Last updated 12.02.22 — The ocean of Japanese chef knives is vast. You’ve got the Damascus gyoto your bro-in-law just plunked down 450 smackers for, the bargain-basement santoku that keeps popping up in your browser sidebar, and the Masamoto paper-thin-radish-slicer your favorite YouTube chef swears by—all flashing in your head begging you to buy. What’s a cook to do?
Let me offer one-man’s snapshot of what I think are some reasonable options—as I’ve done before in my Best Chef Knives — Six Recommendations. And while that word “best,” of course, is highly subjective, my main focus will be best for the average home kitchen. Which, in this case, means avoiding (for now) boutique websites who specialize in Japanese chef knives from small maker knife shops. And sticking with larger, well-known knife makers with excellent reputations—Miyabi, Global, Shun, MAC. Brands that are easy to find and easy to return.
In addition, my Japanese chef knives picks are:
1) priced between $100-200,
2) not carbon steel, only stainless, and
3) above all, actually manufactured in Japan—not “Japanese-style” or Japanese steel, made in Outer Mongolia (yeah, I know it no longer exists).
I have made a point of personally owning all six of these knives (I can see them poking out of my knife blocks as I write). Although I’ve tested them all out (it’s on-going), I’m not going to get into blow-by-blow descriptions of how each Japanese chef knife cuts onions, tomatoes, casaba melons (I have done all of these and more). We’re not professional chefs here spending seven-hour days in the kitchen. We’re skilled amateurs. But please rest assured all of these knives came from the factory uber sharp and are a pleasure to work with. And I will point out things that have stuck out—for good or for worse.
A Few Japanese Knife Essentials
Harder. . .thinner. . .lighter. . .sharper. That’s what Japanese chef knives are about, especially as compared to German (what most of the world is accustomed to). But “the times they are a-changing.”
Harder: Japanese knives use harder steels than Western knives. German knives have Rockwell hardnesses (HRC) of 57—while a Japanese chef knife might start at HRC60 and go up from there. (See sidebar below on Rockwell Hardness Scale or HRC.)
Thinner: Western chef knives are thicker than Japanese. Thus, Japanese blades have less resistance as they cut into food; they glide on through.
Lighter: Because a Japanese chef knife is thinner, it tends to weigh less. It feels more mobile, easier to wield; less wear on the arm muscles.
Sharper: Kind of speaks for itself. But, suffice it to say—Japanese chef knives have a consistent record of coming from the factory razor sharp and staying sharp. (Ha! As a quick confirmation, I just took a couple out and shaved some hair off my arm. | Below: the Messermeister Mu—which I love, but is due to be discontinued, so I left it out.)
Granted, harder and thinner can also yield some negatives—the biggest being that Japanese knives are not as rough and tumble as German. Because the steel is harder, it’s also more brittle. It can take a finer edge and hold it longer but cannot stand as much abuse. If you drop your Shun Classic chef knife on a ceramic floor, you risk breaking a tip. And if you’re silly enough to use your Global G-2 to power through frozen pie dough—you’re begging to chip, or even crack, an edge.
All this said, as long as you develop the habit of treating all your kitchen knives with love and respect (as your life-long kitchen partners), you shouldn’t have a problem. I swap between my German and Japanese knives all the time and rarely think about it. But when I do. . .there’s a very good reason.
OK. . .you’ve been forewarned.
ROCKWELL HARDNESS SCALE or HRC: Rockwell hardness is a standardized system for testing the hardness of industrial materials such as steel, copper, plastic, etc. In a short series of tests, a machine measures how much the material resists being indented (in the case of steel) by a small, spherical diamond. The higher the Rockwell number, the harder the steel.
• • •
The word miyabi means elegance or refinement in Japanese and is a term that dates back hundreds of years. It’s used to express the highest level of artistry. Thus, it’s an apt description of this boutique knifemaking factory founded in Seki, Japan, one of the knifemaking capitals of the world. (Another capital? Solingen, Germany.)
