The 6 Best Japanese Knife Sets

Published on 01/24/2024 · 9 min readSlice in style! Our guide reveals the best Japanese knife sets, combining elegant design with exceptional sharpness for a superior culinary experience.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Nakiri knives are specialized for fruits and veggies. Photo by Klaus Nielsen

TL;DR: A Japanese-style knife is made with a hard steel and hammered very thin, making it lightweight with extremely keen edge. Knife sets usually include a few standard knives, like paring knives and chef’s knives, that are must-haves.

My love for all types of knives came from my dad, who happily added to my collection of pocket knives as a kid. As I’ve also always been interested in cooking, I helped my mom in the kitchen while growing up. The two interests naturally intersect with kitchen knives, and my knife collecting has shifted to cutlery rather than pocket knives.

While a lot of the knives in my collection were gifts or something I inherited from my parents, I’ve been adding my own selections to it. I even managed to find a pair of well-made carbon steel knives at a thrift store that I restored. My kitchen knives are made from stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic, so I have a wide range of experience.

How to Pick the Right Japanese Knife Set for the Job

A knife set is a great way to get started or to upgrade from cheaper knives. Most knife sets contain the same basic set of knives, but there are more unusual ones you can get to round out a collection.

Readying to halve a firm fruit with a kiritsuke knife. Photo by Any Lane

Japanese Knife Construction

Japanese-style knives have a different focus than their Western counterparts. They are usually made out of harder steel, allowing them to be hammered thinner. This both increases precision in slicing and makes the knife lighter. The tradeoff is that they’re easier to chip or damage than most Western knives.

When looking for a high-quality knife, there are certain terms you should be familiar with so you can make an informed decision on what to buy.

  • Forged: This style of manufacturing is considered superior. A forged knife is shaped from molten metal, making it more durable and more expensive. These knives hold a very fine edge and last longer.
  • Stamped: This is a cheap way to make knives, meaning that most inexpensive knives will be manufactured this way. In general, these knives have worse balance and durability, but they are very light.
  • Tang: When looking at a knife’s specs, it’ll likely mention that it either has a full or partial tang. The tang is the part of the knife that is affixed to the handle. A full tang is considered superior because it makes the knife better balanced and less likely to fail from strain. Partial tangs do make knives lighter, though.
  • Single bevel: The majority of Japanese knives are single bevel, which means that the blade is only sharpened on one side. This allows for more precise cuts as the blade moves away from you as you slice (if you’re a righty and it's sharpened on the right-hand side), allowing for smoother cuts.

A santoku knife cleanly slices through an apple. Photo by Anete Lusina

Blade Material

As the forging process is integral in Japanese knives’ craftsmanship, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that isn’t made out of high-quality steel. However, there are still some options in terms of the blade material.

  • Stainless steel: For the practical, stainless steel is the way to go. It’s rust resistant, durable, and holds an edge well. It’s also the most common knife material out there.
  • Carbon steel: If having a razor-sharp edge on your knife is your top priority, you should consider carbon steel. This alloy is extremely hard, allowing it to hold a keen edge for a very long time. It requires extra care, however, as it isn’t corrosion resistant and any water left on it after washing will cause rust.
  • High-carbon stainless steel: This is a newer term for stainless steel with a higher carbon content, though the exact percentage hasn’t been settled on. It marries the best of carbon steel and stainless, allowing for a super-sharp edge and resistance to rust.
  • Damascus steel: Unlike the other types of steel, this isn’t an alloy but a forging process. Damascus steel is made by hammering layers of steel together as it’s forged. It's easily recognizable by the wavy patterns on the blade. As it’s a cosmetic feature, these knives are more expensive.

What Should a Knife Set Contain?

The pieces in a knife set are what make it stand out from the competition. Almost every knife set has the basics, but larger knife sets will include more unusual or specialty knives.

