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Ko Mino Tsuba


What we call Ko Mino (古美濃) today in terms of tosogu, is describing a group of metalworkers that was active from around early muromachi times. There have been metalworkers active before them, even preceding the Heian period (794-1185) as there was always necessity for tosogu to fit swords. However, only very little tosogu from these times has survived, mostly in case it was enshrined or excavated in the past century. In Muromachi times, the general quality and refinement of Kinko work increased, stepping up from the level of a mere consumable.

From the whole set of Ko-Kinko (old Kinko) works, Ko-Mino refers to a group of Kinko metalworkers in Mino province, that are especially characterized in their style, yet did not form a certain school such as 

the Gotō or later artists. The famous founder of the Gotō school, Gotō Yūjō (後藤 祐乗),  was born in 1440 in Mino province and was heavily influenced by the Mino-Bori style of his hometown. Thus, together with great artists summarized under Ko-Kinko today, Ko Mino resembles the great Kinko works of the Muromachi period. In contrast to earliest Gotō work, Menuki, Kozuka, Kogai, Fuchigashira AND Tsuba were made by early Mino artists, however, especially Tsuba are rare today. It is also important to distinguish between Ko Mino and Mino work, which was made substantially later, namely after Momoyama or in early Edo times and is generally considered of declining quality, also reflected by the high two digit count of Ko Mino Juyo Tosogu versus not a single Mino piece. Ko Mino tosogu, as typical for this time, was not signed.

The typical style of Ko Mino is characterized by deeply cut motifs, often standing out by several milimeters. The work often features vegetation of all kind (grapes, autumn grass, pines, peony, etc.) and less frequently also animals, especially insects. Other creatures comprise deers, squirrels, horses and also, though rarely, dragons. Figurative work including human depictions is not found on earliest work and seems to appear closer to Momoyama times (1573-1603) at the end of Muromachi. Ko Mino works often have a 'rich' appearance, as most are done in shakudo with silver and gold applications, further supported by the nanako ground. This rich appearance comes from tremendous work invested into these pieces, especially comparing to other Kinko works of that time. A tsuba required special effort due to its size and the respective space that needed to be filled with quality craftsmanship. This might also be a reason why we see comparably few Ko Mino works today - they were very expensive back in their days and not so many were made. Just as for Ko Kinko and Ko Gotō, gentle wear on gilding or Nanako can be considered a dignifying sign of appreciation, giving further value and meaning to the piece as it has been used, often for generations. This is something to consider in the evaluation of such old pieces, dating back well over 400, sometimes 550 years.


The present Tsuba is very special right on first sight and gives a very playful, yet rich and gentle impression. Based on the shape of the Tsuba, also considering the primordial hitsu ana, this tsuba dates back to the second half of the Muromachi period. The motif comprises two squirrels climbing among grape vines, loaden with berries. This was a very popular motif back in times, although it looks a bit strange for a westener today, seeing squirrels and fruits on a weapon part from the 16th century. However, as often in japanese or chinese symbolism, a wordplay of similar pronounciation or sound can explain it. Grapes and Squirrels are called budo ni risu (葡萄に栗鼠), which sounds very similar to budo no rissuru (武道に律する) which means something like 'practising the discipline of martial arts'. Therefore, this is the motif of a warrior and makes this Tsuba a very meaningful symbol for a fighter in the troubling and brutal times of Muromachi jidai. There is also a famous painting by Miyamoto Musashi of this motif and it is rather often found in japanese art.

What is also interesting on this Tsuba is the good condition of both the gilding and nanako. However, truly standing out are the numerous indications of refitting found among the nakago ana and hitsu ana. This tanto-sized Tsuba (5.6x5.1cm) must have been mounted and refitted countless times, showing how important the piece was for the owners. Reworking such a Tsuba involved substantial cost, just imagine what it would cost today just making one of these many alterations, speaking of many hundred dollars for just one of the smaller edits. 

Squirrel and Grapes pain-ting by Miyamoto Musashi

This Tsuba is a powerful piece and just holding it while thinking about all the previous owners, those who did not only appreciate it in a box, but wore it on a koshirae is very charming. Additionally, it is very fine and very early kinko work, on top a tsuba which is rare among Ko Mino, making it a very interesting collection item and a valuable reference piece. Therefore it has also been published in the Kinko Mino Bori book and was of course exhibited in the Gifu prefecture museum in 1993. A great addition to any collection and appreciable by all sorts of tosogu collectors as either the foundation of all later kinko work or an authentic contemporary of many early sukashi Tsuba.

The piece comes with Tokubetsu Hozon Papers to Ko Mino, is shown in the Ko Mino Bori book and is also accompanied by the original editorial photographs and documents used for the book, as well as the original and unused ticket for the exhibition opening back in 1993.

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Ko Mino Tsuba
Ko Mino Tsuba
Ko Mino Tsuba

The original entry ticket

Kinko Mino Bori book

Book part
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