In the quiet neighbourhood of Kiyokawa, Fukuoka City, Toshio Ohba (大庭利男), is the last blacksmith still making knives in Fukuoka City. Now over 80 years old, Mr Ohba has been making knives for over 65 years from his small workshop. For his contribution to the dying craft of knife making, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan recognises him as a “Master Craftsman”, a designation given to people with outstanding skills in each field.
Originating from a family of blacksmiths spanning 3 generations, Mr Ohba specialises in making a style of knife known as a Hakata Bocho ( 博多包丁) or Inasa Bocho. Similar to a Santoku knife that is made for home use, a Hakata knife is different in that it has a triangular tip and a slightly curved spine. This triangular tip is similar to that of a Bunka knife, but is meant for peeling off the skin on burdock root.
Whilst not the most famous or refined blacksmith in Japan, the appeal of Mr Ohba’s carbon-steel knives are in their extremely rustic feel and appearance in part due to their kurouchi (黒打ち) finish. A kurouchi knife is one that still retains some of it’s char and burnt residue left behind from the scorching fire during the forging process, instead of typically being completely polished off. This layer protects the carbon steel from rust, much like a patina layer.
Mr Obha is also the last man alive that still possess the skills needed to make the traditional rake/hoe that is used to rake the sand of a sumo ring. As such, the rakes used throughout the country are sent to his workshop before the beginning of the sumo season for maintenance. During this period, he is extremely busy and custom orders for knives are put on hold. Quoting Mr Obha himself: “I will continue this job as long as my life lasts. The work of a craftsman is a lifelong journey of learning, there’s always something that can be improved on.”
In terms of apprentices, Mr Ohba so far has trained one apprentice named Haruo Miyazaki. Currently based in Nagasaki, Mr Miyazaki started his apprenticeship at Yoshimitsu workshop (吉光鍛冶屋), before finishing his training with Mr Ohba. Mr Ohba himself only accepted Mr Miyazaki as his apprentice after turning him down 2 times, and only opened his own workshop after 5 years of training. At the beginning of his training, Mr Ohba had reprimanded Mr Miyazaki for his lack of commitment to the craft, with Mr Miyazaki only taking the training seriously after being scolded for wasting steel after he disposed of a failed knife.
Mr Obha sells different sizes of the Hakata style straight off the shelf but more customized orders can be done but with a wait time of up to 6 months. One example of a custom knife that Mr Ohba makes is a sujihiki (筋引き) slicing knife, which is a double beveled knife with a long blade used for slicing vegetables. His apprentice, Mr Miyazaki’s knives can sometimes be brought online.