The Best Japanese Kitchen Knives that Last a Lifetime
November 17, 20235 min read
Over the past decade, working in retail and speaking with customers daily, I’ve noticed a considerable increase in the number of folks looking for ‘lifetime quality’ products. For many, it’s a desire to get away from cheap, disposable items that end up in landfills, and for others, the recognition that they’ll spend a lot more money buying a dozen cheap things over a few decades than one good one once. While both of these factors have motivated me to shop in a more quality-conscious way, the simple fact is that using quality tools just feels better.
Everyone who walks into a Knifewear store gets to try out a Japanese knife because there are simply no words that equal the experience of slicing a tomato with a razor-sharp gyuto for the first time. Quality cookware, sharp knives, in particular, elevate cooking from a chore to an experience to be savoured. Another significant upside of quality tools, as I hinted at above, is that they last a lifetime.
After that first tomato slice 12 years ago, I realized something I’d never thought about a product before I could have this knife for the rest of my life. At the time, the understanding was instinctual, but speaking with Kevin illustrated precisely why this is the case: Japanese knives are made from harder steel, which allows them to get crazy sharp and stay that way far longer than conventional blades. Less sharpening means removing steel from the blade less often, which vastly increases the lifespan of a single knife. We often see knives only just coming to the end of their lifespan (running out of steel to sharpen) after a decade or two of heavy professional use, even longer if the user really knows what they’re doing. Given that the average home cook usually uses their knives for 20 minutes per day rather than 8-10 hours, you can imagine just how long a good knife will last.
So, since you’ll be stuck with this knife for the remainder of your time on this plane of existence, you probably want to pick one that you really like. My rules for picking a lifetime knife are the same as those for picking a knife as a gift:
Pick something pretty. A knife that excites you means you’re more likely to pick it up and use it on a daily basis.
Choose a shape and size you’ll use every day. If this is your first Japanese knife, a santoku or gyuto are both excellent multipurpose choices that you’ll get a ton of use out of.
Pick a maintenance level you’re comfortable with. In case you didn’t know, some Japanese knives are made from high-carbon steel. This kind of steel changes colour with use and can even rust. The maintenance isn’t complicated, but if that freaks you out, go with stainless steel.
These three factors should help narrow the selection from hundreds of choices to a dozen or so. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out what appeals to you. Do you like dark, rustic black ‘kurouchi’ finishes on blades or shiny damascus? Do you like a weightier knife? Then, stick with a classic European handle. Personally, I prefer how light a traditional Japanese handle is. Do you want a knife with a rich history like that of the Moritakas or a straightforward Haruyuki blade that doesn’t break the bank?
Here are a few of my favourite makers & lines. You can’t go wrong with any of these, but they may help you figure out where your preference lies:
Flashy, crazy sharp, and easy to look after. These stunning blades from Haruyuki look fantastic displayed in a kitchen and are sure to motivate you to cook. While you don’t want to cut bones of frozen food with them, as with any Japanese knife, the steel is pretty forgiving and easy to care for. The lightweight wooden handle is a delight to hold and focuses the knife’s weight in the blade, so they’re effortless to cut with.
Stunning in an entirely different way, the Fujimoto Kurouchi Forged embodies the spirit of Japanese knives. The rustic burned carbon on the face of the blade; these are a *chef’s kiss* with a super reasonable price tag. Here’s the catch: these blades can and will rust. The traditional high-carbon steel stays sharp longer than the Zanpa and gets wicked sharp but requires care, much like a cast iron pan. If you set the blade down, wipe it first. Wash it by hand as soon as you finish using it, and keep it dry. Over time, it’ll build a protective patina that keeps rust away!
If you’ve always wanted a blade forged by a traditional Japanese blacksmith, look no further than the Masakage Yuki! Two generations of blacksmiths have forged this line, first Hiroshi Kato-san of Takefu Knife Village, and now his son-in-law Yoshimi Kato-san, the current head blacksmith of Kato Knives. Yoshimi-san is supremely talented, working quickly yet precisely to produce this elegant line poetically named after freshly fallen snow (Yuki). These blades are made in a genius way: high-carbon steel forms the core of the knife, with a piece of stainless steel forge-welded on either side to protect it. This gives you all the sharpness and edge-retention of traditional steel, with only a couple of millimeters exposed at the edge that can oxidize. So smart!
Speaking of awesome blacksmiths, Masashi Yamamoto-san is a star in the blacksmith world. He approaches his family’s craft from a very cerebral place, only maintaining tradition when it serves to make the best knife and reinventing every step of the process in pursuit of the perfect blade. He’s also an incredibly nice dude, which never hurts. In addition to being GORGEOUS, his blades perform like crazy. He makes stainless steel harder than his contemporaries, giving them edge retention without maintenance, and sharpens in such a way that the tips of his blades are laser precise while the back-ends are more robust for rock-chopping. I love them.
We often compare Japanese knives to supercars in terms of performance, and while the Hado Sakai Sumi may have a more rustic finish than a Ferrari, it sure does drive like one. Master sharpener Maruyama-san and his team take blades forged by talented folks like Yoshikazu Tanaka-san and grind, polish, and sharpen them into instruments of vegetable destruction. These blades are so gorgeous, feel incredible to wield, and cut like nothing I’ve ever used before.
If you’re looking for the holy-grail lifetime knife, I hope this article has given you the confidence needed to find the right blade. Any time you have questions or need advice, you’re always welcome to message us online or visit our shops in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. We look forward to chatting with you!
Nathan started at Knifewear in 2013, when he left the restaurant industry to slang knives. Nowadays, he handles our communications, social media, and YouTube channel. If you're reading words on this website or watching one of our videos, Nathan was involved. He spends his spare time growing food, cooking, fermenting food and booze, and enjoying the great outdoors.