Every region of the world has a specialty — something that it is known for around the world. While you may think of sushi as Japan’s specialty, the pieces of equipment that go into making this delicacy are what you should be looking at.
Any true craftsman can tell you the difference between a good knife and a bad one that you could potentially use in your kitchen, regardless of whether you are a professional chef or a home chef.
Japan is known for crafting some of the best pieces of kitchen cutlery in the world and during the course of this guide, you will be able to understand why that is the case. Whether it is the materials used to build these knives or the techniques employed, the final product is a result of exquisite craftsmanship, which truly sets them apart from many of the local chef’s knives that you may have used in the past.
History of Japanese Knives
Japanese knives are known to be of the highest quality and if you are wondering why that is the case, you need to go back and look at its history.
Japan may be a small island nation but its history is marked by a period where the samurai carried a Japanese sword — or Katana — into the battlefield or on their person. While the swords were large and beautifully crafted, they also needed a separate weapon for close combat.
This is where the smaller side-inserted sword, or Wakizashi, came into use as backup. Restrictions on the length of both these weapons were set during the Edo period but in the years following the Meiji Restoration — 1868 — the swords were banned altogether.
As no one was allowed to possess or even create these swords anymore, artisans who had been crafting these weapons for centuries leading up to this period had to find alternative use for their skills, which had been passed on from generation to generation.
Domestic usage, in the form of knives for the kitchen, was not restricted and could also be extremely lucrative, which gave them the idea of using their craftsmanship for building knives that would be taken as the gold standard for specialized chef’s knives around the world for years to come.
What Are the Best Japanese Knives?
There are many different companies manufacturing different types of Japanese knives, which will be discussed in more detail in a later section.
However, you must understand that while there are some brands that are more popular than others, you need to choose one that suits your individual needs and not just give in to the hype around a certain product.
What Knives Do Chefs Recommend?
Many professional chefs around the world recommend Japanese knives for multiple reasons. First and foremost, there is an enhanced level of skill that goes into crafting a Japanese knife.
This isn’t something that you can just pick up for fun, passion is incredibly important when you opt for a Japanese knife. Second, these knives are known for being extremely sharp, which helps in giving you exquisite cuts each time you use it.
Finally, these knives are designed to be an absolute pleasure to work with. They are usually relatively lightweight with beautiful handles that don’t tire you out even after hours of usage.
You may find yourself confused between choosing a Japanese knife or a German knife, both of which are known to be of impeccable quality.
The main difference between both these types of knives is that Japanese knives are designed for more precise work, therefore they are much thinner and lighter.
The kind of precision that you get with Japanese knives is ideal for situations where you want to preserve the integrity of the ingredients and help bring out more flavor.
German knives, on the other hand, are bulkier with thick blades. While these knives may be more sturdy, they are only suitable for heavy-duty work.
If you use these knives for delicate tasks, you may not be to get a finer outcome. In the end, the right knife for you would be the one that is in line with your requirements and nothing else.
What Are the Best Japanese Kitchen Knives?
If you are looking to purchase a Japanese kitchen knife but don’t know where to start looking, there are some companies that have been known to create some of the most beautiful knives in the world.
Some of these kitchen knives are mentioned in some detail in this section so that you know what direction to look in.
Shun Classic 8
Shun is one of the best-known names in the field of cutlery, not just in Japan but across the world. The chef’s knives manufactured by the company are the ideal choice for people who don’t wish to experiment but want their hands on a superior quality product.
With the Classic 8, you get a knife that fits snugly in your palm and offers a good grip. This is a multipurpose knife that can be used to complete a range of tasks, including working with meat or slicing vegetables.
The company’s patented VG-MAX steel is used to craft the blade, which is finally coated in Damascus steel for additional durability. Get your hands on this knife here.
Global 8 inch, 20 cm Chef’s Knife
If you are looking to invest in a chef’s knife from another well-known Japanese brand, the quality offered by Global at this given price point is tough to beat.
Instead of many different layers that are present in different knives, the knives by Global are constructed using one piece of stainless steel.
This means your knife will be relatively thinner than many other options available in the market. The part where the blade meets the handle — called the bolster — is also thinner than most such knives.
An interesting addition is a sand-filled handle, which helps keep the knife balanced. You can buy this knife here.
Yoshihiro VG10 Japanese Chef’s Knife
No one wants a mass-produced knife when they are investing their hard-earned money in a product of quality.
