Despite it’s small size and sparse population, various friends of Terasu in Japan have unexpected connections to the Tottori Prefecture. One of the lesser known regions, Tottori is part of what used to be called the Inaba region, where iron sands are abundant. On a brief visit to Japan this May for the first edition of ‘Preview’, we also found ourselves on a trip to Tottori wth little specific intention beyond wanting to get a feel for the peculiarity of the area and learning about the local craft (Mingei) movement that occured.
A friend happened to introduce us to the blacksmith, Otsuka San. Upon meeting, it was not long before Kurtis began sketching a knife outline on top of a bench with a deer pelt laid over it. We discussed the needs and styles of Otsuka San’s limited clientele (he rejects most business due to having too many orders, and is in fact famous for declining work for the widely known Aritsugu Knives from Kyoto), considering a variety of shapes and the qualities of each blade steel he uses. After continuous back and forth and some sample testing, the gyuto and petty knives he made for us are now available.
Kurtis shared some thoughts about the collaborative experience with Otsuka San on creating the knives below.
I woke up against the grain
Split between a sliver and the high carbon steel
Somewhere the molecules got lost, maybe scraped off from force
The fuzzy sides still wet with yesterday’s comfort, terminate as the axe drops
Plunged to the bottom we find no life
Only shredded remains. 500 years worth of struggled growth
In shadow cast winters, warmth mildly touches tips licked by the midnight frost
Felled for her beauty
She now lives in the Pure Shiny
Cherished for what she was.
The spring heat was still heavy before the summer rainy season in a late afternoon haze. Both sides of the road were flanked with half planted and half tiled rice fields, a sign of the changing seasons. The ambient heat in the car began to grow as our excitement ignited. We were unsure of what we would find there. We were exploring Tottori because of its rich yet lesser known history in the Japanese craft movement of Mingei. Our guide Kyoko had arranged several studio visits, one with a renowned knife maker who still practices traditional forging techniques. He is one of the few smiths with access to the more rare blade steels made by Hitachi including Aogami #1, #2, and super (aogami means blue paper). Aogami has a much higher carbon, tungsten, and chromium content. What separates Otsuka San’s knives from other Japanese knives you often see on the us market is that he still uses a traditional cock forge, with designs and temperature control techniques that have been unchanged for centuries. This allows the steel to maintain its precious carbon while it is being heated, unlike gas forges that strip carbon from steel.
Each knife begins as two raw pieces of steel, one smaller piece of aogami (blade) and one larger that is the low carbon or soft steel (body of knife). This softer steel provides protection for the blue steel in the form of cladding. In the process of forge welding the blue steel is inserted in between a “v” shape made of lower carbon steel. Both pieces are then heated to white hot and hammered together using an early 1900s belt driven power hammer. Once the two pieces are forge welded together they become one piece of steel, with the blue steel only exposed at the very edge of the blade. From here the knife blade begins to take shape.
The continuous hammering and drawing out of the blade is specific to each blade design. We worked with Otsuka San to make our blades thinner and lighter but with more weight in the tang, along with a more hybrid outline that blends the western qualities that lend well to Californian cuisine, borrowing some key traditional Japanese elements. The knives are tapered from the tang to the tip of the blade with a thick section where the blade meets the ferrule. This thick section holds a greater amount of mass that allows the user to actually feel the weight of the knife despite how light it is.
When we set out to make a knife set the goal was to focus on the conversation between materials, the blade, the handle, and the ferrule. Often times in Japanese knife making the handle is an afterthought with a short lifespan, made from magnolia wood with a plastic or horn ferrule. Thus it is inherently not made to the same level of craftsmanship as the blades. We decided to take the aesthetic form and material driven nature of California craft and combine it with a deep Japanese tradition. Functionally and visually there is synergy between the two. For the new Tottori knives we once again are using windfall California oak that has been charred and waxed, set with the blade including a pure copper ferrule for added durability. We wanted to follow this same direction with our new bladesmith, Otsuka San.
View the knives on our store here.