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I need help, I have a potential problem.

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 
As many of you know I loaned a rather mundane Japanese wa-gyuto to my doctor, a Nisei.

Briefly, his mother was born and raised in Japan and came here after WWII. She brought with her generation's old real-deal kitchen knives. Several months ago these knives were shipped back to Japan for polishing by a togishi, and lost or stolen. I simply ran home, grabbed a mundane wa-gyuto that had a fresh edge to loan to the doctor until his knives were found or replaced.

No good deed goes unpunished.

His knives are still missing, and he smirks, "My mom won't give your knife back. In fact, were having several of my family members over around the Christmas holidays for her sushi. BTW, I'll need four more of those knives for gifts..."

:suprise: In so many words, he has his Rolls Royce stolen and I gave him my Ford Taurus. Added to that, I feel I should find a real-deal (but smaller) sashimi knife for his mom to use for serving real-deal sushi.

For all I know his mom thinks I am a Japanese, and a togishi, to boot. Boy, is she in for a surprise!

Here's my concern. I have to find a sushi or sashimi knife suitable for his mom. A real one. One that she comfortably use, and yet proudly provide her signature dish at the holidays.

I've been in the 'net this morning. I'll call JWW when they open. What would you guys do? What would you guys buy?
post #2 of 13
There isn't any difference between a sushi and sashimi knife. In fact, there's really no such thing.

Your question about which knife or knives is fairly easily answered once it's narrowed down. Help me/us out a little.

Do you want a yanigaba with a bevel on one side or a sujibiki with a bevel on both? Note: A few wonderful makers, e.g., Takeda, offer yanigabas with bevels on both sides. If the knife will only be used for fish, a yani is a better choice. If it will be a general purpose slicer, used for trimming, roast beef, etc., a suji will hold up better. I can't recommend a takobiki or other specialty shape for a non-professional -- unless (s)he already knows he wants one.

If a suji, yo or wa?

Carbon or stainless?

If a carbon yani, you presumably want hon-kasumi construction. Yes/no?

How long? Pros use 30cm - 33cm. That's a pretty long knife for most home cooks using home sized boards. 24cm or 27cm might be better. Personally, I wouldn't recommend going shorter than 27cm, because fish cannot be sawed, it should be cut with a single (draw) stroke. But I can't say what length you want to buy, it's up to you.

Price range?

The first brand I'd look at is Masamoto.

However, if your world is restricted to JWW, the Shigekis look promising, but that's based on picture and description only. I have neither experience nor have heard anything about them. But a "Damascus" jigane on a blue steel hagane (A1, A2, AS? Quien sabe?), from a respected maker. How bad can it be?

If you want to move up to semi-custom makers, you might like Takeda. The knives are very, very thin and take incredbily good edges even by shiroko standards. Considering the hagane is AS... wow! It might already be too late to order for the holidays though. Plus, they're kuro-uchi. Although it's popular now, kuro knives used to be considered sort of "country" and declasse.

post #3 of 13
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the reply. I might have a patchwork, stop-gap answer for immediate needs, but that's not a permanent answer.

Along with my weekly order, I bought this knife for his mom to use if all else fails:

6" Damascus Koyanagiba Sushi Knife - Shigeki <!W-T-KY165> - The Japan Woodworker Catalog

I do appreciate your research here. The underlying issue is that my comfort and ultimate education is the minor concern.

In a nutshell, his mom has had "real" kitchen knives her entire life. For the moment those knives have been lost. (Let's be honest between us, they're gone.) Added to this, even if you teach me a complete historic tutorial on all of the nuances of what a 1930's Japanese housewife used in her kitchen, I don't know what to ask you for.

Their relatives are coming, she wants to provide home cookin' and those fortunes are in the hands of a guy with a wet rock.

I am going to print out your response, talk to my doctor and fix the problem permanently when the adrenaline subsides.

As always, thank you BDL. This is an important matter to me. This guy saved my life. I owe him.
post #4 of 13
I obviously can't offer any advice, but wanted to say good luck with it Tourist!
post #5 of 13
Thread Starter 
I appreciate the sentiment, it's not something I've ever done before.

