Five things you should know before a kaiseki meal

Written by
Mayumi Koyama

As our list of the 100 best restaurants makes clear, Tokyo truly is the world's greatest food city. With everything from classic cheap eats and traditional Japanese cuisine to world-class, Michelin-starred restaurants waiting for you, diners are always spoiled for choice.

That embarrassment of riches made it a nigh-impossible task to pick the winner of Best Restaurant at the 2017 Love Tokyo Awards, but we're absolutely confident that Ise Sueyoshi was the right choice. This tiny but cozy kaiseki gem in Nishi-Azabu offers a truly unique dining experience.

A traditional kaiseki meal is the epitome of Japanese haute cuisine and more than worth its often high price tag. But first-timers can find the experience a little overwhelming – intimidating, even.

To help you prepare and shake off any lingering nervousness, we caught up with chef Yuki Tanaka from Ise Sueyoshi, who gave us a helpful rundown of basic things you'll want to know in order to make the most of your first encounter with kaiseki.

Chef Yuki Tanaka (right) and his wife Mari are very friendly and offer clear explanations about kaiseki in perfect English

1. What is ‘kaiseki’ exactly?

As Tanaka has found out, many first-timers are unsure of what exactly they've signed up for. Is kaiseki traditional Japanese cuisine, a traditional multi-course dinner, or the equivalent of omakase ('chef's selection')?

Actually, all of those three descriptions are correct: kaiseki is best described as a traditional Japanese multi-course meal prepared by a chef with select seasonal ingredients.

You may also see two different sets of characters for kaiseki: 会席 and 懐石. The former refers simply to a banquet dinner, while the latter corresponds to a formal meal served at a Japanese tea ceremony. Enjoyed before the tea part, traditional kaiseki is supposed to be simple – so as not to ruin the flavour of the tea – seasonal and meditative.

2. What's the deal with the 'seasonal' part?

You might have heard that kaiseki is not only seasonal – it's ultra-seasonal. There is hardly ever any set list of dishes; instead, chefs craft meals out of the ingredients that are in season at the time.

The seasonal aspect goes beyond food – it encompasses everything from the leaves and twigs decorating the dishes to the calligraphy-style menu and even the kimono your hostess is wearing.

In addition to expressing the current season in their work, kaiseki chefs also entertain their customers with culinary references to upcoming (hashiri) and bygone (nagori) seasons, as well as to annual events such as the hinamatsuri doll festival and the bloom of the cherry blossoms (both in March).

3. What’s the philosophy behind kaiseki?

As mentioned, kaiseki was originally part of the tea ceremony, which means it also has deep ties with Zen Buddhism. The characters 懐石 translate literally to 'bosom pocket stone', and are said to originate from the Buddhist monk practice of placing warm stones in the front fold of their robes to ward off hunger.

Whatever the case, the philosophy behind modern kaiseki is that of simplicity, humbleness and expertise. The chef is expected to conjure up dishes that allow the customer to enjoy the inherent flavour of the ingredients, and to encourage an appreciation of the moment. This includes the beauty and flavour of the dishes, one's fellow diners and, of course, the chef himself (kaiseki chefs are still almost exclusively male).

4. When do you eat kaiseki?

Far removed from everyday eating in Japan, kaiseki is reserved for special occasions including seasonal festivals, birthdays and anniversaries. Tanaka recalls how 'a couple visited Japan for their honeymoon and chose our restaurant. It was such as blessed moment.'

5. What should you keep in mind during a meal?

While individual kaiseki dishes may look too pretty and fragile to eat, Ise Sueyoshi's Tanaka encourages his customers to just relax and try to focus on each individual flavour. Most dishes probably won't taste that impressive at first, but gradually let you enjoy the inherent quality and aroma of each ingredient.

If any questions come to your mind during the meal, you're more than welcome to ask the staff. You should also check with the chef before taking pictures – restaurants usually allow photography, as long as you ask first and don't use flash. Tanaka also suggests not wearing strong perfume or cologne to a kaiseki restaurant, as the smell can be very distracting.

Steamed fish with grated turnip on top for celebrating winter
Ise Sueyoshi offers an English menu for the day

See full details for Ise Sueyoshi here

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