Kyoto! Nigishi Market – Aritsugu Knives – Saba Zushi

by White on Rice Couple on September 7, 2009

bamboo-forest-kyoto

Kyoto is embraced with the beauty of Japan’s past. History is preserved in the city’s old buildings, valued temples and scenes of traditional life that still roam the narrow streets.

Going to Japan we had no wants of trinkets, souvenirs, or other little nick-knacks to bring home. We only desired for the experience of Japan’s modern savvy and its treasured past, and to acquire two things.  In Kyoto we would experience a bit of Japan’s past and find the first of our two treasures;  a knife crafted in Japan.

Our original plan was to go to Sakai, just outside Osaka, where it is the heart of Japanese knife making.  However without proper introductions it would be difficult to get in behind the scenes, plus a day searching for the knife makers would seriously cut into our food exploring time.

nishigi market

In order to make the best use of our short time in Japan, we went with Plan B; ask the locals and find a great knife merchant.  Whether we were in Tokyo or in Kyoto, one name came up repeatedly.  Aritsugu at the Nishiki-Koji Market in Kyoto was knife maker to find.

This was a double bonus for us.  We’d been told  Nishiki (as the locals call it) is the place to go to in Kyoto to find great street food and stalls, so it was already on our list of places to visit. Then to add on the prospect of being able to find a great Japanese knife, my heart was starting to pound.

aritsugu-knives

Nishiki  Market was everything it had been touted to be.  Several blocks long down a narrow street in the heart of Kyoto, it had a roof overhead to protect from the elements, and was packed continuously with street stalls mostly focused on food: noodle shops, pickled goods, fish mongers, fruit vendors, mochi places, places-we-have-no-idea-what-they-are-called-but-had-really-tasty-stuff.

We ate, sampled, sniffed, and stared at all of the beautiful foods at Nishiki Market.  Well, we tried not to stare too much, since we’ve found the Japanese tend to be super polite in the not-staring department and we didn’t want to offend.

In several of the stalls we found one of the great culinary specialties of Kyoto, saba-zushi.

saba-zushiSaba-zushi (yes, it is spelled with a “z”-we asked twice) is a one of the older, tradition styles of sushi that was the forbearer of the current sushi today.  This style dates back to the 16th century, before raw fish was a regular part of sushi’s make up. Saba zushi begins with mackerel that is cured in vinegar, then pressed with seasoned rice (with vinegar & sugar) and wrapped in a bamboo reed for a set period of time. Some say a few hours, others have said a few days, so we aren’t 100% sure which way is true in modern preparation.

saba-zushiSaba-zushi originally began as a way to get the “fresh” mackerel to the Kyoto-ites in their more landlocked position without having the fish spoil.  It may take only a half hour from Osaka on the shinkansen today, but back in the 16th century, travel wasn’t so fast. It was beautiful to experience a bit of culinary history, preserved (in tradition and preparation) and revered in the graceful city of Kyoto. Saba-zushi should definitely be on your food list when you’re in Kyoto.

We continued working our way through the market, until the glint of steel caught my eye.  ”ARITSUGU!” bellowed my head in a deep, gutteral, Japanese rhythm.

Diving into the Aritsugu knife shop, we had no knowledge of their history or quality. We were following the recommendations of people we trusted and would be basing our purchases off of gut feelings.

After wandering and admiring the store for a bit, I started talking to one of the sales ladies, me in my broken Japanese, her  in her broken English. She would bring out several different type of blades and explain their differences: carbon steel, stainless steel, combinations of both, double edged, single edged, and all the different shapes.

aritsugu-knives

Originally I was intent on buying a Japanese style knife, but Aritsugu also makes western style chef knives, and the second I felt one it merged into my hand extending effortlessly and with purpose.  ”Be true to thyself” echoed in the back of my head and I knew this was the knife for me.

