February 25, 2021 3 min read
Chopsticks! Everyone has at least one pair kicking around. Often it’s the one you get with your grocery store sushi, tucked away in the dark abyss that we call a cutlery drawer. Maybe you haven’t seen it in years, but trust me, it’s there.
In the past, I would only break out my chopsticks whenever I ordered foods that I thought required their use, but I’ve recently come around to realizing I can use them just about any time and for many different reasons!
Whether it’s for ecological reasons, practicality, or simply because it’s the best tool to plow through your third serving of noodles from your favourite takeout spot, there can be a case made for chopsticks to be used for most meals.
I’d say the biggest reason holding me back from using chopsticks on a more regular basis is that I never had a nice pair. It’s very similar to our Japanese kitchen knives in a way. Before, if I wanted to use chopsticks, I had to dig through a drawer, find a pair (hopefully unopened) and then most likely dispose of them wastefully afterward. It wasn’t until I bought a nice set of chopsticks that I started treating them like a proper utensil.
But what is a nice set or pair of chopsticks? What makes them so special? Well, my friend, let me tell you:
For as long as I can remember, we’ve carried some beautiful chopsticks at Knifewear. They go by the name Wakasa-nuri which is where they are made, and while they are machine-turned, every other little detail is done by hand. Even more impressive is that each pair we carry is carefully decorated and cured by one single person, Takahiro Okubo. As the story often goes with tradesfolk in Japan, Okubo-san has been practicing this trade for over 20 years and comes from a long line of master artisans. 20 years, can you believe that?
The particular technique he uses can be traced back over 400 years and was originally named Wakasa Nuri by Tadakatsu Sakai, the feudal lord of Obama (not that Obama) castle in the ancient province of Wakasa. He even prohibited the use of these techniques outside his clan! This is why you’ll still only find these to be made in the town of Obama, in the Fukui prefecture. This technique is so unique that in 1978, the Japanese government designated this as an important traditional craft.
What really sets these apart from other chopsticks are the materials used and the finishing touches applied by Okubo-san. Traditional Wakasa Nuri chopsticks use natural urushi lacquer, applied by hand in many layers, carefully decorated, and highly polished to reveal a captivating depth of color and shimmering highlights. In the case of his Bashi series, he applies thirty coats of lacquer, each taking two days to dry! Okubo-san even takes the time to fix any imperfection as freshly applied lacquer often contains tiny air bubbles and debris, which, if left in place, may show through subsequent layers. Okubo-san meticulously removes these imperfections using a needle-point and a steady hand. Chopsticks are then left to cure for several days in humidity-controlled wooden cabinets before Okubo-san’s brush returns to them again.
Okubo-san carefully applying laquer by hand.
He can work on up to fifty pairs of chopsticks in a day but will often work on far fewer to not jeopardize the quality of the final product. He really tries to make each pair as close to perfect as possible. You can see a short video of Okubo-san at work here.
Wakasa Nuri chopsticks are traditionally decorated with seashell and eggshell fragments, gold leaf, and other items to create visual richness. Okubo-san painstakingly applies these elements in between the brushed layers of lacquer. The highlights are then exposed during the polishing steps and left to gleam from within the last clear layer of lacquer. Can you see now why, for centuries, these chopsticks were considered a treasured luxury for the privileged few? To this day, there are only 5 people in the region who can make these chopsticks.
Luckily, these are much more accessible nowadays and don’t cost as much as you might think a luxury item can. Most of the pairs we carry are $25, except for a few extra fancy ones that go up to $79. Not so bad for something you’ll treasure and have for a lifetime.
We’ve seen an increase in popularity with these recently, and it could be because they make for great travel cutlery, that they are mostly made of natural resources, or maybe because eating your meal with a beautifully handcrafted utensil with a rich history is just fun!
Another ex-chef turned professional Knife Nerd, Alex hails from the metropolis of Trenton. His career in the kitchen started at The Niagara Food & Wine Institute and finished at Union Local: 613 with our very own Lordy. Just ask him about the time Chris drank a bottle of honey for $5…