This article is an excerpt from the book The Knifenerd guide to Japanese knives by Kevin Kent in which Kevin Kent, the Knifenerd, takes us behind the scenes with a personal look into the lives, skills and artistry of the blacksmiths who make the world’s finest knives.
With his shock of white hair, twinkly eyes and his eagerness to teach, Katsushige Anryu has always seemed like a wise wizard to me. He has that look and he talks like an ancient master.
“Iron is alive,” he says. “It can live and it can die, depending on the blacksmith.”
Only a wizard would talk like that, right?
If you watch Anryu-san work, you will see that he never rushes. He never hurries, but he gets a lot done. He’s like a chef: efficiency and an organized workspace are key. His tongs and steel are always in the same place.
He stands in the same spot all day, barely moving. Everything is in arms’ reach. Everything has a place. This is not his first rodeo, as we say in Calgary. I don’t think he sweats.
Born in 1940, he is a fourth-generation blacksmith. Being the oldest son, he didn’t have a career choice, as he was expected to take over the family business. Times were different. He originally learned from his father and started his apprenticeship formally in 1959 after high school. He was born and still lives in Echizen city in Fukui prefecture, often called byits ancient name, Takefu.
If he had been the younger son and could have chosen his career, he thinks he might have been a mountaineering guide. Throughout his life, he has been an avid mountain man, climbing in the Himalayas and the Alps. When he learned I was from Calgary, he drilled me with questions about the Rocky Mountains just west of my city. He knows more of the trails than I do.Here is an excerpt from the film Springhammer featuring Katsushige Anryu.
He is rightfully proud of being one of the founders of Takefu Knife Village. He knew that the number of blacksmiths was declining and they needed to do something about it, or risk having their craft forgotten. “My wife was saying to me, ‘If you are working in this small, dark workshop, there will be no successor of yours,’ ” Anryu-san says.
Katsushige Anryu prefers coke fire for forging and prefers carbon steel for its ease of sharpening. Not being stuck in tradition though, he is quick to add that stainless VG10 steel is great for hardness, ductility (steel’s ability to withstand stress), wear resistance and relative ease of sharpening. His love for VG10 is evident in the quality of the VG10 knives he makes.
A modern, new building would attract the next generation, she thought. She was right and, luckily, other craftsmen in the area agreed. Takefu Knife Village was born.
And now, Anryu-san has Takumi Ikeda to take over the business. He says he hopes he’s given him all the information and experiences needed for him to excel.
His major advice for young blacksmiths is to watch other craftsmen (blacksmiths and others) work, and then learn from them, both the good and bad. Often younger blacksmiths try to go too fast. Take your time. Consider every step when producing a knife. Every step. And never take shortcuts. That’s good advice for anyone seeking excellence.
He thought he might one day, but for years, he was busy heading up the local blacksmiths’ guild and that took a lot of his time. Now he’s getting older and he doesn’t forge as much as he used to. Getting older is not a problem for a blacksmith, like it is for a hockey player. Experience makes you a better blacksmith, he says, but he tells me his energy and strength is lower, so he forges less these days. Still, his energy is incredible.
One day I asked Anryu-san what makes a good knife. Without hesitation, he said that it should be very sharp and it should stay sharp a long time. “They should look cool, too,” he added with a wizardy smile.