Japanese sword blades were/are made in a variety of lengths. The blade is classified by its length. A daito (long sword),either a tachi or katana, is over two shaku (one shaku equals approximately 12 inches or 30 centimeters) in length. A shoto or wakizashi has a blade length between one and two shaku. A tanto blade is normally under one shaku in length. The length of a sword blade (nagasa) is measured from the tip of the kissaki in a straight line to the mune-machi.
The buke-zukuri style of sword mounting is the most common type seen today on antique Japanese swords. It is also called the uchigatana or katana style. A set of swords consisting of a long sword (daito) and a short sword (shoto) which are mounted in identical koshirae are referred to as a daisho. Daisho or daito could only be worn by samurai or higher rank, whereas the short sword (shoto or wakizashi) could be worn by merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen. This accounts for the increased value of daito (katana or tachi) versus shoto and for the greater numbers of shoto (wakizashi) found today. Swords in buke-zukuri mountings are worn edge up with the saya thrust through the obi (waist band).
Occassionally the saya of katana, wakizashi or tanto (never tachi) will have slots for various types of accessories to be carried. There are several types of utensils which may be found. The most common is a kozuka or small knife. [Technically the kozuka is just the handle, the blade is the kokatana or gokatana] This is a general utility knife, used much like a pocketknife. A kogai is a hair arranger and ear wax cleaner. The wari-kogai or waribashi is like a kogai which is split in the middle and can be used as chopsticks. The umabari is a one piece, all steel implement of triangular cross-section. All of these were made by skilled artisans and are highly sought after by collectors.
There are several variations of tachi koshirae. The above is a Ito Maki tachi. Tachi are commonly associated with early Koto era swords and were worn by higher ranking samurai and daimyo. The tachi is worn edge down with the saya suspended from a sword belt. Tachi of various styles have been made from the earliest Koto eras through the modern period.
The Kazari tachi was one of the earliest styles of Japanese sword. It had a straight kiri-ha zukuri blade. This style of tachi was used in the early Koto period, Nara and Heian eras, and was worn only by nobles of the Imperial court.
Efu tachi, also called Hoso tachi, were likewise only worn by the highest ranking daimyo and officials of the court. Efu tachi have a shitogi tsuba. These are generally considered ceremonial mountings rather than combat mountings. Efu (Hoso) tachi were made from Koto through Showa times.
Bird's Head Tachi is a variation of the Efu tachi and were carried as court swords during many periods of Japanese history. They were still being made as presentation swords during the Showa era.
There are also "hybrid" mountings called handachi which are similar to the buke-zukuri style but have kabuto-gane, sayajiri and semegane like a tachi. Handachi are worn edge up like buke-zukuri mounted blades.
A shirasaya is a storage scabbard used to protect the sword blade when not in use and when not mounted in its normal buke-zukuri or tachi fittings. The shirasaya is normally made of ho wood and may have information about the sword blade written on it (sayagaki).
Also read Guido Shiller's fine article on types of swords and koshirae
When examining a sword, always be alert and look for blade flaws (kizu).
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