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In Samurai Tradition, Kyoto Knifemakers Ply Sharp Trade : Aritsugu and other blade dealers in and around Japan’s medieval capital lure cookware lovers.

Stinchecum is a textile historian specializing in Japan and a free-lance writer based in New York.

Nishiki-koji (the locals call it simply “Nishiki”)--a narrow, arcaded street in the heart of central Kyoto--is the soul of the city for food lovers and professional chefs. Extending several blocks west of the covered shopping street called Teramachi, both sides of Nishiki are bursting with the best foods Kyoto has to offer. Fishmongers and butchers, green grocers and noodle makers, the shops are stocked with the freshest of seasonal and regional specialties rarely seen in other parts of Japan. Anyone with a serious interest in Japanese food should make a visit to Nishiki to see what really goes into it.

Peering into a well-stocked cookware shop called Aritsugu from the street warmed by hurrying shoppers and grilling eels is a bit intimidating. One long wall is lined with glass cases containing enough knives--row upon gleaming row--to equip all of Japan’s finest chefs. A special case contains tools made for opening particular types of shellfish: an oyster knife, a knife for akagai, a red-fleshed mollusk, an abalone knife and a handleless blade with a broad, curved end for abalone and a narrower shaft for akagai.

It isn’t only the arsenal of blades that gives Aritsugu an imposing air, but the 18 generations of history behind the business, which began as a maker of swords for the Imperial household. A few blocks south of the market, on Sakaimachi Street where the company’s main offices are located, Fujiwara Aritsugu went into business as a sword maker in the year 1560. In that long-ago age of feudal warfare, there must have been a great demand for his skill. Aritsugu’s trade flourished, and by the middle of the 17th Century, the neighborhood came to be called Kajiyamachi, Japanese for “smithy street.” But as times changed and the shoguns brought peace and repression to the land, the need for new swords diminished, and Aritsugu turned to forging knives, which were used for carving Buddhist sculpture.

It was not until the early 1900s that a significant demand arose for cooking knives. Until then, according to shop director Terakubo Wasaburo, most people had a meager diet and no need for finely made knives, but by the first decade of this century their living standard had improved and there was more widespread interest in techniques for food preparation. So the shop turned to other cooking utensils, as well: pots of hammered copper and later, of hammered aluminum, which is denser and less easily corroded than molded aluminum.

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Although Aritsugu isn’t the only knife shop that began as sword makers in Japan, its location in the middle of the Nishiki market makes it an easy stop for chefs from neighborhood restaurants and inns. Equally important, the lifetime of service offered by the shop makes it the first choice of many kitchen equipment aficionados.

The shop is also known for its daikon radish graters, which are made of heavy copper plate, with rows of sharp little teeth (the reverse side has finer prongs for grating ginger and wasabi horseradish). The grating surface is tinned to prevent the formation of copper salts, as are the insides of all the copper pots, kettles and pans.

For lovers of wasabi , there is a special grater made of sharkskin-covered wood, which produces a much finer paste than a metal grater. A hefty copper grater large enough for professional use costs about $50, but after years of grating, when the teeth of the instrument inevitably become bent, it is possible to return it to Aritsugu and their workshop will straighten out each prong, one at a time. This kind of service is a not-unusual example of what the Japanese call “after care.” Traditional shops in Japan, as well as individual craftsmen from whom you buy, take lifetime responsibility for their products, including maintenance of a properly used and cared-for tool. Sometimes there is a small charge for this service, but often it is considered part of the original price.

But it is Aritsugu’s knives--direct descendants of the swords made for the Imperial household--that form the core of the business. An important innovation distinguishes them from their ancestors: the laminating of carbon steel, which hardens when heated and then quickly cooled, and regular steel. Aritsugu uses three different grades of carbon steel and the best has the most carbon and some additional elements to help the blade retain its sharp edge.

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The array of shapes, sizes and knife prices--not to mention the material of the band around the handle--is daunting. Cooking knives fall into two basic types: kataba , a blade angled toward the cutting edge on one surface only; and ryoba , a blade angled toward the cutting edge on both surfaces. The finest kataba have a slight depression on the otherwise flat surface of the blade. Only the sharp edge touches the flesh to be cut, which doesn’t stick to the surface of the blade but is cut cleanly and not squashed.

The Aritsugu knife blade is forged of two layers: the bottom layer, which forms the flat side of the blade, is of carbon steel. On top of it is laid a narrower but longer strip of regular steel. Softer than carbon steel, it helps absorb the shock of the knife’s impact on the cutting board and forms the core that fits into the wooden handle. Carbon steel is actually unnecessary for this part of the blade and would add to the cost.

