• Shona McCarthy

I Ate Where Ryoma Sakamoto Ate: Memories of the Akebono Tei

When people visit southern Kyoto, they have a tendency to go straight to Kiyomizu Dera. They do this probably without realising that within a stone's throw of that spectacular visage are many other landmarks, possibly of greater significance and prestige, and with far fewer crowds. The reason they may not be aware of these locations is that many relate to Ryoma Sakamoto. Who is Ryoma Sakamoto? Possibly the most important person in Japanese history. And as you learn about the different places throughout Southern Kyoto where he frequented, you can come to understand why he was so vital.

Even though Sakamoto lived nearly 200 years ago, a restaurant he often ate and drank still stands, the Akebono Tei. The Japan Sakamoto lived in was not a unified international democracy as we know it to be now. It was still isolationist and divided by samurai clans who were constantly at war. It was also a time of great economic inequality. The Samurai lords often controlled the land, charging heavy rent to the peasants, who were often subsistence farmers. One of the things Ryoma Sakamoto achieved at the Akebono Tei was to negotiate with different factions. He was instrumental in forming truces that made the peaceful, prosperous Japan we know today possible... AND I GOT TO EAT THERE!!!

(Images I took of myself at the Akebono Tei.)

When I realised that I was standing in front of this place, looking at an image of Japan's great hero, I was overcome with excitement and joy. They proudly display an image of Sakamoto at the front of the restaurant.

But should you attempt to locate it yourself, I highly recommend asking people for help. I had a great deal of trouble finding it, since the streets around Kiyomizu Dera, while very beautiful, are snake-like tendrils running up and down the hill and covered in stairs. I visited wearing a vintage kimono outfit so that I could make the most of the day and take really great photos. I even wore wooden clogs. So it was all a little taxing even as it was absolutely delightful.

As an aside, and I'll probably reiterate this thought in other posts, but the idea that kimono must be restrictive is a myth. Many, if not most of the tourists who frequent the streets surrounding Kiyomizu Dera wear kimono and zori or geta footwear even though the town is so hilly. And I never saw anyone fall down the entire time I was there. But the difficulty of navigating the winding roads using Google maps created all the more anticipation in finding the restaurant. The courtyard at the front is beautifully maintained and decorated with a bench and a large parasol, probably to welcome new guests to sit and take photos as I did. Entering the restaurant, I was guided to a seat by the front window. However, the windows contained the original wooden lattices that protected windows in the days before glass was commonly available. It meant that I still had a great deal of privacy from passers by.

The chairs were of a design that seemed highly unconventional to me. They were wooden and mostly backless.

I sat in wonderment when the waitstaff gave me a cup of tea. I was enthralled, knowing that I was in Ryoma Sakamoto's tea house. He may have once sat in the exact same spot, sipping his tea in a gentlemanly fashion, discussing matters of state with important dignitaries. The restaurant isn't so well maintained on the inside, I'm sorry to report. This may be because the owners know that people will come, even if it looks a little shabby. Indeed, I would happily return again.

The food is a little on the pricey side. The menu has few options, but this is a good thing, since it means the kitchen staff can focus on quality. The meals are Japanese style sets, which as you can see in my photos, are usually presented in delightfully traditional lacquer wear and stoneware. The staff took my order. And the food didn't seem to take long to come. Maybe I felt that way because I was so excited to be there and happy to look around, taking photos. I was a little sad that my food didn't look exactly like the menu picture. I really wanted to try real Wagyu beef in Kyoto in the tataki style. Tataki is when the outer edge of the beef has been seared, but the inside is still raw. They cooked it through anyway, I suppose in the assumption that a tourist couldn't handle raw beef. But i didn't complain. It was delicious! Tender, buttery, umami. Far more delicious than any wagyu beef I ever had in Australia.

After I was finished eating and drinking, I vacated my seat and asked the staff where the bathroom was. They pointed me across the courtyard. I also noticed by the counter that there was a flight of stairs leading upwards. The staff told me a gift store awaited upstairs. So, i visited the bathroom first. It was very retro, even 70's style. But the floor was covered in what I desperately hope was water, since the end of one of my scarves fell in it. It didn't smell bad there. Rather, it had a strong scent of jasmine flowers. I'm not sure whether I feel good or bad about that experience. It was certainly a unique experience to be there and an opportunity to examine retro architectural features. I wonder if I was peeing in the same place where Ryoma Sakamoto peed.

When I re-entered the restaurant and headed upstairs, I found much more than just a gift store was up there.

(Photos taken by me in the upper floors of the Akebono Tei.)

From the windows in the upper floor, one can see beautiful views overlooking the architecture of the building. The gift store itself is full of local candies, or popular Japanese brands in special editions for the area. Then there are other stairs ascending higher into the building, where it is possible to see small clothing and accessories which seem to be made and/or designed by local people and are very high in quality. I wish someone could have been there to tell me more about the history of the place. Perhaps one day when my Japanese is better, I can go back and learn more. In any case, for me, getting to visit such a historical, prestigious place was incredibly invigorating. And it isn't even the only great thing to see in the area! There are other amazing and beautiful things too! I will write about those in future.

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