The Million and 1st Japanese knife recommendation

Joined Jan 16, 2011

I'm looking at investing 200 give or take in a nice kitchen knife of the 'santoku' variety and san-mai construction (tho no super tacky damascus or hammered finish).  I have been searching on this forum a while but most of the recommendations I find have western handles, and I'm really only looking for Japanese style handles (Wa handles?).  I hate to admit it but I do like the styling of the Shun Elite series, I suppose its because its the only Japanese style knife thats san-mai with a Japanese style handle that I can readily find, not to mention I'm a little bit of a sucker for the fake hamon (I assume it to be fake, I doubt kershaw coats the back of the blade when tempering)...  Any help will be welcome.  Thanks!

Joined Oct 9, 2008

I don't know the answers, but your questions are very good ones:

You want (correct me if I've got this wrong):
  • santoku
  • sanmai
  • about $200
  • wa handle
  • best bang for the buck
Questions from me:

1) Why do you want sanmai?

2) How do you sharpen?

Off the cuff, I'd say the best thing I know of is the Aritsugu Tsukiji bunkabouchou (a different name for a santoku -- long story), which currently weighs in at well under $200 in Tokyo, though I have no idea what you can get it for here. If memory serves, it's made in their A-style, meaning a secret proprietary semi-stainless that is apparently durable as h*ll and takes a wicked edge. But since I don't use knives like this, and I don't surf the field very much, my advice comes from what I happen to know about -- and you should take it with a huge salt lick.

Somebody want to weigh in here?
Joined Jan 16, 2011
Your bullets are absolutely correct and a heck of a lot more to the point!  As for the sanmai, maybe my reasoning is overly critical and doesn't have a whole lot of place in kitchen knives but from my understanding is the laminated blade allows for a higher carbon content and hardness for the edge itself and a more stain resistant and less brittle blade overall because of a greater content of nickel and chromium.  If anything I like the idea of it (I know, silly), and if there are negatives to this construction I haven't heard any.  At the moment I'm working with some heavy german steel which I like but am looking forward to trying new things.

As for sharpening I have a whetstone that is somewhere around 4000 grit, but as I'm looking to invest more in my steel I'll likely look at getting two stones.  One around 1200 and another possibly 5000 or 6000?
Joined Jan 19, 2011
Hi Newt,

It's been 4 days since your original post, and 2 days since Chris's bump, so I thought I'd emerge from lurking to mention a san-mai santoku with a wa-handle that is on sale in North America ... not, unfortunately, for $200.  Also unfortunately, this is just book knowledge ... I've never handled this knife.  Maybe, however, someone on the forum will know of the knife maker and his work.

He is Suogo Yamatsuka, and he is one of the "meisters" at the Takayuki workshop in Sakai City.  Go to the Sakai Takayuki website at, then click on "English", "Product", "Japanese style", and "Ginsan wa", in that order.  The knife is in stock at for 275 Canadian dollars.

The Takayuki website does not say which soft stainless steel is used for the outer layers of the knife, but the core is made of "Yasuki silver-3 steel".  This is one of the Yasuki Speciality Steels from Hitachi and it is variously known as Ginsanko, Gingami no.3, and just G3.  With the early stainless steels for knives, if you made the knife harder and thus sharper, you also made it more brittle and likely to chip.  G3 is one of the advances which allow greater hardness without too much extra brittleness.

The VG10 steel that is used for Shun Classic knives is another.  Both G3 and VG10 are highly regarded.  The SG2 (Takefu Super Gold 2) used for Shun Elite knives is more controversial.  It is a "powder steel" capable of great hardness, but with some question marks over its brittleness and how hard it is to sharpen.

Those with a great deal more knowledge than I can advise on the most appropriate steel "alloy" to choose.  Remember that my "Culinary Experience" is an understanding of Burgundy, Port & Whisky!

If you were willing to forego the wa-handle, you could choose a san-mai santoku for little more than $100 from a range of knives that is highly regarded on this forum.  That's the Hiromoto AS.  Go to, then click on "Products", "Hiromoto", and "Tenmi Jyuraku Aogami Super Series".  The outer layers of the san-mai are a soft stainless steel, but the core is a non-stainless carbon steel; another Hitachi YSS, known as Aogami Super, or Blue Super.  The only bit of carbon steel exposed is the edge, but even so it will be slightly more demanding than stainless steel; if you can accept that, you can get carbon steel's combination of good sharpness and low brittleness.


Joined Jan 16, 2011
Dr Owl,

Sorry for the delay, I have been traveling a bit.  Thank you for your input!  Two unfortunate things about the Suogo Yamatsuka knife is that it is out of my price range and it doesn't look like it would be easy to make a set with in the future.

I wish I could forgo the wa handle but something about western handles drives me crazy.  I guess I could think about doing without a laminated style blade.  Do you or anyone else on this forum know of any good single steel blades with a wa handle around or under that price?
Joined Jan 19, 2011
Hi Newt,

Like Pete, I wouldn't be over-concerned about matching all your knives.  Over the years your tastes will change and so will your needs.  You may well want carbon steel as well as stainless -- those will likely come from two different makers.  You may want to spend over $150 on your primary knife; and less than $10 on a sheepsfoot parer.  And your bread knife will likely come from a range of its own.  It can be best to make a virtue of necessity and regard your array of different knife handles with pride, as an audiophile might his or her array of electronic makes.

