Although neon signs in their windows reassure us that they are open for business, the restaurants in Honolulu—only able to offer food for take-out—are now ominously quiet. In normal times, restaurants offer us much more than merely something to eat and drink. They also provide a sense of community and comfort.
Grand Series of Famous Tea Houses of Edo, a series of prints designed by Utagawa Hiroshige, reminds me of how much I miss restaurants. Through this series, Hiroshige drew attention to some of the finest dining establishments in Japan during the 19th century. Yaozen (literally, “vegetable joy”) was located in the Asakusa district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). When it originally began in the 16th century, Yaozen was a grocery store, but in 1803, the proprietor, Kuriyama Zenshirō (1768–1839), decided to use his produce to create meals for the many Buddhist monks residing in his neighborhood. Yaozen soon became a hotspot frequented by famous artists, and it appeared in prints and tourist guides throughout the Edo period (1615–1868). In the wake of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, Yaozen sadly shut the doors of its restaurant and is now known exclusively as a resource for information about early modern Japanese cuisine.
Hiroshige’s Yaozen is irresistible. The spacious, tastefully decorated dining area commands a splendid view of Mount Fuji and the surrounding countryside. The patrons shown here—a group of poets who specialized in humorous verse (kyōka)—are engaged in conversation, while a waitress (lower left) prepares their food.
As for the dishes on Yaozen’s menu, if you’re interested in knowing how they tasted, a few of the recipes are listed on Yaozen’s website.
Bon appétit or, as we say in Japanese, itadakimasu!
– Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese Art
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
Yaozen Restaurant at Sanya
From the series Grand Series of Famous Tea Houses of Edo
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1838–1840
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (23394)