Restaurants offering Japanese dishes have been increasing in number of late, even outside of Japan. Choosing a kitchen knife is crucial in Japanese cooking, such as ensuring that fish is cut properly for essential Japanese dishes such as sashimi, sushi, and “nitsuke” (fish braised in soy sauce-flavored broth). In Japan, there are many regions that produce their own knives, but there are three in particular that are famous and produce the highest volume of knives—Sakai City in Osaka, Sanjo City in Niigata, and Seki City in Gifu. So, what are the characteristics of knives made in each of these areas? This article will answer this question, diving into the characteristics of the knives of Sakai City, Sanjo City, and Seki City.
Knives From Sakai City, Osaka
Sakai is located in the southeastern part of Osaka—Japan’s “Second City.” Iron forging techniques were apparently introduced to this area during the construction of burial mounds in the 5th century, and those techniques were handed down and eventually used for the manufacturing of swords from the end of the Heian period (around the year 1100). In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), tobacco cutting knives were exported to the domestic market from Sakai through the Nanban trade (Japan had its doors closed to the outside world then and trade was only allowed with Portugal and Spain). Production of these tobacco knives further flourished during the Tensho era (1573 – 1592).
The Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan in 1543 and Sakai later became famous as a production area of guns in Japan. Sakai City had such excellent technical prowess that it caught the attention of powerful people such as Nobunaga Oda (a famous commander and ruler during the Warring States period of 1467 to 1590). During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate (the samurai government founded by Ieyasu Tokugawa) praised the high quality of Sakai knives, stamped them with the “Sakai Kiwame” mark to distinguish them from products made in other areas and regions, and then sold them exclusively from Sakai. With this, Sakai knives spread throughout Japan.
Against this background, Sakai knives (called “Sakai Uchihamono”) manufactured in Sakai City, Osaka still boast a significant share in the domestic market. The knives made in Sakai have the following specific features.
They Are Single-Edged
There are two types of knives: single-edged and double-edged. While they both have advantages and disadvantages, single-edged knives are known to cut well without food adhering to them. When preparing vegetables, these knives make mincing and peeling easy. For fish, these knives make it possible to cut very close to the bone. The cross-section of any ingredient cut by a single-edged knife is also guaranteed to be clean, and the knives have better control than double-edged blades. It need not be said that double-edged knives have their own advantages, but Sakai is sticking with single-edged knives.
Another characteristic of single-edged knives is that their shape differs depending on their application, so they come in “yanagiba,” “usuba,” and “deba” (pictured above) types. It would definitely be great to be able to cook every day with just one knife, but cooking will be a more authentic experience by using each of these knives properly. One of the highlights of single-edged knives is that you can use them for precise and clean cuts, such as when making thinly-sliced sashimi.
They Use Steel
Sakai knives are made with steel. Characterized for being hard, steel is a great material for knives since it is sharp, lasts for a long time, and is easy to sharpen. However, a known disadvantage of steel is that it rusts easily, so some knives of late are being manufactured by combining steel with other materials.
In the case of Sakai knives, many are made with the Honyaki method (a traditional method of forging using a single material: high carbon steel) that is especially preferred by professional Japanese chefs. Some Honyaki knives are made using a technique that leaves a design on the knife, thereby giving them some extra character.
Sakai knives may be difficult to maintain as they will get rusty if you do not properly wipe any moisture off after washing, but they still embody the appeal of steel knives, so many people want to keep using them.
[KITCHEN (CHEF) KNIFE] FINEST-HONGAZUIM YASUKI-HAGANE WHITE STEEL NO.2 YANAGIBA (SINGLE-EDGED BLADE) MAGNOLIA HANDLE 300MM
Pictured above is a Yanagiba knife for cutting sashimi, sushi, and other ingredients. It is made by one of the best blacksmiths and blade/cutting tool craftsmen in Sakai City. It uses No.2 white steel, also known as “shirokami”. There is minimal impurity in the steel, so this knife excels in terms of balance between sharpness and ease of sharpening. It is designed for professional Japanese chefs.
