Excerpt: The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives by Kevin Kent

Knifewear owner Kevin Kent's new book is an insightful and comprehensive guide to Japanese knives.

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For years, Calgary's Kevin Kent has been enamoured with the art and beauty that is Japanese knife-making. His chain of Japanese knife stores, Knifewear, can be found in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. For the past two years, Kent has spent time back-and-forth between Canada and Japan putting together his new book: The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives, which will be available next week.

Kent provided us with an excerpt from the book where he chronicles one day in the life of an expert blacksmith in Japan.

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March 16, 2018

7 a.m. Breakfast

The alarm dings. Yoshimi Kato’s day begins with family time and asa-gohan (breakfast). Today’s menu is not unusual: natto, rice, miso soup and coffee. Probably the most common Japanese breakfast, it’s delicious and quite easy to make. Natto is one of those love-it-or-hate-it Japanese dishes. Typically a breakfast food, it is basically just fermented soy beans in a sticky broth. Using chopsticks, you stir the beans with vigour to develop a light, frothy, sticky, stringy sauce. The smell is very strong but the taste is rather mild. It reminds me of Oka cheese that way. It is not for everyone, and most Westerners are frightened by the stuff. I think it’s the smell, the angel-hair-like strings, and the bubbly froth. But among its fans, there is no better way to start the day.

7:57 a.m. Office time

Running a business is not just production. With a laptop perched on the kitchen table, Kato-san gets his customer communications, banking, production schedule, steel orders, handle orders and bookkeeping out of the way before getting to the workshop. It’s good to attack this with a fresh mind.

9:28 a.m. Arrive at Takefu Knife Village

As he pulls his van into the parking lot, Kato-san is already planning his work day. It’s time to get moving. He rushes around to get ready, starting with the fire. Yesterday, he made a bundle of small pieces of charcoal wrapped in layers of newspaper. Today, he grabs that bundle. It’s the easiest way to light the forge. With a disposable lighter, he sets the paper alight and chucks the bundle in the oven. He turns on the bellows fan to pump some air into the fire. It starts to roar. In 15 minutes, it will be hot enough to get going.

His hammer is positioned between Kamo-san and Kitaoka-san. How many knives have these three hammers made in the last 25 years? That’s anyone’s guess. The plan today is to make 80 to 90 knives.

Next, Kato-san gets his mise-en-place ready. (That’s not a blacksmith term. It’s a kitchen term that means “everything in its place.”) His mise is different from a chef, though. It includes earplugs. His steel must be ready and in easy reach. He turns on his light, oils the hammer piston, fiddles with the bellows again (this happens every few knives throughout the day) and he puts on his goggles. He collects the templates for today’s knives (santoku, nakiri, 210mm gyuto and 240mm gyuto), and he turns on the fan that blows on his body to keep him somewhat comfortable. It’s hot, working next to a roaring fire all day. You can smell the coke fire now, and you can feel the heat from the forge. It’s almost hammer time.

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10:07 a.m. The hammering begins

Today is not a prep for forging day, or heat treating day or annealing day or straightening day, or grinding or sharpening or polishing or engraving day. It is a forging day. Hot, sweaty, grimy, punishing. The beer tonight will taste especially good.

The workshop is busy, with eight to 14 men working on grinders, belt sanders, polishing wheels, engraving and annealing hammers. When the hammers kick in, heavy work is done. The ground shakes with each strike. Earplugs are not optional.

The plan is to forge 30 nakiris—Japanese vegetable knives—before lunch. Each knife goes through four rounds of hammering, with a rest in between before it is ready for the next steps. This time, Kato-san is using laminated steel shirogami #2 with stainless steel cladding, and he has already cut the steel to the size and shape he needs for the Masakage Yuki nakiri.

He constantly dips his tongs in water to keep them cool, so they don’t bend. The tongs are steel and get almost floppy when they get too hot. And the heat travels up the shafts to burn your hands, but blacksmiths are used to holding hot things. I don’t think they notice.

Control the fire. Control the air to the fire. Add coke as needed. It is so much more work than a gas forge. But those who use coke say it makes stronger steel. They say it helps get more carbon in the steel, making it harder. The result: a better knife.

Fast and organized. Tongs in the same spot every time. Same with the steel and template.

The sound, the vibrations shake your very skeleton. The heat. The physical exertion. These men are strong and resilient.

The first round through the hammer, Kato-san works on the tang (the part that attaches to the handle), drawing it out from the back end of the knife. When he’s done, he plops them on the cooling rack. The second time through the hammer, he works on the tip of the blade. It’s starting to look like a knife.

It gets really interesting with round three, a Takefu special manoeuvre. Kato-san grabs the locking tongs and clamps the tang of two knives together. Hammering two knives at the same time speeds up the process and gets the steel thinned out faster. And it is just a cool thing to watch. I have only seen this method in Takefu.

The final time under the hammer is for fine tuning. The knife is thinned equally. The tang is adjusted and the blade is fairly straight. Hammering is complete. The finished blades go on the cooling rack.

Always, always, it’s about timing. Kato-san hammers one knife, drops it to cool, puts a cold one in the forge and takes out one that is the perfect temperature. Too hot and it will be ruined; too cold and it will crack. There are always two in the fire. He knows how fast he needs to work to get the next one to the right temperature.

I love watching someone who understands a workstation and work flow, just like a chef. I love watching someone who is a master at what they do. No wasted steps. Everything is about skill and efficiency. I am starting to believe that each santoku may, in fact, be made with the exact same number of hammer strikes as the previous ones—and the ones to be made next.

