A Kamisori Primer

kamisori

Iwasaki Kamisori

Even within the rather select group of wetshavers who follow the straight-and-narrow (har de har) path of straight shaving, I am a member of an even more eccentric cadre: I’m a Kamisori user.

What, I hear the voices raised in unison, is a kamisori?

Well, to be honest, Kamisori (which is pronounced Ka (a Bostonian saying Car) Me (a name I call myself) So (a needle pulling thread) Re (ally not that difficult.) just means “razor” in Japanese. So 12 bladed vibrating lighted moisturizing face-mowers are also Kamisori. However, for purposes of simplicity, when I talk about Kamisori I am talking about the Japanese straight razor, also known as Wakamisori or Nihonkamisori.

A Kamisori Primer: History And Design

The history of kamisori can be traced back some 800 years, to tonsorial tools introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea. They were first only used to ritually shave the heads of monks as part of their initiation and their continued dedication to their faith. However, with the advent of Bushido and the samurai era, beards fell out of fashion and Kamisori eventually became more widespread as the warrior class adopted their use. Even after Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world and German and English razors found their way here, the Kamisori was never replaced completely and indeed, most barbers used both Western and Eastern razors in equal measure. I myself am fascinated by their history, and I deeply enjoy using them, so I thought I’d share just a little of what I’ve learned about them, for those who might be curious. So let’s see what’s up with Kamisori, ok?

Physically, Kamisori differ from the more familiar (to Westerners) straight razors of film and Bugs Bunny cartoons in many ways.

First, and most obviously, there is no “handle” into which the blade folds (NB: That really isn’t a handle. A straight razor is NEVER held by that long folding part, that is only there to cover the blade to protect it and you.). A Kamisori is basically just a blade with a long, thin part to hold. If anything, it resembles more a flattened, sharpened spoon than a folding knife, like Western straights.

Second, the blade is generally shorter than a typical Western straight razor, never more than about two and a half inches long, and usually only about 2.

And perhaps most importantly, a Kamisori has a very different blade shape.

Western straight razors are all, to a certain extent, ground equally on both sides. What this means is, you start with a piece of steel that is a triangle in cross section, then grind out each side to make something closer to a “T” shape. This helps when it comes time to sharpen the blade–less steel to take off is less time to spend on honing.

Japanese razors (and some kitchen knives, as well as Plane blades, chisels, etc.) are, however, ground unequally. This means that, instead of a symmetrical blade cross-section, one side will have a significant hollow (in Japanese, this side is called the Ura), and the other side (called the Omote) will be only slightly ground out. This style is called Kataha in Japanese, meaning “Single Blade.” (Confusingly, I think, because single-edge safety razor blades are also called Kataha. But I digress.)

The reason for this is the same for all the above named Japanese blades: to save steel. Traditionally, Japanese blades (including Katana) were made of a mix of soft, cheap iron, and hard, expensive steel. The hard steel was placed so that it would form the actual cutting edge while the iron made up the body of the blade, so the iron serves more like a base for the steel than an active cutting medium. And so, because iron is so soft, it needs to be thicker than steel would be to stand up to honing–thus, the largely-unground Omote of the razor is all iron.

Kamisori Cross Sections

(By the way, the quickest way to tell the difference between the Omote and the Ura in pictures is: The Ura is signed by the maker. There will be maker’s marks stamped into the Ura, as well as any number of marketing factoids relating to steel, registration, specialness and awesomeness, etc. The Omote is blank.)

The Omote of an Iwasaki Kamisori

So what does all this mean for a Kamisori buyer and user? Well, there are a couple of things to remember.

When you hone a kamisori, the standard way is to hone more on the Omote than the Ura. The iron needs to be brought far away from the edge of the razor for a good shave, so honing is focused on the Omote. The exact way of doing this, the ratio of strokes on one side to the other, differs a great deal from person to person. I’ve seen people hone 10 : 1, I’ve seen people hone 7 : 3, and I’ve seen 2:1 (all the larger numbers are the number of strokes on the Omote). They all work, if you are consistent and know what you’re doing, so just find something that works for you.

