A port city not very far from Osaka, Sakai has been Japan’s undisputed “City of Knives” since the mid-16th century. It all started with tobacco. Taking a leaf out of the book of Portuguese traders who came with their tobacco, the Japanese soon started growing the crop. Needing an implement to cut through the fibrous leaves, the erstwhile Samurai sword-forging blacksmiths of Sakai soon came up with a steel knife so expertly made that it would set the benchmark for knife-making the world over. So much so that today the town not only has its own “Sakai Wazashu” seal of knife-quality, but also its own dedicated Sakai Hamono Museum of cutlery. The rather nondescript museum charges no entry fee, but for those who wish to have their knives sharpened, there is a fee of 1,000 yen (about Rs600). Nearly 90% of all Japanese-style chef knives are made here.
I took the blue line on a JR (Japan Railways) train to this small, ancient city to make up my own list of Sakai’s best knife makers:
Yamawaki Hamano Seisakusho
The legendary Yamawaki Hamano Seisakusho has a 90-year history of producing the more expensive, hand-forged steel knives, so buying a knife there can cost anywhere up to $3,000 (around Rs2 lakh) a pop. No wonder then that masterchefs Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller are patrons of this rather austere-looking shop which also sells whetstones to maintain that razor edge. They even provide an engraving service to personalize knives, with names etched in Kanji characters.
Ignore its lurid purple awning and obscure location along Sakai’s noisy Kishu Highway and step inside. This knife wonderland is packed to the rafters with a cornucopia of styles and sizes to suit every need. Besides finding knives for the left-handed folk among us, you can take your pick from single-edged/double-edged sashimi knives and meat swords. Later, one can even sit down for a “how-to-take-care” tutorial by the enthusiastic staff. And for those looking for Western-style knives, Sakai Yusuke has an entire separate range of butcher’s knives, cleaver knives, and even dainty little paring knives aptly called “petty”.
With an equally strong presence in the online shopping world, this brick-and-mortar warehouse-cum-store located in the heart of Sakai is famous as the purveyor of the beautiful Damascus style of steel forging. In this very distinct style, 33 layers of steel are laminated and folded over a core that is then dipped in acid to reveal a wood grain-like pattern—sans any grainy texture—imprinted on to the knife. The knife doesn’t shatter. One of their most popular products is the Sujihiki Carving Knife that costs upwards of $200.
Gleaming behind their glass showcases and gently placed on red velvet cushions, all types of traditional Japanese knives are on display. From the deba filleting knife and the usuba vegetable slicing knife to the gyuto that closely resembles a Western meat knife, Ikkanshi Tadatsuna has it all under one roof, making it the preferred knife shop of sushi master Rokusaburo Michiba—the first Japanese winner of the American TV series Iron Chef—a fact advertised by the chef’s framed picture hanging on the wall of an otherwise unassuming shop.
Tucked in a back alley, away from the din of the other knife shops in Sakai, is the magical little Suisin, still very much a family run business of the Aoki family. And though its knives may be a part of the kitchens of sushi masters like chef Masaharu Morimoto, Suisin’s star knife-smith is Keijiro Doi, who is legendary for the skilled craftsmanship he displays in his yanigiba knives—the classic thin and long sashimi knives. As a sign of his finesse, each of his creations comes etched with his trademark of a diamond and neatly wrapped in a fine silk sheath, reminding us of the Japanese pursuit of perfection.
In an interesting little departure from the other Sakai knife makers on this list, this 1942-established company focuses primarily on crafting confectionery knives. Used to slice the ubiquitous Japanese sponge cakes and the more traditional manju steamed stuffed bun dough, Aoki-Hamano Seisakusho’s knives are a Japanese pastry chef’s most coveted possessions—thanks to the razor-sharp, flexible blade and sturdy handles that are crafted from magnolia wood and even ebony for the “high rollers” of the world of confectionery.