With the Yoshihiro chef’s knife, you get an impressive blade with three layers where the core is made of VG-10 stainless steel.
This means that you get impressive durability, edge retention and a degree of sharpness that will help you get through finer tasks with great precision.
The wooden handle is made with mahogany and offers a good balance. All of this makes this knife a great option for people who don’t have too much experience as chefs. Buy this knife here.
Miyabi 34373-203 Chef’s Knife
While most chef’s knives come with handles made out of regular wood or stainless steel, the more long-lasting types of Japanese knives are those that don’t compromise on the kind of wood used to make them.
A good example of such knives is the Miyabi 34373-203 Chef’s Knife with its Masur birch handle that offers a sleek and soft yet strong grip.
This wonderful handle is complemented by the fantastic blade, which is made up of 100 different layers of steel without bulking up the knife.
Not only does this Japanese knife offer great edge retention, but it is also one of the most beautifully designed knives that you can get your hands on. Click here to buy this knife.
KUMA 8-inch Chef Knife
Another highly durable Japanese kitchen knife that you can get your hands on is the KUMA 8-inch Chef Knife.
The main reason behind its sturdiness is the fact that the blade of the knife is created with 67 layers of high-quality Damascus steel that increases its longevity and makes it resistant to chipping.
One thing that gives this knife a better balance than a lot of similar options is the fact that the blade runs all the way through the handle of the knife.
The knife also has a sturdy handle and a hand-finished look for the best performance. You can buy this knife here.
Korin Ginsan-Ko Kiritsuke
If you are looking for an exquisitely designed piece of equipment to add to your set of kitchen knives that will completely overshadow every other knife that you have ever held in your hands, the Korin Ginsan-Ko Kiritsuke is worth considering.
By no means is this an inexpensive knife but it is important to note that in Japanese culture, the kiritsuke is only used by the executive chef of an organization, almost as an indicator of his or her status.
It gives you the most amount of precision that you could ask for from a chef’s knife and is designed for keeping long-term use in mind. Get this knife by clicking here.
Shun Premier 8
Another knife from the trusted house of Shun to make it to this list of the best Japanese kitchen knives is the Premier 8-inch Chef’s Knife with its pakkawood handle and classic build.
Handcrafted in Japan to give you the best finish possible, the hammered portion of the blade adds a degree of drama to an otherwise relatively classic blade.
The blade is very thin, allowing for an easier handling of ingredients and a more comfortable experience for the chef. If you want a knife that you want for life, this is the one. Click here to buy it.
Mac MTH-80 Professional Hollow Edge Chef’s Knife
While you may be inclined to think that Japanese knives are usually geared towards cutting fish or meat, there are also some that work exceptionally well with vegetables.
The Mac MTH-80 Professional Hollow Edge Chef’s Knife is an example of such a knife with an impressively thin blade that will work through even stickier items of food with great ease.
The blade is built using a high-carbon aluminum alloy so you should try to wash it by hand and dry immediately. Buy it here.
Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef’s Knife
Another wonderfully crafted chef’s knife that finds itself on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of pricing and quality is the Hinoki S1 Gyuto Chef’s Knife.
If you choose this product, you will receive a masterpiece that has been crafted by expert bladesmiths working out of Osaka.
One of the unique features of this knife is that is is made out of tamahagane carbon steel, which is as close as it gets to ancient swords in Japan.
There are three different designs available for the handle. If this knife meets your fancy, buy it here.
Shun Hiro SG2 Chef’s Knife
The last Shun product to make it to this list is the extremely versatile SG2 Chef’s Knife. With 32 layers of Damascus steel used to give this knife its impeccably sharp edge and a handle made using pakkawood, this knife practically screams luxury.
The blade is handcrafted in Seki, Japan, which means that you can be assured of the kind of quality you are getting your hands on. You can buy this stylish knife here if it is in line with your requirements.
Are Japanese Knives Cheaper in Japan?
A common question that arises when you are thinking of purchasing a Japanese chef’s knife is whether it will be cheaper if you buy it on your trip to Japan or not.
While there was a time when you would get better rates if you were buying it from the country, a number of online portals have been established, which give you access to premium-quality Japanese knives even as you sit within the comforts of your own home.
Regardless, if you are looking to buy Japanese chef’s knives in Japan or in the United States, this section will help you find the right places.
Where to Find Japanese Knives in Japan?
All major cities in Japan have a range of specialty stores that will offer many different styles of Japanese kitchen knives that have been discussed in greater detail in a later section.
