Anyone who cooks even slightly, and probably many people who don’t, gives at least some thought to buying a knife or two when they come to Japan. It wouldn’t be stretching the metaphor too thin to equate a chef’s knives to a Samurai’s swords so it makes sense that many cooks dream of having knives forged using the same methods as those swords. Unlike electronic goods, or virtually anything else, in Japan you do actually save a LOT of money buying Japanese made knives here in comparison to buying them in the US or Australia – IF you go to the right place!
A quick caveat: make sure you know what the importation rules are for your country before you buy them – you don’t want to find them confiscated at the other end!
Where to go
Kappabashi, specifically Kappabashi Dogugai Dori between Kototoi Dori and Asakusa Dori, and its side-streets, is the place Tokyo restaurant and cafe suppliers go to get all the hardware they could possibly need, whether it’s cooking supplies, ceramic ware, bento trays, enamelware, plastic utensils and storage, or four foot tall,ornamental (I assume) cheese graters – and it’s where you should go, too. Even if you aren’t shopping for knives, if you have any interest in ceramics or home wares, plan at least a half a day there. It is a dedicated supply area, though, so bring water and expect to have to go elsewhere to eat as there’s not much around. Also expect the occasional store person to grunt “20 minimum” at you in some of the shops – but only some, most are happy for the tourist trade.
The district is easily walking distance from Tawaramachi, Ueno, Iriya and Asakusa Stations.
So, where to go for the knives?
THE BIG SECRET:Don’t buy your knives on the main street!!
As I said, Kappabashi Dogugai Dori is the main street that you will turn down when you get there and you will soon come across plenty of knife shops with many of the brands you know (including some German ones) and the prices don’t look so bad – a bit cheaper than they would be in the States but not impressively so. These guys are very welcoming of tourists and so they should be because I’d say tourists would be the only people who don’t know that they are spending soo much more if they buy there than if they just went up the street a bit more and round the corner!
If you keep heading down the K. Dogugai Dori you will find Kappabashi Hondori – a very small street which doesn’t look like much but it’s the place to go.
Turn East up Kappabashi Hondori and just a couple of doors up you will find the tiny, but chock-full-o-knives, Union Commerce knife shop.
In Union Commerce we found the same knives that we saw in the main street for 50 to 120 US dollars LESS. Yes the extreme examples were on sale but, and here’s the trick, some of it will always be on sale because there is another little knife shop directly across the street and their blackboards and posters were clearly competing with each other!
I can’t tell you what the customer service was like in the shop across the road because I didn’t do much else but peek at the sales board but it’s probably worth a look inside. At Union the staff (owners?) are passionate about knives and have seemingly endless patience for broken Japanese and charades! I left very happy with my beautiful sleek black boxes having saved approximately 450 USD over the five that I bought.
Handy Japanese Phrases
Hocho= Knife (you will also hear the word ‘bocho’ if you are listening well – this is the same word but ‘h’ is turned to ‘b’ after some syllables for easier pronunciation)
[Brand name] no hocho = [Brand name”] knife. Use this if there is a particular brand of knife you are looking for (though I suggest you have some flexibility unless you’ve really done your research!) e.g., Shun no hocho; Misono no hocho; Maku (Mac) no hocho
Misete kudasai (Meesehtay koodahsigh) = Please show me. You can use this any time, it’s very handy when shopping, just point to what you want to see and say “Misete kudasai” with a bit of a question in your voice and they will bring the item for you to see more closely.
You now have a sentence, btw, Misono no hocho, misete kudasai? = Could you please show me a/the Misono knife/knives? (no plural in Japanese)
Kore o kudasai (koray oh koodahsigh) = Please give me this one (or I’ll take this one) Use this after you’ve done all your exploring and decided on a knife that you want to buy. Try not to use this one before you are ready to buy – use “misete kudasai” if you want them to just show you a knife so that they don’t get confused.
Note: “kore” means “this” or “this one just here that I am pointing to right at the moment, see?” and is used when the thing is close enough to touch – store people will often point and say “kore?” to confirm it’s the one you want – to which you can nod and say “hai” (yes) or, if you want to sound clever, “Hai, sore” (which means yes, that one just out of my reach and close to you over there 🙂 )
to (toh) = and. As in “kore to kore to kore to kore o kudasai” because, seriously, who can buy one knife?
Kirenaga (keeraynahgah) = a term which means the length of time that a blade will hold an edge. Using this term got me a big smile and guided toward another shelf of knives entirely – the Damascus steel ones, see below for why 🙂
Honyaki Another type of forging which uses only one high carbon steel. These knives have longer kirenaga but are less flexible and so more easily damaged. They also need oiling and greater care because they are, obviously, not stainless. These knives are more expensive than kasumi knives because this process is less common because of the precision required. The knives made with this process tend to be the traditional and professional Japanese knives (like the Usuba) and often have an edge on one side only, and so are usable only by either right or left handed person, AND require a curved cutting motion which takes both instruction and time to perfect.
Kasumi This is a type of forging in which a high carbon steel and iron are used so that the knife has strength and flexibility – this is the process by which samurai swords were made. Knives made with this method of forging don’t hold their edge as long as Honyaki but they need less care to be kept sharp, too so, especially for a non professional, it evens out.
NOTE: There is a Japanese knife brand named after this process so if you ask for “kasumi” you are likely to be shown these – not that it’s a problem they are very good knives at a very reasonable price (in Japan lol).
