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The Beauty of the Japanese Knife

October 20, 2016

From Samurai Swords to Japanese Knives

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Surprisingly not, the techniques used to make Japanese knives are derived from those of sword making. The characteristics of Japanese knives are a result of centuries-old craftsmanship, and the techniques and materials used to make them are similar to those that were employed to make katana, the swords of the samurai. The layering of hard steel on a softer iron base is a unique characteristic of Japanese knives, and this technique comes from sword making.

There are various methods used for forging and laminating the blades, but it always results in a razor-sharp edge and a resistance to chipping. Traditional Japanese knife making is a division of work in which each craftsman uses special skills. After being forged, the knife needs to be sharpened, and it is usually sent to another highly skilled master.

Japanese knives come in all shapes and sizes, and each one of them is perfectly designed for a specific ingredient and purpose, such as slicing sashimi. For example, a long knife is preferred to cut tuna quickly, in order to preserve its freshness, and small knives are used to remove fish bones.

While most katana are double bevel (sharpened from both sides to give the strength that is needed in battle), Japanese knives are single bevel (sharpened from one side only). It gives them the best cutting edge, and therefore a better taste to the food. In contrast to the Japanese single-bevel knives, many Western knives are hollow ground from both sides, tapering away on both sides. The cut requires more force, and is more uneven and harder to control.

The city of Sakai, located in Osaka, is particularly famous for its knives. Since the 16th century, a handmade variety of knives have come from Sakai and it is still thriving today as one of the major knife producing centers in Japan, along with locations in Niigata, Gifu, Fukui and Kochi Prefectures. Sakai craftsmen started making knives to cut tobacco, which began to be imported at the time. The tobacco knives then became widely used in the country. Today, Sakai knives have a 90% market share in industrial knives used by professional chefs. They have been gaining lots of attention among top-class chefs from all over the world following the Japanese food boom on the international scene.

Japanese knives are so notorious worldwide that it has been attracting foreign manufacturers. In the city of Seki, in Gifu Prefecture, German blade manufacturers are learning the techniques of Japanese craftsmanship in order to produce semi-Western style knives. Seki is now famous for its worldwide production of fine knives, such as the German Solingen knives.

It's All About the Cut

In Japanese cuisine, presentation is as important as the taste of the food. Thanks to Japanese knives, a beautiful appearance and intricate details can be achieved. Sushi chefs typically use between 5 to 7 knives to prepare their dishes, and each one has a specific function. They also sharpen their knives daily, because the sharpness of a knife does have an effect on how the food tastes. For example, serrated stainless steel knives cannot be used to slice sashimi, because they would tear the fish apart and leave rough edges. A sharp Japanese knife leaves the slices with clean edges, retains the flavors and makes the food look better.

The Fascination of the Japanese Knife

Meet Bjorn Heiberg, owner of Tower Knives in Japan. Born in Canada, he has been living in Japan now for 24 years. His lifelong fascination with knives led him to open his own stores in Japan.

- How did you become interested in knives?
The real interest with Japanese kitchen knives started when I was offered a job with a Sakai kitchen knife maker in 2003 to help them with their exports to Europe. I had very little knowledge about the details when I started, but the more I learned, the more I understood how little most people understood the finer details. Now,13 years later, I am still trying to learn the finer details from craftsmen and chefs.

- What is unique about Japanese knives and cutting techniques?
It is said that the better the French chef gets, the more saucepans and pots he will have, whereas the Japanese chef will increase the number of knives he uses. There are hundreds of different knife models for very specific jobs allowing for the "perfect cut". For most produce, you will find that the cleaner you can cut it, the better the food will taste.

The traditional cutlery knives they started making in Sakai in the 16th century were single bevel knives made of carbon steel clad in iron. The main three traditional single bevel knives that any Japanese chef owns are known as the Deba, Yanagiba, and Usuba. They are each specifically designed for a certain job.

The heavy DEBA knife is used for breaking down a fish and filleting it out.

The longer sashimi knife (mostly YANAGIBA knife in Kansai, or TAKOBIKI knife as often referred to in Kanto) is used for slicing small pieces from the fish fillet for sashimi or sushi.

The wider USUBA knife is used for very thin peeling of vegetables and shredding those thin sheets for salads and garnish.

Sharpened from one side only, each of these knives are also concave on the back side to reduce drag, allowing for clean, smooth cuts. Steel in the knife and design contribute to performing the ultimate cut with minimal effort.

- What kind of knives do you sell, and what is popular with tourists?
We have a wide selection of Japanese kitchen knives made in various areas of Japan. We stock approximately 350 models in our Osaka shop, but don't have room to display them all at present. Although not as big as our kitchen knife selection, we also carry pocket knives, scissors, nail clippers, and a few wood working tools.

Many tourists ask us to arrange visits to the knife workshops in Sakai, but we can't, as most knife makers there are not set up for people to visit. In Sakai, craftsmen traditionally work in very small workshops where it is too dangerous for people to enter. They tend to have little to no English skills, so explaining things gets difficult without a translator. Usually they are trying to work and may be out on business and do not want to be constantly interrupted. This is also what led us to our newest project: Osaka Hamono Kobo is scheduled to open early November 2016. It is a combination of shop and workshop where the craftsmen from around Japan can come to show off their skills to everyone and promote themselves in the process. The project has been well received by local Sakai craftsmen as well as craftsmen from more rural areas, where skilled craftsmen sometimes find it hard to bring attention to their skills.

- Do you have any tips for foreign visitors to Japan, on how to choose knives to bring back home?

Due to lack of research and language barrier we find that many foreigners in Japan unknowingly buy a knife that was not designed for what they want to do, or buy a knife that they do not know how to care for. Here are some tips:

  • Do a little research in advance on what type of knife you want. Consider what you are looking for, whether it's a single multipurpose knife, a set of knives, or a knife for a very specific purpose.
  • Try to find a shop that can explain in a language you understand, or bring along a translator/tour guide to help you communicate.
  • Chose a knife that feels just right in your hand. Remember that handcrafted knives can vary a lot in weight, balance, length, and handle size, so we highly recommend that you pick up and feel the actual knife you are about to purchase.
  • Ask for instructions on maintenance and cautions. With average home usage, a quality kitchen knife should easily be good for 30 or 40 years if cared for correctly.

Tower Knives Osaka
Address: 1-4-7 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwaku, Osaka-shi, Osaka 556-0002
Tel: +81-6-4395-5218

Text: Vivian Morelli

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