For example, if you are visiting Tokyo, shops like Kamata and Tsukiji Masamoto will offer a number of handmade knives as well as knives made in factories.
The knives are available at many different price points so that there is something for everyone’s budget. In Osaka, you can try Tower Knives if you are worried about facing language issues.
Otherwise, there is an entire street — referred to as the Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street — for kitchen equipment. Finally, if you are in Kyoto, try out the Nishiki Market, where the Aritsugu store may offer a great range of knives.
Keep in mind that there are strict laws that govern the sale of knives in Japan. While it is possible for tourists to buy knives in Japan, they have to package and seal it in accordance with the law and carry it only in their checked-in luggage at the airport.
Are Japanese Knives Available in the US?
In the age of the internet, everything that is worth purchasing can be delivered to your doorstep. This applies to Japanese kitchen knives as well.
All the major companies mentioned in the list above have their dedicated websites from which you can order a knife and get it delivered to your house.
There are also separate websites that offer knives from a range of knife manufacturers — all under one portal. As mentioned before, some of these websites — including Amazon — often have a number of deals and offers on their Japanese kitchen knives, which can make them relatively more affordable.
Japanese Knives Composition
There are two main components of a knife — the blade and the handle. The handle can be made of many different materials, for example, wood, plastic or metal.
The better Japanese knives, however, usually have handles that are made with good-quality wood that is comfortable to hold yet sturdy.
The other big part of the composition is the blade, which is usually made out of carbon steel or stainless steel — maybe even both.
What Is the Best Steel for Japanese Knives?
Japanese knives are typically made using stainless steel, carbon steel or a combination of both these types of steel.
While one particular type isn’t the absolute best, the type of steel you’d use for your knife would depend entirely on the use.
For example, if you aren’t a professional chef and are just looking for a Japanese knife for cooking at home, you may want to choose a stainless steel knife as the upkeep is relatively easier.
On the other hand, carbon steel knives usually retain their sharpness for longer periods of time.
At the same time, you can sharpen the knife with greater ease if it is made of carbon steel. This tends to suit professional chefs more as they tend to routinely sharpen their weapons of trade.
The only thing that you need to keep in mind is that carbon steel also tends to rust quite easily, especially if you leave the knife wet or don’t clean it properly. This can render the entire knife useless. Chefs are usually more particular about this.
Finally, keep in mind that you should avoid ceramic blades in this context. While they may look very interesting, these knives cannot be sharpened, which is a major deal breaker for people who need sharp knives in their kitchens.
One option that hasn’t been discussed in the last section is an amalgamation of stainless steel and carbon steel blades.
While this doesn’t mean a literal amalgamation, this involves a regular carbon steel blade that is coated with stainless steel, which offers you the best of both worlds.
For example, the carbon steel element brings the additional sharpness to the blade, while the stainless steel adds protection to make the knives last longer.
Keep in mind that if there are any exposed areas built using carbon steel, they will rust if proper care is not taken.
However, if you are a professional chef or just a home cook who is exceptionally meticulous, you will be able to deal with carbon steel and enjoy the sharp edges that it offers.
Steel is a generally good option with limited efforts going towards upkeep and a decent finish product.
Types of Japanese Knives — In Detail
While you have already been introduced to some of the best known Japanese knives, it is important to know what different types of knives are traditionally a part of a Japanese kitchen. All of these have different shapes, sizes and uses.
If you are looking for the perfect alternative to the traditional chef’s knife that is used in North America and Europe, Gyutou is the knife you need.
The literal translation of this word — “gyutou” — is a “beef knife” but its use is not limited to that. Used for a wide range of tasks around the kitchen, this knife is usually made out of a more resilient form of steel, which makes it lighter than its European counterparts.
Overall, this makes your work so much easier. The design is typically very simple and you can easily sharpen it according to your requirements.
In Japanese, the word Santoku translates to “three virtues”. This is very apt for this knife as well, as it is a multipurpose knife that can be used for completing a number of different tasks as you cook.
Traditionally, the three virtues mentioned above can be associated with the knife’s capacity for cutting meat, fish and vegetables with just as much ease.
If you compare this knife to gyutou, you will find that it is easier to chop things in an ‘up and down’ motion with this knife because of its flatter belly. The other requires a rocking motion.
Slicing traditionally requires a separate knife that offers edge retention for more precise work.
In Japanese culture, sujihiki is the knife that will allow you to complete tasks like carving and filleting — amongst others — with great ease. In terms of construction, you will notice that this knife has a blade built using a significantly harder type of steel.
