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.

Nabe party

Nabe refers to a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes. It is a typical winter food. All the ingredients for nabe are prepared together in a large clay or iron pot. The pot is usually placed on a burner in the middle of the table and the dish is cooked at the table. Everyone gathers round and picks from the pot what they like, as the ingredients cook. This makes the eating of nabe a highly social event and therefore a perfect excuse for a party, the so-called ‘nabe party’.

There are several stages to a nabe party, involving different ingredients that are added in turn to the pot. Many varieties of nabe exist, but it all comes down to a mix of different ingredients in a broth. The nabe that I will describe below consists of stock, lots of vegetables, tofu, fish cake, thin slices of meat and rice. Dipping sauce and an egg were also involved.

nabe party stock

The stock for our nabe party: water with pieces of kombu and bonito flakes in a tea bag (katsuobushi)

nabe party vegetables

Vegetables and tofu are placed on top of the stock. The vegetables are cabbage, spring onion and daikon.

how to prepare nabe fish cake

Fish cake, sliced

how to prepare nabe

Fish cake and more vegetables (spinach and carrot) are added

Japanese nabe party

The pot, filled to the brim, is placed on a cooker in the middle of the table

As the nabe is placed on the cooker, the party can begin. Friends gather round and wait for everything to start simmering. A perfect moment to enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh together. When the broth has come to a boil and the vegetables have shrunk somewhat, very thin slices of meat are placed on top of the nabe. Since the slices are so thin, they cook in about a minute.

Japanese nabe meat

Thin slices of pork for nabe

Japanese nabe meat

The meat is placed on top of the nabe and cooks very quickly

Now the time has come for everyone to dig in. You may take whatever you like from the nabe pot. This communal enjoyment of the meal creates a very cozy feeling. A nabe party is perfect for warming both body and heart during a cold winter evening.

You might have noticed the collection of sauces on the table. They are dipping sauces for the nabe, collectively referred to as tare. Everyone has two bowls for dipping sauces. As you take food from the nabe pot, you may dip it in the sauce of your choice.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left you see ponzu, a soy sauce based condiment with yuzu (japanese bitter orange) and gomadare, which is a sesame sauce. On the right are two types of paste that are added to the sauce for additional spice. I believe the green one is wasabi based but I am not sure. The red one is a seasoned chili paste called shisen toban jan.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left sesame sauce with chili paste, on the right ponzu with wasabi (?) paste

Japanese nabe party

Table setup for a nabe party: two bowls for each guest with dipping sauce. Food is picked from the nabe pot and briefly placed in dipping sauce, before eating.

When most of the vegetables are eaten and the pot is nearly empty, it is time for the second round. More vegetables are added to the pot and everyone continues eating.

japanese nabe party more vegetables

Second round of vegetables at a nabe party

At the end of round two, when only a little of the broth and some pieces of vegetable remain, cooked rice is added to the mix. The rice absorbs the taste from all the previous ingredients and gets a porridge like texture.

japanese nabe party rice added

Round three of a Japanese nabe party: cooked rice is added to absorb the left over liquid

japanese nabe party rice added

Stirring the rice

While everyone enjoys the first serving of rice, the rice left in the pot continues to cook and starts sticking to the bottom. A raw egg is added to this crunchy rice mixture, thus turning the dish into baked rice. This baked rice forms the end of the meal.

japanese nabe party baked rice

An egg is added to the leftover rice

japanese nabe party baked rice

Rice and egg baking together. Yum!

This nabe party was such a wonderful experience. Thank you to my friends for showing me this great piece of Japanese culture and for welcoming me in their midst!

friends at a japanese nabe party

Bellies full and smiling faces. What a great night!

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!

Oden – wholesome winter food

Oden is a typical winter dish from Japan. It consists of several ingredients like daikon, tofu, konnyaku, eggs, etc., stewed in a light, soy-flavoured broth. One of the many wonderful things about oden is that it is so cheap. Each piece of oden costs between 75 and 100 yen (between 0,5 and 0,7 euro). It is also healthy, delicious, and it really warms you up in winter.

Oden japanese winter food

A display of oden, where you can clearly see the different ingredients. I admit it is not much to look at, but I assure you that it is delicious. At first I was a bit suspicious of oden myself but after I gave it a try, I was hooked! The daikon in the lower left corner is my favourite.

