Yedo Cuisine Lasts Forever - Interview with 10th Owner of Yaozen

It has been a longstanding question - why we don't hear about "Yedo* Cuisine" even in Tokyo, while there are many restaurants which serve "Kyoto Cuisine" everywhere? For this question, Zenshiro Kurihara, 10th owner of Yaozen, which was established during Kyoho Period (1716~1735) of Yedo Era and one of the most successful restaurants during at that time, gave an answer together with the history of Yaozen and Yedo Cuisine.

*Yedo is old name of Tokyo. During the period which Shogun Tokugawa family governed Japan, 1603-1867, Yedo was the de facto capital of Japan (The emperor still lived in Kyoto and it is sometimes said Kyoto was the capital. But Yedo was the center of politics and commercial activities). Yedo changed its name to Tokyo in 1868, the beginning of Meji Era. There are variety of English translations, such as Edo, Jedo, or Yedo.

Yedo Cuisine has been known for its gorgeousness, which reflects the character of Yedo people, called "Yedo-kko," and Yaozen was on the top of restaurants who served Yedo Cuisine. Yedo-kko liked to dine out - selecting their favorite restaurant from ranking lists, and Yaozen was always in the center of the lists, "Yokozuna" position. It was the most successful restaurant in Yedo. Even after the government changed and Japan entered to Meiji Era from Yedo, the profile of Yaozen was still high, despite many of them disappered during the change.

There are few stories which introduces Yaozen symbolically. First one is a famous tale, "Chazuke which costs 1-ryo and 2-bu*." The story is about Yaozen and the story was carried in "Kanten-Kenbun-Roku**." Second one shows its profile - Meiji government used Yaozen to entertain Russian Emperor Nicholai II.

*Details of the story appears later.
**Kanten-Kenbun-Roku is anonimous written record which introduces Yedo people's life from 1798 to 1845.

The interview with Mr. Kuriyama was conducted after his cooking class. "Half of my students was professional chef," he said. During the class, he kindly taught the basic things of Yeddo cuisine and answered chain of questions from his students. Then we moved to a cafe nearby and talked about Yeddo cuisine. Though the interview lasted more than three hours, he said in the end of the interveiw, "I talked just one-third of the whole story."

-First of all, please tell us about the association between Yedo Cuisine and Yedo Era.

"Okay, the first of all, we'll talk about what cooking is. In Japan, cooking began with boiling vegetable, fish, or rice. The origin of cooking business for Japanese was to sell dishes - either fully cooked or half-cooked, anyway they sold dishes. One of the oldest items which was sold commercially was "Eel Kaba-Yaki" - in Einglish it is called charcoal broiled eel (or grilled eel). At that time, eel was not cut in halves lengthwise when it was grilled like today. Bamboo skewer was put from eel's mouth directly to the end of its body, and then grilled. It looked like typha very much, thus people started to call it "Kaba (Japanese name of typha) Yaki." Eel appeared in "Manyoshu*," and people at that time knew eel contains lots of protein and gave stamina. Eel has been sold for a long time."

*Manyuoshu is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759.

"I think, historically, restaurant business began with inns. It was difficult for travelers always to camp out, so, they sometimes had to stay inns and took rest. Inns were established very long time ago and they served their special dishes to travelers there. It was the origin of the food-serving business. Food-serving business worked up and today foods and drinks accompanies entertainment. It is said that this habit began in Genroku Period (1688~1703)."

"During the era when famous Japanese ruler Nobunaga Oda (1534-1582) or Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-1598) governed Japan, foods and drinks could not be accompanied by entertainment - at that time buying and eating foods outsides house was warned as wasting money. Basically, cooking was something that was done by themselves, and thus they prepared lunchbox when people needed to eat outside. However, in case they had to eat outside, for example, attending wedding party, guests asked the host beforehand for preparing foods."

