The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Custom Katana Review

Today we have a guest post by Jonathan Bluestein.


SinoSword Katana Review

By Jonathan Bluestein
This is a review of a custom-made Katana which had been produced for me by SinoSword, also known as Jkoo Sword – a notable Chinese forge which has been popular among Western martial artists and collectors for the past few years (www.sinosword.com). SinoSword have provided me with a major discount for this katana in return for an honest review. 



Introduction
For those who do not know, I am a martial arts teacher and author hailing from Israel. I practice and teach Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Southern Praying Mantis (the latter of the Jook Lum lineage). Given that these are all traditional Chinese martial arts, you might wander what had sparked my interest in a Japanese Katana.           
One of the weapons with which I practice is the Chinese Dao – the classical curved sword which has been in use in China for thousands of years. The dao methods which I practice have their origins in my Pigua Zhang system. However, personally like many other martial artists, I have a preference for the design of the Japanese katana over that of the Chinese dao. Conversing on this matter with my friend and colleague, shifu Byron Jacobs, he once noted that in fact, for most of the techniques and methods utilized with the Chinese dao, there ought not to be a problem for it to be replaced with the Japanese katana. This seemed even more relevant for the my specific scenario, as the dao we use in my lineage requires a straight handle like that of a katana, while most dao today are manufactured with a slightly curved handle. For many Japanese and Chinese traditionalists, such a combination between traditions will be considered blasphemy, reflecting the still strong cultural grudges held amid these peoples. Yet being that I am an Israeli, I could not care less for such nationalist feuds.                
I sought out to test this idea of using a katana for my dao methods a few months back, initially borrowing a Tozando iaito from a friend of mine. The experiment proved a success overall, with three minor issues. The first had been that some pommel striking techniques required a longer handle than that common in most katanas. The second was that the point of balance for an iaito was, while making the practice much easier, not in line with that of a Chinese dao – much closer to the handle, or less ‘tip-heavy’. The third issue was that of weight, as the iaito was of a slight 850 gram build. Together with a lower point of balance, the weight made the sword feel and move too lightly relative to a proper dao.             

It should be noted that nearly all katana and dao tend to fall between the weights of 750 – 1200
 grams (26.5-42.5 ounces), depending on their length and the size of the person supposed to wield them. Swords historically intended for combative use and cutting tended to be on the heavier side and also a bit more tip-heavy. The design of the classical Chinese dao usually gives it a wider ‘belly’ near the tip, which naturally positions the center of gravity further from the guard. Therefore, a katana made to mimic the feeling of a dao needs to also be a bit tip-heavy. This choice for a larger point of balance is also key for building up momentum in many circular dao techniques.
I opted to order my katana from SinoSword, whom as mentioned earlier provided me with a very nice discount in return for this review. SinoSword custom katana swords, without a discount, go from 50-400$ (not including shipping), depending on the materials used and the amount of work required for manufacturing them. This is a very affordable price for carbon-steel swords. Japanese manufacturers often sell fragile aluminum iaito for 500-1000$, and Japanese-made carbon-steel swords start at 1000$ and can reach the upwards of dozens of thousands.
With several Chinese forges, and SinoSword in particular, every single part of the swords they make is customizable, and it is vital when working with them (and with Chinese manufacturers in general) that every designs detail is described in your order. Failure to specify a certain element will sometimes lead to the forge making an independent decision concerning that part. Though usually if you forget something, they will let you know in advance. This begs a certain level of knowledge of swords and their components on behalf of the customer. The first step is to study the katana-specific terminology, nicely organized by SinoSword on their website:  http://sinosword.com/Japanese-sword-nihonto-glossary.html  . Later one will do well to visit the community-favourite Sword Buyer’s Guide, and read thoroughly the instructional articles present there (www.sword-buyers-guide.com/). For those of you who are beginners, I would recommend giving yourself at least a week of research on the subject before making a substantial financial investment in a sword. Also bear in mind that a good sword can last a lifetime of training – at least the blade, that is. It is worthy of your solemn consideration when making a purchase.    
The review         
The following are the specifications I requested for this particular katana. Those of you unfamiliar with katana terminology should refer to the link provided in the previous paragraph. Note that each and every detail is catered for.       
             
