Shigefusa Hamono Introduction
There is a certain poetry about the knives crafted by Tokifusa Iizuka, one of the most revered smiths in a land that holds Hocho
- kitchen knives - sacred.
His knives are simple and rustic yet at the same time, elegant. Light dances upon the smooth blades and the delicate, wave like pattern of steel folded many times within. Wedges of black buffalo horn connect the rounded, unvarnished wood handles to the polished blade in a sensuous mix of textures. Beveled edges slice pristinely through an onion, eliminating the spray that causes tears. The balance of the knife is so refined it feels like an extension of the hand. In a world where nearly everything seems to be made on an assembly line, Iizukas knives stand out for being entirely made by hand.
It is a dying craft. Even among knife makers, Iizuka and his two sons are among the few smiths doing the entire process themselves, with no automated machinery, from the forging to the filing to the polishing. The small workshop behind Iizukas rural home is almost primitive - his eyes are his most valuable tool.
Suggest that Iizukas knives are art, however, and he dismisses the notion. Im a craftsman, he retorts. They are tools. They should be used.
Art or no, Iizukas knives - which fetch $250 to $1,500 apiece in Tokyo stores - are a metaphor for care. Not only the extraordinary care he takes in crafting them, but the care necessary to prepare an exquisite Japanese meal. For in this cuisine, the art - and at least some of the taste - is in the cut.
Not surprisingly, then, Iizukas knives - with the kanji characters for his Shigefusa trade name inscribed on the blade - are worshiped by master chefs. They are my treasures, says Yasushi Kaneko, 44, top chef at the renowned Takashimaya Inn in Niigata. With his knives, Kaneko slices blowfish sashimi nearly as transparent as glass and transforms carrots into cherry blossoms in the spring and maple leaves in the fall
His two favorite knives, in a collection of about 20, were made by Iizuka: One is a long, thin blade known in Japan as a yanagiba, or willow blade, for slicing sashimi. The other is an usuba, literally, thin blade, for cutting vegetables. They are my life, Kaneko says I cannot be apart from them.
Reflecting the diet of this island nation, there are nearly as many types of knives as there are fish. Each has a special function: The deba-bocho, with a broad, heavy, pointed blade, is used to gut and fillet. There is a special knife for filleting sea eel, known as a hamo-kiri, and another for filleting common eel, called unagi-saki. Big knives with a square edge, known as takohiki, are used at fish markets to slice pieces from huge tuna. A tiny blade, known as the aji-kiri, is derigueur for small fish such as sardines.
One major difference from Western knives: Japanese knives are sharpened with a bevel on just one side. That makes for a sleeker cut through the soft flesh of fish, in particular. A Western knife, claim Japanese culinary experts, will smash the tender texture of fish, affecting the taste.
Iizuka began his apprenticeship as a teenager with sword maker Kosuke Iwasaki, making traditional Japanese razors. After 10 years, he decided to become a maker of cutlery and in 1964 apprenticed himself to the famous sword maker Munenori Nagashima, now aged 93, who made swords before becoming a knife maker following World War II.
Little has changed in Iizukas production methods since. For his knives, Iizuka mixes iron with high-carbon Swedish steel that he characterizes as spicy. In his small forge fueled by piles of coke - Iizuka forge welds the carbon steel atop the iron. He forges it again and again, finally pounding it with a wooden mallet to create the blades initial shape.
Once the blade is cool, he begins the series of steps to grade and polish it. First it is ground to its rough shape and then hand filed with a special tool called a Soto Sen to its finished shape. Iizuka relates that the filing with the Soto Sen is the most important step as this removes the waves created in the blades surface by the forging and grinding steps. At this point, the blade is prepared for heat treatlment by honing on a coarse water stone until it is smooth from end to end.
The next step, which Iizuka says is the most stressful, is to temper the blade. It is first coated with a special paste made from the mud left over from the water stones used in the various shaping and sharpening processes. This paste is applied in varying thicknesses on the blade to produce a hard edge but leave the blade flexible. The blade is heated to 780° before being plunged into a special water bath. Iizuka says This moment decides the cutting quality of the Hocho.
Then comes the most time consuming process - finishing and sharpening which involve honing on a series of five ever finer water stones until the edge is razor sharp and the blades surface is silky smooth.
Persistence and power are the two ingredients necessary to make a knife, he says of the tedious processes. His computer sits nearby, but he uses it only for accounting. He occasionally spot-checks the quality of the steel
under his aging microscope. His output is about one knife a day.
His one stab at automation, a $100,000 machine for blade smoothing about 20 years ago, sits idle under a tarp on the side of the workshop. The idea was good, he says. But my skill is much better than that machine.
Despite the high prices his knives command, perfectionist Iizuka still feels his knives arent perfect. Just once, he says, he made a perfect penknife. I suffer because I feel inside myself that I cannot make a perfect thing, he says, but I strive to make it anyway.
The above is from an article Old World, Cutting Edge published in 2001 by Varerie Reitman. I have edited it for length and made changes based on my long association with Mr. Iizuka and the other blacksmiths of Niigata.