Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Buying Kitchen Knives in Kyoto - Part II

7.25.15 - Kyoto (9 of 25)

7.27.15 - Kyoto (3 of 7)

This is the second part of a two part series on buying kitchen knives in Kyoto. You can find the first part here. 

職人はまず経験を身につけます。ここで「伝統」という言葉を使うのは抵抗があるのですが、職人に経験を身につけさせるには、伝統が必要です。

First, the craftsman gains experience. We hesitate to use the word "tradition" here but for the craftsman to gain experience tradition is necessary. 

Kayakawa Hamonoten, a small knife shop owned by a nearly 80-year-old Kyoto born man named Hayakawa Masaya, is tucked away on the south side of town in a classic Kyoto residential neighborhoods where traditional style homes and shops mingled in maintained but worn buildings. 

The owner was not there on the blistering Wednesday I arrived but I had the pleasure of meeting Nakashita Kenji, who ran the shop when the owner was not there. He spoke slightly more English than the proprietor at Shigeharu and we were able to easily pick out exactly what I wanted -  a small all purpose knife, with something engraved on it. He placed three or four knives of that description in front of me and I chose the one that I wanted, a simple and relatively inexpensive chef’s knife with carbon steel enclosed in stainless steel. On a whim, I also asked for a sharpening stone.

“Do you know how to use this?” he asked me as he chose one from the piles of stones he had for sale on the floor underneath the knife cabinet.

I told him I did not.

“I'll show you,” he offered, asking if I had time. He walked me across the shop to the sharpening basin behind the counters and cabinets crowded into the tiny shop space. Reaching into the water, he pulled out a double sided stone similar to the one I intended to purchase. He set it on the wooden plank that extended from the edge of basin into the water and rifled in a drawer to pull out a dull, worn kitchen knife, perfect for practicing on. . 

“First,” he said pointing to the rough side, and then flipping the stone to the finer side, “Second.”

He sat down and lined up the knife at a 90  degree angle, then tilted the knife again to cut that angle in half to 45, and then tilted it again in half to cut that angle to 23 degrees. He once more tilted it, and ended up with roughly a 10 degree angle. 

As he began to pull the knife across the stone he told me to listen to the sound. 

“Listen,” he directed. He pulled and pushed the knife across the rough side of the stone. As he did this, the sound didn’t change. It remained a satisfying merger of metal on stone, a wearing down of an old worn thing, the mistakes and inconsistencies leaving as it was ground to an edge against that stone. I could see that his fingers were spread out across the blade of the knife and at each point of contact neither the angle nor the pressure changed. It was consistent. He showed me the edge, where a small bead had formed. He flipped the knife over and repeated the same thing, pointing out the consistent 10 degree angle, the pressure, the pull and the push, and most importantly, the sound as he scraped it.

After he had demonstrated the correct method, he began to do it incorrectly to show me the difference. The sound changed, it became more metallic, as if the blade was singing alone. He was manipulating the knife with inconsistent pressure. The blade seemed to be vibrating in response, and the sound rung.

Then, he changed the angle of the blade, tilting it away from the stone and though it sounded less metallic. The sound became narrower, more like a slice and less like a scrape. Quickly, he returned the angle, and spread his fingers out over the blade to regulate the pressure once more. Again I heard the right sound, the marriage of metal and stone. After a few more pulls he showed the edge to me. There was a fine burr where the metal had started to fold away and raise up. 

He flipped the stone over to the finer grit, and repeated the process on each side of the knife and each time he turned the knife the burr became smaller and smaller. He pulled the knife away from the stone, just a fine, minuscule burr left, even along the edge, almost undetectable by the eye.

“You try.” he said. I was a little unsure but I seated myself at the stone basin and he handed me the knife. I tried to replicate the position of his fingers, the angle of the knife, and the pressure that was consistent through the push and the pull. It was more difficult than it looked and he corrected the angle a few times. Eventually, after a little practice he seemed satisfied with the technique I had picked up. I handed him the knife and he inspected the edge. He had done most of the work to sharpen the knife, I had done a quarter of what he had done, and it had taken nearly twice as long, but in that time I was able to grasp the mechanics of the process. 

As we finished up, he took the knife that I had chosen and sharpened it, swiftly and quickly, at the stone basin and took a tiny chisel and engraved the kanji for “royal family” on one side of the knife. Finally, he wrapped it up, handed me the box, and I paid him for it. I thanked him and snapped his photograph.

I walked out of the air-conditioned shop into the heat of the Kyoto summer, blinded by the low hanging afternoon sun.

Now I'm back home in my kitchen in Seoul. I don't struggle and hack into my vegetables any more. My time spent cooking is made both more enjoyable and faster. When I hold the knives in my hand I’m reminded of those sweltering Kyoto days. Best of all, I pull out my sharpening stone every week or two and pass the knives over it, fine tuning the edge. I listen to the metal ringing against the grit of the stone and I practice my still shaky and slow passes. I know with time I will get better. This life, I am beginning to understand, is so much about practice, about being taught.  And about waiting. And about finding that one perfect thing at the end of all that waiting. 

You can find Kayakawa Hamonoten Sakaimachi-dori, halfway between Bukkoji-dori and Ayanokoji-dori. The closest station is Kawarmachi. Exit the station and head west along Shijo-dori. You will pass the Kyotodai Shrine on your left. Keep walking about six blocks and head left (south) on Sakaimachi-dori. It will be a block and a  half down. Keep your eyes open for a very small shop with the unique sign pictured on the first photo of this post. 

