In-depth review: Japanese Knives

“Live to eat or eat to live?”

Obsession with Japanese Knives: Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix called Cooking which reinforced my stand, “I live to eat” and not the other way around. Within the first ten minutes of episode 1, the narrator suggests that some primatologists infer that humans evolved when the first Great Ape cooked his first meal, thereby diverging from this lineage and giving rise to humans as we know them today, from the likes of Homo erectus. It is at this point that the difficult task of chewing all day long took a backseat for a the more energetically rewarding option, cooking. Cooking ones food is more readily digestible and requires less energy to assimilate the nutrients.

If you would mention the words Japanese, Japan, knives, Aogami Super Steel, carbon steel, or any similar term around me, you’d definitely spark a very long emotional conversation about my thoughts concerning Japanese knives; which is pretty good considering I always say I don’t like to talk. Knives are always something I’ve been fascinated with, and not just in the kitchen. I own 4 pocket knives (Takeda, Gerber x 2, Buck), 1 camping knife (Ka-Bar), 1 samurai sword (unknown), 1 hunting knife (painter sold it to me years back), and 1 scuba knife (NRS: I don’t even know how to swim) just to name a few. You can imagine my anxiety when I moved for the first time back in August 2015. I feared walking up the stairs to my apartment that any one of my knives would just fall on the floor in front of a tenant. That said, none of the ones I’ve mentioned are as prized and close to me as my Japanese kitchen knives. Specifically, the latest 2 purchased from the very knowledgeable and passionate Chris @FineJapaneseKitchenKnives. The service he delivers and his impeccable attention to custom handle detail (as he not only imports some of the finest Japanese steel in the world, he then pairs it with a custom exquisite Wa handle), is merely one of the reasons he’s my go to guy. If you order from him, be sure to let him know Caribou Franki sent you. Like every story I share, the beginning and context is very important.

Where it all began!

I received my first Japanese kitchen knife at the age of 16, not everyone’s idea of an awesome gift. I was never a stranger to the kitchen as far back as I can remember (now at the ripe age of 32). Unfortunately for my father, I often chose assisting my mother in the kitchen over maintaining the garden or working on house renovations. I don’t like when my hands are filthy or dry, I’m a bit of a diva that way. Eventually you will understand this single fact is what also pushed me into the deep-end of razor sharp Japanese kitchen knives (less cell damage = less fluids on my hands). Back to that first knife, it was a present from my parents upon returning from Paris. You would think macaroons would be an ideal gift, or a set of mustards, cheese, duck confit, NAH “let’s buy him a knife”. That knife was a Shun 152 mm (6” but Japanese like using ‘mm’ so I’ll stay true to their ways) petty from the classic series, otherwise nicknamed in America as the “sandwich knife”. Essentially anything you need to make a sandwich you can cut with this knife. Here it is in the picture below as I used it to slice nice thick pieces of banana bread a few months ago.

Shun Classic petty - Japanese knife
Shun Classic petty

From there the story is simple, if you read my last blog (if not click here) you’ll know I went back to school after seven years of attempting to be a rockstar in punk rock band. I wasn’t particularly pleased with this as I view schools simply as successful corporations that lack a sense of humanity, for the most part. Anyhow, that’s another discussion. Being back in school meant that I wanted to reward myself for continuing on every semester and persevering through challenges I thought I couldn’t overcome as my mind after seven years had wandered into the gutter (thanks to all the promoters who preferred to give us countless beers as pay instead of real money to buy healthy snacks). To this day, I’m not sure if this reward system I put in place was really to reward me for challenges I thought I couldn’t overcome, or simply to purchase a new knife and give my parents the impression that everything was moving along. In any case, at the end of every two semesters, sometimes one, tradition came to purchase a new Shun knife. Specifically it had to be of a different knife type (see here what I mean) and of a different Shun series e.g. Classic, Premier, Reserve, Blue. And so from the Shun petty, my next purchase was a hand-hammered 178 mm santoku from the Premier series. This knife also called the knife of three virtues (slice, dice, and mince) had an incredible contoured pakkawood handle. Then eventually came the Shun 89 mm paring knife from the Reserve series. This small knife is used mainly for precise tasks in hand such as peeling or supreming an orange. It can also be used on a cutting board to mince garlic, chives, or shallots.

