Located in Osaka Prefecture, Sakai is a city brimming with energy that has a history tracing back all the way to 8,000 B.C. As one of the most famous knife production areas in all of Japan today, Sakai’s past dances with the present as its deep and rich cultural legacies are still treasured and celebrated even in the modern day. But how did this once-humble coastal city become a mecca for high-quality Japanese knives and metalworking? To learn more, let’s first go back 10,000 years to the very foundation of Sakai City.
Sakai City’s Beginnings
Thanks to numerous archeological artifacts dug up around the Sakai area, such as stone tools and earthenware, many believe that people have been living in Sakai as far back as the Jomon Period (14,000-300 BC).
Artifacts from the successors of the Jomon, the Yayoi (300 BC-250 CE), were also found in abundance, furthering attempts to piece together an understanding of what life may have been like back then.
The Rise of the Kofun
As Japan’s first government, the Yamato Dynasty, was established and expanded during the Kofun Period (300-538 AD), Sakai would see the construction of its most notable landmark, the Daisen Kofun, which is still intact and visitable even today.
The Daisen Kofun is just one of over a hundred large key-shaped tombs that were built in Sakai. It is a part of the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group of mounded tombs, which was designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2019.
Trade, Tea, and Tobacco
As Sakai continued to shape up to be a regional hub for government, trade, and culture, during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), Sakai’s advantageous coastal position developed the once-humble fishing village into one of the most lucrative foreign trade ports in all of Japan.
Wealthy merchants from all over the country flocked to Sakai, and soon the expression “Sakai along the seas, and Imai of the inland” (海の堺、 陸の今井) became ubiquitous with wealth in Japan. Imai was a wealthy fortress city in Nara Prefecture that, like Sakai, was flourishing with merchants, and hence the two were the picture of Japanese prosperity at the time.
One of these wealthy merchants that moved to Sakai was a man by the name of Sen no Rikyu. Known as the founder and greatest master of the Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu chose Sakai due to the spiritual nature of the city and the prosperity of its citizens. Today, Sakai continues to be one of the main centers of the traditional tea ceremony in Japan, and so participating in one is a must if you pay Sakai a visit.
The other industry brought about by the port of Sakai was the metalworking industry. As international trade continued to flourish, tobacco was introduced to Sakai by Portugal in the mid-1500s. In order to turn the Portuguese tobacco leaves into a smokable product that would fit into the tobacco pipe, the leaves first had to be finely minced with a sharp knife. Seizing opportunity at every corner, the skilled blacksmiths of Sakai rose to the challenge and founded a metalworking tradition in Sakai that is unrivaled even today.
The Steel of Sakai
From delicate tobacco knives, Sakai rapidly became the place to go for some of the highest-quality samurai swords in all of Japan. Sakai steel was reserved for only the blades of the most prominent samurai and the “Sakai Katana” became a class of weapon of its own.
Unfortunately, after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 1800s, samurai were forbidden to carry swords and thus the production of the “Sakai Katana” became no more. Ever innovative, however, the smiths of Sakai shifted gears and adapted their skills to create kitchen knives on par with the sharpness and quality of the blades held by the samurai warriors of old.
Today, Sakai knives are at the forefront of premier Japanese cutlery. Each one is handmade by experts using the same tools and techniques that prominent bladesmiths used back in the day. The hand-carved handles are carefully balanced, and the stainless steel blades are easy to sharpen and rust-resistant. To top it all off, they’re durable and made for longevity. With such high quality, it’s no wonder that they are used by chefs not just throughout Japan, but by culinary masters worldwide.
One particular company that has kept Sakai’s knife-making tradition alive is Yamawaki Cutlery. Founded in 1927, their brand blends tradition with the modern forging and sharpening techniques of today to create top-class knives that have been acclaimed all around the world.
If you’ve never tried a Sakai knife before, we recommend the Cobalt Stainless 69-Layer Damascus Steel Santoku Knife (180 mm) by Yamawaki Cutlery. It’s one of the most inexpensive knives in its lineup, but don’t let its price fool you.
This Japanese chef’s knife is so sharp that people are often surprised when they first wield it, and beautiful to boot thanks to the famed watery or wavy pattern attributed to Damascus steel. The wooden octagonal handle is easy for both right- and left-handed people to hold and coated with persimmon tannin, making it antibacterial and water-resistant.
This knife is perfect as a present to yourself or someone special, and we’re sure it’ll last as a treasured part of your kitchen tool collection for many years.
Nowadays, Sakai has become a popular destination for travelers. It makes for a lovely day trip or several night’s stay if you are planning on spending time in the vicinity of either Osaka or Kyoto.
While there are many things to do and see in Sakai, if you are interested in the traditional artisans and craftsmanship of Sakai City, you can check out the Sakai City Traditional Crafts Museum and learn about the history and preservation of Sakai’s traditional crafts. Not only can you learn about Sakai knives, but also about the local incense, Chusen cotton, kombu kelp, rugs, and even bicycles! There is also a gift shop where you can get all of your Sakai gifts, all in one place.
Name: Sakai City Traditional Crafts Museum
Opening hours: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Closed: Every third Wednesday of the month, December 29 – January 3
Address: 1-1-30, Zaimoku-cho Nishi, Sakai-ku, Sakai-shi, Osaka
Website (Japanese): https://www.sakaidensan.jp/
Website (English): https://www.sakaidensan.jp/en/
10,000 Years of History and Counting
Even with over 10,000 years of history, Sakai City continues to be at the center of Japan’s culture and crafts. Although trade ships may not be vying for a post at the docks like the days of old, Sakai still offers something unique and will make many unforgettable memories for you here in Japan.
*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the BECOS website for more information.