Guide to Buying your First Japanese Knife
Looking to buy a Japanese knife? Confused by the choices? Not sure where to start? Well, look no further, this guide will help you identify which Japanese knife is most suitable for your needs.
A knife is the most important tool in the kitchen and Japanese kitchen knives are among the finest knives you can purchase. They are unparalleled in quality, sharpness and durability, just ask any knife enthusiast!
In comparison to European (or Western-style) knives, Japanese knives are usually made from tougher steel. This means Japanese knives are thinner, lighter and incredibly sharper.
Types of Japanese knives
Unlike Western knives that are known for their versatility, Japanese knives are made for specific tasks. There are multiple ones to choose from, so when shopping you need to ask what you’ll be using them for. Here are the ones you can find at Japana:
This type of knife is the equivalent of a traditional Western Chef’s knife. Gyuto is roughly translated as “cow blade” as it was initially used to cut meat and fish. However, it makes for an excellent all-purpose knife.
The edge has a gentle curve toward the point, which makes it ideal for cutting tougher produce such as fruit and vegetables in a rocking motion. It is also tall enough to provide good surface contact for your knuckles when chopping. The blade’s profile allows for more contact with the chopping board, meaning less fatigue for the user.
The Gyuto knife is sharp on both sides and is available in lengths between 180mm and 300mm (7 to 12 inches). A blade size of 180 to 210mm (7 to 8 inches) is recommended for home cooks, while the 240mm- 270mm (9 to 11 inches) sizes are more suitable for serious amateurs and professionals.
This knife is light in weight and excels at precision work such as mincing light proteins and vegetables. It, however, would not excel at slicing large materials or cutting through dense produce.
Santoku knives are another type of Chef’s knives. Hence, Santoku knives are true all-purpose workhorses.
Their name is Japanese for “three virtues”. These virtues refer to working with meat, fish and vegetables as well as allowing for three different cutting techniques: slicing, dicing and chopping. You can utilise a Santoku in most recipes that call for knife work.
Santoku knives are larger, multi-purpose knives. Some (especially women who usually have smaller hands and grips) consider Santoku to be more agile than Gyutos due to their size. They’re usually shorter than long chef knives (less than 21cm) and have wide, flat blades and fairly blunt or slightly rounded tips. This helps combat hand fatigue and compensates for the fact that you have to actually chop and not rock.
Japanese Nakiri knives are mostly used for cutting vegetables. They feature a thin and wide blade and squared off tips. The straight blade is usually 150-180mm (5 to 7 inches) long.
As it is designed for chopping veggies, the knife has a straight blade that can cut through long items (think eggplants, carrots) as well as make super thin slices out of cucumber, bitter gourd, tomatoes and the likes. Its double bevel makes it perfect for both left and right-handed use.
Thanks to their straight blade, Nakiri are ideal for julienne, brunoise allumette and other precision knife cuts for vegetables. Also a great tool for cutting into very hard skinned produce like pumpkins and squash.
Sometimes called a utility knife, the Petty is a smaller version of a Chef’s knife but is bigger than a paring knife. The Petty fits in small places that require more dexterity than bigger chefs knives while handling bigger jobs than a paring knife can take care of.
Its incomparable sharpness is used for smaller precision tasks such as peeling, trimming, and slicing small fruits and vegetables as well as for handling bigger tasks as a small Chef’s knife. A razor sharp petty knife can intricately carve and style vegetables and fruits for beautiful presentations and garnishes, performing just as well for bigger jobs such as preparing meals.
The smaller size and relatively narrow blade make the knife very nimble and controllable. It is an ideal alternative to Gyuto for people with smaller hands. Its double bevel makes it perfect for both left and right-handed use. It is usually between 90mm and 180mm (4 and 7 inches) in length.
The Deba is a traditional Japanese filleting knife. This knife is specifically used for preparing fish and breaking down poultry and meats with small bones. It has a sharp point due to its curved tip and spine. The deba is single bevelled, meaning it has a flat back face that makes it more efficient when filleting.
It is thicker than most other Japanese kitchen knives. This weight is desirable because the sturdy heel section of the knife can be used to cut or chop bones found in small and medium sized poultry and fish.
Its blade length is typically between 150mm and 330mm (5 to 13 inches). Larger sized Deba are recommended for professionals, and the smaller 165mm-180mm (6 to 7 inches) size are ideal for home cooks.
Yanagiba knives are another type of traditional Japanese filleting knife. These are mainly used to slice boneless fish for sushi and sashimi dishes. Yet, they are also often used to skin fish.
The long, narrow blade and relatively acute edge angle allows the fish to be cut in one single drawing motion, from heel to tip. Their blades come in a variety of lengths ranging from 210mm to 360mm (8 to 14 inches).
Types of steel
When choosing your Japanese kitchen knife, you should pay particular attention to the type of steel used in the blade. Steel is really the essence of the blade and primarily responsible for how the knife performs. Each type of steel has its own unique properties that have a direct effect on the performance of the knife. The finer structure and greater hardness means that the blades can take on a far sharper edge with a finer bevel angle, both of which improve cutting performance.
High carbon steel vs stainless steel
The main choice you have to make is whether to opt for a high-carbon steel or a non-high carbon (stainless) steel blade.
A good stainless steel blade means good rust resistance, easy maintenance, good sharpness and edge retention. Therefore, they have become increasingly popular among beginners to semi-professional users.
On the other hand, a high carbon steel blade means a higher-grade, stainless steel alloy with a certain amount of carbon. It is built with the intention to combine the best attributes of carbon steel and ordinary stainless steel. The high carbon stainless steel blades do not discolour or stain, and maintain a sharp edge for a reasonable time.