Acquired by Zwilling International (parent company of J.A. Henckels) in 2004, Miyabi has retained its unique vision and rigorous standards. For example: Every knife that ships out the door is treated to the three-stage “honbazuke” honing process that gives Japanese blades their exceptional sharpness. Each step of this traditional technique is done by hand ending up with 9.5° to 12° edge angles. For comparison, your average factory edge angle nowadays is around 15° or more. (Below, the babes of the ball—the Miyabi Koh, Evolution, Artisan, and Kaizen II.)
Miyabi manufactures seven knife lines, all of them pretty high-level. I am recommending three in this article which I suppose is a bit lopsided. Normally, I’d aim to have each of my six recommendations come from a different knifemaker. In this case I’ve strayed because:
1) Miyabi has so many premium selections that fit my prescribed parameters, especially price range ($100-200),
2) they make such gorgeous knives, garner stellar reviews, and have such a spotless reputation, and
3) each of my selected Miyabi chef knives is different enough in look and feel, they might as well be from completely different manufacturers.
Miyabi Koh Chef Knife, 8-inch
The Koh is Miyabi’s newest creation, but, ironically enough, harkens back to the vintage styling of a traditional Japanese gyoto (ie. chef knife). The octagonal handle, understated vibe, and lightness and maneuverability are all, what can I say, very Japanese.
In sync with Koh being the newest member of the Miyabi tribe, Zwilling has outfitted it with their latest engineered steel—which they dub FC61. Zwilling claims FC61 is “revolutionary” because it can hold a very sharp (and hard) edge and yet is extremely durable (i.e. won’t chip). Fact is, other Japanese steels can do the same. . .but not at this price point. That’s what’s unusual—higher-end performance at an excellent price.
The handle, though you might think it hardwood, is a wood composite called Pakkawood. Very popular in Japanese chef knives, it’s made of thin layers of wood that have been pressed together under high pressure using resin as a binding agent. Pakkawood comes in a plethora of styles and is extremely durable. And like the grainy hardwood it imitates, every handle has its own subtly unique pattern.
Koh’s blade measures a full eight inches, but, to me, doesn’t feel quite as clunky as your average 8-incher. It’s nimbler. . .which is a cool quality. And it’s perfectly balanced. When I hold it in a pinch grip, it doesn’t tip forward or back, but settles into my fingers like a bird on a branch.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average / Weight: 6.4 oz / Total length: 13.5 inches
Also, the Miyabi logo is not just printed on the surface of the blade but embossed into the metal. Tastes of authenticity. On the other hand, the “sandblasted katana edge” (as Miyabi calls it) I have mixed feelings about. The gentle wavy pattern is pretty, but it’s imitating the look of layered steel (something we’ll get into later) which this knife is not. Not sure they needed to do that, but it is in vogue.
In the kitchen. . .
Koh functions as you’d expect—cutting up veggies and fruits smooth as a samurai sword. In my initial magazine-paper sharpness test, it hadn’t cut quite as smoothly as the other knives, so I was wondering how it might fare on actual food. I figured it would be a non-issue—because what seemed to slow it down on magazine paper was having a slightly toothier edge. (Which shouldn’t be a problem with food, maybe even an asset.) Sure enough, my instincts proved correct—the first tomato I put under its nose, it zipped through without any problem.
Koh, to me, is a perfect starter Japanese chef knife—not too expensive, but still high quality. Not flashy, yet still expresses an unassuming beauty. And it’s especially good for someone who yearns for something lighter in their hand and can appreciate a sharper blade (as long as they don’t mind being a little more careful). You could switch from a German knife to making Koh your mainstay. Or. . .swap back and forth between your German and Japanese the way I do. Kudos, Miyabi!
Miyabi Evolution Chef Knife, 8-inch
Of the three Miyabi knives I’ve chosen to recommend, there’s no doubt Miyabi Evolution looks and feels the most like a German chef knife. It’s no accident. Zwilling purposely created the line—in collaboration with Masaharu Morimoto (of Iron-Chef renown)—to meld German-styled knifemaking with Japanese.
The blade has been thinned down Japanese-style (we’re talking about thickness), yet the width and belly are fuller than your average Henckels/Wusthof chef knife. And the handle has been completely Westernized—including three rivets and a couple of sexy red stripes running right through the middle of it.
