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The Samurai History of My Sashimi Knife

Kyoto Narrative
by Andrew Welsh Apr 24, 2013

“There’s a ghost in there!” Mariko said. I looked inside to an old man, pale and haggard. He sat cross-legged on a section of raised flooring behind a low display counter full of scissors. He fiddled, focused and deliberate, with some metal object on an impromptu desk made from a toaster-sized wooden block.

The shop, called Yasushige, did look respectably haunted. In the corner a rusted bicycle hugged a tall, unlit display cabinet grinning rows of jagged steel teeth.

“I see some knives,” I said, “but it doesn’t look like they’re open.” Mariko began pulling my arm in retreat. This was the final stop on my kitchen knife pilgrimage. I’d been in Japan learning to cook for almost a year, and had developed romantic ambitions about adding a blade from one of Kyoto’s old sword-making families to my collection. Just as we were about to go, the apparition peered up, and with a terse wave compelled us through the sliding wooden door and into the shop.

“This store was built about 300 years ago.” He spread his arms, as if to embrace everything around him and bring it into his story.

Konnichiwa…” Mariko and I both murmured as we crept inside. The man returned the greeting but didn’t look up. His fingers were square from age and work. The creases in his face moved subtly beneath two bushy white eyebrows, following the intricate handiwork. Mariko asked if the store was open.

“Sure.” We stood awkwardly opposite the man, as though in purgatory, waiting for permission to move. He studied us. “Are you foreigners?”

“I’m not,” Mariko said. “But my boyfriend is. He really likes Japanese food and cutlery.” I began to explain that I’d come to Japan as an English teacher, but my real goal was to learn the cuisine, to become a chef.

“Have a seat, don’t just stand around,” the man said, cutting me off with a wave toward two chairs beside the display counter. We sat, nervously, as though granted audience to a holy relic. Hammers, pliers, and chisels were strewn all around him on the right, and on his left was a pile of half-finished thread snippers.

“How long are you here?” I asked whether he meant Kyoto or Japan. “Japan.”

I told him my work contract was two years, though I’d only been in the country ten months. “Hmph.” He shifted his weight and leaned an elbow on one knee. He made no signs of inviting us to browse. To relieve the silence, Mariko asked about the shop’s age. The man leaned back and took a breath, as though we were finally moving in the right direction.

“This store was built about 300 years ago.” He spread his arms, as if to embrace everything around him and bring it into his story. He explained that all the fixtures, the cabinets, drawers, tables, and chairs were original to the building. His name was Hideichiro Okano. He came from a Kyoto family that began forging swords in 1700, selling them to samurai in the very room where we sat until 1876, when the Meiji Restoration government banned the carrying of swords in an effort to end feudalism. Okano’s family then switched production to hamono, “bladed things,” like precision shears, garden trimmers, and kitchen knives. “But it’s the same technique,” he said, “that’s never changed.”

He went on to say that many of the other old Kyoto families had switched to machine presses when Western influence after World War II instigated a mass production craze. Yasushige maintained the hand-forging process, which meant production was slow and didn’t result in a perfect knife every time. But the process is what gives a knife its character, he said. He’d never give that up.

A flicker of giddiness crept over me, imagining that a few hundred years ago a samurai may have sat in the same chair I now occupied to do some sword shopping. When there was a pause in conversation I asked if I could see a 30cm yanagiba sashimi knife. Okano frowned. “I’m sure there’s one here somewhere.” He rose, spry for his age, and moved to the knife case. The glass panel door whined open, baring a cluttered library of blades without any of the posture of the red velvet, magnetized displays I’d seen at the other shops. He sifted through the stacks of knives, with a hand as unabashed and familiar as one rooting for a necktie in the closet.

From the pile he drew out a knife that was exactly what I had in mind. He set it on the counter in front of me and began explaining that it was the sort of knife created specifically for cutting delicate things like raw fish — that if used for anything else, its spectacular hardness made it prone to chipping and cracking.

The blade was oiled, which prevents high-carbon steel from rusting when unused for long periods of time. I rubbed my fingers together to dissolve the oil that had gotten on them.

“That knife was forged in ’73, or maybe ’74. In any case, about 40 years ago.”

I was 25, and felt a sudden shrinking. The man, the shop, and even the knife radiated the weight and bulk of their history. I mumbled words of reverence, and then, under an impulse to reassert my diminishing being, asked whether the blade was made of white or blue steel — the color being significant of the paper used to wrap ingots of different grades of hardness.

“Neither!” he scoffed, and began to rail against the unreliability for hand-hammering of anything but Swedish steel, which has a reputation for minimal impurities. Pairing a highly pure base material with a highly pure process makes it possible to produce an unparalleled knife. It’s also possible to really mess it up, though.

The light behind the man’s eyes was on full blast now. Literal sparks of passion might burst out at any moment.