As the cold months set in, you see oden stands pop up in convenience stores all over Japan. When you want to buy some oden, you are supposed to serve yourself: just take a few pieces with the pincers provided by the store and put them in a cup. You may add some broth if you like. Then you tell or show the convenience store cashier what you took.

oden stand in Japanese convenience store

An oden stand in Japanese convenience store. In the background on the right, in the ‘hot snack’ display, you see ‘man‘, which is another kind of delicious Japanese winter food.

I discovered this self-service system only after having asked the poor employee from the convenience store around the corner from our house to serve me some oden on several occasions. Being as polite as any Japanese would be, and possibly also a little frightened of that bossy, tall foreigner, the employee dutifully served me every time. Until I saw someone else serve themselves and I realised how it actually worked. Embarrassing! But things like that are also very much part of life in Japan.

Oden illustrates two things that I love about Japan:

  • It is so easy to get healthy and cheap fast food in Japan.
  • I love how the Japanese celebrate the seasons with seasonal food. Here in Belgium, we can pretty much get any kind of food all year long. But the seasonal food in Japan really gives you something to look forward to. I also seemed to enjoy the food more because it was only available for a limited amount of time.

Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

Flowers and manhole covers

I adore Japanese manhole covers. They are just so beautiful! Here’s the one for Toyota City:

toyota city manhole cover

Toyota City manhole cover

It features the symbol of Aichi prefecture in the middle, surrounded by sun flowers. Toyota City has adopted the sunflower as its symbol flower. Likewise, the manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for the city of Takayama.

takayama manhole cover

Takayama manhole cover with rhododendron flowers

In fact, I think almost every Japanese city has a symbol flower and a symbol tree. Additionally, each province has a symbol flower and even each month of the year has its own typical flower (see hanafuda card game).

hanafuda_cards

Hanafuda card set by Kelsey Cretcher

The importance that the Japanese attach to flowers is further illustrated by the following anecdotes: During my stay in Japan, I have often been asked what the symbol flower of Belgium is. Japanese people seemed quite surprised when I said there is none (as far as I know). I have also heard that during trips abroad, Japanese people will often ask their tour guide about a particular flower. Usually the tour guide doesn’t know anything about flowers and the response will be ‘that’s just a flower’, causing great disappointment to the Japanese tourists.

At first I was quite surprised by the Japanese fascination with flowers. But if you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising at all, considering that the Japanese elevated flower arrangement to a true art form (ikebana 生け花) and have developed an entire symbolic flower language in which words and codes are assigned to flowers (hanakotoba 花言葉). I guess I can only conclude that the Japanese sure do love their flowers!

Ikebana

Ikebana – image from Wikipedia

Missing Japanese summer – crazy, nostalgic, or both?

I really miss living in Japan. I left the country a little over a year ago and at first I didn’t miss it too badly. It was nice to experience all the familiar things in Belgium again. But recently my Japan deprivation has been getting worse. How can I tell that it’s getting really bad? I have started feeling nostalgic about Japanese summer.

Those of you who have experienced summer in Japan will immediately understand why this is a bad sign. If you’re longing to be back in Japanese summer weather, you’re not quite right in the head. The combination of heat and humidity in Japan is brutal. As soon as the summer heat starts, people start counting down to autumn. Heat exhaustion is a common phenomenon and people prefer to stay indoors in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible.

But reason and emotion do not abide by the same rules. Although I realise that I have often cursed Japanese summer while I was living there, I am feeling very nostalgic about it. The sound of the cicada, eating a snow cone (kakigōri かき氷) on a hot day, the evening light over green rice fields, … なつかしいね!

You can hear what a cicada sounds like and read more about typical, nostalgic summer things in ‘Summer in Japan’.

evening light over the rice fields

Evening light over the rice fields – Toyota City, July 2011

riding home from work on a summer evening

Riding home from work on a beautiful summer evening – Toyota City, July 2011

Sun protection in Japan

Japanese women are famous for their beautiful skin. Not only do they seem to stay wrinkle free a lot longer than Western women, many of them also appear to have a perfectly even skin with a beautiful glow about it.