In other words, stainless steel tends to be a softer form of steel, which means it often won’t hold an edge as well as high carbon steel. Hence, carbon steel stays sharper longer than stainless. Once a stainless steel blade loses its edge, it takes some effort and skill to sharpen properly, so many people prefer to have them professionally sharpened. Whilst, high carbon steel, despite being harder than stainless steel, is way easier to sharpen than stainless.
Most “high-carbon” stainless blades, like a VG10 type of steel are made of higher-quality alloys than less-expensive stainless knives, intended to increase strength, edge-holding, and cutting ability. VG-10 is ideal for producing very thin blades with acute bevel angles and will take an exceptionally sharp edge.
If you want a perfect combination of beauty and performance, take a look at knives with steel of VG10, R2/SG2, 400, 154CM, AUS-8. These are the steel types, R2/SG2 and VG-10, Shirogami (#1) and Aogami (#2) steels being amongst the most popular ones. The ones to look for are R2/SG2, VG10 and high carbon steels. To learn more:
Hardness is the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress and applied forces. Hardness in knife steels is often referred to as strength and is generally measured using the Rockwell C scale (aka “HRC”).
As mentioned in the previous section, most stainless steel knives do not hold their edge well. However, this is not the case if they have been heat treated or hardened by some other method, so that the steel has achieved a Rockwell rating (HRC) of at least 56 or 58.
Therefore, if you are buying a stainless steel knife, look for one that’s been hardened to 56/58 or more on the HRC scale. Anything less than this will make the knife lose its edge fairly quickly.
General guideline: The higher the carbon content of the steel, the longer the edge will last and the easier it will be to resharpen. For more detailed information about the difference between steels and how to choose the best one for your desired purpose please read this article. We also have a carbon steel types chart:
Types of handles
The shape of the handle is very important in terms of how the knife is balanced, how it feels in your hand and ultimately how it performs. It is extremely important that you feel comfortable using your knife, this makes it easier to use. Handles that are too big or too small for your hands will cause discomfort and make it difficult for you to control the knife. This is why it is important to test the handle and why here at Japana we provide a 50 days no questions asked return policy. This way you can send back the product if you are not completely satisfied with it for any reason, this is how much faith we have in our products, we pride ourselves on high quality durable goods.
Japanese knives can come with either a Western style or Japanese style handle. Western style handles are heavier, feel sturdier and are more adequate for brute cutting jobs. Traditional Japanese handles are cylindrical (or octagonal), lighter and always made of wood. This traditional design makes the knife feel lighter and more nimble on your hand.
A good quality wooden handle is durable, attractive and adds a lot of beauty to a knife. Here at Japana the wooden handles in our Sakai Kyuba ranges are available in two different wood types: Cherry wood (Sakai Kyuba Classic) and Stabilised Maple Burl (Sakai Kyuba). Both types of wood are cut into octagonal shaped ambidextrous handles, giving you a firm grip on the knife. They are both perfectly balanced and light, allowing for maximum precision and more controlled movements during use.
The limited European Maple Burl handles has to be dried for two years before it undergoes the process of stabilisation and colour dying. This ensures the wood is completely waterproof to avoid bacteria growth and is able to last generations. These are available in Green (dyed), Mediterranean Blue (dyed) or Natural Brown (not dyed) colour. In the case of the limited European Natural Cherry, the wood is dried well before it undergoes the process of handle forming and blade mounting. Consequently it has a high water resistance and is able to last generations.
Single vs double bevels
The angle of a knife is also referred to as “the bevel”. European knives are double-bevel, so both sides of the blade are sharpened. However, traditional Japanese knives are single-bevel which means one side of the blade has a sharpened edge (usually the right-hand side) whilst the other is completely straight.
Single bevel knives are more suitable for professional chefs, they are made for high precision cuts and can have very specific uses (i.e. sushi knives/ yanagi). It takes a lot of practice to master these types of knives, and are usually made just for right-handed users (left handle single bevels are rare and expensive). This is why many Japanese knives have double bevel, a more beginner friendly and easy-to-use type of blade.
Therefore, we recommend you buy a double-bevel blade for home use. Not only are they easier to handle, they also aren’t too difficult to sharpen with a little practice.
What makes Japanese knives so good?
While aesthetics definitely plays a part, it’s not only this that can make Japanese knives so expensive.
The high cost is a result of many factors: the high-end materials cost, extra labour of forge welding together multiple layers. In fact, most of the high-priced knives are forged on a small scale and are made by hand (artisan workshops usually have 2–4 students + blade Master orchestrating them). Often then, what you are getting is a highly functional, unique piece of art.
The best knives are obviously hand-forged (these are the most expensive) and made from extra-hard steel strengthened with metals like molybdenum and nickel (check detailed steel composition chart for more info) so that they can hold their edge longer. Those edges are often twice or three times as fine as those on European knives. The premium price is then result of the following 3 factors:
- Scarcity and privilege
Knife maintenance and protection
Like most equipment, knives need a little love and care. You need to sharpen them regularly and depending on the type of steel, dry them immediately after use. To make it easy, these are 3 general rules you should follow:
For more details check our full blog posts on knife care:
- How To Maintain Your Kitchen Knives Like A Pro
- 7 Tips For Keeping Your Kitchen Knives Sharp And Safe
- How to sharpen kitchen knives?
- The Best Way To Store Your Kitchen Knives And Metal Tools Safely
- How Do I Check If My Kitchen Knife Is Still Sharp?
- Which Whetstone Grit To Choose For Sharpening Japanese Knives
- How To Clean A Rusty Kitchen Knife?
- 7 Ways you are accidentally hurting your kitchen knives
- How To Sharpen Your Kitchen Knife