Although the Evolution’s blade is made of the exact same steel as the Koh, other than the wavy detailing near the cutting edge, it looks quite different. Very German—but with a scintillatingly fine edge. And while the Evolution is the weightiest of the Japanese chef knives in this post, it’s still almost a full ounce lighter than the heaviest of the chef knives (Messermeister) in my Best Chef Knives review. I view this as both a positive and negative depending on where you’re coming from. Let me explain. . .
If you’re looking to make a big switch to a slim and light Japanese blade, or you’re already accustomed to Japanese and expect these qualities, then Evolution is not the way to go. You’ll be disappointed—because you won’t notice enough of a difference. But—if you don’t want to make a big change, just get a taste, or are curious about a chef knife that blends German with Japanese, then you should check out Evolution.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average / Weight: 7.5 oz / Total length: 13.4 inches
In the kitchen. . .
I love working with Evolution—especially deep slicing and chopping. It’s like prepping with a souped-up German chef knife. The wide blade helps prevent my knife hand from wobbling when shaving slivers off a wedge of cabbage. And it also won’t get lost in a pile of diced onions. Evolution makes me want to go shopping for a sack of veggies and chop them all up for a batch of soup. And, as an extra bonus, I can use the broad blade to scoop up my fixings and dump them in the pot. Bravo, Evolution, bravo!
Miyabi Fusion Chef Knife, 8-inch
BUY NOW $130–185 @ Amazon
Before Evolution there was Miyabi Fusion (fusion of East meets West—sounds like a restaurant, no?). The handle, blade thinness, weight, and general shape of the knife is very similar to the Evolution. But the blade construction is not. Instead of a single slab of steel, the blade is composed of a hard steel core sandwiched between 64 layers of softer (and ultra-thin) Damascus. (See sidebar below on cladding.)
If you like the overall Evolution design and have a pining for swirly Damascus (heck, who wouldn’t), I say, go with the Fusion. Yes, the Evolution will edge it out performance-wise (FC61 steel is slightly more advanced than the core of the Fusion which is VG-10). But we’re not Iron-Chefs here, are we?
Miyabi Artisan Chef Knife, 8-inch
Miyabi Artisan is both the beauty and the beast. More than all the other preceding Miyabi picks, she personifies the brand name—pure elegance. But. . .she can slice things up like a wolverine.
The Beauty: Even though the shininess of the hammered finish (tsuchime in Japanese) might be a smidgen garish for some snobby tastes, the Artisan has won me over. I think what helps tone down the shine is the stroke of sandblasting that sweeps above the edge. Added bonus: While cutting softer foods, the hammer dents create air pockets that help the food release from the side of the knife, thus offering less resistance.
The handle is, in itself, a work of art: Pakkawood—stained deep burgundy and cut across the grain to create a vortex swirl—imitates Cocobolo. (Fooled me.) Rimmed by red and brass inlays, with a mosaic pin in the center, and finished off with a steel endcap engraved with the Miyabi logo in Japanese kanji. Classy.
Smooth as river stone—and the detailing is immaculate, no rough edges—the unique swollen handle shape feels incredibly comfy in my fingers. Pure elegance. Gift this baby to someone you love who loves to cook, and they will be eternally grateful.
The Beast: Artisan’s cutting edge is made of SG2, a more advanced steel than any of the other knives spotlighted in this post. It’s highly unusual nowadays to find a knife in this price range (under $200) with a SG2 pedigree—which is one of the reasons I’ve featured it. SG2 is classified as a micro-carbide powder steel which gives it similar qualities to the FC61 already mentioned—but in spades. With a hardness of HRC63, it can be ground to be sharp, sharp, sharp. . .and keep the sharpitude longer. But, unlike FC61, it does need to be sheathed by softer steels for protection. (See sidebar below for more on sheathing/cladding.)
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average to chunky / Weight: 7.4 oz / Total length: 13.5 inches
In the kitchen. . .
Halving cantaloupes, gliding through new potatoes and sweet bell peppers, the Artisan does not disappoint. And, although I thoroughly enjoy kitchen prep with all the Miyabi’s in this post, I must admit I do notice ever-so-slightly less resistance with this blade. It’s subtle. . .and probably a combination of the extra-acuteness of the edge, the super-polished finish, and those hammer-mark indentations that help with softer food. Is she a beauty. . .or a beast?
