Nov 27, 2020
MASKED, GOGGLED AND GLOVED, I delicately remove the sharp Damascus steel blade from the iron chloride solution bath. As if it were a newborn, I gingerly pat it dry, and then carry it to the mechanical stone grinder where I sharpen and polish it. When the deafening buzz of the machine stops, I raise my shiny new blade up against the blue sky, and like a scene from a vintage Samurai film, a prism of golden light glints off the blade onto my face. But instead of a heroic orchestral score rising in the background, I hear crows cawing in the distance and Karen Carpenter gently cooing on the radio.
Where else could I be but Japan? To be precise, I’m attending the knife-making course at G. Sakai International in the town of Seki, nicknamed Japan’s City of Blades because of its 10th-century Samurai sword-crafting heritage.
Seki is located in mountainous Gifu prefecture, a picturesque three-hour train ride from Tokyo Station through rocky gorges, glistening rice paddies, and woodsy, shrine-topped hillsides. Sword forging here dates back to the Kamakura era when a small band of renegade swordsmiths set up shop due to the area’s abundance of charcoal, water, and dense deposits of iron sand in the Nagaragawa River. Today, Seki is considered the HQ of modern Japanese kitchen cutlery and home to the influential Cutlery Association, a Swordsmith Museum, the Outdoor Knife Expo, and a Cutlery Festival held every October, entering its 54th year in 2021. There are several swordsmiths and knife factories open to tourists and a cooperative Cutlery Hall that’s long on blades for sale (but short on English speakers).
My teacher is Yuhei Sakai, a no-nonsense fourth-generation knife-maker. His shop produces more than 200 types of knives but specializes in kitchen knives and rust-resistant outdoor blades designed for hunting, camping and parachuting. Yuhei-san launched the sword- and knife-making program for tourists in 2019, allowing them to customize their own knives by choosing and assembling the handle, honing, bathing, and initialing the blade—basically everything except forging the steel itself.
During my visit, his concrete-floored atelier floods with hoary March light while we work diligently assembling and reassembling, polishing and grinding. The space itself bears all the hallmarks of an eighth-grade shop class—vintage 1970’s pin-ups of Japanese women, posters about hunting safety, and shelves stacked with rare cutlery and books on metalcraft and smithing. For blade pilgrims, this is mecca.
While I’m not known for my parachuting and hunting savvy, I am a frequent home cook of Japanese cuisine, so my knife skills are pretty good. I can cut carrots in rangiri (diagonal shaped cuts that maximize contact surface) and carve up a daikon in hangetsugiri style (half moon cuts). I’ve bought a handful of Japanese knives over the years, including an elegant yanagi, a willow leaf shaped sashimi paring knife; an indispensable and super sharp gyuto, which translates to “cow sword” and favored by cooks for its rocking motion; and my trusty santoku with a thick beveled, sheep-footed blade. But I knew little about the different types of metal.
“Damascus steel blades are the lightest due to their high carbon content,” Yuhei-san says in solid English, showing me a giant stack of Damascus santoku blade templates in his storage room. “And they stay sharp the longest.”
They’re also the coolest looking. The steel’s signature mottled effect is reminiscent of rippling water, a technique that dates back to Persia where swords were made from ingots of Wootz steel, a process forged in a crucible to make it shatter-resistant and capable of being sharpened to a fine edge.
The finishing touches are the most important and have me branding my knife in Japanese Hiragana on one side of the blade, and my initials in Latin letters on the other. Like all things knife-making related, it takes a steady hand and concentration. And into the chloride bath the knife goes again for a final wash.
While I already have a santoku knife, the Damascus santoku blade I’m making here is much thinner with no beveled edge, so perfect for cutting paper-thin, a Japanese technique called usugiri and ideal for negi (scallions), cucumbers, ginger, garlic, eggplant, and most important, finely shredding cabbage for a crispy tonkatsu, a skill I’ve yet to master. And one I look forward to doing when I get my new baby back home.
govoyagin.com; US$275 for a three-hour course including the knife.
And, once you’ve got the sharpest knife in the drawer, stock all your cupboards at Dirty Dishes in Tokyo:
You’ve steamrolled the Kappabashi Kitchen Supply district. You’ve eyeballed every kitchen aisle at Muji, Don Quixote, and the Yen shops. And you’ve pillaged Tsukiji’s Outer Market and ransacked the new Toyosu market.
Home-cooks visiting Japan are never short on options, and fortunately 99 percent of kitchen shops in Tokyo’s metro area are easy to find and accessible by public transport. But some delightfully aren’t, including this hidden, cash-only, warehouse nicknamed Dirty Dishes (but actually called Okuno Shokai), in the outskirts of Tokyo in Kawasaki’s Nakahawa Ward, a 30-minute drive from Tokyo Station. It’s a good thing a car is required to access it, because many, many shoppers fill the boots of their cars with their hauls.
The deeply discounted two-level clearinghouse is stuffed to the gills with Japanese-made tableware—blue and white porcelain bowls, sake cups, nabe pots, sukiyaki stands, lacquered woodware, lidded chawanmushi cups, and chubby tanuki figurines, much of it marked 50 percent off. Be forewarned, this is no place for kids: the shelves are stacked high with porcelain dishes that could bury a small child. Besides, you’ll surely want the extra car space.