Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

The forged knives of Echizen: Home of Japan's hardest-wearing blades

The knife slices smoothly and cleanly through a soft, fully ripe tomato, hitting the chopping board with a thud. Echizen knives are sharp, and it’s thoroughly satisfying to wield such a finely crafted blade. It’s easy to understand why so many top chefs and patissiers throughout Japan and the world put their faith in the amazing blades from Takefu in Echizen.

Takefu has long been famous for the quality of its blades. That history goes back about 700 years, when a Kyoto swordsmith named Chiyozuru Kuniyasu went searching for a source of water pure enough to use in forging swords of the highest quality. He eventually came across the metalworking town of Takefu and settled down there. He continued to make swords, but over time he turned his hand to sickles and other implements for the local farmers, shifting from crafting weapons designed for killing to forging tools that would sustain life.

Fanning the flames: Pieces of steel are heated on charcoal in the forge. It takes keen perception to know when the steel has reached the ideal temperature. Supposedly when it takes on the color of sunset it has reached 850 degrees Celsius, but this is virtually impossible to recognize without a highly trained eye.
Fanning the flames: Pieces of steel are heated on charcoal in the forge. It takes keen perception to know when the steel has reached the ideal temperature. Supposedly when it takes on the color of sunset it has reached 850 degrees Celsius, but this is virtually impossible to recognize without a highly trained eye.

That spirit prevails in Takefu today, making this area the source of the very best sickles and kitchen knives. The thin, elegant blades keep an edge for a very long time, and are highly resistant to nicks and other damage. Just how well they maintain their sharpness, and how gratifying they are to use, is abundantly clear from the fact that nearly all the head chefs at the world’s top 10 restaurants are reported to use Echizen knives.

Other places in Japan are known for making high-quality knives, but Echizen knives were the very first to receive official designation as works of traditional craft. Everyone in the city is enormously proud of this recognition of the physical and spiritual devotion of generations of artisans to their craft.

The razor's edge: Echizen knives are typically made by forge-welding high-carbon steel onto a soft steel core. Special methods are used to create exceptionally thin and sharp blades.
The razor’s edge: Echizen knives are typically made by forge-welding high-carbon steel onto a soft steel core. Special methods are used to create exceptionally thin and sharp blades.

What distinguishes these illustrious blades from Takefu? One factor is the red-hot, noisy world of the forges, where the loud roar of blazing furnaces mixes with the pounding of powerful belt-driven hammers and the hum of large electric fans spinning at maximum velocity.

Yet an altogether different pulse dominates the commotion, one that is felt rather than heard: the rhythm of the artists working the forges. Throughout the process, from the tempering of the steel to the polishing of the finely shaped blade, sparks are constantly flying. Even without any knowledge of the intricate skills involved, it’s easy to comprehend how people who invest so much of their body and soul into their craft produce remarkable work.

Establishing a rhythm: One of the characteristic Echizen ways of forming a sickle blade is called maikozuchi (dancing mallet) because of the way the mallet is wielded to shape the arc of the blade.
Establishing a rhythm: One of the characteristic Echizen ways of forming a sickle blade is called maikozuchi (dancing mallet) because of the way the mallet is wielded to shape the arc of the blade.

While the knifemakers of Echizen have a few unique techniques, such as nimai-hiroge (hammering two blades at the same time during the shaping process), the basics of handcrafting knives are essentially universal.

Salt soak: Judging the correct temperature is even trickier when forging stainless steel than it is for traditional steel. Here a stainless steel blade emerges after 10 minutes in a 1,050-degree Celsius salt bath.
Salt soak: Judging the correct temperature is even trickier when forging stainless steel than it is for traditional steel. Here a stainless steel blade emerges after 10 minutes in a 1,050-degree Celsius salt bath.

First of all, you need to start with good material. The steel must be thoroughly hammered and tempered with as few trips to the furnace as possible so as to minimize stress on the metal. The resulting blade must be meticulously ground and polished to form a keen and lasting edge.

Each of these steps is equally important, according to Terukazu Takamura of Takamura Hamono Seisakujo; none can be taken for granted. “If you do everything according to these principles, you can make wonderful blades,” Takamura says. “But it’s difficult. You need extremely well-honed senses to judge when the temperature is just right, how much hammering is required to create a blade of ideal strength and thinness, and how best to grind and polish for a perfect finish. Learning it takes time.”

World-class blades: Knives forged by Echizen knife masters (from right) Masaji Shimizu, Koji Masutani, Terukazu Takamura, Katsushige Anryu and Masanobu Okada
World-class blades: Knives forged by Echizen knife masters (from right) Masaji Shimizu, Koji Masutani, Terukazu Takamura, Katsushige Anryu and Masanobu Okada

And indeed, every one of the master knifemakers of Echizen works tirelessly to perfect his skills in order to create the absolute best, strongest, and most reliable blades possible.

This is a stand-alone feature on Echizen knives.

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