Japanese Knife Cladding
Many traditional Japanese kitchen knives are not made of a single sheet of steel. Instead, they are constructed of layers of different types of steel, welded together to create an indivisible whole. This type of construction dates to Japanese samurai swords but has been practiced to great success on contemporary kitchen knives as well.
Historically, there have been quite a few ways of layering the steels. But one of the simplest, and most common for kitchen knives (called san mai), sandwiches a single layer of hard steel between two (or more) layers of softer, exposing the hard only at the last ¼-inch or so from the cutting edge. The hard steel, because of its ability to hold a very sharp edge and retain it, is used for the core and performs the cutting. While the softer steel “clads” the hard—to protect it from stress and the very real possibility of cracking, or even breaking—as well as to help resist corrosion and rust. Two out of the six Japanese chef knives I’m recommending use this cladding structure. (Graphic below, courtesy of knifewear.com.)
DAMASCUS STEEL, technically speaking, derives from a totally different, Middle-Eastern tradition. But, as of late, the term has been widely used to describe a patterned visual effect created with very thin layers of steel.
Miyabi Kaizen II, 8-inch
BUY NOW $150–225 @ Amazon / Sur La Table
There’s one last Miyabi in this price range worth giving honorable mention—the Miyabi Kaizen II. Think of it as Artisan’s kissing cousin—just as much a beauty (in a different way), but not quite as much beast.
Gray tonalities are the guiding theme throughout—from the charcoal-gray of the blade to the stain of the Pakkawood handle. And, instead of hammered steel, the blade is clad with 48 layers of Damascus (24 per side) that have been acid dipped to produce the gray. The only downgrade (from the Artisan) is that the core steel is not SG2 powder steel, but Zwilling’s FC61 (as mentioned in Koh).
The detailing on the handle is just as fine as the Artisan, though the overall shape is more traditional, very much like the Shun Classic, with a D-shaped profile. The overall look of the Kaizen II is like a more glamorous version of the Shun Classic. Worth further comparison. . .
(Not to be totally confusing, but there is also a plain Miyabi Kaizen (no “II”) as well. It’s an earlier version, identical to the “II”, except that it uses VG10 steel in its core, instead of the more advanced FC61. Nothing wrong with it—I simply opted to highlight the newer model.)
BEST CHEF KNIVES — SIX RECOMMENDATIONS
The next three recommended Japanese chef knives were originally covered in my earlier article on best chef knives: kitchenknifeguru.com/knives/best-chef-knives-six-recommendations/. Because of this I’m not going to immerse you in as much detail as I have with Miyabi. But I strongly suggest you refer to my Best Chef Knives article for more background info on these specific brands/models and more about chef knives in general.
Let me tell you my Global knives story:
Once upon a time we lived in NYC, in Manhattan, the Big Apple. As you might imagine, New York City is a fine-food factory, and one of my favorite foodie haunts was an iconic gourmet grocer-deli-kitchenwares store called Zabar’s.
One afternoon I had subway-ed up to Zabar’s to buy a pound of shrimp salad (best ever!) and wandered upstairs where the housewares were. Browsing around, I saw mounted on the wall behind the counter, the most unusual (bizarre almost) chef-type knife I had ever seen. It practically jumped off the wall at me with its screamingly high-tech design and bare, pebbled-steel handle. It looked like it had been left behind by aliens or been custom-designed for a hipster kitchen featured in a film set 50 years in the future. But no. . .it was a Global santoku.
“I felt it deserved some kind of special kitchen task to justify its use. . .”
Needless to say, I bought it (although it wasn’t cheap). But something about the strange santoku shape, the hollow-ground edge, the modernist design, and the salesperson’s warning about its sharpitude, made me wary of actually putting it to work. I felt it deserved some kind of special kitchen task to justify its use, and I was also scared of ruining the razor-sharp edge. So, it languished in the cupboard for years.
Finally, I can’t remember the occasion, I extracted my otherworldly Global knife from the drawer it had been buried in and tried it out. And, of course, I was stunned by its ability to zip through red peppers effortlessly and slice and dice onions with the greatest of ease. Wow. I had never experienced anything like this before—at least not in my own galley kitchen.
