It is 6am and the Tsukiji fish market is in full swing. I have been roused from my sleep at the Aman hotel across town by a wake-up call from my guide for the day, Tyler Palma at InsideJapan Tours. As I blink to life, the Tokyo-dwelling American drives me through the quiet streets to this buzzing marketplace. Stalls full of plaited sea urchin, crimson red tuna and sea snails the size of fists are drawing crowds of early-morning shoppers. However, it isn’t food I’m after. Past vegetable stands with foot-long red carrots and knots of emerald fresh wasabi, Palma ushers me to a shop where a sense of calm permeates. Here a man with a white apron and an intense expression is sharpening a 12in steel blade, deep in concentration.
Hirozi Sugimoto is surrounded by his sons, who are all engaged in making different knives, from sushi ones with wooden handles to Chinese cleavers that look like they could cut a bicycle in half. I am here to buy two kitchen knives for myself, and one for my father. Palma speaks to the metalsmith in Japanese and relays the shop’s history: the business began as a swordmaker in 1830; when swordmaking was banned during the American occupation after the second world war, the family turned their hand to knives.
The range, glinting in rows behind glass cabinets, is astonishing. I pick up a magnificent-looking specimen, a Fugu-hiki, with a round handle and thin blade. This is for straight slicing of blowfish. Another, which doesn’t look dissimilar, is for angled slicing of sashimi, and there are two kinds of knife for slicing vegetables from different regions in Japan. I feel humbled as I think of my own collection: big, small and medium. It is time to up my game. It would be wonderful to have a full set of sushi knives in my Chelsea flat, but they would no-doubt remain untouched in their dainty felt pouches; luckily, the Sugimoto family also produce a beautiful range of “western” knives. I pick an 18cm Gyutou blade (Y13,300, about £85,pictured) made with industrial-grade alloy steel, and a wooden handle, and get the same for my father’s upcoming birthday. I also pick up a 15cm Petty knife (about £73), which is perfect for paring vegetables.
The offer to hand-engrave both my father’s and my name in Japanese for no extra charge is too good to refuse. As I wait my eye catches a sharkskin implement: “a wasabi grater”, Palma informs me. Always partial to fiery accompaniments to food, and useless kitchen ephemera from far-flung lands, I am sold. My £5 grater will take pride of place in my flat next to the morning-glory slicer from Vietnam and the tortilla-maker from Colombia.
Back at home, I put my beautiful yet lethal Gyutou to the test on a big hunk of beef; it cuts through like butter. I have never handled anything so sharp before. The knives have since had many outings – from trimming baby artichokes for a spring salad, to industrial-level cutting for party soups. These are pieces I use regularly and cherish. The sharkskin wasabi grater, alas, remains chic and pretty and entirely unused.