To the Hilt


HILuxury - - NEWS - . by HUNTER HASKINS pho­tog­ra­phy by DAVID MURPHEY

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.

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