Also, when you are buying a used kamisori, make sure that it has been properly cared-for. Make sure the Omote is not completely flat; there should be a small hollow on that side, otherwise it will be nearly impossible to hone. Also, look for a faint line in the steel of the Ura. The Ura is where the hard steel is welded to the softer iron body, and you can usually see a faint line marking where that steel ends and the iron begins. If the edge is too close to that line, you have very little steel left and the lifespan of the razor is limited.

Other than that, just think of these tools as any other fine bladed instrument. Rust is bad, shiny is usually good, and clean shape and balance are good indicators of quality.

Finally, a note about shaving. the traditional, taught-to-and-by barbers, method is: the Omote (the flatter, unstamped side) is held toward the face, the stamped Ura is outward (this makes the Ura the more visible side, thus all the stamping). You don’t have to do this, you can use your razor however you want, but if you’re interested in preserving and engaging in the traditions of Kamisori (and if you aren’t, why on earth use one?) then this is the way to go. It’s not the easiest, but it can be done.

Some guy even made a video!

So that’s a quick intro to one of the little madnesses I am afflicted with. Kamisori are not only fascinating elements of Japanese history and culture, they give great shaves and, let’s face it, look pretty darned cool. If you get the chance, don’t hesitate to give one a try! And if you have questions or need any advice, I’m happy to help.

For your edification, some quick and dirty honing videos:

Related Posts:

Mantic’s Kamisori Journey

Kamisori Honing

Japanese Web Sites For Wet Shavers

 

 

 

JimR (10 Posts)

Jim Rion is a slightly obsessive straight razor shaver and honer. He lives in Japan, and has made it his goal to learn everything there is to be learned about Japanese razors and honing stones. You can read about what he's found so far at Eastern Smooth, and follow him on Twitter @EasternSmooth. He's also been known to play the odd video game and write the odd short story.


Comments

  1. This was fascinating. Many thanks. I’ve already linked to this post at Wicked_Edge for a guy asking questions about Japanese straight razors.

  2. Thanks for linking! I know it’s a pretty small niche, but I think it’s a fun one.
    Also, I didn’t even know about wicked_edge…thanks for the heads-up! I just joined the conversation.

    • Once you get past the learning curve, Kamisori is an excellent shaving medium. Thanks to gentlemen like JimR this curve is a lot shorter.

    • As the creator of wicked_edge welcome and thank you for joining in. I have a kamisori myself but I’m not as “in the know” on them as western blades. Great to have someone who really knows them.

      • Hi Betelgeux, thanks for the kind words and warm welcome! wicked_edge seems to be trucking along really well, good job with that! I’m nothing like an expert, but I’m more than happy to share what I have learned so far with anyone who’d like to know.

  3. That was a most interesting read and I also enjoyed the videos. Thank you for sharing this form of shaving with us.

    • Johnny, I appreciate your kind words as well. It’s a challenging, but very satisfying, way to shave. Give it a try and you might find you like it as much as I do!

  4. Great introduction to traditional Japanese shaving. I just bought a Feather Japanese-style straight razor – it is nice to see the roots of that tool.

  5. I have a growing herd of Kamisori. I’d like to display them in my bathroom but I can’t find suitable stands. Can you provide any advise on razor stands? How do you recommend storing these beautiful razors? Thanks

    • Ramon,

      This is the big problem with Kamisori…how to store them. I have a couple of solutions that I got from others. Basically, you need a box with an inbuilt rack to hold them so the blades are safe. I wish I could tell you more, but I was given mine by a barber so I don’t know where to get more. If you’d like to see a couple of pictures, here’s a link to blog entry: Words can’t express

      If you want to display them, you’re in for less luck. You might consider doing what I did and get some 2mm steel wiring to make your own.

  6. I’m storing my Kamisori as seen below without incident. Those are magnetic strips you see under the blades.

    http://i398.photobucket.com/albums/pp65/Bayamontate/Kamisori-1.jpg

  7. Closeone56 says:

    Jim, I lived in Okinawa Japan for 5 years back in the 70′s courtesy of the US government (my dad was a Marine). While Okinawans and Japanese would see them themselves slightly different the language and culture always fascinated me. I even took language classes to help me get around when I used public transportation. I loved the language because like the Japanese it was so structured and organized and easier to learn then other languages. I have fond memories of the people who were friendly and opened up their homes to me. Like the language and customs the NihonKamisori intrigues me so I have put in my request for Christmas and given my wife your website. Look forward to discovering the traditions of eastern shaving. Thanks for all the great info. I will definitely be referring to your honing videos in the future.

