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How a unique samurai sword traveled safely from Japan to Europe

This “piece of art” can cut you

Recently cargo-partner received a very special customer request and executed this unusual transport successfully. The task was an air shipment of a katana valued as much as a mid-range car. But what should have been a simple transport, turned out to be a challenge as the material of the blade is made up of 20,000 layers and so special, it oxidizes when touched. In addition most airlines would refrain from transporting it – after all it was still a weapon, even though it was meant to be a (very valuable) collector’s item. Find out more about our sharpest challenge to date.

In February, cargo-partner’s Slovakian branch was contacted by its long-time client, an importer of Japanese knives, with a special request to transport a rare samurai sword from the Japanese city of Seki to Bratislava. The export of these swords is subjected to strict conditions and it is not easy to export a traditional katana from Japan. Nonetheless, our Slovakian expert team took on this challenge and wasted no time to fulfill the client’s uncommon wish.

Turning sword making into an art form

Most people in the world have heard of the famous Japanese samurai and their important role in Japanese history. No less important were the Japanese blacksmiths who made various types of swords for the samurai, as they became their primary weapon. Moreover, they were considered a symbol of their authority and honor.

Katana in particular, are a special type of sword characterized by a curved, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands. It was used by samurai in feudal Japan and worn with the edge facing upward. Producing such unique objects goes back centuries and each generation of blacksmiths pass their experiences and their drive for continual enhancement of the swords from one generation to the next.

Each one teach one

In the aforementioned case, the transported katana originated from the famous forge of master swordsman “Motoshige”. He chose the town of Seki as the site of his workshop about 700 years ago because of the abundance of suitable raw materials available in the area. The long history of blade-making in Seki continues to this day, as the current blacksmith, Master Fujiwara Kanefusa, is already the 25th generation of the clan and one of the few smiths today making genuine Japanese swords using traditional techniques. The sword itself was made from 20,000 layers of a material called “Tamahagane”, using production processes from the Edo period. This makes the katana a truly rare collector’s item with the value of a mid-range car.

Several layers of safe packaging

A different culture when it comes to blades

Historically, katanas have been regarded in Japan not only as weapons but also as works of art, especially the high-quality examples. For a long time, Japan has developed a unique appreciation method in which the blade is regarded as the core of their aesthetic evaluation rather than the sword mountings decorated with luxurious lacquer or metal works.

It is said that the following three objects are the most noteworthy objects when appreciating a blade: The first is the overall shape referred to as “sugata” (curvature, length, width, tip, and shape). The second is a fine pattern on the surface of the blade, which is referred to as “hada” or “jigane”. By repeatedly folding and forging the blade, patterns such as fingerprints, tree rings and bark are formed on its surface. The third is “hamon”, a white pattern of the cutting edge produced by quenching and tempering.

Extraordinary care for an extraordinary sword

The export clearance process in Japan was very interesting. Since the blade of the sword is made of a special material that oxidizes when touched, the blacksmith brought the sword to be inspected by customs officials a few days before the actual shipment. After the successful customs clearance that we supported, he took it back to his workshop, where he treated the blade again so that there were no marks on it and wrapped the sword. The box was no longer opened, we only ensured its safe packaging in a wooden box so that the precious shipment would not be damaged on its way to Europe. The rare shipment weighed 25 kg with a length of 1.31 meters.

However, the main challenge for the cargo-partner team in Slovakia was to find a suitable airline and route for the transport. The challenge: European airlines considered the sword a weapon, not a collector's item, so we couldn‘t use the airport in Frankfurt, which we usually use when transferring goods from Japan.

Finally we managed to organize a flight to Vienna with a stopover in Taiwan. In cooperation with the local colleagues at cargo-partner’s airport branch in Vienna, the customs formalities were handled and the sword was immediately transferred to our warehouse in Bratislava. There it was eagerly picked up by a satisfied customer.

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