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11:04 a.m. Steel delivery

His steel order arrives for the week. Kato-san signs for and counts the delivery from Takefu Specialty Steel. Little interruptions like this always put a wrinkle into the flow of any craftsman, blacksmith or chef. It takes you out of the zone, and it takes a while to get back into it.

11:43 a.m. Time for lunch

A nakiri is a special knife designed for vegetables (see page 254) that you will find in every kitchen in Japan. This morning, Kato-san has made quick work of hammer forging all stages of 30 nakiris. He turns off his bellows and his fan. He turns off his light and he quickly washes his hands. We head for lunch to a new soba restaurant across the street. I prefer the old place, with the firepit in the middle of the room where we sit around the embers, slurping noodles. It’s old and dirty, and the TV is too loud, but the noodles are the best I’ve had. The young blacksmiths don’t like that one because it’s too old and you have to be your own server and busboy. They say it’s closed today. Maybe it’s true. But maybe they just don’t want to go there.

Kato-san, Ikeda-san, Kurosaki-san, Shibata-san and I wander across the road to the modern building.

First, the soba (buckwheat) tea—toasted buckwheat steeped in hot water—arrives. In the summer, we drink it cold. This is a time for casual conversation and a time for the men to catch their breath.

Typically soba noodles are cut quite fine, similar to spaghetti, and can be served cold with dipping sauce or hot in a soup.

Takefu-style soba, however, is unique to the region and is almost always served cold in a cold broth of dashi, grated daikon and shaved katsuoboshi (bonito flakes).

I’m a huge fan of this style, also called Echizen soba. It’s unusual, but it’s the best: very thick, hand-cut noodles, nearly the same size as udon, with a bit more bite than you find in the rest of the country. The thick texture is firm and satisfying to chew. The sides of the noodles are squared because they are cut by hand, with knives made by these guys. Obviously. Cool, huh? I beg for soba lunch every visit.

Everyone gets a tray with their food: a bowl with cold thick-cut soba noodles, a cup with cold dashi and grated daikon, a small plate with katsuobushi and negi slices (a kind of green onion). You dump it all on the noodles and slurp away.

Then the soba water arrives. We each get a glass of hot soba-noodle water. This is a hot glass of the water the noodles were cooked in. I like to drink a bit as a tea, before we pour it into the broth left in the bowl after the noodles are gone. We all drink the resulting broth and gasp. Daikon’s flavour and the intensity of its spiciness change throughout the year. This season, it is uncomfortably spicy, and we are all laughing and crying as we eat.

Something new arrives: tororokombu onigiri. It’s a lovely little onigiri rice ball with sweet kombu inside and wrapped with tororo. The tororo looks like green and white yarn but it’s actually shaved and shredded kombu (bull kelp). As soon as it hits your mouth, it changes from a light gossamer feeling to that of damp wool. I’m not sure I will order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.

12:40 p.m. Japanese garden walk

1:10 p.m. Back to the hammer

Kato-san adds a shovelful of coke to his fire. Then he climbs up to oil the top of the hammer’s piston. He cranks up the fans for the forge and he turns the 25-watt bulb back on. He is ready to go.

This time, the goal is 30 santokus. The ground shakes with the pounding of the hammer, and now Kamo-san and Kitaoka-san are hammering too. The sound is deafening. My eyeballs are literally shaking from the noise. The rhythm of the three hammers is interesting: sometimes in sync, sometimes a cacophony. A bit like jazz, really, but more violent and smashy.

2:28 p.m. Fix hammer

The arm that holds the foot pedal is giving Kato-san trouble. The hinge where the control arm attaches to the foot pedal is not working right. Something has snapped. But he’s a blacksmith. He knows how to fix steel things. He takes the control arm off and separates the foot pedal. He takes the faulty bits to the gas welder and re-attaches the broken bit.

But after he puts it back together, he is still not happy. The foot pedal is now hanging too low. It takes another round of welding and re-shaping before he’s happy. The steel is back in the fire, but once again, the day’s rhythm has been disrupted.

2:45 p.m. Back to the hammer

2:58 p.m. Coffee break

Thirty santokus—just part of today’s list—are done. This has to be a record, especially when you calculate the time spent on the hammer repair in the middle of the shift. He grabs a Japanese staple from the vending machine: a hot canned coffee called Rainbow Boss. It’s a hot, sweet, caffeine delivery system with a long finish of irradiated milk. I think of them as jet lag medicine. They are amazingly popular throughout Japan, but I don't see the appeal.

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3:16 p.m. Hammer time

Back to his hammer and he’s really flying now. This time Kato-san does a mixture of 210mm gyutos and 240mm gyutos. Twenty-one in total. He wanted 30, but he was tired. On forging days, he tries to get 80 to 90 knives finished. Today there are 81. That said, he is still fast, one of the fastest I’ve ever watched. You’d think that the larger blades would take more time, but they took less, maybe because he didn’t have any interruptions.

4:16 p.m. Wrapping up

Kato-san wants to go home early. We are going for dinner tonight, and he wants a shower and a bit of a rest beforehand. He organizes the 81 blades into wooden boxes and moves them to the straightening station. He starts a bit of tomorrow’s set-up for both himself and one of his apprentices. He turns off the fans and the lightbulb, and he places a wooden block on the anvil under the hammer piston. The tongs are all back in the water. Only the hottest 20 or so knives—the ones forged at the end of the day—are still on the cooling rack.

With all of the hammers stopped, the silence is large and impressive. Everything is still. Silent. I’d forgotten how quiet normal life is. And that sense of accomplishment—he forged 81 knives today. That’s no small feat.

He looks tired. I am reminded of my chef days. The beer always tastes better after a busy shift. The laughs are always better, too. It’s time to relax, drink, eat and laugh. Tomorrow seems far away.