Dec 032010

Shotaro Namuro & Yasuhiro Hirakawa, knife makers from Sakai Japan.

Shotaro Nomuro &

Yasuhiro Hirakawa

There are a few places left in

the world, where things are

made by hand.  Sakai Japan

used to craft the worlds finest

swords.  But even though the

samurais have all disappeared,

the tradition of turning lumps of

iron into razor sharp blades

remains virtually unchanged.

What does knife making have to do with Leica?

Just a few blocks north of Ground Zero, is a small shop that specializes in Japanese knives.  Chefs come from around the world to hand pick their blade of choice.  The cult like following of chefs, amateurs, and curious Japan-o-philes reminds me of the boutiques who carry Leica equipment.  The conversations about knives are nearly identical to those about cameras and lenses.  One will often hear, “Quality is unparalleled”, “The feel is just right”, and the prices are high enough to make your friends wonder “WTF? Did you just spend that much money on a knife?”  Leica cameras, Japanese knives, what’s a few thousand dollars between friends?

Korin’s owner, Chiharu Sugai, is a knife maker from Japan, whose specialty was attaching the handles to a finished blade.  But tonight, he invited two master craftsmen, from his home town in Sakai, Japan, to demonstrate their knife sharpening skills.  Lucky attendees to the evening event could have their knives finely tuned by Shotaro Nomuro and Yasuhiro Hirakawa.  The have been making knives since they were teenagers and, like most master craftsmen, they can barely be found on the internet.  (In fact, other than the Korin announcement I couldn’t find them at all.)

The knives are inspected for damage prior to being sharpened. He appears to be using his eyes, but most of the time, they use their fingers to check for damage and remain in conversation the entire time.

Sitting and Working

It would be a challenge to find a modern office where anyone works on the floor.  Sitting on the floor is an Asian tradition that never really caught on in the West.  Watching these two men, who have a combined experience of almost 100 years, sit down to perform their finest work, reinforces the meditative practice of knife sharpening.  A seated position implies a humility that must come with working in a family tradition that has been operating for over 1,000 years.

When I read about Leica raising the prices of their cameras yesterday, it got me thinking about why I value hand made goods that are slow to produce, finicky to fix, and expensive to buy?

His expression while working does not reveal any strain or effort. It looks as though he could be glancing at a newspaper.

If you have never held a real Japanese yanagi knife, ask your local sushi chef if you can hold his knife.  Holding one of these knives is like staring into a thousand year old thesis on a single action, cutting a piece of fish with one stroke.  The refinements of this design may never change.  This in itself is an interesting notion because the specialized evolution of knife design will see different interpretations, but will probably remain the same, unless of course our fish change.

The knives are run back and forth over stones, which are soaked in water. There are no fancy jigs or tools. He works on a wooden block, covered with a cloth napkin, on a stone. The simplicity is astounding.


The evening started without much announcement. A seventy year old man sat at the wet stones and put his hand out, gesturing for the first knife.  I had my M9 and a 50mm Summicron f 2.0 set at ISO 640 to take a few pictures.  Each knife receives a quick diagnosis.  A quick look at its straightness, a touch on the blade, and the weight of the blade is checked.  When they checked each knife, they made a silent expression, as if to say, “This knife is ok, not great, but ok.”  My guess is the competition between knife makers is as intense as the blog-uments about camera manufactures.  Over a few bottles of sake, I bet it gets ugly.

Elliot Erwitt once suggested that Robert Capa use a flash, for a shoot for Holiday Magazine, in the snow. Burt Glinn responded “Capa, with a flash? What a horrible idea.” I guess even “The Greats” often disagree.

Shotaro and Yasuhiro each had a slightly different way of sharpening, but this should not have been a surprise.  We all handle our craft differently.  Working their way through four grades of stones, freshly soaked with water, the knives go from dulled children’s scissors to blades that could shave a face.  The final test, after feeling the blade and visually inspecting it for chips, is to glide it across a single sheet of newspaper.  If the blade drags, causing a jagged cut, it is not ready.  The properly sharpened blade doesn’t cut paper, it splits it with sound of wind blowing through trees.  It is incredible to watch someone whose touch is so refined that they can take change the nature of performance from butter knife to razor, while lulling everyone to sleep with the relaxing motion.

Clicking away, one of the men looked up at my camera, squinted and said “Leica” and nodded.  Now maybe he was just saying “Ah yes, you have a camera, and it is a Leica.”  This is entirely possible.  But his nod seemed to indicate something else.  It was an acknowledgment of something that he considered to be of good quality.  At that moment I felt like, maybe I have no idea how well made my camera is?  Or why a guy who continues a paleolithic tradition of shaping ore into blades, sees a camera as something worthy of approval.

You can tell from this picture that he is actually listening for the sound the blade makes as it rubs across the ridges of his fingers.

The Lesson

After watching him sharpen a few knives, he signaled that he wanted to show me something.  In his broken Japanese, he asked if I sharpen knives.  I told him, “Yes, I do, but not so well.”  He proceeded to show me the finer subtitles of finger placement and how to set up the stone so that your wrist does not bend, which will round off the blade.

