Guardian Deity of Iron: The Goddess Kanayago
Kanayago are deities who appear in The Chronicles of Japan, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history. They are ‘Kanayama-Hiko no Mikoto’ and ‘Kanayama-Hime no Mikoto’, who are the grandchildren of the deities ‘Izanagi no Mikoto’ and ‘Izanami no Mikoto’. Kanayama-Hime is the creator and guardian deity of iron (gold), and is said to be the goddess who taught people the sacred technique of ‘Tatara iron-making’, an ancient Japanese iron-making method, and thus has been worshipped by iron-makers for centuries. This object of worship is enshrined at Kanayago Shrine located in Nishihida, Shimane Prefecture. The Okumiya (rear shrine) lies behind it, and is the place where it is said Kanayago flew to from the heavens.
Kanayago Myths and the ‘Katsura’ Tree
When the village people prayed for rain, Kanayago descended from the heavens to Iwanabe, Harima Province. In order to teach people about civility and creating a bountiful harvest, Kanayago made all kinds of metal utensils and pots out of boulders.
However, as there were no mountains to live in, Kanayago flew on a white heron and headed westwards, arriving in the forests of Izumo Province where she rested her wings on a ‘Katsura’ tree. Later, Kanayago herself became the expert technician of the ‘Tatara iron-making’ method. It is said that blowing charcoal and ironsand with bellows (Fuigo) has a divine power that will make the iron flow endlessly.
– Abbreviated history of the Kanayago Shrine
Yasha Yukawa studied the Kanayago mythology during his training to become a swordsmith in Japan. Since then, he has cherished and holds dear to him the mythological goddess, as well as the ‘Katsura’ tree in all its mystery.
What is ‘Tatara iron-making’?
‘Tatara iron-making’ is the Japanese iron-making method that has been practiced since ancient times. In particular, Okuizomo and its surroundings were major production areas. This method uses ironsand extracted from granite as its raw material, and also uses charcoal called ‘Tatara charcoal’ grown from trees in coppice forests (also called low forests) as fuel. Ironsand and Tatara charcoal are repeatedly placed into a furnace made out of kiln clay, and then a flame is burned by blowing air from a blower called Fuigo (bellows) which creates the iron.
As time went by, ‘Tatara iron-making’ production slowed and for a while became discontinued, but with the cooperation of Hitachi Metals, Ltd. a public interest incorporated foundation called ‘The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords’ now continues this sacred Tatara iron-making method. There, the chief technician and supervisor known as ‘Murage’ plays a central role where two or three times every winter, operations which last three days and nights (about 70 hours) are carried out.
The Gift of ‘Tatara iron-making’: The Tamahagane that comes from Kera
The Murage uses great skill to manipulate and balance the raw materials: ironsand, Tatara charcoal, and the kiln clay which is used to make the furnace, as well as the elements of air and fire using the Fuigo. In the furnace, the refined iron bloom known as ‘Kera’ is produced.
The Kera grows almost as if it’s a living being, as the soil of the furnace and the ironsand fuse together, eroding the walls of the furnace, eventually becoming a mass of about 1.2 meters in width. From this Kera, Tamahagane is formed. In essence, when the local resources of Okuizumo; ‘ironsand’ and ‘Tatara charcoal’ meet the natural elements of ‘fire’ and ‘water’, Tamahagane is born.
On the grounds of Kanayago Shrine, there are a number of dedicated colossal Kera excavated from the surrounding area, giving a glimpse of the prosperous iron-making culture that has been practiced in this region.
The ancient Tatara iron-making techniques included a method called ‘Zuku-oshi’, which produced pig iron with a high carbon content, and a method called ‘Kera-oshi’ which included Tamahagane. This however contained a low carbon content. The pig iron is processed into agricultural tools as well as kitchen knives. Tamahagane, which can only be obtained in tiny amounts from Kera, are forged by swordsmiths to make Japanese swords.
Tatara iron-making is an ancient Japanese ironmaking method that, according to mythology, is said to have been bestowed by Kanayago, the goddess of iron. As time went by, Tamahagane was eventually created by the joint forces of the power of nature and the people living in and around Okuizumo. Please enjoy the works of swordsmith Yasha Yukawa, as he continues to forge and create this sacred Tamahagane.
English translation by George Wood