Words: Daisuke Yano | Photography: Kazuhiro Watanabe | Date:

Film: Daisuke Kitayama


In the spring of 2011, Rapha Japan set up a charity ride and asked for your help. We all rode for Tohoku. Everybody in Japan would like to take this opportunity to thank those who contributed. A little over a year later, general tourism is still out of the question in this area but for cyclists, there is no shortage of great roads to ride here.

On every Rapha Continental ride we arrive at night, so pedalling out the following morning is always an exciting moment, with a fresh view of unknown roads, buildings and local citizens. This time was no exception but we were not sure how we would react to the coming scenes, or to the folks we would run into and what we might say to them. We headed up the deserted road along the coast, away from Ishinomaki. The pace didn’t pick up because we were too busy absorbing the disaster-movie surroundings. It was incomprehensible. We rode with our mouths agape, not from the effort but from the stark realisation of the scale of the damage. Unusually, there was no conversation.

The gravel roads here are perfect – and it’s very difficult to find perfect gravel roads in Japan, with smooth, nicely curved, fine-sized dirt and not large rocks. We spent hours staring at the map, searching through blogs and photos of adventurous people to find routes. But none of the roads we used are on any maps. Every time we descended down to the bay, the rough tarmac would change into a smooth gravel road. Temporary roads made after the Tsunami hit the shores on 11th March 2011, sweeping everything along the coast. We heard several local survivors say similar things:

“[It’s] ironic, but the morning after it was the most beautiful scene I have ever seen, and I have been living here for over 50 years.”

Heading back into the woods well above waterline, it’s lush, with fresh leaves and here the roads wind and pitch constantly. Every few hundred metres there is a corner and it feels like a rollercoaster. The land meets the sea in a geographical labyrinth, contributing to this country having the sixth longest coastline in the world, with an area similar to that of California. For bike riding, a perfectly-tuned derailleur is a must around the Ojika Peninsula. Odometer metrics pile up within a very small area. There was only one clear peak on our 200km route, stacking the vertical numbers so slowly that fatigue sneaks into our legs. Given all this area has been through, we daren’t say ‘tired’ or use the word ‘pain’.

With few food joints in operation, we were soon rationing our provisions. Besides the convenience stores in Ishinomaki, I recall passing only a few places where food was available. Outside a small, self-built shack with beef tongue searing on the grill, there was no ignoring a plywood wall filled with messages of condolence. The owner, having survived the tsunami, immediately rebuilt the shack to serve the local delicacies: tongue and shark-fin soup.

“There was not time to sit with head between my knees and do nothing but cry. I was sad beyond comprehension but working and talking with travellers coming through was the only way to keep me sane and not think too much.”

A desire for the road has seen many motorcyclists pass by his restaurant but we were the first cyclists. We hoped it would not be so long again before more passed through.

Clearly, there’s energy here. Look around and you’ll see fishing boats coming back from the horizon, tiny old ladies cracking the scallop shells for next season’s seeding; all around there are people putting pieces back together, the very definition of perseverance. No matter how hard and long you pull a group of cyclists, or climb a seemingly endless mountain, the efforts of the people of Tohoku will belittle yours. Their mental strength in overcoming daily the devastation is superhuman and an inspiration.

As we rode back into Ishonomaki, off the mountainside and along the rice fields, we no longer felt guilt for pedalling through the gareki fields. We knew we had been right to ride in Tohoku. If given the chance, you should, too.

The 9th Generation Hokke Saburo Nobufusa

Not too far from where we rode in Ishinomaki, in the city of Ohsaki, there stands another old wooden shack. “The quake should have taken this shack down, but because of the direction of the tremor, it survived with no damage“, says Hokke Eiki. In 1993, he succeeded as the ninth generation of Hokke Saburo Nobufusa, a family with a 1,000 year-old swordmaking tradition that sees weapons fashioned with just a hammer and the swordsmith’s own hands.

As we stood in his workshop, dressed in cycling attire and with little understanding of this exquisite form of craftsmanship, we might have expected plenty of long silences. Instead, we were made welcome guests and both Hokke Eiki and the elder man working with him never stopped telling us stories and details of their swords, their Katana.

“Katana is of course made to cut but it is hardly ever used. It’s a symbol of protection and definitely an art. That’s why it must be perfect. Weapons of choice at the battle front were bow, arrow and spear. Then, of course, guns, when they were introduced. Relative cost of Katana hasn’t changed so it’s like purchasing a house. And yes, you need a loan to buy one.”

Having visited the frame builders of the Rapha Continental bikes, the atmosphere of the shack looked – and smelled – familiar; after all, it is manipulating steel with heat. Just like a bicycle frame is a simple vehicle, so a sword is a simple weapon and both are beautiful in their simplicity. But what lies beneath the mirrored finish of the Katana is thousands of hours of hard work, most involving the repeated hammering of steel; a soft, non-carbon core, sandwiched with hard carbon steel and fused by hammering at specific temperatures.

“Steel for Katana does not come from mills, so quality is varied. We need to feel the carbon contents and working temperature just by looking at the flames. This one maybe 1,000 degrees Celsius but if I miss it by just 50 degrees, it can no longer become Katana.”

If you look closely, you can see stripes. These are layers of steel that have been fused and folded multiple times with alternating steel from different regions of Japan that have different colouring. More than 100 layers make up these tree ring-like marks. Hokke Eiki offers a straight finish, a ‘Masame’, or a curved one, ‘Mokume’. “If you include how many times we fold [the steel], there’s over ten thousand layers in here.”

There is a huge physical element to the swordsmith’s art and it is only attained through a lifetime of work. The curvature is an important part of the style of Katana that Hokke Saburo makes, and follows in the ‘Yamato’ tradition. This involves some luck, perhaps even something divine, and every hammer blow up to this point will contribute to how much the steel will warp, or curve, when it is dipped in water. The process is irreversible, so if the metal warps beyond a certain tolerance, a potentially valuable sword becomes just a piece of steel rod. For this reason, Hokke Eiki works on at least five or six Katana in tandem, just to get one perfect specimen. Sometimes it takes more than 10.
This is the most inefficient method of making a product.

What clearly differentiates swordsmiths like Hokke Saburo Nobufusa from framebuilders and most craftsmen is that you are not allowed to explore new methods, materials, or ideas. Ironically, for what appears such a simple product, protecting a thousand-year old tradition and teaching the next generation is an extremely complicated process.

Share this

Got something to say?