Apologies to miss the replies...
I'm not really a photo person myself so I don't have much to post. My girlfriend did take photos but she sort of just rejected me on posting our pics on a forum (go figure)... I will see what I can do to cut the people out and post something... In the meanwhile I'll take some photos of the knives i bought for all to see..
I visited the below stores/makers in the Osaka & Kyoto areas and happy to take any questions regarding the shops/experiences. In terms of shop fascination value, I would personally rate Sakai Takayuki highest and Aritsugu Kyoto lowest.
Osaka - visited all the guys in Doguyasuji. I didn't visit Tower knives because of poor planning (I was in Tennoji Zoo but just stupidly had booked a place for lunch outside the area)
Ichimonji - Overall, huge, commercial, kind of pricey, but there's a lot to see here. You can buy a katana here if you really want. They've massive shelves of their own brand and a few other brands hidden the back. Left of entrance are the traditional carbon knives, on the right they have their western brand. they've got all kinds of variations on display... sakimaru takobiki, kengata yanagis, kiritsuke gyutos... various handles, white, yellow, blue paper steel, stainless... and they label under a lot of sub brands to confuse you even more. but again, a lot to see. There's a huge collection of exotic and oh so pricey knives near the cash register, exotic meaning all kinds of custom pictures etched into the blades, exotic lacquer wood handles, and unusual shapes. Expensive, don't think any are priced below 70k yen and i saw one in the 300k yen bracket... but they serve more as pieces of art I think and would be prob be a display for the restaurant... or home if you have a place to put a kitchen knife on display at home which somehow fits in well enough that won't make people question your sanity (I don't). They sell tons of non-kitchen knife product as well, but on higher end pricing-wise for the neighborhood. The shopkeepers not ultra sophisticated on knives unfortunately. They can answer basic questions regarding material, length, purpose... but nothing more than that.
I bought house brand of what I would describe as a kengata fuguhiki in 30cm. smaller and thinner than a yanagiba. Blue #2. kind of brutally expensive honestly, but it was the first shop I visited the entire trip and I was just itching to get something
There is a store very near Ichimonji in Doguyasuji which offers a wide selection of knives from Sakai Takayuki and Misono. The shopkeepers were better informed with regards to knives (though not near any of the guys in Sakai) and sell for more reasonable prices. I came very close to buying a Sakai Takayuki Yanagiba that had great balance, but ultimately ending up buying a honesuki only. The Ichimonji purchase was still kind of hurting. Given I couldn't go to Tower knives, this was the better shop where I could see more brands of knives together (though Ichimonji has other brands, they have so many of their own lines that sometimes you're not sure what you're comparing).
Sakai-shi - all the really interesting guys were here. Experience much more personalized. But its not as convenient as I expected. A few makers are nearer to each other, but they're really pocketed and can be a fair distance apart (i.e. not easily walkable) and Sakai doesn't have many cabs - you will need a fair bit of time to see them all. I spent almost a full Monday there and still couldn't visit 2 shops (Mizuno & Yusuke) I had planned to see. Bring a map. Bring addresses.
Suisin - As mentioned, I got the 30cm Hayate Doi here. The guys are very hospitable, very patient... and will take everything out you want to see and let you see. Literally when I said Yanagiba they brought 4-5 out over a wide pricing range. when i said Petty there were 4 out... honesuki they were scrambling to find boxes of stuff for me... for good transparency, this was still before I said I was gonna buy an 80k yen knife from them
. Very limited English. The shop is really small. Really small. and filled with stacks of boxes. You can probably fit 3 people in there without knocking over a stack of boxes. And if there are knives in those boxes, you do not want to be knocking them down. But again, Aoki-san and his son are extremely welcoming. Both speak very limited English. Ultimately, when they brought out the Doi blades, when i held them in comparison to some of the other stuff (i.e. INOX honyaki etc) I just thought I had to have one. The kanjis for Suisin Hayate read out really cool in Chinese as well...practically poetry. just had to buy it. I'd actually said I'd buy a normal 30cm Doi Hayate Yanagiba initially, but they actually then further went and took out the 30cm kengata yanagiba and sakimaru takobiki just to let me try em all... and finally tilted towards the kengata yanagiba.
