A Japanese Dinner by Unknown
THE dinner was given at the Koyokan, a club-house
in the city of Tokio, so called from
the abundance of maple trees by which it is surrounded;
kōyō meaning the red maple leaves of
autumn, and kan meaning house.
We took off our shoes at the door, and those
who had not been sufficiently provident to bring
with them a pair of wool slippers, entered in their
We were at once greeted by our host and hostess.
Japanese ladies do not often act the hostess
at a dinner-party, but usually remain in the background.
Our friend, however, having travelled considerably
in America and Europe, was advanced
in his ideas, and gave his wife a wife's place.
Several beautiful Japanese girls were in waiting
who at once conducted us to a spacious dining-room
on the second floor.
Going out on the long piazza adjoining, we saw
in the distance the bay with its calm blue waters
and white-winged boats; and to the right Mount
Fuji, her peerless head losing itself in ambient
clouds; while at our feet lay a bewildering maze
of dwelling houses, shops, and temples.
The floor of the porch was polished smooth as
marble, and the patterns in the lattice work were
graceful combinations of maple leaves.
As we re-entered the dining-room our first impression
was that of a vast empty apartment. The
only visible signs of preparation for our coming
were the cushions upon which we were to sit, and the
hibachi or fire bowls, over which we were to toast
our fingers. We sat down upon the mats, trying
hard to fold our limbs under us à la Japanese, but
our attempts were for the most part very awkward.
Then came some introductions. Our host had
invited two friends to meet us, Mr. and Mrs.
Suyita. Mr. Suyita, being a Japanese of the old
school and very ceremonious, bowed low, so low
that his honorable nose quite kissed the floor; and
remembering that when we are in Turkey we must
do as the Turkeys do, we endeavored to salute him
in the same formal manner.
At length recovering our equilibrium we resumed
our old position on the mats, tried to look
comfortable, and began to study the details of our
surroundings. The cushions upon which we sat
were covered with beautiful dark-blue crêpe relieved
here and there by branches of maple leaves,
the rich October coloring making a striking but
exquisite contrast with the more sombre background.
The mats were marvellously fine, and so
clean that one might suppose our party the first
that had ever assembled there.
At one end of the room just above the toko-noma,
or raised platform on which all the ornaments
of the room are placed, was a kakemono, or picture
scroll, the work of a celebrated painter named
Isanenobu, and very old. On this platform stood
a large vase of brown wicker work so wondrously
fine that at a little distance it appeared like an
elegant bronze. In this vase were branches of
flowering plum and cherry arranged as only Japanese
know how to arrange flowers. The ceilings
were panels of cryptomeria, and without either
paint or varnish, were beautiful enough for a
This immense room was divided by sliding doors
into three apartments. The doors were covered
with paper. Here, too, was the prevailing pattern,
for over the rich brown background of the paper
were maple-leaf designs in gold and silver, and
above the doors were paintings of maple branches
with foliage of scarlet, maroon, and every shade of
green. On the opposite side of the room was another
raised platform. Here also were two large
vases, and in them branches of flowering shrubs,
some of which were covered with lichens. A
bronze ornament of rare workmanship stood between,
for which many a seeker of curiosities
would give hundreds of dollars.
Soon beautiful serving-maids entered and placed
in front of us trays on which were tea and sweetmeats.
In Japan the dessert comes first. The
trays were ornamented with carvings of maple
leaves, the tea-cups were painted in the same design,
and the cakes themselves were in the shape
of maple leaves, with tints as glowing, and shading
almost as delicate as though painted by the early
frosts of autumn. We ate some of the cakes and
put some in our pockets to carry home. It is etiquette
in Japan to take away a little of the confectionery,
and paper is often provided by the
hostess in which to wrap it. The native guests
put their packages in their sleeves, but our sleeves
were not sufficiently capacious to be utilized in
this way. I have been told that at a foreign dinner
given to General Grant in Japan, some of the
most dignified officials, in obedience to this custom,
put bread and cake, and even butter and
jelly, into their sleeves to take home.
After our first course came a long interval during
which we played games and amused ourselves
in various ways. At the end of this time dinner
was announced. Once more we took our places
on the cushions and silently waited, wondering
what would happen next. Soon the charming
waiters again appeared and placed on the floor in
front of each visitor a beautiful gold lacquer tray,
on which were a covered bowl of fish soup, and a
tiny cup of sake. Sake is a light wine distilled
from rice, and is of about the strength of table
sherry. A paper bag containing a pair of chopsticks
also rested upon the tray; and taking the
chopsticks out, we uncovered our soup and began
to look around to see how our Japanese friends
were eating theirs. We shyly watched them for a
moment. It looked easy; we were sure we could
do it, and confidently attempted to take up some
of the floating morsels of fish; but no sooner did
we touch them, than they coyly floated off to the
other side of the bowl. We tried again, and again
we failed; and once again, but with no better success.
