Tuesday 14 September 2010

Knives for show

We all have our weaknesses. Imelda Marcos had her shoes. Elton John's sequin merchant would rub his hands with glee every time the big man called. Tiger Woods couldn't birdie the same hole twice in a row, and me, well, when I strolled down Nishiki market in Kyoto the other day, the guys in the Aritsugu knife shop probably wondered why the till had started shaking.

My knives, the one's I'm mimicking Gordon Ramsey with in the top right of your screen, are German Wusthofs. They're great, but now I'm in Japan, I feel obliged to add to my collection. The Japanese knife making tradition has its roots in sword production for samurais. When sword carrying was outlawed in the late nineteenth century, the craftsmen stepped up their production of cooking, carpentery and garden tools. Modern Japanese knives utilise the same sword making techniques that have been around for centuries. Aritsugu go back 400 years.

The bad news for them is that they only succeeded in flogging me a ginger grater. It's a lovely shop but my mind is wandering back to Morocco in January and this place, right on the market, feels like too much of a tourist trap to just wade in.

The multitudinous maps and guide books suggest a number of walking tours of Kyoto. Today I took the path less travelled - a tour of cutlers. I began in Hayakawa, a little one man band marked by a pair of giant scissor outside, where the guy looked up my home town in his atlas. His knives were of an obvious quality but none sat too happily in my hand. Shigeharu was next, and these were definitely a step up. That said, I didn't get comfortable with any of them either, so resigned myself to reluctantly return to Aritsugu.

The Japanese use a different set of knives to westerners. The most famous is the sashimi - a long single edged knife for carving raw fish. I'd love one, but they're the most expensive of the lot and let's be honest, it's not like I'll be using it a lot. My 10 inch Wusthof chef's knife is pretty tasty, and would definitely shit up any would be intruders, but I've come to find it a little cumbersome for everyday tasks.

So I am debating between a rectangular bladed vegetable knife called a nakiri that I really like the look of, or a more traditional santoku. My favourite though is the deba - a short, stocky, pointed cleaver for chopping and filleting fish. It combines raw power, backed by an absurdly thick spine and huge weight, with a delicate single edge for filleting.

Trudging my way back to Aritsugu I spotted another place out of the corner of my eye; Kikuichi Monji. The usual nonsense ensued as hundreds of knives were taken down from their cases and perused by my sweaty hands. The minute I pick up their deba though, I know it's all over. It's unspeakable beauty is matched only by the price tag.

I make an executive decision that I'm better off with a santoku than a nakiri since I am used to using that shape of blade. After holding and making chopping motions with about another hundred knives, I finally settle on one made of the highest grade brushed cobalt vanadium steel. I resist the temptation to keep buying more for now, but with another few weeks in Japan and countless more cutlers to be walked past, I can't honestly say that I've finished yet.


  1. That is a very beautiful knife. The pattern on the brushed Vanadium is known in western blade culture as 'Damscene' after the vaunted quality of steel produced in Damascus from the 12th century to the end of the 17th century.
    Unfortunately this technique that displayed the different graining of the steel while producing steel of unparallelled strength has since been lost, and even with modern technology we are unable to match it in terms of tensile strength, though Vanadium and Carbon are now added to steel mixtures, and do produce remarkable steel, we are still unable to match this lost art. Unfortunately, as with Samurai blades, steel mixtures were jealously guarded and passed from father to son in Master sword and knife producers and inevitably recipes and processes were lost when sudden death or social upheaval severed the generational process,

    1. Not true Martin, google wootz steel (the name used for original dmascas) and you will see there are a number of modern bladesmiths that have duplicated and exceeded the original steel.