A sensation very close to lust surges through me as the salesman carefully places the gyuto, a Japanese chef’s knife, on a piece of red felt for inspection. With an extremely sharp carbon and stainless steel blade and a chestnut handle, it is exquisitely crafted but retains some imperfections — a common feature of Japanese design.
Sensing he has an enthusiastic customer, the salesman quietly slips away and returns with a second blade, this time a petty — or paring — knife in the same rustic style. A complete set beckons in a case just a few feet away.
Less than five minutes in the shop and my knife-buying budget is already collapsing before my eyes. Desire is now tinged with panic and I politely exit as quickly as possible to avoid an extravagant impulse purchase. But something tells me I will be back.
We are in Tokyo’s Kappabashi district, a stretch of road about a kilometre long packed with more than 170 shops catering to professional chefs, kitchenware geeks and Japanese home cooks. Known in the guidebooks as “kitchen town”, it is the place to find everything from sampuru — the plastic food samples displayed outside many Japanese restaurants — to bento boxes, chef uniforms to fish scalers.
In just a block or two, you may find a shop selling professional-grade pizza ovens, another specialising in paper lanterns and a store devoted only to chopsticks. And of course, the coveted Japanese kitchen knives are everywhere.
My wife and I are on a mission that we have been planning in our heads since we arrived in Japan nearly four years ago: the big Kappabashi shop before we leave the country. We have visited Kappabashi many times, always spending more than we should have, resulting in a very crowded Tokyo kitchen.
But this is the final haul, the trip to stock the fantasy kitchen we will never have with equipment to cook food that we probably will never make.
Over the years, my mental Kappabashi wish list has included the frivolous (a wasabi grater, already purchased), the odd but potentially useful (a stiff bamboo brush for cleaning a wok) and the simply too cool to resist (a yakitori grill).
Jane, my wife, is looking for a donabe, a sturdy, versatile earthenware pot, a Japanese teapot and various ceramic bowls, plates and cups. We agree that the main event is a chef’s knife, something useful that will be a daily reminder of our lives in Japan.
Our day begins at an intersection where visitors are greeted by a pair of kitschy kitchen-themed sculptures. On one side of the street, the enormous head of a moustachioed chef wearing a giant toque stares out from the top of the five-storey Niimi building.
A stack of multicoloured coffee cups scales the building opposite. (If you go, look out for other unusual sculptures, including a rhinoceros beetle that appears to be crawling up the side of an apartment building.)
We start on the coffee-cup side of the street. Things aren’t as bustling as usual due to the pandemic, which has cut off the flow of tourists into Japan and severely damaged the restaurants that Kappabashi supplies. Yet the mood is cheery as we walk into a small shop that appears to specialise in anything with natural bristles.
Handwritten signs in Japanese and English explain the specific job of each item: basting brushes with brown bristles are for spreading soy or miso-based sauces, while white bristles are for egg or butter coatings. The basting brushes are hard to resist, especially if I’m buying that yakitori grill. Nearby are tiny “spice brushes” for scraping ginger, citrus zest or wasabi from a grater. Clearly a necessity.
Kanaya Brush has been operating since 1914 and seems to be known for its natural hair toothbrushes. (“1 million people use KANAYA’s toothbrushes,” the business card says.) With that kind of endorsement, I pick up two: one made from pig hair and another from horse hair.
As I eye up the fairytale witch brooms with spindly bristles — a fairly common sight in Japan — Jane indicates it is time to move on. I pay for my brushes and pause to study the brooms once more on the way out.
Our first crockery stop is so densely packed with tall shelves holding stacks of fragile ceramics that it feels like a set-up for an elaborate Marx Brothers gag. Somehow in all this, however, Jane manages to find a stack of cool striped rice bowls that match some we already have, but whose ranks have thinned due to breakage. Mission accomplished.
It is a bright spring day, so we pause on a side street and admire a postcard-perfect view of the Tokyo Skytree tower gleaming in the sun. On both sides of us are more shops: knife vendors, a corner store filled with all things related to coffee and tea. It is slightly overwhelming.
We have asked ourselves about this impulse to acquire more stuff from Kappabashi, which feels a bit like trophy hunting, searching for the most obscure, the most likely to give us a chance to talk about how very interesting we are.