Ikkanshi Tadatsuna - very near Suisin--basically cross the street then walk round to opposite side of the buildings. Tiny store, fair bit on display. Frankly, there was a lady (forget her name) manning the counter who was super nice, but I'm not sure if she was the one usually handling business. or perhaps I should say this... I was basically told that everything on display is for sample purposes only, and everything must be custom smithed based on what I order. The smith was out and she said it would take 2-4 weeks to do the job... so I didn't get the visual forge experience I had hoped for here. I handled some of the samples - to be honest , not as impressed as I expected to be given the hype around Tadatsuna. I ordered a kiritsuke in white paper, kind of thought I'd give it a chance in spite of all and honestly, again, the kanji in Chinese for Ikkanshi Tadatsuna has some cool factor. I still haven't yet gotten it yet, but they only followed up recently with me so I reckon they were on a long new years holiday or had a lot to make leading up to it (I hadn't paid so not bothered). You need Japanese for this store. I've got their business card and contact if anyone wants to order from them, given their website never seems to work... but you need to speak Japanese to place order. They prefer to take via phone and accept credit cards. The lady at the counter and the guy in the back - neither could do any English, really. They have a wide selection of both Western and traditional knives. They had some honyakis on display on the right window. I didn't see much of the custom stuff (i.e. handles, finishes) that you see on sale online and elsewhere - I suppose they can offer a lot more customization than the little pricing paper suggests.
Aoki Hamono (Sakai Takayuki) - round the corner from the knife museum. initially it was kind of disappointing... its really kind of an office, bit like Kaneshige, not much on display so you may want to do some research if you plan to visit. if you talk to them a bit, you find out this brand is like the science lab of knives. I didn't visit any other brand doing more experimentation than Takayuki. New blade materials to show, exotic patterns, synthetic handles... English not great, but manageable with a little Japanese... which lets them warm up a little. I think they're more commercial sales type. I came to Japan mainly for the carbon knives, but it was really interesting to see some of their stainless and ceramics. Takayuki's playing with a lot of hybrids etc. --honestly guys, my Japanese is basic conversational and I really couldn't understand a lot of the technicals, but they've a lot to take out and show if you can communicate. They've a few displays of their latest toys and some fancy-looking stuff. I ended up buying a blue paper short length yanagiba from them, my biggest regret the entire trip. I really let myself down here, which is kind of why I didn't mention it earlier. They make all kinds of cool and unusual stuff, and I was set on buying something funky... but I got a little overwhelmed after seeing a fair number of things and I just couldn't remember the Japanese for the stuff they'd previously brought out and ended up a little lost. Finally, strapped for time, I just grabbed something... heartbreaking. I should mention the shops in Osaka almost all offer Takayuki's products - think they are big commercially.
Kaneshige (Konosuke) - think my timing was bad on this one, there wasn't really anyone around and frankly their store doesn't have a whole lot to show on the surface. It was a little hard to find as well, because its a rather low profile store front. wasted a fair bit of time walking around it, and no one seemed to be there when I (think) I identified the place. I own two konosuke knives already and really just wanted to visit the shop for the sake of it. Some time back a friend of mine bought me a knife here for me and apparently was allowed to watch the entire finishing process. came myself and kind of missed the bus... disappointing. But they make incredible product... and would try to visit again in the future.
Knife Museum - Shares a street with Ikkanshi Tadatsuna (opposite side), but is a loong walk down the street. This is basically a store guys, don't be fooled (but entry is free). There's one floor on the bottom that is sort of museum like. There were a handful of very ancient knives on display and a sewing machine (...), and a video being played... then other half of the floor is a souvenir shop. Upstairs then goes full knife store mode. There's some introductory material on the walls regarding knife manufacturing and types, but its pretty much 90% endless display cases of all kinds of makers and knives with a price tag. There must be dozens if not hundreds of makers on offer. but for me its a bit of an example of a shop that sort of overwhelms. With too many makers/brands and knife types I kind of just couldn't lock in on anything I really wanted.
