About my vintage Wa-Kamisori traditional Japanese razor. Seriously sharp!

At first glance these razors appear rough, crude and primitive to a Western eye. That of course is to allow our ignorance to lead us to miss the point. The traditional Japanese razors are produced to look elegant in their simplicity. It is as though the maker rejoices in the beauty of the metal’s texture, and therefore avoids completing too much polishing and finishing.

The picture above was taken before I cleaned and polished it.

I know almost nothing about the Japanese language but have read that the traditional Japanese razor in Japan is called “Wa-Kamisori”

The real alchemy in the Wa-Kamisori is hidden from sight, as it is all in the craftsmanship that began when making the steel from which the razor will be crafted. And it is no ordinary steel! The steel used in a Wa-Kamisori is “tamahagane” or jewel steel and is traditionally made in Japan from iron sand. The Tamahagane process is a long one in which pure charcoal and iron sand are placed into a specially made oven (tatara) layer after layer. Eventually the iron from the sand is found in the ashes. Raw tamahagane is further processed by folding it by hand by until it is purified and ready for forging.

It is this sort of steel, and only this steel, that is used for the legendary Japanese swords (Katana) that in the West, in our ignorance, we often refer to as Samuri swords. Tamahagane is used both because of its high purity and because of its value resulting from rarity. What a person gets when they acquire a Wa-Kamisori is a short length of blade that is the same as one of those swords.

Master sword and steel makers would be small family businesses with their knowledge passed from father to son each using their distinctive tatara process. That is why the name of the maker is stamped deeply into the blade of their creations so the discerning buyer would know they were getting quality.

When the Meiji government abolished the wearing of swords in public, the swords industry was put to an end. But the smiths put all their skills and knowledge into producing razors, knives and other other blades of high quality.

The Japanese straight razor has a long history going back 1450 years. The razors were first used in a ceremonies for shaving the heads of Buddhist monks. In Japan’s middle ages they were used to shave the heads of the samurai. The Wa-Kamisori were considered to be a sacred item and therefore commanded a high price. A Japanese Wa-Kamisori is made by bonding a small amount of high value, exceptionally hard, carbon steel to soft iron. Depending on the size of the blade they are called Hanchou-gake, Itchou-gake or Nichou-gake.

Like the swords, the Wa-Kamisori are made by forging two kind of steels together: the Hagane and the Jigane. The Hagane is the hard steel which forms the cutting edge and the Jigane is the thicker mild steel layer which supports the Hagane. That is why the swords, and the Wa-Kamisori, are sharpened on one side only. Honing a Wa-Kamisori needs special care.

At first glance they may appear rough, crude and primitive to a Western eye but the Wa-Kamisori are a masterpiece of craftsmanship that only the discerning can know. The dark handle is not a failure to hide the unfinished metal, it is intended to be left like that to reveal evidence of the fire and forge where it was born. The blade still carries the marks of the grinder. This is again to reveal, rather than conceal, the process of creation.

And I have one!

Mine is 32 grams in weight and 143mm in length. The blade is 18mm deep. When I first held it I could hardly believe how small and light it felt in my hand. For straight razor enthusiasts these must be the ideal travel razor.

Mine is made by Tsurayuki and dates from the early twentieth century. I showed in to a Japanese lady in our church to translate the marks and she exclaimed, “My grandfather had one of these!”

I don’t know if Tsurayuki is a person or a company. I am wondering if it is a company as Tsurayuki was one of Japan’s greatest poets who wrote at the beginning of the 10th century. So it could be a company named after him. Any comment with more information about my Tsurayuki is welcome.

I honed it and stropped it until now it cuts a human hair laid on it’s edge. Honing it was a surprise though, this steel is seriously hard. I expect it will keep a sharp edge.


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