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'Kaiseki' cuisine slips down Japan's post-pandemic menu

As restaurants close, acclaimed culinary tradition faces radical changes

One of the large dining rooms at Ukiyo, a ryotei, or high-end Japanese restaurant that also provides entertainment, in Niigata Prefecture. (Courtesy of Ukiyo)

TOKYO -- Hanasato, a high-end Japanese restaurant housed in a sprawling mansion surrounded by lush gardens, has been serving traditional multicourse kaiseki cuisine in the suburbs of Yokohama for decades. But on July 19, Hanasato welcomed diners for the last time, ending its 40-year history as a purveyor of traditional Japanese fine dining.

Hanasato's decision to close its doors follows in the footsteps of Tokyo Mimiu, a Japanese restaurant famous for its udon sukiyaki, which closed its six restaurants in the Japanese capital in May. Zuboraya, a restaurant which has been serving fugu in Osaka since 1920, will also shutter its two stores in September.

The three Japanese restaurants are among the earliest and most high-profile business victims of the coronavirus pandemic in Japan. But they are likely to be only the first of many. "I think there will be more closures from now on," says Kotaro Kashiwabara, chair of the Japan Gastronomy Association. "Everyone is saying that many restaurants that manage to survive through July won't make it after August" because of the slow recovery in business, Kashiwabara adds.

Japan has fared relatively well amid the spread of COVID-19, with the number of infections and deaths relatively low -- at 27,956 and 992, respectively, as of July 25 -- compared with regions such as the U.S. and Europe. Restrictions on social and commercial activities have also been looser than in many other parts of the world.

Nevertheless, more than a month after the Japanese government lifted a state of national emergency at the end of May, restaurants continue to suffer from a sharp drop in business amid a mood of jishuku, or self-restraint, that has settled over the country.

The entrance to Zeniya, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Kanazawa. (Courtesy of Zeniya)

Restaurant sales dropped 32.2% in May, following a 39.6% decline in April, according to the Japan Foodservice Association. In particular, high-end restaurants saw a 71.5% drop in sales in May. "Survival will be extremely difficult," says Makoto Oshima, owner of Ukiyo, a ryotei, or high-end Japanese restaurant that also provides entertainment, in Niigata Prefecture.

While the impact of jishuku is being felt across the board in the hospitality sector, there is concern that the damage wrought by COVID-19 could result in irreparable harm to restaurants serving Japanese cuisine, and even threaten the future of Japan's culinary culture.

A dinner party at Ukiyo in its heyday. (Courtesy of Ukiyo)

Depending on how the industry responds to this crisis, "we could lose what should be a very important national heritage," says Shinichiro Takagi, chef-proprietor of Zeniya, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Kanazawa.

The north entrance to Ukiyo. (Courtesy of Ukiyo)

Even before COVID-19 landed on Japan's shores, Japanese restaurants were hurting from a steady decline in customers. A survey conducted in 2018 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found that only 46% of respondents had visited a restaurant serving Japanese cuisine in the previous three years, even though the definition of "Japanese restaurant" included casual eateries serving curry rice and other comfort food.

The survey results point to a disturbing trend: While the rest of the world has come to enjoy Japanese cooking, the Japanese are increasingly shifting away from their traditional cuisine.

The sashimi course at Ukiyo. (Courtesy of Ukiyo)

Prominent chefs and others have been raising the alarm since 2013, when washoku, or traditional Japanese cooking, was registered by UNESCO as part of the world's intangible cultural heritage. The listing means washoku "is close to an endangered species," Yoshihiro Murata, chef-proprietor of Kikunoi, a prominent Japanese restaurant in Kyoto, said at the time.

With Japanese households choosing to eat bread more often than rice, restaurants have been left with a bigger role in passing on the traditions and culture of Japanese cooking. But traditional restaurants, in particular those which rely on enkai, or large group dinners featuring traditional performances, have suffered a relentless decline in business due to changing lifestyles and cultural norms.

Top: A private room at Zeniya. Bottom: The Takagi brothers prepare sashimi at the restaurant. (Courtesy of Zeniya)

"Even before [the coronavirus] I felt very strongly that we would have to change our way of doing business," says Oshima, who is also secretary-general of Hyakunen Ryotei Network, a group comprising 26 ryotei with a history of more than 100 years.

Corporate hospitality has declined after a prolonged economic slowdown and social changes, with young people increasingly viewing enkai with their bosses to be an encroachment on their personal time.

The health risks posed by large gatherings and the need for social distancing in the age of COVID-19 threaten to further undermine the ability of Japanese restaurants to act as preservers of Japan's culinary culture by forcing them to scale back their operations, if not close their doors.

Top: The wooden counter at Zeniya. Bottom: Three dishes from one of the restaurant's kaiseki courses. (Courtesy of Zeniya)

Tsujitome, a fine-dining Japanese restaurant in Tokyo's Akasaka neighborhood that has two Michelin stars, reopened in June but its main business of providing kaiseki cuisine for large tea ceremony gatherings has not returned. Although Tsujitome enjoyed strong demand for take-home meals offered during the lockdown, this hardly made up for lost restaurant and tea ceremony sales, says Ikuko Tsuji, a daughter of the current owner.

Takagi and others believe that ryotei and other large Japanese restaurants, which are already under pressure from changing lifestyles, will be the biggest victims of the coronavirus outbreak. If that happens, Japan will lose a crucial platform for passing on the skills and traditions of its culinary heritage, they warn.

In order to train young chefs "what is needed is not money or anything else, it is jobs," says Takagi. Adding to the concern is a decline in culinary students who want to learn Japanese cooking. The most popular course in culinary schools is pastry making, followed by Italian cooking, says Kashiwabara.

Top: A private room at Tsujitome, a two-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood. Bottom: A sashimi dish at Tsujitome. (Courtesy of Tsujitome)

The potential loss of skills is not just limited to Japanese cooking. Japanese restaurants support a broad base of sake brewers, local artisans, performers and other service providers who rely on their customers. But the sharp drop in business means that restaurants will not be able to buy as much from their favorite ceramicists, or hire workmen to spruce up fading paper screens. If customers do not return, geishas will be out of work and will not be going to their hairdressers or buying new kimonos.

Whether it is traditional cooking, Japanese dance, crafts or carpentry, "once traditional skills are lost it is very difficult to revive them," Takagi says.

It is not just traditional Japanese restaurants that are being forced to rethink their future strategy. The pandemic has deprived even sought-after Japanese restaurants serving innovative and internationally acclaimed cuisine of their main source of growth in recent years -- foreign tourists.

The highly popular lunch set sold at Tsujitome during the national emergency. (Courtesy of Tsujitome)

"Japan's restaurant industry has thrived in the past 10 years and there is only one reason for that -- inbound tourism," says Takagi. With the persistent decline in Japan's population, tourists are also the main hope for the future of many restaurants.

In the post-coronavirus age, restaurants that had catered mainly to foreign tourists and raised their prices sharply will now have to adjust their business models and price points to appeal to local diners as well, Takagi believes.

"We have to think not just about how to deal with the situation right in front of us but where we should head in the medium to long term," he adds. "It seems that we are suddenly being forced to do this as a result of the coronavirus."

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