Shu Matsubara Knives – the perfect Kyushu Souvenir

Shu Matsubara Knives – the perfect Kyushu Souvenir

A knife from Shu Matsubara was my first Nagasaki souvenir. Every time I use it, the great Kyushu memories return while chopping veggies… and a year after purchase, my Shu Matsubara knifes remain sharp and practically like new! Of course, I couldn’t stop at just one. BUt how did I find Shu MAtsubara in Omura, a small town north of Nagasaki?

After I successfully made it to Japan, I spent two weeks at university trying to catch up. Then my husband came to visit, so we hired a car and went to explore the countryside. Our first stop was Omura City   where Shu Matsubara Knives is based in the suburb of Matsubara.

Having spent six weeks in Nagasaki, I think Kyushu is a wonderful yet really underrated tourist destination. Western Kyushu can easily keep you occupied for two weeks and more. From the vibrant city of Fukuoka to beaches, mountains, and last not least the beautiful and relaxed city of Nagasaki with its beautiful scenery, volcanoes and hot springs.

Just beyond the Nagasaki Airport and the quiet town of Omura lies the sleepy seaside village of Matsubara, home to one remaining Nagasaki knife forge called Shu Matsubara Knives.

Is a Japanese cooking knife worth the  money?

In short, yes. The most famous Japanese knives probably come from Sakai near Osaka, and there are some other well-regarded centres of knife making. You can buy a Japanese cooks knife pretty much in any town, with plenty of shops of touristic interest in Tokyo’s Kappabashi-dori (Kitchenware Street) or Osaka’s Sennichimae Doguyasuji Street in Namba. Some of my classmates visited nearby Kyoto and reported that the knives in Kyoto shops were very expensive.

Is it worth the spend? I think so, yes. Growing up in Germany, I had some decent German mid-priced knives throughout my life. German knives are stainless steel and therefore different from the traditional Japanese knife. They last two to three months of daily domestic use on wooden and bamboo chopping boards until they need a sharpening. Then, in Germany we tend to take our knives for sharpening.

Fairly recently, we received a set of Global knives for our wedding. Global knives are Japanese but anything but traditional – made from stainless steel, stamped, not forged. And yes, they do sets. They are made in large scale workshop in Niigata, Japan, so they are decent, quality, light, very ergonomic modern shape. When new, my cook’s Global knife was incredibly sharp, which lasted about a year. It still cut decent after three years of use but really required sharpening. I can leave it in the drainer fine, the only protection I use it wrapping it in a dry dishcloth. It is quite forgiving. And I finally purchased a set of whetstones and taught myself to sharpen knives – so far, it works well, but stainless steel knives can be a bit trickier to sharpen.

A selection of traditional Japanese and Western Style knives at Shu Matsubara

Anyway, that’s the knife story so far. In Kyushu, you will also find traditional knife smiths in Kumamoto and Fukuoka, but both are artisans well into their 80’s. Whereas Katsuto Tanaka, the middle aged master smith of Shu Matsubara, is relatively young and dynamic and from what I understood, he already trains the next generation of knife smiths, so hopefully Shu Matsubara has a great future ahead. So after some research on the internet, I put Shu Matsubara knives on list of places to visit.

Types of knifes

Generally, I would suggest buy what you like and what is comfortable in your hands, but here is a mini overview of the most popular types of Japanese knife.

Stainless steel vs. carbon steel and in-betweens

Most knifes we have in Europe are stainless steel. Adding Chromium, Nickel and other alloying material makes the steel resistant to rust. This is the knife material I grew up with and am quite familiar with.

All European standard knifes I know of are stainless steel but exceptions and specialist forges exist. Stainless steel knives are easy to care for,  can lie around after washing up, and are generally forgiving but are a bit trickier to sharpen.