At last our perseverance was partially rewarded,
and with a veni-vidi-vici air we conveyed a
few solid fragments to our mouths, drank a little
of the soup, and then covering our bowl, as we saw
others do, we waited for something else to happen.
In the meantime large china vessels of hot water
had been brought in and our host kindly showed
us their use. Emptying his sake cup, he rinsed
it in the hot water, and then re-filling it with wine,
presented it to a friend who emptied his cup,
rinsed and re-filled it in the same way, and gave it
in exchange for the one he received.
The next course consisted of fish, cakes made
of chestnuts, and yams; the third, of raw fish with
a very pungent sauce; the fourth, of another kind
of fish and ginger root. After this we were favored
with music on the ningenkin. This is a harp-like
instrument giving forth a low weird sound,
utterly unlike anything I have ever heard called
music. The fifth course consisted of fish, ginger
root, and "nori," a kind of seaweed.
After this we had more music, this time on the
koto. The koto is also something like a harp in
appearance. The performer always wears curious
ivory thimble-like arrangements on the tips of
her fingers, and to my uneducated ear, the so-called
music is merely a noise which any one could make.
We were next favored with singing. This, too,
was low and plaintive, bearing about the same resemblance
to the singing of a European that the
cornstalk fiddle of a country schoolboy bears to
the rich mellow tones of a choice violin. This
same singing, however, is regarded as a great accomplishment
in Japan. The singer on this occasion
was a rare type of Japanese beauty, fair as a
lily, with hands and feet so delicate and shapely
that she was almost an object of envy. Her coiffure,
like the coiffures of all Japanese women, was
fearfully and wonderfully made. Her dress was
of the richest crêpe, quite long and very narrow,
opening in front to display a gorgeous petticoat,
and with square flowing sleeves that reached almost
to the floor. Her obi, or girdle, was brocade
stiff with elegance, and probably cost more than
all the rest of the costume. The mysteries of the
voluminous knot in which it was tied at the back
I will not pretend to unravel. Her face and
neck were powdered to ghostly whiteness, and her
lips painted a bright coral; altogether she looked
just like a picture, not like a real woman at all.
After this came another course consisting of
fowl and fish stewed together in some incomprehensible
way. There was also an entree of pickled
fish. The eighth course consisted of fish and
a vegetable similar to asparagus; the ninth of
rice and pickled daikon. Rice is the staple dish,
and, according to Japanese custom, is served last.
The daikon is a vegetable somewhat resembling a
radish. It grows to an enormous size. Indeed it
is a common saying among vegetable-growers that
one daikon grown in the province of Owari, takes
two men to carry it, and that two Satsuma turnips
make a load for a pony. This sounds somewhat
incredible, and yet it is stated for a fact that a
daikon was not long ago presented to the emperor
which measured over six feet in girth. These
monster turnips are generally sound to the core;
and to the Japanese they are an exceedingly delicate
and palatable aliment; with us the odor of
them alone is sufficient to condemn them.
Last of all came tea which was served in the
rice bowls without washing them. The dinner
lasted four hours; and when at the close we attempted
to rise from the mats, our limbs were so
stiff from sitting so long in this uncomfortable
position that we could hardly move.
We put on our shoes soon after, and were then
conducted round the grounds. In the same enclosure
was a summer rest-house for the Mikado.
We looked inside for the shōji, or sliding doors,
were all open, and we could see the whole length
of the house. Here, as in all Japanese houses,
the mats were the only furniture. They were
beautifully fine, and the rooms though empty were
After walking about for a little while we went
through a long calisthenic exercise of bows, and
with warmest thanks to our kind host and hostess,
stowed ourselves away in jinrikishas, and rode off
to our homes.
This of course is not a description of an ordinary
dinner in Japan. Indeed it was a very extraordinary
one given in honor of a party of Americans about to return to the United States.
The common people dine with very little formality. Bread, beef, milk and butter
are unknown to them. They live principally on rice, fish, and vegetables, served
in very simple fashion; and they eat so rapidly that dyspepsia is even more
common in Japan than in America.