How to Choose the Best Japanese Chef Knives

Japanese Chef's Knife
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Japanese chef knives are some of the best knives available in the world. A lot of skill and mastery goes into the manufacturing of knives in Japan. What you may not know as a Western cook who is just looking into the world of Japanese cutlery, is that there are many types and styles of Japanese knives. The variations make it difficult for a newbie to choose the best Japanese chef knives for their own kitchen.

Being a frequent traveler, and having visited Japan myself, I know that a lot of people who visit Japan put finding and buying top-quality Japanese kitchen knives at the top of their list of things to do while there.

Whether you’re planning to buy Japanese kitchen knives in Japan or at home, if you don’t have the proper knowledge about what to look for when purchasing a Japanese chef knife, you have a high probability of walking away with the wrong knife for you.

You might also like: How to Select the Best Sushi Knife.

Quick-View Best Japanese Knives

If you don’t have time to read all of the reviews in order to make a decision, we’ve put together a quick list of the top 3 Japanese chefs knives that are available for purchase online through Amazon. These knives are all top quality, reliable knives that meet the criteria laid out below in the details.

How to Choose the Best Japanese Chef Knives

We’ve put together a list of important criteria to look for to select the best Japanese chef knife. Once you’ve read through this list, you’ll be more familiar with the types of Japanese kitchen knives that are available and you’ll be primed and ready to purchase one that suits you.

Type of Knife

I mentioned before that there are many different styles of Japanese knives, but the one you will likely use most frequently is a gyuto.

Gyoto is the basic equivalent of a Western chef’s knife. They generally range from 210mm to 270mm in length, though you’ll find some that are shorter and longer. They have a very similar style to what you’re probably used to in a chef’s knife. Unless you’re specifically looking for a sushi knife or a fish knife, it’s a gyuto you’ll be looking for. I personally like a smaller knife blade, somewhere around a 180mm is equivalent to a Western utility knife, but most Japanese Gyuto come in 8″ length.

Where It Is Made

A Japanese chefs knife should be made in Japan, right? Most of them are, but some are not. Of course if you’re buying the knife in Japan, you don’t need to worry about this. But if you’re buying a knife online, you should check to make sure. Some are made with Japanese materials that have been imported into another country (like China) to be made cheaper. Want Japan quality? Then buy only Japanese knives.

If you’re looking for the highest quality, top of the line materials and construction, you should make sure the knife is manufactured in Japan.

Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel

For the typical home cook, a stainless steel Japanese knife is recommended over a carbon steel knife. Carbon steel has a tendency to rust when they aren’t thoroughly dried, or if food is left on them. For this reason, carbon steel knifes require a lot more care and vigilance than stainless steel. Of course, if you have no problem keeping your knives clean and dry all the time, there are benefits to carbon steel, such as staying sharp longer. Both of these materials are better than ceramic knives, which can’t really be sharpened.

Cost

Cost may or may not be a factor for you, depending on how much you are willing to spend. Japanese chef’s knives cost on average $150. You can find ones that are less and more, obviously. But if you’re willing to spend around $150, you can find a very nice, high-end Japanese chef’s knife that will last for a very long time. The less you spend, the less quality the knife will be.

Size

An 8-to 8.5-inch chef’s knife is the typical and most preferred size for every day tasks in the kitchen, but you may find other lengths available too. How do you choose which is right for you? I think you have to try them out to be sure which one you like best. If you have smaller hands, you might prefer a smaller blade. You can’t really know until you try it. But it’s recommended to start out with an 8-inch blade.

Tang

The tang refers to the way the blade is attached to the handle. You’ll hear this said as either full tang or push tang. A full tang means the knife blade runs the full length of the handle. This can sometimes indicate better quality because it’s possible that the blade may come lose from the handle on a knife with a push tang, but when considering higher-end knives, it’s likely not going to be a concern, just personal preference.

In Japanese knives, it’s not as important to consider the tang of a knife, because it is crafted differently, with the blade and the handle being two pieces that are welded together.

