Home of Japan’s hardest-wearing blades
More than 700 years of history provide a solid foundation for Takefu’s knife and tool makers, who are renowned for forging the best handcrafted knives in Japan. How do they fashion such exceptionally keen blades? To find out for ourselves, we visited the workshops of five top craftsmen in Takefu, now part of the city of Echizen in Fukui prefecture.
The knife slices smoothly and cleanly through a soft, fully ripe tomato, hitting the chopping board with a thud. I had heard that Echizen knives were sharp, but I never imagined how thoroughly satisfying it could be to wield such a finely crafted blade. It’s easy to understand why so many top chefs and pâtissiers throughout Japan and the world put their faith in the amazing blades from Takefu in Echizen.
Takefu has long been famous for the quality of its blades. That history goes back about 700 years, when a Kyoto swordsmith named Chiyozuru Kuniyasu went searching for a source of water pure enough to use in forging swords of the highest quality. He eventually came across the metalworking town of Takefu and settled down there. He continued to make swords, but over time he turned his hand to sickles and other implements for the local farmers, shifting from crafting weapons designed for killing to forging tools that would sustain life.
That spirit prevails in Takefu today, making this area the source of the very best sickles and kitchen knives. The thin, elegant blades keep an edge for a very long time, and are highly resistant to nicks and other damage. Just how well they maintain their sharpness, and how gratifying they are to use, is abundantly clear from the fact that nearly all the head chefs at the world’s top 10 restaurants are reported to use Echizen knives.
Other places in Japan are known for making high-quality knives, but Echizen knives were the very first to receive official designation as works of traditional craft. Everyone in the city is enormously proud of this recognition of the physical and spiritual devotion of generations of artisans to their craft.
What distinguishes these illustrious blades from Takefu? To find out, we visited the red-hot, noisy T world of the forges, where the loud roar of blazing furnaces mixes with the pounding of powerful beltdriven hammers and the hum of large electric fans spinning at maximum velocity. Yet an altogether different pulse dominates the commotion, one that is felt rather than heard: the rhythm of the artists working the forges. Throughout the process, from the tempering of the steel to the polishing of the finely shaped blade, sparks are constantly flying. Even without any knowledge of the intricate skills involved, it’s easy to comprehend how people who invest so much of their body and soul into their craft produce remarkable work.
While the knifemakers of Echizen have a few unique techniques, such as nimai-hiroge (described at right), the basics of handcrafting knives are essentially universal. First of all, you need to start with good material. The steel must be thoroughly hammered and tempered with as few trips to the furnace as possible so as to minimize stress on the metal. The resulting blade must be meticulously ground and polished to form a keen and lasting edge.
Each of these steps is equally important, according to Terukazu Takamura of Takamura Hamono Seisakujo; none can be taken for granted. “If you do everything according to these principles, you can make wonderful blades,” Takamura says. “But it’s difficult. You need extremely well-honed senses to judge when the temperature is just right, how much hammering is required to create a blade of ideal strength and thinness, and how best to grind and polish for a perfect finish. Learning it takes time.”
And indeed, every one of the master knifemakers of Echizen works tirelessly to perfect his skills in order to create the absolute best, strongest, and most reliable blades possible.
Three places to visit for Echizen knives
Three places in Echizen are especially worth a visit for the best of traditional knife-making. The Hamono no Sato Knife Village (top right) opened just this summer. The Echizen Knifemakers’ Association and Takefu Knife Village (bottom right) are also standout spots. All three offer visitors the opportunity to watch smiths at work and see a wide range of finished implements up close. Many knives are also available for purchase. Entry is free; those who wish to can also join classes for some hands-on experience.