Meeting a tea ceremony master who taught me the true meaning of hospitality.
You originally came from a science background, so how did you enter the world of cookery?
I was studying Theoretical Physics at university, and my goal was to gain employment at a company in the future. The reason I ended up leaping onto a different path because of an opportunity of meeting a great master during my student days.
When I was a junior high school student, my father opened up a restaurant in its current location of Senriyama, Suita. After about three years, the restaurant finally started to take shape. Then everything developed from a conversation that took place when we went to visit a Buddhist priest at Hoshun’in, a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji Temple, to thank him for designing Kashiwaya’s trade name. The Buddhist priest taught me many things about Japanese customs, such as “What decorations are hung up in their tatami reception rooms?” At the time, my father was making arrangements for his restaurant interior by learning from others, and the Buddhist priest suggested that my father participate in tea ceremonies. For a while, my father participated in the tea ceremony, however, this became physically tiring for him, so he told me to go instead. It sounded fun, so I was very happy to go. I went to study with Munehiro Ikeda, the owner of a hermitage at Kogen-ji Temple, in Nishioji Shichijo, Kyoto, where I learned about the tea ceremony.
So you pursued knowledge of the tea ceremony while studying Theoretical Physics.
As a family, we always used to go around looking at art galleries, earthenware, and lacquerware, so I was fairly familiar with Japan’s traditional culture and industrial arts. Maybe because of this, I really enjoyed learning about it. When offering a cup of tea to a customer, you provide them with great hospitality, starting from the building, to the garden, calligraphy, and art. Lavishness and extravagance is not what is important. For example, if a customer is heading off to a battlefield, you have to consider that that moment may be his last before leaving this world. What is important is the feeling that lies behind our warm welcome.
When I started seeing this new view of the world, the beautiful appearance of Japanese buildings and the look and design of the earthenware, all became organically interlinked in my mind. I was absolutely fascinated by it all, thinking “This is so much fun.”
I then started transporting my master to a variety of tea parties, and at busy times I would be allowed to be his companion for about half of the week. As I gained more and more experience, I started to develop a desire to continue to express the great depths of the tea ceremony for the rest of my life. I then looked back at my life and thought about my father’s small restaurant, my mother’s delicious cooking, and how I loved to help them out. That was when a firm objective was formed in my mind. I thought, “I want to use Japan’s culture, spirit, and sense of beauty, to create a time and space for welcoming customers through food.”
So you already had a clear vision, while in your 20s, for creating your own restaurant. And that is how you entered the world of cooking.
People around me offered various suggestions on how I could learn about cooking through the world of the tea of ceremony. So, when I graduated, I joined Shofukuro, a highly renowned traditional Japanese restaurant that was founded in the first year of the Meiji era, in 1868. That is how I met the second master in my life, Hidetaro Nakamura.
I was met by an unimaginable world that made my dreams look like a speck of dust. Menus are changed completely depending on each customer, including the arrangement of the rooms, the utensils, the garden design, and the food. Even if a customer who visited us last year were to visit us again at around the same time, and even if we were to serve them the same food, the idea behind it would be different; or if a customer was celebrating a birthday, we would add a special celebratory dish to the menu, and so on.
This was the ethos of the restaurant, so if we had 10 sets of customers, we would create 10 different menus. My job was to transcribe those menus, so it was a great learning experience for me. Although the menus for each season are fundamentally the same, the restaurant would make subtle changes to match each customer, in terms of ingredients and cooking methods, the way of using the knife, the selection of tableware, and the like. By writing all of these things down, I started to notice all the points that were different from one menu to another. I then started to understand the thoughts behind certain menus, their key points, their focus, and what techniques were used. Rather than simply changing the flavors and temperatures, I learned the importance of understanding the feelings of welcome that the owner wanted to incorporate in those menus.
After three fulfilling years at Shofukuro, I still had a lot to learn.
I would imagine that in a place like Shofukuro, even when you are in your second or third year, you would still not be allowed to even hold a knife. How was that whole learning experience?
Well, I was not allowed in the kitchen for the first year. During the first two years, I did office work; and in the first year, I also did a variety of jobs on rotation, including preparing meals for the staff, making preparations for pickles, cleaning the garden, and sorting out the entrance hallway and shoe racks.
What surprised me at the time was being told off, while on shoe rack duty, about failing to turn on the garden lights at the right time. In the winter, it gets dark early, so it is easy enough to turn the light on before the customers arrive. However, this is quite difficult in the summer. The sun sets down just around the same time that customers start to arrive, so it is difficult to judge when to turn the lights on. If you forget, you get scolded, so if you then switch them on too early, you also get scolded with a, “Hey, who was it?! Who is being so wasteful?!” So then, if you just wait that little bit longer before switching them on, I would also get scolded with a, “You’re late!” So I was very confused about how to achieve the right timing.
Then one day, after turning the lights on in the garden, I went to the nearby parking lot for a cleaning check, and I heard a yell of “That’s it!” coming right from behind me. I then thought, “This is it! This is the right time.” I then looked back toward the restaurant, and saw that the sky had darkened, making all the colors in the background almost disappear. The restaurant lights were melting brightly into the background. I felt incredibly moved, and I thought “This is what beauty is then…”
I realized that the master pays great attention to detail, even to something like the outside lighting. The chances of a customer arriving precisely at that moment would be relatively small, but even that sort of detail is incredibly important. I learned a lot from this way of life, this way of thinking.
This is great learning for me too, just hearing about it. It is a world of great depth and meaning, isn’t it?
Then while in my second year, I was given the role of preparing a starter dish called hassunba. But then they were short of one person for preparing sashimi, and that is how I —as inexperienced as I was— got a great opportunity in my second year. I was extremely lucky to have had the chance to learn the general skills for handling fish. In my third year, in Nagoya, I was able to learn how to prepare hassunba and nimono (simmered dishes). I was blessed by the opportunity to learn freely, acquiring new knowledge and skills all the time. My time there was incredibly fulfilling. I knew that at the end I would be returning home, and that may be the reason why I was able to make the most of my learning experience, absorbing as much information as possible, and living each day with the attitude of never regretting.
You then left Shofukuro, and in 1992, you returned to your father’s restaurant, the current Kashiwaya. Having been trained somewhere else, and then going back to your own family’s restaurant, did that cause any difficulties for you?
I did expect that having been trained at a different restaurant and then coming back afterward, and being the manager’s son on top of this, was likely to create a certain amount of reluctance among the existing staff to accept me as part of their team. This is why I took the attitude of being willing to do absolutely anything, from cleaning tasks to odd jobs. However, in hindsight, I think this may have actually caused me more trouble in the end. Around three months after my return, we had a mass resignation where every member of staff decided to quit the restaurant.
Even if we had wanted to hire new people, no chef would have wanted to work in a place like that. In the end, we asked a once-retired, 70-year-old chef to help us out by working for us as the head chef. He called me a youngster and treated me kindly, and he also taught me many of his own skills and techniques, without holding anything back. All the classical techniques that I know today are thanks to him.
Half a year after that, I spent every single day working, making preparations in the kitchen from 5am, and getting everything ready and cleaning up until 2am late at night. We then had another person joining us to help out, and he worked with us in the kitchen for about three years as the head chef. At the time, the kitchen was smaller than it is now, and our dishes were not that elaborate, so we were somehow able to manage with just the three of us.