As modern consumers, we’re all aware on some level that the products we buy — a Prius, a Rolex, a Ramones T-shirt — help to define us. But collecting things, as we are doing in Kappabashi, can also be seen as a framework that helps justify our desire simply to buy more.
“Our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we have and possess,” the human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote in 1980.
So we fill our homes with things that we hope will reflect our personalities, our history and our individuality. “Possessions are a convenient means of storing the memories and feelings that attach our sense of past. A souvenir may make tangible some otherwise intangible travel experience,” as Russell Belk, an expert on consumer culture, wrote in a research paper called “Possessions and the Extended Self”.
This rings true. In the last frantic weeks before we pack up and leave with our 14-year-old twins, we’ve been gripped by a strong desire to preserve as much of our Tokyo way of life as we can. This is futile, of course, but we can certainly buy things that will remind us of our time here — much of which has been devoted to discovering, preparing, savouring and obsessing about Japanese food.
It has quite literally changed us: Jane and I have lost weight in Japan, but we have never eaten better than in the past few years.
As much as we will miss the endless varieties of ramen, the thrill of eating sushi for breakfast at the fish market or the delight of sharing food with friends in an izakaya, we will also long for the ingredients of our home cooking. Among them: the woody, fresh crunch of myoga (Japanese ginger), the bright tang of yuzu (one of many citrus fruits I will miss) or shiso (a relative of mint).
Some of the Japanese cooking that we have learnt will probably remain on the Grimes family menu; most will probably not. We are heading to a new city that will have unique food of its own, and we will certainly get into that too. We’ll move on — and knowing that, I think, is part of the reason why we are here in Kappabashi staring longingly at ginkgo roasters and dried bonito slicers.
For now, our next destination is Kama-Asa, which has been run by the same family for four generations but has the vibe of a high-end retailer in Ginza or Paris, where they have opened a branch. The lighting and fresh flowers make it look almost like a gallery, and we pretty much want everything in the place.
But I am here to check out the yakitori grill, a small rectangular box designed for grilling chicken on skewers. Eating yakitori and drinking beer is one of the great simple culinary pleasures of life in Japan, and I would love to bring this experience home. But as I examine a stylish orange model, doubts creep in. Will I really use this?
I expect Jane to talk me out of it, but she’s firm. “We should buy it. It’s small, it’s not expensive and yakitori is delicious.” As we pay, that fantasy kitchen begins to take shape in our minds.
Before the fateful meeting at the knife shop, we pop into a crowded store that sells paper lanterns and bar signs. We are greeted by the sprightly owner, dressed in a leopard-print top, who tells us that she and her husband have been running the place for 50 years.
We are taken with some small red lanterns, which she explains are from Kyoto and meant for a sake bar. When Jane remarks that sake is delicious, she replies “I drink beer!” and lets out a big laugh. We leave with five of the lanterns.
As we enter Knife Shop TDI, manager Makoto Kawaguchi recognises us immediately. He pulls out the knives we were looking at before, along with some others. He tells me that these knives come from Gifu prefecture, home to Seki City, a town that has been famous for its blades for more than 700 years.
It turns out that the gyuto I have my eye on is a more western-style knife than the Japanese chef’s knife, which is known as santoku. My head wants the traditional knife, but the gyuto feels more natural in my hand. Still, the carbon steel in the centre of the blade is a distinctive feature of Japanese knives. (Carbon steel is harder and stronger than stainless, but it rusts. The key is to dry the edge after each use.)
Once we’ve decided on the gyuto, he pulls a half dozen of them off the shelf, unboxes them and asks us to pick out the one that is “the most handsome”. Indeed, no two are alike thanks to the nashiji finish, which leaves each with a distinctive mottled pattern. Kawaguchi explains that nashiji translates as “pear skin” — referring to the spotty, bumpy surface of Japanese pears.
We select the most handsome of both the chef’s knife and the paring knife. Thrilled, we pack our haul on to our bikes and begin to cycle home. But we have barely made it past the giant chef’s gaze before we turn around.
Back at the brush shop, Jane quickly snatches one of the witch brooms and marches to the cash register, prompting belly laughs from the owner. She cuts off a length of string, which we use to tie the broom to the child seat at the back of Jane’s bike. With the last crucial purchase made, we ride off. After all, even a fantasy kitchen needs to be swept.
Christopher Grimes is executive editor at Nikkei Asia and an editor at the FT
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