To the Hilt
Sword collector Robert Benson knows his way around a katana
IT'S A BREEZY MANOA HOUSE WITH A VIEW. IT'S PROBABLY 70 YEARS OLD, BUT A YOUNGSTER COMPARED TO THE COLLECTION WITHIN. THIS IS THE HOME OF EXPERT JAPANESE sword polisher Robert Benson. Inside, it looks like you would imagine, bedecked with pieces of samurai armor, black porcelain dolls, polished wood, delicate pottery and of course, samurai swords. Katana, all over.
Proudly displayed atop cabinets, tucked into protective silk pouches and even on the kitchen table, swords in various states of repair dominate the household. Seated at the dining room table, Mr. Benson unwraps the silk protection of a magnificent specimen. He has steady hands while speaking in a measured monotone like he is reciting from rote memorization.
Then, Robert casually unsheathes the sword. It's a tachi, or long sword meant for samurai on horseback. He says it was forged in the 1500s. At first glance, the sinister curved blade has a mirror finish with dull milky waves toward the cutting edge. That wave, he tells me, is the temper line, which marks the boundary of steel distinctions, from the soft and flexible body to the hard and brittle (and sharp) core. He hands it to me. I take it carefully, not daring to breathe on it.
“Hold it up to the light,” he says. I do and little flashes of light glimmer down the blade like electrons. “Those aren't imperfections,” Robert explains, “they are layers of lamination structures in the steel.” In short, these details
are the birth certificate of the sword—date, place and the proud trademarks of the creator(s). It is the craft of expert sword polishers like Robert to bring out the beauty and history of each blade.
This all started in 1963, when young U.S. Air Force Sergeant Benson coughed up $100 for some stones. You might call it the folly of youth, but Robert had given himself a mission. He was determined to learn how to correctly polish swords by hand. No machines allowed, he started manually scraping a piece of Japanese history with a set of specialized sandstone blocks. “And if you don't cut yourself, you aren't trying hard enough,” he says.
Not long after his freshman attempt at hand polishing a katana, he was referred to the exalted master of sword polishing. His new mentor was known as Kenichi Takano. After what had to be a challenging, yearlong internship, Robert left Japan for duty in the United States, but the blade he was working on was submitted to what was basically the annual sword-polishing contest. That year, his
Benson uses natural and man- made sandst ones in his ar t. His f ir s t s t ones, long since worn out, cost him $ 100, a f or tune in 1966. Ornament s usually af f ixed t o kat ana when worn are called koshira e and include t he hilt ( tsuba) which are of t en collected on t heir own.