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What is a Usuba (Vegetable) Knife?


The Usuba is a traditional Japanese-style vegetable knife with a thin rectangular-shaped blade and a straight blade edge, reminiscent of a small cleaver in its shape. It is specifically designed to cut or make thin sheets of vegetables, and thanks to its single-bevel edge, its sharp blade also makes it easy to cut through firm vegetables without cracking them.

There are two versions of the Usuba knife. The ‘Edo-Usuba’ originates from the Kanto region in Tokyo and has a flat front with a blunt tip, whereas the ‘Kamagata Usuba’ comes from the Kansai region in Osaka and has a spine that curves downwards toward a pointed tip.

What does Usuba mean?

Literally translated, ‘Usuba’ in Japanese means ‘thin edge’ or ‘thin blade’. The thin blade of the Usuba is uniquely ground on just one side (also known as single-bevel or chiseled edge, and kataba in Japanese), which creates its incredibly sharp edge.

When using the Usuba to cut vegetables, only the cutting edge of the blade touches the food, making it ideal for achieving clean cuts while keeping the natural freshness, flavor and texture of the vegetables intact. The Japanese believe that using a specialized knife for each task in the kitchen helps preserve the natural integrity of the ingredients, and ultimately enhance the flavor of the dish.

What is the Usuba knife best for?

The Usuba knife is best for cutting vegetables, especially for making thin sheet cuts of vegetables or for more delicate work such as kazari-giri (decorative cutting). Its sharp and exceptionally thin edge allows chefs to make precise cuts and slice through firm and dense vegetables without cracking them. It’s also an ideal choice when slicing vegetables that are served raw, as the single-bevel blade ensures minimal damage to the vegetable’s cells, which can discolor ingredients and change their flavor.

Due to the sizeable width of the blade and its straight edge, the Usuba is also commonly used for special cutting techniques such as Katsuramaki or rotary peeling, where a cylindrical vegetable (most usually daikon, a Japanese radish) is held and rotated in one hand while the other hand shaves the vegetable into a thin sheet.

Here’s a great example of a sushi master performing the katsuramuki cut on a daikon with a Usuba

Usuba knife characteristics

Size

The Usuba knife has a thin yet broad, long and squarish blade and is available in several blade lengths from 165mm to 240mm. For the average user, a blade length of around 180mm to 210mm is best recommended. However, as the Usuba is widely used for “in-hand cutting” like the katsuramuki technique, it’s best to try out different sizes in-store (if possible) to get a feel for how balanced the Usuba feels in your hand. Usubas are typically less broad than a Chinese cleaver, and closest in size to a French chef’s knife.

Shape

Usuba, literally meaning ‘thin blade’, characteristically has a thin, rectangular-shaped blade with a completely straight cutting edge. The front of the blade on a Kanto-style Usuba (also called Edo Usuba) is also straight with a blunt tip, while the Kansai-style Usuba (also called Kamagata Usuba) has a downward curved spine at the front of the blade that leads to a pointed tip. With its wide shape and straight blade edge, the Usuba is well suited for the traditional Japanese push style of cutting.

The tall blade of the Usuba is useful as it allows knuckle clearance when chopping on a cutting board. The tall and relatively long blade of the Usuba also makes it the ideal tool for tackling large vegetables such as cabbages or root vegetables, but it is not recommended for cutting vegetables or fruit with extra hard skins as this could damage the blade.

Edge

Like other traditional Japanese-style knives, the Usuba’s blade is sharpened from only one side, a style known as kataba in Japanese, and called single-bevel or chiseled edge in English. Simply put, single-bevel means that the blade is ground on only one side, usually at an acute angle between 10 to 15 degrees. This gives the Usuba its signature sharp edge. In comparison, most German or Western-style knives feature a double-bevel blade (known as ryōba in Japanese) which are usually sharpened at 20 to 30 degrees.

