Famous craft in Tsubame Sanjo, polished to perfection


Intro to Tsubame Sanjo

High North above Tokyo, in the plains of Niigata near the Sea of Japan is a renowned and historical city of craft. Tsubame Sanjo is known all over the country as a top maker of something we all depend on in and out of our homes: kitchen goods, and in particular kitchen knives! The makers here have pushed their crafts to be not only sharper but shinier too. Polishing is also a famous practice here, and along with bladesmithing, it results in the tools needed to bring the most perfectly crafted meals to your table!

TOJIRO Knife Factory

The supervisor of the TOJIRO Knife Factory himself gave us a highly informative and personal tour. He started off by addressing perhaps the largest reason Japan's blades and knives are so famous all around the world: the undeniably sharper cut. He explained that the reason could be in the differences between Japan and Europe's warrior history. Japanese fighters were generally smaller, and not strong enough to wear the massive iron armors like heavier set knights in Europe. For this reason, rather than durable weapons that could last through a long battle, Japanese swords were lighter, and designed for ending fights in one swift slash. As time went on, the focus on sharpness was then reflected in not only swords and crafting tools, but kitchen knives as well.

The knife making process is perfected here down to every last detail, and TOJIRO's knives are consistently in high demand around the world, and have won various design awards as well. The knives themselves of course, but their factory is also one of a kind. The TOJIRO "open factory" is the recipient of the 2018 Good Design Award, and really gets you up close and personal with the knife making process. You can see the craftspeople go through each step of the process, from making the shape from iron ingots, to grinding the blades to their basic shape, and then each small step that results in the knife getting sharper and sharper until it's ready to be welded or wedged into a handle. And their knife shop is sure to awaken your inner chef!

Polishing at Migakiya-Ichibankan

Another element of crafting tools and equipment, that can sometimes be overlooked, is the polishing process. Tsubame Sanjo is also the premier city for polishing finished goods to give them a beautiful sheen as well as increased durability. At " Migakiya-Ichibankan " we got to learn about the process, and try it out for ourselves. They use large wheels made of fabrics like hemp and cotton, with varying stiffness. A mineral coating (we used soft limestone) is layered onto the wheels as they reach speeds of about 4,000 revolutions per minute. Now, firmly in a chair, you're ready to grind the item against the moving wheel, removing microscopic layers from the item, much like sandpaper does to wood.

We worked with a stainless steel cup for our experience course, which was fresh from a factory, and unpolished. Even after just a few moments of grinding, the difference in luster and sheen was like night and day. It was quite easy and fun polishing the outside of the cup, although our instructor said that polishing more complex items can require precision, skill, and most of all endurance! Just polishing one cup I could feel my forearms and fingers getting quite exhausted.

It's surprising how sophisticated the process to make something as simple as a knife can be, or how much effort goes into making kitchenware look nice. Taking a trip to "craft" cities like Tsubame Sanjo to see exactly how our everyday tools are made is something we should all do from time to time. The appreciation of the sharpness of Japanese blades is sure to make your next sushi that much tastier! Each sip from my new cup is certainly more delicious, and rewarding having had a hand in the finishing process.