The art of Japanese cuisine is famous worldwide for its philosophy of balance and visual presentation. There are many places around Japan where you can experience it, but the height of Japanese cuisine is best enjoyed at a traditional-style restaurant called a ryou-tei (料亭). These restaurants most often are hosted by women donning beautiful kimono, where customers pay upwards of 10,000 yen each to be served several courses of traditional Japanese dishes, prepared and presented according to centuries of tradition in culinary arts and hospitality.
These restaurants do not cater to high volume. Their concept is an atmosphere in which their guests can enjoy relaxing over a long period of time while enjoying their meal, usually dinner. Customers tend to be loyal to their respective local establishments, and making a reservation may sometimes require connections to someone who is familiar with a particular establishment.
I had the recent honor of having been invited to one such establishment. Consistent with protocol, once we were seated, we were given a wet towel with which to wipe down our hands and brought the beers we requested. We weren’t asked for our order, as the menu had been decided by the hosts, which featured seasonal dishes, the first of which being a collection of appetizers to pair with our beer, known as “otsumami”, among which were scrambled egg, dried fish, pickled vegetables and some salted ham, much like prosciutto.
The next course was a bowl of sashimi over ice: sea bream, shrimp, abalone, and turban shell, all local delicacies of Mie prefecture, where I live.
Following this was a plate of broiled flounder, called “hirame”, flavored with a typical sauce based on miso.
Then came the main entree: Matsusaka beef. The hostesses brought out clay pots over a flame, over which the beef was cooked before us. Matsusaka beef is argued to be the finest beef in Japan, from the town of Matsusaka, even over Kobe beef. Its flavor and texture did not disappoint. Because of its rich flavor, the beef is typically served unseasoned, but boiled with some vegetables, and accompanied with a light sauce of pickled vegetables and fresh, grated white radish.
For dessert, we each received two cherries. Satou-Nishiki cherries are rumored to be the most expensive in all of Japan, grown in Yamagata prefecture, in the northern region of Japan.
The dishes themselves were also of impeccable beauty and significance, some of which were over 100 years old. Imari-yaki, from the Edo period, is known for its exquisite detail and beauty. This particular ryou-tei is over 100 years old itself, and our hostesses are the third and fourth generation to carry on its legacy. They were generous enough to show us some other rare dishes of their collection, some of which aren’t even used for contemporary dining anymore, such as these sake glasses used to drink sake on horseback.
The Japanese philosophy of hospitality, “omotenashi”, is in full form in this environment. Our hosts were very gracious and conversed with us as they served each course. Everything about the restaurant’s atmosphere was arranged to optimize our dining experience, from the comfortable furniture to the music, to the window through which you could see the garden outside. Our drinks were refilled constantly, and we were even given some rice cakes as souvenirs before they escorted us to the door to bid us goodbye.
The Japanese ryou-tei can be quite an expensive experience. Our bill was over 20,000 yen for just the two of us. But the experience was invaluable. The food was incredible, of course, but thanks to the unique style of hospitality our hosts showed us, I also learned a lot about Japanese culture and history. Should you ever get the chance to visit a ryou-tei in Japan, I highly recommend it.