Around that time circa end of 2013, I became fascinated by head to tail cooking. The icon at that time representing offal cooking as far as Food Network shows were concerned and online media was Chris Cosentino, chef and owner of Incanto (now permanently closed) in San Francisco. When I found out he was partnering up with Shun to design a new series of knives using blue steel and the sole purpose of butchery, you guessed it, I had to have it.

For this reason, I purchased my first poultry boning knife, otherwise known as a honesuki by the Japanese. This 115 mm beauty was from the Shun Blue series, utilizing a different steel than most of their VG10 brothers and sisters. Repeated use meant that the useable knife edge, or “hagane” in Japanese, would patina and turn a faint blue from the high carbon content oxidizing. This knife single-handedly started a new obsession: weekend rituals of Coscto 3-pack chicken butchery to make homemade fragrant stock for risotto and soups. My contribution to using the whole animal!

This knife was simultaneously at the crescendo of my knife purchasing and the apex of a very epic transition. My transition from factory-made Japanese knives to hand-made works of art by Japanese knifesmiths who have generation upon generation of recognition and experience. Ah yes, I should mention that if you want any series of Shun knives, my contact at the time was Kent, owner of chefknivestoyou.com. Very helpful and nice inventory to date of Shun knives and cutlery. This transition also brought me into a world of pain as I sold Shuns to purchase the same knife type equivalents, with one catch: 2-3x the price. That first work of art was by the late Azai-san, a 191 mm gyuto (Japanese version of a chef’s knife with some changes to blade geometry and a slight bias for meat). Azai-san’s knives are prized for being the most beautiful in the world, to the point that they are exhibited globally in some art museums.

This is where my adventure with Chris from Fine Japanese Kitchen Knives begins. That Azai-san knife being purchased, meant it was the last of its kind. I could collect it as a work of irreplaceable art or learn to use it and instead worship it for the functional traits it was designed to do. To date, because of the significance of this knife and its story, I cherish it the most. The luxury from buying these works of art is in knowing how much attention to detail goes into every knife. The scrutiny at this point from everyone involved in forging the steel to placing the handle is at a different level. When these fine Japanese knifesmiths may make less than 200 knives in a year instead of in a single day in a factory, you know the attention to detail is a critical part of their self-assessment. Dealing with Chris, meant I could get sharper knives, made from different steels, with custom handles. In practice, a knife with a higher Rockwell hardness means better edge retention and sharpening on a whetstone less frequently. That advantage comes more frequently than not from the payoff of a hardworking knifesmith at mastering their craft. To spare you the details of blade angles and knife handles, I’ll mention my next purchase instead. This next purchase is where I could really start to take advantage of a skill I hadn’t known Chris possessed, making gorgeous custom wa handles. I sold my Shun santoku to purchase instead a Shiro-1 clad Fujiwara 165 mm santoku with a stabilized blue wavy maple handle. A stabilized handle means there is no need to reseal the handle with salad bowl finish every once in a while when it becomes to dry. It DOESN’T DRY, EVER!!! The wood is stained (if that is the case) and placed in a vacuum chamber to remove all moisture within the handle. Then, it is sealed using a stabilizing resin. Chris’ handles are also extremely comfortable and extremely well contoured. The Fujiwara below is to the left, with the Azai-san to the right. The Fujiwara also has the steepest blade angle of any knife I own at a whooping 11˚, basically making the blade razor thin though a little chippy.

Left: Fujiwara | Right: Azai-san
Left: Fujiwara santoku | Right: Azai-san gyuto

A month or two before submitting my M.Sc. in Biology thesis, I decided to reward myself with a new petty. I felt out of all the knives I purchased from the Shun series, I couldn’t sell the Shun petty because it was given to me and that is what started these shenanigans. Therefore I wanted this new petty to be really unique. The shape of my Kotetsu 152 mm petty is quite unique as you shall see below. The blade is a powdered R2 steel with a satin finish and looks very plain unlike the Fujiwara hand-hammered finish and the Azai-san intricate san mai. Yet when I cut through a 3-month old carrot at my grandmother’s house upon opening the package, it was as if the might of Thor had struck the carrot, it didn’t stand a chance. I proceeded to try another slice, this time barely holding the handle, WOW. These are the types of precise cuts you can perform with this knife.

