Old World, Cutting Edge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a certain poetry about the knives crafted by Tokifusa Iizuka, one of the most revered smiths in a land that holds hocho--kitchen knives--sacred.

His knives are simple and rustic yet, at the same time, elegant. Light dances upon smooth blades and the delicate, wavelike pattern of steel folded many times within. Wedges of black buffalo horn connect the rounded, unvarnished wood handles to the polished blade in a sensuous mix of textures. Beveled edges slice pristinely through an onion, eliminating the spray that causes tears.

The balance of the knife is so refined, it feels like an extension of the hand. In a world where nearly everything seems to be made on an assembly line, Iizuka's knives stand out for being entirely made by hand.

It is a dying craft. Even among knife makers, Iizuka and his two sons are among the few smiths who do the entire process themselves, with no automated machinery, from the forging to the grinding to the polishing. The small workshop behind Iizuka's rural home is almost primitive--his eyes are his most valuable tool.

Suggest that Iizuka's knives are art, however, and he dismisses the notion. "I'm a craftsman," he retorts. "They are tools. They should be used."

Art or no, Iizuka's knives--which fetch $250 to $1,500 apiece in Tokyo stores--are a metaphor for care. Not only the extraordinary care he takes in crafting them, but the care necessary to prepare an exquisite Japanese meal. For in this cuisine, the art--and at least some of the taste--is in the cut.

Not surprisingly, then, Iizuka's knives--with the kanji characters for his Shigefusa trade name inscribed on the blade--are worshiped by master chefs. "They are my treasures," says Yasushi Kaneko, 44, top chef at the renowned Takashimaya Inn in Niigata. With his knives, Kaneko slices blowfish sashimi nearly as transparent as glass and transforms carrots into cherry blossoms in the spring and maple leaves in the fall.

His two favorite knives, in a collection of about 20, were made by Iizuka: One is a long, thin blade known in Japan as a yanagi-ba, or "willow blade," for slicing sashimi. The other is a usu-ba, literally, "thin blade," for cutting vegetables. "They are my life," Kaneko says. "I cannot be apart from them."

In fact, the Japanese word for chef, itamae, means "in front of the cutting board." And when the new semester at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka begins in April, the professors--all male--will don white kimonos for a ritual hocho-shiki, or knife ceremony, as they wave their tools over a special cutting board sporting a pink-fleshed sea bream.

No sushi or kaiseki (the high-end food featuring a variety of delicacies) chef would be caught without his personal knives. For example, Nobu restaurant's top Tokyo chef, Kenichiro Togo, packs his four best Japanese knives in his suitcase when he visits Nobu restaurants in the U.S. or helps with big parties. "Knives have a personality just like yourself," Togo says. "They become yours and part of you. You sharpen them to your liking. You can't use any others."

Treating the tools with less respect than they deserve can have consequences, as seen in an episode of the "Iron Chef" cooking show, hosted by Masaharu Morimoto. The Japanese chef's temper flared after New York celebrity chef Bobby Flay stood on the counter atop his cutting board in triumph. "He isn't a chef," Morimoto exclaimed. "Knives and boards are sacred to us."

Reflecting the diet of this island nation, there are nearly as many types of knives as there are fish. Each has a special function: The deba-bocho, with a broad, heavy, pointed blade, is used to gut and fillet. There is a special knife for filleting sea eel, known as a hamo-kiri, and another for filleting common eel, called unagi-saki. Big knives with a square edge, known as takohiki, are used at fish markets to slice pieces from huge tuna. A tiny blade, known as the aji-kiri, is de rigueur for small fish such as sardines.

The knives vary in shapes ranging from a sword to a triangle to more of a rectangle. Then there is the soba-bocho, resembling a saw, that is used exclusively for cutting thin soba noodles from dough.

One major difference from Western knives: Japanese knives are sharpened on just one side. That makes for a sleeker cut through the soft flesh of fish, in particular. A Western knife, claim Japanese culinary experts, will smash the tender texture of fish, affecting the taste.

