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Ryotei restaurant in Tokyo shutters after 230-year run

TOKYO >> Ryotei restaurant Kawajin in Shibamata, Tokyo, has joined the long list of dining establishments that have fallen to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryotei are upscale traditional Japanese restaurants.

Opened in the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1867), the restaurant had been a beloved culinary institution for more than 230 years. The restaurant’s eighth-generation owner made the difficult decision to close on Jan. 31.

“We had a good run, and (our longevity) was thanks to the customers. All I can say is how grateful I feel,” said Kazuteru Amamiya, 69, several days before the closure, as he looked up at the sign bearing his restaurant’s name.

Kawajin started in 1790 as a boathouse inn serving carp and eel plucked from the Edo river. The inn stood on the banks of the river, and customers could climb up into the dining room directly from their boats. The restaurant relocated further inland in 1918.

The view from the inn, overlooking the river and its meandering sailboats, was immortalized in many a novel, including Natsume Soseki’s “To the Spring Equinox and Beyond.”

The current building made a cameo in the first film of the “Otoko wa Tsuraiyo” series, better known as the Tora-san series, which was released in theaters in 1969. The restaurant provided the setting for the wedding reception of Sakura, sister of the film’s protagonist, Torajiro Kuruma.

The ryotei became so popular that, at its peak, it served more than 700 customers a day.

“The best part of our job was seeing the satisfied expressions of customers as they went on their way after the meal,” said Amamiya, who led the restaurant for more than 30 years.

Then everything changed under the pandemic. Gone were the steady streams of tourist buses that once flocked to the restaurant. Day after day, the phone rang with customers calling to cancel dinner reservations. Eventually, the restaurant’s daily sales slipped by more than half.

Amamiya took out loans to keep the lights on, but in December he decided to close for good, realizing that the prospects for recovery were slim.

On Dec. 20, he lowered his head to a group of nearly 20 employees. “You’ve all been working so hard. I’m sorry to have let you down.”

The employees, partners in the fight to save the restaurant, simply listened quietly. Amamiya also visited the family’s ancestral grave to apologize.

The decision involved considerable soul-searching, and Amamiya admitted that he had felt conflicted.

“I was the eighth runner in a long relay, but I’ve dropped out of the race before I had a chance to pass the baton on to the next (generation),” he said.

Ultimately, he decided to bow out while he was still able to provide employees with severance packages. In that sense, he said, “I have no regrets.”

When the closure was announced, the restaurant was inundated with visitors and inquiries. Some diners even stood in line for three hours to say goodbye with one last meal.

“I have fond memories of this place. I used to dine here with my golf friends. It’s a pity that this local tradition will be lost,” said a 77-year-old man who lives in the neighborhood.

“The architecture was very elegant, very impressive,” recalled actress Chieko Baisho, 79, who played the role of Sakura in the Tora-san film. “I will miss Kawajin very much. I hope the building’s legacy will be preserved in some good way.”

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