The history of Japanese knives and its influence

The history of Japanese knives and its influence

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Hocho-shiki (knife ceremony) is a traditional Japanese ritual dating back to the ages. The mere existence of this ritual shows just how deep-rooted knives are in Japanese cooking and daily life. We spoke to Hideo Dekura, a Japanese chef based in Sydney and qualified hocho-shiki instructor, about the traditions behind the ritual and the influence knives have on cooking.

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JAPANESE CHEF:
HIDEO DEKURA

Born into a family running a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. Whilst learning about Japanese
cuisine from his father, he also learned the Iemoto-Shijo-style of hocho-shiki to polish up his traditional cooking skills. In the 1970s, he settled in Australia.

He has ventured into various industries such as catering, restaurants, and food consulting, and has also published a number of books. His contributions to Japanese cuisine have been recognised three times by the Japanese government: in 2007 with an award from the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries; in 2015 as a recipient of commendation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs; and his appointment in 2016 as the Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador.

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Q: What exactly is the ritual of hocho-shiki?

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A: While various theories exist, hocho-shiki is a ritual that was performed 1,300 years ago during the Nara period as an imperial court event. It is said to have originated as a way to present fish, poultry, and other produce to Emperor Koko, the 58th emperor of Japan. Emperors at the time were considered to be kami (gods), and the act of humans touching food to be served to the emperor would contaminate it. As such, food was sliced up using only a knife and a pair of chopsticks to avoid touching it with human hands. After 1,300 years of history, the ritual of hocho-shiki still continues to be performed to this day at Japanese shrines and temples to express gratitude to the gods for bountiful harvests. I have also performed this ritual myself a number of times in Australia. The modern iteration of the ritual still involves the wearing of an eboshi (headgear of court nobles), and hitatare (flowing dress of court nobles), and the act of filleting fish using only a pair of cooking chopsticks and a knife, without the hands ever touching the fish itself, remains intact.

Q: Has the hocho-shiki ritual had any influence on current Japanese cooking?

A: It certainly has. Appreciation of food forms the foundations of hocho-shiki. Each and every beautiful, meaningful motion of the ritual shows respect towards food; and the detailed, thorough cuts of the knife are symbolic of the mentality to waste nothing. I believe this philosophy has been passed through the 1,300 years leading to the present and is reflected in the spirit behind modern Japanese cooking.

Q: For the act of filleting meats to become a ritual, knives must play a significant role in
cooking. Is this a correct assumption to make?

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A: That’s right. In fact, do you know what dish is a Japanese cuisine original? While it used to be served in vinegar, much like namasu (a dish of raw fish and vegetables seasoned with vinegar), it is none other than sashimi. The flavours of this well-known dish vary quite drastically depending on how the fish is sliced. If the sliced cross-section is uneven, then the fibres of the fish collapse, leading to a drop in freshness; whereas if there is a sharp, clean cut, then the freshness is maintained, and the texture is pleasant, leading to an enhanced flavour. This knowledge of different cuts impacting flavours must have been why skilled chefs were known as hocho-nin (knife wielders). I believe that knives greatly impact the quality of food, much in line with the way of thinking centuries ago.

Q: What is the difference between Japanese knives and Western knives?

A: Sharpness. Whilst Western knives are easy to maintain and have their own advantages, the
sharpness of Japanese knives is phenomenal. Force is not needed to slice using a Japanese
knife, and you are able to cut up food items without destroying the fibres. These knives are
also produced with the wielder in mind, so it is well-balanced in the hand, and almost feels as if it is an extension of your own body. Japanese knives can be difficult to maintain, but there is significance behind putting in the effort for the upkeep of a treasured tool. The more you use it, the more it shows its true worth; the growing desire to cherish Japanese knives is what makes them so great.

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KYOTO – See All the Sights in Arashiyama

KYOTO – See All the Sights in Arashiyama

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Spring brings in the cherry blossoms; summer, the fresh greenery; a kaleidoscope of leaves in autumn; and a wonderland of snow in winter when the four faces of each season come to life in the popular tourist destination of Arashiyama in Kyoto. Alongside the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, the bamboo grove, Okochi Sanso Villa, and avariety of temples and shrines as must-see tourist attractions in the area, there are also experiences for foodies, hot-spring lovers, and culture junkies. While you could easily spend days in the area, reserving a day for Arashiyama on your trip to Kyoto is highly recommended.

