The cars used to wait in the narrow side streets until the politicians who owned them emerged, their faces red from sake and their bank accounts swollen by a 'donation' in exchange for a political favour. Much of Japan's politics were decided in the private rooms of these ryotei, where bills of pounds 500 a person are the minimum.
'Ryotei politics' had become synonymous with the corrupt system linking politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen that enriched but finally toppled the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last June. The new Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, has said he wants to put an end to the institution.
It was in a ryotei, for example, that former LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru was promised a pounds 3m donation from the Sagawa trucking company that led to his arrest on charges of tax evasion earlier this year.
Mr Hosokawa, whose stated aim is to make Japanese politics more accountable, has instructed his colleagues to avoid the clandestine world of Akasaka's ryotei, just around the corner from the Diet, the Japanese parliament. Instead, he has instructed politicians to use hotel lounges or parliament offices for their meetings.
'Business has got very bad,' said the okami-san (proprietress) of one ryotei in Akasaka. 'I don't know if it is Mr Hosokawa's own idea, or that of his aides, but the politicians have all but stopped coming.'
The okami-san, a matron- like figure in her late sixties who has run her own ryotei for 40 years, was happy to talk about her business, but on condition that neither her name nor the name of the ryotei be revealed. 'My business is keeping secrets,' she said. 'There are things that go on here . . . every day I have to warn myself to keep quiet.'
Ryotei are the epitome of refined Japanese taste and exclusivity: discreet, soaked in tradition and fantastically expensive. Even getting in to one is a major task: anyone foolish enough to walk in from the street without an introduction is shown the door.
The Independent on Sunday received an introduction from the boss of a friend to whom we had done a favour in the past. The day and the time were set by an intermediary. But even with the appointment fixed, it was next to impossible to find the actual establishment in the maze of narrow back streets.
A telephone call was made and a kitchen maid dispatched to pick up the 'honourable guests' and bring them the remaining 200 yards along a dark street to a small doorway with a name-plate the size of a postcard. The screen was pulled back, and the geisha woman who was to serve us was kneeling in the hallway.
The ryotei had four private dining rooms, each on its own floor with its own bathroom so that guests of different parties would not meet. The doors and walls were soundproofed. The meal, which took three hours to serve, was exquisite. The 14 courses began with one snail and one small fish served on a black lacquered tray decorated with a red autumn leaf and four pine needles. There is no menu, no choice and no price list.
My companions and I were presented with oysters in soy sauce, meat and vegetable dishes, sashimi, seaweed salad. The young geisha was relentlessly refilling our glasses with sake and beer, as the okami-san chatted happily about her life and lovers, and the men she has seen progress from junior positions to company presidents or cabinet ministers.
She was discreet about her politician customers, although she did let slip that Noboru Takeshita, the former prime minister, was a friend. But she complained that business, which was bad enough because of the recession, had become even worse under the new regime. 'I have between 70 and 80 regular clients,' she said. 'Ten or 20 are no longer coming.'
According to a political funds survey released by the Home Affairs Ministry, the 70 Diet members of former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa last year spent pounds 431,000 on 197 ryotei visits: pounds 2,200 per night. And that was only when the politicians were paying. Now these funds are drying up: six have already gone bankrupt this year. 'It will be a hard Christmas,' said the okami-san.
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