This week, I recount the hunt for the iconic higonokami pocket knife on the streets of Kyoto.
Souvenirs come in all shapes and sizes. A little while ago I wrote about some cheap and unique souvenir suggestions for your trips. Well, I also have a rather unique souvenir collection – I collect knives and daggers.
It started on a business trip to the Philippines, where I saw a pretty cool dagger that was hidden in a bamboo shaft. Since then, I have tried to expand my collection, adding traditional knives and daggers from the countries I have visited. Over the years these have included khanjars from Oman and UAE, daggers from flea markets in Nigeria and Egypt, traditional handmade knives from the Khasi tribal lands of Meghalaya and iconic pocket knives like the Opinel from France. So on my trip to Japan, I had my heart set on getting a Higonokami pocket knife, an equally iconic design unique to Japan.
The Higonokami pocket knife, originated in Miki, Hyogo Prefecture in 1896 and it is here that its story begins. Japan was forced to dismantle its feudal system and move on to an industrial one after its clash with the west. This led to the disarmament of the Samurai (see the movie the Last Samurai). The Samurai were stripped of rank, privilege and even weapons. Thanks to this, the blacksmiths lost their most loyal patrons as owning a Katana began a very dangerous proposition in the coming days. A lot of the blacksmiths focussed on making knives instead and settled in the Miki province forming a guild called Higonokami in 1899. It was to a member of this guild that a man called Tasaburo Shigematsu, bought a knife that he wanted manufactured. The blacksmith added a lever to the design, leading to the iconic shape that the higonokami is famous for. The design became a commercial success and the rights to manufacture this kind of knife were enshrined with the Higonokami guild.1 2
The Higonokami knife is a folder, which can be opened by putting pressure on a lever to open the knife. The knife has no locking mechanism and pressure on the same lever ensures that the knife stays open. The cheap pocket knives were quite ubiquitous in Japan, until the 1960’s, when changes in weapon laws banned carrying of most bladed instruments in public. The most unique thing about it is probably the blade, with it’s distinctive shape and is often hand-forged with the maker’s mark on it.
While I wanted to get one, I had no idea where to even begin searching for one. On my last night in Tokyo, I asked around in my hostel if any of the local Japanese knew where I could get one. Seems most people hadn’t even heard of this knife !!! Luckily one of them said that I could probably find one in Tokyu Hands, the mega speciality store for all things Japanese. I had pretty much made up my mind to pick one up on my return to Tokyo, when I chanced upon an article on Geishasblades. Seems it was possible to find a Higonokami right there in Kyoto !!!
So on my last day in Kyoto, I decided to try and find myself a Higonokami at the ancient Kikuichi-monji knife store. Legend has it that the blacksmith whose knives the store sells, started manufacturing swords by decree of the emperor in 1208. In 1876, the store branched into manufacturing knives and cutlery and has passed down a tradition of knife making since then. Located near Nishiki market in Tokyo, this place seemed easy to find, or so I thought.
I set off to quickly locate the shop in the morning, before my afternoon train to Tokyo. Catching a bus from Kyoto station I got off near Nishiki market and started searching for the shop on the streets. I checked the map on my phone and started walking down the covered market streets. But while the map showed me more or less in front of the store, the legendary knife store was nowhere to be seen. I did see a giant crab on top of a store, but that knife store was nowhere to be seen.
Confused and kind of lost and definitely running out of time, I asked in one of the stores for directions. It seems I was in the wrong lane and after quickly re-orienting myself I found the store.
Being fixated on the map on my phone I think I must have walked right past the unassuming store, missing it completely. Inside the store there was an vast array of knives of every kind, gardening implements and even deadly looking weapons. But right there on a small counter, stood the higonokami.
I chose one of the higonokami from the display, tried it out and bought it to add to my collection. The pocket knife is lovely and I think that while I’ll probably need to keep it sharp and rust free (the steel used in a higonokami isn’t of the stainless kind), it’s definitely an unique addition to my collection.