Kaiseki meal in Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is an exquisite multi-course meal. It can even be considered as an art form, where one tries to balance the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food. It goes without saying that only fresh, seasonal ingredients are used. The dishes are served in carefully selected bowls and plates, that enhance both the appearance and the seasonal theme of the meal.

The word kaiseki may also be used to refer to the meal served at a tea ceremony, although one may also add term ‘cha’ (as in chakaiseki) to indicate the difference with restaurant kaiseki.

One rainy October day in Kyoto, friends invited me to a kaiseki lunch. We walked through a few bustling, touristic Kyoto streets and ended up at this little place:

kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto

Kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto

Kaiseku menu Kyoto

There was a choice between two menus

Our meal was comprised a multitude of mouth-watering courses, several of which involved tofu. Now, before any Western readers start turning up their noses, you must take into account that Japanese tofu is nothing like the tofu you can get in the West. Western tofu is often tasteless with a rubber-like texture. Japanese tofu comes in a wide variety of delicious tastes and has textures ranging from silky to firm. And I have the impression that Kyoto is famous for tofu as well as for kaiseki.

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

To start things off, two tofu appetizers.

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

Then some broiled tofu, in a beautiful paper container

kyoto kaiseki meal tofu

Yet another way to prepare tofu, in a kombu broth, served in a cherry blossom themed donabe

kyoto kaiseki meal

After all that tofu, we got the main course, full of gorgeous, seasonally themed little pieces of food. And two of the dishes (top right and middle right) are once more different tofu preparations.

kaiseki meal kyoto

Our table full of food. There was also all-you-can-drink tea included in the meal. We were sitting on the floor, but cleverly hidden below the table was a recess for our legs, so that we more or less sat in the position of sitting on a chair.

kaiseki meal kyoto

The meal was concluded with a generous serving of rice, some pickled vegetables and a bowl of soup. Nobody left the table hungry, that’s for sure!

kaiseki meal kyoto matcha

To top off the meal, a delicious bowl of matcha tea with a Japanese sweet. I think the sweet might be some type of mochi, perhaps warabi mochi? I am not sure though, because warabi mochi feel to me a bit summer-like and don’t really seem to match the autumnal harvest theme of the meal. If anyone knows more, please leave a comment below.

All this exquisiteness comes at a price. While the standard price for a lunch in Japan is about 1000 yen, a kaiseki meal will easily set you back 3000 yen or more.

People watching – Tanned skin

While visiting the Hachiko statue in Shibuya, I noticed a Japanese girl with tanned skin. Both her skin tone and overall styling caught my attention and I snapped a picture of her.

japan tanned skin

Japanese girl with tanned skin

In Japan, the classic beauty ideal is to have a skin that is as pale and white as possible. To achieve this look, Japanese women go to extreme lengths to avoid sun exposure and use whitening products, referred to as bihaku 美白. This preference for white skin is believed to stem from past times when poor people worked the land and had tanned skin, while rich people stayed indoors and thus had lighter skin. 

sekkisei by kose skin whitening japan

One of the most popular skin whitening product line in Japan is the Sekkisei line by KOSE

The girl in the first picture, however, has a perfect tan, which leads me to believe that she purposefully went for this look with tanning creams or sessions in a tanning salon. Given the Japanese preference for pale skin, her skin tone stood out.

After doing some research on tanned skin fashion trends in Japan, I discovered two trends. The first one is Ganguro, which was popular from the mid-1990’s to about 2000. Ganguro is characterized by a dark tan and contrasting make-up. The trend died out in 2000, when the sudden popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki sparked a renewed interest in white skin.

ganguro japan tanned skin

Ganguro fashion trend with tanned skin and contrasting make-up


The popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki, with her perfect pale skin, contributed to the popularity of bihaku skin whitening products

The other trend is B-style and seems to be a more recent thing. In B-style, Japanese youngsters try to imitate the look of American hip-hop stars, aspiring to look as much like Afro-Americans as possible. Dutch television show Metropolis made a short documentary on the subject. This trend is far from mainstream however, seeming to revolve pretty much around a single store in Tokyo called Baby Shoop.

b-style tanned skin

B-style is a trend where Japanese people try to look like Afro-American hip-hop stars. It is only a very small subculture.