A German-made stainless steel “cooks knife” in the 30-50 Euro range has been my faithful daily use knife for years. A few years ago, I purchased a “fun” stainless steel paring knife from Laguiole en Aubrac which was something like 30-40 Euro but I do not use it so much because it is so beautiful.

Anyway, let’s move on to Japanese knives. Just to confuse you more, Japanese stainless steel knives can be made from many different types of stainless steel. V Gold 10 is a common type, staying sharp long and with good longevity. There are plenty others with different metallurgic content, with HAP 40 perhaps the top of the range type but less easy to sharpen.

Knife blades at Shu Matsubara with guidance to type of knife steel

Carbon steel, on the other hand, is the traditional Japanese knife material. Very hard but more brittle, prone to corrosion and almost always discolours with use, especially if handling acidic foods. Sounds rubbish for a knife? Well, carbon steel knives are incredibly sharp and when they do eventually lose their sharpness, they are a breeze to sharpen at home. Therefore, if you look after the knife, wash and dry immediately after use and give it a drop of cooking oil every now and then, they will last forever.

Types of carbon steel available in Japan include shirogami (white steel), which is the closest to historical knife material. Blue steel (aogami) has extra chrome and tungsten for hardness, and is a popular steel for high end knives.

Last not least, there are the in-betweens! Too numerous to mention, almost every Japanese knife forge also offers hybrid versions with a core of high carbon steel sandwiches by softer (sometimes stainless) steel layers. And then, mostly for looks, some knives are layered in Damascene technique, very popular in Japan, or have a hammered surface.

Knife handle styles

Keeping it short and sweet here.

A Japanese type handle (wa) is usually octagonal or oval and made from wood, with a harder ferrule where the blade inserts. They are very pretty and simplistic and can quite easily be replaced.

With a Western type handle (yo), the blade is sandwiched and riveted, and often ergonomically shaped, and more stable.

So, these are the materials and basic styles to consider.

Shopping knifes by shape and purpose

Firstly, just buy the knife you need. I have never seen a knife set in a Japanese shop and that’s good. Similarly, at Shu Matsubara Knives there are no knife sets.

Next once you picked the type of steel and maintenance level you will be happy with.

Now consider what you will use the knife for

A “Santoku” or “Gyuto” knife will suit most cooking purposes. They are the Japanese equivalents of the Western “cooks knife”.

The Santoku (“three virtues”) blade is quite straight with a tiny curve at the tip. This means you can use the entire blade for cutting and will usually require a shorter blade for the same task, and it is generally more suitable for chopping. The three virtues refer to fishm meat and vegetables and a Santoku is a great first Japanese all-purpose knifen.

The Gyuto can be a happy medium between a more Western and a classic Japanese knife – larger and slightly more tapered than the Santoku, and referred to as an all-purpose Chef’s knife, but it is bigger than the Santoku, with a blade length between 180 and 360mm – about 240mm is suitable for an ambitious home cook. If your cutting style is more rocking, this might be the knife for you.

Another great all-purpose cooking knife is the Bunka. More boxy than the Santoku, with a slightly tapered tip, it is usually large and looks quite chunky and when forged, you get some interesting patterns on the blade.

Some popular traditional Japanese knife shapes: Usuba and Gyoko

Moving more and more into a cleaver-shape type, the Kiritsuke is a sushi and sashimi knife which can be used for vegetable. The Usuba and Nakiri are cleaver-shaped vegetable chopping knifes.

And moving on… I think we are moving more and more into specialty knives here. A type I really like is the Petty (from “petit) and it is quite similar to a Western peeling and paring knife. It may be an obvious choice when you first start using larger knives because it is so reminiscent of a home cooking knife, but really is for peeling, tip work or fine details.

Then we have the almost sword-like Sujihiki for slicing and carving and Yanagiba sashimi type knifes, about four types for fish slaughtering, frozen food knives, cleavers… but best to concentrate on the classics.

Time to buy a classic Japanese hand forged kitchen knife at Shu Matsubara.

