The passion and dedication that goes into the making of a traditional Japanese kitchen knife
Tottori Prefecture faces the Sea of Japan, and its mountainous areas can see heavy snowfall. The former post town of Chizu, surrounded by peaceful countryside, is home to a blacksmith’s workshop that attracts chefs from around the world.
Why a blacksmith’s? All became clear when we visited the workshop : it’s because they are enthralled by the outstanding knives created by master blacksmith Yoshifumi Ohtsuka.
Mr Ohtsuka’s small workshop stands right next to the unmanned railway station in the village of Haji. We watched as he heated a carefully chosen piece of carbon steel in the well-used furnace, sandwiched it in softer steel, and began to hammer the metal into shape.
“Hammering breaks down the structure of the steel, and annealing causes it to re-crystallize with a finer grain, which makes for a strong and stable blade.”
As he repeatedly heated and hammered, and finally annealed it, the lump of metal gradually became a kitchen knife.
“Before I make a knife,” Mr Ohtsuka said, “I need to know who’s going to use it, and what they’re going to use it for. For instance, do they have big or small hands, and are they going to use it to cut vegetables or meat? Are they going to chop things finely, or carve them up into large pieces? To make a really good knife, you need to take the chef’s individual characteristics into account.”
Putting his words into practice, Mr Ohtsuka suddenly shook Chef Hiroki Hiramatsu’s hand. He needed to check the strength of his grip, the size of his hand, and how he would hold the knife. Then he began to carve a handle from part of a branch of mizuzakura cherry. Gradually, he adjusted the shape to make it easy for Chef Hiramatsu to grip, asking him in detail about what he preferred, to confirm the final specifications.
“I recently had an Israeli chef here, and I get orders from chefs in America. But if I want to make a knife that’s really tricky, I need to be in top physical and mental condition. Sometimes, just a few times a year, I get a special kind of energy,” Mr Ohtsuka said, laughing. Perhaps the day he makes Chef Hiramatsu’s ultimate knife will be one of those special days…
Exploring the potential of washi paper
The southern part of Tottori Prefecture, an area once known as Inaba Province, is famous as the place where the oldest surviving example of washi (traditional Japanese paper) was made. Inshu-washi (Inaba Province washi) is said to date back as far as the Nara period. In Aoya, the area’s central town, the Taniguchi Aoya Washi workshopis striving toeducate the present generation about the potential of traditional washi.
“Our ambition to promote the use of traditional washi in today’s world led us to develop a unique technology, which we call ‘seamless three-dimensional washi’.”As the company’s president, Mr Hirofumi Taniguchi, explained, this unique technology makes it possible to build highly complex three-dimensional shapes, seamlessly. Attracted by this special technology, famous architects and designers such as Kengo Kuma and Toshiyuki Kita have commissioned the workshop to producetheir works.
“Washi is far stronger than people think, but it’s normally made in flat sheets. We hit on the idea of making seamless three-dimensional shapes, and by trial and error we worked out how to do it. But I can’t tell you how – that’s a secret!” said Mr Taniguchi, laughing.
Taniguchi Aoya Washi is using a variety of methods to communicate the advantages of washi to the present generation, such asmaking it possible to produce washi industrially, by quantifying a process that used to rely on human judgment.
Chef Hiramatsu says, “I believe the idea of combining French cuisine, which originated in Europe, with the ancient Japanese tradition of washi paper will create new dining experiences.” We look forward to seeing he will come up with.