Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fine Dining in Kyoto Japan

The imperial capital for half a millennium until 1869, Kyoto is the cradle of Japanese culture and its historical and spiritual heart. Geishas wander its cherry-tree-lined streets and lanterns are lit at night, when the appetizing smell of cooking fills the air. The pinnacle of Kyoto’s culinary heritage – the highly refined, multi-course kaiseki – lives on in the city’s historic ryotei restaurants. Kyoto is such a perfect distillation of Japanese culture that at times it can feel like a theme park.

Spared the destructive might of Allied bombing at the end of World War II, large parts of the city remain well preserved, affording evocative glimpses of life in feudal-era Japan. This is where you will find Japan’s most seductive Zen gardens, its most impressive temples, and, of course, the fabled geishas, women who are formally trained to entertain men with music, dance, and conversation; they are easily distinguished by their formal white makeup, wigs, and elaborate kimonos. Costume geishas roam the main tourist district, Gion, for the benefit of the cameras, but you can sometimes spot the real thing on Pontocho, the restaurant and nightlife street.

The Golden Pavilion in the Rukuon-ji complex is one of many beautiful temple buildings in Kyoto

Kyoto’s famous tea ceremony represents the pinnacle of the city’s ritual aesthetic, with its impressively controlled and precise choreography.
Food-lovers owe it a debt of gratitude, as it led to the creation of a gastronomic treat. Needing some food to counteract all the bitter green tea, the imperial court came up with the similarly ritualized and prolonged multi-course kaiseki, Japan’s answer to haute cuisine.
Perfection, subtlety, and above all seasonality are the watchwords of the kaiseki chef. Kaiseki meals are traditionally served to diners seated on tatami (rice-straw mats) in the minimally furnished private rooms of ryotei – traditional restaurants housed in old wooden buildings, usually overlooking immaculate gardens. The menu is fixed and can run to over 20 courses, each with a specific name; the finest kaiseki meals cost at least 50,000 yen ($600) – often much more. The sakizuke is the first dish, the allimportant overture; ensuing courses draw attention to an aspect of Japan’s seasonal bounty, such as spring mountain ferns in May or the fiercely expensive matsutake mushroom in fall. Even the tableware plays a role in reflecting the seasonal narrative of the meal.
For the kaiseki novice, there will almost certainly be alien and quite possibly alarming ingredients – sea cucumber roe, salted fish entrails, or snapping turtle, for instance – as well as unfamiliar mealy, soft, and crunchy textures. There will be little or no meat and some dishes might not even taste like very much, but everything will look exquisite. Dashi, a stock made from seaweed and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), forms the core of any kaiseki, but it will invariably end with rice, the foodstuff the Japanese hold most dear.

In Kyoto, geishas and maiko (apprentice geishas) dress their hair and bodies in 18th-century style

Best Places to Eat Kaiseki


Kyoto’s finest kaiseki restaurants can be rather daunting, impenetrable places – some shun diners they don’t know – but there are a few that welcome kaiseki novices, offering proper seats instead of a tatami mat and explaining the courses to their guests. Of these, the most renowned is Kikunoi (“chrysanthemum well”), awarded three Michelin stars in 2011. It was founded in 1912 and is run by the third-generation chef Yoshihiro Murata in a historic ryotei surrounded by immaculate Zen gardens, home to the freshwater spring from which the restaurant gets its name. Courses during a kaiseki could include raw baby squid marinated in soy, exquisite sashimi, sumptuous monkfish liver, and, unusually for a kaiseki, duck and beef from Hyogo Prefecture’s Wagyu cattle. Clients argue over the best time of year to visit – given the seasonal nature of the food – but fall is probably the most compelling season to dine at Kikunoi. Many of the world’s greatest chefs have made a pilgrimage here.
459 Shimokawara-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; open noon–2 PM and 5–8 PM (last entry) daily;
Also in Kyoto
Kaiseki comes in many forms. Its most perfectly realized expression is usually found in ryotei, but the term is just as often used to describe any vaguely traditional, multi-course Japanese meal served omakase (orchestrated by the chef).
Kikunoi (above) has a less formal sister restaurant, Roan Kikunoi (; moderate), but for a more contemporary yet still authentically Kyoto-style kaiseki in a restaurant, try Aunbo (+81 525 2900; moderate), in the atmospheric Gion district. The meticulously crafted, super-fresh ingredients used by chef Tashima in his cuisine will include tofu, local kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables), and fish, which you can enjoy while gazing thoughtfully at the restaurant’s equally immaculate Zen garden.
Also in Japan
One restaurant that has picked up a great deal of buzz – along with two Michelin stars – in recent years is Ryugin (; expensive) in Tokyo. In this tiny, ornate, windowless dining room in a back street of Roppongi, chef Seiji Yamamoto creates gorgeously elaborate, multi-course meals from super-fresh, seasonal Japanese ingredients.
Around the World
Kaiseki has been hugely influential on the multi-course, fixed menu style of haute cuisine dining that has spread throughout the top restaurants of Europe and America. You can see echoes of kaiseki in the elaborate cuisine of restaurants such as The Fat Duck (www.; expensive) in the UK and Copenhagen’s Noma (

Kaiseki is a succession of courses that aim to balance texture, temperature, and flavor, while emphasizing the essential character of the season

A Day in Kyoto
Kyoto has more than 2,000 temples, shrines, and gardens, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites, so selectivity is the key for sightseeing Kyoto in one day.
MORNING : Start at Nanzen-ji, which is a good example of the type of temple most common to Kyoto; it is also situated close to many other temples in Higashiyama, a wonderful area to wander. For lunch, make for the legendary Nishiki Market, a covered corridor filled with dried-fish vendors, grocers selling bewildering indigenous Kyoto vegetables, Japanese sweet shops, and ancient knifemakers who once fashioned samurai swords and still service the imperial kitchen equipment.
AFTERNOON : Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum for a modern take on Japan, or explore the Imperial Palace for a more historical one. Then stroll around the atmospheric residential area of Kamigyo ku; there is a surprise on every street.
EVENING : End the day on the outdoor restaurant terraces of Pontocho, watching the bats swoop over the Kamo River.

Geting to Kyoto

The “bullet train” from Tokyo takes around 2½ hours. The nearest airport is Kansai International, 75 minutes away by train.

Where to stay in Kyoto

Ryokan Ishihara (inexpensive) is a traditional Japanese inn that warmly welcomes foreigners.
APA Hotel (moderate) is a modern hotel close to the main station.
Tawaraya (expensive) is a superb, 300-year-old traditional Japanese ryokan. +81 75 211 5566
What Else to Eat in Kyoto
Kyoto is cradled on three sides by mountains that provide the clear, clean water so essential for its sake and tea. The soft, pure water is also important in the manufacture of Kyoto’s renowned tofu, a key element of the city’s cuisine. It used to be delivered fresh to homes every morning, like milk. Kyotoites enjoy tofu simmered in a hot pot, deep-fried (agedashi tofu), freeze-dried, or spread with miso and grilled as dengaku, among many preparations.
They especially value dried tofu skin, or yuba.
There are several excellent tofu restaurants in Kyoto, many of them located close to the main temples. One of the most famous is Okutan, close to the Nanzen-ji temple (+81 75 771 8709).

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