Some 700 years ago, a famous Japanese blacksmith from Kyoto, named Kuniyasu Chiyozuru, came to the village of Takefu (now Echizen) in the state, or prefecture, called Fukui. There, he transformed the metal-making art of the samurai katana into artisan knives designed for everyday warriors in the kitchens and in the fields.

Today, 39-year-old Yoshihiro Yauji continues that tradition, and after 20 years of blacksmithing, he is one of the best houchou (kitchen knives) artisans in the country.

Yauji was born and raised in Fukui, the prefecture’s capital, near Echizen. First inspired by blacksmiths in the video games he played as a kid, Yauji’s interest in craftsmanship was nurtured by his grandfather who built toys with him. “I could use tools like gimlets and hammers before I went to kindergarten,” Yauji tells Popular Mechanics.

handmade japanese knives
Naotomo Umewaka

While in community college, Yauji seemed destined to work in a factory or in machine development, but then came across another idea.

“Reflecting about my hometown, Fukui, there were knives,” Yauji says. “I always thought that knives are starting points for craftsmanship, because we can’t make tools without knives. So I decided to work in this industry.”

Yauji apprenticed with one of the best blacksmiths in the country, and quickly became a houchou master himself. Unlike many blacksmiths, Yauji handcrafts the blades from start to finish—from the forge to its final polish. “Since I am the blacksmith and a polisher, I can get the feedback from the polisher directly—as we’re the same person,” Yauji says. “I improve my skills as a blacksmith because I am a polisher, and I improve as a polisher because I’m a blacksmith.”

Yauji also designs and crafts some of the specialized equipment he uses in his shop, including hibashi (also known as blacksmith tongs) and his polishing machine. In a given month, Yauji makes 150–200 knives, and the process isn’t all that different from the way Kuniyasu Chiyozuru made houchou hundreds of years ago.

handmade japanese knives
Naotomo Umewaka

The knife begins with a process known as Hizukui Tanzou, which heats up the metal and forges the knife into its general shape. Shoudon makes the iron soft and able to be manipulated more easily. Then, Reikain Tanzou is the process of forging the iron once it’s cold, and the final shape comes into focus as it’s cut and shaved. Then Yakiire makes the iron knife hard, while Yakimodoshi increases its toughness, all before Hizumitori straightens the iron.

Next, two whetstones—one big and one small—sharpen and brighten the blade, and finally, the last part of the process is called Kobazuke, which creates the all-important cutting edge on the knife. With the blade ready, Yauji carves his name and attaches the handle. The houchou is now complete.

handmade japanese knives
Naotomo Umewaka

Yauji’s favorite part of the knife-making process comes at the very end, when seeing the happiness customers get not just from buying his knives, but also using them every single day. Every knife sold is imprinted with Yauji’s name on the blade—and for good reason.

“There is a certain warmth to handcrafted metals,” Yauji says. “You can also feel that person’s aura in the tool.”

Headshot of Darren Orf
Darren Orf

Darren lives in Portland, has a cat, and writes/edits about sci-fi and how our world works. You can find his previous stuff at Gizmodo and Paste if you look hard enough.