Whether traditional or just made in the Land of the Rising Sun, Japanese kitchen knives are a sharp addition to any chef’s arsenal.
The Japanese kitchen knife is prized for being one of the most durable culinary tools. Many Japanese knives have a different construction than Western- or German-style knives, which are the norm in most American kitchens.
History Of Japanese Kitchen Knives
The Japanese kitchen knife was born out of Japan’s long sword-making history. When samurai were banned from carrying swords after the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century, metalsmiths turned their attention and talents to making knives for home use.
Today, the city of Seki, in central Japan, is the epicenter of Japanese cutlery and features museums, shows, and festivals dedicated to all things knives.
How Are Japanese Kitchen Knives Different From Western Knives
Japanese knives are different from Western varieties in numerous different ways. The most prominent is in the grind of the edge.
Nearly all Western-style knives have a double bevel, that is both sides of the knife are ground to a point meeting at the edge. Conversely, Japanese knives are traditionally single-bevel blades or only ground on one side.
The single-bevel blade in Japan is steeped in culture and history. No one knows how exactly it originated, but the tradition is maintained to this day. The blade is sharpened on only one side, also known as a chisel grind, and is designed specifically for precise slicing.
A Western double-bevel knife will be ground to equal angles on both sides of the blade, meeting in the middle. A single-bevel blade is only ground down on one side, which allows for a sharper edge.
In Japanese the parts of the blade are:
- Shinogi: The flat cutting surface of the blade that runs to the edge
- Urasuki: The concave surface on the opposite side of the blade from the edge
- Uraoshi: The thin flat rim that surrounds the urasuki–essentially on the blade and the spine
This unique design endows Japanese blades with an unusual characteristic–knives specific to right- and left-handed people (most tend to be ground on the right for righties). Though, ambidextrous models exist. These models are similar to western-style knives in their grind but still use Japanese forging techniques and steels.
Great, the Japanese made dominant-hand-specific knives, so what? Well, there are some benefits to this unique design. The most predominant being a finer edge. Logically this means a sharper knife adept at making long thin cuts.
Most folks will recognize the advantage of these assets if they’ve eaten any sashimi, a form of culinary art practically defined by long thin cuts. That and good fish.
Shape also defines Japanese kitchen knives, particularly the blade, which is round at the tip. Additionally, the handle is typically different. Almost across the board, Western knives will have a bolster between the heel of the blade and the handle. Japanese knives are sans this feature.
There are more, but some of the more common types of single-bevel Japanese kitchen knives are:
- Gyuto: A Japanese Chef’s Knife
- Santoku: Shorter and wider than the Gyuto, the Santoku is made for slicing, cutting, and chopping
- Sujihiki: Long and narrow, this is made for slicing fish and meats in long, single motions
- Kiritsuke: Hybrid of the Sujihiki and Gyuto. This knife is difficult to use and shows off the skill of the chef when used well
Best Japanese Kitchen Knives
Miyabi Chef’s Knife
Miyabi makes wonderful knives, and their chef’s knife is no exception. Eight inches long, and with an SG2 micro-carbide steel core, the blade is ground to an incredibly sharp 9.5-12 degrees. The damascus pattern is made from 101 layers and it has been Cryodur ice-hardened to a 63 HRC.
The handle is composed of Karelian Birchwood, the only wood ever used in the construction of a Fabrege egg, and has a mosaic pin accent and red spacers. This model is handmade in Seki, Japan.
Kai PRO 8-Inch Wasabi Chef’s Knife
The Pro 8-inch Wasabi Chef’s Knife from Kai is an excellent budget option. The cost-saving is due to the fact it’s a relatively plain Jane, missing the bells and whistles–such as damascus blade–that runs up the price. And also it definitely has Western influences in its design. Yet it’s a well-made workhorse from a well-respected manufacturer (Kai makes excellent scissors, by the way).
The Wasabi’s extra-wide, stainless-steel blade is where it wins points, creating plenty of clearance to chop, dice or whathaveyou at lightning speed. Additionally, its curved belly facilitates an effortless rocking motion, also picking up the pace. Interestingly, the traditional Japanese-style handle is fairly futuristic in its material–bamboo and polypropylene. While not a dead nuts traditional Japanese kitchen knife, Kai’s entry is nonetheless a top cutter from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Shun Premier Paring 4-Inch
A paring knife is one of the most important types of kitchen knives, and Shun knocks this one out of the park. The 69-layer damascus blade is wrapped around a VG-MAX core and has a hammered Tsuchime finish. The finish is ideal for the style of knife, helping the food release while you’re cutting.
The handle is walnut-finished, contoured Pakkawood. Also, it enhances the overall use of the Premier, with a slight bulge filling the hand and offering more control. About the only negative is the knife is on the spendy side. But for perhaps the second-most used knife in the kitchen, it’s well worth the investment.
Morado Kiritsuke Kuro-uchi
There is an elegant strength in this special tool. The Morado Kiritsuke Kuro-uchi is a versatile monster that will control whatever you’re chopping or slicing.
Hand-forged from a core of Hitachi’s Super Blue Steel wrapped in stainless, the blade has been heat-treated to a 63 HRC. The kuro-uchi (black) patina on the upper half of the knife helps protect the material, and the hammer dents give it a traditional look and keep food from sticking. As a bonus, the finish makes it look wickedly beautiful.
The steel is extra tough thanks to .4% vanadium in the alloy, and its high-carbon content makes it easy to sharpen. The Japanese Wa handle is ovular and remains comfortable even in the face of large workloads. Furthermore, the smooth rosewood has a dark stain to bring out its rich hue.
Mutsumi Hinoura Shirogami Kurouchi
We round out our list with a splash of color and another high-quality damascus blade. The Mutsumi Hinoura Shirogami Kurouchi looks tremendous and cuts even better.
The knife features a Shirogami #2 steel core wrapped in stainless and treated to a 63-64 HRC. A Gyuto style knife, which literally translates to “cow sword,” reveals its intent–to cut large slabs of meat. Today, it’s a great all-rounder chef’s knife that can handle almost any kitchen task and is a joy to use.
The handle is what catches the eye and is made from European maple burl, dyed green and blue. It takes two years for the wood to dry out to the point it can be stabilized and dyed. It’s cut into the traditional octagonal shape for superior grip and ease of use.
This is the priciest knife on our list, but we feel that it lives up to the lofty dollar amount.
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