Blade length: 74cm     Blade sharpness:  Unsharpened.
Blade shape: Shinogi-Zukuri with  Bo Hi on both sides.   

Blade steel: 9260 steel, through-hardened    Blade polish: Mirror polish

Blade Hamon: None      Kissaki: O-Kissaki, with geometric yokote.

Tsuka length: 30cm. With two black mekugi-ana. 

Tsuka Maki: Black cotton ito, criss-cross wrap, with hashigami.

Samewaga color: Black. Material is real Stingray skin (the common choice).

Tsuba and Kashira:  GS-051     Fuchi:  A04     

Habaki: 12  (golden)       Seppa:   02 (golden)

Saya:  Y23  (plain black)   Sageo: E04  (plain black)

Koiguchi, Kurigata and kojiri:  Black horn.

Menuki: M05 (Dragon). Positioned at the center of the tsuka.

Overall length:  104cm~  (blade 74cm + tsuka 30cm + tsuba width)

Weight:  Between 900 - 950 grams. No more, no less.

Point of balance:  12cm - 14cm  from the tsuba. No more, no less.


The sword was sent to me, as usual, via EMS – which is slow but cheaper and reliable. When ordering from China, make sure to arrange a price declaration appropriate for the customs in your country (will say no more, you ought to get the clue). Also make sure you have import permits if required. I sent SinoSword my permit to be included with the package and there were no issues. The sword came packed very well in thick styrofoam and opened easily. With it was a complimentary simple sword case. You can buy fancier sword cases from SinoSword or elsewhere online for very cheap. Many designs and materials are available for these.
Unfortunately the weight of the sword was slightly off - 1300 grams with the scabbard, and 1050 grams without it. The sword was supposed to be 950 grams without the scabbard. A difference of 100 grams might not seem like much, but with a katana or a dao it is significant. Fortunately I was used to training with a 1100 gram suburito, so for me personally that was not too bad. What I think likely happened was that SinoSword thought it more important to be accurate with the point of balance, which they succeeded with brilliantly (playing with the POB often requires compromising the overall weight). The correct point of balance makes a heavier sword feel much lighter. The sword is still slightly tip-heavy as intended.

One of the most important points for katana construction is making the koiguchi right. It is the mouth of the saya, the entry point of the blade into the scabbard. The koiguchi needs to be structurally firm, allowing for easy unsheathing but also holding the blade firmly enough so that the katana can be held upside-down inside the scabbard and not fall out. This was achieved with their katana, and is no easy feat. The saya itself is just as requested and meticulously made. The only minor flaws were a few tiny scratches here and there, likely to have occurred in the factory or during packaging and went unnoticed. These are barely visible.


The handle and fittings could not have been made better. The tsuka-maki (handle wrap), made of black cotton, is very tight and does not bulge a millimeter. I requested special rice paper triangular holders called Hashigami to be included under the tsuak-maki and they are indeed present and useful for keeping the wrap in place. While this tsuka feels ‘just right’ for my relatively smaller palms, I suspect that this ‘default’ handle diameter of traditional katanas might prove too delicate for tall individuals. For this reason, if your height is above 180cm (5’9), I suggest you give the tsuka diameter more consideration when you research this subject. The tsuka length here was actually longer than usual at my request. This was to allow for some pommel-striking techniques to be used well, and to enable me to practice some Miao Dao techniques with this sword even though it is shorter overall (the miao dao handles are much longer than those of regular katana). 
             
The Menuki is a characteristic katana element – a small, usually elongated piece of ornament, often made from brass, included on both sides of the handle right under the tsuka-maki. Mine is in the shape of a Chinese dragon. It helps with grip stability and hand orientation over the handle. On this katana it blended very well with the tsuka-maki and the samegawa (stingray skin; this is a non-vegan katana).    
The menuki also matches the tsuba (guard), which also features a dragon, rising from the water. The two seppa (small golden brass fittings) from either side of the tsuba were hammered well into it, creating a stable block of material holding the sword together. Within the tsuba are two holes, as is often the case with traditionally-made katanas. The holes were originally intended for passing a ribbon or sash to be tied to the warrior’s wrist. In battlefield combat, when the warrior may have accidentally loosened his grip, the sword will then remain attached to him despite of that momentary error. This is however a strategy which was not used for dueling. The tsuba itself is moderately rectangular – a shape which I have found to be easier to manipulate in various techniques with which the tsuba rests against the palms or wrists.                         

