I’m at Neil Kamimura’s blacksmith shop on his off-grid farm in Hulualoa on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The air is easily 10 degrees cooler here than on the coast below where I’m from, the beachfront Four Seasons Hualalei, and that’s one of the reasons Kamimura moved his studio here from downtown Kona a few years ago. When you’re dealing with forging temperatures of up to 2,100 degrees, every degree counts.
The Four Seasons Hualalei recently launched a new Only at Hualalei Experiences menu. Guests can sign up for extravagant and unique activities like learning to snorkel with scuba champion Kimi Werner; extract their own sandalwood from a sustainable forest on Mauna Loa and use it for a spa massage; and make a chef’s knife with Neil Kamimura. This is how I found myself in the small workshop surrounded by greenery.
The space is decorated with all kinds of signs and recycled metal objects, but there is one, hanging in the center of the upper back wall, that catches the eye, even if it is the simplest. Black letters on a white sign, it reads “T. Kamimura Blacksmith Shop”, followed by some Japanese numbers and characters.
Although not the original (which hangs in the Japanese American National Museum), it is a copy of the sign that hung above the Great-Grandfather’s Blacksmith Shop. from Kamimura to Hilo, between 1930 and 1990. He was the first Japanese immigrant to own a business. completely alone in Hawaii in 1932. The “T” stands for Teiji, which is also Neil’s middle name.
But Kamimura’s father and grandfather didn’t make blacksmithing the family business, and Kamimura worked in classic car restoration and as an electrician, among other jobs. But when his mother died while he was in the process of divorcing his first wife in 2016, things got out of hand.
“My mother had mental issues like schizophrenia and bipolar, and she was a convicted felon. I was going through my divorce with the mother of my second son Maddix, with whom I had been with for 19 years. And my mom was doing pretty well at the time, and she was taking care of Maddix a lot. She loved him,” Kamimura says. “But then she started doing drugs again and she piled into one of my cars, and I was like, ‘You’re not watching my kid by yourself. She has always been the main thing in my life; she would try to kill herself once a month. But when I told her she couldn’t see Maddix by herself, she lost it. She ended up taking a bunch of Oxy and coke. She wrote me this very long letter, snorted it and she died. When I went home and found the letter and it was the meanest letter anyone could write to their child.
As Kamimura fell into a deep depression, he was forced to reevaluate his life. One day a friend tells him that he found an old forge being thrown away. Considering his great-grandfather’s heritage, maybe he wanted to?
“My mother had been dead probably a week and a half ago. And he brought it to my store and I hooked up a propane tank to it and then we lit it,” he says. The two got their hands on an anvil, mechanic’s hammer and pliers and watched YouTube videos.
“The moment I hit [the steel], I knew that was what I was supposed to do,” he says. “So I was just typing [knives] like that all day. I was so obsessed that I didn’t even want to go to the hairdresser. So I just stopped cutting my hair, I stopped shaving my face. I was just there the whole time, like every waking moment.
Before his mother’s death, he was clean-shaven and had short hair. Today Kamimura has long black hair which he wears in a stacked bun on top of his head and a long bushy beard.
After eight months of self-taught knife forging, his then-girlfriend nominated him for a spot on the History Channel show Forged in fire, a cutlery competition. He was accepted and he won his bout against three experienced blacksmiths.
Since then, his profile has grown rapidly and immensely, with him crafting knives for everyone from actor Jason Momoa to country music star Zach Brown, as well as lesser-known locals like Kona co-owner Frank Kramm. Butcher Shop. It has a waiting list for its custom knives of several hundred names (chefs like Philip Tessier, formerly of The French Laundry, are on it) and its website says it’s not taking any new orders.
That is, unless you book the Only at Hualalei Experience with the Four Seasons, which costs $12,000, you can skip the line. The guest is driven from the compound to Kamimura’s farm. After a tour of the farm, where you can pick and eat all the fruits, vegetables and nuts you see, you’ll head to the workshop and discuss what kind of culinary knife you’d like to make.
Next, Kamimura pulls out a piece of raw steel from Japan, cuts it to size, and heats the forge. Guests can participate as much or as little as they like – in my case, I was happy to use the hydraulic press to flatten steel into a workable shape, and delighted to hit the hot metal with a hammer on a anvil. But I was more nervous about using the vintage 1,500-pound electric hammer that repeatedly slams when you put your foot on the pedal.
Knife forging is a slow process. The steel must continually be returned to the forge to reheat it, so that it can be shaped. This means a lot of waiting time between shots. Luckily Kamimura is talkative and has so many stories, anecdotes and life lessons to share – I learned everything from his hair care routine (lots of conditioner) to how he adopted his eldest son to how he met his current wife, Flora Kamimura, a chef. Guests who experience can also partake in a farm-to-table lunch outdoors, prepared by Flora.
After forging, Kamimura grinds and polishes the knife to smooth and perfect it, and attaches a custom wooden handle. The knife is usually delivered to the guest a few days later, and the final part of the experience is a knife lesson with one of the resort’s chefs, using the brand new chef’s knife.
When the knife is finished being forged, one of the final steps is to stamp Kamimura’s logo, a “T”, into the steel. The T represents Teiji, his great-grandfather and middle name.
“My dad always told me, ‘You don’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of nothing,'” Kamimura says. “It gave me an identity. I make knives: I take a piece of metal and make it a tool for life.