Aritsugu and Shikibocho – Knife Culture in Kyoto

January 24, 2014

By Keisuke Togashi and Kenichi Hosokawa

Photograph by Keisuke Togashi

Do you cook? Are you often in your kitchen? How much attention have you given to the knives you use? Last year, Japanese cuisine, or washoku, was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Ever since this designation Japanese kitchen knives have been getting attention from around the world. One of the best cutlery shops in Kyoto for selling knives is Aritsugu. They sell several different types of knives, and explain the traditional methods of using Japanese knives and how to take care of them to their customers.

Aritsugu

Aritsugu is located at the east end of in the old Nishiki Market arcade in central Kyoto, which has been in existence since 1560. In addition to selling a wide selection of knives, Aritsugu also offers several other kitchen tools implements as graters, whetstones, etc. The knives they sell are made in Osaka and are famous for their high quality. Aritsugu also has a branch in Tokyo. The Kyoto shop is quite famous and is always full of customers, many of who are tourists from overseas.

Types of Knives

Japan has several types of knives, each made for a specific purpose. A few examples are:

•  Yanagiba: used for slicing fish

•  (Ai) Deba: a general-purpose knife for cutting bony meat, fish, crabs

•  Gyutou: French knife, also general purpose

•  Menkiri: used to cut udon or soba noodles

•  Honesuki: used to cut chicken and cut meat from bones

Japanese kitchen knives are created in the same way that Japanese swords are made. So they are very hard, sharp and beautifully crafted. These knives can easily cut through many foods, and if taken care of by their owner, will last a lifetime.

When you buy a knife at Aritsugu, they will engrave your name in the blade according to your specifications. They will also give you a pamphlet that explains in English how to use a Japanese knife, how to sharpen and how to take care of the knife so it lasts a long long time.

Shikibocho Ceremony

Can you imagine how this fish was prepared? It was cut and shaped without using hands; only the implements of long silver chopsticks and a large traditional knife  were used. The chef who created this was dressed in Heian-period clothing—an eboshi hat, hakama and karigoromo. They are worn on special days: January 1st, March 3rd, May 5th, July 7th, September 9th. These days are called “sechie,” which means days for seasonal court banquets.

Fish, usually koi or carp, are cut and displayed on a low table or big chopping board. But these fish are not for eating. Chefs cut fish in a special ceremony on these special days using traditional techniques to create a beautiful arrangement of shapes. This ceremony is said to over 1,000 years old and was performed for the imperial family. In the distant past, Japanese people believed the emperor was a god. And because of this belief, regular people were not allowed to touch anything the emperor would eat. That is why chefs developed this way of filleting a fish without using their hands. The main foods prepared for this ceremony were fish — mainly carp and sea bream. But sometimes when there were no fish chefs would use a swan or a crane.

As previously mentioned, Japanese cuisine was chosen as an Intangible Cultural Heritage for Humanity, but most people only focus on the foods and ingredients. Although Kyoto is famous for many kinds of vegetables, it is also famous for knives and ceremonies that use knives. Now is the best time to focus more widely on the food culture of Japan and of Kyoto. Please visit Kyoto’s most famous knife shop, Aritsugu, in the Nishiki street arcade.

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