Place of choice for important financial, business and political meetings, the ryotei establishments greatly influenced the "Omotenashi" culture of hospitality perfection. As the sole surviving shop from the Edo Period in Nagoya, Kawabun's long history mingles with those of Nagoya, Aichi and Japan themselves. While preserving the old traditions, it kept exploring and evolving, seeking to become the ryotei of the next generation. We had the opportunity to have an enlightening talk with the charming and knowledgeable Manager and Young Proprietress "Waka-Okami" Ayako Kagawa, about the way of enjoying Kawabun.
AichiNow: What exactly is a "ryotei"?
Ayako Kagawa: The ryotei is a commercial Japanese cuisine establishment that meets these four requirements: one, it has a Japanese inner garden; two, it is built in the "sukiya-zukuri" style; three, the "shitsurai", which is the "room etiquette" broadly including food, tableware, furniture, decoration and overall interior aspect of the shop, must connote to the current season; and four, the shop has ties with a geisha and maiko guild in order to hire them upon request. To put it simply, it is the place to enjoy the most traditionalistic aspects of the Japanese culture.
AN: Is it true that ryotei does not accept unfamiliar first-time customers?
AK: Up until about 10 years ago, yes. But that was strictly due to the way a ryotei did business back then, which was based on trust. The hospitality idea is of relieving the client from tasks related to money dealings, which may be considered mundane. So the ryotei would take care of money matters instead: should clients choose to move to another shop for a second or third after-feast, or if a geisha was hired, the ryotei would escrow those expenses and charge all at once, adding its own expenses, with a single month's-end invoice. We still do like that with known patrons. However, Kawabun today also accepts credit cards and cash, and even if you're a newcomer, you may request a geisha for your group in order to enjoy the traditional Japanese entertainment arts.
AN: Kawabun's history is very long. What is the secret for its endurance?
AK: I think it resides in the perfection of both hardware, which is the building, the decoration, this location, and software, which is the staff and business practices. As I listen to tales about all the past managers, "Okami" proprietresses, "ryori-nin" cooks, "naka-i" waitresses, "gesokuban" doormen and all the other people who worked here, I am able to say that none of them ever compromised when carrying their tasks. A famous and old Kawabun waitress who worked a long time here passed away and the local Chunichi Shinbun newspaper published a whole page eulogy in her honor. This episode tells a lot about our committed and dedicated staff.
Also, the ryotei is a place breathing culture and tradition, but tradition isn't just a set of old customs that must be blindly followed. New traditions keep spinning off from new challenges when adapting to new eras. One example is the Water Mirror designed by Mr. Yoshiro Taniguchi. When the reform was over, Kawabun took a lot of heat and criticism for replacing the beautiful garden with concrete and stone. But nowadays, many of our patrons find it very interesting and beautiful, so I think that everything lies in predicting how the future will unfold and having the courage to make the right decisions.
AN: Speaking of traditions, what kind of traditional "Omotenashi" hospitality can we get at Kawabun?
AK: This is a basic one, but I choose to talk about it because it's one of the often misunderstood traits of Kawabun: the "wet chopsticks". Our meals are accompanied by slightly humidified "hashi" chopsticks that often are mistaken for being "un-hygienic", or in the worst cases, thought to be washed and reused! In reality, we dip in clean water because it's a traditional "ocha-no-kaiseki" ceremonial meal practice with purification meanings - and also to just stop food from sticking. In addition, a long time ago eatery shops would carve their own disposable chopsticks on site, so wetting the wood before cutting also made them softer and stopped eventual splinters from hurting the clients' hands. A simple act that shows how Kawabun, as oldest restaurant in Nagoya, is committed in preserving and disseminating these "Omotenashi" details that so characterize the "sa-do kaiseki" ceremonial feasts.
AN: So clients are able to experience the same Omotenashi of ages past?
AK: Yes, but not everything is as before. As another example of old ryotei Omotenashi practice, a dish may never be served right after a previously served dish, a term we call "kabusenai", or "don't stack". But this one we had to change: in times past, actually serving the food was an exclusive task of the geisha or okami, regardless of the time it took. But nowadays we have a wide range of customers such as hurried businessmen, and elder people who can't sit for long periods of time, or even children. That's people who cannot or would not spend lots of time for just a single meal. As such, we had to adapt in order to satisfy those demands by serving at a timely pace. At Kawabun, when a geisha is not present, the "naka-i" staff is also allowed to help the serving: it all boils down to the clients' needs and their satisfaction. We have to adapt to the changing society needs accordingly, and decide what to keep and what to discard despite the dilemmas and criticism. I believe that, like us, each ryotei has its own "Unchangeable Practices" standards, or the absolute points were lines are drawn regarding changes, and that makes them all the more characteristic and enjoyable.
AN: The wet chopsticks, the "kabusenai" serving order, the "naka-i" helping with the serving to speed it up. They are all seem like "invisible" Omotenashi, right? That means that much of the courtesy dispended may go unnoticed!
AK: Yes! But the rule of thumb of Omotenashi is that you never ever mention when it's Omotenashi. We will never come forward announcing all the minute things we do. In Japan, anybody serious about this line of work will never expect to be praised. But that's not to say we won't rejoice at those moments when the customers notice the details and get a bit more satisfied, or when they come asking why we do this, or why we do that, and startle in admiration when we explain. Not only because we are in love with the charm and wisdom of those traditions, we also believe that these are good things that must be shared and passed on. So when you stop by the Kawabun, whenever you suspect that something has a "hidden meaning or purpose" (and, like all things of old Japan, they almost always have!), please feel free to ask and ask again. We'll gladly answer all your inquiries. I believe that the satisfaction of experiencing new things has lots to do with the amount of surprises and discoveries we get. Each dish, each piece of furniture or decoration, each way of serving, each corner of the building, all of them are full of history and Omotenashi spirit. Appreciating all of it makes for the perfect way of enjoying a ryotei.