Innkeeper Sakamoto Shin’ichirō on the Art of Simple Luxury
At his tranquil, secluded inn near the northern tip of the Noto Peninsula, Sakamoto Shin’ichirō has achieved something akin to the Zen of farm-to-table cooking, serving up beautifully simple, rustic fare that coaxes every ounce of goodness from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. The legendary innkeeper speaks with candor and humor of the years of struggle that went into this achievement.
Innkeeper and owner, Yuyado Sakamoto. Born in 1954 in Ishikawa Prefecture. In 1974, assumed ownership of the family-operated Sakamoto Inn in Suzu and reopened it as Yuyado Sakamoto.
Step through the front door of Yuyado Sakamoto and you are immediately greeted by ... silence. The quiet can be disconcerting to a traveler accustomed to the scrupulous pampering typical of Japanese-style inns (ryokan).
SAKAMOTO SHIN’ICHIRŌ We don’t give out souvenirs. We don’t have maids standing by to greet the guests at the door. The rooster crows and wakes everyone up in the morning. I guess we’re just not scrupulous pamperers.
It all began when my father decided to buy a small health lodge that made use of the mineral spring here. The springs have long been known for their healing properties; the locals used to collect the water that bubbled up from the paths through the rice paddies and heat it for their baths. When my little sister was a year old, my parents brought her to a spa here called Hiroya no Yu for her skin condition. As my father told it, when he complimented the owner on the water, the owner said, “If you like it so much, I’ll sell it to you.” And that’s how my father ended up opening a ryokan.
It wasn’t much of an inn, just a two-story wooden storehouse that they had relocated from the grounds of an old elementary school. After my father died, my mother did her best to make ends meet and keep the business going, but it was an uphill battle. I was just twenty when I agreed to take it over. That was forty-four years ago.
SAKAMOTO People ask me how old the building is. A century? More? In fact, I had the inn rebuilt from scratch thirty years ago. I think it’s the black lacquer rubbed into the wooden posts and floor planks that gives it that feeling of age. People think that must be a feature of the region’s architecture, given the proximity of Wajima [famous for lacquerware], but it’s actually quite unusual.
When I decided to have the inn rebuilt, I had a particular architect in mind: Takagi Shinji, who operates out of Wajima. Back when I was younger, I was spending the day in Wajima when I came upon a gorgeous inn [resembling a traditional Japanese farmhouse], including an unfloored doma adjoining the formal entryway. The use of lacquer-rubbed wood was striking. When I inquired, I was told it had been designed by a local architect named Takagi. So, I went straight to his office and asked him to lend me the money to spend the night at the inn. He must have been gobsmacked, but I was so carried away, he just said, “Okay,” and lent me the money. I knew right there and then that Takagi was the person I would eventually ask to rebuild my own inn.
Sakamoto was still in his twenties when he asked Takagi to redesign the inn. It was four and a half years before the architect finally agreed.
SAKAMOTO Takagi has a policy of working very closely with the facility's owner. We spent a lot of time together—in the kitchen, on the road, talking late into the night.
He gave me five tasks that he said I had to complete before he would start work. The first was to write up a description of the area’s flora and fauna. The second was to provide an aerial photo of the site. The third was to research the traditional festivals held in the area. The fourth was to find a house that looked beautiful against a snow-covered winter landscape.
The fifth was the one I had trouble completing. That was to find myself a wife. Eventually he gave up and built me my inn anyway.
Fool that I was, I decided I wanted to have the smallest inn in Japan. So, I replaced our seven-room inn with a three-room lodging.
It was only later that Sakamoto's soulmate, Mihoko, appeared on the scene. At a time when large, luxurious hot-spring inns were all the rage, she shared Sakamoto's taste for rustic simplicity and fell in love with the area. She came up frequently from Osaka, and the two found that their sensibilities meshed perfectly.
SAKAMOTO It wasn’t really my intention to take over the inn. When I was younger, I had dreamed of becoming a traditional Japanese confectioner.
In my third year of high school, I was using the trampoline after school when I landed badly and fractured a vertebra in my neck. I was lucky to survive the injury. After two years in the hospital, I was finally able to go back to school, but I remained partially paralyzed.
Food for the Soul
Food was one of the things that kept Sakamoto on track through multiple tragedies and setbacks.
SAKAMOTO I’ve always loved good food. I inherited that from my father. During that time in the hospital, almost all I thought about was food. I remember lying there in bed during winter, barely able to move, and watching some fat sparrows perched on the naked branches outside my window. And I was thinking, “Boy, those look yummy!”
My father was a fine cook. But he kept the really good bits for himself instead of sharing them with his kids. I remember once he said to us, “Today, I’m going to make you something scrumptious.” It was this tender-chewy thing, sliced thin and served with a sweet and sour miso sauce, and it was really delicious. I found out later that it was the head of an octopus, the part most people throw away. I think that’s something I learned by osmosis—how to cook up tasty dishes from things that would normally go in the trash.
The December after Sakamoto was hospitalized with a spinal injury, his father died unexpectedly on his way home from the hospital. The inn began to struggle. When Sakamoto graduated from high school, his mother asked him to help out with the business, but he had no taste for it. After being rejected from art school, he resolved to make his way as a culinary professional, whatever the obstacles.
SAKAMOTO I went to Kanazawa, hoping to learn the trade at one of the city’s top-drawer Japanese-style restaurants. They all turned me down flat. One employer came right out and told me, “We don’t hire the handicapped.” Still, I had no intention of giving up.