Words and Photography: Yuriko Ishii

Located 30 minutes by foot from Arashiyama Station on the Hankyu line in southern Arashiyama is Nison-in Temple in north Sagano. There are a number of places to check out along the way, making it a whole day’s worth of sight-seeing fun as you stroll and stop on by. For those so inclined, there are a number of shops around offering kimono rentals if you wish to try out the popular trend of donning the traditional garment to walk around the streets.

Arashiyama’s iconic Togetsu-kyo Bridge

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The Togetsu-kyo Bridge stands proudly over the Katsura River flowing gently below it. This landmark is symbolic of Arashiyama and is the perfect place to start your walking tour of the area. The bridge (literally “moon-crossing bridge”) is said to have been named in the Kamakura period when the then Emperor Kameyama (who reigned between 1259 – 1274) noted that the moon appeared to cross the bridge as he sailed on the night of a full moon. The handrails on the bridge are made of wood to blend into the beautiful surrounds of Arashiyama, while the piers and girders are made of reinforced concrete. For a great way to see the bridge, rent a boat and sail down from the upper area of Katsura River.


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Shrines and temples surrounded by nature

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A tour of the many shrines and temples in the area is a must on any visit to Arashiyama. Tenryuji Temple was constructed in 1339 by Takauji Ashikaga to pray for the repose of Emperor Go- Daigo with Muso Soseki appointed as the temple’s first chief priest, and is also a recognised World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. The temple features Sogenchi Garden, the first location to be designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty of Japan. The elegance of period-style tradition intertwines in perfect harmony with the Zen culture in this garden and invokes different ambiences throughout the year through the seasonal changes from the cherry blossoms and azaleas, to the beautiful greenery and winter landscapes. Be sure to check out the impressive Cloud Dragon painting on the ceiling of the Zen Meditation Hall while you’re there!

Nonomiya Shrine is also another spot to add to your list. The deity Nonomiya is enshrined in the main shrine, with the deity Atago (protector of fire and victory) in the right shrine, and the deities Shiramine Bezaiten (protector of arts), Shirafuku Inari (protector of childbirth and business), Oyama Bezaiten (protector of traffic safety and wealth), and Nonomiya Daikokuten (protector of marriage) in the left shrine. Located in the leftmost area is the Turtle Stone, which is said to grant your wish within a year if you rub it
while you pray.

A mystical bamboo grove path and Okochi Sanso Villa

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The symbolic path stretching through the bamboo grove from Nonomiya Shrine to Okochi Sanso Villa offers a 200-metre-long leisurely stroll to soak up the mystical atmosphere of the surrounds. Bamboo plants reach straight up towards the sky on either side of this path, creating a breathtaking air of sheer beauty and wonder. Okochi Sanso Villa was originally the holiday home of famous period-film actor, Denjiro Okochi (1898 – 1962). He spent the last 30 years of his life searching for eternal beauty, gradually building his classical Japanese-style circuit garden. Beautiful seasonal trees, such as pines, cherry blossoms, and maple trees are found around the Daijokaku (main house) where the old-capital atmosphere can be enjoyed, before hiking over to the tea house to be greeted with a view of the Hozu River’s gentle current stretching across below.

Enjoy delectable delights, shopping, and art

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The western exit at the front of Arashiyama Station is lined with famous Kyoto establishments. Within the free-flowing station, free of ticket gates, are two-metre-tall poles wrapped in Kyotoprinted silk, covered in acrylic, and lit up with LED lights. There
are 600 of these poles placed around the station to create this “Kimono Forest” of mystery that has become a popular hot spot. With the number of restaurants and stores around, the area is always bustling with people.

The Arashiyama area puts on a show of eye-catching wonders throughout the year, the pink, spring views of the cherry blossoms in full bloom (late March to early April), and the gorgeous autumnal leaves (mid-November to early December) are the best of the best. Try dropping by popular sightseeing destinations during the morning to beat the rush of fellow tourists when you’re in the surrounds.


Daiwa Royal Hotel