Where sparks fly - the knife crafting capital of Japan

Knife Maker, Sakai

 

It's summer, and the heat is searing. But it isn't as hot outside as it is within the small, black workshop in which we are standing. The knife maker is in a waist-high pit in the ground, alternating between coaxing the blade in a burning hot furnace, and hammering it into shape by hand and with a foot pedal-operated hammer. The flames dance. The steel glows. Sparks fly. I feel like I'm watching someone tame a dragon. Finally, he plunges it into a pool of water. It sizzles, looses life, turns a dull grey. The dragon has submitted.

From here, the knives pass into the hands of another workshop to be polished, sharpened and honed. But the knife maker also has a polishing device, and shows us how a knife is transformed into a cold, glinting beauty. Brendan can't help himself. He wants to purchase a knife, he says. And so, like Mr Olivander in Harry Potter, the knife maker pulls knife box after knife box from the shelves, presenting Brendan with blades of different lengths and different woods (for the handle). 

In Tokyo, Brendan usually picks up his knives from Kama-Asa in Kappabashi, Kiya in Nihonbashi, or Tsukiji Masamoto in Tsukiji's outer market, all of which have an excellent selection. But our friend, Akane, has convinced us to come straight to the source, so here we are in Sakai, 15 minutes by train from Nankai Namba Station in Osaka.

There is a lot of charm to Sakai that probably gets overlooked due to its proximity to Osaka and Kyoto. Birthplace of the samurai katana (the shokunin later using this technique to forge knives), legendary tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū, tororo konbu (shredded using Sakai's sharp blades), the Shimano bicycle (a legacy of the gunsmiths of the area), incenseand the dyeing of yukata, it's surprisingly quiet.

But this isn't some little forgotten town fading away into obscurity. It's spick and span and well thought out, waiting to welcome visitors other than the odd chef on a knife pilgrimage. 

We follow Akane on Sakai-made bikes through the old township, watching preparations for a local matsuri, stopping at knife workshops, shotengai (shopping districts), a traditional merchant house and the teahouse Obai-an for matcha and wagashi. We visit the kofun, mysterious key-shaped tombs dating back to the 5th century, the largest holding fort against the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Mausoleum of the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. 

Purchasing knives: If you are just making a quick trip to Sakai, head to the Sakai Hamono Museum (pictured above). A chef's dream, the museum displays and sells rows and rows of blades - from katana-like maguro bocho (tuna), to yanagiba (sashimi), deba (fish) and usuba (vegetables). It is the best place in Sakai to find a wide variety.

As with all well-made Japanese knives, they are not cheap (expect to part with several hundred dollars), but they hail from Japan's renowned knife-making city, and with proper care, can maintain their brilliance for a long time.

Knife Tours: The knife makers we visited were by prior appointment only. However, Akane has just released knife tours which we highly recommend if you'd like an insight into the knife making process. The 2-hour tours start from ¥18,000 per person, require a minimum of 2 guests and include:

  • A visit to a knife maker's workshop (not usually possible without connections)
  • A hands-on knife sharpening experience
  • Your very own personalised Japanese kitchen knife (sanatoku) with your name engraved in Kanji; and
  • The chance to attach the handle to your Japanese knife

To enquire about the tour, please contact us at chottomelb@gmail.com.

A Sakai-local, professional translator, and guide to chefs, Akane knows all the good spots, and speaks English and Spanish. You'll probably navigate the city on bike, but it's flat and the footpaths are wide. It's perfect for cycling. 

Next time, we speak with the knife-smiths at Tanto (QT Melbourne) about Japanese knives. Brendan sharpens his knives with Tanto, and we recommend the shop if you are looking for a Japanese knife locally.