7.27.15 - Kyoto (2 of 7)

7.27.15 - Kyoto (5 of 7)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (10 of 25)

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7.25.15 - Kyoto (23 of 25)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (24 of 25)


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Buying Kitchen Knives in Kyoto - Part I


7.25.15 - Kyoto (11 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (3 of 43)

This is the first part of a two part series on purchasing kitchen knives in Kyoto, Japan. The second post can be found here. 


" It requires a genuine fight to produce one well designed object of relatively permanent value" - George Nakashima

My kitchen here in Seoul is more taciturn than welcoming. It’s a small galley kitchen pushed up against the South wall of my long, narrow, light filled studio, just a row of appliances picked out by the apartment managers for functionality and economy. I have not added much to it over the three quarters of a year I’ve been here - just a few necessities, and I’ve been surprised that I’ve been able to cook so well with so little kitchen equipment. 

When I arrived here, the kitchen was outfitted with two sub par knives. I hacked my way through my first six months with them, chipping into carrots, using the dangerous tactic of wedging the knife into a sweet potato, and then slamming the whole unit, knife plus potato onto the cutting board with several loud THWACKS to slice them into french fries. Tomatoes and more delicate vegetables were simply crushed into asymmetric blobs. There was no hope with these knives so I didn’t even try. 

My chopping became more desperate as the summer produce hit the market near my house in Korea the new vegetables and fruit sat in their farm-dirt-still-on glory in front of the adjumma vendors sitting under sun umbrellas. I took home bagfuls for various meals - more sweet potato fries, attempts at traditional Korean cold noodles and stews, french cuisine inspired pan seared veggies, sautéed peppers and eggplants. I had a couple of close calls when I almost smashed my fingers with the knives, and I’d mutter under my breath, “This wouldn’t be happening if I had my knives from America. I need new knives.”

And then Kyoto came at the tail end of a trip to Japan full of food, drink, delicacies, and expertly prepared plates. After Tokyo and Kanazawa, Kyoto held such soul, craftsmanship, and so many sharp pointy objects used to create - it seemed that everywhere I looked people in Kyoto were making. Some were cooking, some were weaving. Some were putting together temples using Miyadaiku, a centuries old technique that involves complicated wooden joins. There were potters, leatherworkers, clothing designers, and they were all mixed up in this city, low and spread out, sitting between mountains and temples and flashes of red and gold, withering in the July heat. 

I knew I would be shopping for knives here and I had done my research before coming. I set out to Shigeharu (重春), one of the oldest knife stores in Kyoto. Shigeharu’s founding dates back to the Kamakura period (1190-1329), and the family initially started as sword makers.

When I walked into Shigeharu I was immediately struck by the fact that there were more tools in the shop than knives. I recognized many of them as woodworking and leather working tools, and noticed a pile of planers and chisels in the corner near an old stone basin and stacks of whetstones where the tiny, elderly shop proprietor had been sharpening these things prior to my arrival. He had a curious face, clear eyes, and warm, worn hands with short fingernails. They were immaculately clean. 

He didn’t speak any english, but we communicated using a translation app on my phone and his  precise detailed illustrations. To show what, I walked to the kitchen knives and pointed to a few of them - I was specifically looking for an all purpose chef’s knife to add to my set at home and carry me through the rest of my culinary adventures here in Korea. 

My only experience buying knives had been six years before where I simply walked into Macy’s and bought a kitchen-worthy set of J.H. Henkel knives with as much money as I could spare, some several hundred dollars. Buying a handcrafted carbon steal knife was a different story. Even though I had my research, there’s only so much you can learn from the internet - the rest has to be learned through experience and time spent with the creators.

The shopkeeper patiently worked through the difference in quality, in steel, in composition, and in the uses of the knives. He encouraged me to pick each of the knives up and took my hand, opened it up, and set the knife handle in it, closing each finger around it. He nodded his approval and said, “Good” in Japanese - “Ee.” He motioned to me to start rocking the knife itself back and forth, to feel the movement and the weight. 

Like so much else in Japan, the experience was completely tactile, meant to spark a feeling that what you were purchasing was good and right, that things worked as they should, and that beyond objects, they were extensions of your self meant to fit into the already constructed fabric of your life, not to define it with it’s newness or shine.

When I picked up the third knife he had pulled out of the case I knew that was the right knife - steel carbon, hand made, wooden handle. The weight and construction of the knife and the balance of it felt fluent in my hand. Unlike the other knives I did not feel like I needed to move my wrist to cut, the way it fit in my hand was not fatiguing, and when I flipped it left and right it felt controlled, but assisted, like driving a luxury car. The shop keeper stood near and nodded again, and I could see that he understood without speaking that one clicked with me as he started bundling up the other knives and preparing this particular one to be sharpened. He then boxed it up, wrapped it in paper, and sealed it with a foil seal as I pulled out the Yen I had brought to pay him; Shigeharu does not take credit cards. 

That evening I took a woodworking class (at a bar!) from a gentleman I met who puts together temples using the traditional techniques. He had asked me about my day and I described going to get a kitchen knife at Shigeharu. He nodded, expressing his familiarity with the store, but added that I might want to visit the place he goes to get his woodworking tools sharpened, a smaller, less storied shop called Kayakawa Hamonoten.

You can find the shop on Horikawa Street between Sanjo and Oike Streets, on the east side. If you find yourself at the Nijo Caslte gate, walk south for about five minutes. It will be on the left side of the street. 


7.25.15 - Kyoto (4 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (1 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (7 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (10 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (9 of 43)

7.25.15 - Kyoto (8 of 43)


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