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post : 2019.06.24 23:00
The history of the entertainment district of Tsuji in Naha City extends all the way back to the period of King Sho Tei, the 11th king of the Second Sho Dynasty, who ruled the islands of Okinawa when it was the Kingdom of Ryukyu. In 1672, Tsuji and Nakashima were established, and together with Watanji, they became the three major entertainment districts on the island. In 1908, Nakashima and Watanji merged with Tsuji, and the Tsuji district welcomed people from the political and educational fields, and various other professions, and became the center of sophisticated entertainment and banquets. However, in 1944, in what is locally known as the 10/10 Air Raid, Tsuji was completely destroyed and its 270 years of history came to a close.
[Photo Courtesy of Ryotei Naha]
In post war Okinawa, Tsuji once again revived as an entertainment district with numerous Ryotei or Japanese restaurants lining the streets, offering meals and Ryukyuan performance arts. Well-known individuals from various backgrounds came nightly to be entertained. Among the establishments, Ryotei Matsunoshita, Ryotei Sama, and Ryotei Naha were known throughout as the three great establishments. Then, with the passing of the time came its ups and downs, and today, the only establishment still in operation among the three best is Ryotei Naha.
As you pass through the gates of Ryotei Naha, colored cheerfully by the blooming bougainvillea, the sweet scent of night jasmine floats in the air, heightening the anticipation of a night at the Ryotei.
Situated at one corner of the Tsuji area, Ryotei Naha is a long standing restaurant where the locals gather to celebrate Tushibi or birthdays and for other special occasions.
Mr. Anmei Uezu, the CEO of Ryotei Naha, at the entrance hall. Asking Mr. Uezu about the history of Tsuji is another way to enjoy Ryotei Naha.
When I asked, “What’s the difference between Ryotei Naha and the Ryotei establishments found in mainland Japan?”
The response I got from Mr. Uezu, the CEO was, “Unlike the Ryotei in mainland Japan, we don’t have a garden. Since we are fortunate to have a large clientele, we opted to make more rooms to entertain our guests rather than create a garden. The biggest difference is that we’re able to accommodate hundreds of guest. We can welcome numerous groups at one time.”
As he says, there are 35 private rooms to entertain guests at Ryotei Naha. The biggest room can accommodate up to 300 people, and the maximum capacity of the whole establishment is a whopping 1000 guests.
Each of the private rooms are decorated with varying tastes, and the furnishings are all different. [Photo Courtesy of Ryotei Naha]
Mayumi Shima, the manager, kindly showed me around the establishment and some of the rooms which are all tatami rooms. With steps here and there, the building has a complicated layout. As we walked, we passed by dancers dressed in beautiful Ryukyuan costumes, and kimono-clad servers that busily carried trays of food for the guests. The makeup of the building and the electric feel in the establishment reminded me of the bath house that was depicted in the Studio Ghibli movie, Spirited Away.
There are private rooms with stages, and they’re able to ready the rooms with tables and chairs upon request. Private tatami rooms are great for both adults and children to relax and enjoy in comfort. [Photo Courtesy of Ryotei Naha]
Tunda-Bun Tray shown at the top left is a tray with traditional cuisine that was served at the royal court in the Ryukyu Kingdom. Course meals with the Tunda-Bun is a popular selection at the Ryotei. [Photo Courtesy of Ryotei Naha]
Guests are served with course meals at Ryotei Naha. In the course, there are dishes like Mimiga (pork ears), Shima Rakkyo (local shallots), Mozuku Seaweed in Vinegar, and Jimami Peanut Tofu as appetizers, and more familiar Ryukyuan dishes like Lobster with Sea Urchin Sauce, Kubu Irichi or stir-fried seaweed, Rafute braised pork, Jushee seasoned rice, Nakami pork innards soup and others. Course meals are a wonderful way to enjoy various dishes. There’s a lot of food, too, so you’ll be full and satisfied.
“It’s a very basic thing, but we make sure to serve our hot dishes while they’re warm and delicious. We offer dishes enjoyed in Ryukyu in various styles of court cuisine, home cooking, and Japanese style dishes. We hope our guests will enjoy the special care in our wide variety of arrangements. I’ve been told that Ryotei Naha was where the lobster baked with sea urchin sauce originated. We serve this lobster dish in each of our courses that we offer,” Mr. Uezu says with a proud smile. Of course, being a lobster lover myself, I couldn’t help but respond with a smile, too.