The single-bevel edge means that food can be sliced even thinner and cleaner than with a double-bevel knife, but extra training is required to master the art of cutting straight while controlling the natural steer of a blade which is only sharpened on one side. As most Usubas are sharpened on the right side of the blade for right-handed users, a special order for a Usuba that is sharpened on the left side is required for left-handed users.

Handle

Usuba knife handles can be categorized into two categories: the traditional Japanese ‘Wa-Handle’, or a Western-style handle. Most Usuba knives feature a wooden Wa-Handle.

The most common Wa-Handle shapes are the D-shape, oval, or octagonal. While some prefer the ergonomic grip of a D-shaped or octagonal handle, the choice of the handle comes down to personal preference.

How are Usuba knives made?

To understand how Usuba knives are made and to decode the common phrases that are found in descriptions of Usuba knives, it’s necessary to know about traditional Japanese knife forging methods and the materials used.

There are two basic categories of Japanese knives - honyaki and kasumi - which are defined by the materials and methods used in their forging.

honyaki (“true-forged”) knives are manually forged by hand following traditional Japanese blacksmithing techniques, and are created entirely out of one single material: high-carbon steel (hagane). The hagane is generally a type of White Steel (Shirogami) or Blue Steel (Aogami), and this style of knife blade is also called a mono steel blade.

The method of creating a honyaki knife is similar to how Katanas (Japanese traditional swords) were made in the past. Forging a Usuba knife is a lengthy and difficult manual process that begins with a single high-carbon steel blank, and involves multiple rounds of heat treatment, steel hammering, kilning, polishing and sharpening - all done manually by the hands of skilled Japanese blacksmiths in traditional knife-making cities such as Sakai (in Osaka), Seki (in Gifu), and Echizen (in Fukui).

Because honyaki knives are forged from high-carbon steel, its blade is extremely hard and can be sharpened to incredibly thin and sharp edges, which will remain sharp for a long time. However, they are challenging to resharpen and prone to chipping, cracking or breaking if used improperly. Due to the small-scale production and the highly-skilled, artisan nature of the blacksmiths, honyaki knives are more expensive, and recommended for experienced and professional chefs who can maintain them.

On the other hand, kasumi (“mist”) knives are made by joining together a piece of soft iron (jigane) with a piece of high-carbon steel (hagane) to create a laminated blade. After forging, hammering and shaping, the carbon steel (hagane) becomes the cutting edge and backside of the blade, while the soft iron (jigane) forms the body and spine of the blade. The hazy appearance of the soft iron body of the blade in contrast with the glossy carbon steel gives kasumi its signature ‘mist’ appearance, as referenced by its name. Thanks to the added soft iron, kasumi blades have reduced brittleness overall, and are cheaper and easier to sharpen than honyaki knives.

In relation to kasumi knives, Hon Kasumi or Hongasumi knives are also commonly found, and refers to a higher grade of kasumi knives. Although Hongasumi knives are made in the same way as kasumi knives, they are often made from higher quality materials and involve extra attention and steps in its forging, tempering, polishing and finishing processes.

For more information on how Japanese knives are made and the types of steels used, check out our blog on how Japanese knives are made. (link coming soon).

What are common types of Usuba knives?

There are two main variations of the Usuba knife: the Edo-Usuba and the Kamagata Usuba.

The Edo-Usuba, also known as Kanto-Usuba, originates from the Kanto region in Tokyo and has a square blunt tip, making it look like a small meat cleaver.

The Kamagata-Usuba, also known as the Kansai-Usuba, originates from the Kansai region in Osaka and has a spine that drops downward to the pointed tip. The Kamagata Usaba is particularly popular for doing fine, delicate work on vegetables such as kazari-giri (decorative cutting).

Both kinds of Usuba knives are hefty enough to chop through heavy root vegetables with a clean slice, thanks to its extremely sharp chiseled edge.

What are popular Usuba knife brands?

