It’s 5:00 AM and my body stubbornly refuses to sleep due to jet lag, so I couldn’t think of a better time to have a cup of tea and write about the amazing knives I bought in Japan.
As I’ve often said on this blog, I believe the knife to be the most important tool in the kitchen. Without a sharp knife, you are not going to make good food, not enjoy yourself, and likely hurt yourself as well. That being said, there are knives and then there are knives. It’s true that any halfway decent stick of metal, properly sharpened, can be enough to cook a decent meal (at least until it breaks or needs to be re-sharpened). You certainly don’t need to go to the other end of the earth to find the perfect knife. On the other hand, a great knife is a great investment, and doing exactly that (going around the world to find that perfect tool) is a fun and rewarding thing to do.
Sharp is sharp, right? Well, as I have learned through experience, sharpness (or edge geometry), even among good quality knives, is surprisingly varied. I thought my Henckles knives were sharp until I got my Globals. I thought the Globals were sharp until I got these. These knives, though? They are f___in’ sharp… I think I may have found the limit.
Real Japanese knives are special. I don’t know exactly why Japan takes knife making so seriously, but I suspect it has something to do with the sword-making days of Japanese history, and also the extremely delicate and refined nature of Japanese cuisine. Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that Japanese knives are some of the finest in the world—which is why so many professional chefs use and love them.
We have access to a few Japanese brands now in the States, but nothing really like the locally made knives you can find in Japan. Big knife brands like Global and Shun really just aren’t quite the same, somehow. I thought it wouldn’t make much difference in the actual cutting but, now that I’ve tried both, I have to say it does. I (even with my relatively limited skill) feel the difference every time I use them.
The Masamoto Tsukiji shop is located in the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and is well established in the area, having first opened in 1891. It’s become the local source for sushi chefs and other cooks who need excellent quality, dependable tools for professional use. Japan has hundreds of knifemakers, but Tsukiji Masamoto is fairly unique because they are located right within the world’s busiest fish market, and because they have such a great reputation with Japanese chefs.
These guys have to cater to the same customers who are coming to buy tuna at the market for upwards of $100,000 for a single fish (one buyer paid over $700,000 in 2010), so we can rest assured they hold themselves to a fairly high standard when it comes to product.
For such a small shop, the selection is staggering. It’s hard to know where to start. Many of the knives, of course, are sushi knives or other types specifically intended for the preparation of fish.
There are some very interesting specialty knives for cutting huge tuna and stuff, as well. Scary!
After choosing your knife, you can watch them sharpen and engrave it for you (free of charge). I chose to put my name in Japanese characters on the bolster of each knife (ジョン). They can also do elaborate kanji characters if you have a Chinese or Japanese name.
The engraving can be done on the blade, I believe, only if you opt for carbon steel knives. All knives are also pre-engraved with the company name, Masamoto (正本).
Actually, this is my second time visiting the shop. I bought a large 270mm gyuto (Japanese equivalent of a western chef knife) here in 2011, along with a Chinese cleaver for Teresa’s parents. I liked it so much that I have recently gone back to buy three more knives – enough to take care of just about any of my cooking needs.
Here’s what I’ve currently got.
270mm gyuto – More like small sword than a knife – 10.5″ long – it’s huge! This is great for heavy prep or large cuts of meat.
240mm gyuto – About 9.5″ long, this is a great all-around chef knife. I plan to use this most of the time. It feels wonderful… very light and nimble, but plenty of length.
Santoku – A popular shape for Japanese knives. About 8″ long. This style is used extensively by home cooks in Japan. My wife likes this one the best. It’s great for vegetables and thin slicing.
150mm petty – A large paring knife or “utility” knife for the odd small job like cutting fruit or peeling something.
It’s hard to describe something so complicated as the way these knives feel, but they are definitely thin, light, and balanced. Typical of Japanese-style knives, the blades seem light and very thin in profile. You just sort of know it’s going to be sharp as soon as you lift the knife. The handles on the ones I bought are western-style, so they feel fairly standard and comfortable to me. Japanese-style handles are also available, but only on carbon steel knives, I believe.
The way the knives cut is easier to describe: fantastic. They go through things like no other knife I have used. Simply amazing.
The finish of the knives is not terribly fancy. They hand-sharpen every knife on wheels and stones right there in the store, and so the marks and individual characteristics of this process show. You can also see some scaling patterns here and there from the heat treatment process. It doesn’t bother me. What matters is that they are sharp, and work well.
Many of the knives are offered in stainless or carbon steel options. Stainless knives are marked with an “S” on the back of the blade, carbon knives with an “A.” Chefs will debate the differences all day long but, in a nutshell, carbon is usually better for pros because it’s easier to keep razor sharp, and stainless is usually better for home cooks because it doesn’t rust easily.
I chose stainless for my knives, knowing that I want them to last many many years without mishap. Though I might normally go for carbon steel due to the sharpness and “pro” factor, I trust the Masamoto Tsukiji shop to make a great stainless knife (and they do).
The prices aren’t cheap, but they aren’t astronomical either. For what you get, I’d say the knives are very fairly priced. Three knives ran me about $490 USD with the current horrible USD exchange rate (about 81 yen/dollar). It’s not a bargain per se, but you can easily spend more than this at Williams Sonoma and get knives that aren’t as good or meaningful. If you wait for the rate to go back up, these could be a really good deal for what you are getting quality-wise.
Overall I just really love them. Preparing food with these gives me a lot of satisfaction, and I hope to pass them down to future generations. Totally worth it.
If you want to visit, the exact location can be a bit confusing for a first-timer, so here’s how to find the Masamoto Tsukiji shop:
Ride the Tokyo Metro “Oedo” line to Tsukijishijo station. Use exit A1 to leave the station.
You’ll be in front of this sign when you exit. Turn left and walk a short distance.
Turn left again and walk down this scary tunnel thing. This is the entrance to the fish market area, although it looks like nothing at all.
Veer to the left and enter the shops area.
Masamoto Tsukiji is in one of the first rows of shops, under the blue sign pictured here with the sharp-angled characters.
Here’s a walking map from the metro station to the approximate location of the shop.
As a side note, Masamoto Sohonten is another company with just about the same logo, and it’s easier to buy those knives online. Tsukiji knives are found only at this small shop in Tokyo, and through a few select US importers on the east and west coast (though I am told that these are far more expensive than the Tokyo shop). I’m not clear on whether the two companies were ever related or not.
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