“You want to go-a home, yah?” the kindly woman in the driver’s seat beside me asks. She picked me up at the train station just five minutes ago.
Yes, I reply. I’m tired, and ready to drop my bags and have a nap. She nods with understanding, though I can’t be quite sure as her English is limited and so is my Japanese. What I do know, is she knows how to drive; taking corners quick and with confidence. Windows down, I sit back and enjoy the breeze.
We slow and come to a stop in front of an unmarked warehouse. “Here!” She announces. Hrm - this doesn’t look like the house in the picture I’d been shown. Perplexed, I get out and am led into the building where I’m shown a knife…and then it clicks.
This is a knife village - where knives are made and not used in a threatening manner to fellow humans. There had been murmurs in conversations arranging this homestay about such a place, but that was with this lady’s English speaking son and had been amidst a slew of other ideas. Lo and behold, here we are now.
Ah language, what a funny thing.
As we enter the warehouse, we are greeted with surprised smiles from behind the front desk. They clearly are familiar with my escort, but me…well, smiles are quite reserved around these parts and so I think their extra wide ones are mostly directed my way.
Are you as surprised to see me as I am you?
I try to save face too.
Smile and nod - act like you know why you’re here!
They lead me into the back, all of us smiling and nodding and just going along with it.
We step out onto a platform high up above the workshop floor, overlooking knife makers at their various stations. Each artisan rents time at each machine, taking raw metal through all the procedural stages and guiding it towards a final realized form with practiced hands.
The distinct scent of burning metal takes me back to summers working in a machine shop to pay my way through university.
Where’s my steel-toed boots and ear protection?
There’s a fellow in his 20s to my right pounding red-hot metal into rough shapes with a hydraulic hammer. A man with more confident hands works back-to-back with him, occasionally looking over his shoulder to check in on the apprentice.
At another station, sparks are flying. Blanks (knives without handles) are being roughly shaped and piled to the side in a flurry.
And at my left, final honing is being done carefully - amidst buckets of green finishing slurry and a wall sprayed black with metal shavings.
Out of sight but somewhere in between all of these steps, handles are getting created and affixed too. I imagine the woodworking requires a separated cleanroom.
Back in the showroom, the final creations are proudly displayed. I hold a few in hand, running fingers over the signatures of the artisan engraved into each blade. These knives are ready to slice some vegetables into perfect, even pieces.
I lock eyes and nod to my smiling escort, who is satisfied that I am satisfied.
With my new knife carefully boxed and wrapped - and my first carbon steel one at that - we hop back into the car. We’re going back to her home, and this time I am almost certain of it. Though, I suppose, I was pretty sure last time too.
We chat amiably, probably not understanding too much of each other’s words - but that’s just fine by me.
Onward to who-knows-where in the Sabae prefecture, with a heavy foot on the pedal and the windows down.