Eventually, the grand chef of a historic hotel in Kanazawa agreed to give me a chance. He had just started a chain of delicatessens specializing in French takeout food. It wasn’t Japanese cuisine, but even so, I jumped at the chance to get some professional experience under my belt.
I didn’t receive any special treatment. I wanted to pull my own weight and not slow things down, so I learned the steps for each one of the chef’s dishes backwards and forwards and took on every menial kitchen task, putting in twelve hours a day. I saw it as a valuable apprenticeship more than a job. When I left after a year, I returned my last paycheck as a gesture of thanks. I got a letter from the grand chef saying, “Good luck. Follow your dreams.” He had enclosed twice my usual pay in the envelope.
Sakamoto's initiation was not over yet. He made his way to Gesshinji, a Zen temple near Kyoto, hoping to study at the feet of Abbess Murase Myōdōni, who had earned a nationwide reputation for her vegetarian Buddhist cuisine (shōjin ryori). At the age of 39, Myōdōni had been in a car accident that had left the right side of her body paralyzed.
SAKAMOTO I was a great admirer of the abbess’s nimono [simmered dishes]. I showed up unannounced at the temple on a cold day in December and waited two hours for someone to let me in. In a plug for sympathy, I told her my sad story about being partially paralyzed and losing my father in the same year. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “You’re a wallower!” she said. “I can’t teach someone who thinks that one plus one equals zero.” Saw right through me. She was awesome.
About 20 years later, Myōdōni let Sakamoto into her kitchen to observe operations from early morning until the end of lunch service. What he learned during that time helped lay the foundation for the trademark simmered dishes that discerning diners travel many miles to taste.
SAKAMOTO Next, I went to Kamakura to meet Tatsumi Yoshiko, the renowned cooking maven. “Please, just let me watch for one day!” I begged. Really, I was such a pain in the neck. She said, “You can’t learn anything in a day or two. Why don’t you stick around for a while?” She let me stay on in the capacity of household cook, preparing meals for the family. I learned a huge amount that way.
For example, it’s our custom to prepare buri [mature yellowtail] simmered with daikon radish every year on New Year’s eve. People are always amazed at how thick I cut the radish. With daikon that big and thick, you can’t take any shortcuts. To infuse the daikon with all the flavor of the broth, I simmer it and then let it cool and then simmer it again. I keep that up for three days. You have to be willing to embrace time with this kind of cooking.
By the way, do you know how to avoid a fishy smell in buri daikon? Most people scald the fish in boiling water. But Tatsumi-sensei pioneered the technique of washing the raw fish and then searing it before simmering. It turns out you can only get rid of the fishy smell by raising the temperature above 100 degrees. Partially carbonizing the surface also helps counteract the fishiness. Tatsumi-sensei devoted her career to sharing such valuable tips and techniques.
Sakamoto's thirst for knowledge knew no boundaries. In 1988 he spent six months traveling around Andalusia to learn about Spanish food culture. Later, he placed himself under the tutelage of retired architect Shimizu Masahiro, designer of such famed Japanese inns as Atami's Hōrai, to learn what makes a lodging truly luxurious.
SAKAMOTO Shimizu-sensei and his wife were among my first guests when I opened the inn, and they came fairly often. They were pretty outspoken people. Early on, Shimizu-sensei complained about the bedding, comparing the futon to something one might find in a prostitute’s room. “Come visit us sometime,” he said, “and we’ll teach you a thing or two about hospitality.”
The Shimizus lived in a very simple, zinc-roofed house, but the inside was spotlessly clean, without any lived-in smell. Their futon were so comfortable, I slept like a baby! I asked where they bought their futon, and when they told me, I went straight to the shop, an old Kyoto establishment. I found out that a single futon there would set me back about 1.5 million yen. In any case, Shimizu-sensei and his wife taught me the true meaning of luxury.
Sakamoto's mentors were established masters of their craft with outsized personalities. Eager to learn from them yet determined to equal or even outdo them, Sakamoto gradually built up the skills and sensibility that make a visit to Yuyado Sakamoto such a memorable experience.
SAKAMOTO How do I know I’m on the right track with this family-run “smallest inn in Japan”? I’ve given the matter a lot of thought, and I’ve decided that the most important consideration is whether we can keep it going. We can’t keep it going for long if we overburden the local environment, and we can’t keep it going for long if we overburden ourselves. I feel that one to three parties a day is about what this immediate area can support in terms of local fish, vegetables, wild mushrooms, and so forth. January and February are so cold in Noto, we feel it's a good time to take a break, so we close the inn for two months.
We don’t provide slippers, we don’t have TV, our rooms don’t have private sinks or toilets. The communal sink is open to the outside, and in the winter you can’t get hot water from the tap. The guest rooms are really quite austere. Some people love it, and some people swear they’ll never come back.
But the thing is, if all the inns and hotels in Japan followed the same market data on what people find comfortable and how to operate efficiently, travel would be awfully boring. Having lots of different types of lodgings and the freedom to choose among them is what makes travel here so interesting.
I don’t really think of our place as a ryokan. For those who enjoy staying here, it’s more of a second home. So we’re more or less the caretakers. People should think of us as caretakers. Then they won’t think it so odd when we don’t greet them at the door.
- Address: Jisha, Uedomachi, Suzu, 927-1216, Ishikawa Prefecture
- Phone: +81-(0)766-82-0584
- Website: http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~na9s-skmt/
- Reservations by phone only
(Interview and text by Kiyono Yumi. Photos by Inomata Hiroshi.)