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East Meets West at This Historic Nagasaki Eatery

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The main dining room in Kagetsu, a historic restaurant in Nagasaki that was favorited by Ryouma Sakamoto, the famous Samurai who unified Japan into the transition of the Meiji Era. Photos by Ari Beser

NAGASAKI, Japan– Kagetsu, a ryoutei [traditional Japanese restaurant] meaning “Flower in the Moonlight,” is the very definition of what Nagasaki means. Dutch and Chinese influences etched into the design of the establishment reflect the impact these countries have left on the only city in Japan where foreigners were allowed to enter during the period of isolation.

Kagetsu is steeped in history—with scars from the drunken sword fight of the famous samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, a garden that has stayed the same for centuries,  and a stunning display of Nagasaki’s unique “shippoku” cuisine that can be eaten in a traditional tatami hall in the floor above the first western-style room built in a Japan.

This “western-style room” is ornamented with red-and-black tile floor, an old-style Dutch lantern, and Chinese lattice-pattern windows—a contrast from the usual stark tatami mat style that is indicative of Japan. According to the book, Tea of the Sages, the art of sencha Kagetsu’s western room called “Harusame no ma” [Spring rain room in Japanese] was “constructed in 1642 and restored during the 1870s. A hybrid western-Chinese aesthetic dominated this room furnished with tables and chairs, a novelty in Japan but common to both Chinese and western domestic interiors.”

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Harusame no ma, or The Room of Spring Rain, is the oldest known western-style room in Japan, with influences from China and Holland, overlooking the Japanese Garden.

In the 1600s the Maruyama district, where Kagetsu is located, was officially the designated red-light district, the only city in Japan foreign merchants were allowed to enter in the notoriously isolated country. Within this district, Kagetsu, then a tea house, was opened within the Hiketaya brothel. In 1960 Kagetsu was recognized by Nagasaki Prefecture as a historical landmark, and opened as the restaurant it is today.

While the surrounding neighborhoods have modernized, evolved over time, or rebuilt from the destruction of the atomic bombing in 1945, Kagetsu has physically stayed the same. The historic ryoutei was spared destruction from the bomb’s blast due to its opportune location behind a hillside; much of Nagasaki is hill-covered, so the level of damage was dependent on a building’s location and exposure to the blinding flash and deafening shockwave.

Now, Kagetsu remains as the quintessential location to eat Nagasaki’s shippoku cuisine, culinary treat that reflects Nagasaki’s multicultural identity. Since the city was the historic entrance to Japan, a notoriously closed off country at the time, Nagasaki cuisine reflects the influx of flour and sugar that was rarely found in the rest of the country at that time. Dishes influenced by the cuisine of the Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese are served at a round table. In contrast to the famous Kaiseki cuisine of Kyoto—one dish at a time—Shippoku’s courses are family style, served in courses of multiple dishes at once, each a representation of the various landscapes to which the ingredients originated.

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The first course in the shippoku meal served in Kagetsu, with ohire soup waiting to be opened, and various cuts of sashimi, sweet black beans and a chines-inspired duck dish.

A Shippoku meal is meant to both begin and end with soup, with the feast of dishes in between served on a vermillion table. The server welcomes the guest to “Help yourself to the ohire [the special fin soup traditionally used to start the meal]!” At this point the host will make some welcome remarks — the patron’s toast with the soup instead of alcohol — and the feast begins. It usually ends with a sweet red adzuki bean soup with chewy mochi riceballs, a full stomach, and a new appreciation for the crossroads of culture, and cuisine.

Ari M. Beser  is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.  Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.