Shotaro Nomuro &
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.)
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.