Today, that very same santoku—which Global has now named the “Classic”—still takes an honored slot in my knife blocks; glides through flank steak, zucchini, and pretty much anything else; and keeps its Japanese-designed edge with aplomb, having been sharpened only once in its lifetime (by one of the finest professional sharpeners I know of, Bob Tate).
And that darn knife, as most of Global’s blades, looks just as bleedingly modern to me now as it did over 25 years ago, on that afternoon I first chanced upon it, up in the display case behind the counter at Zabar’s. Long live, Global.
Colorful stories aside—I’ve begun with this tale because it underlines two key aspects of Global knives that, as a consumer, a cook, you should always remember: 1) unique, futuristic styling, coupled with, 2) relentless high-performance—and I should add a third, 3) at a reasonable price (especially if you stick with the original, Classic, line).
Styling, performance, price. The styling is cool, yes, yet it’s totally backed up by substance. You do not get international foodies like the late Anthony Bourdain unofficially touting your products by doing anything less than manufacturing well-made stuff—year in and year out. You can trust a Global knife (as long as you treat it like a Japanese, and not a German). Lecture over.
“The composition of Chromova is closer to that of German steel than any other chef knife in this article.”
Most of the knives Global manufactures (including the G-2) use a proprietary steel called Chromova 19. The composition of Chromova is closer to that of German steel than any other chef knife in this article. It’s not quite as hard or as brittle. With an HRC of 56-58, it can probably stand a touch more stress. Nonetheless, it’s still Japanese steel. Handle with care.
Global currently makes three knife lines, what they call “collections”: the Classic, Ukon, and SAI. The chef knife I’ve chosen to recommend is from the Classic collection (the original and oldest) mainly because: 1) I like the styling and feel, 2) the Ukon is too thick and heavy for my taste (it kind of obviates the point of buying Japanese), and 3) the SAI is pricey and, thus, out of the range of this article. (Nonetheless, the SAI is a hip update by the very same designer, Komin Yamada, who created the original those many decades ago. I look forward to getting to know it better.)
Global Classic Chef Knife (G-2), 8-inch
Holding a G-2 in your hand, tracing the matte-finished metal with your fingers, you’ll find it hard to believe it’s not fashioned from a single piece of steel, but three separate pieces. Two for the handle, and one for the blade. If you telescope in on where handle meets blade, you’ll see a faint, blurry line where they were welded together. Some may find this fact troubling. But unless you’re planning on using your chef knife to saw up moose ribs, it shouldn’t be an issue.
The handle is hollow but filled with sand—the perfect amount to achieve the perfect balance, and it does just that. It nestles into my palm just as comfy as the Koh—perhaps even more so because of the overall slimmer build. And, as the Koh, the G-2 has that same light, nimble feel. Be careful—you can almost forget it’s in your hand. A great blade to use for skinning a pineapple or honeydew.
The pebbled texture (small, indented dots) in the exposed steel handle does its job without fail. It grips. It prevents the knife from slipping through your fingers like a fish on a line (my original fear). As a matter of fact, I think the handle grips better than any of the other knives in this article—and thus, better than most, typical, chef knives. It is slim though—long, and slim. So, if you hanker for heft, this is not the knife for you. On the other hand, if you’re sick of chunky handles or have smaller hands (like me), then check out team Global.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: slim / Weight: 5.88 oz / Total length: 12.75 inches
In the kitchen. . .
No surprises here. This puppy came out-of-the-box sharper than nearly every knife in this article save the Miyabi Artisan (which costs, literally, twice as much). Slicing up garlic, tomatoes, cabbage—it matches the performance of my Global santoku to a “T.” And for skinning fruit like cantaloupe or pineapple, the narrowness of the blade works much better—more wiggle room.
If you’re like my daughter and you worship modernity, you will naturally be drawn to the Global G-2. Truly timeless, modern design—with Japanese performance. The G-2 could have come to market yesterday and who would know the diff.
If Global brought ultra-modern style to the kitchen knife universe—Shun brought Japanese handcrafted artistry. Things like Pakkawood handles and patterned blades, all existed in Japanese knives from smaller companies/shops that sold to the Japanese market. But none had been produced on a large scale, and exported, in such a mainstream way. When Shun landed on our shores, most store-bought chef knives were variations on the same traditional, black-handled theme. Shun changed all that.
