If you’ve been following me on Jeffsetter, Roaming Hawaii, and Hawaii Kine Grinds, you’ll know that I love food. However, my love of food goes beyond just eating – I love cooking too. Granted, I’m not that great at cooking. But, I do love making others happy with my food. As a result of my love of cooking, though, I do have a love for cookware and kitchen gear too. In particular, I have an obsession with knives. Especially Japanese knives. Why? Because they’re works of art. And while many of the mainstream brands are quite expensive, there are more affordable options out there.
Before we get into the knives themselves, let’s talk steel. When you talk knives, you’re often talking about specific types of steel and their Rockwell Hardness Scale (HRC) rating. The steel and HRC are related to one another, though other aspects such as heat treating affect overall quality in the end. Anyway, most German knives fall into the 55 to 58 HRC range, while Japanese knives typically fall into the 58 to 67 range, with a higher number corresponding to harder steel.
Why does hardness matter? Because harder steels can be given a sharper edge and will maintain their edges longer. However, harder steels are also more brittle, requiring more careful handling. With a harder knife, if you jam into a bone, you can pit/chip the blade edge. Dropping the knife could also result in the tip of your knife breaking off too.
As far as steel types go, most Japanese knives you see will advertise VG10, AUS10, AUS8, Swedish, or High-Carbon Steel. VG10 is a high-carbon stainless steel developed by Takefu Special Steel Co. Ltd. Meanwhile, AUS8 and AUS10 steels are types of stainless steel manufactured by Aichi Steel Corporation (Toyota Group) with varying levels of carbon, with AUS10 having the higher carbon content. They’re comparable or better than 440 stainless steel often found in Western knives.
High-carbon steel is probably the ultimate type of steel, as it provides great hardness, ease of sharpening, and edge retention. However, high-carbon steel isn’t stainless and will form a patina. Some like this natural discoloration over time, while some don’t. It’s also much less forgiving to moisture. You MUST keep them dry or they’ll rust.
Oh, and just because of knife is made in Japan, it doesn’t mean it uses Japanese steel. In fact, some cheaper lines from manufacturers like Miyabi actually uses softer German steels. Not that the use of Japanese steel is a marker of quality either. VG10 can be quite bad too if its not heat treated properly.
Types of Knives
There are two major categories of Japanese knives, double bevel and single bevel. Single bevel blades are the more traditional types and can be given a sharper edge. However, single bevel also tends to be a lot harder to sharpen. As a result, most modern Japanese knives are double bevel varieties. Major knife types these days include:
- Gyuto: The Gyuto is most similar to the Western Chef’s knife. They often feature a curved blade edge, which supports rock-chopping.
- Santoku: Translated as “three virtues,” Santoku knives are excellent multi-purpose knives with a more natural holding position. However, they have a flatter profile than the Gyuto, meaning they don’t always work as well for rock-chopping. The Santoku, though, is typically my favorite type of knife.
- Nakiri: Known as the vegetable knife, Naikiris have a square profile and a more substantial build. That said, Nakiris are good for cutting items like fish with thin bones, as well as vegetables.
- Deba: These knives are butchery knives that come in Japanese-style single-bevel blades and Western-style double-bevel blades. These knives, however, are best suited to butchering chicken and fish. If you want to cut through thicker bones such as beef or pork, you’re better off using a cleaver.
- Petty: These knives are the equivalent of Western pairing knife, though they tend to be a little longer.
- Yanagiba: This is a single bevel slicing knife typically used in cutting fish.
A Comparison of Santoku Knives
Now, the purpose of this post is to actually let you all know about the different Made in Japan options we have out there. You see, for a long time now, I wanted to get a Shun Premier santoku knife. It’s a gorgeous Damascus VG-Max blade (no HRC given) with a hammered finish and a walnut stained synthetic Pakkawood handle. The problem is that the 7″ knife is listed at $232, though you can typically find it on sale for around $200.