Browsing through the online retailers may give you ideas.  Two with wide ranges (though by no means the only good ones) are in Madison and in Seki City -- I have had excellent service from Mark Richmond, but Iwahara-san has just as good a reputation on this forum.  Looking through, I saw three knives which seemed to meet all your requirements save one:

JCK Original Kagayaki Aogami Super (san-mai santoku with suminagashi finish);

Ryusen Tsuchime Damascus (san-mai santoku with tsuchime finish); and

Mizuno Tanrenjo Akitada Hontanren (carbon steel santoku made of white steel no. 2).

The first two are made of AS and VG10, about which I've already written too much.  Continuing in my steel geek ways, white steel no. 2 -- alias shironiko or shirogami no. 2 -- is another of  HItiachi's Yasuki Speciality Steels; and from white no. 2 are made some of the best knives you are ever likely to handle.  Unlike the blue steels, the white steels contain no chromium or tungsten.  This should make them able to hold a sharper edge, but able to hold it for less long.  I would love to have the chance to find out whether that's true in practice!

Even though the carbon steel knife is the cheapest of the three, I suspect that it would be the sharpest in use ... and that rather too much of the cost of the san-mai knives has been spent on decoration.  But I don't know.  I just don't have the experience.

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Joined Jan 16, 2011
Its not that I'm interested in an entire set per-say but if I get used to one steel for a general purpose knife that I like, I would want a similar feel and quality in a Gyuto and Petty.  I'm definitely fine with other blades in my collection, especially for the more purpose driven knives.

Maybe my expectations were a little high coming into this, though I though they were modest to start.  Maybe a point that was missed was that I'm looking for is plain, though the JCK Aogami Super is almost bearable they are sold out (this may end up being my pick if jck gets them back in stock or something similar, as long as the damascus patterning doesn't get any more detailed), the Ryusen on the other hand...  the hammered tsuchime finish is too much.

Maybe its taking a step in the wrong direction but if I'm making allowances in the finish as far as damascus patterning and looking at the JCK Aogami Super, what are peoples opinions on the Shun classic and Sointu Kasumi knives?

Thanks so much for the input!

Joined Feb 13, 2008
Let's start with this:  You're completely wrong about the "benefits" of san mai. 

Almost all of the advantages accrue to the manufacturer in terms of lower failure rate and lower manufacturing cost.  He is then able to pass the savings along to you if he so desires.  We can delve deeper if you like, but I'm afraid you've either been reading advertising copy or lurking in forums where the hype is repeated.  So called "mono-steel" performs as well as san-mai. 

My own experience, which includes working with others and a lot of feedback, is that the better your own grip the more tolerant you are to various handle shapes and sizes.  That is "within limits" of course.  But really, handles are a matter of taste; and if you want to play with wa-handles there's no reason you shouldn't.  Or if there is someone should tell me because I'm doing it too.

The reason you don't find many wa-handled santokus is that the santoku is not a traditional Japanese shape, nor is it a shape much favored by those with good enough knife skills to be in the front ranks of those demanding high-end Japanese profiles.  There's nothing you can do with a santoku you can't do as well or better with a 10" gyuto -- providing your grip is good enough to account for the extra length.  

I don't know enough about the Kasumis to comment. 

If there's a few weeks wait on the knife you want, wait.  Don't be in such a rush to get something you don't really want and will end up owning for years.

Shun Classic are okay knives except for the petties which are pretty good and the chef's (gyutos) which are lousy (because of the profile, nothing wrong with their edge taking).  On the negative side, Shuns don't represent a great deal for the money, the edges need some thinning especially at the heel, and they are in the group of VG-10 knives which are known for "tenacious burr."  On the postive side, a lot of people find them comfortable, they can be made very sharp with a little effort, and fit and finish is truly excellent.  

Hope this helps,

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Joined Oct 9, 2008
BDL, I agree with you in principle, but for what it's worth, you are not 100% correct about san-mai. It appears that there are professional chefs in Japan who swear by the stuff, and are willing to pay a premium for it.

Look at the Masamoto catalog carefully, and note the difference in price between sanmai and non-sanmai within a given style and line. You'll notice that sanmai costs a LOT more than non-sanmai. For example, the KS-3127 wa-gyuto (my beloved gyuto!) lists for ¥29,820, but the KS-2927, described exactly the same except for the phrase "three-sheet forged," i.e. sanmai, lists for ¥58,380. Masamoto most certainly charges a premium for being Masamoto, but I have never heard it suggested that you don't get what you pay for -- and they're charging double. That's not a game or a ripoff. And while I don't surf the American e-tailers of these knives much, I have not seen this KS-29XX gyuto series for sale in them, and suspect that the market is exclusively Japanese -- and unquestionably professional.

You don't like sanmai, many others we like to chat with don't like them, I haven't used them anything like enough to have an opinion, but it appears that there are folks with very high standards and serious professional skills who prefer them and will pay big bucks for them. Why, I honestly don't know, but I do think that the blanket dismissal is somewhat inaccurate.

For those who read Japanese, which I fake from Chinese, here is the text:

KS-31XX: 水牛柄牛刀

[I read this "water buffalo horn handled gyuto"]

KS-3124 (240mm): ¥26,880

KS-3127 (270mm): ¥29,820

KS-3130 (300mm): ¥33,810

KS-3133 (330mm): ¥41,790

KS-29XX: 水牛柄三枚打牛刀

[ I read this "water buffalo horn handled three-sheet struck gyuto"]

KS-2924 (240mm): ¥54,390

KS-2927 (270mm): ¥58,380

KS-2930 (300mm): ¥64,470

If anyone can shed any light on this, I'd be fascinated, but let's do it in another thread.
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