Although the Shun brand is only twenty-years old, Kai, its parent company, goes back over 100 years. And Kai is built on 800 years of blademaking in the same city Miyabi knives are made—Seki, Japan.
Shun began with the Classic (back in 2002), and now produces five major knife lines. They are, in order of impact-on-your-wallet, least-expensive first: Sora, Kanso, Classic, Premier, Dual Core.
I picked Classic for this article because: Sora sports a plastic handle (too chintzy), Dual Core and Premier soar out of the designated price range (too plush), and Kanso uses steel that’s not quite as advanced as Classic’s.
Shun Classic Chef Knife, 8-inch
Like the Miyabi Koh, the Shun Classic chef knife (Koh’s precursor) riffs heavily off traditional Japanese knife design but adds a spin of its own.
Subtle waves of Damascus steel (34 per side) and the tactile quality of Pakkawood on the roundish, D-shaped, handle, speak of another culture, another way of designing things. You’re not in Kansas, er, Solingen, Germany anymore. (Below: Miyabi Kaizen II and Shun Classic, D-shaped handles. Scroll down to the end of the article for a blow-by-blow comparison.)
With a core of hard, VG-MAX steel to do the cutting, the Classic has what it needs to get ‘er done. VG-MAX is Shun’s name for a fined-grained steel they harden to HRC60-61. Similar to Zwilling/Miyabi’s FC61. You know the drill. . .sharper, but more delicate.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average to chunky / Weight: 7.38 oz / Total length: 13.5 inches
Whenever I hold my Shun Classic in my paws, it always feels, simply. . .solid. The same solidity you feel from a Henckels Pro S or Wusthof Classic, except that it’s not quite as heavy and is, definitely, more artistic. Plus, it comes sharper from the factory. For the past four years, mine has kept that sharpness wonderfully—no need for sharpening so far. (Mind you—I treat it well, hone regularly, and have given it medium, not heavy, usage.)
In the kitchen. . .
I’ll turn my Shun loose on almost any kitchen task, but one of my faves is chopping onions. The long, wide blade can handle a monster root vegetable and not get buried. Oh, and large melons, too—because the length can often reach across the entire melon. I also love it for slicing red cabbage, shredding it very thin for salads. It shares these attributes with the Miyabi Evolution (already mentioned above). Although the Evolution is even wider. . .so who knows, it may preempt the Shun. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in kitchen knife land.
Kasumi Chef Knife, 8-inch
The Sumikama family has been making their Kasumi knives since 1916 in (where else?) Seki City. So, they definitely have creds.
Kasumi looks and feels a whole lot like the Shun Classic—hard, VG-10 steel clad with softer Damascus and a Pakkawood handle. But Kasumi adds a twist on the handle construction by letting the steel tang show and adding two rivets. Plus, the wood is darker, you don’t see as much grain, and it’s just a touch thinner.
With a slightly narrower width and shorter length, Kasumi also hosts a smaller blade than Shun. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing—if you love the Shun Classic, but find it unwieldy. (The only minor negative is that Shun’s core steel is slightly superior.)
All this, as already mentioned, at a substantial price break. Important note: Please be extra careful that you’re getting the real thing on Amazon and not a knock off. Because Amazon’s lowest price for Kasumi seems too good to be true.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average to chunky / Weight: 7 oz / Total length: 13 inches
If you’re intimidated by large blades and want an beautiful Japanese chef knife that’s more compact and offers excellent value, Kasumi’s a perfect option.
MAC clearly stands apart from the all the other Japanese knife makers in this article. They’re not as much about beauty. They’re not as much about style. They’re all about performance. The maximum cutting power for the minimum buck.
And, when I say, “cutting power,” I don’t just mean out-of-the-box sharpness (which, of course, is consistently excellent). But I also mean the ability to: 1) take a fine edge, 2) retain that edge, and, no less important, 3) allow that edge to be revived, again and again, through honing and/or sharpening.
That third point cannot be underestimated. Because when working in a professional kitchen—dicing bags of carrots and stacks of celery—being able to bring your cutting tool, er chef knife, back to its initial sharpness quickly, can make the difference between satisfaction and misery.
