Traditional Kaiseki Dinner at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan

The kaiseki at Kichisen in Kyoto was one of the most memorable meals of my life.

Each region of Japan is known for a specific type of food.  In Kyoto, the specialty is kaiseki, an elaborate multi-course meal that inspired the tasting menu concept now popular throughout the world.

Kaiseki originated during the 16th Century when a series of small dishes were served as a way to ward off hunger during extensive tea ceremonies lasting hours.  Later, its focus evolved beyond food; kaiseki became an art form balancing the taste, texture, appearance and color of locally-sourced ingredients.

During my trip to Japan, I had only one item on my agenda while in Kyoto: experience kaiseki.

Kelli Nakagama at Kichisen in Kyoto.
Mid-way through our 12-course kaiseki meal at Kichisen.

Being the food lover that I am, an extravagant dinner is a must when I’m on vacation.  While planning my trip to Japan, I knew that deciding on a restaurant would be difficult since Tokyo and Kyoto are known as two of the world’s best cities for food.  But once I read about Kichisen, a traditional kaiseki-style restaurant with two Michelin stars known as one of the best kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto (according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants), the decision was easily made.

Eggplant amouse bouche at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
The amouse bouche was fried eggplant topped with decorative (un-edible) leaves.

Kichisen is owned and operated by Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa, who first gained fame in 1999 as the first chef to beat the Iron Chef on the famous TV show.  The restaurant is in a small building with just four rooms in a non-distinct neighborhood without a sign out front.

When we arrived at the restaurant, we were greeted as if we were visiting longtime friends: our soon-to-be waiter ushered us in from the taxi holding an umbrella over our heads, instructed us to remove our shoes once inside, and made sure we felt welcome even through broken English.

I knew instantly that we were in for an exciting evening — and my premonitions were not wrong.

Bean-filled tofu with sashimi at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #1: Bean-filled tofu with sashimi.
Soup with lime rind and sashimi at Kichisen in Kyoto.
Soup with lime rind and sashimi.

Each course, and there were around 12 in all, arrived in elaborate presentation, as promised.  Attention was paid to even the most petite of details, making sure that the visual aesthetic of the dish was the first to capture the senses.

Squid and shrimp at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #3 :: Squid and shrimp sashimi with vegetables in a
leaf-covered boat. The squid was the most unique texture and was almost
sweet in taste. I’m confident I will never have squid like this again.
Nigiri at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #4 :: Nigiri sushi. One of my favorites, although I’m not sure what kind of fish it was.

 

Then as we tasted each dish, the delicate balance of texture and flavor was obvious, sending my mouth into a kaleidoscope of wonderment.  Some dishes were incredibly foreign while others were vaguely familiar, but all were outstanding in their own way, even if some were not to my particular liking.

Uni sashimi at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #5 :: Uni sashimi. Sea urchin is my favorite type of sashimi.
Deep-fried fish at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #6 :: Deep-fried fish. The bodies of the fish are completely
fried, creating a potato chip-like crunchy, salty treat.

 

The photos here showcase our entire meal, however, I do not know the details of most of the dishes.  Our servers (yes we had several), spoke little English, therefore I did not take notes on what we were eating.  I hope, then, that beauty of each dish in the photos that follow will speak for themselves.

Boiling soup at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #7 :: Soup, arrived boiling at the table.

My favorite thing about tasting menu meals is that the entire table eats the same dish at the same time, therefore everyone shares the entire experience of the meal (at least taste-wise).  It creates a connection with those you are eating with and allows a conversation about a truly shared feeling.

I’ve had several of these elaborate dinners (from New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between) and at the end of each one, it’s difficult to express what made it so amazing.  Yes, the food is extravagant and full of dishes I’ll likely never eat again, but I realized during this kaiseki meal with my parents that it’s that shared connection that makes it such a neat experience.

Fish on skewer at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #8 :: Whole fish on skewer. My mom’s least favorite course.
Soup at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #9 :: Soup. A gritty, corn-like soup that was almost sweet.

Presentation was such a huge part of our meal that many dishes were placed in front of us with elaborate decorations, only for them to be removed within seconds. I was blown away at the amount of time and effort spent just for a literal glimpse of an appearance. By the tenth course, we were presented with a steamed fish, then our server de-boned it table side, meticulously placing delicate pieces of fish over rice.

Steamed fish with pickled vegetables at Kichisen in Kyoto.
Course #10 :: Steamed fish over flavored rice with pickled vegetables,
de-boned table-side by the waiter. Another one of my favorite courses.

 

Eventually, after 10 courses, they gradually evolved to the sweeter side.

Brandy orange at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #11 :: Orange dessert with brandy.
Mochi at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
Course #12 :: Bean-curd mochi and hard candy.

Kichisen was one of the highest points during my trip to Japan.  While exploring Japan’s culinary culture was a huge focus of our trip (and one that we accomplished well), the kaiseki was an adventure into Japan’s culinary history — and the local cuisine of Kyoto.

Oolong tea at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan.
The meal ended with green tea and oolong tea.

Thank you to both my parents for sharing in this incredible dinner with me; it was an experience I will never forget.

More from Kelli Nakagama

6 Surprising Facts About Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest is the world’s largest beer festival, where millions of people flock...
Read More

2 Comments

  • Hi Kelly, what can you say about the costs? How much would it cost for a person to eat in that restaurant and how many people is your recommendation to go with? Thanx!

    • Hi S.,

      Kichisen has several options for dinner; the number of courses and ingredients vary based on price. The options are 14,000 yen, 17,000 yen, 20,000 yen, 22,000 yen, and 25,000 yen and up for the “omakase” chef’s choice. (Lunch options are 8,000 yen, 10,000 yen, and 12,000 yen.) We did the 17,000 yen option, which (in my opinion) was plenty of food!

      There were three of us in our group and we chose to sit in the private room (there are several available). I think any number of people would be fine to go with–the more the merrier!

      Let me know if you have any other questions. Thank you for reading!

      – Kelli

Leave a Reply