I have been doing some shopping, and then some research, about Aritsugu 有次, the famous knifemaker in Kyoto, where I currently live. I have discovered something you all ought to know about if you’re into Japanese knives. Some of you probably know this, but I've never seen it stated anywhere in English, so maybe not.
In 1919 (Taisho 7, if you care), for reasons not entirely apparent from their public statements readily available, Aritsugu split into two companies, one in Kyoto, one in Tokyo. The two are financially independent, and at least officially are completely separate. Their stock of knives remains almost exactly identical, but there are very small differences here and there.
Some say that the Kyoto branch is the only one to go with, but I have seen no explanation for why this should be the case. Certainly both make hand-forged knives, and both are highly respected. I suspect this is just Kyoto regional pride, but I don’t really know for certain.
More or less trivial differences:
The Kyoto branch uses the traditional sun 寸 measurement for blade lengths (1 sun = 30.3 mm = 1.2 inches), whereas the Tokyo branch uses millimeters.
Kyoto does not post its catalogue online; Tokyo does.
Kyoto does not ship, and any shipping they must do is handled through Takashimaya or Hankyu department store; Tokyo does its own shipping.
Kyoto also sells handicraft-made cookware, including a few pots, strainers, and the like, mostly made by fancy old-fashioned craftsmen around Kyoto; Tokyo doesn’t.
Kyoto makes a small selection of woodworking tools, bonsai scissors and even hedge trimmers (!), oyster knives, eel spikes, special old-fashioned boning chisels, and the like; Tokyo doesn’t.
Cash on the barrelhead, no credit cards or checks. Shipped orders can be paid for by wire transfer in the case of Tokyo, or by other means through Takashimaya or Hankyu for Kyoto. It’s possible that the department stores could mediate a payment by credit card, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Ultimately I detect no significant differences in the knives themselves, though I have not been to the Tokyo shop to compare — not that I’d be able to tell anyway. The Tokyo catalogue is so similar to what’s for sale in Kyoto that I didn’t even realize they weren’t the same.
The Kyoto shop carries many left-handed knives, in a large case for the purpose. They have pretty much everything they carry in left-handed, and I see no price difference. The Tokyo shop says nothing whatever about this on their website, nor on their order form is there a place to indicate handedness. Either they don’t make lefty knives (I doubt this) or you just specify this when you place your order; if there is a charge, they’ll tell you then, but of course you’d be well within your rights to tell them to take a flying leap at that point and just not pay. I would guess that there is no lefty surcharge.
Very important difference:
The prices are significantly higher in Kyoto. Almost certainly this reflects two things.
First, there is fame and location. Everyone knows Aritsugu is in Kyoto, in Nishiki market, and they’ve been there or very near there for 500 years. The Tokyo shop is in Tsukiji fish market, and is relatively recent by knifemaker standards. It’s not only western tourists who tend to prefer the old craftsman thing — this is if anything bigger in Japan. So one thing is they’re charging more because they can get it.
The second point is the one you guys will care about most, but it is slightly speculative. If you have good information about this, please let us all know, okay?
My strong impression is that the Tokyo shop does not finish and polish blades. They’re like all those other Japanese knifemakers that KCMA and others have discussed. When you buy a knife from them, you have to do all the finishing and stuff yourself. For many of you, that’s no problem, and in some cases might even be preferable, or at least fun. For some of us, though, that’s a huge pain in the rear. In any event, because they don’t do this work, they charge less for their knives. The Kyoto shop, on the other hand, sells completely finished knives. When you buy a knife, they have you pay, get your name, and send you off to play. When you return, the knife is completely finished and has your name neatly inscribed in the blade. So you’re paying for this service.
In any event, the price differential ranges from about 10% to 125%, as far as I can see. The 7寸 black steel deba I bought cost about 10% more in Kyoto than it would have in Tokyo. An A-style (asymmetrical, an Aritsugu specialty) 270mm (9寸) gyuto costs $288 and change in Kyoto, or $140 in Tokyo. The Kyoto people say the Tokyo people don’t make this knife correctly, but they’re obviously somewhat biased!
Here are the websites:
Kyoto — www.aritsugu.com
Tokyo — www.aritsugu.jp
If you want to buy from Aritsugu Kyoto, you’re going to need someone who really knows Japanese well. You’re going to have to email them to place an order and ask them how to get that order handled by Takashimaya or Hankyu, and then find out how to deal with those people. Once you get that far, it’ll be easy, because high-end department stores have passable English and do take credit cards, which you might be able to use for this too, but regardless I would expect that they will take a cut, further raising the price.
If you want to buy from Aritsugu Tokyo, you pick the knives you want and click the button for each, which puts it into your cart. When you’re done, you click the checkout button and fill in a lot of information: name, address, and so on. You tell them how you intend to pay, which is by wire transfer almost certainly. This process sends them an email. Then they send you mail (possibly email if overseas) confirming your order and giving you a bank number for the transfer. You have 10 days from that point to complete payment, or they cancel the order. Once they’ve been paid, your order will be shipped within 3 days. Overseas, they ship by private air carrier, which is very reliable, and when they make the confirmation in the first place they tell you how much the shipping will be. There is a handling charge of 315¥ (about $3.15, at the moment), but this is waived if you order at least 100,000¥ (US $1,000) of stuff — good of them, don’t you think? Anything damaged in shipping they will of course replace. To do all this you will need someone who reads Japanese, but this is not at all tricky.