» Want to learn more about full tang vs partial tang?

Handle

The handles of Japanese knives are often made of wood which won’t become slippery when wet, as many of the Western knives with plastic fitted handles will. The wood is fine-grained and porous to hold its shape and improve grip. The general shapes are chestnut (frequently called “D”) and octagon, with a tapering to be slightly larger at the tail end.

Cladding

Cladding refers to a knife that has been wrapped. For instance, the core of the knife is carbon steel, which has been wrapped in another metal like stainless steel. These are easier to take care of than a full carbon steel knife. Many Japanese knives are clad in a style called Damascus (or Suminagashi), which adds a swirl design to the outside of the knife. The cladding doesn’t necessarily offer any benefit, but you do want to be aware of the layers and the type of steel used.

Bevel

As mentioned above, many Japanese knives now come with dual edges, though not necessarily symmetrical. This will be an issue for left-handed people. You’ll want to check the edge in this case, to be sure that the cutting edge faces the right directly for you. If you’d rather have a single-edged knife, you will also need to take care to look for this specifically on the knives you’re considering.

Our Favorite Japanese Chef Knives and Where to Buy Them

where to buy Japanese knives

If you have a chance to travel to Japan to look for a knife, that’s the best possible way to find one that fits you. I had the opportunity to look at knives in Tokyo in Tsukiji Market and when I saw “the knife” I knew it was the one for me instantly.

Even if you don’t believe in kismet with a knife, you will have a chance to talk to the shop owner about the knife, tell them exactly what you want (now that you’ve learned everything about Japanese knives!) and they can help you make a wise purchase. There are knife shops all over Japan, but of course it will be easiest to find them in the major cities – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto.

In Japan

  • Tokyo: One particular shop I like in Tokyo is Kamata. They have both hand-made and factory-made knives to suit all budgets, and they’re beautiful. You can stop by the store if you’re in Tokyo, or you can even order online and have the knives shipped to you. Tsukiji Masamoto is another option in Tokyo, if you’re already going to be in Tsukiji Market.
  • Osaka: You can find a really fantastic selection of knives at Tower Knives (easy to get to by train), they are open from 10am-6pm and regularly receive foreign guests, so no need to worry about a language barrier. Osaka is known as the kitchen capital of Japan. There is a whole street devoted to kitchen and restaurant supplies, called Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street. If you can’t find a knife there, you aren’t looking very hard.
  • Kyoto: The best place for tourists to find knives is in Nishiki Market: plus, it’s really fun to walk around. There’s a store there called Aritsugu. There are more than 400 knives on display there, so even if you’re not in the market for a knife, it’s a really cool place to explore.

(Note: most of the links above are to Trip Advisor, because the store’s website is in Japanese.)

Plan a Trip to Japan

If you’re thinking about planning a Japan trip, but don’t know where to start, we recommend thinking about a guided tour. The company Japan and More offers a fully escorted 8-day Intro to Japan Tour that’s perfect for experiencing the best of Japan. The itinerary covers Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya, plus the mountain village of Takayama. The cost of the tour includes all accommodations, transportation, entrance fees, some meals, and pre-departure help and advice. The tour group is small, at just 8 people, so you won’t feel like you’re stuck on a bus or anything. They actually have three different tours that depart throughout the year.

Going to Japan on a guided tour is beneficial because the guides can help you navigate the world of Japanese knives and find the right places to buy where you won’t be taken advantage of as a tourist. You may also want to read our guide on taking a cooking vacation in Japan.

Buying Online

It would be great if everyone could go to Japan to pick out their favorite chef’s knife for themselves, but that’s not very practical. Instead, we have to find good options at home that we can trust. Below are a few of our favorite Japanese chef knifes that are available to purchase from the comfort of home – no flight necessary.

