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Japanese Bladesmiths

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A unique behind-the-scenes visit of the crafstmen who hammer out the best and most expensive kitchen knives in the world in the city of Sakai, Japan.

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Japanese kitchen knives cost more than a camera, they can't be washed in a machine, are subject to rusting and boy, they are so sharp that if you slip you'll lose a finger or two before you can say banzai. There is no doubt that these are the best knives in the world. Nothing comes close to them in terms of sharpness. With one of these knives, you could slice fish so thin you could read a whole chapter of La Physiologie du Goût through the slices. Earlier this month, I had the chance to see how knives are made in Japan like they have been for the last 200 years, following Mr Bjorn Heiberg from Chroma, a company that sells these legendary knives.

After a short ride on a commuter train from Osaka, we arrive in Sakai, the town where most Japanese knives are made. The smiths of yore made Samurai swords but with less samurais around, that market has dwindled over the years and now most of the production is sold to professional chefs. The city's main sight is the largest tomb in the world, a huge keyhole-shaped tumulus island where Emperor Nintoku lays buried.

I follow Mr Heiberg through the maze of small streets until he stops in front of a small two storied residential home. I think it's here, he says, before knocking and speaking in fluent Japanese with a man in blue overalls.

I. Forging

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He ushers us into a narrow corridor, and we find our way into Mr. EBUCHI KOUHEI's workshop, at the back of his house. Mr Ebuchi is a third-generation bladesmith and he works out of a minuscule forge with his younger brother.

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Mr Ebuchi works from a coal-fired furnace heated to around 2000 C° where he inserts steel rods ...

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Two pieces of steel will now be forged into a knife. A piece of hard steel will provide the razor-sharp edge Sakai's knives are famous for, and a piece of soft ferrite, containing more carbon, will prevent the knife from breaking. A combination not unlike reinforced concrete, where the concrete provides resistance to compression while the iron grid prevents the material from breaking when pulled. That's the secret of a successful marriage - both parties should bring something to the table.

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The double steel rod is now inserted into a mechanical hammer and bang, bang, bang, the square rod gradually flattens into a blade.

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Using one of the many knife patterns hanging on the wall, Master Ebuchi will proceed to cut ...

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... and shape the steel, heated to about 800°C into a knife of the proper dimensions and shape.

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Back to the hammer, now vertically

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Most kitchen knives today are stamped out of large sheets of metal. They are never as sharp as those made in Sakai. Master Ebuchi has been forging knives for the past 40 years, but he still breaks one knife for each three he tries to make. This is delicate work.

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We leave and start again walking in the labyrinthine streets of Sakai. The neighborhood looks just as any Japanese town, with their small two-storied fully-detached houses and the forest of eletrical wires. If I was not a guest of the Japanese I'd venture to say that one could wonder how a nation of such good taste never managed to bury their cables.

II. Sharpening

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Meet Mr. FUJII KEIICHI, master of sharpening and best smile in the industry. To enter his workshop, you need to go through Mr Keiichi's living room and kitchen. For the people who makes knives in Sakai live and work in their house, much like artisans and shopkeepers did in Europe only two generations ago. There is much poetry is seeing this man who carries on the work of their fathers, and grandfathers from his own home. His work is his life. There is no alienation here. The promise our society makes to young people that they can define who they are by choosing their work is vapid babble for most. How many of us become who they are through their work? Precious few. Most just sell their time to their employer and start living come 5 PM. But these craftsmen who never really chose their trade, seem to be really free men to me, unencumbered from those false promises, they could become who they are through their work. Certainly, the prospect of living in the front of a dusty workshop would not appeal to all, but to me these are free men who have a much better lot than many who work in offices in disheartening jobs.

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Mr Keiichi works with his assistant using huge grind wheels, where day in, day out, they make some of the sharpest knives in the world from the flat steel shapes they received from the bladesmithes.

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Grind, grind and grain again on the blade ...

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... then on the spine ...

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... a quick sanding on the sides so that paper-thin food will not stick to the blade ...

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... then hone to blade some more. Have you noticed the fine lines no the upper side of the blade? These microscopic groves, called metoshi, help prevent the knife from rusting. Hell, these are not stainless steel knives from Ikea, but a shorter version of a Samurai sword, which still need to be coated with a drop of camelia oil from time to time to prevent any rust at all.

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... and the man's work is now completed ...

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... and the knives wrapped in paper and stacked by types in bundles of 10.

At 400 Euros a knife, what would be the worth a thief's haul should this box fall off the truck?

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Mr Keiichi shows me how to find his knife in a handle, but explains that this is not his job. I have enough to do with sharpening, he says. And my guide concludes with a Mochi-wa, mochi-ya (●餅は餅屋), or If you want rice cakes, go to the rice cake maker. They both laugh and we move on to meet the handleman.

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