As with many crafts in Japan, knife making has been refined through the generations to make Japanese some of the best in the world. During the Meiji Restoration, when the samurai class was officially disbanded, lots of previous sword makers found themselves out of work, and turned to utilitarian knife construction to survive. Many of the techniques used in the construction of modern-day kitchen knives are pulled directly from sword-making techniques. This, combined with the culture surrounding inter-generational craftsmanship in Japan, has resulted in Japanese culinary knives being unparalleled in terms of quality and durability.
Japanese kitchen knives tend to be fairly specialized in terms of their uses. They are shaped according to either the material they are meant to cut, or the specific type of cutting they are made to do. Some are made for meat, some for fish, and others for vegetables. Some are shaped to be ideal for making very thin cuts, and others are meant for cutting things in a decorative fashion.
If you’re looking to add a Japanese knife to your collection, a good choice to start with is a knife style called santoku, or three virtues knife. Santoku knives* feature a flat edge and a sheepsfoot blade that curves down at an angle and comes to about 60 degrees at the point. The “three virtues” in the name refers to the versatility of the knife shape. Santoku knives are general purpose knives that do an excellent job of cutting meat, vegetables and fish, and also excel at slicing, chopping, and dicing. The shape makes them fairly light, and easy to maneuver, but still hefty enough to be able to cut through tougher things like raw kabocha. The higher profile means that the edge can be used for scraping and the soft-angled point can, with a bit of skill, be used for some types of decorative cutting. A decent quality santoku knife can be purchased for under $100 and can be expected, with proper care, to last a lifetime.
For those of us lucky enough to be shopping for a knife in Japan, Kappabashi, or Tokyo’s kitchen district is the place to go. Vendors in Kappabashi sell all manner of kitchen supplies, from small dishware and trinkets, to restaurant grade kitchen equipment, making it the perfect place to shop for a knife. Knives are very much a “get what you pay for” type of item in Japan and vendors take their reputations very seriously. Some knives, meant for professional, top-of-the line chefs can easily run in the thousand-dollar range. That said, $100 to $300 will buy an incredibly high quality knife for home use.
When purchasing a knife in Japan, there are a few caveats to know about. For citizens and other long-term residents, a weapons permit is necessary to purchase any knives with a blade longer than 5.5 inches including ones intended for kitchen use. Public safety is taken very seriously in Japan, and for that purpose, even bladed objects that could be used as weapons are kept track of by the government. For tourists, who intend to take the knives back with them to their home country, a type of special, tamper-sealed packaging is used to box up knives upon their sale. Knives must be kept safely boxed until their owner’s return and will be inspected for proper sealing by airport security before they leave the country.