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Kappabashi: Knives, Coffee & Craftsmanship

Tokyo is a city composed of towns, each with its own atmosphere and flavor. Among them, Kappabashi is where you go for all things cuisine. Every time I pop by this area, some neat little item ends up coming home with me. A can of sumac, a couple of mismatched red sake cups, some wonderfully sharp little implement--I find it impossible to resist the call of the hundreds of hyper-specialized wholesalers and workshops.
Expert Chef's Knives in Kappabashi
Right in the middle of this foodie shopping paradise you can find the grand dame of the culinary blade, Kamata Hakensha.
Generations of knife-making craftsmanship -- Photo by Chiara Terzuolo
Since discovering the store during my first year in Tokyo, I have admired the ranks of gleaming steel, ranging from tiny stiletto fruit knives to huge serrated bread knives that look like they could, in a pinch, be used to cut down a small tree. When I got the chance to talk with the 3rd generation owner, I felt a bit nervous about speaking to the man, who, until then, I had only seen behind glass, sharpening wicked-looking sashimi knives on the huge grinder.
 The knife expert at work -- Photo by Chiara Terzuolo
Expert Advice is Critical to Customer Service
Despite a constant flow of chefs of all nationalities--bearing their wrapped knives in well-worn covers--requesting his services, Kamata-san graciously took a quick break to chat with me. A quiet, serious craftsman, his knowledge of each of the blades, their provenance, use and care is encyclopedic.
Pairing the perfect blade for each shopper -- Photo by Chiara Terzuolo
His clientele varies from top chefs looking for tools to create gastronomic delights to visitors seeking thoughtful gifts. Traveling around Japan, he's always looking for the very best to suit each client's requirements.
Each knife is truly a work of art -- Photo by Chiara Terzuolo
After finishing our talk, I just had to ask him what a (somewhat) skilled home chef should use, hoping he would recommend one of the pretty wave-patterned blades I had admired in the showcases. His answer was immediate: Western-style, stainless steel, maximum 20 cm blade. Although the beautiful Damascus steel Japanese-style knives (wabocho) are the ones which attract the most covetous looks, apparently the carbon steel is tough to take care of for non-pros.
 Carving the creator's name into the knife's steel is the last step -- Photo by Chiara Terzuolo
As I made my way out, Kamata-san returned to the workbench, this time, to carefully engrave a customer's name in katakana into the body of a santoku knife. This venerable establishment is in good hands, as his son is training to take over the family business. I find it reassuring to know that this little piece of Kappabashi history will endure to serve the needs of the next generation of chefs and aficionados.
Before heading home to start writing, a stop by Union Coffee was in order. The very air in the shop seemed caffeinated, roasters twirling constantly among cases of beans and eccentric paraphernalia. I picked up a packet of the strong Robusta beans, which always remind me of my local bar in Rome. The coffee tastes just like back home, yet another example of fine, precise Japanese craftsmanship at work.

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