After nodding my acceptance and handing over a little less than ¥20,000 (@ $225) for a roughly 9 1/2″ chef knife, they finished sharpening it, showed me how to care for and sharpen it myself. Then they asked if I wanted it engraved with my name.  After a moment’s thought, a glimmer came to my eye and I pointed at the tattoo on my forearm – “Cowboy” written in katakana.

aritsugu-knives

They smiled, nodded and engraved the steel that would become my own.  While the craftsman engraved, in Japanese I haltingly told the curious shopkeepers that it was the name my dad called me growing up.  Their faces beemed and lit up with approval.  ”Ahh, you cowboy!” they exclaimed, mimicking a lasso being thrown. It seemed they were happy to a have one of their knives going home with me.

After a final cleaning and wipe, they finished the sale in classic Japanese artful attention to detail.  After boxing the knife, she delicately wrapped the box in paper, then taking the wrapped box, she laid it in a cloth with their name written in Kanji and containing their crest, and carefully tied the box in the cloth.  Then everything was placed in a bag then they bowed and handed me my knife.  I bowed in return and thanked them, leaving the shop to their chorus of thanks.

aritsugu-knives

It was only after we got home that I researched more about Aritsugu knives.  Like saba zushi, Aritsugu’s history dates back to the 16th century.   The original founder opened shop and began crafting blades in 1560, and at one point was making swords for the Imperial family.  Today they have transitioned to culinary knives (among other similar tools) and are probably one of the most well known knife makers within Japan, debatably one of the best.  If you’re curious for more, zknives tells it with much more knowledge than I can.

Whether or not they are the “best” I can’t tell you, however what I can tell you is that the knife cuts beautifully.  As much as I loved my Wusthofs (and I had recently sharpened my chef knife to its finest level since I’ve owned it) they are nothing compared to the way this knife from Aritsugu cuts. Slices are effortless and dead straight, with only a slicing motion and virtually no pressure beyond gravity pulling the knife through the food. The knife is actually lighter than my Wusthof chef knife, even though it is an 1 1/2 – 2″ longer and as tall of a blade. After only a couple days of cooking I am already in love. If the blade holds its edge as well as people have said it will, I will be dumb-foundedly awed.

aritsugu-knives

The knife I bought has a carbon steel core and cutting edge with the outer surfaces being wrapped in stainless steel on all but the last 1/2″ of the cutting edge. If you look closely at the pictures of the knife, especially the bottom picture of the collage of 4, you can see where the stainless steel ends and the carbon steel begins. The carbon steel edge will rust if not taken care of, however Aritsugu can rest assured that this knife will be respected and well cared for.

Thank you Aritsugu, for your care and craftmanship.  I shall always cherish, value, and use your pounded, tempered, and honed steel.  どうもありがとうございます.

**A note for those who would like to purchase an Aritsugu knife without having the chance to go to Japan:  They tend to be hard to find, and when you do find them they usually don’t have the finished sharpening.  It is a fairly common practice amongst Japanese knife makers, maybe with the understanding that a serious person who buys their knife will know how they want it sharpened and will do so after they have received it. Just so ya’ know.

-Todd

More Konichiwa Japan! posts for this trip:

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The Gardener's Eden September 7, 2009 at 4:03 am

Your photos of Kyoto’s Nishiki are making my mouth water. What is in the teal colored serving dish? It looks delicious. I am trying to imagine the smells and tastes. You are making me want to hop in a plane right now! But I can not, so I will print up all of your recommendations and save them for my trip to Japan. It looks like you are having a wonderful time.
-Michaela

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2 Connie C September 7, 2009 at 4:06 am

Lovely, lovely, lovely.
Thanks for sharing your Japan/Kyoto experiences. I visited Kyoto long before I was into food porn, he, he. Now you are making me want to come back and travel with different eyes and savor Japan with a ……different tongue!

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3 Lisa@The Cutting Edge of Ordinary September 7, 2009 at 4:31 am

Wow what gorgeous photos and that beautiful shiney new knife. I am jealous cowboy! Congrats.