  • Gyuto knife: These knives are also called Japanese chef's knives, and they can do the same tasks as a Western-style chef’s knife. They can dice, mince, slice, and even cut through joints. However, the hard steel can make them brittle, so it's better to avoid bones.
  • Paring knife: It’s said that all a home cook needs is a chef’s knife and a paring knife. These diminutive knives are excellent for precise or delicate tasks, like coring tomatoes, peeling kiwis, and mincing herbs.
  • Santoku knife: This style of knife is fairly common in Japanese knife sets. It’s another** **multipurpose knife that works well on both meat and veggies. It has a curve on the spine rather than the blade, so it has a larger cutting surface.
  • Utility knife: Even small knife sets boast a utility knife. This is a medium-sized knife around five to seven inches long. Their blades aren’t deep (unless they’re chef’s-knife style), making them light and easy to handle. They are sometimes referred to as petty knives.
  • Bread knife: A serrated knife is a must-have, as it’s the only knife that can easily slice bread. The serrations allow it to grip the bread and cut it rather than tearing it. They’re also great for cutting cakes and slippery fruits and veggies, like tomatoes or citrus, though a bread knife might be a bit long for smaller fruits like lemons.
  • Nakiri knife: Sometimes referred to as a Japanese vegetable knife, these knives aren’t common in sets. They have a larger, square blade that makes them excellent for cutting through hard vegetables like sweet potatoes. Their extremely sharp edge allows for thin, even slices.
  • Kiritsuke knife: This is a more unusual type of Japanese knife, so you’re unlikely to find it in a set. It’s a mix of two different traditional Japanese kitchen knives, the gyuto and nakiri. Its sword-shaped blade means it’s excellent for vegetables, fish, and poultry. There are single-bevel and double-bevel types with different names, though most manufacturers just refer to them all as kiritsuke knives.
  • Yanagiba knife: Sometimes also called a sashimi knife or sushi knife, this is a traditional Japanese knife. Its thin, sharp blade slices through fish without tearing, crushing, or bruising it, making it perfect for preparing sushi or sashimi. Because of its specialized nature, a yanagiba knife is unusual in knife sets.
  • Kitchen shears: While not a knife, these are often included in larger knife sets. They’re excellent for snipping sprigs of fresh herbs, trimming excess skin or fat off chicken, and can be used to open bags or packages. A good set will come apart to make them easy to keep clean and sanitary.
  • Honing steel: Sometimes called a sharpening steel or honing rod, these are necessary to properly care for your knives. As the sharp edge of a knife is so thin, it will curl from usage. A honing steel is used to straighten that edge out to maintain a straight and sharp cutting surface for longer.

A knife set is a serious investment, so it isn’t easy to decide on what to buy. To help with the search, I’ve compiled a list of my top picks for Japanese kitchen knife sets.

1. Shun Premier Blonde 3-Piece Set Knife Set

If you’re just looking for a few knives to get you started, or you want to upgrade your most used knives, then this set of a gyuto knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife deserves a look. These knives are made of hand-hammered steel, which has the dual benefit of being beautiful and making it so that food is less likely to stick to the blade when slicing. The pakkawood handles provide a comfortable grip, and this set comes in a box for storage or gifting. But the fact that it doesn't come with a knife block makes it more difficult to store safely.

2. Shun Classic Essential Block Set

If you want to meet all your basic knife needs, this set covers it. It has a gyuto knife, a paring knife, a utility knife, a bread knife, and shears. It even comes with a honing rod to keep your knives in tip-top condition. The bamboo block is attractive and safely stores your knives. It has a few empty slots as a way to encourage you to round out your collection of Shun knives.

3. Miyabi Birchwood SG2 Knife Block Set

If you’re looking for beautiful knives, this set has Damascus steel blades and birchwood handles. Miyabi’s knives are heavier than some other Japanese knives, but that makes them more durable. The blades are made of high-quality Japanese steel, and the wooden handles offer a comfortable grip. However, it’s the most expensive item on this list, despite only having seven items, and the birch handles require some upkeep.

4. Global Takashi Knife Block Set

This kitchen knife set has the distinction of including a nakiri knife, making it unique in this list. It also covers the basics by having a gyuto knife, paring knife, utility knife, and bread knife, all of which are made of high-quality steel. Global knives are made in Japan out of high-quality stainless steel. They’re manufactured all from one piece and carefully balanced by adding sand to the handle. That being said, I don’t care for the look or feel of the metal handles and doubt that everyone will find them comfortable.

5. Miyabi Kaizen II Easel Block Set

If you’re looking for a way to showcase your knives, this magnetic knife block allows you to do just that. This set boasts flower-patterned Damascus steel, comfortable micarta handles, and extremely sharp blades. However, it comes in just under the price of the birchwood handle knives, making it a serious investment. The magnetic knife block also will take up quite a bit of counter space.

6. Global Classic Knife Set

For those on a bit of a budget, this set will cover the basics for a reasonable price. It has the somewhat unusual combination of a santoku knife, chef-style utility knife, and paring knife, but you can tackle almost any task with that combo. The knives don’t come with any sheaths or storage, and even though they’re made entirely of stainless steel, they aren’t dishwasher safe.

Find the Best Japanese Knife Set for You

A yanagiba or sushi knife next to a sliced and diced salmon filet. Photo by Cottonbro Studio

Searching for the perfect knife can be time consuming. If you’re looking for suggestions, tips, or even just someone to chat with about how cool Japanese knives are, get in touch with one of our Curated Kitchen Experts! Any of our Experts would be delighted to help you find the Japanese knife that’ll become your next favorite.

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