I am a cook and I also have great admiration for a perfect tool (whether in or out of the kitchen, but particularly in.) I have the utmost respect for the focus and artistry of someone who can create an object that is simultaneously utilitarian and beautiful. In an increasingly homogenized world, I so appreciate the unique. Lastly, I love an adventure.
All of this being a very long way of saying I wanted to buy a knife while in Japan earlier this year.
The stay began in Tokyo and ended in Kyoto with a remarkable overnight in Hakone National Park. I am doing the country a great disservice by not describing each experience we had in Japan in-depth. It was a lifelong dream to go and I could have stayed forever…. But this is a story (sort of) about a knife.
My quest for the perfect knife,in this country known worldwide for their incredible knives, began in Tokyo. My husband would go out for his morning run and I, armed with sketched (and sketchy) suggestions for routes from the hotel, would set out on my mission. I’d get lost every time…because, that is what I do. And, in fairness, the fact that there are simply no street numbers on Tokyo addresses might have upped the formidable factor even for less directionally challenged people than I. Some of the shops I never found (but I did always manage to find my way ultimately back to the hotel, so =winning!) and one or two shops seemed not terribly legit.
My determination to find this knife (that I knew would give me joy on a daily basis once home) didn’t at all take away from the array of wonders we experienced daily but it was always there…in the back of my mind… regardless of the amazing food, experiences, history learned and sights seen… I was sure the trip would have a small, to be sure, but unmistakable rent in it if I were to be unsuccessful in this task. I was getting a little discouraged that it might not happen as our travels were coming to a close.
Then victory!!! Our second to last day in the country, as we were sampling the exotic (to our Western palate) food of the Nishiki Market (fried eel bones taste much better than you might guess…but, you know, fried anything I suppose…) There it was…the mother ship…. Aritsugu Knives ,home of arguably some of the finest knives in Japan.
The shop was tiny and absolutely crammed full of people. Normally my aversion to crowds would have kept me far away from there…but…knife, right?! And knives there were. All over the walls, in glass cases that ran down the length of the store, in wooden boxes being slid over the top of said cases, in people’s hands…. and each one was different! How on earth was I going to choose? I finally flagged down a sales clerk and with the help of a friendly translator was able to convey what I needed, the tasks it would perform, how often it would be used. It would at minimum, need a double edge (single-edged knives are most useful for “breaking down” whole birds or game into parts for cooking and serving size portions.) I also hoped it would be beautiful and that it would feel “right”. I held several candidates in my hand , feeling for balance and weight and made my selection. It was beautiful, simply perfect.
I don’t think I have the words to convey how happy I felt. I didn’t think I could possibly be happier. Then my translator told me I could have the knife engraved with my name in Japanese or English, my choice. This brought me straight up to an 11 on the happiness gauge, what could be cooler than that? I said, of course, yes and received a short tutorial on the care of my new knife from a fellow in the back of the store as my knife, along with a couple dozen others, was being engraved.
When it was my turn, I watched in fascination as my name was engraved in Japanese. (At, least I think it is my name…it might also read “Oddly excited American woman”…but let’s, for the sake of argument, assume it is my name . )
The knife was carefully boxed and wrapped beautifully, something else the Japanese do so well. I carried it back to the hotel like I was holding the world’s greatest gift and carefully nestled it amongst clothes as I packed for our return home the next day, praying it would not be a TSA issue, hoping it wouldn’t be subject to theft. (Though now that I think of that, the inscription that may have read, “Oddly excited American woman” was probably a pretty solid deterrent against the latter.)
Home and Hallelujah , there it was, still beautifully wrapped, brimming with promise. I prudently waited several days , major jet lag and super sharp knives do not play together well…and then, finally, it was time!!
I set out my cutting board and the pile of ingredients to slice and chop, grinning ear to ear as I unwrapped my treasure…. I held it in my hand , I looked down at the beautiful inscription and then I saw….
It was the wrong knife.
Somehow in the scrum of customers in that tiny shop, my knife had gotten mixed up with another’s. Instead of two edges, it was single-edged. The exact wrong tool for the work it was to do. And I laughed.
I knew in that instant it was never about the knife itself really, it was about the adventure. The alleys I searched for it in, the sights I discovered when I’d get lost, the strangers that helped me, the admiration I felt for the man engraving it , the goal in itself which gave a particular shape to the trip… all of these were really where the sweet spot of my search lay.
And I know I will forget, I invariably do, but perhaps I can remember that fact on my next highly focused quest… it will shed a softer, broader light on a razor focus. And I am pretty sure that makes not only for the best kind of searching, but also, and more so, for the best kind of living.