"By the way, Yedo people loved joke. They often gave jokes and the jokes sometimes became real words. One example is tuna ("Maguro" in Japanese). Yedo people did not like tuna, because it in Japanese was called "Shibi" at that time. Shibi consists two Japanese word: Shi (means death) and Bi (means day), and Shibi - tuna - meant "death day" at that time. Thus when they ate tuna, they were sometimes poked fun. Actually tuna did not look good. Tuna was usually taken in Choshi, about 120 km from Tokyo, at that time, and it was brought to Tokyo on cart/wagon - pouring water to the body not to go rotten. Tuna weigh around 200 kilogram, and it looked like dead body while carrying. At that time, refrigerating technique did not exist and Sushi restaurant existed only around Tokyo's bay.


Photos by Urban Heritage Chronicle

Zenshiro Kurihara, 10th Owner of Yaozen,
Yedo Cuisine legendary figure.

Yedo Restaurant Ranking List
(Click the picture to enlarge)
Issued early 19th century
(Original copy owned by Kita
City Asukayama Museum)

Yedo Restaurant Ranking List
(Click the picture to enlarge)
Issued early 19th century
(Original copy owned by Kita
City Asukayama Museum)


-At that time, were good Sushi restaurant grouped around Yedo bay?

"Yes or no, because originally Sushi was a technique to preserve food, for example, "Nare-Sushi*," and "Osaka-Sushi**." Then "Tsukami-Sushi***" appeared and it might change to the "Nigiri-Sushi****," which is the one we are eating today. The reason Sushi is customarily served in two pieces*****, was one piece of Sushi was too big to eat so it was cut into two pieces to be served in the past. In Yedo era, Sushi was an afternoon snack, served with tea - it was like sweets, cookies or biskets for kids. When they got hungry before dinner, they ate Sushi as a snack. They did not eat raw fish at that time so topping fish of the Sushi was cooked. For example, Kohada (Konosirus punctatus) was pickled in salt for two day and then in Japanese vinegar."

*Nare means ripen in English. Nare-sushi means sushi for long storage.
**Osaka is name of location, western part of Japan. Osaka-sushi means sushi invented in Osaka.
***/****Tsukami and Nigiri both mean grab in English. Tsukami/Nigiri-sushi is very similar one to today's sushi.
*****In traditional Sushi restaurant, Sushi is served in two pieces when customer orders favorite fish over the counter. Pre-fixed
"There are people who says Sushi is perserved food and "Osaka-Sushi" is real Sushi. Current form, a grab of rice and raw fish on it, is spread after refrigerator was invented and became popular in 1960s."

-Back to the agenda, what kind of foods Yaozen served in Yedo era?

"There is a funny story. When Nobunaga Oda (1534~1582) attacked a place called Asakura, Nobunaga took chefs as hostages and he let them cook. On the first day the chef cooked with urban taste, but Nobunaga said it was not good because the foods were too bland. On the second day, the chef made it country taste, and he was pleased because the taste was salty and strong. At that time, soldiers who were good at cooking played chef's role."

"When Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542~1616) opened its government in Yedo, Yedo was just a grass field. Hibiya, which is one of the biggest commercial areas in central Tokyo today, was a small village where around 300 people were living. Even with that size, Hibiya was the biggest village in Yedo at that time. When Ieyasu developed the area, many strong men were needed to develop the land so Ieyasu gathered many men, while there were less women. That is because Yoshiwara, which has been the most famous nightlife mecca from that time to today, was built to entertain the men. Yaozen was established around the same period. These men played in Yoshiwara and then dined at Yaozen. That is the origin of Yaozen. After that, Yaozen was used for politician to entertain for secret conversations. "

"There is a famous story, 'Chazuke which costs 1-ryo and 2-bu,' which I spoke in the beginning of our interview. Two men visited at Yaozen for Chazuke, traditional common Japanese food - rice with green tea poured over it, but they had to wait for four hours. More surprisingly, it cost 1-ryo and 2-bu. The two men got angry and asked the chef why it took so long and cost so high. The chef responded that he used the best quality of water taken from Tamagawa-river, best eggplant and cucumis, the best green tea 'Gyokuro', and Echigo rice which was selected by a single grain. The two men was convinced and went home. 'Ryo' and 'Bu' was Japanese currency at that time and 1-ryo was equivalent to, approximately, JPY 70,000 to 200,000 today."

