Kaiseki is one of the world’s most refined cuisines. For a serious foodie, no trip to Japan would be complete without at least one proper kaiseki meal. Here’s our full guide to kaiseki, along with some recommended places in Kyoto to try it.
Kaiseki full course dinner: KPG_Payless / Shutterstock.com
Introduction to Kaiseki
Kaiseki is said to date back to the 16th century, when tea master Sen-no-Rikyu introduced an austere version of the cuisine to accompany the tea ceremony. In practice, modern kaiseki is actually a style of cooking and food presentation that evolved over the last few centuries, bringing together a wide variety of high-end cooking techniques, presentation methods and ingredients. The best description of kaiseki is simply “Japanese haute cuisine,” that is, elegant food eaten on special occasions.
Kaiseki course: mnimage / Shutterstock.com
The most important thing to note about kaiseki is that the food is only one part of the experience. In this regard, kaiseki is like the tea ceremony, in which tea is only one element of an all-encompassing aesthetic experience. In kaiseki, first and foremost, dishes are chosen to reflect the season: ingredients are always “shun-no-mono,” or the freshest and best the market has to offer. And each course is served on carefully chosen tableware like lacquerware trays and priceless ceramic bowls. Finally, tremendous thought goes into how each dish is presented, so that every course resembles an edible work of art.
Kaiseki course artistically presented: kwango / Shutterstock.com
And, the aesthetic concerns don’t end at the table: the room in which the meal is served is equally important. Good kaiseki is almost always served in a traditional restaurant decorated in a refined and simple manner. The flowers and scroll in the tokonoma (sacred alcove of the room) will be carefully chosen to reflect the season. And, ideally, one side of the room will have a sliding glass door allowing a view over a perfect little tsubo-niwa (Japanese pocket garden).
Room at Tawarya Ryokan – image © Damien Douxchamps
As with all things Japanese, there is always layer upon layer of meaning. Certain foods might actually serve as culinary puns or references to obscure classical works of poetry or history. Of course, most of this will be lost on the average foreign diner. But, don’t feel too bad about that: they’ll also go flying over the heads of all but the most educated Japanese diners.
Since kaiseki is a traditional style of Japanese cuisine, you’ll find lots of seafood and shellfish, plenty of vegetables, and the all-important rice, usually served with miso soup and tsukemono (Japanese pickles) at the end of the meal. And, of course, the drink of choice is sake, but you can also ask for beer or oolong tea.
Shrimp and renkon (lotus root): dach_chan / Shutterstock.com
The Courses of Kaiseki
A full-course kaiseki dinner will consist of anywhere from 7 to 14 courses, usually served in a strictly prescribed order. The names of each course might differ from place to place, but here’s a pretty typical course, which we recently enjoyed at Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto. Occasionally, some of the courses will be served together on the same tray, rather than one at a time, which is common at stand-alone restaurants.
The meal will often start with a small glass of liqueur, often ume-shu (plum wine) or similar.
Shokuzen-shu and handwritten menu – image © Damien Douxchamps
The next course is the saki-zuke, which serves as an amuse-bouche to stimulate the appetite. Here, we were served shrimp and ebi-imo (a type of Japanese potato).
Saki-zuke – image © Chris Rowthorn
Ko-suimono (small soup course)
The next course will be ko-suimono or just suimono. This is a soup course. Here, the soup was pureed lotus root with roasted pine nuts.
Ko suimono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Muko-zuke (sashimi course)
The next course will be muko-zuke, or the sashimi course. Here, it was kue (long-tailed grouper) and fugu (puffer fish).
Muko-zuke – image © Chris Rowthorn
Mushi-mono (steamed food course)
After sashimi, you’ll be served a mushi-mono, or steamed dish. In this case, we were served conger eel, clams, yuba, shimeji mushroom, mitsuba (Japanese parsley) steam-boiled in an earthenware teapot. On the side was a type of Japanese citrus called sudachi.
Mushi-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Yaki-mono (grilled fish course)
The next course, yaki-mono, is the grilled fish course. At Tawaraya, this included ayu (sweetfish), nameko mushroom, conger eel, citrus-grilled shrimp, and roasted ginko nuts.
Yaki-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Atsu-mono (hot dish)
The next course is atsu-mono (literally, hot dish). We were served simmered duck meat and small turnips. This is often the “main course” of a kaiseki meal.
Atsu-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Shii-zakana (side dish)
The next course is called shii-zakana, which is a side dish. In our case, it was shijimi clams served with yuba, myoga and sesame seeds.
Shii-zakana – image © Chris Rowthorn
The next course is gohan (the Japanese word for rice). To the Japanese, a meal is not a meal unless it includes rice. And, rice is always served with miso soup (in this case, a high-end miso called aka-dashi) and some tsukemono (Japanese pickles). This being Tawaraya, the rice, aka-dashi and tsukemono were among the best I’d ever tasted.
Gohan – image © Chris Rowthorn
The final course is mizu-mono (literally, water thing). The word water is used because the dessert is often fruit. In our case, we were served pear compote with blueberry sauce.
Mizu-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
How Much Does Kaiseki Cost?
A full-course kaiseki dinner at a good Kyoto kaiseki restaurant will cost between Y10,000 and Y30,000 per person without drinks. There are some cheaper places, but you generally get what you pay for.
How to Reserve a Kaiseki Restaurant
Needless to say, you can’t just walk into a kaiseki restaurant and expect to be served, especially at dinner. So, here’s what you do: Get the concierge at your hotel or ryokan to call ahead and make the booking for you.
How to Dress for Kaiseki
Needless to say, kaiseki is not the kind of meal you’d want to eat wearing shorts and flip-flops. But, you’d don’t have to dress formally either. Smart casual will be perfectly fine. But, please wear decent socks. You’ll almost certainly have to remove your shoes when you enter the restaurant, and nothing looks worse than a couple of hairy toes protruding from an old pair of socks.
Kaiseki on the Cheap
One good way to sample kaiseki without breaking the bank is to go at lunch, when some restaurants serve a variety of their classic dishes in an elegant lacquerware bento box for as little as Y3,000 per person.
Kaiseki lunch bento: sasaken / Shutterstock.com
Kyoto’s Best Kaiseki Restaurants
Kitcho Arashiyama Honten
Kitcho Arashiyama is considered by many in Japan to be the best kaiseki restaurant in the country.
(Southern Higashiyama; expensive)
This three-star Michelin restaurant has a beautiful location just around the corner from Maruyama-koen Park, so it’s very convenient. And, the food is awesome.
Kikunoi Main Restaurant – image © Chris Rowthorn
(Southern Higashiyama; mid-range to expensive)
The sister restaurant of the above place, this is more approachable and more reasonable, and the food is still superb.
Kikunoi Roan – image © Chris Rowthorn
Guilo Guilo Hitoshina
(Downtown Kyoto; mid-range)
Located downtown, along a picturesque canal, Guilo Guilo Hitoshina offers a delicious, modern take on kaiseki cuisine at affordable prices.
Guilo Guilo Hitoshina – image © Chris Rowthorn
(Southern Higashiyama; expensive)
2-star kaiseki restaurant Gion Owatari is a favourite with Japanese gourmands, and no wonder – the cooking here is at once soulful and impeccable.
Gion Owatari – image © Chris Rowthorn
(Downtown Kyoto; expensive)
Kiyamachi Sakuragawa is an approachable and superb spot to enter the world of kaiseki cuisine.
More Kyoto Restaurant Information
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