The rarity, market and cost of stones in Japan.

To begin with since the World War 2 a lot of the strictly defined relationships
between maker/wholesaler/retailer have become fuzzy.

It used to be before 1950 or so, that each had his own niche and that was
where you remained just as your father did in the trades.

The miners were at the low end, the retailers at the upper and the
wholesalers made their profit in volume. Each party graded the stones as
they went along, the miners in piles, the wholesalers in stacks and the
retailer on clean work tables. The miners knew their stone from their own
mine but did not really know anything about sharpening with them (these are
very crude generalizations) and the retailers knew what the general craft
community needed in order to perform their amazing tasks. There were no
Home Depot stores then and the average household did not have or have a
need for razor hones or finishing stones, so over 90% of the stones from the
mines went to craftspeople.

In the mine the miners could tell which strata they were digging in, not with
shovels but with crowbars, each stone was trimmed with a geologists hammer
and any waste was tapped off. Waste was not carried down the mountain for
processing but instead just dumped down the hillside. The Ohira Mines
owner Ishihara-san told me in his grandfathers day the family had about 20
workers, 3 or 4 at the top of the hill, same at the bottom, so the remaining 15
or so mostly local village women and children hand carried in backpacks all
of the stone down to a wagon at the bottom, I can attest that at least an hour
hike back up. None of the mines had roads because the mountains were too
steep. Some mines developed sleds on skids and now cables.

The miners graded stone on site looking for razor/kamisori stone/toishi
because that was the most valuable, and separated uchigumori, tomae-
asagi, suita of various strata. Lots of hand work including hand chipping the
backs, cutting by hand in the old days or sawing in the shop. Hard, dirty,
dangerous and degrading work. No miner every became rich, most lived
nearby the trail up to the mine and were rice farmers on the side. This was a
traditional craft, lots of pride in doing a good job but no real glory. I was told
by Yamamoto-san, a retired mine owner that “out of an honest ton of raw
stone found in the thick & rich veins of the mines at their peak, only 10% was
useable for sharpening; with 99.9% of that ten percent dedicated for tools
like chisels and hand planes; and only 1% of that ten percent suitable for
razors.

The wholesalers would come up into these valleys (oh, I forgot the poisonous
shakes, snow and bears) and buy stone in bulk whether it was slabbed up or
raw by weight or eyeballed. All of the stone was just pennies on the dollar. It
was trucked to Kameoka, Kyoto or Osaka for finishing and stamping and
distribution. The wholesalers had sales staff that had routes and job sites
that they serviced, some guys had a route that included a whole region,
some just a major city and they serviced their clients as accounts and
revisited their clients twice a year or more. All the wholesale profits as I said
were made in volume and I am sure up to this point everyone had back
troubles. Most stone was moved around the country by train. Horses were
used for some local drayage until the 1950s.

Small and large mom & pop hardware stores were everywhere pre-1950s
and they sold mostly dry goods and stones for kitchen knives, the tool shops
were also plentiful because Japan was a nation of arts & crafts to the
extreme and in towns and cities men were constructing the largest wooden
buildings in the world and every single house using hand cut and sawn
jointery and no nails. The carpentry trades were the largest users of
sharpening stones and the demand was high because a carpenter could
wear out a stone in a season or two. There were barbers on every corner
and every 10 years or they needed a new set of stones. The retailer usually
allowed the wholesale sales person to price the stones for the shop even
using the wholesales stickers. Shop keepers knew what type of stones he
could sell but again new very little about using them or the difficulty of mining
them.

Almost all of the major mines closed before the 1st World War, and those
that didn’t were depleted from the over burden of WW2’s demand for
abrasives. In the 1950s everything began to change: hardly any miners or
mines, the use of power tools and stick framing hit the wholesale business
and eventually the urbanization of Japan hit the small stores more and more
as the decades advanced.

Because I buy wholesale in Japan I need to follow some of the same
guidelines that they do in Japan in grading stones. I do mark them up to
allow for some profit but I am working off a set purchase price myself.
Because of my inexperience I do make mistakes and have to take a loss
sometimes.

With all things being equal I work in as logical way as I can. I feel that cutting
speed is King, fineness is Queen, and stone size is the Prince. So in a
process of elimination I use these factors, pretty much the same ideas
posted by the members here already:


Large top deck trumps small top surface
No cracks trumps some cracks
All whole & square corners trumps chipped corners
Fineness trumps coarse
Cutting speed trumps slow cutting speed
Thickness trumps thin
Nakayama trumps all other mines
Color stones trump bland stones

Those are the basics.

Then:
Eastern mines almost always trump Western mines
Older stock or even used stones can trump the obvious newly made up
stones
Highly figured granular patterns generally trump plain monolithic patterns
and colors
Kiita trumps most everything
Renge trumps plain
Nashiji trumps plain
Most anything trumps light gray
Old stamps for me trump new fresh ink stamps

That’s the gist of it.
There are aesthetics involved, everyone chooses an appealing entity, and I
would rather not follow trends. I am not an actual collector so a really pretty
stone also has to have good sharpening abilities. I know that this was sort of
long, if you feel fatigued, I suggest you stay away from my blog.

Peace,
Alx
TheJapanStone