Looking at the girl in my picture, she doesn’t seem to be belong to any of these two trends. She has tanned skin but pretty subdued make-up compared to Ganguro style. Her clothing seems quite provocative to me, but then again, the metropolis Tokyo isn’t the same as provincial Toyota City or conservative Nagoya to which I am used to, so maybe in Tokyo this look isn’t quite so outrageous? I would love to get other people’s perspective on this, to see how they perceive this look and how it would look to a Japanese person. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.

Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

Japanese advertising slogans

I love Japanese advertising slogans. They often include English words that have been used in a very Japanese way. Japanese copywriters are clearly convinced that positive words are the way to go. I often see a collection of positive words thrown together in a way that no native English speaker would ever use them.

What do you think of this slogan to promote apple candy: ‘Health and beauty for your life’? The message that they want to bring across is clear but no Western copywriter would communicate it so directly. Reading this kind of Japanese advertising slogan instantly puts a smile on my face. It sounds so sweet and innocent and frankly I find it quite endearing.

Japanese advertising slogans

These apple candies will bring health and beauty to your life! Yes they will!

Have a look at some other examples:

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

Freshness burger in Nagoya airport

funny english in japan toiletpaper

Japanese toilet paper, bringing happiness to your life

Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

Japanese pedestrian crossings

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the first things that caught my attention were the pedestrian crossings. In Japan, when the pedestrian traffic lights turn green, they turn green for all directions at once. Car traffic from every direction is stopped. This enables the pedestrians to cross the intersection in whatever direction they want, including diagonally. It was such an odd view to see pedestrians walking over the middle of an intersection.

Japanese pedestrian crossing Toyota City

I took this picture of a pedestrian crossing in Toyota City on the very first day of my stay in Japan. From the hotel I had an excellent view of this crossing and I was amazed to see everyone crossing at once and walking over the middle of the intersection.

A little research taught me that this kind of intersection is called a ‘scramble crossing’ in Japan (スクランブル交差点 sukuranburu-kōsaten). I also learned that it is not unique to Japan and is also known as an ‘x crossing’ or a ‘diagonal crossing’. They are, however, ubiquitous in Japan. I have never seen one in Belgium.

I took me some time to get used to these Japanese scramble crossings. Walking over the middle of an intersection, I kept feeling apprehensive about oncoming cars. But once I got used it, it gave a real sense of freedom!

After I had gotten used to the pedestrian crossings in Toyota City (a small provincial city), and even those in Nagoya (Japan’s fourth largest city), I had another shock when I visited Tokyo and saw the Shibuya pedestrian crossing. That intersection takes scramble crossings to a whole other level. Shibuya pedestrian crossing is the busiest scramble crossing in Japan.

shibuya pedestrian crossing

People waiting to cross at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

shibuya pedestrian crossing

The crossing in full swing at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

Please take a look at this video I shot looking out over Shibuya pedestrian crossing. I took it from inside the Shibuya Starbucks and it really shows how impressive this crossing is. At the end of the video, you might also notice some people hurriedly crossing while the light is already red. This blatant rule breaking once again shows that Japanese people are human too, contrary to popular belief in the West.

People watching: Giraffe costume

Japan is full of surprises. For example, here I was strolling around a department store, when suddenly I saw someone dressed in what I believe to be a giraffe costume. It seems this person was just hanging out with friends and I could see no apparent reason to be wearing a giraffe costume. Although one could wonder if there ever is a good reason to wear a giraffe costume. The scene did put a smile on my face so maybe that is reason enough.


Hanging out with friends in a quiet department store in Toyota City, casually dressed in a giraffe costume