Friday, January 8, 2010

Tatara: Part Two (The Real Thing!)

So I left you on the edge of your seats in Tatara: Part One wondering "Were they able to produce good iron? How many swords did Natalie make? Will her nose be forever full of charcoal?". These answers and more will soon be illuminated.

On November 27th all elementary students from Nita area came to make tatara. I arrived at nine that morning, but the men actually running the gig had been there since around five; making preparations, stoking the fire, and generally being excited. You can see Kihara-murage-san standing in the background looking pensive.

This day the students were divided into four stations: Charcoal duty, temperature duty, bellows duty, and Satetsu duty. Students rotated around in the groups so that everyone got to do each job at least once.

First in the circle of duties was charcoal duty. From the group of kids on charcoal duty, one was selected/volunteered to be mini-murage. This kid (when given the OK by Kihara-murage-san) called out for the charcoal to be poured in, or for the satetsu to be sprinkled in, or for the group working the bellows to be less vigorous because the fire was getting too hot according to the students on temp. duty. The other students in Charcoal group measured out two kilo portions of the charcoal we had chopped yesterday and were in charge of dumping it . . . ever so gently . . . into the furnace. You don't want to pour it in too quickly or the impact would cause a huge blast of heat and sparks to shoot out and burn your hands (not that such a thing happened to me when I tried or anything).

Next in the rotation is Temperature duty (the most boring of duties if you ask me, as it does not involve the potential for burning your hands off). In this station the students took two readings of the furnace fire- the lower temperature and the upper temperature. To accomplish this they poked a long thermometer into pre-made holes on the east wall and then recorded the readings on a huge chart. This was done to assure that the fire would be hot enough to melt the iron sand, but not so hot as to get out of hand. Our furnace's lower temperature remained around 900 degrees Celsius, and the upper reached over 1000 degrees Celsius. That, friends, is over 1600 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. On the left you can see Kanestuki-sensei, the English teacher at Takao Elementary. He is on of my favorite teachers- crazy and fun.

Bellows duty was a blast (hah hah). We worked a large wooden bellows which felt kind of like using a rowing machine. You push in the lever and hot air blasts out the other side through tubes connected to the furnace.I couldn't get a still picture of these students because they were bellowing their little hearts out. Good for them.

On satetsu duty, two one kilo piles of statetsu were weighed out into a small wooden boxlike structure. They carried this over to the tataradou and, when the time was right, used a small metal shovel to sprinkle the iron sand over the fire. One half was sprinkled facing west, and one half was sprinkled facing east. I assume this was done logically for even distribution, but subconsciously for their love of ceremony and doing things in meaningful ways. It was actually the students' job to take care of the satetsu, but in the picture on the left you can see Mr. Fukuda-san showing 'em how it's done. As I wrote previously, this fire is flippin' hot. It is very difficult to hold your hand steady and evenly sprinkle iron sand over a flame. The kids were troopers and did their work well.

Satetsu and charcoal were the two main jobs. These ingredients had to be added gradually over the course of the day to achieve a nice even melting. One exciting feature of the tatara furnace was that sometimes it would crack a little bit and flames would shoot out. I freaked out the first time this happened, but everyone else was nonplussed. They just took a huge brush made out of rice straw and dipped it into a bucket of clay slip, then slapped that slip onto the crack. I got to do it once. It was fun.

There were two small mouse holes in the furnace on the north and south walls. Generally the temperature around these holes was cool enough so that the molten iron hardened and didn't pour out. But periodically the workers would break open the hardened iron and allowed some molten iron (called Noro, as is my favorite kind of yarn) to flood out. Apparently they did this so they could check the consistency and purity of the noro. Below you can see the specimens displayed along with the time they were gathered.

Around four thirty all work stopped. The iron stewed and simmered in the furnace, allowing the heavy molten iron to sink to the bottom of the furnace. We had about a half hour break, during which I played tag with the girls of Ai Elementary. Kids here love tag, and I like to play too except they are fast as rabbits and I am not built for speed.

Anyway. At five we all gathered and had a small ceremony for the tatara finale.
I'm not sure how I thought we would get the steel out of that furnace. Perhaps I thought that we would let it all run out of those little mouse holes, which retrospectively is more than a little ludicrous. But the reality was more crazy than I ever could have expected. The students literally dismantled the furnace, tearing down the walls with pickaxes and poles and brute strength. This process took over an hour, and if you want to watch the relative mayhem I will try to post the video below. I couldnt get it to work yet.

Unfortunately my camera ran out of memory and I didn't get to film the end, which was of course the most exciting part. After finally demolishing the structure we so toiled to make the day before, a huge pile of angry, steaming steel was left naked on the earthen floor. As you can see, the outside surface was "cool" enough to be grey, but the inside was still a scorching red hue. It was hissing and steaming with all its might. The students used tongs to drag it over to a large bucket of cold water. Everyone together lifted the steel chunk with shovels and tongs into the bucket to quench it. The monster sat boiling for quite some time. This was one hot chunk of steel. "Looks like the Iron God is angry" noted Kamedake's principal of the spectacle. I would have to agree.


The finished product was a monstrous thirty kilos. Isn't she beautiful? Unfortunately, although it's very nice steel I'm sure, as far as tatara goes this stuff is not good enough quality to ACTUALLY make a sword with. So my total sword production amounted to zero. All this steel is to be used for is being displayed around Okuizumo's eleven illustrious elementary schools as a testament to the awesomeness of the students and everyone involved.

Which isn't such a bad use after all, if you ask me.

for another good but very dry Tatara explanation, click here!

1 comment:

  1. Awww, too bad you didn't get to make something. But hey, a chunk of iron you made by hand is still pretty sweet.

    Glad to see you back in the country! I look forward to hearing about your xmas break.