"The story meant Yaozen served the best foods. From the location Yaozen was placed at that time, it was about 70 kilometers round-trip to the place where the Tamagawa-river's best water could be taken. Even though the distance was very far at that time, Yaozen used express messenger service (it was called "Hikyaku") to take the best water. Yaozen also stick to the quality of rice. At that time, restaurants usually purchased brown rice and brought them to "Tsukiya" a shop which polished and separated rice into white rice and bran layer. Many Tsukiya pushed the brown rice with foots to polish, but some of them did it by hand - careful but expensive methods called "Ogami-tsuki." Yaozen preferred this methods, because it could select rice piece by piece and could avoid accidents, for example, small stones mixed into them. If any stones were accidentally mixed in to the rice, it is critical problem for restaurants.

In terms of vegetables, the story was happened in February and eggplant and cucumis were vegetable for May. However, according to some records, Yaozen cultivated the vegetable in the southern part of Niijima-Island, a 160 kilometer away from Yedo, and Yaozen sometimes went there by high-speed boat called "Oshiokuri-Sen*" and took them to cook. Do you understand what Yaozen served then. My processor said they were true story, which means, Yaozen was such restaurant at that time.

*Common boat was rowed by one person, but Oshiokuri-Sen was rowed by eight and thus it was high-speed.

"There is another story. It was said that Commodore Perry* went to Yaozen for dining, and he said "the foods were not bad but good." However, we looked into his diary and found out that it was not Yaozen's menu. According to his translator's record, Perry got out of the ship and walked Yedo town to go to Yaozen. But the menu was not ours. I am not sure what happened actually. However, it is true that in Meiji Era, Price of Queen Elizabeth and Russian Emperor Nicholai II were entertained at Yaozen. The 8th owener handled it."

*Commodore Perry (1794 –1858) was a Commodore of the U.S. Navy. He played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

"Usually, traditional Japanese menu contains variety of combination of soup and side dishes, for example, 1 soup and 3 side dishes (ichi-jyuu-san-sai), 2 soup and 5 side dishes, (ni-jyuu-go-sai), or 3 soup and 7 dishes (san-jyuu-nana-sai). They were called "Honzen Ryori," very official and traditional way to serve Japanese dishes. Among them, 1 soup and 5 side dishes (ichi-jyuu-go-sai, Hikiotoshi zen), became the tea-ceremony meal, called "Kaiseki Ryori." Today, it is something to be called as "traditional Japanese menu", but actually it is simplified one."

"At that time, Shogun usually ate 2 soup and 5 dishes, and it is said that Perry as well ate the same thing as Shogun was eating. The 2 soup and 5 dishes consists of first tray, second tray, and "rest" tray, and in the end of the meal the whole sea bream (with head) was served on a big plate. However, they were not eaten - it was a custom then to bring the sea bream to home without eating anything."

It is a life work of Mr. Kurihara to make extensive research on Yedo cuisine. He has a thorough knowledge on it, and he told interesting story one after another.

"There is another interesting story by the way. Buddhist monks perform cold water ablutions by a fall as a part of ascetic trainings. However, it was getting too hard for them when they became older. So, the monks put roasted stone inside their cloth to stay warm. That is the origin of the word "Kaiseki (kai in Kanji means inside the close, and seek means stone)." When people ate traditional Japanese menu like Honzen Ryori, at that time, there were menu and the way to serve, which had to be kept strictly. For example, rice bowl had to be served on the right side and (miso) soup on the left side. The order to eat each food is determined. Japanese cuisine had a courtesy when they ate, like French, and it was very strict. Monks and lords kept the strict courtesy of Honzen Ryori. At that time, Kaiseki Ryori was just fun and prodigal, it seemed."

