Chef Tetsuya Saotome of Mikawa Zezankyo has been making tempura for 55 years. He is a well-known master and embodies the spirit of the shokunin. For some reason, I do not feel compelled to seek out whether Mikawa has the best tempura. I think that his restaurant and his food leave a honest feeling, one that still inspired me even a year after my first visit. Saotome-san has much in common with Jiro in their approach, and you can see them eating at each other's restaurant in this video. The tempura is in the traditional Edo style, but the restaurant truly has a feeling of warmth and simplicity. It is quite unique, decorated more like a house than a restaurant. The exterior has murals and flowers and the interior has a large cowboy hat-shaped fan above his tempura fryer.
When the reservation was made, the restaurant mentioned: “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart.” Although some people believe that the Japanese rely on empty politeness, I believe that Mikawa’s hospitality is particularly touching, even if he has a stern look while cooking. I read that he lives on the 4th floor of this house, something I did not know when I first went there, yet I had felt the feeling of entering his house. He is known as a master, but keeps his prices low. Even though he does not speak English, which I am certain must be uncomfortable for him, he allows customers to make a reservation through OpenTable, I assume as a sign that foreigners are truly welcome. While it is likely that they say this phrase to everyone that comes to their restaurant, in my opinion it does not diminish its purpose or impact. Oftentimes, you may notice that Japanese chefs wear the same tie every day, or they will serve the same dessert (yokan at Matsukawa, melon at Jiro). I think that this is a key difference between North Americans and Japanese people: the latter do not shy away from simply doing the same thing.
I find it so touching that someone who has made tempura for 55 years wants me to know that they are waiting for their visitors from the bottom of his heart. Of course, that is obvious to me as he already has other restaurants and does not need to keep working. The only logical explanation is that Saotome-san is happy to work and takes pleasure from making his customers happy.
I have not been to the "best" tempura restaurants: Takiya and Nanachome Kyoboshi. It is likely that they are “better” than Mikawa, but how do you assess better? They are 4 times the price and they use much more expensive ingredients. They may have thinner batter. But it does not bother me at all. Mikawa is authentic, old school, and delicious. I feel extremely happy to think back to my time at Mikawa. Seeking the “best” is not where happiness comes from in life.
I wished to discuss the phrase “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart” that Mikawa asked my concierge to convey to me, or the “Please come back” that Ishikawa told me at my first visit. Whether or not they are said to all of their guests truly does not detract from their meaning. Instead, it reinforces it. This is the core spirit of the tea ceremony: the guest and the host are equals.
This equality is crucial to the dining experience. In North America, people often say that the customer is the most important, and it is from this mindset that we seek to understand the increased customer focus in Japan. However, it is the opposite. In Japan, the guest and the host are equals. What the host hopes to receive (in consideration for his anticipation of the guest’s needs) are the appreciation of what the host has planned and offered, as well as questions to better understand the meaning behind the experience, and perhaps a suggestion or criticism. Criticism is actually welcome, as long as it is subtle and polite. Because my Japanese is not good enough to ask many questions other than “kore wa nan desuka – what is this?”, I take it upon myself to create the equality by giving a box of macarons to each chef I visit, while saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga – this is nothing, but please accept it”. I would suggest you do the same, to show your appreciation not only of the chef’s effort, but also your understanding of the equality inherent in the experience inspired by the tea ceremony. Although you may think that this will add a significant cost or burden on you, and while you will not get any special treatment for doing so (every customer is already treated in a special way), I believe it will allow you to access a deeper understanding of Japanese hospitality and culture.
You can learn about the impact of the tea ceremony on kaiseki by reading this article: Yoshinobu Sato & Mark E. Parry, “The influence of the Japanese tea ceremony on Japanese restaurant hospitality”, Journal of Consumer Marketing (2015) volume 32 number 7, pp 520-529.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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