Originally from Montréal, Canada, Pierre headed for the first time to Japan in August 2002. Many years and memories…
Between his teenage and this decisive departure were spent many years of quest and attempts of all sorts that made him “grow and shrink”. These were motivated only by the hope of finding a daily occupation that would bring all-in-one professional and financial satisfaction, and the childish wonder that he says he can never quench the thirst for.
Those years were thus spent on studies in the field of professional photography, followed by various related and non-related jobs, and then by studies in the business world by completing a bachelor of commerce in finance and management.
It was actually during his studies at the Montréal business school that, in 2002, several unrelated events made him decide to buy an airplane ticket for Western Japan. In lieu of preparation, 1000$ and a friend’s family who would host him for a month.
“Before I left, so as to have a taste of what was to come, I had read the famous Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa which I had come across by chance in my university book store.”
“During a trip with friends, as we were passing through an area called Osafune, in Okayama prefecture, I saw a sign on which was written the famous Bizen name. I had then suddenly remembered an excerpt in Yoshikawa’s book, where Musashi visits a sword polisher, and he is told that he owns a «very fine Bizen sword».”
That same night, at a guesthouse in the area, he had asked a friend to search the area for a traditional swordsmith, without actually believing that there were still any alive. In fact, not only did they find one, but the craftsman invited them to visit him the next day.
“That day was on Christmas day of 2002, the best gift I ever had until now, and it was free on top of that – just like most best gifts!”
They had stayed a few hours observing the smith at work, Kawashima Masaki. “He was working slowly, in silence, we could only hear the fire’s breath.” They could witness the magic of red-hot steel made malleable. “I was blissed by his total devotion to his work, by the strenght of his focus, and his apparent inner peace.”
“The very idea of working alone, at peace, retired in a workshop set in the countryside, nearby a fire, with iron as a raw material, doing a work that never ceases to bring renewal and wonder, this delighted me very much. Unlike previous exciting and insightful experiences that I had had, this was rather calming and reassuring: a work far from the frontline, but no less inspiring.”
“After a few hours of observation punctuated by many questions, some left unanswered, Kawashima went to get a tachi that he had just completed. When he showed us his sword, with its flamboyant hamon, its perfect lines and the Nature-like balance in its design, I knew that so much beauty would never leave me unmoved.”
Yet, a stranger in Japan and standing in the doorway of an even tighter inner world, Pierre didn’t consider the possibility of himself becoming one of them at once. “Until that very moment, I didn’t even know that japanese swordsmiths still existed!”
The following spring, he had an opportunity to attend a public swordsmithing demonstration, held by Kawachi Kunihira and his apprentices. “This is where I met Kiyota, second apprentice to Kawachi.”
Pierre visited him several times, by curiosity for the craft, but also to learn more about the daily reality of present-day swordsmiths in the 21st Century.
In August 2003, he returned to Canada after a one-year stay well filled with adventures of all sorts, of which the average was rather positive.
He continued his studies at the business school while the idea of becoming apprentice was growing within. He finally decided that this is what he wanted to do. Many non-Japanese have tried their luck, but to this day, all but one quit at some point. Only American Keith Austin, who unfortunately passed away in 1997, had succeeded in obtaining the certification that would make him a swordsmith in the eyes of the japanese tradition. This, he had done in the 1960′s, “and at that time, the modern structures were still in the making. It was up to one’s master to grant his apprentices recognition and indepence or not, and this was officialized by the government. However, licences are still delivered depending on wether the apprentice is considered to have assimilitated the techniques and the right attitude for the craft. In fact, things have not changed so much, only they have become a little more formalized.”
Then came the second stay, officially as a tourist that time, during the 2004 summer. He had come to meet with several smiths, simply asking for a talk. “One does not knock on a stranger’s door and ask to be accepted as an apprentice! It’d be like proposing to wed the first stranger met on the street. The master-apprentice relationship never ends, and the master is responsible towards those to who he passes down the tradition.” He meets with Yoshihara Yoshindo (co-author of The Crafts of the Japanese Sword, Kapp, 1987, Kodansha) in Tokyo, Kojima Hiroshi in Saitama, Gassan Sadatoshi in Nara, then a second time with Kawachi Kunihira at the time of an exhibition, and then again Kiyota several times.
“Even though, as the saying goes: «We set out to do things. We do things. But we never do what we set out to..», coincidences, fortuitous encounters multiplied at a quasi-psychedelical level. I started to believe that life is not a strip of chaotic events that «happen», but rather the result of our own creation.”
It is finally to Kiyota Jirokunietsu that he suggests the idea of becoming apprentice, in spite of the smith’s young age. “At the time of my meeting with Kojima, I had mentionned Kiyota’s age. He had then asked if Kiyota was a «good person». I had replied straight away that he was an especially good person. Without hesitating, he had simply replied: «Then, he will make good swords.» I had found that this summed up the entire spirit of the japanese craftsman. «Anyone can master a technique if he makes the necessary efforts during the required time, but only a master can make a masterpiece.» had told me Yoshihara. Creation is only the reflection of the creator. Art lovers only buy reflections of creators.”
Pierre then returned to Canada to graduate from university and came back to Japan in December 2005 in order to start his apprenticeship under Kiyota.
“The first year was a surprise in that it didn’t require of me any of what Westerners usually believe to be a japanese apprenticeship’s sacrifices. Kiyota tends to be very down to Earth and didn’t consider himself anyone’s Master.” Pierre happened to be studying with him, as he often said, but the relationship was nonetheless very straighfoward, and Kiyota’s expectations in terms of work quality were clearly demonstrative of his own training.
As time passed, however, the pace seemed to never pick up, and Pierre realized that many apprentices in the modern age go through five years of training without ever touching a hammer, or so to speak! It was expected to be different in the Kawachi Kunihira Ichi-mon, Kiyota’s group of swordsmiths, but Kiyota himself chose to lead a slow life and work when he pleased. In 2008, Kiyota decided he would build his new forge in order to move out of the place he was renting. This he started in the summer of 2009. For Pierre this meant that there would be no place to train for a while, and more delays.
In November 2008, Pierre got married to Rina, a Japanese from Nara.
In the spring of 2009, Pierre tentatively entered apprenticeship under Kiyota’s own master, Kawachi Kunihira, as a live-in apprentice, only to go back to his previous set-up after three weeks! The pace at Kawachi, the working environment and the Kawachis’ highly dedicated teaching were all very positive, but the prospect of having to live without any revenue for another two to four years, counting only on Pierre’s wife to cover for all, and meeting her only on some Sundays, all this was just too much. On top of that, it also meant going back to square one, and act as the gofer for there were two apprentices already above.
But things got together almost without any effort after that when Pierre was given blacksmithing tools, and decided to rent Kiyota’s previous forge by himself. He is now back to his original soto-deshi (non-residing apprentice) status, and enjoys the support of not only Kiyota, but also of other swordsmiths and sword-related craftsmen with whom he developped close relationships in the past years.
“This is a very exciting time because I’m really starting to feel I’m taking on the challenges. The next two years will be essentially devoted to pure practice in order to properly pass the licencing test. I feel I successfully created my own path in a world where initiative is fundamentally wrong!”
Pierre’s apprenticeship, with almost four years completed, is going at a slow, steady pace. No other Westerner, but for the said Keith Austin, ever went that far. “The past year was a little crisis in itself, but the storm has passed, and these are now the best times to date. Stay tuned!”
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