In Tsukiji there’s a small, open-fronted shop called “Tsukiji Masamoto”, and it’s packed. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with knives in various wooden cases, row after row of every tool you’d need to separate one part of some animal from another.
Their shapes were unfamiliar to my western eyes, specialized tools for jobs I know nothing about. Even the local equivalent of the west’s workaday one-size-fits-all chef’s knife, the santoku, seems to come in more shapes and sizes than makes sense. The cleaver-like usuba bocho doesn’t have an obvious western counterpart, the hard angles of the usagisaki hocho, the “eel knife”, likewise. And the savage economy of the soba kiri or udon kiri – literally “noodle knife”, because that’s all they’re for – looks more like the business end of something stylized and cruel than a common household utensil in its own right.
Most striking is the maguro bocho, made for filleting four hundred pounds of tuna in a single motion; some seven feet long, five of it blade, they seem more like a Daimyo’s tool than a fishmonger’s. It’s hard to believe they’re useful until you see how big a full-sized tuna can be; the nature of the tool becomes clear once you understand the nature of the job, as usual.
When I visited there was a man squared up over a whetstone out front, a man who looks like he’s made out of old leather and dock rope. He was holding a hon deba to the wheel in hands you could mistake for a bag of walnuts. He seemed to have been there forever; as far as I’m concerned he’s probably still there, a small man who stands like an old mountain. Tsukiji seemed to have been built around him; I had the impression some shogun’s son had found him standing in front of that wheel when it was still called Edo and returned home to say, father, we do need a fish market, and there is a man already there sharpening knives. Respectfully, father, I don’t think he’s going anywhere for anyone.
As I was watching him work he lifted the hon deba off the wheel and peered closely at its edge for a long time before he lowered the knife and stared at the sky for just as long. For a moment I could almost see a hint of dissatisfaction and then nothing; he put the edge back to the wheel, I moved on.
I think about this a lot; I wish I’d been able to ask him what he’d seen.