San Mai = Damascus/Damascened Steel This is another kasumi forging method which uses layers of laminated steel, and achieves a very pretty but also stronger and longer kirenaga result (still not as long as Honyaki but better than plain kasumi). The knife companies seem to be bringing Damascus into the home knife ranges whereas previously it was much more of a specialized blade (particularly popular with assassins blades, from my web research lol). There is a great post on the forging style on a bladesmith’s blog, here. I can only imagine that either they have found a way to make it more commercially viable or the home enthusiast market has just expanded to make it so, and considering the number of people who recently watched the final of “Masterchef” in Australia, that is a definite possibility. I mentioned that it makes for a very pretty metal, this is because you can see the different layers of metal in the end result – as you can see in this shot that Superman took when I brought my knives home and he went into enthusiastic-husband mode 😀
How to decide what to buy
When talking about knives, a lot of talk focuses on the blade but the most important thing about choosing a knife is actually the handling of the knife, and that’s a very personal thing. Hence the rather tortured heading of this section – I’m not going to recommend any particular knives just give some suggestions (from an enthusiastic amateur cook) on what to take into account.
The right knife for the right job
This might seem obvious, but it’s actually a safety issue to have the right knife for the job. A good paring knife will have a slightly different centre of balance to a chef’s knife, not just because the blade is smaller but because of the way it is used. A great list of all the Japanese knife types with links to individual descriptions can be found here.
If you can only afford one good knife then either a Chef’s knife or a Santoku is the best way to go – the Santoku being the more Japanese of the two, obviously. “Santoku” means “three graces” meaning that it can be used for meat, fish and vegetables. The Santoku was developed after the Japanese were exposed to the European chef’s knife and saw the utility of a single knife which could do everything.
A pairing knife for topping & tailing beans and peeling etc… is a good second knife if you have to choose, so that you have a safer option for smaller jobs.
The right knife for the right kitchen!
A confession. When I went to Kappabashi, I fully intended on buying a professional knife: a Misono UX10 to be precise. At the shops on the main street, the store men nodded with a smile and said “besto hocho” and praised my good taste. In Union Commerce, the store man gave me that fond, grandfatherly smile (which is only a hair away from patronizing but an important hair), picked one off the shelf and handed it to me. I nearly dropped it. The thing was soooo heavy and the blade was almost 2 feet long – just the BLADE, the whole thing was almost 3 feet long – that’s longer than the width of the bench on which I would use it! I asked if there was a smaller one – and he giggled and said “Profeshonal hocho”.
There is no shame in buying a knife made for the home kitchen – that’s what you are going to use it for. There are lots of companies that put as much quality into their home kitchen knives as they do their pro stuff. A home kitchen doesn’t need the same durability as a knife that is being used eight hours a day, every day (or second day if the chef alternates sets) and so can also get away with being a little more design friendly (in the same way that at home you can use much nicer pans than would be financially viable in a working kitchen.)
Be open to brands you haven’t heard of
Which brings me to the issue of which brand knife to buy. As I said, I’m not actually going to recommend any specific series of knives but if you’re reading this article, and continuing through this section then I’m going to assume you are going to be doing all the research on good quality blades from the various brands available. Try to remember there are going to be brands here in Japan that you might not have heard of but are equally good or better than those you may have so what you want to do is know your stuff about blades rather than having brand blindness.
It’s the knife series you want to research, not the brand.
Why? It’s the same with any products that have professional and amateur markets, a company might corner the market in quality on, say, full-frame cameras but not put anywhere near the same quality into their mini-digital ones – amateurs buy them because of the reputation within the pro community and are usually disappointed with what they have purchased, but assume it must be the best they can get because of the brand – and this is often not the case. So, while you’re researching, take your notes on the reviews of the specific series of knives, don’t just assume all knives from a brand are going to be great.
In the end, forget the blade…
Sacrilege? Not really. Once you are looking at the quality series across the brands, the practical differences are so minor that it really won’t matter; after all, you’re not using them solidly eight hours a day. What matters is how it feels in your hand.
One of the things you will notice about most Japanese knives is that most have plain, wooden, very straight handles rather than the ergonomic handles of Western knives. These handles are also very light and make for a knife with a lot more weight in the blade than Westerners would be used to judging as ‘good balance’. Shun and some other Japanese knives strike a balance by using similar materials to Western companies, addressing the balance issue but keeping the traditional shape. Other Japanese companies address the comfort issue by copying the Western shapes but using extremely light materials (like pressed linen) so that the Japanese-style balance is achieved.
In my exploration I found that Mac, Misono and Kasumi seemed to err on the side of Western handle shapes and balance (which makes sense since they do sell a lot of knives in the West); this, as well as the extra weight of the knife overall, was the reason for my final choice – the Mac Damascus series. My friend chose some Kasumi blades because she enjoyed the balance and she prefers lighter knives.
A final recommendation:
Nothing to do with the knives, really, but if you do have a passion for cookware and home wares, consider making it the focus of a couple of days in Tokyo. I jumped on the Shinkansen in from Nagoya one morning, met a girlfriend who lived just outside of Tokyo (another expat I now miss) and we got ourselves a lovely room for the night and spent two whole days just exploring Kappabashi. My knives now are not only a wonderful treat every time I use them but also a memory of a lovely time spent sharing a passion with a friend.