My parents just returned from a trip to Japan and brought me a lovely gift: an Aritsugu brand kamagata-usuba knife. It comes with some very general instructions for care, but I was wondering if anyone out there owns a similar knife and has advice about upkeep. Can I use a steel to hone this knife? Or is the one-a-month wet stoning the only upkeep that is necessary?
I have two Kanto style usuba (Masamoto and Suisin brands) and one kamagata usuba (Kansai style, Masamoto brand). Aritsugu is probably considered the most prestigious maker of traditional Japanese knives today, other than some custom makers. Ask any sushi chef – the name Aritsugu is usually uttered with awe. Usuba is a traditional specialized Japanese style used for thin slicing of vegetables. The edge is very delicate.
Your knife is made of carbon steel with soft iron backing. It will rust if left wet. It will stain with use, more quickly with acidic foods. If you want to maintain the shiny look, clean off the staining with wine cork and a paste of kitchen cleanser. Some Japanese chefs use a daikon radish instead of a cork. They also sell rust erasers.
If you look carefully, you will see that the back is concave. The front has a wide bevel and the back has a very thin zero degree bevel at the edge (~1/32”). (If we could attach photos, I would post some diagrams). You should understand the geometry when sharpening. Sharpen the front large bevel by placing the width of the bevel against the stone. The back side should be sharpened very lightly with a high-grit stone(s). I use 5000; basically I’m just trying to remove the burr after creating it by sharpening the front bevel. If you really over-do sharpening the back, you could destroy the concavity and ruin the knife (no way to salvage the knife in that case). Don’t use a steel.
Also, your knife is probably only 85-90% sharpened, unless the shop that sold the blade to your parents finished the sharpening. The expectation amongst most Japanese knife makers is the buyer will finish the initial sharpening themselves to suit their own style.
There’s a lot more to sharpening traditional Japanese blades than I can possibly describe here. Korin Japanese Trading Co. sells a DVD that covers sharpening traditional style Japanese blades like usubas. But even that DVD misses a lot of subtleties.
According to the classic "Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art" (Tsuji) (his emphasis):
"Japanese knives are only honed on a whetstone and should NEVER be ground on a wheel or 'sharpened' with steel. Such treatment may be all right for stainless steel or for other steel of Western kitchen knives, but it is not the correct way to keep a Japanese kitchen knife sharp, ESPECIALLY a high-quality, or even middle-quality, knife."
It goes on for a couple pages to talk about using the whetstone. Frankly I don't know how much of that is tradition (Japanese don't, apparently, have a tradition of using a sharpening steel), or based on careful testing. In any case, it is clear that the Japanese consider the whetstone use sufficient, regardless of whether the steel use is harmful or not.
If this is indeed a traditionally made Japanese knife, the it has only one bevel, ne? I don't think I'd even take this out of the box until I've learned the proper way of caring for it.
It is common belief in Japan that Japanese knives should ONLY by honed using Japanese wetstones.
I believe the type of stone you need is called a mudstone (because when you splash on some water and work the blade a muddy paste is formed. There are natural and man-made versions. Unless there is a japanese hardware store or knife seller in your area you may need to find them online. I've never seen them in a regular hardware or kitchen store.
You need to go to a specialty knife store specializing in Japanese knives. I have a few in my city (Toronto). And there are surprisingly a few all over the US and Canada. Just need to know where to go.
If you're talking about using a 2nd stone to creat the muddy paste you would be referring to a Nagura stone. But even without...just by sharpening/polishing and at times sprinkling some water you would still create the mud...just takes a little longer.
If some one is just starting out or is totally new to using whetstones I'd stick with synthetic over natural.
And since we are talking about Aritsugu "knife"...does any one know who is selling this brand in Toronto (or any where in Canada with an online shop setup). No idea when I'll be visiting Japan again.
Strangely, there is a vendor on Amazon selling a limited supply of Aritsugu blades. The vendor is Japan To You. No personal experience buying from em.
Don't know a whole lot about what's available in Canada specifically, though, or even whether the above link is any good for you. Sorry.
