Have you ever heard of Tatara?

If you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head is one of the 28 Chinese mansion constellations (婁), but if you’re more interested in iron working, steel working, and Japanese swords, perhaps you already know this as foot-operated bellows used in the firey production of these materials (踏鞴, though usually written phonetically as たたら).

It’s such a crucial part of this region’s history, however, that I’ve learned a thing or two–though lacking any craftsmanship sense, my knowledge is still limited. Here’s a basic introduce so as to introduce one of the local deities.

Tatara was likely imported into Japan from Korea by way of Shimane Prefecture, and seeing as the San’in region is rich with titanium magnetite, a necessary ingrediant for iron production, it took hold here very early on in Japanese history. Way back in ancient Japan–specifically 713ad, two years after the compilation of the Kojiki (originally ordered by Emperor Temmu) was completed, Empress Gemmei ordered the compliation of the Fudoki. While the Kojiki is like a history book (which we would now consider a book of Shinto mythology), the Fudoki were like encyclopedia, conducted in each province to chronicle geography, plant and animal species, the lifestyles of the people, and significant historical events (many of which we would now refer to as myths). Most of the Fudoki no longer exist, but the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki remains mostly in tact. Therefore, we know a lot more about life in 8th century Izumo than about any other part of Japan. It includes many details about tatara.

One of the diorama at the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

Because we have so much information about its history and because it was practiced in Izumo province for hundreds of years, there are a number of museums, blacksmith family residences, archeological digs, ruins, and sword museums around the towns of Okuizumo, Yasugi, and Unnan. Okuizumo is best known for this because the The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords has rebuild a tatara there called Nittoho-Tatara, and forges swords using traditional means once a year a so. Unfortunately, due to risk of injury, these are not typically open to the public (bummer!). The nearby Okuizumo Tatara Swords Museum, however, does a 90-minute forging display on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month.

Click for map source (Japanese)

There is a patron god of Tatara, though many of the popular local myths say she is a goddess. This is Kanayago, the kami that is revered throughout Japan for teaching craftsmen how to making iron. Having particular influence over Western Japan, she wanted to settle in the mountains there, so she descended upon a particular spot in southwestern Yasugi where a heron perched upon a katsura tree, a very brief hike up the hill from Kanayago-jinja, the head shrine of all Kanayago shrines.

Pretty humble for a head shrine.

As numerous as Kanayago shrines are (especially in the Chuugoku region), many of them make donations to this head shrine.

A short walk across from the entrance to the shrine is the folk tradition hall dedicated to the shrine and legends about Kanayago. It’s small, but well designed and with lots of information and 3D displays. I was running out of battery on my camera, though, so I didn’t take pictures of the birds and katsura and wisteria displays!

This shrine is mounted on a “kera.”

I thought the rat motif carved into the shrine was interesting, especially since there is another very famous kami in the Izumo region associated with rats. When I asked the museum staff about it, they said that because rats are numerous, they are a sign of good luck–that the blessings may also be numerous!

There is a kera featured in this photo, as well as a few outside the shrine. This seemingly unattractive 2.8 tone slab of rock is actually the result of 70 hours of heating 13 tons of iron and 13 tons of charcoal in the firey bellows, it is from this kera that they can get 1 ton or less of tama-hagane (“jewel steel”), from which katana and other Japanese blades are made.

Phew. That was a heavily paraphrased mouthful from the highly detailed and information Hitachi Metals’ English homepage. Please start reading here for the more thorough explanation of everything that goes into tatara.

For those of you like me who just want to cut to the mythology, here are a few stories about Kanayago, quoted directly from the Hitachi Metal’s page about her:

According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I’ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.

(Notes: A “murage” was an iron-making master. Hoki Province is now western Tottori, and neighbored Izumo Province.)

To wrap this all up, if you’re a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli studio movies, then you likely are already familiar with tatara after all. Iron Town in the 1997 film Princess Mononoke was based on Okuizumo (not to be confused with Higashiizumo)!