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.
(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.)
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: