SANJO CITY, Japan — There is a certain poetry about the knives crafted by Tokifusa Iizuka, one of the most revered smiths in a land that holds hocho--kitchen knives--sacred.
His knives are simple and rustic yet, at the same time, elegant. Light dances upon smooth blades and the delicate, wavelike pattern of steel folded many times within. Wedges of black buffalo horn connect the rounded, unvarnished wood handles to the polished blade in a sensuous mix of textures. Beveled edges slice pristinely through an onion, eliminating the spray that causes tears.
The balance of the knife is so refined, it feels like an extension of the hand. In a world where nearly everything seems to be made on an assembly line, Iizuka's knives stand out for being entirely made by hand.
It is a dying craft. Even among knife makers, Iizuka and his two sons are among the few smiths who do the entire process themselves, with no automated machinery, from the forging to the grinding to the polishing. The small workshop behind Iizuka's rural home is almost primitive--his eyes are his most valuable tool.
Suggest that Iizuka's knives are art, however, and he dismisses the notion. "I'm a craftsman," he retorts. "They are tools. They should be used."
Art or no, Iizuka's knives--which fetch $250 to $1,500 apiece in Tokyo stores--are a metaphor for care. Not only the extraordinary care he takes in crafting them, but the care necessary to prepare an exquisite Japanese meal. For in this cuisine, the art--and at least some of the taste--is in the cut.
Not surprisingly, then, Iizuka's knives--with the kanji characters for his Shigefusa trade name inscribed on the blade--are worshiped by master chefs. "They are my treasures," says Yasushi Kaneko, 44, top chef at the renowned Takashimaya Inn in Niigata. With his knives, Kaneko slices blowfish sashimi nearly as transparent as glass and transforms carrots into cherry blossoms in the spring and maple leaves in the fall.
His two favorite knives, in a collection of about 20, were made by Iizuka: One is a long, thin blade known in Japan as a yanagi-ba, or "willow blade," for slicing sashimi. The other is a usu-ba, literally, "thin blade," for cutting vegetables. "They are my life," Kaneko says. "I cannot be apart from them."
In fact, the Japanese word for chef, itamae, means "in front of the cutting board." And when the new semester at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka begins in April, the professors--all male--will don white kimonos for a ritual hocho-shiki, or knife ceremony, as they wave their tools over a special cutting board sporting a pink-fleshed sea bream.
No sushi or kaiseki (the high-end food featuring a variety of delicacies) chef would be caught without his personal knives. For example, Nobu restaurant's top Tokyo chef, Kenichiro Togo, packs his four best Japanese knives in his suitcase when he visits Nobu restaurants in the U.S. or helps with big parties. "Knives have a personality just like yourself," Togo says. "They become yours and part of you. You sharpen them to your liking. You can't use any others."
Treating the tools with less respect than they deserve can have consequences, as seen in an episode of the "Iron Chef" cooking show, hosted by Masaharu Morimoto. The Japanese chef's temper flared after New York celebrity chef Bobby Flay stood on the counter atop his cutting board in triumph. "He isn't a chef," Morimoto exclaimed. "Knives and boards are sacred to us."
Reflecting the diet of this island nation, there are nearly as many types of knives as there are fish. Each has a special function: The deba-bocho, with a broad, heavy, pointed blade, is used to gut and fillet. There is a special knife for filleting sea eel, known as a hamo-kiri, and another for filleting common eel, called unagi-saki. Big knives with a square edge, known as takohiki, are used at fish markets to slice pieces from huge tuna. A tiny blade, known as the aji-kiri, is de rigueur for small fish such as sardines.
The knives vary in shapes ranging from a sword to a triangle to more of a rectangle. Then there is the soba-bocho, resembling a saw, that is used exclusively for cutting thin soba noodles from dough.
One major difference from Western knives: Japanese knives are sharpened on just one side. That makes for a sleeker cut through the soft flesh of fish, in particular. A Western knife, claim Japanese culinary experts, will smash the tender texture of fish, affecting the taste.
The sharpness of the blade and skill of the chef in manipulating it can be seen in ubiquitous sushi bars, where chefs not only slice the fish but also cut daikon, the large white radishes, horizontally along the circumference, making a long sheath as transparent as lace.