In a town in central Japan renowned for producing kitchen cutlery, an artisan has devoted himself to painstakingly honing the sharpest blades imaginable, an obsession that has earned him a clientele made up of the world's top chefs.
Hiroki Kobayashi, 42, is the chief executive officer of Raicho, a company located in Seki, Gifu Prefecture that specializes in producing professional kitchen knives. Like the glistening blades he crafts, Kobayashi has a twinkle in his eye.
The knives cost from 40,000 yen to 160,000 yen each ($300-$1,230) and there is a two-year customer waiting list, meaning most new orders are turned down, making the knives hot property.
Kobayashi, whose father was also a bladesmith, grew up in a home where it was natural to always have a knife lying about. From the time he was little he thought, "One day I will make knives," Kobayashi said.
Despite his aspirations to follow in his father's footsteps, after graduating college, Kobayashi got a job with an apparel company. He had hoped to join the knife-sharpening business run by his father but the elder man refused.
At the time, cheap knives from China and other countries were pouring into Japan while production bases shifted overseas. Unfortunately, the voices of pessimism about the future of the knife industry in Seki began to prevail.
Kobayashi worked in apparel for two years, but he had become obsessed with entering the family business. After pleading with his father, the older man finally relented.
In Seki, Kobayashi has had a hand in making products for various manufacturers, putting his sharpening specialization to work.
Once his father gave him the go-ahead, Kobayashi became an apprentice to a master said to have the highest skill level in Japan, learning all the aspects of knife-making from him.
After acquiring the skills that put him on par with his teacher, Kobayashi in 2016 decided he would venture out on his own to aim for even loftier goals. But he quickly discovered there was strong opposition from people around him who lacked the same vision for his pursuit of perfection.
He was told, "Even if you put in all that effort to make the best product, it won't sell."
But Kobayashi remained resolute. "I knew if I could make an truly sharp blade, the people who understood this would really understand it," he said.
Borrowing a corner at his father's company, Kobayashi drew up the blueprints and started making knives. "In order to cut well, the first thing you need is a thin blade. But if you make it too thin and too sharp, it will bend and become unusable."
Striking the right balance was key. The bladesmith must first boldly sharpen the implement, then carefully finish it with a fine-grained whetstone, Kobayashi explained.
At first, he was only able to make a kitchen knife that he considered "the best" once in 100 tries. He knew that if he could not reproduce top quality at a higher rate, he did not have a saleable product. It took Kobayashi six months to refine his process to achieve his goal.
Next was figuring out how to sell the knives he had made. Kobayashi set out on an eating tour of the finest restaurants in Tokyo and Paris. He said when he met chefs who left an impression on him, he offered them a "test cut" with the knives he was carrying.
This invariably drew quizzical looks from the chefs who hesitantly took the knives being handed to them. But once they saw how easily they cut, their expressions changed completely, Kobayashi said.
The roughly 30 knives he brought with him to France sold out, and the orders continue to this day.
On the company website, Kobayashi says about 30 processes, including forging, tempering and sanding, go into making the Raicho knives, and "all are essential for satisfying sharpness and ease of use for our customers."
Kobayashi produces around 20 to 30 knives per month. It is difficult for him to keep pace with the orders by himself. He has two apprentices, one female and the other male. The two Chinese characters that make up the word Raicho mean "paying respect and receiving gratitude."
"There is so much demand but production just can't keep up. The future of kitchen knife artisans is very bright," he said. "I want (my apprentices) to take pride in their work and make it a matter of course that they are treated better than the employees of major companies."