MAC MTH-80 – Professional Series Chef Knife, 8-inch
The MAC MTH-80 Professional Series chef knife, true to its name, is designed for pros. And, it’s the most popular knife MAC sells. It’s a chef’s chef knife. Ha! Truth is, many pros swear by it—even famous foodie chefs like Thomas Keller (Per Se) and Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin).
When you think of the fact that there are, literally, hundreds of top-grade chef knives to choose from, many of them Japanese, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Why this knife?”
My theory? It’s the perfect German/Japanese hybrid for a professional kitchen. It’s got German gravitas and durability, but Japanese blade dexterity and sharpitude. It can handle extra-heavy use, but still slice up a storm. Add to this MAC’s 25-year reputation for consistent high-quality, and you gain serious traction. Chefs know they can depend on the steel (at HRC61) and the thinness of the blade geometry to hold a super-sharp edge. And—after hours of cutting—be easily honed/sharpened back into shape.
And what’s good for pro chefs, ain’t so bad for home cooks either. . .
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: slim / Weight: 7 oz / Total length: 12.75 inches
Sure, it’s not as stylish as the other Japanese chef knives in this article, but it’s just as impeccably crafted and designed. All the seams on the handle are smooth, no rough edges. And it comes from the factory, without fail, bleedingly sharp. Please refer to my article on Best Chef Knives for more backstory. . .
Of all the Japanese knives appearing in this article, the MAC has the most traditional, Western-looking handle. (Howbeit, a bit shorter than average.) But the blade—its thinness, sharpness, and shape—is uber Japanese.
So, if you’re yearning for Japanese knife performance, but would like a familiar, German-knife grip and feel, then the MAC might be your new best friend. And the blade shape—narrow near the tip but broadening quite a bit at the heel—can offer more versatility than your typical chef knife.
In the kitchen. . .
Although MTH-80 makes quick work of every kitchen prep task imaginable—cubing russets, dicing chives—I especially enjoy how it slices. Sweet red peppers, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, all yield without much effort. And then, maybe even best of all—there’s skinning large fruits. Pineapple, honeydew. Like the Global G-2, the narrow blade can smoothly navigate between the skin and flesh without getting slowed down.
A final confirmation on maintenance: With regular honing (from the very first week of use, with a ceramic hone) my MAC’s edge has just kept coming back. These past four years we’ve given it average use (more than our Shun), yet it can still easily slice up a ripe, greenhouse tomato. Yikes! Go, MAC go.
Well, our whirlwind tour through Japanese chef knife land is coming to a close. But there is an addendum of runners-up I couldn’t resist posting. If you’ve still got some gas in the tank, scroll on down. . .
• • •
Japanese Chef Knives—Bonus Recommendations
Zwilling Cermax Chef Knife, 8-inch
BUY NOW $150-230 @ Amazon
True story: The first time I heard about Zwilling Twin Cermax was at Zwilling’s yearly outlet sale at their corporate offices in Westchester, NY—just a short jag up the Sawmill Parkway from Manhattan. Picture a steady throng of amateur cooks and kitchen professionals, pressed between long, long tables, grazing bottoms, gazing longingly at a plethora of high-quality products—cobalt-blue Straub skillets to Miyabi premium Japanese knives.
I picked up a slightly exotic-looking chef knife with a label I didn’t recognize. An older, bearded guy, over my shoulder, politely interceded and spoke to me in hushed, reverential tones about the Twin Cermax. He’d owned a slicer for a decade that glided through sirloin like a spoon through flan and barely ever needed any honing. And I said, whaaat?
I didn’t buy that day, but have been deeply curious ever since. And why was Cermax such a secret? I have yet to get the answer (from Zwilling) to that question, but I have finally caught up with the knife—and I heartily recommend it to you here.
What makes Twin Cermax such a killer blade is its powder-steel core (sandwiched between two layers of softer steel of course). It carries the highest Rockwell hardness of any knife in this article (HRC66)—which is crazy, samurai-sword hard. Thus, it is NOT for the careless, carefree cook—only the careful and finicky. The edge should hold up very well, indeed, though. I shouldn’t need to send it out to be professionally sharpened until the next ice age.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average / Weight: 7.6 oz / Total length: 13.12 inches
At 7.63 ounces, it’s also the weightiest (not by much) of all the other Japanese knives I’ve covered here. Personally, I don’t mind the heft, I let it work for me. But, if you’re going to spend hours with it in your hand and want something deft and light, pick another chef knife.