The sharpness of the blade and skill of the chef in manipulating it can be seen in ubiquitous sushi bars, where chefs not only slice the fish but also cut daikon, the large white radishes, horizontally along the circumference, making a long sheath as transparent as lace.

The downside: Japanese knives require far more care. If they are not made of stainless steel--and most are not--they seem to discolor almost instantaneously when they come in contact with vegetables or water. Sharpening is done on a stone, requiring considerable grading and far more effort than using a sharpening stick for a Western knife. Some knife shops still send staff door-to-door, picking up and returning knives after they've been professionally sharpened.

Japanese knives tend to use two or three types of steel and iron, whereas Western knives use mostly stainless steel these days. German manufacturer Zwilling J.A. Henckels' knives have become quite popular in Japan--even more popular than Japanese knives that are sold at the Kiya knife store headquarters in Tokyo's Nihonbashi section, which distributes Iizuka's wares.

"People buy more Western-style knives because they eat more Western types of food lately," says Katsuyoshi Ishida, a director at the 209-year-old store that now has 200 branches. "We are losing our Japanese traditions."

Akira Moriki, a professor of French cooking at the Tsuji Culinary Institute, uses Henckels stainless-steel knives when cooking French food. "The importance of the knife is not as great compared with Japanese cuisines, because the French cuisine doesn't depend on the result of the cut," Moriki says. "It doesn't mean that a knife that doesn't cut as well is better; it's just that the role of the knife is not so important."

A Fan of Cooking Shows

Knife maker Iizuka, 58, doesn't cook, although he does like to watch cooking shows such as the "Iron Chef" to see how the knives are wielded. He says he doesn't really think about who buys his knives. (Kiya officials say customers include fish stores and professional chefs, but also "salarymen" who are taking to their kitchens on Friday nights to cook dinner and want only the best tools. Lesser-known Japanese knives cost from $50 to a few hundred dollars and are usually made, at least in part, by machine.)

Like a handful of other towns throughout Japan, Iizuka's hometown of Sanjo City--about a two-hour bullet-train ride northwest of Tokyo--was a nurturing environment for metal workers, known for its many smiths.

Iizuka began his trade by sharpening razors for several years under another smith before striking out on his own. He learned his craft, based on the samurai-sword-making technology, from former sword maker Munenori Nagashima, now 91, who made swords before World War II and then began making knives. When Nagashima's mentor's business fell apart after the Niigata earthquake in 1964, he began coaching Iizuka.

Little has changed in Iizuka's production methods since. For his knives, Iizuka mixes iron with a high-carbon Swedish steel that he characterizes as "spicy." In his small forge fueled by piles of coke--coal from which most of the gas has been burned--Iizuka welds the carbon steel atop the iron, holding the red-hot metal with a pair of giant clippers. He folds it again and again, pounding it with a wooden mallet to create the blade's shape.

He and his sons, Masayuki, 30, and Yoshihide, 29, wear little protective clothing, despite plenty of flying sparks. It's too hot to wear a lot of gear, Iizuka says. "You can't be a smith," he says, "if you're afraid of getting burned." His arm bears the scar from a piece of red-hot metal that landed between his sleeve and arm.

Once the blade is cool, he begins the series of steps to grade and polish it, including attaching it to a rudimentary device known as a sen, which looks like a clothespin turned on its side, and manually shaving it with a razor attached to a cross-shaped device. In the final stages, he puts the blade on sharpening stones and files away until they are smooth, occasionally dipping the knife in a gutter of green nitric acid that prevents rusting.

"Persistence and power are the two ingredients necessary" to make a knife, he says of the tedious processes. His computer sits nearby, but he uses it only for accounting. He occasionally spot-checks the quality of the steel under his aging microscope. His output: about one knife a day.

His one stab at automation, a $100,000 machine for blade smoothing about 20 years ago, sits idle under a tarp on the side of the workshop. "The idea was good," he says. "But my skill is much better than that machine."

Despite the high prices his knives command, perfectionist Iizuka still feels his knives aren't perfect. Just once, he says, he made a perfect penknife. "I suffer because I feel inside myself that I cannot make a perfect thing," he says, "but I strive to make it anyway."

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