Our visit to Shu Matsubara Knives

We visited en route from Nagasaki to Arita the first time, and I visited again on my own before leaving Japan.

The first time, in our hire car, we followed the map navigation, turned off the  main road and right into someone’s backyard. Matsubara is a village, really, and no one came jumping out screaming at us.

The foundry certainly was not receiving many visitors on a weekday. It is actually quite large and spread over several buildings. When we visited, the salesroom was a  shipping container, and a bell had to be rung to get attention. Meanwhile a new small showroom has been opened.

A working foundry with not much tourist traffic, we were welcomed by the master himself on our first visit who invited to spend as much time in the small showroom as we wanted and, with the help of a translation app, advised us on which knife to buy.

The foundry is definitely not a major tourist destination and doesn’t do demonstrations or tours – they just make really good knives. We were the only visitors on both visits and were able to discreetly peep into the workshops, but definitely no demos like one may attend at Laguiole.

Shu Matsubara Knives
Current sales room at Shu Matsubara Knives

At first, I just wanted  a nice all-purpose knife that’s easy to care for. We are vegetarians, so in particular, I wanted a knife that shops herbs and vegetables nicely.

The master led us towards a nice-looking stainless steel Santoku, but then my husband picked up a very Western-style smaller one, said “I like this one” so we ended up buying a carbon steel clean-looking “Petty” knife with a Western riveted handle.

While we looked at the other knives on display, our chosen knife was engraved with my name in katakana, lovingly wrapped and packaged in a knife box.

Knife boxed up, we continued our happy way and it was towards the end of my stay when my credit card hadn’t been maxed out that I felt the lure of a super classic Japanese knife.

My second visit to Shu Matsubara Knives was by train and took half a day. I arrived at lunchtime, and after ringing the bell at the showroom, a friendly lady showed up. I walked further towards the village and noticed that there are actually several workshops belonging to the foundry. Again, I was free to look and handle all the knives. This time, I picked a blade of carbon steel sandwiched in stainless steel which makes it “medium rusty” as explained by the lady. It did not have a handle yet, so I was able to choose a handle of burnished walnut wood.

Shu Matsubara Knives
My pride and joy – a Santoku carbon steel sandwich knife with a walnut handle

This included a handle of my choice in the case of the unfinished knife,  engraving and super nice packaging.

And, three is a charm, and we do eat a load of vegetables, so I got a Nakiri as well.

Carbon steel Nakiri knife

The people at Shu Matsubara were absolutely lovely and although I don’t speak much Japanese and they didn’t speak much English, they really were able to advise on basic knife buying and how to look after the knife.

They may have been quite bemused by the sudden flood of foreigners wishing to purchase knives, as half my class somehow travelled there marvelling at the “low prices” when compared to Kyoto shops. I paid about 4000 JPY (25 Euro) for my carbon steel Petty, 11000 JPY (65 Euro) for the sandwich carbon-stainless steel Santoku and about 6000JPY for the Nakiri knife.

My knives in hand and having given my credit card a nice spin before returning home, I walked back to Matsubara train station in the blazing midday heat, thankful for the shade and drinks vending machine at the tiny station.

How to get to Shu Matsubara Knives

If you have a car, it is super easy. Get on the Nagasaki Expressway, leave at Omura Interchange, follow Route No. 34 to Matsubara. Shu Matsubara workshop and shop are directly on Route 34, approximately opposite the eye-catching A-Z Hotel. Look for “Tanaka Kama Industry” or “田中鎌工業”  on a map. It takes about 30-40 minutes from central Nagasaki.

An alternative route is to head north to Togitsu then take the Route 204 along Omura Bay. Since the speed limit is 40-50km/h and the road is really windy, it will be a much longer but scenic ride.

There is a free car park.

