Virtuoso Life November 2018 How to Buy a Knife in Tokyo

How to Buy a Knife in Tokyo

Knife shopping at Tsukiji Fish Market’s Aritsugu.
Knife shopping at Tsukiji Fish Market’s Aritsugu.
Knife shopping in Tokyo will make kitchen ninjas out of us all.

When it comes to cuisine, Japanese chefs are known to be perfectionists, from prep work to plating. It’s a quality I witnessed daily while living in Tokyo years ago, and one reconfirmed on every subsequent visit. On my most recent trip, I asked a longtime Japanese friend if he would like to join me on a knife-shopping mission in Kappabashi, Tokyo’s “Kitchen Town,” and at some of the city’s other noteworthy knife dealers. Kappabashi isn’t on your typical tourist map; the district lacks the verve of Shibuya’s neon lights and glowing, youthful faces, and the cachet of Ginza and Aoyama’s designer boutiques. Visually, it’s a tangle of telephone wires and apartment buildings, but when it comes to culinary accessories, Kappabashi dazzles. Its astonishing assortment of shops ranges from restaurant-supply emporiums to holes-in-the-wall carrying nothing but chopsticks or the fake-food models that adorn sushi and noodle restaurant window displays. It’s a fascinating warren of curiosities, even for merely casual cooks, so of course my friend was game.

A vendor’s salmon.
A vendor’s salmon.
Among the storefronts’ specialized goods, none are more refined than the knives: There’s a bewildering specificity for just the edge bevels, let alone the handles and blade shapes. Some shapes are solely for slicing through cooked beef – or raw beef, or eel. Or just vegetables. Or only cucumbers. How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go? If you need a knife designed specifically to break down rabbit or just to dice carrots, this is the place. And, naturally, there’s a niche online culture devoted to shopping for knives in the city – blogs dedicate entire articles to kibitzing over which knife is “best.”

For as little as a hundred dollars – or as much as a few thousand – you can come home with one or several of the most finely honed blades ever to touch a cutting board. Personalization ranges from engraving to custom handles and preferred edge bevels. And while it’s possible to purchase some models online, with knives – just like bespoke suits or shoes – perfect fit is a matter of touch and feel, something you’ll never know if you don’t “try it on” in person. Plus, as with all travel souvenirs, especially those you use daily, their sentimental value increases exponentially with the thrill of the hunt. When it comes to the knife shops below, explain to the staff what cuisine you prepare regularly and the holes in your present cutlery kit, and they’ll steer you wisely. Let’s get cooking.
Traditional carbon-steel, single-bevel knifes at Tsubaya.
Traditional carbon-steel, single-bevel knifes at Tsubaya.

Tsubaya

Tsubaya’s founder, Hiroshi Saito, launched his business in 1981 after traveling the globe, meeting many chefs, and realizing how respected Japanese knives were. Upon his return, he branched out from his family’s general kitchenware store in Tokyo and set about building relationships with blacksmiths near Osaka. Tsubaya, one of Kappabashi’s first knife specialists, is now helmed by Hiroshi’s son Akira and stocks more than 1,500 knives at any time from several dozen Japanese blacksmith brands. Akira, who speaks fairly fluent English, will explain how the different handle shapes – from a small vegetable cleaver with a rounded rosewood handle to a noodle cutter with an ovoid magnolia-wood handle and a traditional paring knife with a hexagonal handle – are intended to trigger muscle memory. “You want to grow used to the feel,” he says, so that you don’t have to think about what to cut with each knife, what that tool is for. Akira walked us through more than a dozen knife models, including some made just for butchering raw beef, others for carving cooked beef, and still more specifically for working with pork. As with the shops below, it’s more than a knife store; it’s a lesson in process and purpose as well.

A knife at Union Commerce.
A knife at Union Commerce.

Union Commerce (AKA Kappabashi)

Across a side street from Tsubaya, Union Commerce (which, confusingly, also goes by the name Kappabashi), began life as a kitchen-goods store specializing in grinders, roasters, and other commercial coffee equipment, and that’s still part of the business today. The staff are used to tourists and patiently abide endless questions. Union now caters a bit more to home chefs, and, while it stocks specialty knives, it’s a great place to shop for a santoku with a Western bevel. One of the managers explained how stores like theirs work with blacksmiths around Japan to control quality, increase customization options, and create their own house brands. To get a feel for the variety, ask to try similar knives with different handle shapes.

Custom engraving at Masamoto Sohonten. 
Custom engraving at Masamoto Sohonten. 

Masamoto Sohonten

About a 20-minute walk from the previous two shops, on the opposite side of the Sumida River, is another legendary knife seller. This sixth-generation, more-than-150-year-old label is fairly exclusive: Buyers tend to be chefs or serious home cooks rather than bargain hunters. While it features a massive variety of both Western and Japanese shapes, the shop only sells its own brand of carbon-steel knives, which require more care to stave off rust. On our visit, we happened to bump into one of its many international clients: a chef hunting for a specific (and $500) double-beveled blade to slice beef at his Michelin bib gourmand-winning restaurant in Hong Kong – one of many specialized tools he travels to Tokyo for.

Aritsugu manager Hiroshi Miyanohara examines an edge.
Aritsugu manager Hiroshi Miyanohara examines an edge.

Aritsugu

Much of Japan’s knife-craft dates to metallurgy gleaned from making samurai swords in the 1500s, but only a few houses, Aritsugu among them, can actually claim a continuous connection to that era. In fact, both its larger Kyoto store and its tiny stall at the outer edge of sprawling Tsukiji Fish Market still stock swords. If you want a great option that’s more convenient to the market, this is your spot. It carries a multitude of fish filleting and scaling knives, naturally, but it’s also strong on knives for meat slicing and vegetable paring. Though you won’t find a lot of English spoken here, the staff are eager to ensure you get the knife you want.
Andaz Tokyo. 
Andaz Tokyo. 

Stay

Adjoining Tokyo Station, the 57-room Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi channels a boutique-hotel vibe in the heart of the Japanese megacity and is noted for its restaurant, Motif, which fuses French and Japanese cuisine with ingredients overnighted from the country’s wildest island, Hokkaido.

Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills’ 164 guest rooms, pool, and popular rooftop bar occupy the top floors of a 52-story skyscraper. Australian chef Shaun Keenan recently made a splash with The Tavern – Grill & Lounge’s new menu, which features choice cuts aged in a yukimuro (snow cellar) for more tenderness and flavor than traditional dry-aging.

The Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s 179 rooms in the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower provide quiet respite from the street bustle, with commanding views in every direction. Of the hotel’s 11 restaurants, the standout is the eight-seat Tapas Molecular Bar, which spins a tasting menu into a two-hour performance where every dish is a piece of edible artwork.

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