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The World of Japanese Cuisine
Appreciating the taste and sense of Japanese beauty
Local culture is strongly reflected through cuisine traditions. Kyoto reigned as the capital of Japan for nearly 1,200 years and as a result developed a unique culture of food ranging from simple sweets for the common people to stunning kaiseki courses for nobles and formal tea ceremony meals. In Kyoto, food is not only about satisfying one's hunger. The experience is much deeper and wider.
Compared to western cuisine, traditional Japanese cooking and serving styles focus on tastes, colors, scents and shapes. Water is an especially important ingredient.
Kaiseki cuisine is regarded as a sophisticated culinary art that requires many, many years of training, and considerable cultural knowledge.
The plates and bowls used for the meal are an important part of the Japanese cuisine experience. The material experience of touching ceramics, wood and so on is very sensual and involves the hands, the lips and the tongue. The softness and warmth you feel through the wide range of plates and bowls used in kaiseki cuisine in particular are not an essential part of the Western cuisine experience. Kyoto cuisine offers visitors entry to a world of beauty and wonder.
Shojin Zen Vegetarian
Shojin-ryori is the name for authentic Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. The distinct style of shojin-ryori cooking uses neither fish nor meat. The tradition originally came from China with Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura period (1192-1333). Commonly featured dishes include delicately prepared vegetables, tofu that has been frozen, dried and then soaked in a tasty broth, cooked wheat gluten, and other delicacies. Many shojin-ryori ingredients are Kyoto specialty products. Some temples serve shojin-ryori to the public. Go to one of these places for excellent cuisine.
This is the meal served in the context of chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). It precedes the serving of the tea at a formal tea function (chaji). The term cha means "tea", while kaiseki means "breast stone". Zen monks ate only two meager meals a day and some would place warmed stones inside their kimono to calm their hunger pangs. As the ruling classes adopted the tea ceremony, the stone became the light meal before drinking the bitter, dark green tea.
The main focus is a bowl of thick green tea (koi cha) that will follow after the meal. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) who flourished tea ceremony invented formal style of the cha kaiseki. He contrived the perfect form of the meal with "wabi sabi" (simplicity and austerity) mind highly respecting philosophy of shojin cuisine. The basic constituents of a cha kaiseki meal are the ichiju- sansai or "one soup, three side dishes", and the rice (three dishes are generally sashimi, simmered vegetables and grilled fish).
Kaiseki Haute Cuisine
Kaiseki evolved from the very formal, almost ritualistic, eating patterns of the imperial court. In the Muromachi period (1333-1576) a new type of food favored by the warrior class evolved into cha kaiseki as part of the overall aesthetic of the tea ceremony. The master kaiseki chef is the product of a very wide, long and rigorous period of training that includes cooking skill, art appreciation, and a fairly sophisticated knowledge of Japanese cultural history. The master chef kaiseki chef creates works of art with seasonal ingredients (and even exotic things from abroad) that both please the eye and the tongue. Experience the world of beauty and food: enter the world of kaiseki (also known as Kyoto cuisine).
Some kaiseki terms: Nimono: simmered foods, served in individual lidded bowls. Yakimono: grilled foods (usually some kind of fish), brought out in a serving dish for the guests to serve themselves. Suimono: clear soup served in a small lacquered and lidded bowl, to cleanse the palate before the exchange of sake' (rice wine) between host and guests. Hassun: a tray of tidbits from mountain and sea that the guests serve themselves to and accompanies the round of sake' (rice wine) shared by host and guests.
Some eating tips: 1) If you drink, sake goes best with kaiseki. If you don't, then choose either green tea or the less exotic-tasting hoji-cha. 2) When something is served hot, you eat it as soon as possible.
Osechi Ryori New Year's Tray
As a holiday, New Year's (Oshogatsu) in Japan is so important that any other fades into insignificance by comparison. Traditionally this was the time when everything closed and almost everyone went home for a cozy family reunion lasting up to half a month. It's still the year's big event, although now convenience stores and supermarkets stay open.
In Kyoto's food markets December marks the appearance of a marvelous array of intriguing delicacies: black beans stewed in a mild syrup, funny sheets of sea vegetable that had translucent fish eggs stuck, little blue-green bulbs with sprouts called kuwai (water chestnuts), bamboo shoots carved as beautiful miniature turtles with long tails of seaweed streaming behind them and as graceful dancing cranes. There are many varieties of fish, too, such as sea bream, yellowtail, and carp.
In addition to doing the pre-New Year's cleaning (equivalent to our spring cleaning), millions of women and girls throughout Japan once slaved in kitchens preparing New Year's food or Osechi. Today, most if not all osechi foods can be purchased in the basement of Japan's top department stores. This is a wonderful visual experience for foreign visitors. In Kyoto's more traditional residences one still sees tiered boxes both in plain red or black lacquer filled with morsels of every color and texture. Over the New Year these lacquer trays would be constantly replenished from the stock. Guaranteed to tantalize and delight the senses, these edible sculptures are arranged so perfectly and with such thought and care that one immediately senses the total dedication on the part of the host's wife.
The Japanese art of lunch to go!