"Have you ever heard about how Tokugawa Shogun spent morning time? Right after the Shogen woke up, he took a steam bath at first. Then they wore cotton Japanese kimono and took it off repeatedly, about 7 times, in order to dry their body. Because of the custom, he could not wipe with towel at that time. And then, he practiced Kendo, Japanese art of fencing. But it was just a mere formality - just tapping floor three times with bamboo sword. Then, he took breakfast."

"At that time menu was written in a long scroll, and variety of foods were contained there. Shogun picked up whatever they like - two dishes for breakfast and three dishes for dinner. However, since there were so many varieties, so he could not memorize what he has already ordered before. Thus, he chose it from first to last. After the first round, he got his preference. Then, he ordered what he liked from the next round.

When Shogun had meals, they were always Honzen Ryori, which means even Shogun had to follow strict tradition. It was very tough. Then, Shogun sometimes came to Yaozen to relax - he was excited and frolic, because there was not rule at Yaoze. He could eat lying and dancing. The variety of foods was so huge. He told that he could do whatever he liked at Yaozen."

-There were many ups and downs during your history. What was the most significant?

"Many things happened during our 300 years history, but the most difficult one was sumptuary law. From 1789 to 1830, the government prohibited luxury things. During this period, the government even retrieved coins, reduced the gold ratio, and re-distributed them to the market. Usually when the economy goes down, government urges people to use money. However, the government at that time did the opposite thing. Yaozen was hugely affected, and we could not do business during the period. The law hit Yedo restaurants very hard, and only few of them including us could survive. During the period, Yaozen focused on catering - brought vegetables, fishes, and others to the customers site and cooked and served there."

"Great Kanto earthquake also hit us hard. Our restaurant in Sanya was completely burnt. The building was built in Yedo era, but it was gone. Then we moved to Nihonbashi. At that time, Nihonbashi was very convenient location because there was a water corridor which was used for distribution of goods and the fish market exists in Nihonbashi. The market moved to Tsukiji right after the earthquake, but Nihonbashi was still convenient. However, unfortunately, Yaozen was burnt down again during the second world war - it was on March 10, 1945.

After the war, we opened up our store in Sanno of Nagatacho in 1951, but we closed the restaurant in 1955. The reason was very simple - our business was not profitable at all. We needed 30 chefs to run one Yaozen restaurant - our dishes needed very complex process to cook. Additionally, very few people could understand the value of Yedo cuisine. Thus, my father gave up running restaurant and opened cooking school. He taught Yedo cuisine for 20 years and raised me. My father used to tell me not to open restaurant.

However, when I was 28, I violated his rule and opened a restaurant in Ginza. The business was not good, and move around - I moved my restaurant to Ryogoku, as a part of tenant of Yedo-Tokyo museum, and then Shinjyuku - Takashimaya Department Store. After all, I gave it up in October, 2003. Yaozen cost too much. Our dishes are all hand-made. As I said, we need 30 chefs - suppose their hourly-pay is 3,000 Japanese Yen. If we outsource them, the cost must be lower. But we did not do that.

Now I am working with department store - actually I wanted to retire, but the department store proposed me to work together and replicate Yaozen's Yedo cuisine. Finally I really understood what the business is - how much does it cost to procure and cook, and how many we can expect to sell. I am telling to my son, 11th owner of Yaozen, that you should work on Yedo cuisine which you can speak in words of your own.

- What do you think is the reason Yedo cuisine is not accepted today, while Kyoto cuisine is loved by everyone?

"One of the reason must be that there are so many varieties in the menu of Yedo cuisine. Compare to Yedo, Kyoto foods are simple. When we try to eat something Yedo cuisine, it is difficult for us to decide what to eat because there are too many options. I think things are simple in western part of Japan. Another reason is attitude of Yedo people. Yedo chefs usually did not teach something to others. Their attitude was, "if you cannot understand what I am doing, it is okay. It is none of my business. If you want to improve, just see my work and steal from it, withoug saying anything." It is typical Yedo people attitude. So, successors were hardly to be groomed."

