Friday, February 4, 2011

Japanese Knives and Sakai (The City of Knives!)

Of all the kitchen tools we have at our disposal, perhaps the most essential would be the humble knife. It is one of the most primal and simple tool that humans have devised. Ever since we crawled out of caves to fashioned an edge from stone, the knife has never left our sides. For the chef or foodie, the knife is the sexiest, most elegant piece of equipment in the kitchen. The perfect embodiment of form and function. It is the tool that we foodies/chefs are most protective of and most attached to. In the age of useless and overcomplicated kitchen gadgets, the knife remains one of the cornerstones of food preparation.

Traditionally in the West, European (particularly German and French) knives have been lusted over by cooking enthusiasts and chefs alike. Names like Wusthof and Sabatier come to mind. Over the past few years, there has been a growing interest in Japanese knives. What's all the fuss about? Why are some of the world's top chefs (Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller just to name two) all of a sudden jumping ship?

Firstly, it all starts with the steel. With their sword making heritage, the Japanese are experts in forging steel. Japanese knives are exceptional for the hardness and sharpness of their blades. They are lighter, more accurate and responsive than heavier knives.
Many steels are available but the most common are carbon steel, semi-stainless and stainless. All have slightly different properties with their own perceived advantages and disadvantages (ease of sharpening, edge retention, maintenance).

Hardness: The hardness of steel is measured on the rockwell scale. Most European knives measure around 54-56 on the rockwell scale. Japanese knives on average around 58-61 with some reaching 63 and higher. The increased hardness means that the edge will be retained longer than a softer steel. This also allows the blades to be much thinner than European knives - helping them to take on a scalpel-like sharpness.

Blade construction: Japanese knives are unique for their construction. Many blades use a composite construction technique where a hard steel is forged with a softer iron. This exploits the best attributes of both materials. You will also find 'damascus' patterned blades where the metal is folded repeatedly to give a beautiful wood grain finish.

Only on Japanese blades will you find 'single bevel' edges. If you can visualise the cross section of a blade, most angle down in a 'v' shape to form the edge. This is described as a 'double bevel' edge. In single bevel edges, one side of the blade is ground flat (with a slight hollow) and the other angled to form the edge. This means a much steeper angle and less likelihood of 'wedging' when slicing through food.

Traditional Japanese knives also feature wooden handles with buffalo hole ferrules. The blade is fixed into the handle by heating the handle section until it is red hot (although epoxy/glue may also be used) and then tapping the handle on with a wooden mallet. They differ from western knives in that very few are of full tang construction (where the blade runs completely through the handle) This has traditionally perceived in the west as sign of a high quality and sturdy blade. However, if you think about most cutting situations in the kitchen, there are few situations where you need to use the entire handle for leverage. The extreme sharpness promotes precise slicing of food rather than hacking in which case you'd turn to your cleaver. In fact, many chefs have highlighted the lighter construction translating to more accurate and responsive performance, with reduced physical fatigue. It has also been claimed that a full tang construction is more hygienic. However, due to the excellent workmanship of the handle makers, it is most unlikely for any food to be trapped between the handle and blade. Poor hygiene is a result of poor discipline rather than knife construction. Have you noticed how diligently the sushi chefs wipe and clean their knives? If there were inherent problems with this type of construction then you would expect that the innovative Japanese would have changed the design centuries ago.

If you do prefer to stick with a western construction, then there are many manufacturers that now produce full tang blades just like your favourite Europeans.

Handle woods are most commonly magnolia and ho wood, however more exotic woods like ebony may also be used. Handles are also commonly shaped into a cross-sectional 'D'. So when you close your grip, the handle sits perfectly into the void created by your hand. Octagonal handles are also a traditional Japanese design.

The final component is sharpening. The Japanese use abrasive whetstones in a multi-step sharpening process designed to achieve the sharpest edge. Being the perfectionists that they are, several stones are employed, starting with a coarse (low grit) stone to profile an edge and fix chips. Next is a finer grit stone (around 1000 grit) used for honing and developing a keen edge. This is where the rest of the world normally stops. The Japanese continue by using a polishing stone (6000 to 12,000 grit) to give the edge a mirror finish and a razor edge. It is this attention to detail that contributes to such a terrifyingly sharp edge.

The extreme sharpness afforded by these knives mean that cuts are generally made in one motion (with a single push or pull). As a result, there is less tearing or 'damage' to the food being cut. That is why the surface of a slice sashimi is shiny and gleaming. The economy and precision of cutting technique has minimised any unnecessary 'tearing' of the tissue and as a result, cuts like a laser.

Having said this, the sharpest knife is only useful if it stays sharp. This means diligent maintenance and care. If you've made it this far into this blog, then you probably already know to only cut on wood/plastic boards (not on plates, glass, steel bench tops), to not use fine knives on bone/frozen food and to hand wash and dry your knives immediately after use. If not, then those cheap serrated Ikea specials will do just fine....

Sakai: The City of Knives

Sakai is a city that neighbours Osaka. In tourist brochures, it has dubbed itself the 'City of Knives'. An appropriate moniker when you consider that a high proportion of Japan's top quality knives are made in this city. In fact, many of the top knife companies although not based in Sakai, have their knives produced here. With a tradition in tobacco knife and gun manufacture, the quality of Sakai's steel craft have allowed its knife industry to flourish and rise to the top of its contemporaries.

