The Samurai sword—or katana—was once a symbol of prowess in feudal Japan. With their strong yet flexible curved steel blades, the swords were used by the Japanese Samurai. Even today, samurai sword-making uses the same labor-intensive way as centuries ago (not talking about the replicas made at a fraction of the cost!)

Keep reading as I share all about Samurai swords, their history, how they’re made—and the top sword-making experiences in Japan!

You might also like: 67 Unique Cultural and Traditional Things To Do in Japan

The History of Samurai Swords

Japanese swords, the iconic symbols of samurai culture, trace their origins back to the early Heian period, around 700 CE.

Initially, these blades were straight and influenced by Chinese and Korean designs. The transition to the classic curved katana occurred during the late Heian period, reflecting advancements in metallurgy and changing warfare tactics.

By the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the katana had evolved with a distinct curve, a sharper edge, and a longer blade, better suited for the samurai’s need for a quick and efficient draw in battle.

Japanese samurai with sword in hands in a street in old Japan

This evolution mirrored the rise of the samurai class, as these swords became the samurai’s version of a smartphone – always at their side. And well, also a symbol of their social status and warrior ethos.

Throughout the feudal era, especially during peaceful times, sword-making developed into a refined art form, with famous swordsmiths achieving legendary status. The katana remained a vital part of the samurai’s identity until the end of the Edo period in 1868, embodying both martial prowess and aesthetic beauty.

After the Edo period ended in 1868, the samurai class and their swords faced a bit of an identity crisis. The Meiji Restoration, with its rush towards modernization, meant that carrying swords became about as fashionable as wearing armor to a business meeting. By 1876, the Haitōrei Edict had samurai hanging up their katanas for good, relegating these weapons to ceremonial roles or, sadly, the attic.

How to Make a Samurai Sword

Samurai sword-making involves craftsmanship and attention to detail. And while the process may be labor-intensive, the end result is an artistic masterpiece!

1. Smelting

Swordsmiths and their assistants begin by using a clay furnace (tatara) to layer iron sand and pine charcoal for three days. During the process, temperature is controlled to allow high-carbon and low-carbon steel to separate. This step results in 2 tons of steel (kera)—divided into soft hocho-tetsu and hard tamahagane. The former is a flexible core, while the latter is used to make the sword’s razor-sharp edges.

The materials for the process are now ready to be transformed into a Samurai sword.

2. Forging and Folding

The swordsmith folds and hammers the steel up to 16 times (creating up to 30,000 layers!). Doing so spreads the carbon throughout the steel and draws out any impurities. It also lets you combine different kinds of steel—achieving a soft but flexible and sharp but brittle material. You may be surprised to know that after you forge katana, only one-tenth of the original mass is left.

Different folding methods, such as kobuse, honsanmai, and soshu kitae, are used to achieve varying blade characteristics. As an added bonus, folded steel looks super cool—and the patterns on the steel are unique to each sword. 

The sword prepared at this point is pretty much straight. This is because katana aren’t bent into their shape; they get their curve from heat treatment.

Samurai sword-making process

3. Heat Treatment

Next, you cool the sword by plunging it in water or oil. However, it’s not as simple as dipping it into the liquid. You have to cool different parts of the sword at different rates, called “differential heat treatment”. For the purpose, the swordsmith paints a clay mixture on the sword (covering the main blade but leaving the edge). He then quenches the sword in water at about 800ºC. This is a critical point, as one in three swords can be ruined at this point. Proper heat treatment results in the iconic katana curve—and the distinctive line along the sword, called the ‘hamon’.

4. Polishing

The final step, polishing, is done by a specialist using seven different stones—and taking over up to a month for a single blade. The cost for museum pieces can be significant, up to $1,000 per inch of blade. Fittings, such as the scabbard and handle, are also typically made by a different craftsman. However, these are not considered as important in Japanese culture; in the museum, you’ll usually just see the blade displayed.

The State of Katana-Making Nowadays

Today, the art of Japanese sword-making is far from extinct. It’s like the vinyl record of weaponry: classic, revered, and in the midst of a cultural comeback. These swords are no longer tools of war but rather works of art, meticulously crafted by master swordsmiths, known as ‘tosho’, who spend decades honing their skills. In today’s Japan, there are around 300 of them, but only a few can live from swordsmithing only.

The path to becoming a master swordsmith is long and arduous, often exceeding a decade of rigorous training. This ensures that every aspect of the sword-making process is executed with skills and precision.

Today, katanas are made for martial artists and enthusiasts who value the craftsmanship and historical significance behind each blade, with prices ranging in the tens of thousands of US dollars.

Best Sword-Making Experiences in Japan Today

When traveling to Japan, it’s possible to meet, observe, and learn from master swordsmiths. Prices can be high, but with such a deep history and only a few hundred active swordsmiths, we can understand why. So is it worth it? If you’re interested in this craft, I’d say yes, absolutely.

Below, I listed the best place to experience sword-making in Tokyo, and the best one in Kyoto:

Forge NameLocationPriceUnique FeaturesBooking Link
Katanakaji FusahiroHonjo-Waseda, Saitama (near Tokyo)¥72,000 / person– Watch a demonstration by Fusahiro, one of Japan’s last katana makers
– Hands-on experience with making a Samurai sword
– Wind up with a photo session with a katana made by Fusahiro
– 3-hour duration
– 50 minutes from center Tokyo
View on Wabunka
Masahiro TantojoKameoka City, Kyoto¥54,000 / person– Learn from a certified Japanese swordsmith
– Make your own knife (not a sword-making experience)
– Private group (only your group) for an intimate experience
– An English/Japanese interpreter will accompany you
– 4-hour duration
– 60 minutes from center Kyoto
View on Wabunka

The best part of this kind of experiences is to be able to converse and learn from some of the only Japanese master swordsmiths still in activity, carrying on their shoulders the weight of hundreds of years of skill honing and history. This is a unique chance to meet those masters for those interested in sword-making.

If the price is too high for you but you’re looking for a similar experience, you can check my guide on the best workshops to make your own knife in Japan. This type of experience is usually more affordable, and although you won’t learn about swords, you will still forge your own knife under the instructions of a master swordsmith.

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