One question that I am often get asked at the showroom is “why honyaki knives are very expensive?”. I will give a few reasons in this post.
(The Honyaki display at Knives and Stones showroom, Sydney)
Firstly, Honyaki is quite limited in supply. It is largely because Honyaki is difficult to make. As we know, Honyaki is forged from a singe piece of steel, and that is a lot more difficult than a cladded material because how hard the steel is. Heat treating is another big hurdle, Honyaki and particularly Mizu-honykai (water quenched) has a very high failure rate, I remember Master Togashi was telling me that the failure rate is about 40% to 50%, and the figure goes even higher on a bad day (oil-quenched Honykai has a lower failure rate because oil is not as dramatic as water in terms of rapid temperature change).
(A wrapped Honyaki Yanagi at Kenji Togashi's workshop, with a lot of the similar failed banks at inside the buckets at the back)
Master Hanaki from Sukenari explained that one can basically heat treat one honyaki blade at a time where cladded knives (and stainless knives) can go into a heat-treatment machine in bigger batches. As a result, blacksmiths love to make cladded knives because the turnaround time is a lot quicker than a Honyaki, and they simply can make more money because even Honayki is relatively expensive to a cladded knife, it is still “not worth the trouble” for many makers.
(At Sukenari, Master Hanaki told me each Honyaki knife is individually heat treated, one at a time)
(A batch cladded of Yanagiba heated at Tanaka's factory in Miki)
Same goes for the sharpening, it is a lot longer to rough shape and sharpen a Honyaki than a cladded knife. Due the high hardness of the Honyaki, the blade is very brittle and sometimes just fails during sharpening (and even after shipped to customer!). I have a 450mm Honyaki Yanagiba by late Master Tatsuo Ikeda, it was a finished blade, with mirror polishing, engraving and even a handle installed. Yet it had a fracture from the middle of the blade, rendering the entire knife become a reject. Imagine all the effort went into producing this knife and ended being a waste. The knife factories still have to pay for all these (Yes, it is a tradition), so naturally everything goes into the cost calculation formula which only means the price will head north.
(Ouch! A huge crack formed on a 450mm Honayki Yanagi by Tatsuo Ikeda)
And did I mention that in order to make a honyaki knife, you have to become a master first? There are very very few people in Japan that I know are actively producing Honyaki blades, primarily in Sakai. I can’t even name more than 10 makers in Japan that are producing blades, and most of them are quite old (for example, master Kenji Togashi is approaching his 70s, and master Yoshikazu Ikeda is about 85), so production rate is not as high. As far as I know, Sukenari, Watanabe and Masakuni are the only non-Sakai makers that produce Honyaki knives you can actually buy.
All the above factors contribute to the very limited supply of Honayki knives. Usually a special order like the K&S James Honyaki takes somewhere between 12 to 18 months to arrive.
Because it is so hard to get Honayki blades, naturally the customer would want everything to be perfect. Most Honyaki will receive some extra attention, from a mirror polished hira (sometimes blade and ura side as well) to a set of exotic hardwood saya and handle. All these bits and pieces are not cheap to get and after you put everything together with the already expensive Honayki blade, the $$ goes even higher.
Honyaki is not only just a simple piece of sharp steel, it is a true functional art that reflects the extremely high quality of craftsmanship of the blacksmith, the sharpener and the handle maker. It is the work of some of the most skilled masters in Japan. Sushi chefs love to have a set of nice Honyaki knives to reflect their dedication to the industry and to impress their customers. Collectors and knife enthusiasts love to own a piece that represents the best of their admired craftsman. As a result we consistently see a huge demand of Honyaki knives from the ever expanding audience of Japanese kitchen knives. In short, demand and supply is the real reason behind of high cost of Honyaki knives.