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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eventually, after 10 courses, they gradually evolved to the sweeter side.
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.
Thank you to both my parents for sharing in this incredible dinner with me; it was an experience I will never forget.