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4 chika September 7, 2009 at 4:36 am

Hi Todd – Love the カウボーイ engraving! Glad to see you made it to Aritugu and found THE one for you. Aren’t their knives beautiful? So are other things there – copper and brass pots and pans, vegetable cutters and cooking utensils, etc… I could spend quite a lot of time in that tiny shop admiring their products, but the real beauty of them will, of course, be using them by yourself. Would love to have my own one day!

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5 Kalyn September 7, 2009 at 6:32 am

Great photos! The knife looks amazing. Would love to go there someday.

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6 Andrea September 7, 2009 at 10:26 am

Ah, you two are living one of my dreams, to travel in Japan! Your new knife is stunning and I can only imagine how enjoyable the experience was.

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7 Gastronomer September 7, 2009 at 1:22 pm

The gods were on your side! Great food and the perfect knife shop. Clearly, it was meant to be!

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8 Tartelette September 7, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I loved the way you wrote this! Everything from the description of the shop. the artisans and your sheer appreciation of their work. Beautiful knife and beautiful piece.

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9 monkuaruka September 7, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Excellent that you picked up an Aritsugu knife. For visitors of Tokyo, they can also be found in the Tsukiji fish market (about three rows before the popular Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi). When I take friends there, we go to the knife shop first so the knife has been engraved and sharpened by the time we finish our sushi breakfast.

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10 Tokyo Terrace September 7, 2009 at 5:26 pm

This is easily my favorite of your Japan posts so far. Brad and I went to Nishiki and loved it. We took so many photos of the food and at one point, just sat down and were in awe of the people and variety of stands that extended in every direction. I am still saving up for my own Japanese knife. While living here, that is the one thing that I do not want to go home without. Enjoy your “Cowboy” engraved piece of craftsmanship. Thanks for sharing so beautifully about your trip.

-Rachael

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11 sets September 8, 2009 at 5:02 am

I used to work at Nishiki, in one of those fish vendors that catered for the most expensive ryotei’s in Kyoto. Great to see the place again on your blog. Oyakata had the most amazing set of knives — he won’t even let us touch them.
If you have a liking for fermented sushi, (the narezushi type), I recommend funazushi 鮒鮨, a specialty from the Lake Biwa area. Real fish lovers like them strong!

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12 matt September 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm

wow, just fantastic! and that knife. holy cow. Aritsugu are incredible, and a great history to them too. For sharpening, I totally recommend http://www.epicureanedge.com/ . Daniel there is one of the top knifesmith’s in the US, and specializes in Japanese knives. 10degrees is very fine indeed! keep us posted on how you find the knife in a few months. I have been looking for a new chef’s knife, this could be it!

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13 Sherida (@Foodtopia) September 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Another great post! I feel like I’ve been right alongside you, tasting and experiencing Japan.

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14 josephine September 8, 2009 at 2:50 pm

what a cool story! this post and the fish market posts have been my favorite. i’m going to have to budget for an Aritsugu knife on my next visit.

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15 Maya September 8, 2009 at 5:21 pm

It feels like I took a mini vacation right here :)

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16 White on Rice Couple September 8, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for all the great comments on all of the Japan posts. Sorry we didn’t have time to reply to everyone, but we did try to at least respond to those who had direct questions. And a double thanks to all of you who helped provide additional information on twitter and in the comments for us and for all those who were interested.
Thanks Chika for meeting up with us in Tokyo. Wish there was time to have been able to get together another time or two, but it was a whirlwind trip. Next time we get to Japan if we are in your area, promise.
So sorry we weren’t able to meet up with you, Rachael and Brad. We will be back to Japan, so hopefully next time for you guys, too.
Japan was an incredibly gracious host to us and it was sad to leave. I thought I would enjoy Japan, but I didn’t expect to become emotionally attached. We hope everyone has enjoyed following along with us on our travels. Occasionally we may share more stuff on our trip, but life continues moving, so we’ll be posting about what is current in our lives at the moment.
We loved love to continue hearing about further suggestions to visit next time. It is very helpful to us and to many who will be reading the comments.
Thanks again everyone.
Todd

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17 Allison Day September 9, 2009 at 1:17 am

Oh those knives! *swoon* As if I needed any more reason to travel to Japan… obviously, I’ll have to go there some day.