About as close as I came was talking to a Sansei (third generation Japanese American) chef who finished his culinary school training back in Japan. His concern was that I get him knives that were "Japanese" and "better than he had." He was tickled to death one night when I loaned him a 'clad' knife...

But discern a real-deal knife for a woman born and raised in Japan? Yikes, that's way over my head.

I had a chance this morning to secure a good slicing knife suitable for fish and Ginny over at JWW guaranteed she's ship it out immediately. Now I'm going to do research with the info BDL gave me this morning and find some more permanent answers.

Hey, you other blade heads! Jump in. Do you know of a name brand or good examples I can look at? Any pre-war Japanese history buffs here?
post #6 of 13
I really don't want to take the thread over, so I'm hoping (and now Chico is too) that a lot of other people jump in. Chris in partcular, yo.

By and large pre-war Japanese knives for home cooks were any great shakes. The good cutlery was for professional chefs. Housewives mostly made do with pretty humble blades -- and those were mostly different blade profiles than those used by professional chefs. There aren't any magical properties which attach themselves to knives from Japan.

It's still true today, and perhaps even more true in Japan than here. Home cooks, particularly housewives, use cheap knives, don't sharpen them enough, don't sharpen them right, and which are almost always too short to do good work.

If your friend's mom had great knives by today's standards, she's one of very few isei housewives. How she came about them could be an interesting story.

Furthermore, gyutos, at least as an all purpose cook's knife were pretty much non-existent in pre-war Japan. Modern gyutos are pretty much an of the post-war popularity of western food, western restaurants and western customers. I'm not saying the wa-gyuto in question wasn't pre-war, but if it is, it's atypical. The true story may be other than the doctor believes.

Of the good pre-war makers, some are still churning out knives. However, the revolution in in high quality knives didn't really happen until after the war when sword making for the military dried up. A lot of smiths and/or their kids started making cutlery.

All the really good Japanese knife steels, whether from Hitachi, Takefu, Daido, or wherever, are well and truly post-war. This goes for carbon as well as the obvious stainless. Yasugi sand may have formed the basis for great steels for more than a century, but the white, blue and silver paper alloys are all fairly recent phenomena.

It's also kind of weird that she sent the knives to Japan for maintenance. It implies that they were only seldom properly sharpened. Yet, one of the hallmarks of the Japanese professional kitchen is very frequent sharpening.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't be intimidated. You won't have much trouble finding knifes as good or better than any of those which disappeared -- unless they were made by a "national treasure" or something. The hard part is going to be tying her down long enough to answer a few questions forthrightly.

In terms of making specific recommendations as to how best to replace the lost kit, you've got to nail down the price range, type of steel (stainless/carbon), profiles, lengths, etc., before we can make meaningful recommendations.

In the meantime, take a look at AFrames, JCK, Korin, Epicurean Edge, and Seito Trading and see what resonates. You may have a great relationship from JWW and get special pricing, but they don't have a be all and end all selection.

Two brands with great (perhaps the greatest) traditional association to the "very best" are Masamoto and Aritsugu. Both make excellent knives and sell them at a fair (considering their excellence) price. Their names alone convey some honor to a gift recipient.

But there are a lot of knives. Narrow it down for us a little.

post #7 of 13
Thread Starter 
It struck me at first, but placed in context I'm not surprised.

When I first went public trying to establish a route I went to the sushi places, some upscale chains in my area called "Edo," and even our Ginza of Tokyo. I figured if it was a Japanese restaurant it would have Japanese knives, which went dull and needed a guy who could sharpen in that fashion.

First I found that most of these guys sharpen their own stuff. In the culinary schools they attended knife maintenance was just a given.

As for our local market, our sharpeners use "Jedd Clampett" wheels and perhaps muslin wheels. Lots of folks around here haven't even seen a Japanese knife.

And without trying to be funny, lots of these guys asssume that if you want a Japanese knife sharpener, then you need a Japanese guy. Even my doctor, who I've known for almost ten years, simply assumed that when I said "sharpener" that meant butcher knives, railroad spikes, tent stakes, voodoo pins...

