Shu Matsubara Knives – the perfect Kyushu Souvenir

Shu Matsubara Knives – the perfect Kyushu Souvenir

Shu Matsubara Knives were my first Nagasaki souvenir and remain one of my favourite souvenirs. After I successfully made it to Japan, I spent two weeks studying, venturing out on trips inside the city only. 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 called Matsubara.

Generally, 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, the relaxed city of Nagasaki with its beautiful scenery and volcanoes and hot springs galore.

Let’s start right outside Nagasaki, along  beautiful Omura Bay. Just beyond the Omura/Nagasaki Airport and the sedate town of Omura, lies the sleepy seaside village of Matsubara, home to one remaining knife forge called Shu Matsubara Knives.

Is a Japanese cooking knife worth the  money?

In short, yes! The most famous Japanese knifes come from Sakai near  Osaka, and there are some other well-regarded centres of knife making. I have not been there myself, so no idea how easy it is to visit forges and buy knifes there. Some of my class mates visited nearby Kyoto and reported that the knifes in Kyoto shops were very expensive.

Is it worth the spend? I think so, yes. I had some decent German mid-priced knifes throughout my life. German knifes tend to be stainless steel and therefore different from the traditional Japanese knife. I would say two to three months of daily domestic use on wooden and bamboo chopping boards did they last until they need a sharpening. Then we got a couple Global knifes for our wedding. Global knifes are Japanese but anything but traditional – made from stainless steel, stamped, not forged. They are made in large scale workshop in Niigata, Japan, so they are decent, quality, light, very ergonomic modern shape, And when new, my Global knife was incredibly sharp, which lasted about a year. It still cuts decent after three years of use but really needs 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.

In Kyushu, you will also find traditional knife smiths in Kumamoto and Fukuoka, but both are artisans well into their 80’s. Katsuto Tanaka, the middle aged master smith of Shu Matsubara, is poistively young and dynamic and from what I understood, trains several knife smiths as well, so hopefully Shu Matsubara has a great future.

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

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.

Coming from Germany, a stainless steel “cooks knife” in the 30-50 Euro range has been my faithful “good day knife” with numerous half decent cheaper paring knifes. 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 admit I do not use it so much because it is so beautiful. All European standard knifes I know of are stainless steel but exceptions and specialist forges exist. Stainless steel knifes are  easy to care for,  can lie around after washing up, and is generally forgiving but required frequent sharpening.

Carbon steel, on the other hand, is the traditional 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 knifes are incredibly sharp and when they do eventually lose their sharpness, 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.

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

Shopping knifes by shape

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

A “Santoku” or “Gyoto” will suit most cooking purposes. They are the Japanese equivalents of the Western “cooks knife”. While a Western knife has a tapered tip, the Santoku 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 Gyoko can be a happy medium – slightly more tapered than the Santoku, if your cutting style is more rocking, this might be the knife for you.

Another great all-purpose cooking knife is the “Bunka”. Slightly 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.

Moving more and more into a cleaver-shape type, the “Kiritsuke” is a sushi and sashimi knife which can be used for vegetable. Last not least, the “Usuba” and “Nakiri” are cleaver-shaped vegetable chopping knifes.

Some popular traditional Japanese knife shapes: Usuba and Gyoko

Our visit to Shu Matsubara Knives

We visited en route from Nagasaki to Arita the first time, and then I visited again on my own. Following the map navigation, we turned off the  main road and right into someone’s backyard – MAtsubara is a village, really, and the foundry certainly was not receiving many visitors on a weekday.

The foundry is actually quite large and spread over several buildings. At present, the sales room is a  shipping container, but I understand a show room is currently being built. A working foundry with not much tourist traffic, we were welcomed by the master himself on our first visit invited to spend as much time in the small showroom as possible 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 make really good knifes. I was the only visitor on both visits.

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, including tomatoes and peppers. He led us towards a noce-looking stainless steel knife, but then my husband said “I like this one” so we ended up buying a super sharp carbon steel “santoku” knife knife. While we looked at the other knifes on display, our chosen knife was engraved with my name, lovingly wrapped and packaged in a knife box. We were able to look into the forge, but really, it’s a working workshop not a show workshop and we didn’t want to disturb any one, it would be possible to take a look but there are no tours as such.

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

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 show room, 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 choose a knife. 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.

The people there were absolutely lovely and probably quite bemused by the sudden flood of foreigners wishing to purchase knifes as half my class somehow travelled there marvelling at the “low prices”. Well, low prices compared to Kyoto shops. I really hope they aren’t selling their knifes under value. I paid about 4000 JPY (25 Euro) for my stainless steel Santoku and 11000 JPY (65 Euro) for the sandwich carbon-stainless steel Bunka knife.

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

My knifes 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 website of Shu Matsubara is www.e-kajiya.com but usually they have many more types of knife on the shop. Current opening hours are 10.00 – 17.00 except Thursdays.

The master engraving my name into my new knife

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. .

Map

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 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 Booking.com in this post, which means I may earn a small commission if you book using these links. Thank you for reading!



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

  • 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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