Absolutely loved your posts about your Japan trip – beautiful pictures, as always, and wonderful descriptions.

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18 Hummingbird Appetite September 9, 2009 at 6:21 am

I’m so glad I found your blog by way of Twitter i.e. #FFs through Kamran maybe. Beautiful photos! I have Shun knives myself. I could only afford them after I got Crate & barrel gift cards.

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19 Katie September 9, 2009 at 6:52 am

LOVE your site! I’m Italian and Texan so this is inspiring me to be more adventurous in my cooking (and my own blog!) Thanks :D

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20 christy September 9, 2009 at 9:53 am

Glad the contest for the food bloggers camp trip giveaway lead me to your site. Really enjoy it!

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21 Brooke @ Food Woolf September 9, 2009 at 11:55 am

Like Allison @ Sushi Day, I’m swooning too. What an incredible knife-finds-cowboy story. What an incredibly special experience. Buying that knife must have been a spiritual moment for you both. Knives and chefs bond, that’s for sure.

So glad you’re both back. Can’t wait to hear more about your travels. xoxox,Brooke

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22 Marc @ NoRecipes September 9, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I think I’m going to be in Kyoto in October, will definitely have to check some of these places out. Also kind of a funny coincidence because I just posted a knife review (though your story is much better than mine!).

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23 mycookinghut September 11, 2009 at 4:38 pm

It’s great to see the great info that you put in this post! I love Japanese knives and think that they are the best!! My favourite is still Santoku. :)

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24 justcooknyc September 15, 2009 at 10:55 am

i love the photos from the food stalls. and i love those octopus balls, yum.

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25 Helen @ World Foodie Guide September 24, 2009 at 7:23 am

Just wanted to say I’ve been really enjoying the Japan series. I’m off on my fifth trip in November, but always love reading about other people’s experiences, especially yours on buying a Japanese knife! I plan to buy one too (the personalisation of it is a great idea)…

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26 Craig Jenkins September 28, 2009 at 1:15 am

May I recommend another maker whose knives are very much on par but significantly less expensive that Aritsugu, and is only blocks away…

If you find the east corner of the Daimaru on ShojiDori, and go south on that street, just before the Bukkoji temple is the very humble shop of Hayakawa. You will be able to spot the sign of a pair of japanese scissors on both sides of the street. The maker is 72 and has all sorts of wonderful things from deba to santoku to hakiri and Guytou. His english is pretty limited but I had no problems buying 6 knives from him yesterday and taking a friend back today who bought another 4.

I have purchased knives from both Aritsugu and Shigehara, so I’m not against anyone, just in favour of a small, traditional shop that produces really great knives :)

This was a return trip for me ( in Kyoto now, from Toronto, Canada) and my second time in the shop (last was 11 years ago!).

I very highly recommend them.

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27 Manggy September 29, 2009 at 11:10 pm

Gosh, that is a thing of beauty. I’m sure it will be a treasured heirloom. Incidentally, I’m also reviewing a book called “Japanese Kitchen Knives.” Drooling over these (expensive) gems!

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28 zenchef November 4, 2009 at 11:52 am

You know me and Marc wandered around the same knife store. Thought about you guys because i read this post before i went. Beautiful stuff. I wanted to buy the whole store!

Love, love the photography on this post.

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29 Ashley April 29, 2010 at 7:52 pm

I got a Japanese knife from this store too! It’s engraved with my name (at least, the Japanese characters that if said aloud, would sound like “Ash-ree” instead of Ashley). I don’t use it a lot, as I didn’t buy the most practical knife. But it’s SO cool. If I ever go back, I will buy something a little more durable. That market was incredible. I remember finding very expensive, but the most perfect strawberries there. And beautiful vats of colorful pickled things.

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