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  • 8 Retired Japanese blacksmiths that you should know

    October 30, 2023 8 min read

    8 Retired Japanese blacksmiths that you should know

    In the movie Kill Bill, Hattori Hanzō grew tired of creating katanas for murderous assassins named after dangerous snakes and traded his charcoal fires and hammered steel for steamed rice and seasoned fish. The character played by Sonny Chiba might have been the greatest blacksmith in history to never exist but these folks are very real and some, like Hanzō-san, never trained a replacement.

    Keijiro Doi

    Several glasses of Asashi in and huddled around Kevin while he swiped through photos of his trip so far, one of the six blacksmiths exclaimed, “You know Doi-san?” It seems that every industry has its own celebrities, especially ones that can count their history in centuries. 

    Keijiro Doi was known to create the finest kitchen knives out of Sakai. Doi-san grew famous for his techniques at forging steel at a much lower temperature and pioneering the use of Ao-niko #2 (blue carbon steel). Doi-san first entered the uchi-hamono industry at 19 and retired 66 years later but not before training his son, Itsuo Doi, his craft

    Now the head blacksmith for Sakai Takayuki, Itsuo Doi spent over 40 years becoming a recognized master blacksmith but will be the last member of his family to produce knives. He uses many of his fathers techniques to get more and more performance from steel—if you want a knife reminiscent of Keijiro’s style, check out the Genbu line from Sakai Takayuki; if you want something just as cool but more rustic in appearance, the Sakai Takayuki Homura Guren is for you.

    Keijiro Doi passed away in 2017 at the age of 90.

    Kenichi Shiraki

    If you’re seriously considering adding a honyaki knife to your collection, you should know a thing or two about Kenichi Shiraki. Shiraki-san is a famous blacksmith from Sakai City who has hung up his hammer and tongs but not before spending 16 years training a very capable replacement, Satoshi Nakagawa.

    Honyaki knives are notoriously difficult to make and Shiraki-san’s are among the best. When he was approaching retirement, he was one of only four blacksmiths in the region able to reliably water quench knives made of shirogami (another of the four was his apprentice, Nakagawa-san). While those white carbon water quenched blades are his most sought after, he worked with aogami, VG-10, and ginsan.  There is a lot of forum back-and-forth about distinguishing a knife forged by Shiraki-san versus one made by Nakagawa-san and a rumour about a special character on the tang denoting knives made by the master. Before you start destroying beautiful handles looking for secret messages like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure, you should know that Nakagawa is said to have used the same character on knives he forged under his master’s supervision.

    Shiraki-san’s knives are still available through back-alley deals and “knowing a guy who knows a guy” but they are hard to come by and have a price tag in the firstborn child zone. When the business changed hands from master to apprentice, the only things about the knives that changed was the name. Nakagawa-san makes knives as if Shiraki-san was still looking over his shoulder—the 600 years of tradition is alive and well as Nakagawa-san can make everything his old boss can.

    Masami Azai

    Masami Azai unfortunately passed away on July 12, 2014 at the age of 66. His R2 etched damascus kitchen knives were a thing of legend—Kevin has a 135mm petty that gets used every day.

    Azai-san was one of the founding members of the Takefu Forged Blade Industry Study Society in 1973 along with a few other blacksmiths on this list. This after-blacksmithing-hours group morphed and grew over time eventually breaking ground in 1992 and building the present day Takefu Knife Village. The others were in great company as Azai-san first picked up a blacksmithing hammer in 1963 to help his ailing father as a 5th-generation knife maker.

    Nao Yamamoto of Takefu Knife Village succeeded Azai-san and makes gorgeous knives that we wish we saw more of. Keep an eye out around Garage Sale and Small Makers Month for pieces of Azai-san’s legacy.

    Hiroshi Kato

    It turns out that a lot of blacksmiths had a different career in mind when they first wandered into the knife shop—Hiroshi Kato may have pursued a life of ink painting if he felt like disobeying his father all those years ago. The first time he used a springhammer was on live television when prompted by a news anchor. He had nine years of watching under his belt, zero of actually using the thing. To go from that to a Dento Kogeishi, a master craftsman certification, is no small feat.

    Kato-san was born in 1941 and became his father’s apprentice immediately after highschool. His father was a legend amongst blacksmith’s for his speed, capable of forging over 200 blades a day compared to most blacksmith’s sixty to ninety. Kato-san kept up the family tradition of quality craftsmanship at breakneck speeds. Very little has changed at his workstation over the years; he prefers coked coal in his forge and using shirogami clad in stainless steel. It wasn’t until Yu Kurosaki pressured him to try making a knife from aogami super did he venture beyond his comfort zone.

    Though he was succeeded officially by Yoshimi Kato, a construction project manager turned son-in-law, several talented knife makers count themselves among his apprentices. Brothers Yu and Makoto Kurosaki, and former “Knifewear-ian” Toru Tomura are other past students who’ve gone on to great things in the world of sharp stuff. This dedication to passing on knowledge is likely why he joined forces with friends to help found Takefu Knife Village way back when.

    Unlike his wife’s father, Yoshimi Kato does not have a favourite steel to use and easily floats between VG-10, shirogami, aogami super, and more modern powdered steels to make knives for Masakage and under the family brand, Kintaro Knives. 

    In 2023, Hiroshi Kato-san  received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Silver Rays (6th class) from the Government of Japan. It’s a pretty big deal. You can read about it here.

