The Japanese Table
The Profound Elegance of Ryoteiby Isao Kumakura
In this third article in our series on Japan's various dining styles, we introduce the ryotei, where one may indulge in the most elegant and sophisticated Japanese cuisine amidst a rarefied atmosphere.
Ryotei is the term reserved for Japanese-style eating establishments of the highest quality. Such restaurants may be run by famous chefs or have long and distinguished histories of 300 years or more; they offer the finest and most refined of Japanese cuisine. The cost of dining in such places, however, is beyond the means of most people, and the restaurants themselves exude an exclusive, aloof air; access to some prestigious ryotei is usually through introduction by an established customer.
The origins of ryotei may be found in the late sixteenth century, when fine dining was offered at temples on the scenic slopes of the mountains surrounding Kyoto. Large-scale ryotei made their appearance in Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka in the eighteenth century; these sometimes consisted of expansive gardens with a number of separate buildings, each accommodating private groups of diners. The service provided might include not only fine food, but entertainment such as song and dance, and even possibly a dalliance with geisha.
Ryotei have changed a great deal since the beginnings of the twentieth century. Those comprising detached pavilion complexes in spacious gardens are disappearing, while so-called urban ryotei are now more common. The latter are housed in relatively modest Japanese-style buildings with finely appointed courtyard gardens; however, the tradition of providing separate rooms for each party of guests, regardless of size, as well as maintaining the privacy of each party, still continues.
These restaurants emphasize tasteful interiors and furnishings adhering to custom, and the most exclusive display first-rate works of art. Tatami rooms for entertaining visitors, known as zashiki, are invariably equipped with a tokonoma display alcove which features precisely arranged flowers and a scroll with calligraphy and painting chosen to reflect an appropriate seasonal theme. Guests are expected to possess the cultivation and discernment to appreciate the import and quality of these appointments—another tradition that remains unchanged.
Focus on the Food
Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959), the man who revolutionized Japanese cuisine by forbidding geisha when he established his own ryotei in the 1920s. He demanded that guests devote themselves completely to the pleasures of the meal, and would not tolerate diners who became absorbed in the entertainment, ignoring the quality of the food itself. From the time of Rosanjin, then, a new style of ryotei evolved in which geisha and fine dining were separated. In most of today's ryotei, indeed, entertainment by geisha may be provided but it is peripheral; the main attraction is the food. From these changes, another type of establishment evolved called the chaya (machiai, or meeting place) meant purely for entertainment and drinking. Food served in the chaya is not prepared on the premises, but is ordered from outside.
While today's modern ryotei are no longer associated with the services of geisha for entertainment or other diversions, women do continue to be in attendance in the role of nakai, who serve meals and tend to all manner of details that enhance the quality of dining and satisfaction with the cuisine. Each party is assigned a nakai who moves back and forth between the kitchen and the guests, conveying the wishes of the latter and coordinating the timing with which the dishes are served. All of the nakai are in turn under the supervision of the okami, the mistress of the ryotei, who ensures that every detail is properly attended to, from the moment of the guests' arrival to their departure. Since the chef in a ryotei never leaves the kitchen, the "face" of the restaurant vis-à-vis its clientele is that of the okami, and her job is extremely demanding. In the majority of cases, the okami is the wife of the owner.
The menu at a ryotei consists of set courses differing by price according to the number of dishes. Generally the courses comprise an appetizer (saki-tsuke), sashimi (o-tsukuri), clear soup with artfully arranged seasonal ingredients (wan), grilled dish (yakimono), simmered dish (nimono), deep-fried dish (agemono), steamed dish (mushimono), and vinegared dish (su-no-mono) for up to ten dishes, accompanied by rice, miso soup and pickles, and finally a sweet dessert. The meal may continue for about two hours, depending on the amount of sake consumed.
Over the past twenty years, ryotei have again been evolving as their clientele shift from elite members of the government and large corporations to private individuals. Fewer people seem to be so strongly attached to the traditional charms of tatami-style rooms and scrolls displayed in tokonoma-like settings, and as a result some restaurants have changed to more modern décor. Some of these ryotei now feature original cuisine with innovative ingredients or even "fusion" dishes influenced by other gourmet traditions. Yet even while exploring beyond the boundaries of traditional ingredients, ryotei are the places that carry on, in their most refined and genuine forms, the classic methods, aesthetics and customs of Japanese cuisine.
Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992, and then held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Since 2004, he has been director of the Hayashibara Museum of Art, Okayama. Among his many publications are Tea in Japan and The History of Japanese Food.