My taxi ride is getting longer, going deeper into nondescript residential neighbourhood. I pass by some oppressive modernist gymnasiums of 1960 Tokyo Olympics era … and then it keeps going again. Finally I’m dropped off curb side in front of a gated residence (again nondescript) and I wonder “is this going to be another sit and eat what I’ll give you” in an underwhelmingly minimalist restaurant. I walk up the steps through a small courtyard and greeted by Sugimoto-san, in perfectly bleached chef’s robe with a mild, forced smile.
I’m here on a field trip of sorts to prepare for our upcoming Asia Pacific Owners Retreat. I’m getting together a dozen or so hotel owners in Tokyo for two days of meetings and good-old camaraderie. I want to treat them to some high quality restaurants which are not overly exposed (read not-Jiro) and Yakumo Saryo was referred to me by my friend Masa who is accompanying me. Masa and Sugimoto-san exchange quick, polite pleasantries and then we’re whisked around the tea room, through the corridors and the two small dining spaces. Along the way we are introduced design elements from flooring to traditional hanging ornaments to custom built case goods. Main reason we are here is because Yakumo Saryo is owned by Shinichiro Ogata, creator of Simplicity – a minimalist objects brand – and better known abroad for his Aesop retail shops and Andaz Tokyo design. His proportioned layout, attention to detail and natural texture and tones are evident in all corners we pass by. We are then seated in the communal dining table close to the kitchen across from the sunlit, sunken dining area with smaller tables. As I slide into my seat gently pushed in place by Sugimoto-san, I notice that our extra long table is one giant slab of Japanese cypress wood, the ones usually seen in upscale sushi counters – just larger. I brush my palm against the wood to feel the warmth of the surface and smooth yet impeccably tactile wood grain. Impossible lightness sets in. I feel at home.
I look around and observe. And observe you must… nothing jumps out but everything seems to be subtly in perfect place. A staff at far end of our table is shaving off slices of sashimi and rolling them into three equidistant placements. He is also in pearly white uniform, almost looks like freshly laundered high school baseball kit (his head is shaved). Behind him on the minimalist kitchen counter is a singular pot, something gently simmering and steaming. Toward the end of the meal my rice come from that pot.
I can’t remember the exact servings in our course lunch. I was distracted. Sufficiently mesmerized by the entire experience which all fell into place in perfect harmony. Quality of the ingredients of course, accompanying plates and glassware (our meal was pared by teas) and attentive and friendly service. I just remember it was beautiful.
Occasionally I see testament to those places where it is borne out of singular philosophy, not of our own to comprehend but for the proprietor to profess.
It’s Tuesday lunch hour and the dining room is surprisingly sparse for such an amazing establishment. Sugimoto-san explains they manage reservations so not to fill the restaurant. I tell him I thought I’m reasonably well-informed of good restaurants in Tokyo but I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of Yakumo Saryo. He replies with a polite and awkward smile – ‘we don’t invite journalists… and we never advertised’.
After lunch we are escorted across the hallway back to the team room (called Sabo Tea House). An extra large square table with a view out to the Japanese garden dominates the sparse room. On the opposite side are counter seats separating the room from a small kitchen where tea is prepared. Darker hues permeate throughout this room. Flooring is tar grey concrete, imprinted with tatami patterns. We watch the tea ceremony in silence and are each served frothy matcha. I pick up the bowl in my palms and take a sip. It’s delicious so I unconsciously blurt out some exclamation. Staff’s face lightens up and says something in Japanese. Masa smiling, translates “it is proper manners to complement the person who created tea”. I’ve done something right today.
Ever since Kevin Costner recited that harrowing call, I have been a faithful believer of ‘If you build it, They will come’. Visionaries don’t create to please customers, much less to make profit. True makers make because… well, they know what they want to create. Occasionally I see testament to those places where it is borne out of singular philosophy, not of our own to comprehend but for the proprietor to profess. A place so beautiful because the creator is faithful to what he believes in. It is steadfast yet not stubborn. Yakumo Saryo is that place of singular vision and, I daresay, perfection.
Breakfast – starts 9am, traditional Japanese breakfast Y3,200
Lunch – starts 12pm, course lunch Y8,000, Y12,000
Dinner – starts 7pm, course menu Y25,000
Sabo Tea House – 9am to 5pm