If you recall, Kevin brought me along to Japan to get ready for the Fall Garage Sale. I happily accepted the challenge and had a blast while there. So far we visited the Takefu Gang, Fujiwara, Masashi, Hinoura (Tsukasa and Matsumi, father and son), the factories of Tadafusa and Tojiro, and went to the Onsen, a public bath where I stripped down and was terrified that the cops were coming for me.
As we were traveling so much, 7-11 became a close personal friend. Just like in North America, they are everywhere except the food in a Japanese one is much better. We ate the occasional Onagiri, egg sandwich and pack of scary fish, the fish based snacks you find where the chips should be, and lived off of the weird cans of iced coffee. You can go into a 7-11, or Nana as Kevin has dubbed it, and get a decent salad and a piece of well-poached salmon for lunch. Tasty and cheap.
After hanging out with all my new friends in the buff, we got a good night’s sleep and headed to Shikoku Island the next morning. A train ride to Okayama, rent a car, and drive to Kochi. Along the way, we popped into see Murata san briefly. We didn’t get long to hang out but I got to see how fast this guy is. It was incredible; no wasted movements, just knife after knife. He also had a very deep forge which Kevin pointed out was likely used for making swords but no one could seem to get an answer out of Mr. Murata.
Back in the car and on to Kochi where we met with the fine fellas at Hokayama, where the Haruyuki knives come from. This was a facility on par with Tadafusa and Tojiro; big, organized, and built to produce. We learned about roll-forging, a process that uses something that looks like a steamroller to compress hot steel and is how the SRS15 knives are made. We drank some iced tea, talked new products and did some shopping for the Garage Sale.
We left the factory, headed into Tosa for the night and got up to our usual antics. Ate too much, drank too much and laughed a lot. Some highlights were katsuo tataki and chicken tataki, essentially meat that had been seared on the outside and left raw inside. Both were great. We also sat at a little stall in the middle of an intersection, drank beer, ate gyoza and talked about how Shiba could be Italian. Mamma Mia!
This was my favourite day while in Japan and the closest I came to hiding in the woods, never to return. My idea was that I could hide in the woods, Kevin would stop looking for me pretty quickly, get a job at a gas station or something and live on Shikoku for the rest of my days.
We drove for about two hours through small towns and massive tunnels on our way up the mountain. Once we made it to Kaguera’s shop, he got right to work demonstrating how he makes his own Damascus-style steel from recycled metal. Here is how it’s done as best as I can understand.
1. Cut 7 pieces of steel about 4 cm wide and 8 cm long. Stack them up and smash ‘em together ‘til its nice and thin. (7 layers)
2. Do that two more times.
3. Take each piece and fold it into three equal portions, like you would a pamphlet. Smash it thin again. (21 layers)
4. Stack the three pieces of steel that have been folded and hammer them together. (63 layers)
5. Now you have a piece of Damascus-style steel. Hammer it out, cut into two equal portions and sandwich a piece of Aogami steel between them.
6. Now you have something to make a knife out of.
Some other cool things we learned about Kaguera and his process.
- He doesn’t have an apprentice. He would rather be able to come and go as he pleases, especially when it comes to fishing.
- He uses electricity when he’s letting the steel cool down. He keeps it in some kind of ash that has a current running through it which gives his knives the cool rainbowy oil slick look.
- When asked why we could see the line where the primary bevel starts but couldn’t feel it, his answer was, “Because I’m really skilled.”
- He creates san mei steel in two different ways, by sandwiching three pieces of steel like Fujiwara and by splitting steel open like the Moritakas.
- He makes kitchen knives, hunting knives, axes, hatchets, scythes… pretty much everything.
After our lesson in blacksmithing, we were invited into his beautiful home for lunch. The ceiling beams were all huge logs, the doors were made of paper and the entire house smelled like cedar. We sat around a long table and had a delicious meal of sushi, tataki, fruit, tempura, and sashimi. There was easily enough food for double those present.
After we ate, we visited a friend of Kaguera’s, Rogier. He is a Dutch ex-pat who has been living in the area for about 34 years making traditional Japanese paper. He grows the plants, harvests them and makes paper from scratch in his home. Back to the shop and Garage Sale shopping. I picked out about a dozen really slick knives, Kevin grabbed some Damascus axes, some badass hatchet/hammers, and a few hunting knives. I bought myself a really gorgeous santoku with a Western style antler handle.
Okayama & Kyoto
We parted ways with Shiba again in Okayama. He probably needed a break at this point. I talked about kappa, a weird Japanese folk monster, for hours in the car, Kevin was still harassing Shiba about being Italian and Visti hadn’t put his camera down all day.