In the kitchen. . .
I’ve taken Cermax out on an extended junket and it has fared most excellently. I enjoy the fact that along with its scintillating Japanese edge it carries a little German heft. My only disappointment’s been that I’ve had to hone it more than expected. That said, please note: 1) I’m more finicky than most about sharpitude, and 2) Cermax’s edge comes back very, very quickly.
And finally: Although it looks like Pakkawood, the handle is micarta. Which is created the same way as Packkawood (multiple layers, pressure, resin in between), but using linen instead of wood. Just as beautiful. . .
Tojiro DP Chef Knife (Gyoto), 8.25-inch
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Tojiro is a well-known name to Japanese-knife aficionados and the DP nearly made it into my Final Six. Tojiro knives have an excellent reputation for quality at a budget price. They’re a great way to dip into the Japanese chef knives ocean without getting soaked money-wise.
Much of Tojiro’s output centers on carbon-steel blades which are outside the purview of this article. (Nothing wrong with carbon steel—it just requires more maintenance and will rust if not kept dry and oiled.) Anyway, the DP is stainless steel—as are all the other knives in this article.
FEEL FACTOR | Handle girth: average / Weight: 6.6 oz / Total length: 13.38 inches
Like the Twin Cermax, the DP has a three-ply construction. But the hard steel at its core, VG-10, is not as high-performance Cermax’s powder steel. That’s OK. With an HRC of 60, you won’t have to be as incessantly protective.
One heads up: The fit and finish of the Tojiro DP might not be quite as pristine as Miyabi, Shun, and MAC. But in the areas that count most—the fashioning of the blade and its edge—it will dependably shine.
Miyabi Kaizen II and Shun Classic Showdown
As an exercise to help you see that even knives that seem pretty similar can have quite a few small differences, I thought it might be useful to do a nitty-gritty comparison of the Miyabi Kaizen II versus the Shun Classic:
- Although they’re practically equal in overall length, the Shun’s blade is a full ¼-inch longer than the Miyabi’s. Woo-hoo!
- Both have a very, very similar feel. They weigh the same (off by two hundredths of an ounce) and the handles are practically identical in girth and length. OK, Miyabi’s handle is just a touch—¼-inch—longer.
- Both are well-balanced, but the Shun is perfect and the Miyabi pulls just a tad towards the handle, away from the blade. Just a tad, mind you. . .
- The shapes of the blades are very very close. But the Shun has a bit more of a belly, while the Miyabi straightens out more heading toward the tip, more like a gyoto.
- Kaizen II is slightly thinner at the spine (by .3 mm) and slightly wider at the heel (by 1/8 inch).
- Both use a cladding structure—Kaizen II 24 layers per side and Shun 34. (I’m not really sure whether the number of layers makes any substantial difference.) The core steels are comparable—both HRC61, fine-grain, yadda-yadda, although the Kaizen’s FC61 is a slightly newer development, and, thus, might perform ever-so-slightly better.
- The finishing on both is immaculate. Period. Smooth as polished granite, with no glitches that I can spot.
- Kaizen II has more detailing in the handle (the red stripes, the mosaic dot)—the Classic is simpler, more stripped down. The Classic has a warmer stain to the Pakkawood and a more traditional look. While the Kaizen II feels more contemporary, a study in grays.
- The biggest visual difference is the handling of the Damascus patterning and finish on the blades. The Shun Damascus is very subtle and blended—a medium-shiny buffed steel, like your average non-Damascus knife. Meanwhile, the Kaizen has a dramatic dark-grey matt finish (it’s the acid dipping), with high-contrast, silvery Damascus waves lacing through. Much more attention-grabbing and not quite as silky smooth to the touch as the Shun. (Back to Kaizen II or Shun Classic.)
And whatever you do, don’t forget the KitchenKnifeGuru.com motto: “Have fun in the kitchen!”