Japan’s Cutting Edge Cutlery

Anyone who’s ever wandered into a kitchen knows how important a good knife is to food preparation. Arguably, Japanese kitchen knives, developed from Japan’s long sword-making tradition, are the best in the world.

Nenohi knives are among the most popular with professional chefs in Japan, even though the company is relatively young by Japanese standards, having been founded just 45 years ago. The knives are in such high demand, especially among Japan’s Michelin-starred chefs, that there is a six month waiting list to buy one.

I recently visited the Nenohi shop in Tsukiji to learn more. While the wholesale fish market moved from Tsukiji to Toyoshu in October 2018, Tsukiji’s secondary market continues to thrive. It is a rabbit warren of restaurants and small owner-operated shops, many with the owner literally living “above the store.”

Nenohi has had a shop in Tsukiji for more than 20 years, but just recently moved to a new location just across the street from the Tsukiji tourist information office. The modern new shop glistens with glass display cases filled with gleaming blades. A small annex behind the shop has been configured to double as a demonstration venue where customers can even try out different blades when making their selection.

While at the shop I learned the basics of Japanese kitchen knives. Traditional Japanese knives come in three basic blade shapes: long slender yanagi bocho, shorter and heftier deba, and the cleaver-like usuba. All are designed specifically for the cutting required in washoku Japanese cuisine and have bevelled, sharpened edges on only one side of the blade, (I was assured that blades can be order-made to accommodate left-handed chefs.) I’m told this is to minimize the contact between the metal of the blade and the food itself, so as not to alter the flavor.

Yanagi bocho are used to slice fresh fish; in other words, in the preparation of sashimi and sushi. The heftier deba are used for other tasks relating to cutting fish, such as removing heads or deboning. The usuba was designed for cutting vegetables and can even create long, wide ribbons of vegetables sliced so thin they seem transparent.

At the same time as each style of blade is a different shape, each is also of a different weight and thickness. As you might expect, the yanagi bocho (right, below) is thinner and the deba (left, below) is the thickest of the three.

The blades of traditional Japanese knives are made of carbon steel, which can be honed to a sharper edge but rusts more easily than stainless steel. This means they require a bit more care and maintenance, but many chefs insist that the sharpness of a carbon steel blade produces a better cut, making them worth the extra trouble. If you’ve ever sat at a sushi counter watching a skilled sushi chef, you’ve probably noticed how he regularly wipes his blade with a moist towel after cutting the fish. This is part of that care and maintenance (and also ensures that the flavor of one fish isn’t inadvertently transferred to another fish). Nenohi has also begun producing traditional blades in a stainless steel version, for really busy chefs working so fast they have no time for this maintenance step. Presumably they also don’t object to the slightly less sharp edge of a stainless steel blade.

While these are the three basic shapes of traditional Japanese kitchen knives, there are a number of variations, such as the specialized knife for cutting fugu (puffer fish), which, when served as sashimi, is sliced transparently thin and served on a colorful platter that can be seen through the fugu slices. It looks a lot like a normal yanagi bocho blade but is longer and even thinner.

Tools for scaling fish and tweezing out the bones as well as metal cooking chopsticks are also regarded as cutlery and are part of Nenohi’s repertoire.

The astute reader has probably noticed that in explaining traditional Japanese kitchen knives, I’ve only mentioned knives for cutting fish and vegetables. This is because these were the two principal ingredients of traditional Japanese cuisine. Meat and poultry did not really begin to feature in the Japanese diet until the middle of the 19th century.

But, of course, Japan adapted. Nenohi also makes a number of Western-style knives, marketed under the brand name Nenox. These knives are made of stainless steel and both sides of the blade are sharpened. Some are left to a matte finish, while others are polished to a mirror shine.

There are two basic blade shapes in Nenox knives: gyuto and sujibiki. As with traditional Japanese knives, each is a different weight and thickness according to their different uses.

The gyuto is often regarded as a basic meat knife, although in fact its size and shape makes it a versatile, all-purpose knife. The sujibiki is longer and more slender, somewhat resembling the Japanese yanagi bocho, making it good for slicing. Roast beef, anyone?

As with traditional Japanese knives, there are a number of variations on the basic knives, each suited to specific tasks in the kitchen.

Each Nenohi knife is handcrafted by certified craftspeople, mostly working in Nenohi’s plan in the Sakai area of Osaka, a place well known for centuries for its blade production.  There are at least 13 steps to the production of a blade. The first seven are undertaken by a master blacksmith, working at a forge to heat the metal and pound it into the basic blade shape. Next the blade is handed over to a master sharpener who goes through several more steps of polishing and sharpening the blade to finish it. Finally, a handle is crafted by other specialists.

Nenohi’s traditional Japanese knives have wooden handles bevelled hexagonally, rather than being rounded. As a consequence, they are easy to grip and rarely get slippery, even when wet.

Nenox knives have a wider variety of handles, often custom designed to suit the chef, his or her personal style statement. The shape is also different, to accommodate the different way in which the knife is gripped.

Chef knives are strong and durable. Many chef’s use their knives for decades, carrying them with them from kitchen to kitchen. They must be of the highest quality. At the same time, someone just starting out maybe not be able to afford the thousands of dollars that a really fine knife can cost. Nenohi produces knives of varying qualities, enabling junior chefs to invest in good knives, but upgrade to even better knives later in their careers.

Nenohi’s knives have become so well known that they get orders from chefs all over the world, contributing to that six month waiting list.

While Nenohi’s principal focus is on supplying professional chefs (they even have sales staff that visit chefs in their kitchens), they also added a line of knives for use in home kitchens beginning last October. These knives reflect Nenohi’s quality, but are a bit lighter and less expensive.

While these knives may not be “professional quality”, they are both fine quality and a joy to handle and use. I learned this when stepping into the back annex to try my hand at chopping an onion. I tried out each knife. They all felt wonderful in my hand and were so sharp that I almost didn’t need to apply any pressure to put the blade through the onion. It was the most fun I’ve had with knives since…well, it was the most fun I’ve ever had with knives!

Nenohi invites potential customers to buy veggies at the Tsukiji market and bring them in to their shop to try out these knives and figure out which blade style suits them best. Most of these new home use knives cost around JPY30,000. With proper care–regular home sharpening and bringing them in for annual maintenance, they’ll last for decades.

My own experience with them has me thinking that it’s time to upgrade my kitchen tools!

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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