After having used the Watanabe yanagi, I found a new appreciation for handmade knives. Once we decided to visit Osaka as a part of our big Asia trip, I knew we would be close to the Sakai region- the birthplace of many famous Japanese knives. Prior to our trip, I spent countless hours looking for the perfect knife as a present for myself. YAY!! I asked our chef friend Brian Wong for his recommendation. He sent me a list of knife makers in the Sakai region, but strongly recommended one knife maker in particular, Keijiro Doi. I knew nothing of him besides the name so I first checked out Suisin, the company to which he contracts his knife work for. After browsing the Suisin website, I found “the” knife. The Gin Momizi- but more on that later. After some more Googling I found out that Doi-san is part of a handful of master blacksmiths in Japan. Knife making is a dying art in Japan like most traditional ways of creating textiles and metallurgy. You can also read this article written by the author of www.japanesefoodreport.com.
We arrived in Osaka after our red eye flight from Singapore, both tired and hungry, yet we were extremely eager for the long anticipated day. After 20 mins on the Nankai line enroute to Osaka, we arrived at Sakai city. We followed our “trusty” google map print out and arrived at the Knife Systems shop without getting lost (yes!). We walked into the shop to be greeted by Tatsuya-san himself. The shop is both a storefront and an office. On the right are 3 glass cases filled with knives all shiny and polished. We took a seat and were served hot tea. We also met Tatsuya-san’s father, Junro Aoki, the president of Suisin. After our meet and greet with my remedial Japanese, Tatsuya-san brought out the Gin Momizi, the knife I had been longing for, for the past month. I picked it up and the knife felt right at home in my hands as if it were an extension of my arm. The blade is thin, yet hard and the shape is perfect for all sorts of prep work. We looked at several other debas and gyutou knives, but the Momizi was the one I prized.
The only problem we encountered was that they do not accept credit cards at the store. Plus the price of the knife was beyond my daily ATM limit. So for you folks planning on buying a knife from Knive Systems, bring lots of cash! Luckily, Yamasho, a Japanese Food distrubution company is located in Elk Grove Village, IL. Tatsuya-san agreed to have the knife shipped there after which I could pay by credit card if needed. (Please note that you’ll need to buy it “wholesale” which means you’ll need a business id for the sale). I was a little sad I was not able to pick up my knife that day, but what happened next made me forget all about the knife.
Tatsuya-san informed us that we should get going to make sure we’d catch Doi-san. We left Knife Systems and was on our way to see the factory. During, the car ride we made some small talk in my remedial Japanese and his remedial English, but somehow I think we got our points across. After a bunch of left and right turns, we arrived at a small warehouse off a tiny street. This was not the clean industrious factory you might see on tv, but a tiny warehouse, dimly lit by only a few windows. The walls were covered in black soot mostly from the carbon deposits from the furnace over the years. Rusty knife and metal pieces adorn the walls and floor, unlike the shiny polished ones we saw moments ago at the store. But in the midst of this was a small old man, barely over 5 feet tall with slicked white hair hammering away to shape what would become a prized knife.
Doi-san was focused on the task at hand, while we stood patiently for an opportunity to greet him. He finally stopped after hammering his last knife flat on a perfectly smooth anvil.
We greeted each other and I went on to exclaim how much I love his knives and what an honor it was to meet him. Unfortunately, my Japanese was either not correct or was not loud enough. Luckily, Tatsuya-san was there to help me translate. We walked around the shop going through the process from metal to blade. I even got to step inside the pit where Doi-san performs the forging. He went on to explain that he forges his knives at low temperature in order to maintain the hardness of the metal. All of this is done without any scientific instrument. Just by looking, he can tell when the metal is ready for shaping, a true sign of a master. After the knife is forged, it is then hammered to the precise thickness, cut, grind and shaped to something that resembles a un-sharpened blade. His work ends here and the blades go off to a sharpener for finishing.
Doi-san has been making knives since his early teens. And now at the ripe age of 82, he produces 10 knives a day. Despite his age, he looks and moves around like someone 30 years younger. When you hold one of his knives, you can really feel the time and craftsmanship he placed in each knife. As a parting gift we were given a 270mm Kiritsuke blue steel No.2 un-sharpened blade. It is a piece of steel that Doi-san had worked on but was deemed imperfect by him, even though it looks perfect to us. (But we are not a master blacksmiths with over 60 years of experience so that was fine by us!) What an honor it was to meet and chat with the legend and leave with a blade forged by him.
We left the shop feeling in awe. As an added bonus, Tatsuya-san also took us to Sakai’s knife museum. The museum has a large selection of knives made by famous makers all over Sakai. There you can see the process of making a knife from the beginning to end as well as purchasing some of those famous knives.
Although I left empty handed from the knife store, I left with many memories and a piece of work by Doi-san. It was a truly amazing experience and one neither of us will soon forget.
I want to thank Tatsuya-san for his arrangement with Doi-san and also taking his time out to show us the great city of Sakai. (Btw, If you think your Japanese reading skills are up for the challenge, Tatsuya-san also maintains a knife blog. Or atleast we think it’s his!)