This is primarily because the knife has to be thinner than a lot of chef’s knives. The bevel is also sharpened at an angle that is steeper than other knives.
Not all work in the kitchen requires you to bring out the large and relatively heavy chef’s knife.
If you need to get some finer work done, for example cutting herbs or smaller vegetables and fruits that could get ruined by larger knives, you need to get your hands on a petty knife.
This utility knife will go a long way to help you take on smaller tasks.
There are primarily two different boning knives that are used in Japanese kitchens. The first of these is the honesuki, which has a unique shape and blade.
This triangular knife has a fairly stiff blade, which means that it will not display much flexibility. For this reason, it works increasingly well when you take on tasks like deboning poultry.
Soft joints on the meat can also be cut through using the honesuki. The edge is usually not symmetrical, which means it may be more suitable for people that are either left handed or right handed.
You can also get your hands on 50/50 balanced versions if you don’t want this restriction.
Another popular boning knife that is found in Japanese kitchens is the hankotsu.
While you may already have some expectations from this knife on the basis of what Western boning knives look like, this one will surprise you.
There is no “flex” in the blade of this knife. The spine is quite thick, for a more durable look and feel.
This makes it ideal for tasks like cleaning loins despite being used traditionally on hanging meats.
The usuba knife, which will be discussed later, is a traditional single-edged knife used in Japanese cooking and the nakiri is its double-edged version that looks a lot like the knives used in Western cooking.
This type of knife can be used for julienning and other similar cuts that require more precise work.
While Japanese knives are known for being lightweight, the yo-deba is a butchery knife with a thick spine that is relatively heavier than most others in the category.
The yo-deba can be used for meat or fish, and the size will depend on that. If you are worried about not finding the right one for left-handed chefs, these knives usually come with a 50/50 balance so that anyone can use them.
One of the most popular Japanese knives that you may come across during your hunt for the perfect kitchen tool is the yanagi.
A slicing knife with a single edge, this is an extremely sharp knife that is used by chefs for cutting thin slices of crudo, sashimi and sushi for the perfect end product.
Originally developed in Tokyo, this slicing knife is very similar to a yanagi with a slight difference.
These single-edged knives are very sharp so that chefs can slice their sushi and sashimi with greater ease.
A common explanation for the takobiki having a blunter tip end is that space in Tokyo is limited, which means chefs have to be more careful about safety.
Another traditional Japanese knife is the deba, which is primarily used for butchery.
Designed to be a significantly heavy single bevel knife, the deba also has a thick spine to make this knife as sturdy as possible.
The size you opt for will be dependent on the animal or fish that you are working on.
The conventional knife used to cut vegetables in a Japanese kitchen is often referred to as the usuba.
This single-edged knife is known for being very sharp, which allows it to cut through different vegetables with great ease.
There are many different variations of this knife available all over Japan, with some models being specific to certain areas of the country.
If you visit a restaurant in Japan and study the way the chefs work, you may notice this one knife that is only used by the executive chef of the establishment.
This is referred to as the kiritsuke and is a fantastic slicing knife used in Japanese culture. The tip of the knife is angled, which makes it ideal for use either as a regular multipurpose knife or a sashimi knife.
The last knife on this list is the pankiri, which has been specially designed on take on tasks related to baked goods.
For example, if you are looking to slice some bread, you’d reach out for this knife.
As it has ridged teeth, the hard crusts and the delicate insides of the breads or other bakery items will not be damaged with this knife.
Are Japanese Knives Better?
Before making the plunge into the realm of Japanese knives, many people have doubts about whether or not these knives are actually better than their Western counterparts.
There is no straight or simple answer to this question. The suitability of a particular chef’s knife depends entirely on what you need from a knife.
For example, professional chefs will need to work with their knives for longer periods of time, both in terms of hours per day and days in total.
On the other hand, a home cook will spend only about 30 minutes a day preparing food with their chef’s knives.
Japanese knives are different from European or Western knives, mainly because they tend to be lighter and thinner without compromising on the quality in terms of durability and support.
The materials used are usually sourced from within Japan — types of Japanese steel — and many of the good knives are also crafted by skilled artisans all by hand.
Therefore, while it may be tough to generalize and say that Japanese knives are better than any other types of knives, it is important to note that they offer a level of precision and fineness that may be tough to achieve with the larger German-style knives. The final decision on what you choose, however, will depend on what you need!