What else is holding the sword together are the mekugi-ana – two bamboo pins which fit into holes inside the tsuka and inside the base of the blade contained within it. Some katanas are made with just one mekugi-ana, but I prefer having two for safety. Some people even ask to have three of them. The mekugi-ana are not visible in some of the pictures because they were painted black and blend quite well with the rest of the tsuka. They can however be taken out with a small specialized hammer, and this allows for the sword to be disassembled for cleaning or replacing parts if needed.
                


The most important part of any sword is arguably the blade. First, because it determines the sword’s function to the utmost. Second, because good, well-maintained blades can survive for hundreds of years, while the other parts tend to degrade much faster and are cheaper and easier to replace.  
The blade for this sword was made from 9260 steel, known as ‘spring steel’. It is true carbon steel (meaning it will rust without care!), containing about 2% silicone, making it rather flexible. It can bend a lot sideways (with considerable force is applied) and still bounce back to its original shape without breaking, cracking or losing its structural integrity. Because of their flexibility, 9260 blades rarely shatter.  For these reasons, this is one of the most popular types of steel used today. This type of steel however benefits less from the traditional folding method of Japanese katanas, with some claiming it is even harmful to it, making a 9260 blade weaker. For this reason I have opted to not have the steel of this blade folded, which is why the blade does not feature the popular ‘Damascus’ wavy pattern on it. Rather, it features a uniform glossy pattern with a mirror polish; meaning that the blade appears even throughout, and is clear enough to be used as a mirror.      
The blade came responsibly covered with sword oil (to prevent rust), which is the reason for the ‘dirty’ look of it in some of the picture. In other pictures the oil was removed to see the true polish. As can been seen in the latter, the blade includes no hamon (wave pattern on the bottom sides). The tip geometry is elongated on purpose, to have a more ‘dao-like’ appearance. The blade came smooth and without any marks whatsoever.  

I am very pleased with the way in which this sword handles. It is neither overbearing nor too light. The weight and point of balance mimic the dao well. The construction feels sturdy and parts do not shake or seem to lose their fit at any time. The Bohi groove generates good, clear cutting sounds when the sword is maneuvered through the air with correct technique, providing ample feedback. The tsuka offers decent grip but does not lock the hand into place. The tsuba design is beautiful, comfortable, and does not scratch one’s hand in practice. The sword maintains decent balance when carried inside the saya, too, and is not at all a burden when carried from place to place.         

Overall I am quite pleased with this purchase. I think SinoSword have done a great job with this one. It is evident that this sword is built to last. One could argue that this is probably not among the best swords being sold out there. Fair enough. But for the price of a traditionally-made katana from Japan, I could likely purchase 10-20 of these swords, or even more! In this day and age, with that kind of money, I would rather buy myself a vehicle… which is needed, of course, to get to work, earn more money, and afford more weapons. So unless you seek time-traveling opportunities to feudal Japan, if you are not wealthy, then by all means go for the SinoSword option. This katana of mine represents a middle-grade class, and they can produce superior specimen, too. Check their website, and let them know Jonathan Bluestein sent you to get a discount, too.


Wherein you liked this article, please support its author - take a look at shifu Bluestein’s ground-breaking book – Research of Martial Arts:    http://www.researchofmartialarts.com
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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s book on Facebook:
Shifu Bluestein conducts worldwide seminars, teaching Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang, the weapons of these arts, Nei Gong, Qi Gong and more. You can arrange to study with him by reaching out through facebook or email at:   jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com    or    Facebook.com/Bluestein
A full list of shifu Bluestein's articles is available at the following page:
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All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com .




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