Knives: Japanese steel is generally harder (higher Rockwell hardness). Gross over-simplification aside, this allows them to generally be sharpened to an, um, sharper edge. The downside is that this makes them more brittle, which means the edge can chip more easily, etc, and they generally don't hold their edge as long.
A few Japanese manufacturers use stainless steel in the blades. This supposedly gets you the best of both worlds. One such line of knives is the Misono UX10
. After wanting a high quality Chef's knife and doing a whole bunch of research a couple of years ago, I settled on these. Though a bit pricey, they are excellent. I have the9.5" Chef's
and 7.1" Santoku
. A step down from this would be something like MAC knives
, which are also very good.
No matter how good a knife is, it needs to be stored properly (some place where the edge won't get bashed around - like a block or a sheath - and sharpened every so often (frequency dependent on blade material, frequency of use and how well stored). This may sound obvious, but I'm always surprised at people who acquire decent knives, never sharpen them, and then complain that they suck.
Random: Another random excellent top tier kitchen "utensil" I acquired recently is the ThermoWorks Thermapen
. Why spend $90 on a kitchen thermometer, you may ask? Good question. The answer is instant read. Unlike some cheaper options that advertise instant read, these actually are. You get a stable and accurate temp reading in less than 3 seconds flat. This means you don't need to hassle with probes perpetually sticking in your food, or wireless thermometers, etc. You simple open your BBQ/oven , stick the pen in, get the reading and you're done, with minimal heat loss.