Headshot of Jake Hobson from Niwaki

Kitchen Knives from Japan: An Interview with Jake Hobson

In Blog, Events & News by Luke StuartLeave a Comment

Since his first trip to Japan in 1997, Jake has met with makers and blacksmiths all over the country who inspired him to start his business, Niwaki. Based in Dorset, Jake sells great stuff from Japan: gardening tools, kitchen knives and sharpening stones. He has met the people who make the knives and learnt about the history and stories behind the products he chooses.

Teruko, who you may have met on our Thai and Japanese courses, first introduced us to Jake, and our recent chef academy students spent the afternoon with him, understanding how the Japanese knives are made, the best ones to use and how to sharpen them correctly. That’s a skill in itself. Here he tells us how his love for the landscape, people and food of Japan inspired him to start Niwaki, and what makes Japanese kitchen knives so special.

Jake, tell us about your background

I studied sculpture at the Slade in London, and got a final year travel award to go to Japan. I was interested in the way people react to nature, and different attitudes towards what nature was, and Japan sounded intriguing, so I made a trip to coincide with the cherry blossom season, which they celebrate with Hanami (literally, looking at the flowers). This took me to a lot of gardens, which was where I discovered the Japanese way of pruning trees, which lead me to pruning tools, which in turn led to a fascination with sharp things in general, and kitchen knives in particular.

Niwaki sign
Did you have a ‘Eureka’ moment that made you want to start the business?
Yes – after my initial trip to Japan I then spent two years there, and spent time working at a tree nursery. Back in England, using the tools I’d used in Japan, everyone commented on how good they were, and after a while the penny dropped!

What does the word ‘Niwaki’ mean?
Garden Tree. Gardeners in the west use the term to refer to small, attractive trees that would work well in a garden – a flowering cherry, for example, but in Japan it refers to trees that are pruned and shaped to fit into the scale of a garden. I like the idea that it is a manmade tree, and the tools used are a vital part of it.

Do you go to Japan yourself to source all of your products?
Yes, as often as possible! My wife, Keiko, is Japanese, so we combine work with family, but I make a point of visiting new makers and blacksmiths at least once a year, partly in the search for new products, but also to learn more about their craft. I’m particularly keen on learning about sharpening.

Why is Japan such an inspiration for you?
So many reasons! I love the landscape of the country, and spend as much time as possible travelling about when we visit. I like the way they respect traditional crafts and are prepared to pay for it properly (some craftsmen become national treasures) but are prepared to embrace new technology and ideas as well. The idea of the family business going back over generations is common, as are apprenticeships, with younger workers learning from the old. I also like the food.
Niwaki Bubinga kitchen knives from Japan
Kitchen knives are readily available in the UK, what makes Japanese knives so special?
The steel! Most Japanese knives are triple-layered, known as san mai. The middle layer is a high quality carbon steel (famously Blue Paper Steel, but many others as well) that is sandwiched between an outer cladding of softer mild steel to protect it. So the cutting edge is ferociously sharp, but protected. The weight and feel is also different – often lighter, although they also make western style knives that have a heavier, more substantial feel to them.

If you could choose one “all round” kitchen knife, which one would it be?
The Gyuto, the chef’s knife, does pretty much everything. We sell a lovely Bubinga handled one, with a Blue Paper Steel blade wrapped with stainless steel, finished in a rough texture known as nashi (after the Japanese pear).

Find out more about Jake’s story on the Niwaki website, or find him on Twitter and Facebook. Have you used a Japanese kitchen knife? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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