I had gotten close enough to the demonstration that I was completely sucked in.  I put down the camera and watched intently has he repeated the lessons, all the while speaking in Japanese.  The interpreter’s attempts to translate made me feel like Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation.”  The Master would say twenty sentences and the interpreter would say “Yes, use just these fingers. Yes?”  I wanted to say “Are you sure he did not say anything else? Because it sounded like he just read off half of Macbeth.”  But I did not want to offend anyone, so I just smiled and agreed.

After sharpening two knives, the stones are flattened to insure the sharpening occurs on a dead flat surface. Each step of this process is beautiful to watch.

Knives and cameras are all kind of irrelevant when trying to answer why we make certain choices.  They are expressions of an ethical commitment to a way of life.  This is a major preoccupation for many famous photographers.  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life long interest in Buddhism was sparked when, after he escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, George Braque, the famous Cubist artist, gave him a copy of Zen and the Art of Archery (Russel Miller, Magnum, p. 42).

Henri Cartier-Bresson, with his Leica in hand.

The evening reminded me that simply possessing a well made knife or camera doesn’t mean anything. But used properly by the right person, they have ability to pass an understanding of something to the next generation.  Guys like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Eddie Adams died before I could see them at work.  Their touch for photography exists only in films.  But watching these men work gave me a deeper appreciation for the way a talented professional touches a camera, handles an image, or passes a lesson to the next generation looking to build on the accomplishments of their mentors.

If you are in NYC and want to check out Korin in person, they can be found at 57 Warren Street, between West Broadway and Church Street.

Best-Adam Marelli

  6 Responses to “Old World Masters: Shotaro Namuro & Yasuhiro Hirakawa”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
    This is the first time I’ve read your blog and I like it already.
    I’ll keep followimg.
    By the way I found out that my firefox login has an issue with your website’s login in that it doesn’t get me logged in although I have registered and can get to the account page.
    I am not sure if there is an issue with compatibility with firefox, a missing plugin or what, but on this same PC I am using Internet Explorer and able to login to comment.
    I shall try this on my other computer later and will let you know if the issue with firefox is widespread or not.

    • I can confirm that at least it is not due to an old firefox issue, because I have ran an update and it is the latest version – nothing to update.

  2. Oh guess what?
    Firefox decided to work now.
    This is very strange, almost like it needed me to log into the website with Internet Explorer to kick off something in firefox.
    You may want to do some further investigation to replicate the issue, because if it is true then you could be losing a number of firefox users who got frustrated with the login process.
    Or it could be just my PC.

    • TDK, I will check into this and see if it can be replicated.
      Thanks for letting me know.
      Welcome to the site!

  3. Adam,
    First of all what a great blog site !! Since discovering this, I was up half the night reading.
    I especially love about the composition. I read so much composition with overlay that every time I see HCB or other’s works, I see the lines over the images…

    I have been finding myself with an interesting tendency. For the last 20 years, I collected as many kitchen and household gadgets as I could afford that made my life supposedly easier.. Then lately, I just want to do thing slower and more deliberately.
    I love doing dishes by hand. Call me crazy but even after the holiday dinner, I love piles of dishse to do!
    I enjoy slicing tens of cucumbers paper thin…peelling potatoes slowly… cooking rice by steaming in a simple pot whereas I used to use the latest computerized rice cooker and has grown unsatisfied over the years…
    Instead of mopping, I enjoy getting on the floor and wiping the wooden floor… I found it just as fast and comes out a lot cleaner. Remember back when I was very young, we used to have to wipe the school hallway this way every morning and afternoon.

    I guess this is my reason for getting interested in a very manual camera like Leica.
    I’m not ready for M9 yet due to the cost and the commitment that goes with it but when I am, I want to use 35mm 2.0 or 50mm 2.0. Meanwhile, I’m determined to study more about the composition. Thank you, Adam for such a great blog! I would like to showup at one of the workshop some day!

    • Hey MM,

      Thank you for the kind comment. I must say that I thoroughly enjoy the tenor of so many people who make their way to the blog. Maybe its because we are all wanting simpler solutions to life that we dig in the files of Great Masters.

      Funny story, when I renovated my own kitchen we decided not to put in a dishwasher or a full size fridge. We buy our groceries daily and felt that a full size fridge was just an eye sore. After years of personally installing massive sub zero units, I grew to detest large appliances.

      There are many wonderful tasks which get missed by automation. Dont get me wrong, I love a flushing toilet and hot water, but I hear what you are saying. I sharpen all of my knives on japanese water stones which make careful cutting a joy.

      My hats off to you for embracing simple solutions to life. There are plenty of innovations of the modern world which are welcome, but it turns out we only need a few. A floor takes on new meaning when you get down and clean it or should I say care for it.

      When you make it around to a Leica let me know. An M6 and a 35 or 50 will do you proper. You are more than welcome to join any of the workshops, I am sure it would be a delight to have you there.


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