NHK WORLD > JAPANESE FOOD > Special Features > The ABCs of Japanese Cooking #3 Knives and cutting boards

The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#3 Knives and cutting boards

January 23, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back!

Hi, everyone! Now that we've covered some of the basic seasonings from our earlier lessons, let's look at the utensils used in Japanese cooking. A good cook needs a good set of tools, right? Let's start off with the essentials - knives and cutting boards.


No cook can get far without a good set of knives. Have you ever taken a really good look at the knives you use? Most cooks tend to have an assortment of knives that come in different shapes, sizes and materials. Here are some of the knives commonly used by Japanese households.

Knife types

Let me loose in a store specializing in Japanese knives and I'll be there all day. There are so many different types. In the old days, people used to say wabocho ("Japanese knives") to distinguish traditional Japanese knives from Western ones. But you don't hear the term used very often these days. In Japan, most households will have a set of several knives for different ingredients. Let's look at some of the more common types.

If you plan to make do with just one knife, this is the one to buy. In Japanese, santoku-bocho means "knife of three virtues." That's because it can be used for meat, fish and vegetables. So versatile!

Used for cutting and filleting fish. It has a wedge-shaped blade with a thick heel and a sharp, thin tip. It can easily cut through bone as well.

A vegetable knife with a wide, rectangular blade. It's ideal for cutting big, heavy vegetables like Chinese cabbage. Nowadays you don't see them as much as before.

Yes, a sashimi knife. It has a long, thin blade for slicing fish. You draw the knife towards you, using the entire blade from heel to tip.

Knife materials

Carbon steel
Traditional Japanese knives are usually made of carbon steel. The blade is pliable but sharp.

Stainless steel
The majority of knives used in Japanese households these days are made of stainless steel. The blade is hard and easy to handle.


Wet knives rust easily, especially ones made of carbon steel, so be sure to wipe them dry after washing.

Monthly or bimonthly
The blades need to be honed on a whetstone to keep them in good condition. Wet the stone and hold the blade at an angle with both hands. Keep the blade firmly in contact with the stone, and push it away from you to hone it. Carbon steel blades are soft and easy to hone.

With proper care, you can make even an inexpensive knife last 10-20 years!

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
Knife specialty stores in Tokyo have become very popular with tourists seeking a special knife just for themselves. Some stores will carve your name into the blade to personalize it!

Cutting boards

It's no use having a set of knives if you don't have a cutting board! One of my fondest childhood memories was the sound of rhythmical chopping from the kitchen as my mother prepared dinner for us. That takes me back... Now where was I? Ah, yes...

Cutting boards

Various materials are used for cutting boards. But today, let's focus on the ones made of wood.

Western cutting boards
Type of wood: olive, teak
Characteristics: hard, beautiful grain
Size and shape: various sizes and shapes

Japanese cutting boards
Types of wood: hinoki cypress, magnolia, paulownia
Characteristics: Firm but supple, gentle on the knife
Size and shape: Rectangular to fit the kitchen sink. About 30-40 cm x 20-22 cm. Usually about 20 mm thick.


As Japanese wooden cutting boards are softer than typical Western ones, they score and stain easily. You need to be extra careful about hygiene.

  1. Scrub vigorously with a sponge.
  2. Air dry and store upright so that the grain of the wood is standing.
  3. Pour boiling water over it or bleach it once every two weeks.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia

Above: Kanna, a Japanese style plane.

  1. Shaving will get rid of really bad stains!
  2. In Japan, separate cutting boards are used for vegetables, meat and fish.

Madam Akiko's recipe of the day

I bet you're getting hungry. Let's start cooking!

Click here for the recipe!
Akiko Watanabe's Temakizushi(Hand-rolled sushi)

Mini Quiz

Ahem! After a good meal, there's nothing like a good nap. But not until you answer my quiz!


A deba-bocho is used to cut fish, bones and all.
True or false?

The answer is: True!
Treat yourself to a sharp knife and a firm but supple cutting board. It really makes a difference! Enjoy the sound as you chop away!

See also
#1 Soy sauce
#2 Mirin, sake, and miso
#4 Basic cutting techniques
#5 Otoshibuta drop lid
#6 Chopsticks Part 1
#7 Chopsticks Part 2
#8 Dashi
#9 How to cook rice without a rice cooker
#10 Dried foods
#11 How to make miso from scratch
#12 Homemade Tsukemono
#13 Mushrooms

Special Features