Lighting, Locations, Photojournalism, Portrait, Tokyo, Travel

Japanese Masters: The Blacksmiths of Sakai

Although I am primarily a photographer based in Tokyo, you’ll often find me traveling to random cities and towns to find artisans and craftsmen to photograph as part of my ongoing personal project to document as many as possible. Here is one of many that I have met along the way!

The Knives of Sakai from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

The city of Sakai is a mere thirty minute drive from the neon-soaked streets of central Osaka – so close in fact that it feels like I never left. Still, the streets of Sakai are markedly different from the gaudy and brazen Osaka fare – there are fewer shops and zero tourists. A light rail trundles through the main thoroughfare. I notice other things as I drive towards my destination: a high frequency of workshops that advertise some kind of metal-working trade – polishing, smithing or sharpening. A high percentage of the shops are shuttered, their buildings too aged and run down to be operational. There are a few still open.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (24)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (23)

I pull up at the workshop of the Izumi-riki Manufacturing Company, a knife company whose history goes back to 1805. The history of metalworking in Sakai goes back far longer however. Back in the 5th century, the Emperors of Japan were buried in large ceremonial key-shaped graves (incidentally these graves are recorded as the largest in the world for surface area). The peasants of the time, unable to use powered excavators to move the prodigious amounts of dirt needed to form these graves – the largest of which is 500m long and 300m wide – needed to use rudimentary plows made by local blacksmiths. These plows, which were barely more than a sheet of curved metal, were the grandfathers of today’s knives which are preferred by chefs around the world. Over time, the industry progressed to producing tobacco knives, samurai swords, flintlock rifles, and eventually culinary instruments.

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The best knives in Sakai are not produced under the one roof, but are in fact farmed out to various craftsmen who are specialized in their particular task. The first step was to visit Tanaka-san, a blacksmith, whose job is to forge the blade and give it its shape. Tanaka-san’s forge is a tiny place hidden away amongst regular suburban houses; there are no signs to indicate its presence. It’s only when you get near it that you begin to hear the rhythmical metallic hammering that is the hallmark of a blacksmith’s forge. Inside, the air is dusty and hot, covered in the patina of decades of metal shavings.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (22)

Tanaka-san is ensconced in one corner next to a roaring furnace, with countless rods of iron and blades fanning out before him. His work is a choreographed dance of constant activity – one red hot iron ingot comes out of the fire and is hammered into the correct length and shape before being combined with a sliver of hard steel. He plunges the metal back into the fire before plucking another rod out to be hammered and folded back upon itself. The hammering and folding must be done when the metal is precisely the right temperature or else the quality of the finished product is dimished – Tanaka-san knows the temperature of each rod purely by its color – his knowledge of the subtle changing hues of red and orange as the metal is heated has come from decades of experience. This process of fusing steel and iron creates the unparalleled sharpness required for slicing thin slivers of sashimi, and also keeps the blade light and flexible.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (20)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (19)

Once the blades have been quenched and fired in a separate furnace, they are sent down the road to another craftsman, whose job is to sharpen and polish the knives. Once again, I’m led to another tiny workshop, run by Morimoto-san, a master polisher. Morimoto-san’s workshop is truly incongruous – it’s situated in an ancient, rundown house and is barely larger than a walk-in closet. The walls and surfaces are coated with hardened minerals that have accumulated from years and years of spinning grindstones. Morimoto-san himself is hunched and weathered with a perpetual squint – he takes a seat at a grindstone and proceeds to transform a blackened, dull blade into a razor sharp, shining knife. Occasionally he will stand up and squint down the length of the blade to detect miniscule warps or bends in the metal; if he finds any he will straighten them out with dainty taps of a hammer before going back to the grindstone. Water and sparks fly as he gradually teases out the potential of the flat blade of metal that the blacksmith has supplied him to work with. Tanaka-san the blacksmith and Morimoto-san the polisher; their combined experience in crafting knives probably totals over one hundred years.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (16)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (15)

Once the blade is sharpened, it’s off to the final step – attaching the handle. This process is done at the headquarters of the Izumi-riki headquarters, where the knives are then packaged and sold. First, the tang of the blade is heated cherry red; the handle is then placed around the tang, emitting an impressive billow of smoke. The craftsman then has a short window to make micro adjustments before the handle fuses completely onto the blade – making sure the blade is centered and not leaning to the left or right. A series of quick hammer taps by a practiced hand is all that’s needed to complete the knives for use in kitchens around the world.

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The process from flat black chunk of metal to gleaming knife I see before me has happened before my eyes in a seeming whirlwind, yet these are techniques which have been honed and perfected after decades of practice and experimentation. I’m sure as I sit here writing this, that right now the sound of hammers and grindstones are ringing out across the streets of Sakai, as the smiths and polishers there tirelessly improve their craft.

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (7)

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Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Master Craftsmen Series (1)