Some chefs prefer knives of pure carbon steel, and Aritsugu also makes these. But they are not only more expensive, they also chip more easily than those that are laminated. Simply using expensive materials does not guarantee a good blade. Laminating two types of steel together requires a high degree of skill: with too little heat, the metals remain brittle and crack easily, while too much heat will melt them.

The balance of a knife depends on the length and thickness of the steel core that fits into the handle. The feel of the knife is also affected by the band around the base of the handle. Cheaper knives are ringed with a thin metal band that helps prevent the wood from cracking, but the thin metal is unpleasant to the touch and sometimes splits. Aritsugu’s better knives have a sensual appeal enhanced by a band of buffalo horn that is about one-third inch thick and strong enough to be crack resistant, giving a luxurious feel to the tool.

Kataba knives, preferred by most Japanese chefs, come in a bewildering assortment of shapes sizes. Deba-bocho are roughly triangular, with a thick “backbone.” This gives the knife extra weight for effortless slicing through fish, meat and bones. The angle of the blade is designed for clean filleting: Place the flat surface of the blade against the bone and the flesh of the meat or fish will come away cleanly. This type of broad-spined blade is too thick for chopping or slicing vegetables--it tends to split them. And the sharp point is unnecessary. The usuba , or thin blade, for vegetables, is rectangular. The same shape is also available in a ryoba knife called a nakiri (“vegetable cutter”), with which it is easier to cut straight slices because of the symmetry of the blade. The usuba , although more difficult to master, can with practice cut thinner slices.

Special ryoba knives, which are preferred by European chefs, are designed with rosewood or black synthetic composition handles. A composition handle is stronger than wood, said Wasaburo, and does not shrink away from the blade shaft, but it may not feel as nice as rosewood. But now that presentation has become increasingly important in both European and American cuisines, more and more Western chefs and non-professional cooks are choosing kataba knives for the perfect, clean cut they produce.

Considering the price (Aritsugu’s knives are priced from about $45 for a deba-bocho with a 12-centimeter blade), it is important to know about proper care and storage. Carbon steel is not stainless. Polish it with cleanser after you have finished preparing a meal, but during use you should wipe the blade with a soft cloth each time you set it down. You can sharpen the blade yourself with a flat stone. The shop sells both synthetic and natural sharpening stones. But it is important to have it periodically sharpened professionally, preferably at Aritsugu, which accepts knives for sharpening through the mail. This will help the knife blades maintain their proper shape and take care of any major chips.

To store good knives, dry them thoroughly with a soft cloth, wrap each knife securely in several layers of newspaper rolled into a tube and put them away in a drawer that doesn’t contain other cooking utensils. If you don’t plan to use a knife for awhile, lightly wipe the blade with a clean cotton cloth spread with a little vegetable oil, then wipe again with a dry cloth and wrap in newspaper. Wooden knife blocks are not good for knives. The area where the shaft of the blade enters the handle doesn’t get completely dry when you wipe it with a cloth, so the moisture seeps out of the wood and runs onto the blade, which rusts, according to Wasaburo.

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In addition to knives and beaten copper pots, kettles and pans, Aritsugu stocks other kitchen equipment made for the shop. Beautifully made tools include handmade copper and stainless-steel strainers; finely woven bamboo strainers for miso soup; a little stainless steel mesh box with a hinged lid for toasting sesame seeds over a gas flame; wooden rice tubs made of sawara , a kind of Japanese cypress, bound with twisted copper strands; and sushi molds, also made of cypress, for making a kind of pressed sushi typically found in the Kyoto-Osaka region. Even if you won’t be cooking during your visit to Kyoto, a visit to Aritsugu is a good excuse to browse the Nishiki market.

GUIDEBOOK / Cutting Edge of Kyoto

Where to buy knives: Aritsugu, Nishiki-koji Gokomachi Nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; telephone within Kyoto 221-1091. Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., closed Sunday. Aritsugu does not take mail orders, although the store will accept Aritsugu knives for sharpening and repair by mail. Address inquiries to: Takashimaya, 2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103.

Other sources in the Kyoto area for fine knives: Yagi Hocho, Sakaimachi-dori, Shijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 211-1833 (closed Sunday and holidays).

Kiku-ichimonji, Nara; (0472) 26-3829 (closed Wednesday).


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