Usuba knives have their origins based in the Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka) regions, however, Usuba knives are now made by a variety of manufacturers including:

  • Yoshihiro
  • Tojiro
  • Gesshin Uraku
  • Mercer Culinary
  • Shun
  • Masamoto
  • Global

How to choose an Usuba knife

If you’re in the market for an Usuba knife, it can seem difficult to figure out which particular Usuba knife will be perfect for you, especially if you haven’t had the chance to hold a few different models in person to get a feel for what size and weight of the Usuba knife feels the most balanced and stable in your hand.

You can see our best recommendations here, but here are some factors to first consider that will help you to choose your Usuba knife:

  • Types of steel
  • Handle types
  • Ideal size
  • Your budget

Which steel should I choose for my Usuba knife?


Generally speaking, you have a choice between carbon steel and stainless steel when buying an Usuba knife.

carbon steel is made by adding carbon to steel that is made from iron ore. Compared to stainless steel blades, carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen and also retain their sharp edge for longer. However, carbon steel blades require regular maintenance and oiling, as they are vulnerable to rust and stains. Over time, a dark patina will form on a carbon-steel knife, and may rust or corrode if the blade is not dried, cleaned and lubricated properly after use. Popular options include White Steel (Shirogami) and Blue Steel (Aogami).

stainless steel is made in the same way as carbon steel, but adds chrome to the mix to prevent the material from rusting. stainless steel blades are generally tougher, less likely to chip, inexpensive and corrosion-resistant than carbon steel. However, stainless steel blades typically tend to be harder to sharpen and do not retain their sharp edge as well as carbon steel blades. Popular options include VG-10, SG-2, AUS-10, Gingami #3 and Swedish stainless steel.

What is the best handle for an Usuba knife?

When buying an Usuba knife, it’s worthwhile to consider your usual knife grip. Do you prefer to hold the knife only by the handle? Then a standard western handle such as those on Wusthof knives may be the best choice for you. If you prefer the pinch grip, a traditional Japanese handle is the way to go. The three main kinds of Japanese handles are d-shape, round, or octagonal.

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What is the best length for an Usuba knife?

The best length for an Usuba knife depends on multiple factors, including the size and strength of your hand, the general size of the vegetables you will cut, and the size of your chopping board. The most commonly recommended size for Usuba knives is a blade length of around 180mm to 210mm.

How do you care for an Usuba knife?


When purchasing an Usuba knife, it’s important to think about how you will care for and maintain the Usuba knife. Usuba knives should only be sharpened with water whetstones, and always hand washed and dried after use to prevent rusting and corrosion.

There are lots of detailed videos on YouTube which show you step-by-step how to sharpen your Usuba knife. Otherwise, some Usuba knife sellers offer a paid sharpening service by trained Japanese knife sharpeners, which may be a wise option to preserve the sharpness of the single bevel blade.

How much should I spend on an Usuba knife?

There are countless options for an Usuba knife, starting with budget-end stainless steel Usuba knives to traditionally hand-forged Japanese Usuba knives for over $500. Setting your own budget before buying an Usuba knife will make it easy to narrow down your options, and avoid over-spending.

If you’re unsure about which Usuba knife is best for you, the Shun Pro 6-1/2-Inch Usuba Knife comes highly recommended and is made of stainless steel for easy maintenance. If you’re convinced by the toughness of high carbon steel, our favorites are the Yoshihiro Shiroko High Carbon Steel Kasumi Edo Usuba with a Magnolia Handle and the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Blue Steel Edo Usuba with Rosewood Handle because Yoshihiro is a reputable Japanese knife brand who are renowned for their artisan craftsmanship and great value for money for White Steel and Blue Steel.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between Nakiri and Usuba knives?


The Usuba is often compared to the Nakiri as they share a similar profile and are both Japanese vegetable knives. However, their biggest difference lies in the shape of the cutting edge.

The Usuba is traditionally single-bevel (kataba in Japanese), meaning that the cutting edge is sharpened only from one side. In comparison, the Nakiri is a double-bevel knife (ryōba in Japanese) where both sides of the blade are sharpened.