A short 15 minute train ride from Osaka (catch the blue line from Namba station), and with many top manufacturers clustered closely together, Sakai is a real treat for the knife enthusiast.

The manufacturing system here is not unlike the specialisation of duties that used to be applied to Swiss watches. Each component or step in manufacturing is completed by an expert in that field. A blacksmith's sole task is to forge the steel, then you have grinder who sharpens the blade, then a specialist handle maker. This separation of duty ensures the highest quality in each respective phase of production.

The Sakai knife museum showcases a dazzling array of knives with information and videos on the manufacturing process. There is also a show room with a large range of knives on sale from the local manufacturers. If you book in advance, you can take part in a knife sharpening demonstration .

 (website in Japanese language only).

In Sakai, there are obviously many knives to choose from. From factory produced blades to hand forged. Obviously, hand forged is more expensive and price varies according to the types of steels used (some are harder and more difficult to forge), length of the blade (again, the longer the blade, the harder it is to forge and keep perfectly straight). Over-all workmanship (polishing, handle materials, engraving etc) also greatly influences the price of blades.

Like their western counterparts, there are many different types of blades for different tasks. Below is a summary of the main blades (this does not differentiate between the Kansai (Osaka region - pointy tip) and Kanto (Tokyo region - square tip) variations):

A long slender blade. The yanagiba is a knife used soley for the preparation of de-boned fish. Behind every sushi bar, this is the knife that will be employed to prepare you nigiri sushi and sashimi

This is generally a medium to short length blade of thick construction. Essentially a pointed cleaver, the tip of blade is used for filleting fish/chicken and the butt for going through bone

A thin rectangular blade for precision slicing of vegetables

Translating to mean 'cow sword' this is a larger
knife that resembles the shape of a western chefs knife.

The equivalent of the common and essential paring knife.

Santoku: A general purpose knife that is mainly for home use.

About a 15minute walk south-east of Sakai station, you will find yourself on Kishu Highway. On this main street and surrounds, you will find the Sakai knife museum as well as shops for top manufacturers: Sakai Yusuke, Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, Suisin as well as the main offices for other well respected makers: Sakai Takayuki and Konosuke Sakai.

These are all top end manufacturers and their prices range from around $70AUD for petty knives to several thousand dollars for ornate, blue steel yanagibas. All have a great range of knives in different steels. For my money, I found that Sakai Yusuke offered the best combination of quality and price. Actually, the best quality and finishing full stop. Since most traditional knives are handmade, there are variations in the finishing of each knife. The knives I inspected and bought from Sakai Yusuke were absolutely flawless. Having said that, everyone has their own tastes and preferences and you will no doubt find a maker that stocks your dream knife.

For those of you lucky enough to visit Sakai but are worried about buying knives and customs at the airport, don't be. As long as you safely pack and check-in your knives with your suitcase, you will not have a problem. These are tools used for cookery after all, but do check with your local customs authorities.

If you still have reservations on transporting knives then I recommend purchasing them from Bluewayjapan on ebay:

Based in Sakai, and run by Mr. Keiichi Omae, bluewayjapan is right at the source of all these great blades. Super efficient, helpful and with great communication, he stocks a variety of Sakai blades from the sublime workmanship of the Sakai Yusuke blades as well as whet stones for maintaining a razor edge. There is even an engraving service where you can personalise your knife with your name in kanji.

Now that you know a bit more about Japanese knives. Stay tuned as in my next installment, I'll take you on a photo tour of knife shops in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and of course, Sakai!


  1. this was such an incredible in-depth post! loved reading every bit and cant wait to hear more!

  2. Talk about research! I feel like I've sat through a knife workshop! Maybe I've never held a good quality knife but I've never noticed the striations on the blade which you described and love the explanation for how they're achieved. Who would have thought there was so much to know?

  3. I promise never to use glass for cutting anymore! Fascinating post MSG!

  4. and i still use crappy knife to do my chopping etc...i should really invest in at least one decent knife eh? heheheh

  5. You owe it to yourself (and to the food that you are preparing!) to invest in a good quality knife. We spend so much time looking for the best quality produce and freshest ingredients. Shouldn't that produce be prepared and sliced with the same respect? A good knife should last you a life-time - or until you lust after another! Budget for a chefs knife, paring knife and a stone (ideally two but you can get combination stones of 1000 grit and 4000-6000 grit).

  6. I really like Japanese knives. I have a Shun knife that Im testing out and I'm really pleased with the results!

  7. Great post, looking forward to the next installment.

  8. Thanks for such an informative post. Love Japanese knives.

  9. Thanks for all the comments. If you'd like to learn more, have a look through There are a lot of passionate knife enthusiasts out there! Hope you like your Shun. That was my first proper, razor sharp Japanese knife. Neil Perry obviously likes them too!

  10. I couldn't stop admiring all the knives we saw in Japan! They are master pieces.

  11. Very informative and educational! I've always wondered how some Japanese knives have that "wavy" pattern on their blade surface.

  12. Hi, very nice post....
    your information is very interesting.....
    Thank for the sharing.....

    Stainless Steel Benchtops

  13. could someone provide the actual addresses for the top 5 knife makers in sakai? please !!!

  14. Thanks for your comment Gigi, most of these addresses were found on google!