Sushi has come a long way from its street-snack origins back in the early 1800s; in 2009, a couple of Tokyo sushi bars each earned three Michelin stars. And while it carries a certain special-occasion cachet internationally, sushi is by no means the Japanese zenith of gastronomy. That honour goes to the cuisine known as kaiseki-ryōri.
With its origins stemming from the delicacies offered to the imperial court, kaiseki-ryōri synthesises some of the best Japanese values: harmony, balance and an appreciation of the moment. While that might sound pretentiously abstract, a kaiseki meal is truly intended to appeal to all of the senses.
Served in small courses, each dish is prepared with the freshest seasonally-available ingredients, the balance of flavours and textures appreciated not only by the palate, but also visually and experientially. Before allowing that tendril of delicately battered calamari to hit the tongue, a diner should first admire the artistic manner in which the tempura was arranged upon the gold-flecked Japanese paper lining its woven bamboo dish. One should also take in the minimalist beauty of the quiet dining room, and perhaps reflect on the view of the traditional garden outside the sliding screen.
As each course is finished, it is cleared away for presentation of the next, the kaiseki meal a beautiful procession of contrasting tastes and tactile sensations. Lifting the cover of a lacquer bowl might reveal a clear broth with a tiny cube of silken tofu and shreds of chive and citron, followed by a charcoal brazier bearing a small grilled fish, after which an arrangement of candy-coloured dumplings and local wild vegetables might appear on a dish of rustic stoneware. The meal is often finished with a traditional sweet – such as a sticky rice cake in the shape of a purple blossom, with paper-thin slices of pear shaped like leaves.
Kaiseki-ryōri is best exemplified in the restaurants and ryokan (inns) of Kyoto. As the cultural capital of Japan, traditional arts are actively cultivated in the city. Though the formality of the experience can be intimidating to foreigners, enjoying a kaiseki meal in Kyoto is highly accessible and offers a delicious encounter that can't be exported.
If staying in a traditional Kyoto inn, a kaiseki dinner is often included in accommodation rates. In the inn setting, you can consider yourself respectably attired for such a dignified supper if you dress in the cotton kimono provided in your room (bonus: you're dressed in what is essentially a bathrobe and can loosen the sash if you find that the meal was five courses longer than you expected). Alternatively, you could reserve in advance at a highly-regarded establishment like Kikunoi to fully experience the kind of special-occasion atmosphere that befits a first kaiseki-ryōri.
Want to learn how to eat in Japan before picking up a set of chopsticks. Read our article, 'How to eat politely in Japan'.