The journey takes considerably longer by train. There is a Japan Rail (JR) train roughly every half hour from Nagasaki, also stopping at Urakami Station. Many of these trains are terminating in Takematsu about 3km south. In this case, exit the station and cross the road – there is exactly one bus stop, with a bus to Matsubara roughly every hour. It is opposite the small shop/post office. The bus journey takes about 10 minutes and the bus stops 100m from Shu Matsubara – look out for the A-Z hotel and a whale-shaped bus shelter.

Sometimes you get a train all the way to Matsubara (about every hour). Matsubara is a tiny station an pleasant 15-minute walk through the village just metres from the sea. Apart from drinks vending, there isn’t much  in the way of food and drink on that route

I have yet to find a reliable and easy to use timetable – I tend to take a photos of the displayed timetables when I arrive and time my return journey according to those. However, plenty of my course mates did that trip on public transport, and none of them got stuck. I wouldn’t bother with the Shinkansen for that route – way too expensive and not really time saving. And the scenery is too pretty to miss it from the fast-moving train.

The master engraving my name into my new knife

The website of Shu Matsubara is but they have many more types of knife in the shop than what is displayed on the website. Current opening hours are 10.00 – 17.00 except Thursdays.

Where to Stay

We stayed in Nagasaki, about 30 minutes away. Our Modern Ryokan, the “Relaxing Inn Origami”  was located in a nice neighbourhood yet just 10 minutes walk from the car hire place, and had a garage where we could park our hire car  safely for an extra 500 JPY per night.

If you wish to stay near Nagasaki Airport, Enzo Ikeda is an extremely modern Japanese Inn with a very interesting aesthetic and good pricing.

And of you want the traditional Japanese Ryokan experience and not break the bank, try nearby Ureshino Onsen. Taishoya offers Japanese style rooms, a private on-site onsen, all for about 130 Euro accommodation only. If you intend to make a flying visit, Ureshino is on the Shinkansen line but no longer on the regular line to Matsubara, so would take a 5-minute Shinkansen ride from the resprts of Takeo or Ureshino to Shin-Omura and transfer to a local service there. Anyway, I recommend spending more time here – Ureshino has the famous healing water and a relaxing smalltown vibe, it’s a short hop to the tea gardens of Higashi-Sonogi and on to Matsubara and a day trip from Ureshino is very feasible even if using public transport. .


Most Kyushu places I visited and recommend are on here. Note there will be an extra Nagaski map eventually.

The Small Print

I visited Shu Matsubara in May and June 2023 on a day trip from Nagasaki. As usual, I paid for everything myself, and I was not asked to write about my visit. I am not sure whether they do this always, but on both visits, they gave me a small discount of about 5% without asking and when I jokingly mentioned I had sent a bunch of classmates  from Nagasaki, they gifted me a sharpening tool. But honestly, I did not expect any of this. This is a genuine recommendation if you happen to visit Nagasaki or Fukuoka and wish to purchase a quality Japanese cooking knife.

There are some affiliate accommodation links to in this post, which means I may earn a small commission if you book using these links. Thank you for reading!

This post was first published on 30 May 2024 and updated on 11 May 2024.

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18 thoughts on “Shu Matsubara Knives – the perfect Kyushu Souvenir”

  • Hallo Sharyn – Danke vielmals for your detailed post. I went to visit and ended up getting 6 knives! I took the train from Fukuoka and then after telling them where I travelled from, the lovely lady drove me to the Omura JR station.
    On my way back to Hakata, I jumped off at Takeo Onsen (figuring that there as an onsen there. There were a few!). It was lovely stop to close off the day trip : )

    • Hi Carolyn, wow, 6 knives! I think they are well worth it, though! I took the train and then the bus… then walked to the train station but by that time I was pretty fluent with public transport in Nagasaki prefecture. The first time my husband and I drove in our hired car. They were so nice, and I think these are quality knives. I have seen them on German web shops for crazy prices. I recently visited Sakai and thought, okay,maybe one more small knife… and walked out with four. But two are gifts.