He didn't know I sharpened Japanese knives until I handed him my business card. By that time the knives were in route to Japan. About a week later I brought him the gyuto and a few of my history books. I half expected him to hand the knife back to me with the comment, "Nice try, Chico, but this is a Japanese knife not a bottle opener."

When my doctor sent his knives to Japan he truly believed he needed a homeland polisher.
post #8 of 13
Maintenance is a part of knife ownership. As your post implied, the typical owner of traditional Japanese knives does nearly all of his (or her) own maintenance. The strange part wasn't that she sent them to Japan in particular. Rather it was two things, first that she sent them at all rather than sharpening herself; and second, that she sent them somewhere which required such a long turnaround.

Traditional, single edged, Japanese knives need regular sharpening and truing. A rod hone (aka steel), the tool we westerners use for truing, isn't part of the maintenance kit either. When truing is needed, the edges are trued by touching up on a stone.

Meaning no criticism of the woman or her knives, it's fair to point out the story has some unusual aspects and angles in terms of high end wa-bocho. I think the twists may be a useful in figuring out what the best choices are going forward. "Horses for courses," as the saying goes.

For instance, even if the knives take a lot of initial work (done by you, of course) to create a proper profile and "open" the knife it might be a good idea to choose knives which need very little regular maintenance -- such as the Aritsugu "A" series, or Yoshikanes. On the other hand, a "white" steel knife, which would be a great choice for me because it gets so sharp, might be a poor choice for her because shirogami edges takes so darn much maintenance.

post #9 of 13
Yo yourself, BDL. ;)

Look, "old real-deal" means nothing. There was this war in there, you see, and they used up most of the steel fighting it. Home knives were never anything terribly wonderful, and they still aren't. So let's not agonize about the past.

As to sending your knives home, that doesn't surprise me, actually. When you buy a home knife in Japan, from a real knife shop, you're buying a long-term contract. You come in with your knife and they'll sharpen it for you. Home cooks don't necessarily sharpen their own knives, and housewives rarely do so, which accounts for the vast majority of home cooks in Japan. She just didn't know there was anybody local who had a clue what to do with the knives. Okay?

As to replacements, it depends what she uses. Standard armament for a serious home cook in Japan would be a smallish deba (about 165-180mm), a small yanagiba (about 195mm), and a santoku. If she's old-fashioned, she'll prefer a nakiri to the santoku, which is 6 of one, half a dozen of the other.

Is that the best set? No, not particularly, but that's likely what she's used to. The yanagiba is too short to really work well, but it's usual. The deba is fine for what she's likely to do with it. What she needs is sharp, and she is likely to have a reasonable conception of what that means. That's your problem, Chico.

I'd go with cheap carbon for the single bevels. The problem is that I don't know what you can find that really fits the bill. In Japan, I could replace those knives for not much over $100 total for the single-bevels, and then add a Kyocera or equally popular mediocre santoku for about $25. Can you get knives at that price here? I don't know. Every dime more than that will require justification, and since she probably hasn't bought a knife in many years she's thinking about half that price, or less.

By average Western standards, these are pretty decent knives. By any sort of more discerning standards, these are pretty junky things. Old they may be, but that doesn't make them good.

Find out what she used to use, and get the cheapest decent product you can that fits the bill. Sharpen them like heck, and you're done. Stop romanticizing and get on with it.
post #10 of 13
Thread Starter 
Oh, I agree with you 100%. One of the best sword polishers in the western hemisphere lives right here in Madison, Wisconsin. People wait for over two years for his work.

I am referring to the perception of knives and sharpening. And frankly, we misperceive a great deal. The woman in question is older, and my guess is that any trinkets she saved from pre-war Japan have an intrinsic value most don't understand.

(I live in a section of the country called "tornado alley." It is common for storms to destroy homes right down to the foundation. But even after the owner loses his home--the work of his lifetime--you see these same people struggling to find the family photo album.)

It is very possible that this woman's knives were made from blue or white steel in what is known as "country style." If that is the case any knife I give her is better than she has ever seen.

To this we must realize that it was the doctor who sent the knives out for his mother. That's what you do sometimes for your parents.