Ashi Hamono (Ginga) - This shop is quite near the JR station. So, thinking I was some smart guy, the way I originally planned to do Sakai was to cab out to the furthest shop first, then follow a map to walk from maker to maker back to the JR station. not smart. Obviously everything ran behind schedule. spent more time in the shops than allotted, walking distances were more painful than planned, couldn't get cabs when I wanted em... and it was quite late by the time we arrived here. They've got a decent sized display of all kinds of stuff but I really could only just window shop briefly. Lady helping seemed really nice, prices very reasonable.. but just didn't have time to achieve much here. This was a brand I was really hoping to pick something up from, but just didn't have the time as had a ryokan dinner to catch which would've skipped us if we didn't run for it.
Kyoto - not a huge number of makers here, but I took my chances when we were in the right areas.
Aritsugu - in Nishiki. and I felt like I'd walked into a department store, frankly. beautiful store, great location, but didn't want to buy anything. I've been to Aritsugu Tokyo and I'd recommend those guys over these anyday. Aritsugu Kyoto is nice, but ultra commercial. like buying from the Wusthofs of Japan. Knives on display are very standard. They've stacks of generic santoku, petty, nakiri, etc. in the middle of the store (believe all yellow paper or white-3 perhaps) and the higher carbon steels on display cases against the wall. If my understanding of the guys Japanese is correct, the "上" or high just means its blue paper (as opposed to white) and raises the price tag considerably. What they have on display is just tons of size variations on standard traditional Japanese knives. nothing eye catching (in contrast to Aritsugu Tsukiji who has a lot of cool stuff on offer and some awesome smiths to offer advice). The innermost display(s) have some less common but ultimately still assembly-line looking variations. about a third of the store or more is copper kitchenware at pretty high price. I considered buying a katsuobushi shaver but Aritsugu's ran 30K + yen and the one down the street was 9K... soo... watch the wallet strings in there. English good as you'd expect from a major commercial enterprise.
I did buy a mukimono here ultimately because my gf saw them doing the ceremonial thing where they teach you a bit about maintenance, care, do sharpening, and carve your name into the knife... and wanted to 'play'... sadface. I bought the smallest knife I could that would get the carving service (they refused to carve a petty.. lol?). That said, it is a very functional knife now that I've brought it home. Can't complain. But you pay premium price for a brand of product I really feel is just lacking in personality or uniqueness of any sort.
Kikuichimonji - Not in Nishiki, but you can reach it from Nishiki via covered streets. It's near where Sanjo dori changes from being a proper street with cars into a covered street market for pedestrian only. The shopkeeper is actually quite well informed and very nice. They have English printed material to give you to understand their product and the guy does some English though I spoke Japanese with him. They have more exotic and interesting stuff in the back of the shop. There was a very short 24cm damascus sakimaru takobiki that felt pretty decent in my hands but I wanted at least 27cm and without damascus... they couldn't pull the variation out and they were asking a pretty steep price on the short damascus so I had to pass. Bought a honesuki maru from them just for their patience and explanation. I'm not certain if this store has any relationship to the one in Nara.
Shigeharu - tiny, boutique-style, friendly. but the guy was kind of all over the place and ultimately confusing in describing the product he was selling. The stuff isn't fancy, but fairly reasonably priced. The owner will do name-carving and sharpening for you upon request. Frankly I really wanted to buy something here, because I was thinking this was probably the only shop that still did the work in Kyoto proper, but the owner was a bit confusing (or perhaps it was a language barrier) and it seemed like the knives were being manufactured in Sakai? I got so confused that I finally told him we'd go to the nearby Nijo castle first for some touristy stuff to get my mind straightened out then come back (yes , its basically across the street from Nijo castle plus a short walk)... but as these things tend to turn out, we ran late on the tour there and didn't make it back.
Regarding the theory on the brothers between Takayuki and Suisin - I've got cards for a Tatsuya Aoki from Suisin and a Takahiro Aoki from Takayuki
So... plausible relatives?