In search of Samurai Steel….and the ultimate kitchen knife!
Steamer Trading began its relationship with the Yaxell Corporation in 2013 and we have long dreamed of visiting them at their headquarters in Seki City in Gifu prefecture, Japan, where they have been manufacturing knives since 1932. Ben Phillips, the owner and MD of Steamer and myself were offered just this earlier this year, and we jumped at the opportunity to delve more deeply into the long history of Yaxell. However, the history of blade making in Seki goes back much further - to an ancient tradition of Samurai craftsmanship that is now practiced by only a few master swordsmiths, or Tosho, in modern day Japan.
Our visit started with a two hour journey from London to Helsinki and a short stop over followed by a ten hour flight to Nagoya. My favourite random fact about the city of Nagoya is, as I’m sure you will all know, that it was once home to Leicester’s favourite son, Gary Lineker, who played for their local football team!
A train connection took us from Nagoya Central Airport through to Gifu City, which is the prefecture of the Chubu region in central Japan. Sadly, we had the pleasure of watching the famous Japanese bullet train fly past at a significant number of miles per hour, whilst we took the more sedate and gentle route to Gifu!
Gifu is steeped in history and one of its most enduring symbols is Gifu Castle which was first built early in the 13th century. Residing on the slopes of Mount Kinka, it serves as a reminder of how strategically important this location was historically. Its most famous inhabitant was a Japanese warlord or daimyo named Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) who went on to unify much of Japan under his rule, which at the time was riven with warring factions. A skilled strategist and fierce fighter, Nobunaga was also instrumental in helping to create a free market economy for much of Japan. He was one of the first Japanese people to show a much greater interest in the wider world and introduced European customs and was a known collector of western artefacts.
Woven within the history of the area was the tradition of the samurai and the production of their swords though the ceremonial katana forging process. The katana sword making process dates back to the 12th century and its rise in popularity stemmed from the curvature of the blade and the ease with which it could be drawn during close quarter combat. Invariably katana swords were made from a special Japanese steel called tamahagene or jewel steel which was hugely expensive and involved a very labour intensive process.
Many ancient traditions are still practiced or demonstrated to visitors who come to the region. Ben and I were delighted to be invited to a night of cormorant fishing or ukai, by our hosts. This method of fishing dates back to 960 AD. We were taken out on boats and allowed to watch fishermen travelling up and down river, their path lit by the burning brazier at the bow of each vessel. The main catch is a sweetfish that is still common to Japanese rivers and prized by sushi chefs in Gifu. Cormorants, which were attached to the ropes, would dive into the water and catch the fish under the light of the flame and bring them back up the surface and into the vessel before diving back to the water to repeat the task. This was quite a surreal experience to see on your first night in Japan! We were one of 44 boats that had gone out to watch this amazing display take place that evening, something that happens now in only 5 places in the world.
The following day we were taken to see another traditional ceremony, the Katana Forging Ceremony, which much like the cormorant fishing, has been part of Japan’s history for many hundreds of years. This devotion to producing a blade of outstanding quality, is reflected in the founding principles for the techniques and standards of the Yaxell knives that we know and prize in our stores today.
We were extremely lucky and honoured to witness this ceremony, as it is normally only held at certain times of the year including during the Seki Knife Festival, held every October. The swordsmith, Master Ogana trained for many years to reach his current level of standing as a sought-after katana sword maker.
The young man on the right of the picture hammering the steel was in the 5th year of his apprenticeship. The timing that was needed to move and turn the piece of steel and then position it in the right place for the apprentice to hit it correctly was quite something to see. These swords are said to be so strong that they are able to cut a bullet in half and all of that strength comes from the forging process. The temperature in the forge (hodo) itself has to be raised to something in the region of 1500°c. Master Ogana used traditional bellows to add oxygen whilst turning the steel in the forge making sure it was at the required temperature to begin the layering process.
The strength of the sword comes from combining steel of different carbon contents to ensure that a unique blade is created using a process called Tanren. A piece of steel is heated, beaten and folded to ensure that impurities and therefore the weakness in the steel is removed. This will also generate an even distribution of carbon throughout the steel and create the raw material that eventually becomes a multi-layered Japanese sword. The picture below shows the forge laid out with the apprentices waiting for Ogana-san to summon them to do their part. This would only happen when he was sure the steel was hot enough to work with. Their focus during the process (they were required to wait on his commands for a couple of hours at a time) and their precision when striking the steel was hugely impressive. It was a very humid day and we got tired watching them concentrate!
We were very keen to see how the heritage and craftsmanship of the Japanese swordsmith’s is translated into some of the world’s sharpest kitchen knives - which we got to see for ourself the following day. I will cover the manufacturing processes involved in crafting the beautiful Yaxell knives that we are proud to sell, in my next post.
In the meantime - if you want to see a very graphic demonstration of just how sharp these remarkable knives can be we created the Steamer Yaxell Samurai Challenge - and challenged some of the UK's top Chef's to demonstrate in explosive style! You can watch a video of Tom Kerridge and Claude Bosi taking on the challenge here.