Keep in mind that there are actually two different companies that share the Aritsugu name--one in Kyoto and one in Tokyo. Kyoto Aritsugu is the original (founded in 1560, purveyor to the Imperial Household) and Tokyo Aritsugu was a branch that split off around a hundred years ago. I believe the knives can be difficult to tell apart because both use the same kanji stamped or printed on the blades, with just a small difference in the style of the caligraphy.
It is likely that the original poster's kamagata usuba was from the Kyoto Branch as the store is a tourist attraction and they often sell knives as souveniers. I got a kamagata usuba when I was living in Kyoto and it is more likely that the OP's parents bought the knife there. Aritsugu Kyoto has no on-line presence, so it is unlikely that many knives being sold on-line originated there. Someone would have had to go to the store in person and bought up a bunch of knives and I'm not sure how amenable they would have been to that.
Aritsugu Tokyo does have a website. Though the site is in Japanese, it is a fun browse:
It is more likely that any Aritsugu knives found being sold on-line or abroad would be from the Tokyo Aritsugu. Their knives are highly regarded as well, in particular the A-type gyuto.
Just so people aren't too focused on responding to the OP's concerns, I'll point out the OP was posting in 2007 and hasn't posted to CH in 2 years.
I can't say I'm intimately familiar with Aritsugu's offerings - the only knife of theirs I've personally played with is their [in]famous A-type gyuto. But best I can tell, the two companies making 'Aritsugu' knives aren't all that independent from each other. Most significantly, the actual knives they sell are apparently either the same or extremely similar (with a few apparent exceptions). Perhaps the biggest difference between the two Aritsugu companies is how the knives are finished. Here is the best source of info I've been able to find on the matter:
Again though, I cannot claim first hand experience with most of the Aritsugu products or the differences between the two companies.
I haven't been to Kyoto Aritsugu in 10 years and I've never been to Tokyo Aritsugu, so I also can't speak from personal experience. I don't think that Kyoto Aritsugu sells stainless knives, though, nor the "A-type" steel of Tokyo Aritsugu. I've got a printed catalog of Aritsugu Kyoto's knives, but it is difficult to compare the geometry to the pictures on line from Aritsugu Tokyo.
What was your experience with the A-type gyuto? I've always thought if I was in Tokyo again I'd consider picking one up. The website shows a 24 cm at around $181.
"I don't think that Kyoto Aritsugu sells stainless knives, though, nor the "A-type" steel of Tokyo Aritsugu."
You're probably right. There's some mention of this on the later pages of the thread I linked above. Still, I'm left with the impression that there is a lot of overlap between the two companies/inventories.
"What was your experience with the A-type gyuto?"
As you probably know, this knife comes with an unfinished edge. A friend's coworker had me do the initial sharpening and shaping on one. A 270. F&F was better than some of the reports I've heard (edge aside). Asymmetry of the blade was fairly pronounced. It needed a decent bit of thinning behind its edge as well as the edge itself ground in. True to its reputation, for a steel that wasn't too hard it was a bear to sharpen. Took a very nice edge, eventually. Didn't get to use it very much myself after the sharpening, but I've heard from my friend that his coworker says the edge retention and toughness are as good as they are reputed to be (which is very, very good). My overall impression was that it seemed like a great knife for a line cook, but might be overkill for a home cook - sharpening a single knife for 2 or 3 hours sounds like a long time, but feels like an eternity.
You use a "steel" to align the deformed (folded over) edge of a soft steel. "Steels" don't sharpen. On a hard carbon steel with a very thin edge like your knife, the steel will do more damage then anything else. If you are not careful, you can chip the fine edge on a steel.
If you are new to Japanese knife sharpening, a synthetic "waterstone" is your best option IMHO if you are going to maintain the edge yourself. If this is your first Japanese knife, I would recommend reading up on a specialized Japanese kitchen knife forum. Foodieforums and Knifeforums are two that have good Japanese Kitchen knife forums.
And congratulations on the Aritsugu knife, they are very good knives.