Forged in Culture: Hida Tool gives gardeners an edge

LOOKING SHARP ­— Kosuke Minamizaki sells Hori Hori knives (used for digging, transplanting, weeding and cutting) and other gardening equipment at Hida Tool on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

BERKELEY, Calif. — Gardens are tranquil places where people can delight in the sweet fragrance of flowers and the melodic calls of songbirds. It seems a terrible shame to ruin this soothing atmosphere with an ear-splitting engine roar or the stench of gasoline exhaust, but that’s what happens when weed wackers, leaf blowers and chainsaws get used for yard work.

Individuals who prefer to preserve the serenity of their gardens can head over to Hida Tool, where none of the merchandise has an electrical cord or a fuel tank. The Berkeley retail store sells a range of gardening hand tools — as well as woodworking implements and kitchen knives — imported from Japan and carefully forged with traditional blacksmithing methods.

These methods date back to feudal times, according to Hida Tool manager Kosuke Minamizaki, who explained that warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s weapons restriction in the late 1500s forced many samurai sword makers to start producing different items. “Some decided to make knives, some decided to make farming tools, some decided to make carpentry tools,” he said, describing the historical evolution of a blacksmithing culture that he clearly venerates.

“To keep the culture going, we need to buy those tools and sell them,” Minamizaki contended.

Luckily for him and the Japanese blacksmiths who furnish his inventory, demand is high for such tools, which he said “sell really well compared to all the garden stuff you can buy” in America.

He claimed that he’s never needed to run any advertising, relying instead on word of mouth from customers. Even employees of corporate big-box establishments seem to favor his store; Minamizaki said a shopper once told him, “I went to Orchard Supply and the worker told me to come here instead.”

This kind of customer-driven appeal helped launch Hida Tool in the first place. More than 40 years ago, a carpenter from the Hida region of Gifu Prefecture named Makoto Imai was working on a project in the Bay Area when his collaborators took notice of his impressive woodworking tools. Their enthusiasm prompted Imai’s brother-in-law, Osamu Hiroyama, to begin importing these tools. He first sold them out of his truck before opening up a retail space in San Rafael, and then moved operations to Berkeley two years later, in 1984.

The store changed hands about 15 years ago, when Hiroyama sold it to Minamizaki’s father, Max. Minamizaki said his dad previously worked as “a corporate warrior in a Japanese telecommunication company,” but had always wanted to be an independent business owner; the two men now run Hida Tool alongside Minamizaki’s mother, Mizuho, a former housewife who takes care of the accounting.

On top of managing the store, Minamizaki also serves as its sharpener — a critical role, given that so much of the merchandise has blades. Their edges eventually become dull, but can be honed back to life, and Hida Tool performs these resurrections every Tuesday. For a fee, Minamizaki will rehabilitate blades, and not just those procured from his shop, although he has a slightly different approach to purchases made elsewhere.

There’s plenty of reason to pay attention to blade condition. “Sharp tools are actually safer,” declared Minamizaki, adding, “sharp tools are more efficient and easier on you.” Moreover, he pointed out that the object being cut benefits as well.

“When you cut a branch with a dull, bad quality pruner,” he said, “you’re literally crushing it.”

This is “very unhealthy for the tree,” he explained, because then it “doesn’t grow back right.”

Cuts must be clean and smooth to ensure a branch readily recovers, especially in the case of bonsai trees, for which Hida Tool carries specialized equipment.

Bonsai practitioners are among a broad range of craftspeople who depend on the store to ply their trade. As a sampling of the types of artisans who frequent Hida Tool, Minamizaki mentioned customers affiliated with Grove Way Bonsai Nursery in Hayward, the landscape horticulture department at Merritt College in Oakland, and the national Aesthetic Pruners Association based out of Berkeley. Anyone representing such institutions has likely trained for a very long time, but Minamizaki said patrons of widely different experience levels shop at his store, “from top-notch professionals to home gardeners who are just starting out.”

Regardless of background, what draws people to Hida Tool is an appreciation for authenticity, precision and reliability. That, and a love of peaceful gardens blissfully free from the disruptive nuisance of power tools.

Hida Tool & Hardware Co. is located at 1333 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley, Calif. (Gilman Ave.) For more information, call (510) 524-3700 or visit https://hidatool.com.

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