The sharper single-bevel edge allows the Usuba to cut better and thinner slices than the Nakiri. However, there is a steep learning curve required to master the use of the Usuba, as single-bevel blades tend to steer away from the center, making it hard to make precise cuts in a straight line without some practice. The Usuba is also typically thicker, heavier, higher quality and more expensive than the Nakiri, which is why the Usuba is commonly recommended for professional use and the Nakiri for home use.

Should I buy an Usuba knife?


The Usuba is a very specialized knife that is designed for vegetables in a professional setting, most commonly for the traditional preparation of vegetables for sushi chefs. If you perform a lot of ‘in-hand’ cutting techniques such as the katsuramuki at work, or already have previous experience using single bevel knives, it could be a worthwhile purchase, although the Usuba is more of an accessory knife for a sushi chef. If you’re not cutting vegetables typical to Japanese cuisine, a more versatile and suitable option for cutting vegetables could be the Gyuto or the Nakiri.

How do you sharpen an Usuba knife?

Sharpening an Usuba knife should only be done with water whetstones. To sharpen a single bevel knife, follow the bevel and begin at the tip of the knife, followed by the rest of the cutting edge from the tip of the knife to the heel of the blade.

Here’s a quick video on how to sharpen an Usuba knife

For more information, visit our page on how to sharpen Japanese knives (link coming soon).

Who makes the best Usuba knife?

At Japanese Knives Guide, we believe that the best Usuba knife is one that fits your budget, grip style, expected steel type and your chosen size of the blade. Of course, this will differ from one person to the next, so our ‘best’ recommendations are always those which present great value for money for a relatively new Japanese knife enthusiast.

If you’re new to the world of Japanese knives, our foolproof recommendation is this: before jumping at the first chance to own an expensive, high-end Usuba knife, be realistic about the learning curve that is involved for using and caring for Japanese knives.

While the exquisite hand-crafted Usuba knives with the hardest and most expensive steel may catch your attention, it’ll become quite a different story when you realize that the hefty price tag also comes with the need to re-learn the basics of cutting straight with a single bevel blade, as well as the high-maintenance care routine that is required for the finest Japanese knives. Rather than dish out a few hundred dollars from the beginning without much experience, why not try your hand with a budget-friendly Usuba knife to see if it’s the right fit for you?

Amazon is an accessible and reputable retailer with plenty of Usuba knife options, a transparent customer review section and an incredibly generous returns policy, which makes it the perfect hassle-free and worry-free option for first-time owners of a Usuba knife. There are many specialized smaller retailers out there, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one that can provide as much peace of mind with the same level of service and returns policy as Amazon.

Some of the more popular Usuba knife brands include:

  • Yoshihiro
  • Tojiro
  • Gesshin Uraku
  • Mercer Culinary
  • Shun
  • Masamoto
  • Global

Where to buy an Usuba knife


Amazon is our retailer of choice for purchasing an Usuba knife, as they’re easily accessible, with a standing reputation for great customer service and a variety of options for Usuba knives.

While there are many smaller retailers who specialize in just Japanese knives, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that can provide as much variety at entry-level prices, as well as complete peace of mind with Amazon’s very generous returns policy.

If you’re looking for a stainless steel Usuba for easy maintenance, the Shun Pro 6-1/2-Inch Usuba Knife is our pick for quality you can trust. If you’re convinced by the toughness of high carbon steel, our favorites are the Yoshihiro Shiroko High Carbon Steel Kasumi Edo Usuba with a Magnolia Handle and the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Blue Steel Edo Usuba with Rosewood Handle because Yoshihiro is a reputable Japanese knife brand who are renowned for their artisan craftsmanship and great value for money for White Steel and Blue Steel.

Usuba (Vegetable) Knife

Name: 
薄刃包丁 (うすば)
Rōmaji:
Usuba Bōchō
Best for:
Sizing:
165-240mm
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