[Photo Courtesy of Ryotei Naha]
As you enjoy the wonderful Ryukyuan cuisine, you’ll be entertained with Ryukyu Buyo (Ryubu) or traditional Ryukyuan dance.
“Because of our proud history, we have Ryubu performances that you can enjoy only at Ryotei Naha. Unlike other establishments, we don’t set a specific time for the performances, but we time it at just the right time for each of our guest groups,” says Shima-san, the manager. (*Note: Please be sure to ask for the Ryubu performance separately when you make your reservation.) Enjoying a course meal as you enjoy the dance performances will make you feel like royalty.
“Our dancers are very conscious and ambitious about honing their skills. None of them are here to simply dance. We insist that the dancers present a performance that will truly move our guests,” explained Mr. Uezu. It was clear through his words that the pride he feels as he continues to preserve the history of the Ryotei, is the same pride that he asks from the dancers.
“At Ryotei Naha, we’re offering Ryukyuan cuisine and performance art, so in other words, the culture of Ryukyu is our business. We hope for people to learn about the wonderful culture of Ryukyu. At the same time, I want to change the perception that people may have about Tsuji,” says Mr. Uezu, and he continued to talk about the history of Tsuji.
“The area of Tsuji that was established during the reign of King Sho Tei was a town that was made only by women. Tsuji was once a very rare and special place, a town that was made up of only women. The ladies of Tsuji didn’t just entertain guests and perform, but they cooked, washed, sewed and even tended to the domesticated pigs. They were able to do everything that life demanded. These women were also well-educated and well-cultured, and that’s why they were able to offer the best hospitality for their clients. For these women, the most important things were honor, kindness, and gratitude.”
“Especially noteworthy is that there was order here in Tsuji, and the women had class and dignity. It is believed that the women of Tsuji were united because they were originally well-educated women that tended to royal duties at Shurijo Castle. The women who served at the castle came to Tsuji and became Anma, or mothers of the teahouses. That theory makes sense, because during that period, Tofuyo and Rafute and other fine dishes were unknown to the commoners. It’s believed that the women of Tsuji introduced such court cuisine to the people. And from Tsuji, the unique cultures of hospitality, social relationships, performance arts, etiquette, hair arrangements, costumes, and cuisine were born.”
“Some people may have the perception that Tsuji was a Yukaku, or a red-light district where women simply engaged in prostitution. That’s not what Tsuji was about. Unlike Yoshiwara, there were no black walls that surrounded the Tsuji district, and no male guards stood at the gates. Tsuji was a social entertainment area where people came to enjoy meals and performance arts. It’s not common knowledge, but the women of Tsuji paid large amounts of taxes and supported the social framework. I want people to learn more about Tsuji and change the false image that they may have. I feel that it’s my mission in life.”
Although very calm and warm, Mr. Uezu spoke passionately about his feelings on Tsuji, and a great sense of responsibility could be sensed through his words that expressed strong feelings and beliefs.
As he spoke, he repeated the words, honor, kindness and gratitude, the most important things for the women of Tsuji. He said that the founder of Ryotei Naha, Fumi Uezu was no different and put honor, kindness and gratitude first before anything else. It was clear that this was passed down to Mr. Uezu, the second generation in running the establishment.
Okinawan folk music performances are one of the charms of Ryotei Naha. For those of you who want to enjoy more, head on over to a sister establishment called Mr. Mike which is only about half a minute away on foot from Ryotei Naha.
The traditional atmosphere at Ryotei Naha was created through its history that expands across half a century. As you enjoy your time here, you can picture the former, glamorous entertainment district of Tsuji. I felt that this was so because it seemed every single person associated with Ryotei Naha understood and carried on the feelings and intentions of Mr. Uezu. I saw and felt it in every corner of the establishment. As long as the same principles of honor, kindness and gratitude of the women of Tsuji remain alive, Ryotei Naha will continue to shine and fascinate all who walk through its gates.
Address: 2-2-11 Tsuji, Naha City, Okinawa
Hours: 18:00 to 22:00
Telephone: 098-868-5577 (Reservations accepted from 10:00 to 20:00)
Open Year Round
*You can enjoy dressing up and having your meals wearing Ryukyuan costumes. Call for details.
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Mika Asaka