      • PS: Sadly I never made it to Takeo Onsen (only changed trains). Maybe next time. Would you recommend it?

  • This is the best possible souvenir (or gift) from Japan!

    I love that now you’ll think of Nagasaki and your time in Kyushu. One of my biggest regrets is not bringing home a knife when I lived in Japan. I honestly only really discovered how fantastic they are when I got a bit older and started cooking more. We ended up buying knives in Canada that came from Japan. Your way of buying it directly is soo much better!

    • Hi Josy, indeed, my Japanese knife love started with Global knife which I got as a wedding gift and which are pretty ubiquitous in the West. So I set out to get a “real traditional” cooking knife. I must admit, I do love good cooking knives and I am afraid it is not going to be the last one.

      • Lol same! I am pretty sure we’ll end up with more too.

  • I wasn’t really familiar with Japanese knives before reading this, but now I think I’ll need to add them to my wish list! Thanks for such an informative post

    • Hi Tess, they are very good and famous as chefs knives. Make a good souvenir although I don’t know all the intricacies about them.

  • I just returned from a trip to Japan, April 2024, where I visited Tanaka san’s shop with a group. He now has a new, beautiful showroom at the front of the foundry. He talked to us about the history of the Matsubura lineage, which started as swordmakers for the Samurai in the 1400s. When peace arrived and feuding stopped, katanas (the samurai swords) where no longer needed, so the smiths turned to making sharp farm tools for farming and harvesting. When Japanese restaurants started to become more widespread, they started making knives for chefs in Japanese restaurants and their line of knives subsequently expanded. We got to see Tanaka san forging a new knife blank and it was impressive. His son works alongside and will become the 5th generation smith for Shu Matsubara. My wife and I bought 4 knives (she and I like to cook) and they are beautiful knives, super sharp, well balanced, and a pleasure to use. He, his son, and their family are wonderful people. The history of Shy Matsubara, the fact that the cutlery is lovingly handcrafted, and the personable Tanaka family make these knives especially treasured and we will pass them on to our kids someday. I have replaced my Shun knives with his knives.
    I definitely recommend their knives, and if possible, a visit to their shop. They have many, many more types of knives on display in the shop than in their website.

    • Hi Don, thank you for your long comment! It’s nice to hear from people who visited. I am so glad you liked the knife workshop. There was just a foundation of the new shop when I visited, and the salesroom was a small container but they still had many beautiful knives at all price point.

      I had a little peek into the workshops behind the main building, and I bought a few knives. After that, half my class went there to buy cooking knives and everyone was super pleased with them. I did not even bother looking for cooking knives anywhere else. I will treasure mine forever, got a set of whetstones so I can look after them forever.

  • This was awesome to read. I just received my Matsubara 210mm Gyuto and was reading up some more on their knives. This was such cool insight. Thank you!
    I’m a bit jealous to hear what you’ve paid for them, but I bet it’s worth it even what I paid for it.

    • Hi Sebastiaan, thank you for your comment! I guess buying at the source makes for the best price, but the knifes I bought were by far not the most expensive. So – there are different price ranges, I went for the carbon steel core with stainless mantle because I only use stainless so far and I do tend to leave the knife on the draining board sometimes. I think you got yourself an excellent knife there from an outstanding small business where everything really is formed by hand.

  • I am currently using a cermaic knife made in Japan, and I have never come across a knife so sharp and smooth. I do not know the type of that knife though.

  • Excellent purchase. As a food, having good knives are a must. Can you take them out of the country without airport security taking them?

    • Hi Sharyn, thank you for your post! I think it is perfectly safe and acceptable to carry cooking knifes in Japan and take them home. I checked three large and one medium kitchen knifes with my luggage in Fukuoka , it travelled via Taipei to Frankfurt with no issue. No one opened my luggage. At least five of my class mates bought several knifes too and I have not heard anything adverse from them either. You cannot take them in the hand luggage.

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