Knives From Sanjo City, Niigata
Sanjo City, which is located in Niigata in the northernmost part of the Hokuriku region, had been engaged in the production of sickles, hoes, and other tools necessary for agriculture since the middle of the Edo period (around 1681 – 1780). In this area, instead of taking time off during the farming off-season, farmers would engage in the side business of making traditional Japanese nails. They later on shifted to the production of kitchen knives and many other types of knives and forged cutlery.
Furthermore, blacksmiths in the area were able to manufacture yattoko (the tool that looks like pliers on the right side in the photo above, used for a variety of purposes such as in making cutlery and as a tool for holding a cooking pot with no handles) which are necessary for the production of forged cutlery. To this day, the knives and the tools used to produce them are made with techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Knives manufactured in Sanjo City, Niigata are called “Echigo Sanjo Uchihamono,” and they have the following features.
They Require Advanced Forging Skills to Produce
The most distinctive feature of Echigo Sanjo Uchihamono is that they require a high degree of forging skill to make. Echigo Sanjo knives are made by heating and beating the metal to shape it and then letting it cool to harden. It may seem simple at a glance, but it takes a long time to learn and master the techniques in making these knives. To make this kind of knife, the blacksmith has to face the steel and flames repeatedly and adjust or fine-tune the knife by beating any microscopic distortion or creases. With this, the workmanship greatly varies depending on the skill of the craftsman.
Each Echigo Sanjo knife has its own unique characteristics and because they are made with the user’s needs in mind, they are easy to use and don’t wear out as easily as other knives.
Knives From Seki City, Gifu
Seki City, located in Gifu Prefecture in the center of mainland Japan, is another of the three major knife-producing areas in Japan. It even ranks alongside Solingen in Germany and Sheringham in the UK as one of the three major producers of knives in the whole world.
Sword smithery was born in Seki City during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333). Legend has it that the industry of making swords was established in Seki after the father of sword smithery, Motoshige, moved to this area. Blessed with a climate that is ideal to sword smithery (good quality quenching soil, abundant pine charcoal that is used in furnaces, and clean water from the Nagara and Tsubo rivers) many swordsmiths also moved to Seki City back then. During the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), more than 300 swordsmiths were making swords in this area, causing the popularity of Seki to spread throughout Japan.
Today, Seki City produces attractive knives with the same techniques used by swordsmiths in the past. The following are the main features of knives made In Seki City.
They Cut Well and Have a Strong Core
Knives made in Seki City are known for being sharp, virtually chip and nick resistant, and having a hard core. Capitalizing on the secret skills and know-how that craftsmen honed in the long tradition of sword smithery, this city produces knives that are considered exceptional on the whole.
Alloys are often used to produce strong steel, but the knives made in Seki City are made of pure iron that does not rust. Some knives from this area may have a stainless steel surface to prevent rusting, but the core will always be steel. Steel that does not rust is possible thanks to the high purity of the metal, a fact that has been known in Seki since the time that swords were produced there.
The steel used in the knives made in Seki City is called “tokushuko” and generally has a purity of at least 95%, and anything less is not tolerated.
[KITCHEN (CHEF) KNIFE] POWDERED HSS SUPER GOLD (SG2) SANTOKU KNIFE (DOUBLE EDGED) OAK HANDLE 180MM
Pictured above is a santoku knife from Seki City. It has come to be regarded as a versatile kitchen knife because it can cut meat, vegetables, and fish. This knife uses powdered high-speed steel that is hard and cuts well. The blade is made to be as thin as it can possibly be while retaining maximum strength, so there is little resistance when cutting and the knife has extraordinary sharpness. This is the one knife you should have if you love to cook.
Add an Authentic Japanese Knife to Your Kitchen
Knives are essential in the creation of Japanese food, but very few people probably care about where they are made. The three largest knife-producing areas in Japan have their own distinct characteristics, but the knife that is best for you will still depend on your taste and budget. So, how about diving into the essence of Japanese cuisine with a knife from Sakai City, Sanjo City, or Seki City?
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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.