"And also, Yaozen's business cost too much, as I told you. When I opened the restaurant in Ginza, many suppliers who has been working with Yaozen for long came to me and ask for business. I orderd Tatami (Japanese straw mat) to one of the suppliers. Unfortunately I was young and did not know anything. The supplier told me it took one year to prepare, because of lack of rush glass. It needs 2,400 rush glass just for one Tatami, and preparing rush glasses needed to produce every tatami demands 1 year. After 1 year, it cost about JPY 160K just for one tatami. It's redicurous. That's the way Yedo people were doing business, and thus Yedo restaurant had to be closed. Everyone has gone. Old shop which sold traditional Yedo style kite has gone. Footwear has also gone.

-What is Yaozen style? What are feature of Yaozen's cuisine?

"One good example for Yaozen style is Kuro-Mame, a combination of black bean and syrup. Yaozen was the one who firstly introduced it. Kuro-Mame was arranged in a special bowl, and slurp at a mouthful. It's Yaozen-style. Another example is Japanese fried egg. Yaozen's fried egg contained tremendous sugar. When you cut it with knife, the knife pulled a sugar string. In the past, sugar was expensive, and sweets were for rich people. It is hardly tell - but I can say all of Yaozen's dish was very dainty. However, these menus cannot be accepted today, so other Japanese restaurants adjusted it to the preference of current people. Another example is "expression." When cooks express "autumn" with their dishes, they usally serves persimmon with a red leaf because it's season is autumn. However, in Yaozen, we were told "Are you kidding? Cooks have to express autumn by taste, not leaf."

"Our dishes are also very complex to make - it takes at least 8 years to become independent Yaozen cook. Good example is "Matsukawa-Shinjyo." It is a very elaborate dish. First of all, cut sea-bream into three slices. Then, stick its skin on a glass plate, reduce all born from the fish, mince it, and put it into a very large wooden bowl. Then, crush it there until it becomes a paste. After that, arrange the pasted fish like sea-bream, cover it with skin, and after all steam it, cut it, and serve it as a Japanese soup. As you can imagine, it takes half day just to cook this dish, but it's the Yaozen's cuisine. Thus, we need 30 cooks, and we served it with only JPY 800, approximately USD$ 8. It can't be profitable at all.

"One day, because I felt a bit of waste, I told my father that we should calculate revenue and cost. Unfortunately, he said back to me 'Why are you taking care of the figures. What we need to do is just to serve good dishes until customer becomes full.' It was a typical reaction of Yedo chefs."

"Do you know much about 'Sawara,' Japanese spanish mackerel? In Yaozen, we serve the fish by cutting it square. We call it 'Gyogi-giri*," which means well-mannered, high class way of cutting. Usually, we cut fishes in slices, which is called Ha-giri. The beauty of Ha-giri is that it looks bigger, and customers can eat both side. However, though it was a high-class way, Gyogi-giri looks small and can be eaten only one side - it was our style."

*Gyogi means manner in Japanese, and giri means cut in Japanese.

"Even so, Yaozen was profitable after we moved to Tsukiji in 1927 - after the big earthquake which hit to Kanto-area in 1923. At that time, economic situation was difficult for Japan. However, people said they could eat something in Yaozen and rushed to us. We run the restaurant in Tsukiji until the end of 1944. Eventually, our restaurant was burnt during the air raid which targeted at central Tokyo on March 10, 1945. It burnt every Yedo culture and tradition. We had some books which told us traditional recipie of Yedo cuisine, for example, miso. It was quite valuable because it introduced the methods to make precious miso, like "Yedo-Miso (or Yedo-Jiro)," or "Yaozen-Miso." Today around Tokyo, I think there are only one or two restaurant or shop are selling them. I personally think we were good at how to make best foods, but not good at how to express our cuisine. That was why were not successful in the past.

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