Kyo Sukashi Tsuba

These tsuba are named for Kyoto, which was the capital city of Japan for many years. They are called Heianjo Sukashi by some authors, Heian being the old name for Kyoto.  The tradition is that this style was created according to the tastes of the 8th Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimasa (1435-1490).  Yoshimasa was known to be highly involved with the arts, perhaps even to the point of interfering with his performance as shogun.   An alternate hypothesis credits the development of the Kyo style to the time of the 6th Ashikaga Yoshinori (1394-1441).  In either case, documentary evidence has not been sufficient to settle the argument among the past authorities.  It seems that each individual tends to embrace the data that would support his own idea of the proper age of these tsuba.

The thinking of Akiyama 100 years ago placed the origin of Kyo sukashi in the mid Muromachi period.  His student, Dr. Torigoye believed that the earliest surviving examples could not have been made before the beginning of the 1500’s.  Sasano’s investigations lead him to date the beginning of the style to the early Muromachi period.  Interestingly, the Sano museum exhibition catalog published after the death of Sasano sensei moves the date of his bamboo motif tsuba (#59 in the Sasano collection book) up to the 16th C once again.  So the last one hundred years of study has moved the ground from 1450 +/- 50 years and back again. 

While Kamakura had been the center of warrior (buke) culture in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was in decline by the 15th C, with Kyoto becoming the seat of not only the high culture of the court (kuge), but of the buke as well.  This combination of influences brought delicate designs and refined execution to iron sword furniture in the capitol.  These tsuba were probably owned by fashion-conscious bushi of relatively high rank.  However, given the surviving examples of highly elaborate clothing of the top military men of the late Muromachi and Momoyama, these guards are subdued in comparison.  Ko kinko work in shakudo and gold and guards with pictorial brass inlay on iron are more in line with the aesthetic of these heavily decorated garments.  Of course it is the most expensive items that are the most likely to be preserved, so what remains cannot be treated as an unbiased sample. 

Regarding samurai fashion, Alan Kennedy writes in his Japanese Costume, History and Tradition: “The Keicho kenbunki of 1614 provides an account… related to dress, ‘Not only the great warlords of today but warriors of every class are concerned with beauty, wearing colorfully woven and embroidered fine silks.  The warriors also decorate themselves according to their status, carefully making up their appearance, and spending all their pay on clothing.’”  The situation with sword furniture could hardly have been different.  I suspect that the choice of kodogu was not only an aesthetic and financial decision, but was also dictated by what was appropriate to each position within the warrior hierarchy.

The iron ground of Kyo guards is very uniformly forged and is relatively soft.  These characteristics would have been required for successful cutting of the fine sukashi designs.  Any void or significant irregularity in the body of the iron that was hit when forming a fine line would ruin the piece.  Extra effort in the preparation of a perfect plate would avoid the potential loss of days of work from a problem later in the process.  Harder iron would also make the perforation work more difficult, and would likely result in a tsuba that would be too fragile for use.

The open work is in the ji sukashi, or positive design style.  Here the ground is cut away to leave the design in iron.  This is the reverse of the negative relief mon sukashi type of work usually seen in Tosho and Katchushi style guards.  The walls of the sukashi are generally straight.  Fine surface carving is sometimes used, and occasionally even maru bori is seen in later examples.  Inlay is not used.  Design motifs such as yatsuhashi, omodaka, etc., were very popular and were produced in many variations over hundreds of years.  As with the clothing from the late Muromachi period, designs of plants and geometric motifs predominate.

These tsuba are usually round, although variations on mokko are seen.  The diameter is moderate with most examples falling around 7.5 – 8.5 cm.  The thickness is also moderate at approximately 4-5 mm.  The rim is squared with some niku or is slightly rounded.  There are often signs of shaving or filing.  The seppa dai is narrow and elongated, as are the hitsu ana, although some large kozuka ana are seen in later Muromachi pieces.

The Kyo style remained in production into the19th century, although many later examples were likely made outside of the Kyoto area. The movement of sword smiths and kodogu makers during the Tokugawa period and the transfer of power to Edo no doubt played a significant role in the diffusion of this and other regional styles.

Kyo sukashi tsuba, mumei, late Muromachi

7.7 cm H x 7.7 cm W x 0.45 cm T

Iron with smooth surface and very fine openwork

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

Design of eight planked bridge, birds and water (yatsuhashi from the Ise Monotagari)

The open work is very delicate, which is typical for this type of Kyo guard. It is remarkable that pieces like these have survived intact. This is a variation of the often-seen design with curving iris at the left and right rather than the hard verticals here.  The rim looks like it has been shaved down to remove traces of hammering. Many Kyo tsuba bear similar deep chisel marks around the nakago ana. These could have been the mark of a tsuba production shop, or could be the work of koshirae fitters in the area. The NBTHK awarded this guard Tokubetsu Hozon papers.  See page 64 of Eckhard Kremers’ book for a related example.


Kyo sukashi, mumei, late Muromachi

7.4 cm H x 7.4 cm W x 0.4 cm T

Iron, polished

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

The design is of a stone garden path, a cart wheel on that path or of back-to-back no theater fans. This shows the typical homogenous Kyo iron with a surface that appears to have been ground and polished to a smooth and regular finish. The rim shows subtle tekkotsu. This is ex Sasano collection and published in his study group journal. A slightly larger but otherwise identical example appears in the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures catalog. It may be the dai to this sho.


Kyo sukashi tsuba, mumei, late Muromachi

7.90 cm H x 7.85 cm W x 0.50 cm T

Iron with polished surface and fine openwork

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

Design of Musashi plains with grass, bird and abumi (stirrups)

The work is similar to the first tsuba, but seems a bit later. Both show signs of filing and/or shaving of the surfaces. Again, we have the diagonal chisel marks around the nakago ana. These are also seen on several of the Sasano collection guards.  There is a very similar tsuba (#32) in Sasano's Early Japanese Sword Guards. I have seen later examples of this design with the abumi carved in marubori style.


Kyo sukashi tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.10 cm H x 8.10 cm W x 0.45 cm T

Iron with surface carving

Yattsumokko gata

Maru mimi

Design of positive and negative kiri mon

Another delicate, elegant style Kyo tsuba, but with an unusual shape.  An almost identical, but slightly smaller example of this type came from the Caldwell collection.  Comparing the two tsuba side by side, they appear to have been made by the same hand.

Copyright 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 Jim Gilbert


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