dirty conditions, not a likely job description for a young adult to be attracted to as a career.

(The photo shows an exposed hill side of the mountain in Umegahata, Kyoto.)

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