When forging a knife by hand, he explained, a huge array of factors affect the resulting blade. Not only the skill of the forger, but the season, humidity, temperature, precipitation, elevation, mood of the craftsman, what he had to eat for lunch, whether or not he has a headache, and a hundred other things can have a significant impact on the finished product. That’s what makes hand-forged knives so special. All of these factors combine to result in a knife that is either an unparalleled masterpiece, or a disappointment below even machine-press grade.

“I’m quite old. In fact, I’ve died once already, so I really can’t bring myself to sell anything shoddy.”

As a result, the shop had a number of perfectly functional, quality blades that turned out somewhat differently than the ideal blade held in Okano’s mind’s eye — the width of the spine might be slightly off, or a scar might appear during the hammering process. These he’s willing to sell at a lower price. The yanagiba in my hand wasn’t a masterpiece, he said, but was still far superior to anything that could be produced by a press.

I hefted the knife again, performing a few mock cutting motions which I hoped would make me look competent, and then glanced over at the knife case where the other blades lay in jumbled heaps.

“Don’t look over there,” Okano said, “what you want is in front of you.” He stabbed his index finger in my direction, and then dismissed the cabinet with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t think about those.”

“I do really like this knife,” I said, checking my watch. We’d been in the shop more than an hour. “But I’m also interested in seeing what other kinds you have.”

“No,” he sighed. “You should just stop thinking and buy this one. 13,000 yen is a steal for it. You’ll never find that kind of price for a knife like this anywhere.” His tone and face showed more exhaustion than eagerness to make a sale. He sat, reclined at his wooden block workbench.

“This knife isn’t my best work, but you’re both young and a foreigner. You don’t need a top quality knife. In fact, that’s a waste. But this is, by any standard, an excellent knife. I picked it out because I felt that it fit you.” All this he said with a weary expression, not unlike a parent who’s grown tired of telling their child what is obviously best for them.

“I’m quite old. In fact, I’ve died once already, so I really can’t bring myself to sell anything shoddy.”

“Sorry,” Mariko offered timidly. “What do you mean by ‘died?’”

The old man leaned back, putting his weight behind him on his arms. “Last year my heart stopped,” he explained. He’d been rushed to the hospital for an emergency bypass. During the operation he was technically dead. In case, for some reason, we doubted his honesty, he pulled down the neck of his shirt, exposing a long, dark scar down the center of his chest.

“All in all, my life is quite short,” he said, letting the shirt collar rise back into place, “especially compared to the lifespan of these knives. And since they have my reputation carved into them, I don’t wish to let anything but my proudest creations out into the world.”

With that, through his insistence and pained enthusiasm, it felt as though he’d already transferred the knife into my possession. All that was left now was the formality of buying it. Again, I wondered whether he was really sincere or just really clever.

When I agreed to purchase the knife, Okano bowed deeply and thanked me, but seemed unsurprised and unimpressed.

“What do you want engraved on the blade?” he asked. “Your name?” The name of the shop was already chiseled into the base of the spine, but there was room for more novelty inscription.

“No,” I said. “Your name.”

“Eh?” he grunted. “Well, if you say so.” I handed him the knife, and he took it gently and placed it on his wooden block, which was covered with a tattered blue dust cloth. A piece of nylon string stretched over the cloth and was secured on both sides of the block in order to help hold the knife in place. Okano set to work with a small hammer and a thin metal chisel about the size of a square nail. He worked for seven or eight minutes, hammering methodically but with style and confidence. He etched in a long series of swooping, arching characters, striking the flares and intricacies with an unexpectedly nimble hand.

Mariko and I sat in silence, absorbed by the subtle movements and the sound of metal striking metal. When he’d finished, he presented the knife for approval. It was brilliant, the fresh inscriptions glittering in the dim light. I handed it back to him and he passed it off to a young woman who had appeared without warning from a back room. I guessed it was his daughter, but she never spoke and he didn’t acknowledge her as such.

Moments later the young woman returned with the knife, boxed and wrapped in paper. I exchanged a small stack of bills for it. Mariko and I rose to go, thanking Okano for the knife and his stories. He smiled and nodded. “Kawaigattekudasai,” he said as we left. I didn’t understand what that meant, but did my best to express appreciation with a small awkward bow.

Outside the sky was overcast, matching the street pavement and increasing the neon volume of neighboring signboards. Yasushige, under its unlit name tile, appeared to darken, receding into history from the hubbub of the street. I clutched the narrow box under my arm, hoping the rain would hold off until we reached the hotel.

“What he said at the end, did you catch it?” Mariko asked. I shook my head. “I guess it means ‘take care,’ but the real meaning isn’t as casual as that sounds in English. We use that word when entrusting someone with a valuable possession, or to take care of a child. Literally it means ‘please be affectionate;’ ‘please love it.’”

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