    Katsushige Anryu

    Anryu-san was born in 1940 and officially began his apprenticeship under his father at the age of 19. He was another founding member of Takefu Knife Village, encouraged by his wife to improve the blacksmithing environment and attract the next generation of apprentices. His designation of Dento Kogeishi was helpful in leading his blacksmithing guild into the future attracting new blood to an ageing industry and he received the medal of “honourable work of traditional crafts” in 2015.

    Despite his decades of experience, Anyru-san refuses to claim that he has made the perfect knife yet. He preferred working with carbon steels and a coal forge but eventually introduced VG-10 to his repertoire—the Masakage Kumo is a prime example of what that steel can do. 

    January of 2021 saw Anryu-san hand his family’s business of nearly 150 years to his nephew, Takumi Ikeda. Ikeda-san is known for being the hammer behind Shibata-san’s Koutetsu and Tinker knives, so it’s safe to say that Anryu Hamono is going to have a strong fifth generation.

    Don’t think that Anryu-san has called it quits and headed into the mountains just yet. He stills shows up to Ikeda-san’s workshop to offer advice, add some finishing touches, and mentor his nephew. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to quit the job cold turkey after over sixty years of hammers and hot steel.

    Toshiyuki Takamura

    Someone always has to be the first to try something new and in an industry spanning centuries, it’s hard to come up with an original idea. 

    Takamura Hamono, Echizen, was founded in 1945 and is where Toshiyuki Takamura trained under his father, Isao Takamura, and proceeded to train his own sons, Terukazu and Hideo. Toshiyuki Takamura became obsessed with using stainless steels to make quality knives over sixty years ago and spent two decades experimenting with new techniques and materials to create the sharpest knives possible.

    He spent days at the forge shaping and heat-treating steel, testing the hardness before grinding and polishing a knife, leaving many unfinished before trying something new and eventually discovering that food doesn’t stick to the rough hammered finish. The tsuchime finish was born. That's not the only thing this family is famous for—the introduction of high speed powder steels to the knife making world is going to be Takamura’s true legacy. 

    At the time powder steels were reserved for industrial uses like drill bits, Shinkansen rails, and jet engine bearings. Why not a knife? Takamura-san worked with steel producers to develop a bespoke material, R2/HSPS (high-speed powder steel) and brought the entire production of knives in house. This allowed them to oversee every step, identify any problems, and ensure that only the sharpest knives left the shop.

    2016 saw Takamura-san receive the Medal of Honour from Emperor Akihito in recognition of his constant pursuit and efforts in making Japanese knives what they are today. To celebrate, he made a small run of the original R2-tsuchime santoku that put them on the map in the first place. Unfortunately Toshiyuki Takamura passed away in 2020, leaving the business to his sons and successors.

    Tsuneo Yoshida

    “Six Degrees of Tsuneo Yoshida” is not a hard game to play if you are familiar with the blacksmiths and knives of Sanjo. Yoshida-san was the 3rd generation knife maker to operate Yoshikane Hamono since its inception in 1919 by his grandfather and before handing the reins over to his nephew Kazuomi Yamamoto (brother of Knifewear staff favourite, Masashi)

    Yoshikane Hamono can make beautiful knives from all kinds of steel and with gorgeous finishes; a favourite of mine is their classic SKD12 tsuchime line.

    In a city like Sanjo, where tons of talented blacksmiths live and work, many well-known knife-makers have spent time learning under Yoshida-san and you can see evidence of his tutelage in their work. Look at knives from Tomoo Matsumura, Wakui-san, Mutsumi Hinoura, and, obviously, Masashi Yamamoto—his influence is clear as day. 

    Ken Kageura

    Imagine 25 generations of a craft coming to an abrupt end.

    Ken Kageura lives in Yusuhara on Shikoku Island and would rather spend his time fishing; he’s spent 61 years of his life, starting at 16 years old, in front of the forge. He is the last of his line to work as the village blacksmith in the hills west of Tosa—a shop full of axes, shears, outdoor knives, tools, as well as kitchen knives—but no apprentice ever learned alongside him.

    Kageura-san’s knives are a favourite of Knifewear staff—maybe it’s the exclusivity, maybe it’s their performance, maybe it's the story—it’s probably all of the above. Kageura-san purchased scrap iron from local shipyards and would assemble his own damascus steel; working the steel and folding it over and over as much to improve the material as to beautify it. The delicate suminigashi becomes more apparent the more you use the knife and let the patina darken. He would take that homemade damascus and forgeweld it to a core of aogami #2 to create a razor sharp but durable edge.

    Lucky for collectors, Kageura-san gets a little stir-crazy from time to time and wanders into the workshop to make a handful of knives every couple of years. Keep your eyes peeled and there’s a chance you can own a knife of his for yourself.

    All photos in this post are from Visti Kjar (downnorthphotography.com), Springhammer was made by Kevin Kossowan (kevinkossowan.com).

       Chris Lord
    Chris Lord

    Chris is a relocated Maritimer that can be found slinking in and out the back doors of Ottawa's restaurants, often with his daughter in tow. Chris has been a fixture in the Ottawa food scene for the past 10 years and has recently laid down his apron to learn the ways of Knifewear. Chris loves cooking big pieces of meat over a live fire and spends his summer feeding wood into his BBQ, Lemmy Smoke-mister.