A less expensive, though still high-quality option is the Miyabi Artisan Santoku. Constructed of a Damascus SG2 blade (HRC 62) with a hammered finish with a synthetic Pakkawood handle. This knife comes in at $200 list price, though you can find it on sale for about $150. That was still more that I wanted to spend on a kife, though I ended up paying more than that in the end…
After much research, I discovered a company called Hocho-Knife. They’re a Japanese knife purveyor headquartered in Japan with an office here in the US. They offer a ton of different options over a large range of price points. But, I eventually settled on a 170mm Santoku made by Sakai Takayuki. This knife features a VG10 blade (HRC 60-61), a handle made of Zelkova wood, and a mahogany bolster. It’s priced at $170 list and $150 on sale, which makes it cheaper than the above two options, for the Miyabi when on sale.
While I really didn’t want to spend that much, I saw and fell in love with a version of the Sakai Takayuki knife called Japan Blue. The knives in this collection feature a magnolia wood handle dyed using traditional Japanese techniques and traditional Japanese Ai-zome (indigo dye) along with a water buffalo horn bolster. It’s a gorgeous knife that set me back a tad over $200, but it was worth it given its uniqueness. At least, in my opinion.
All new knives are sharp. But, man, this knife is crazy! It glides through onions, carrot, ginger, garlic, etc. like butter. With more delicate items like Swiss chard and green onions, if effortlessly slices without smashing or tearing these items. Heck, it’s so sharp that I accidentally cut myself and didn’t notice until it started bleeding and stinging from the garlic. That certainly makes it sharper than any previous knife I had, including my JA Henckels and Wusthof knives. How long will it hold up, though? Only time will tell.
It’s worth noting that Hocho-Knife doesn’t offer warranties for the knives they sell, whereas Miyabi and Shun do. But, typically, if you care for your knives properly (don’t drop, don’t cut bone, don’t submerge in water, hand wash and dry), they’ll last a lifetime.
What About the Misen Knive?
Misen is a direct-to-consumer cookware and knife manufacturer, much like Made In. And while Misen has garnered attention for its cookware billed as less expensive All-Clad alternatives, its knives are what’s been generating the most buzz lately. After all, their chef’s knife and santoku knife will set you back just $65. What’s more, they say they make their blades out of forged AUS10 steel and offer a lifetime warranty on them. And, many reviews have praised the knives for their excellent out-of-the-box performance. But, guess what? They’re not exactly what they’re made out to be.
The folks over at Wired took a Misen knife the company sent them to try out to a couple of well-known bladesmiths. One of them did a Rockwell Hardness test on the knife and found that it returned a score of 51.5 at the heel, 51 at the midpoint, and 56 at the tip. Misen claims an HRC of 58 to 59. The bladesmith that did the hardness testing says this unevenness is usually a sign of improper heat treatment, which is a common trait among cheap Chinese-made knives. The knife and its accompanying materials, though, make no mention of their country of origin. Instead, the materials tout its Japanese steel content. As a result, the guys over at Wired called Misen, which did state that the knives are made in China.
A Word on Serrated Knives
Serrated knives, also known as bread knives, is one type of knife you really shouldn’t spend too much on. Why? Because they’re disposable. You can’t sharpen a serrated knife, so once it’s dull, it’s time to go. In fact, buy something like this $24-ish serrated knife on Amazon and save your money for your other knives.
The purpose of this post is to let you know that there are options out there other than more mainstream brands like Shun. Retailers like Hocho-Knife, Japanny, etc. all offer broad varieties of knives ranging from some mainstream brands like Mac and Kyocera, to extremely high-end, artisan-made knives. That said, some of these more niche brands may not have the same fit and finish as Shun and Miyabi. I’m talking about things like handle rivets not being precisely flush. And, of course, there are differences in warranties too. But, if all that doesn’t bug you, you can save money by buying from these more boutique brands. Of course, these more boutique brands also offer more unique knives too. If you’re willing to pay the price, that is.
At the end of the day, the old saying holds true – you get what you pay for. So if you’re going for something super cheap, don’t expect it to keep its edge for long. A good knife, on the other hand, will serve you for years, and even decades to come. Just make sure you do your homework and know what you’re getting yourself into.
Oh, and be sure to care for things properly too. Hand wash them, hand dry them, and have them sharpened regularly. Don’t know how to sharpen? Buy a cheap knife and practice or take it to a pro. Also, use a good cutting board to help maintain your knife’s edge. But, more on that next time.