Made For Bulleit, January 2016
Though the countries sit on opposite sides of the Pacific, this blacksmith in Canada has been honouring a sacred Japanese tradition for more than half of his life.
In Canada, through Vancouver and over the Salish Sea, on Vancouver Island, there’s a small farm bustling with the sounds of alpacas, chickens, a rooster, giant hand-reared turkeys, dogs, peacocks, two small goats and a single man, wearing a headscarf, hammering away on an anvil. That man, though not Japanese himself, is practising one of the country’s oldest crafts, the ancient art of Japanese tanto-style knife-making, and doing it completely off-grid. No power tools, no apps, no electricity – just his hammer, his forge and the turkeys.
As we take a glance at Friesen’s small workshop, his tools and hear him talk about this 10th century Japanese craft (and the trials and tribulations that come with it), the word that keeps coming up again and again in our heads is “patience”. I think of the beloved Mr Miyagi’s “wax-on-wax-off” teachings on the Karate Kid – this craft is not for the short-tempered.
Surely taking a piece of steel, or in Friesen’s case, twisted and rusted antique steel that dates back centuries (he seeks out old steel to keep in line with the craft’s traditional roots), hand forging it in the most fragile and high-risk way possible into a delicate, sculptural knife takes a man of patience, right? “No, but you just learn patience when you submit yourself to something like this,” he shrugs. “People always say ‘you must have patience!’ But I say, ‘that’s just learning.’ You just say I’m going to do it until it works and you become more patient.”
Humble, intelligent and very cool and collected, this skateboarding blacksmith’s love of Japanese culture dates all the way back to when he was a young teen, where he first learned about the country, the culture and most importantly, the knives. “I became intrigued by all the work that goes into making steel and forging the blade,” he says. “It was the sculptural form that drew me to it. The design is very prescribed, but within that you can do a lot of beautiful stuff. So to me it’s almost a sculptural form.” He adds, “I started studying Tanto as a foundation for general knife-making, but I ended up going down the rabbit hole and it became my speciality.”
You will notice, as we did, how deep this maker’s love of Japan runs, but don’t let that fool you, this isn’t a man “obsessed with a culture” – this is actually an artist, like any other, connecting with an ancient and mysterious form, using his hands, and making it completely his own. “The Japanese aesthetic is an art aesthetic that is all about details, which means you can work on something your whole life and not even master it,” he says. “There’s always something more to learn, something you can do different on the next piece. That is what keeps me going.” That and the vocal encouragement of the turkeys, no doubt.
Made For is a branded content series for Bulleit Bourbon. Photography by Katrina Parker, video directed by David Child.