Shibata Kotetsu petty
Shibata Kotetsu petty

Lucky for me, my parents also wanted to give me a gift upon graduating. My first instinct was to ask for photography gear. Let’s be honest, since I started photography less than ten years ago, I’ve changed bodies five times (Canon Rebel XT, 60D, 1d mk iii, 1d mk iv, and a Canon 5d mk i). They wanted to offer me a gift that could stand the test of time. Now obviously knives are meant to last a lifetime, yet if you’ve been reading this, you know all I keep talking about is buying new knives and upgrading from Shun to hand-made Japanese works of art. That’s when it hit me! What do I love? Well a lot of things, mainly being a conservation-minded individual who longs to do fieldwork as a full-time biologist. What do I dislike very much? Using sh***y knives when I do fieldwork to get food ready for researchers alike. BINGO!!! My parents had offered me a generous spending cap, and somehow I spent every last penny buying a knife that was made only in 1 inimitable model. That’s right, Takeda made ONE knife only of this model and I have it. It cost almost 500$ for the shortest blade length I own sitting in at 76 mm. We all know what they say about size, “don’t let size fool you”. This is the sharpest knife I have ever owned. Made of Aogami Super Steel, it cuts like a dream making all produce feel like a puffy cloud of air. The green box elder handle often has me drooling over it. Basically, it’s a gift from the heavens and I don’t even believe in heaven. A sexy knife deserves a sexy shot of it. I took this picture in complete darkness light painting while trying to emphasize that smooth hagane line and the textured flat hira. Chris says Takeda has a cult-like following, I can see why and you may one day too (as I write this I am wearing a Takeda tee, I’ve never before both a tee from a knife company or smith until a few hours ago a Knife Wear in South Edmonton). This knife unlike the previous three were purchased from Chubo Knives and it was serious luck that I found it. My girlfriend who claims she isn’t into Japanese knives as much as I am gasps every time she sees this Takeda[…] now we’ve moved to Edmonton together.

Takeda folding-knife
Takeda folding-knife

There has been a dream blade type that I’ve ogled for a very long time. Before I started boning chicken, I wanted to filet fish. Debas which are a fish fileting knife, requires a high level of skill. Contrary to all the other knives I own, it is single bevel, meaning only sharpened on one side. Upon moving to Edmonton with my partner, I decided it was time to make the plunge. Finally being closer to the coast, a goal since being in the band, meant I would have access to all the Pacific’s delectable fish and crustaceans.

That is where this 165 mm Saji deba comes in with a beautiful handle Chris expertly crafted. Aussi sheok and 5400 yr-old bog oak from Ukraine for the ferrule. Not much to say about this knife at the moment except, 1) I repeatedly pick-it up everyday to admire its beauty and heft (thick spine so it can cut through fish spine) and 2) my parents are going to kill me. “You’re thirty years old why would your parents kill you?” Well when you’re from an Italian family, your life is theirs for the taking apparently until they no longer walk this Earth, and even then 😉 But it’s ok, Italian food is great so it makes up for the screaming and unpleasant hand gestures.

Saji deba - Japanese knife
Saji deba

If you made it this far, chances are you are a knife fanatic as well. Whether you admit it or are still in the shadows. Either way, you now know where my passion for sharp Japanese knives and cooking sprouted, and what has led me to investing more and more money into these bad boys/girls. Hopefully, you’ve been able to learn a little bit about Japanese knives. I could easily have gone into more detail, contact me if you want a continuation. Details are for those that want them, for now, this is simply the story of my obsession with Japanese knives!

My name is Franco Marcello Alo and I am addicted to sharp Japanese kitchen knives.

Logo Franco Alo - Photography

1 Comment In-depth review: Japanese Knives

  1. Rosanna January 7, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    nice blog, and your too far for me to kill you lol

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