I have a stop-gap plan in motion. I have a sushi knife on the way, a few gyutos in the same box, and my research continues. Like I stated, the doctor was instrumental at a very important period of my life. That's worth more than a trivial dollars and a few hours of time.

Having said that, Chris, if you can point me in the right direction on some stuff, I would appreciate it.
post #11 of 13
Dammit Chico,

What profiles and lengths do you want to buy? How much are you willing to spend? Are you doing this on your own, or is the good doctor coming in with you? Is there anyone who discounts (or discounts bigger) from whom you particularly want to buy?

Note: JWW is alright as far as it goes, but it's not the best selection in the universe.

If you really want help, help us help you. I, for one, would like to do more for you than write the word "Masamoto." Powerful though it may be, it's a waste of everyone's time if you can't afford it and/or will only buy from someone who isn't selling it.

I'm guessing you hit gold with the little Shigeta yanigababocho. One of the things I like about is the jigane. As you know I'm not a fan of "damascus" jigane at all, but you are; so like all the best gifts it says something about the giver. Similarly, I wouldn't consider an 8" length, but Chris says (Japanese) "chicks dig it." Of course, you in your capacity as mad tinker of Madison have a superior grasp of who uses what and didn't need to be told.

If the real yani is as nice as it looks on paper, you may want to say with Shigeta.



Thanks for spitting out what I could only hint at so as not cause offense to Chico, Kenichi-sama, M.D., or Mom-san. You can get away with it on account of your graciousness, devil-may-care/raffish good looks, and all-American charm. Also, you know a heck of a lot more about modern Japanese domestic culture and as much (or more) about Japanese knives than I. In fact, 91.4% of my hinting was channelling you.

Same ol', same ol'
post #12 of 13
Thread Starter 
Look, I understand your impatience. I've never met the woman, I haven't the foggiest idea how big her hand is, nor did I see the original knife(s). Most of the info I have is one face-to-face meeting with the doctor about the incident, and one voice mail. In a nutshell he reports she liked the mundane seven-inch western handled gyuto and "won't give it back."

Now he wants four more for gifts.

Yikes, I gave him a loaner. And when I say "loaner" I actually mean a 'mule.' A knife of questionable quality, a knife I might damage from using new stones or testing quality, or an emergency knife I lend to a chef while I fix his personal knife.

In most cases the "loaner" is never an exact replacement.

Perhaps an analogy. If I asked you for info on a nice car, we might begin with you informing me about BMWs, Volvos, Toyotos, but also a Corvette. I could elimnate 90% of that info and respond needing more info on a mid-priced Volvo.

Oh, and I'm asking for more info from the doc, as well. Right now the only feedback is that she is about to serve sushi to her family for a holiday using a gyuto with a five month old edge. To that I'm scrambling to get a mid-priced yanajiba here within a few days.

The info I need is more "long term final solution" stuff.
post #13 of 13
Her hand size has nothing to do with it. From your description, she's a late-middle-aged Japanese immigrant of roughly upper-middle class. She's serious about cooking at home.

Based on this, I'd infer the following:

1. She does not have any romantic associations with "professional equipment." That's big in the West on cooking stuff, but not in Japan.

2. She's used to carbon steel, but would be delighted to get equal quality in stainless.

3. She wants a fairly small set of standard knives.

Based on that, I repeat my previous suggestions:

160mm deba, carbon, cheap

195mm yanagiba, carbon, middling cheap

7" santoku, stainless or ceramic

Since she turns out to like the gyuto, consider swapping the santoku for a gyuto, though at that length I'm not sure one gains very much. This one will get 99% of the labor, so tough matters.

As I say, I can't recommend brands or dealers or anything like that. In Kyoto, I'd know just where to go, and I know what I'd pay:

160mm deba, carbon: $35
195mm yanagiba, carbon: $60
7" santoku: $35

I could go down-market from that, but I'd get considerably less knife for the money. I could of course go up-market, as high as you like, but this lady would not thank me for doing so, and indeed I think it would be an awkward situation if I went way up.

Can you match those prices? I have no idea. Can you get in the ballpark? No idea. What brands? No idea. I've never bought a Japanese knife in the US, and know very little about it.
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