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book 'The Japanese skin care revolution', aged 66

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book ‘The Japanese skin care revolution’, age 66 – Image from blogs.reuters.com

How do Japanese women achieve such beautiful skin? Apart from paying a lot of attention to skin care, and possibly genetic factors, I think the main reason is that Japanese women stay out of the sun. They do this not only to keep their skin young, they also want to keep their skin as white as possible. While in Belgium many women prefer ‘a healthy sun-kissed glow’, in Japan the beauty ideal is for skin to be as white as possible and free of any blemishes.

Japanese women take staying out of the sun to a whole other level. While most Western women (or should I just speak for myself?) already feel quite proud of themselves if they remember to put on some sun screen before leaving the house in the morning, Japanese women use many different attributes to avoid the sun.

Of course there is the age-old classic, the parasol or umbrella. It is really very common to see people in Japan using a parasol to shield themselves from the sun. Department stores play into this by selling beautiful summer parasols. I have to admit that even I have taken to the habit of using a parasol in summer in Japan. My main motivation is not so much skin care (I think the damage is already done there) but avoiding heat stroke. The summer sun in Japan is very intense. It took me a little while to overcome my culturally based embarrassment since people in Belgium would probably laugh at anyone using a parasol. After getting used to it however, I found it very convenient.

sun protection in Japan

Mid July in Inuyama. The sun is beating down on the pavement and as you can see from the empty street, anyone in their right mind has sought refuge inside. Only two gaijin wander the afternoon streets. It is so hot that a sunshade seems required even while standing in the shade ^_^

A second popular attribute is the summer hat. In Belgium, only the most hardcore fashionistas will be seen wearing a summer hat. In Japan however, hats are very popular. There is a vast range of beautiful summer hats available. Some women, mostly elderly ladies, will even wear special hats with neck and throat covers.

hats and sunshades in the summer in nagoya

Queuing to enter Nagoya Castle Festival in August. Sunshades and summer hats in abundance.

Some women go even further. They insist on keeping all body parts covered at all times, despite the smouldering summer heat of 35° C and over. This results in wearing tights and long-sleeved tops in summer. For women who still want to wear a short sleeve top but protect their skin at the same time, special arm and hand covers exist that can be slipped on when going outside or when driving a car.

protective arm covers for sale in Japan

Protective arm covers for sale

japan sun protection gloves

A stylish Japanese lady with elaborate sun protection, consisting of a parasol, long gloves and nylons that were probably marketed as offering extra UV protection – Photograph by Martin Goodwin

Even women who work the land do their best to keep their skin as fair as possible. They will always wear gloves and a special hat that covers their face and neck as much as possible.

Farmer woman working the land in Japan

Farmer woman working the land in Japan – Image by Aaron Whitfield

The final attribute, and the one that surprised me the most, are special hand covers to be used when riding the bike. The covers are attached to the steering wheel and cover the hands completely.

bicycle with sun protection in Japan

A bicycle with protective sleeves for the hands

Now that I am living in Belgium again, I have eased up a bit on the sun discipline. After a long, dark Belgian winter, Belgian people tend to soak up as much sun as they can get during the summer. But the Japanese attitude towards the sun did have a lasting impact on me. I have gone from being an avid ‘sun worshipper’ to a careful recreational user.

Hot ‘n tasty man

One of the things that surprised me while living in Japan, was the fact that there are so many seasonal foods in Japan. Coming from a country where it is considered completely normal to eat tomatoes all through winter and where young people think pineapple is a local produce (it’s not!), I was charmed by the way Japanese people look forward to their seasonal foods.

As a first world nation, the Japanese are of course perfectly capable of importing anything they might want at any time of the year. My personal interpretation is that they deliberately choose not to. I had the impression that people relish the anticipation associated with seasonal treats, and that the food is enjoyed all the more intensely because it is only available for a limited amount of time.

A good example of such a seasonal food is the wintery snack called ‘man’ (まん). Starting november, convenience stores all over Japan put heated display cases on the counter, displaying an assortment of stuffed buns (could this post get any more suggestive? I swear I’m not even trying).

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

There are different kinds according to the stuffing, like for example meat man (nikuman 肉まん), cheese curry man (chiizukareman チーズカレーまん) and my favourite, pizza man (pizaman ピザまん), which is filled with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The ‘man’ is wrapped in a paper wrapper, much like a hamburger, and is of course meant to be eaten within minutes after purchasing it. Perfect for a quick snack on the go!

display with hot stuffed buns in japan

Different kinds of ‘man’ on display

pizzaman

Pizza man. Yummy!

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