What to have for lunch is a universal question that is never easy to answer. In Japan, for the person on the go and the temple touring traveler one of the most popular answers is the bento. Though bento can be translated as a boxed lunch it can be much more than that. Early bento's were simple rice balls (or onigiri) filled with a bit of chopped kombu (sea kelp), or an ume-boshi (a pickled salted plum; often with seed!) and wrapped in special leaves that kept them moist and from spoiling.
Though the wrapping has changed, the popularity of onigiri for lunch (inside or out!) has not. Kyoto's better quality traditional restaurants generally offer bento lunch specials (anywhere from 2,000 yen-4,000 yen). These bento, using the finest seasonal ingredients, are beautiful to look at and exceptionally prepared. They are perfect for taking home or in the right season for a picnic. Remember a bento at a really good restaurant is a great way to experience a place that you normally could not afford. So have a bento and let the enjoyment begin!
First-class Japanese cuisine Restaurants
Located in central Kyoto city, Kinmata has offered prestigious Kyoto cuisine dishes for over 200 years. The restaurant building is also special and has been designated as a national cultural property. Their inner garden adds a wonderful sense of freshness and beauty to the meal. Early every morning, the master chef goes to the nearby Nishiki Food Market to look for the best ingredients available that day. At Kinmata, you can expect excellent cuisine (served on elegant antique plates and bowls) and traditional aesthetics.
On the west side of Gokomachi, north of Shijo; Tel: 221-1039; www.kinmata.com; for more information, see page
Tokanso, located on the eastern edge of the lush landscape of Maruyama Park, is well worth that little bit extra, whether you are planning a memorable lunch or dinner. The staff all wear kimono and are very friendly. As one enters the main lobby area, the visitor is greeted by a fabulous ikebana flower arrangement and a fine range of art objects from the distant past and present. Tokanso's rooms are all elegantly decorated and appointed throughout. For groups of four or more, meals can be arranged in exquisite private rooms. Take a serene, luxurious break and enjoy a leisurely meal during which you will surely discover the deep sense of beauty and service traditional Japan is famous for. Tokanso awaits you. Seasonal lunch courses: Bento box lunch (3,500 yen) or mini kaiseki course (from 5,000 yen). Dinner kaiseki courses (8,000 yen-15,000 yen).
In Maruyama Park; open: 11:00-14:00, 17:00-22:00; reservations required; Tel: 561-0581; for more information, see page.
Shigetsu in Tenryu-ji Temple
The Zen vegetarian cuisine served by the monks at Tenryu-ji Shigetsu is like Zen philosophy. It satisfies the palate and the soul, and harmonizes the six basic flavors-bitter, sour, sweet, salty, mild, and spicy. To add to the delight of this place, meals are served facing a huge National Treasure garden designed by Zen genius Muso Kokushi (1275-1351). All the dishes served at Tenryu-ji Shigetsu are strictly vegetarian. The set meal includes a soup made of specially prepared soy beans, sesame tofu, and several other delicately prepared dishes. The recommended course, Yuki (Snow), includes soup and five separate dishes, followed with a fruit desert. All this for 3,000 yen (including garden entrance fee). They also have a Tsuki (5,000 yen) and Hana (7,000 yen) course.
In Tenryu-ji Temple; open: 11:00-14:00; Tel: 882-9725; for more information see page.
Tagoto is a fine Japanese restaurants that specializes in Kyoto cuisine. It has branch restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo. They recently renovated their main shop (honten) which offers a range of seating options: table seats, hori-gotatsu sunken floor seats, and Japanese style private rooms. Using the best seasonal ingredients and Kyoto specialties like yuba (soy cream) or Kyoto vegetables, Tagoto offers the delicate, sophisticated kaiseki haute cuisine cuisine that Kyoto is famous for. In April, fresh bamboo shoots (takenoko) are used in many dishes. Tagoto also offers beautifully arranged take-out bento lunches, perfect for outdoor cherry blossom viewing. Lunch set: 1,890 yen (11:00-15:00), Koetsu Mizusashi lunch box: 3,700 yen, yuba kaiseki course: 4,300 yen, Mini kaiseki course: 3,700 yen (11:00-15:00), Kaiseki course: from 6,300 yen.
On the north side of Shijo, west of Kawaramachi; open: 11:00-15:00, 16:30-21:00; Tel: 221-1811; www.kyoto-tagoto.co.jp/; for more information, see page.
It is said that the family started to serve as the official cook for Shimogamo Shrine in the Heian period (794-1185). When the imperial family had important guests or had official ceremonies at the shrine, people enjoyed Saryo's excellent dishes. In the late Edo period (1600-1868), they started to serve meals to people who visited the shrine. Choose between lavish Kyoto cuisine or kaiseki courses or the more austere Cha Kaiseki courses. Enjoy all this as you sit by the serene flow of the Takano River near the shrine's Tadasu no Mori forest. Come to Shimogamo Saryo and feel the spirit of Japanese cuisine and natural beauty.
On the west side of the Mikage-bashi Bridge, south of Shimogamo Shrine; about a 10-min. walk from Keihan Demachiyanagi Stn.; open: 11:00-21:00; closed Thurs.; Tel: 701-5185; www.shimogamosaryo.com/