Scholars believe that people on the Japanese archipelago first discovered iron in the middle of the Yayoi Period (300 BCE-300 CE). Domestic production of primitive iron tools began shortly after.
In the Land of Izumo Chronicle, there are mentions of “iron in the Hata River” and “hard iron suited to making many things.” These passages suggest that iron production had already begun by the time of the book’s completion.
According to a government record from the Heian Period, the lands of Izumo, Hōki, Bingo, and Bittchū were allowed to pay their land rent in iron instead of the usual rice. This is more proof that iron was produced in these regions since long ago.
“Takadono” refers to the building which houses the furnace and other iron production equipment.
The expansion of iron production facilities led to the creation of Sannai Village, a place for the workers to live and take advantage of a more consistent production schedule.
The takadono is supported by 4 pillars up to 18 m (60 ft.) tall, called “oshitate-bashira.” Inside, charcoal and iron sand are heaped in piles and seats for the various workers are placed on both sides. In the middle of the room is the furnace with bellows on either side. The bellows send air through 20 bamboo tubes connected to the furnace. The underground structure is directly below the furnace and bellows.
Sugaya Tatara in Yoshida, Unnan is the last of its kind, and its characteristics can be further studied by looking at replicas at various museums.
The introduction of western iron manufacture began in 1857 with the Ōhashi blast furnace in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, and by 1894, iron production by western methods overtook that of tatara. At this time, tatara bellows and blacksmiths were utilizing automation and switching to brick furnaces.
A brick furnace is a tall furnace built with heat-resistant bricks and uses iron sand (or slag), and charcoal as fuel to make iron. They were essentially western-style furnaces with tatara iron making techniques applied to them.
Although traditional tatara iron making ended in the Taisho Period (1912-1926), production of charcoal pig iron used in brick furnaces continued until 1965.
At the Tatara Brick Furnace Cultural Heritage Museum in Okuizumo you can see a reconstruction of the Makihara Ironworks Brick Furnace built in 1935.
The underground structure of tatara was different depending on region and time period.
Ditches next to “field tatara” of the middle ages became kobune of the “takadono tatara” of modernity, and stone laying patterns and moisture removal drains evolved into the tokotsuri.
You can see and compare such technological changes by visiting the Onji Iron Making Ruins in Okuizumo, where a field tatara and takadono tatara are were built adjacent to one another.