TOKYO -- Ryotei restaurant Kawajin in Tokyo has joined the long list of dining establishments that have closed for good because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ryotei refers to a high-class restaurant with a traditional Japanese menu and luxurious service.
Opened in 1790, Kawajin had been a beloved culinary institution for more than 230 years. The restaurant's eighth-generation owner made the difficult decision to close at the end of January.
"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, as he looked up at the signboard bearing the restaurant's name a few days before it closed last month.
Kawajin opened as a boathouse inn serving carp and eels 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. Kawajin 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, near the Shibamata Taishakuten temple, also made a cameo in the first film of the "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" 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 restaurant became so popular that, at its height, it was serving 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 took the reins at the age of 37.
Everything changed under the pandemic. Gone were the steady streams of tourist buses. Day after day, the phone rang with customers calling to cancel their dinner reservations. Eventually, daily sales slipped to less than half what they were in the previous year.
Amamiya obtained loans that kept the lights on, but in December he decided to close for good, reasoning that the prospects for recovery were slim, and that he didn't feel he would be able to face his customers as before now that his mind was so preoccupied with financial concerns.
On Dec. 20, he lowered his head to a crowd 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 says he 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]." Ultimately, he decided to bow out while money remained to provide his employees with severance packages. In that sense, he adds, "I have no regrets."
When the impending closure was announced at the end of last year, the restaurant was inundated with visitors and inquiries. Some diners even lined up 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-playing 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. "I will miss [Kawajin] very much. I hope the building's legacy will be preserved in some good way."