Lacy Japanese fans and hand carved chopsticks? Pretty, but I don’t need them. Delicate porcelain tea sets? Beautiful, but I’d only break them. Japanese knives? Now that’s what I was looking for. Specifically, Masamoto knives. Before leaving for Japan, I put in my online due diligence and what I found was a plethora of raves about the Tokyo knife maker Masamoto (at theTsukiji market). Misao Hirano is the current (and 7th generation) owner of the family knife making dynasty that began in 1845- these knives are considered among some of the best Japan has to offer. Indeed, three chefs I met while I was in Japan proudly showed me the Masamoto stamp on the blade of their knife!
I’ve used the same German chef’s knife for decades- it’s a great knife that’s served me well- but so many professional chefs prefer Japanese knives, I was curious to feel the difference. We struck out one morning to find our knife maker- winding our way through the maze of alleyways that is the outer Tsukiji Fish market. Four hours later (we did quite a lot of food sampling and got wonderfully distracted..and lost.. along the way) we finally spotted the distinctive blue banner with knife-like Japanese characters indicating- we’d arrived.
Masamoto is a beehive of activity- a small workshop and store jam packed with knives and guys making knives. There is a dizzying array of knives of all sizes and types, from long, samurai sword-like sushi knives, to chef’s knives, to small and indispensable paring knives. The options are many and my Japanese is nil, so it took a lot of pantomiming and gesticulating to sort through the selections find just the right knives for me.
The guys there were very helpful and very patient, showing me the differences between knives and allowing me to test them for weight, balance and comfort. Besides the utility of the knife, the main options to consider are blade material and handle material. You can choose between a carbon steel blade (preferred I’m told by many chefs as it can maintain a super sharp edge, but rusts more easily and therefore needs more maintenance) and stainless steel (which is what I ultimately chose, being a home cook and lazy when it comes to knife maintenance). The handle options were traditional Japanese round with a bolster made from water buffalo horn, or a modern, riveted, hardwood handle.
Mr. Hirano assembling knives
The knives were lighter and thinner in profile than the German knives I was accustomed to with a fineness about them – and sharp! Like razor sharp. They felt balanced and very natural in my hand. In the end, I walked away with 5 knives; 2 for myself and 3 to give as gifts. I wish I had bought more!
The art of sharpening a knife!