Monday, October 15, 2012

Buying tools in Kyoto

I love tools. I consider a trip to the local home center or hardware store a bit of good weekend fun. And of course, in bonsai there's plenty of room for satisfaction in that department. It is perhaps considered 'shallow' to be more concerned with the tools than the craft, art or creativity of bonsai, like how some golfers tend to spend a fortune on clubs rather than actually go out and do some serious practice, and I wouldn't want to go that far. I just think it's yet another aspect to enjoy.
Anyway, it wasn't long after I joined the local bonsai club at Koju-en that I started looking out for tool-shops. Here's what I've found:

Kikuichi monji (θŠδΈ€ζ–‡ε­—)
Kikuichi monji
Of the shops I've been to, this has the largest collection of bonsai tools. Originally a sword smith for the emperor, now their main focus is knives. From what I have been reading on knife forums, they no longer actually make knives themselves, but the stuff they sell is apparently high quality stuff. Nice staff who knew enough bonsai to give a newbie like me some advice and typical use cases for different tools. They even had a info-leaflet on some typical types of tools, their japanese name and use. Lots of choices on scissors and secateurs in different price ranges, a few branch/trunk splitters, not so many options when it came to angled/concave cutters, knob-cutters etc. I got my first (well, so far my only) pair of scissors there for 2600 yen, a good deal as far as I'm concerned. 
See the map and picture for details on the location. It's on the south side of the short bit of covered arcade on Sanjo street, just a few shops west of the big Sanjo-Kawaramachi intersection. If this doesn't tell you anything, on a map try looking 3/4 of the way from Kyoto station to the huge green rectangle that is the imperial palace park and you should find Sanjo street. Kawaramachi is just west of the north-south flowing river Kamogawa. 

"The little corner-shop" 
Excuse my poor research here, unfortunately I don't know the name of this shop, though I have it scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere. I found this one by coincidence even before I really knew I was going into bonsai. It's about the size of a telephone booth when you get inside, so you'll have a hard time trying to do much window-shopping without eventually communicating a bit with the cute old couple running the shop. It's been a while since I last went there, as far as I remember they had a bit of everything, from knives to "ninja" throwing stars. I got a pair of branch cutters, and since I bought it as a present for my dad, the price must have been quite reasonable. They also had a few full tool-kits with cases. I just have a feeling that if you say "bonsai" and stick around for a bit, you might just find a great deal on a very decent Japanese tool. 
"The little corner shop"
It's hidden away in a small dark alley off of Shijo west of the river, the busiest big-brand shopping street in Kyoto. I think the map/picture below should get you there, the mouse cursor is pointed at the store on the map. You might walk by the alley without even noticing though, it's a sneaker store, only there is no back wall - you just walk through the store and then you are in the alley. Actually, you should go there just for the experience of this secret back alley. I just love these places. 

Previously another supplier of imperial swords, this is where Kyoto chefs get their blades, and it's all the rage among knife-junkies on English-speaking forums. Sometimes also known as "The place where you can get your name stamped into the blade when you buy it". Probably a bit pricier, though someone said that for blades of this superb quality, you often pay more. I don't know much about their bonsai tools, I just felt that they didn't have much, and that it was a bit on the expensive side. You'll find it on Nishiki-koji food market street, parallel with Shijo, starting at covered arcade Teramachi. 

The scissor-maker
Again, I don't know the name of the shop. There's a sign on the picture, but I'm just as likely to read it all wrong if I tried. I walk by here every month on my way to and from the bonsai club, and it's usually opened even in the Sunday afternoons. So eventually I popped my head in and had a chat. Apparently, a lot of people headed for Koju-en end up at his place asking for directions. I was shopping around for a branch-cutter, and he explained that his trade was making garden scissors, loppers and shears. He did eventually find an old branch-cutter, and I asked if he knew whether the cutting edges should actually meet or if they should be slightly offset on purpose, as was the case on the tool at hand. He didn't really know (neither did the guy at Kikuichi) but I have later learned that if the edges met straight on, they would quickly go dull, therefore one edge is always set slightly above the other. He wasn't sure whether the price-tag read 800 or 8000 yen, but he couldn't believe that it was 8000 so he quoted the former price! I'm pretty sure that was an insane bargain smiling at me, but I didn't feel quite ready to settle for any tool before I knew more. 
The scissor maker south-west of Kyoto station. 
I asked if he knew any other tool-shops in Kyoto, and he wrote the names and addresses of three places. When I looked them up, it turned out to be the one's I have listed above, so it seems I have most of them covered :)   We talked a bit more and from what I understood, his customers were mostly the gardeners of Kyoto. When I asked about the difference between home-center cheap tools and hand-made more expensive stuff, he said that some gardeners bought the cheap Chinese stuff, used it a season and threw it away. They didn't really need to care if it started to rust or if the quality was a bit shoddy. Others bought quality stuff, cared for it well, kept it sharpened, and those tools would last them decades. It wasn't that one way was better than the other, it was more of a personal choice. He made tools to last. If you are looking for some of the stuff that he makes himself, and you feel confident that you can tell good from bad, then I think you could get some really good value for money, without any "brand-premium" added. 
Again, I hope the map will help. Pretty much all you need to do is keep walking west along Hachijo-street, which is just outside Kyoto station on the south side. The store is on a south-east corner just before the point where the road meets the railroad tracks and bends south slightly. The star you see in the low left-hand corner marks Koju-en by the way. 

Still wondering why I went off making fun of materialist golfers? I practically grew up in the wild overgrown parts of a golf course, helping dad clear out thorny bushes, prune trees and tidy up in the wooded hills between holes. That's how he liked to spend the weekends :)  Well there is where I got to know a lot of golfers anyway. I never got much skills on the fairway, there was lots more fun to be had in the woods. 

If you have any questions, or if you found this post helpful, don't hesitate to drop me a line!

I'll try to be back soon
Time for bed

PS. I saw the maps came out a bit tiny, here's bigger versions:

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff here. I am copying my post from another Kyoto knife site that may be helpful.

    In between Sanjusangen shrine and the river is a good shop that also takes credit cards! I went there five years ago and walked by it again by accident last week when I had been desperately trying to find it thinking it was somewhere else. It has a lot of half tang knives which I know many scoff at. But having worked professionally in kitchens and having many beautiful full tang knives, I think this type of thinking is short sighted. The most important thing for me is the feel and blade. Having used these less expensive knives now for five years they are often times my go to choices.

    Also while I love the idea of having a ‘handmade’ knife, there are so many handmade things to be bought still. Does the knife really have to be actually handmade? Having a great experience at a cool mom and pop shop where the knife is still made in Japan works for me.

    Also there is another place I found when riding my bike back from Kinkakuji(take main road away towards nijo castle). A beautiful hardware knife tool store run by a lovely man. The thing is there are the two or three big name knife shops but I much prefer these off the beaten path ones even though I still buy from Shigeharu and Aritsugu. There are also many more. You just have to walk around and explore. Get on a bike!! It was the best part of my last trip.