Welcome One and All

by Nancy Bestor

One of the many pleasures of visiting Japan is the opportunity to shop in its delightful department stores and independent shops. If you time your visit to a department store upon its morning opening, you’ll be fortunate enough to experience each and every employee standing at attention at their “station,” and then welcoming you with a bow as you pass by. This lasts but a few minutes after opening, no more than five, but it is truly a fascinating cultural experience like no other.

Equally delightful, however, is shopping in a small independent store, where employees take great pride in their products and service. Whether we were buying a small inexpensive box of chocolates or a handmade scarf, we were treated like royalty, and our purchase was packaged and bagged as though it were a one-of-a-kind, million dollar diamond necklace.

Before our most recent visit to Japan, Bob and I decided we were in the market for new kitchen knives, so we did a little research to find the spot that would best suit our wants needs. Although one can buy high quality Japanese knives in many markets throughout Japan, our research told us that one of the best and least touristy spots is Shigeharu Cutlery in Kyoto. Shigeharu, which has been in business since about 1200, apparently started as a sword making shop. Today they sell just about every size and type of knife imaginable.

Shigeharu wasn’t the easiest place to find. Of course it would have helped if we could read Japanese, but alas there was no “Japanese Knives Sold Here” placard out front to lead the way. Inside the quiet store, we handled a few different knife sizes and styles, until we found the two that suited us best. Perhaps this is what Harry Potter felt like when he was choosing a wand.

English is not spoken at Shigeharu, but with pictures and pointing, we were able to determine which two knives we “needed”, how to care for them, and how much they would cost. While other Japanese knife stores may sell knives made in Japan, Shigeharu knives are made right in the shop where they are sold, by the man selling the knives himself. Our knives are carbon steel, and while they require a bit more care, they will also stay sharp longer than stainless steel knives. Carbon steel does have a propensity to rust, so to keep them in good working order it is essential to dry them very soon after washing, and of course never store them wet.

The shopkeeper also gave us a quick demonstration on sharpening our new knives, and now Bob has regular weekend sharpening sessions in our kitchen. He says he likes it.

Our two knives, plus a sharpening stone, cost $223 and before we left, our friendly shopkeeper\knife maker engraved his name into the blade of the larger knife we purchased. And of course, as we were leaving and thanking him, he bowed to us several times, as did every other retail employee everywhere we shopped.

Shigeharu Cutlery is a great option in Kyoto for Japanese knives, but if you’re not in the knife market, and are traveling to Japan, I suggest you find something else to buy, as the shopping experience really is like no other.