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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Japanese women don’t put their purse on the ground

Have you ever noticed that Japanese women never put their purse on the ground? It seems like a pretty straightforward thing but it really drew my attention in Japan. When Japanese women are in a café or restaurant, they will sit a bit forward on their chair and place their purse behind them on the chair, rather than placing it on the ground. The give up the comfort of resting against the back of the chair, to ensure their purse keeps clean. Taking into account this preference, many establishments provide special baskets for women to place their purse in. Very considerate and an excellent example of Japanese customer service.

Japanese purse baskets

The woman on the left has placed her purse behind her on the chair. Below the chairs are suspended baskets, intended as a place to keep your purse.

japanese purse basket

Another café where they offer a convenient basket to keep your purse off the ground.

Only when I started noticing the Japanese habit of never putting their purse on the ground, did I start thinking about how Belgian women do put their purse on the ground sometimes and how dirty that actually is. Since then, I take care to never place my own purse on the ground.

This Japanese purse etiquette is a good illustration of the importance of cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. When it comes to daily habits, I find the Japanese often have very sensible views on cleanliness. After I left Japan, it took some getting used to a few ‘dirty’ Belgian habits again, like wearing shoes inside the house and shaking hands with strangers.

 

Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi

Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi

Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki

A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe

types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun

Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan

The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.

Sushi party in Japan

Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi

Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi

A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan

A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya in  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?

Heating the outdoors

Customer service is extremely important in Japan. Sometimes this leads to situations that seem a bit excessive in my eyes, like the amount of packaging they use or that time we saw a heater placed outside in the open air, to accommodate waiting customers.

open air heater in Japan

A kerosene burner placed outside in the open air to help customers waiting to have lunch stay warm

In Japan, it is very popular to eat out for lunch. Since many restaurants have only very limited seating space, it is common to have to wait for a table at a good restaurant. If the restaurant is really small, it doesn’t have an indoor waiting area and customers have to wait outside. One cold January day around noon, we were waiting to have lunch at a restaurant in Hakone. There was a waiting area next to the restaurant, i.e. outdoors. To my great surprise, the staff had placed a kerosene burner in the waiting area. Although I was very thankful for this extra heat (it was so cold!), at the same time I felt a bit guilty about taking advantage of something that somehow felt a bit wasteful. The heater was pretty much attempting to heat the entire outdoors, which is of course futile. There was no tent, no enclosure, nothing that could even barely attempt to keep a bit of the heat localised.

outside heater in Japan

Such a cold day!

After having discussed the situation with some Belgian friends, they pointed out that in Belgium sometimes we also make a bonfire outdoors or restaurants place heaters on their terrace in winter to enable people to sit outdoors. While this is true, I still felt an initial shock at seeing this heater in Japan. It is not the first time that I have felt torn between my love of Japanese customer service and my desire to not be wasteful. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences and opinions on the matter! Have you ever felt the same? How do you deal with these things? Or is it a non-issue?

The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

Third time on the Tsubasaya blog! Hurray!

One of my favourite restaurants in Toyota City is a tavern (or in Japanese, an izakaya) called Tsubasaya. They have a blog where they post pictures of their guests. In the first two months of our stay in Japan, I had managed to end up on their blog twice.

The first time was at the end of July.

The second time was in the beginning of August.

This inspired me to aim at a once a month average and thus become a Tsubasaya star. Alas, my beginners luck ran out and I have not been featured on their blog since. That is, until today! Today I have the honour of being on the Tsubasaya blog for the third time. Admittedly, I did not accomplish this feat alone. I was in Tsubasaya yesterday with a big group of foreign ladies. Our banter attracted enough attention for the staff to take our picture at the end of the evening. So thank you ladies, for a fun evening and a helping hand in my attempts to achieve Tsubasaya stardom!

Toyota City expat ladies at Tsubasaya

Tsubasaya blog screenshot

Tsubasaya blog screenshot. The text above the photograph mentions all our nationalities. Click on the picture to go to the Tsubasaya blog.