These days, it can feel like everything you want to know is just a click away. But there are some things—the Grand Canyon, Kerala’s toddy shops, Cincinnati chili—that you have to travel to in order to really experience. Which is why, last spring, the Food52 team found themselves in Seki, Japan, watching artisans handcraft some of the sharpest, most beautiful knives in the world.
A knife is not just a knife, particularly in Japan. For more than 700 years, Japanese craftsmen have been creating a wide range of knives, from gyutoh chef’s knives to the more standard santoku knives, the most popular household style in the country. But long before there were kitchen knifemakers in Japan, there were swordmakers who used their craft to create katana, the swords that the samurai used. The samurai were medieval military nobility, and their swords were both weapons and status symbols. These knives needed to be durable and exquisite; they were brought into battle and they were passed down through generations. The great knifemakers all created katana, and many used the same refined skills and methods to create kitchen knives as well.
In the 14th century, a master swordsmith known as Motoshige settled in Seki, a city in the middle of Japan. He chose Seki for its natural resources—high quality clay for making knife blades, an abundance of pine coal for feeding furnaces, and the fresh, clean water that flowed through the local Nagara and Tsubo Rivers—all of which would support his craft. Motoshige’s success in the area brought hundreds of other knifemakers to Seki, and at one time there were more than 300 sword- and knifemakers working in the city. Though there are far fewer artisans practicing knifemaking in Seki today, it's still widely known as the center of Japanese knifemaking.
Today, the great knifemakers of Seki combine ancient craft with modern technology to create some of the strongest, most beautiful knives in the world. In fact, knifemaking is so much a part of the city’s identity that there are museums, festivals, trade associations, and annual shows dedicated to showing off the incredible knives that the city’s artisans produce.
One of these knifemakers is Miyabi, a company that embodies the traditional craft of Japanese knifemaking in the modern age. “The word ‘miyabi’ describes ‘the elegance of things,’” says Masayuki Yamada, development manager at Miyabi, “but it’s not only about what’s on the outside. It also points to an elegance that seeps out from within. It is something that people eternally admire.”
The Miyabi factory is relatively small and every knife is very handmade; each step is done (at least in some part) by hand, and each knife includes 130 production steps, from forming to hardening and sharpening the blade to shaping the handle to boxing the knives up. As a result, Miyabi produces only one million knives every year, a number that may sound like a lot but in fact is very small when compared to their competition—and may seem like a ton considering all the rigorous steps required to produce a single knife.
The steel base of the knives are first welded by hand, and then the unique hardening process begins. Attached to a conveyor system, the knives are vertically run through a small 1000 °F oven and immediately cooled to create hardness in the blade. They’re then put into a small deep freezer, where they’re brought down to -320 °F, which makes the blades resistant to corrosion. Once the blades have been hardened, they’re straightened by hand with a mallet, and then the blades are tapered on one side—the asymmetrical blade is a hallmark of Japanese knives, and creates a knife that can cut with extraordinary precision.
After sharpening and quality testing, the handles are created. Various special woods are brought in from around the world and cut into blocks before being hand-shaped into handles, which are then attached to the blades and buffed smooth. Then, two more rounds of sharpening and a final inspection to ensure that the knives are perfect. All in all, the entire process takes 42 days.
Many of the 210 people who work in the Miyabi factory are masters of their craft, and each has a specialized role. There’s the man who hand-shapes each blade, the only person in Seki under the age of 40 who has the skills to create perfectly balanced blades. There’s the woman who hand-sharpens each blade, first coarsely grinding it on a vertical-rotating whetstone, then fine-honing the blade on a horizontal-rotating whetstone, and finally polishing the blade on a leather belt, taking them one at a time to ensure a sharp, even edge—a process known as “Honbazuke,” or “true cutting edge.” There’s the man who designs and then hand-forms, -shaves, -sands, and -polishes each wooden handle—the only man in Seki (and, thus, presumably, in the world) who knows how to create the ideal handle grip and balance that Miyabi knives are known for.
It is these traditional techniques and the artisans that employ them that contribute to the specialness of Miyabi knives. As many German knifemakers have discovered, much of this work can be done by robots, and can create strong, durable knives. But these lovingly-crafted Japanese knives show the human touch in every element. “Rather than a factory product, it is a craft,” says Yamada. “It is closer to a work of art. Something that evokes your emotions.”
It’s often the case that handmade objects have a precious feel to them, and as a result they’re not intended for everyday use but for display. Not so with these knives, which are meant to be used for years—and can be, if you care for them properly. Like all knives, they should be washed and thoroughly dried after every use. They also need to be sharpened occasionally to keep up their edge, which is best done with a whetstone. If you take care of your knife, it will take care of you. “When you use a sharp knife and have proper technique, everything feels easier—and more pleasurable, too,” says Josh Cohen, the Food52 test kitchen director.
That’s the ultimate purpose of Miyabi knives: to make the everyday experience of cooking extraordinary. “When you cut something [with a Miyabi knife] you experience a totally different sensation,” says Yamada. Josh agrees. "When I used the Miyabi birchwood chef’s knife, I got pristine little slivers of fresh herbs,” says Josh. “With a duller knife, if you’re trying to finely chop, you get dull, mashed, or bruised leaves,” he says—and now it’s his go-to knife that he uses every day. “There’s nothing like cooking with a sharp knife,” says Kristina Wasserman, Food52’s buyer and Shop merchandising manager. “If you love to cook, you get a different experience when you use an incredible knife. Really special tools like these made in a special way can completely enhance your cooking. The difference is in the craftsmanship.”
Have you ever used a Japanese knife? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!