Japanese Chef Knife Reviews

Shun Premier Chefs Knife

The Shun Premier Chef’s Knife is a really good place to start. If this is your first Japanese chef’s knife, and you don’t have the time or want to put in too much time researching the options, then you can make a safe bet on this knife. It’s a good all-purpose knife for chopping, slicing and dicing. The knife has an 8-inch blade and a slightly contoured Pakkawood handle in a walnut finish that is NSF certified. The handle is symmetrical so it can be used by either a right-handed or left-handed person.

The blade is made with VG-MAX steel and is clad with 16 layers of stainless Damascus steel. It has a hand-hammered finish that adds an element of uniqueness and visual appeal. The Shun Classic 8-in chefs knife is also a great buy for Shun fans who don’t want to pay quite this high of a price.

Features:

Handle: PakkaWood (walnut colored)
Cladding: VG-MAX Stainless Steel Damascus-clad blade with 34 micro-layers of steel on each side supporting a strong core.
Finish: Hammered tsuchime finish
Bevel: 16-degree double-bevel blade
Tang: Full

Made in Japan

See on Amazon

Yoshihiro Damascus Chefs Knife

The Yoshihiro Chef’s Knife is a very nice looking knife. It has a VG-10 stainless steel core clad with 16 layers of hammered Damascus steel. It is a full tang blade encased in a mahogany wood handle. The curved blade makes it great for chopping and cutting with a rocking motion. This knife has a 15-degree blade that is standard for most Japanese-style knives.

This knife is not mass produced in a factory, like others are. It is 100% handcrafted in Japan. One of the things I like the most about Yoshihiro is that it also comes in a 7-inch version, in case you want a smaller blade, or have smaller hands.

Features:

Handle: Mahogany wood
Cladding: VG-10 forged and hammered steel, Damascus-style.
Bevel: 15-degree angle
Tang: Full

Handcrafted in Japan. Not mass produced.

See on Amazon

$169.95

The Miyabi Kaizen is crafted from VG10 super steel with a 64-layer flower Damascus pattern and was handmade in Seki, Japan. Miyabi’s process is to put the blades through an ice-hardening process that improves the strength and flexibility of the blade and makes it corrosion resistant. The edges are then hand-finished using the three-step honbazuke blade-honing technique that is supposed to give it a longer lasting edge. The edge has a 9 to 12 degree angle.

The handle of the Miyabi Kaizen is made of a durable black linen Micarta in a D-shape that has a slight pattern on it to improve the grip. The Miyabi knives come with a lifetime guarantee and should last for a very long time if properly cared for.

Features:

Handle: MiCarta handle
Cladding: VG10 super steel with a 64-layer flower Damascus pattern
Bevel: 9-12 degree angle
Tang: Full
Made in Seki, Japan

See on Amazon

CONCLUSION

There is a lot of information you need to make a smart decision on which Japanese chefs knives to buy, but now that you’ve read through our guide, you should be able to make a much more informed decision. We hope you end up with a great knife that will last you a lifetime! If you’re looking to stock your kitchen with better, higher-quality knives, we have a whole guide on how to fill your knife block.

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How to choose the best Japanese chef's knife
How to choose the best Japanese chef’s knife

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5 thoughts on “How to Choose the Best Japanese Chef Knives

  1. pia says:

    Ceramic knives can be sharpened but only with a diamond sharpening plate. An Edge Pro, or other clone fixed angle sharpener can be used with a wide assortment of stones and diamond plates.

  2. Bobby says:

    Nice choices Laura. Very insightful article and love the story about your trip to Japan! I’m also a fan of the Shun Premier, and its hammered finish. I’m curious, what makes it your favorite over some of the other great Shun Knife Lines? Also, Shun says it is now making the Premier blade’s cutting core out of VG-MAX steel, wrapped in stainless Damascus steel. According to their website, it should be even more durable than the VG-10 steel on the other knives listed because of added chromium (for corrosion resistance) and carbon (improves strength).

    • Laura says:

      I particularly like that they are extremely lightweight (very thin blade), which is easier for me to handle than some of the others since I have small hands. I also think it’s a stunningly beautiful knife. The VG-Max is a perk, but it’s difficult for a layman to tell the difference.

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