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.

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Forest hike and Japanese tea ceremony

Today I wondered: what was I doing in Japan around this time four years ago? The answer did not disappoint me: I was hiking through a virgin forest and attended a field tea ceremony (nodate 野点).

Me and my aunt, who was visiting from Belgium, were invited by my lovely friends Nobuo-san and Motoko-san to go on a hike with them. Being avid hikers, they claimed to know the most beautiful spots for hiking around Toyota City. They took us to a beautiful virgin forest. It was kōyō (autumn leaves 紅葉 ) season and the light was gorgeous that day.

japanese forest

Our guides are leading the way. Seeing bamboo in a forest was very exotic to me.

japanese forest

The autumn light on the coloured leaves was spectacular.

japanese forest

Looking up the trunk of an ancient tree.

As if taking us to this precious place wasn’t enough, they surprised us with an impromptu tea ceremony in the forest. When we sat down in a clearing to have a little rest, Motoko-san started unpacking several implements that she had been carrying in her backpack. As I had no knowledge of tea ceremony at the time, we were very curious to see what all those beautiful objects were for.

nodate field tea ceremony

Motoko-san is unpacking her wares.

nodate field tea ceremony

She produced two gorgeous red chawan (tea bowls) out of her backpack, and some wagashi (Japanese sweets). The stop at the sweets shop on our way to the forest suddenly made a lot more sense.

nodate field tea ceremony wagashi

Seasonal wagashi

nodate field tea ceremony

Omnomnom. Wagashi are delicious. The bowl of tea is waiting on the bench to be drunk.

It was one of my first experiences with the Japanese tea ceremony and it made a deep impression on me. The spontaneous enjoyment of tea in that beautiful natural setting was such a special experience. That day I learned about the concepts of wabisabi (わびさび the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, perfectly embodied by the fallen leaves, the rough table and the setting in general) and ichigo ichie (一期一会 litt. ‘one time, one meeting’, indicating the preciousness of meetings with people and emphasizing that every moment and experience is unique).

Thank you Motoko-san and Nobuo-san for that once in a lifetime experience!

Autumn in Japan

The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons. As autumn approaches, the Japanese longingly look forward not only to a relief of the summer heat, but also to the beauty of the autumn leaves. The most popular kind of autumn leaves are (Japanese) maple leaves, that turn bright red in autumn. They are called ‘momiji’, although the term may also be used to denote autumn colours in general.

While Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom tradition, the red leaves of the maple can definitely compete with the cherry blossom in terms of popularity. Maps and forecasts tell you when the autumn leaves are at their most beautiful. In the ‘top weekend’, Japanese and gaijin alike flock to the most famous autumn leaves viewing spots in the country (click here for a brief list), causing severe traffic congestion along the way. I have heard stories of people who set out to view the autumn leaves at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto during the top weekend, but who instead ended up spending seven hours in traffic and didn’t even get into the city at the end of the day. But of course if you do manage to get to a good spot, it is usually worth your trouble. Autumn in Japan is truly beautiful!

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Ginkgo in Takayama, Japan

Beautiful yellow ginkgo leaves in a temple in Japan

Toyota City Tip: The most popular place for viewing autumn leaves in Toyota City is Korankei Gorge, in the town of Asuke (Toyota City). You can walk up the mountain, visit the temple and enjoy various types of food and drinks that are sold at special autumn festival booths.

Korankei gorge in toyota city

Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Winter flowers

When returning to Japan after our two-week holiday in Belgium, we got our first taste of winter in Japan. It has gotten cold (maximum 5° C at midday) and it even snows occasionally. But I was very surprised to see flowers blooming even in this weather.

While I normally associate autumn and winter with barren trees and the withering of nature, I have encountered blooming flowers in Japan all throughout autumn and now also during wintertime. How wonderful to see those specks of colour in an otherwise gray winterworld.

Hedge blooming in December, Toyota City, Japan

Hedge blooming in December in Toyota City (December 26th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Takayama, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms in Takayama (November 14th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Kōshō-ji temple, Nagoya, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms at Kozoji Temple, Nagoya (November 11th)

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City, Japan

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City (November 13th)

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City, Japan

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City (November 17th)

Autumn leaves

Autumn has arrived in Toyota City. It has for quite some time actually. Every since the beginning of October, there has been a drastic drop in temperature and humidity. The scorching heat has subsided to make way for a very pleasant climate with a humidity level that leaves my hair allmost frizz-free.

We are now happily awaiting ‘Kōyō’, the red autumn leaves. When we visited the popular Kōyō viewing spot Korankei Gorge in the town of Asuke (part of Toyota City) last weekend, they weren’t quite there yet.

Autumn leaves, Asuke in Toyota City

Asuke in Toyota City - just a little longer until the autumn leaves

But in Takayama, in the mountains where it’s colder, the leaves were already beautiful.

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Ginkgo tree

Ginkgo tree at a temple in Takayama

The changing of the leaves is an event that is followed with close attention troughout Japan. When the red leaves are at their prime, the queues to the popular viewing spots are endless. I’ve heard stories of people who tried to enter Kyoto in the most popular Kōyō weekend but instead were stuck in traffic for 7 hours only to return without having seen the leaves.

Red leaves in Takayama

Red leaves in Takayama

 

 

 

 

 

Toyota City autumn festival – Koromo Matsuri

Last weekend was Koromo Matsuri, Toyota City’s autumn festival.

‘Another festival’, you say? Didn’t we just have one (see post about Oiden Festival in summer)? That’s right, but Japan is the land of festivals. October especially seems to be a popular month for festivals. Most of them are in honour of a good harvest, as is Koromo Matsuri.

Koromo is what Toyota City used to be called before it became Toyota City. During the festival, eight ‘dashi’ or floats (festival cars) are paraded around the city. Each float represents a neighbourhood of Toyota City.

koromo matsuri 8 floats

The floats are lined up before departure

Inside and on top of the floats are people making music, shouting and throwing coloured paper strips. As the float passes, you feel like you’re surrounded by falling leaves or flower petals.

The floats are pulled by dozens of people, young and old alike. At the beginning of the rope are ‘the regular people’, closer to the float are ‘the pro’s’ with a special uniform.

Toyota City Koromo Matsuri pulling the float

koromo matsuri preparations

Gathering their strength before pulling the float - mind the sake bottle

I was amazed by the speed at which some of these floats move.

After the floats have gone, children play with the paper strips on the ground. The playing children are surrounded by adults with photo camera’s – myself included – trying to capture this endearing scene.

koromo matsuri children and photographersThe child in the next picture is a little less active. While mommy tries to get a good look at what’s happening, this child is totally unimpressed by everything that’s going on and takes a little nap.

Toyota City Koromo Matsuri sleeping child

Child sleeping amidst the festival ruckus