After checking into the hotel, we went for a stroll and got some tasty food. This was the first time this trip we were left to our own devices and without a Japanese person watching over us. A good trick in this situation is to sit at the bar in front of the cooks, point at food as it goes by, and say “San kudasai.” We hopped around 3 or 4 restaurants, drunkenly wandered around a department store called Don Quixotes, and got lost for a couple of minutes. Onto Kyoto in the morning via the train.
The walk from the Kyoto train station to our hotel brought us past beautiful temples, a quaint canal lined with restaurants and into the Gion neighbourhood. We weren’t the only gaijin any more, there were big dumb tourists everywhere now. I tried not to make eye contact and pretended not to speak English when faced with Anime nerds.
If you have every seen a picture of a geisha scurrying across the street, odds are it was taken near our hotel. This neighbourhood is very old, with traditional houses and narrow streets, close to several important shrines and temples, and has a bustling nightlife. Apparently its quite common to rent a kimono and go for a stroll, I didn’t do that though, I’m more of a jeans and t-shirt fella. Kevin gave me a tour of Nishiki market and brought me to Aritsugo, the shop most gaijin buy a knife from. They had some nice stuff, but unless you can speak Japanese, you aren’t getting much information on the knife or how to care for it.
We visited Kiyomizudera, a huge Buddhist temple that is home to a Fountain of Youth, a shrine dedicated to finding true love and a small bronze statue of a man that could be a future Nic Videto. I stayed out way later than I should have both nights wandering the streets and trying not to get lost. Luckily, I was born with a very acute drunk radar system and made it back to the hotel easily. I bought some souvenirs for my youngster made from old Kimonos and did my laundry in the hotel sink. It was like being in college again.
Back to Tokyo & Fujiwara Round 2
The lovely and well dressed Shibata san met up with us again on the train ride to Tokyo. We had one day left in Japan, and it did not disappoint.
Once the train pulled into the Tokyo station we met up with everyone’s favourite Tokyo gal, Kasumi. She took us on a local train to the neighbourhood where she grew up and we went to Honda Ramen for lunch. The noodles were perfectly chewy and the broth was incredibly rich and flavourful. The gelatin in the broth was so strong that I was able to curl my moustache afterwards just like Nathan’s.
The phenomenon that is ramen in Japan confused me a bit. Everywhere we went people were very punctual, they always seemed to have somewhere to be, and I got the impression that free time was a scarcity. Not when it came to Ramen though. Everyone was perfectly fine to wait an hour or longer in the street to eat in their local restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, the noodles were worth every second of idleness. It just didn’t seem very Japanese to wait around.
We posed for a photo with Kasumi’s sister, had a laugh about it, and headed to Fujiwara’s house and store.
We were greeted at Fujiwara’s shop by his lovely wife and his dog, who apparently hates Kevin. I never thought to ask the dog’s name, but he must be who sharpens all of the knives because he didn’t leave the sharpening workshop once. We scoped out all of the knives in the shop for a while, looked at the white cowboy hat he got last year in Calgary and joked around a bit. For a guy who puts such a serious picture on his boxes, Fujiwara san is a pretty funny guy. I wish I could speak Japanese just so I could understand more of the jokes.
That night we went for sushi around the corner from the shop and were joined by Fujiwara’s son and wife. Fujiwara Jr. takes care of sales for the shop and Mrs. Fujiwara went drink for drink with Kevin. I think if it kept going, she would have won.
We had some of the most incredible fish I have ever eaten, fish I had only read about, never heard of, or always wanted to try. I watched Shiba eat a whole plate of tamago, omelet, and Fujiwara gave us a lesson on how to properly eat nigiri. Hint: skip the chopsticks, just use your fingers. We also drank a beautiful nihonshu that tasted like green peppercorns and paired with the food perfectly.
After dinner, we showered and curled up on the tatami mat. Kevin, Visti, and me in the middle. Just like three overgrown Cub Scouts at camp.
The next morning involved sake with breakfast and more delicious food. Mrs. Fujiwara is an incredible cook and the way she wields her 210mm gyuto puts all of us to shame. We took a quick tour of the handle workshop, bought some rice wine for the train and got driven to the station in Fujiwara’s new Lexus.
I sat next to a very annoying man on the flight home. Very chatty, took his shoes and socks off, sat cross-legged on the plane and had to piss every 20 minutes. I retaliated in the best way I knew how, I got drunk and fell asleep. Good luck getting past a passed out Lordy.
Candace picked us up at the airport and Kevin and I did our best to stay up. I’ve never had jet lag quite like that… Fast forward a couple weeks, the jet lag is gone and I’m getting ready for Garage Sale. Every time I opened a box, I saw a knife that we picked up in Japan and I started telling a story about it or something that it reminded me of. Japan is an amazing country filled with amazing people. I can’t wait to go back, Kevin said that if I became fluent in Japanese I can go every year. I’m doing my best, but some days English proves to be difficult.