See this, says Shigeru Hasegawa, shop manager at kitchen store Kama Asa. He holds out a knife and rests a ruler across it at right angles. You peer at the slight gap in between. The blade has a subtle hollow, a concave. So when you are cutting something like daikon very thinly, he says, the slices don’t suck up against the steel.
It’s not something many would notice. Like the fact Japanese knives are sharpened mostly on one edge only. Hasegawa says, You use them with a pulling motion. He demonstrates on the counter, pulling a Japanese blade. Slicing through cells. He says, That clean cut is what gives the sheen to your maguro sashimi. Now he demonstrates pushing a Western knife. Putting some strength into it. Forcing the ingredient apart. Well, that can be okay for some things, he says.
He says, Washoku, Japanese food, is all about kirikuchi. About cutting.
Like most stores along Kappabashi, Kama Asa started about a hundred years ago, selling metal cauldrons – kama. The street was strictly for professionals then. Hasegawa says, If you were a home cook, they’d laugh you out of here. He used to be a kitchenware distributor, and joined the store about 40 years ago. That’s when the owner became serious about knives. Kama Asa today is in two stores split across a narrow laneway.
He says, We put a lot of effort into growing the business. I said we should start engraving people’s names on knives in the shop. It’s something I learned at my previous company. No one else on Kappa was doing it.
Asked what’s the most memorable thing he’s been asked to engrave, he says maybe, Aniki, Ganbatte! Go for it, Big Brother! Or Hyaku Seki Kantou – something like, May You Always Reach With a Hundred-foot Pole. Or another, Don’t Let Your Potatoes Out of Sight.
Personalising the blades was a hit. The media picked it up. Other stores followed. Sales took off. Four years ago Kama Asa was redesigned. The counters were topped in cutting-board material. You can test the knives against it. There are probably one thousand, in all styles and grades of steel, including those heavy soba-noodle cleavers with the cutaway blades.
Hasegawa says prices are relatively cheap because the shop doesn’t push itself so much as a brand. Unlike other stores, most of the knives are not marked with the shop name. The aim is to keep the focus on the craftsmen – people in the traditional centres of Sakai and Seki.
He’s a bit of a showman. Well, you have to be, he says. If you’re buying a nice shirt, wouldn’t you like the staff to make a bit of fuss?
Every time you pass you see overseas shoppers here. Hasegawa says he and colleagues including white-haired veteran Masakazu Iinuma might serve up to 50 a day from Europe and Asia. If you speak only English or French, an energetic woman named Marina will help you. She and other staff are also demonstrating Japanese knives in France.
But you’d have to say he is the soul of the store. He always seems to be here, stationed in the window, sharpening blades, repairing knives, hammering names. He’s a bit of a showman. Well, you have to be, he says. If you’re buying a nice shirt, wouldn’t you like the staff to make a bit of fuss, give you some service?
Speaking of clothes, he is always sharply dressed. Staff member Midori, who is practicing to engrave kanji characters, says with a grin, He comes to work wearing a suit jacket! Hasegawa looks at her. Well of course! he says. That’s how a gentleman dresses. You wouldn’t be pushing your bare arms into young women on a packed train now, would you.
You asked him last year to engrave your knives, and chose the words Ichigo Ichie, Once in a Lifetime. The strokes of the characters have a lightness to their angularity. Did he study calligraphy? Not at all, he says.
But you know, if you’re praised for something, you tend to give it your best. And when I graduated from elementary school, my Year 6 teacher Mr Okano said, Hasegawa, You’re not much good at anything. There’s really not much I can say about you. But your handwriting is quite nice.
He’s 65 and says it’s time to stop. But surely there’s still so much he can teach. No. He laughs. The younger ones have got a good enough grip now.
Kama Asa is at 2-24-1 Matsugaya, Taito-ku tel 03-3841-9355 fax 03-3845-4590