    • That’s a wonderful story, thank you. I appreciate the reference to my website, if you ever have any questions or problems don’t hesitate to ask! You can get hold of me through the website, or here of course.

      Happy shaving!

  8. Ray vaughn says:

    “Kamisori” was the nickname of Hideki Tojo, General of the Imperial Japanese Army and Prime Minister of Japan in WWII. I got to this site following that moniker. Thank you, Jim, for bringing my enquiry to a happy and useful conclusion!

  9. Great post. I myself am looking to get into straight shaving with Japanese kamisori. I live now in Japan and it is a great opportunity to buy an original blade.

    Could someone recommend a brandname and blade length, please. I noticed that Iwasaki come in two different sizes.

    Also, would you suggest how (and what) to wrap around the japanese kamisory handle. The ones that I looked at on the internet all come as a metal piece only.

    Finally, would you recommend a number for the whitestone. There are numbers from #2000 to #6000 and I don’t know what I need.

    Thank you all for considering to reply.

    • Hi Lubo,

      Thanks for your comment! For your basic shaver, I think a size 1 (ichou gake) is best–it’s the smaller razor. The larger Japanese razors, Size 2 (Nichou gake) are honestly a bit too top heavy for me. As for a brand, Iwasaki is the top maker still at work in Japan. Tosuke and Tsurayuki are no longer making razors, but if you can find a used on in good condition either would be worth the money.

      The handle wrapping is mostly a matter of taste, though it can help with grip. You can use old-fashioned rattan, but I used a 1.5mm waxed cotton thread on mine.

      No Japanese razor should be honed on a stone less than #8000 unless it is damaged and needs repair. #12000-#16000 is even better, and a good Japanese natural stone is best.

  10. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for your reply. I am sorry I didn’t mention earlier how helpful your blog post was for me. Very interesting, too.

    I am now waiting for the kamisori to arrive. I decided against Iwasaki, as I am not sure yet if I will like the experience (I just happened to decide over the past two months to try the traditional way of shaving, and quite honestly, I have not experienced one as of yet). So, I got something less expensive, although the blogs I have read all recommended to get if possible Tamahagane kamisori. But these go for the equivalent of $850 and more. Perhaps, if I like it, I will consider this in the future. For now, I will stuck with a handmade kamisori (aren’t they all?) in the Kyoto area. If interested, I will share here my first impressions (perhaps next weekend).

    Best,
    L.

  11. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for your reply. I am sorry I didn’t mention earlier how helpful your blog post was for me. Very interesting, too.

    I am now waiting for the kamisori to arrive. I decided against Iwasaki, as I am not sure yet if I will like the experience (I just happened to decide over the past two months to try the traditional way of shaving, and quite honestly, I have not experienced one as of yet). So, I got something less expensive, although the blogs I have read all recommended to get if possible Tamahagane kamisori. But these go for the equivalent of $850 and more. Perhaps, if I like it, I will consider this in the future. For now, I will stuck with a handmade kamisori (aren’t they all?) in the Kyoto area. If interested, I will share here my first impressions (perhaps next weekend).

    Best,
    L.

  12. 奥が深いですね。

    Just new to DE shaving myself, I’ve yet to get into straight razor shaving, but I am very interested in it. And, since I live in Japan, too, getting into wakamisori would be the next logical extension. Thanks for such a well researched and well written article! You’ve probably pushed one step closer to … the edge.

    Two questions: Do you have any knowledge of what types of soaps people used back in Edo times? And, can you recommend a good sources (in Japan) for new and/or used wakamisori?

  13. i have a folding straight razor all metal with japanese writing possibly world war 2 field razor any clues ? thank you

  14. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the great write up about Kamisori, I actually just purchased a new blade and stone from Shigeharu (重春) in Kyoto, (http://openkyoto.com/stores/real-kyoto-knives-aritsugu-knives.html)

    I was speaking to the owner about maintaining and sharpening the Kamisori and he recommended sharpening on both sides equally 50/50. Looking forward to trying it out!

    Thanks for the write up, very interesting.
    Cheers
    Michael

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