Dark table with lots of small dishes
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Gallery: Dining in (Japanese) style ~ kaiseki

A traditional Japanese feast, a kaiseki, is a thing of beauty. It isn’t just a meal; it’s an art form balancing taste, texture, appearance, and colour. The dishes are beautifully arranged and presented, on plates chosen to enhance the visual impact, and equally beautifully decorated, often with edible garnishes.

And when we stayed at Nishi-ito-ya Mountain Lodge in beautiful Kamikochi National Park, we had the opportunity to experience not one but two such feasts, on consecutive evenings.

The hotel’s website says that this is ‘a place where you can enjoy exclusive local cuisine prepared from fresh river fish and mountain vegetables from the area … food that one cannot experience anywhere else in Japan.’ I’m not sure how valid that claim is, but certainly we ate nothing else like this during our trip around Honshu, the country’s biggest island.

Dark table with lots of small dishes
Our first evening’s feast

A classic Japanese feast consists of multiple courses all served at once. The laden table that faced us as we walked in to our group’s private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to enjoy, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times.

But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

First night menu

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers

~ burdock rolled with sea bream

~ boiled prawn

~ chestnut

~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant

Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Decorated slice of tofu in a pretty bowl
Walnut tofu
Long dark platter with several small appetisers
Assorted samplers
Whole small fish with lemon wedge
Grilled char with salt

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don’t much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp – a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The grilled char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group.

Second night menu

On our second (and last) evening here we were presented with a similar spread:

Dark table with lots of small dishes
Our second evening’s feast
Assorted samplers including river crab
Sashimi with yellow flower as garnish
Sashimi

Assorted samplers

~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour

– river crab

– chestnut

~ persimmon jelly

~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver

Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

In remembering these feasts I’m joining That Travel Lady In Her Shoes in celebrating Foods of the World.

27 Comments

  • Suzanne

    A big *sign* as I would love to experience more of Japan. Perhaps one day, and will have to refer to your posts if I ever get the opportunity. Well detailed Sarah.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow 😲, the Japanese can lay a table, that’s for sure! It looks nice and the colours are so bright (but I don’t even eat sushi, so this might be a challenge for me 😉) – in saying that, we always try the locals’ food where ever we might find ourselves and surprisingly found amazing food this way.
    I do appreciate the fact that the Japanese put so much effort into something so ordinary as setting a table.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, and yes, they do know how to make things look gorgeous, don’t they? Funnily enough sushi isn’t served at these feasts, although sashimi is. But there is so much that you be bound to find some things you like I reckon!

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    Sarah, I love that the food is served on unique and colorful dishes. I too think food should be presented beautifully and I love to mix and match dishes. I don’t know which end is up when it comes to ordering Japanese food. Thanks for the tour. Most of it looks delicious!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Suzanne 🙂 The advantage with this sort of spread is that you don’t need to order! It’s like a buffet except you already have a little bit of everything set around your plate so you can try it all and see what you like. But unlike a buffet you can’t go back for more of the ones you like best 😉

  • Albatz Travel Adventures

    Vancouver, where I live, has been Japanese food crazy since the early 80s so I was familiar with the ‘Canadian’ versions of all kinds of Japanese food – sushi, ramen shops, and ‘home-cooked’ meals. But when we were travelling in Japan (2003) we spent most of the time somewhat flummoxed – what were we eating? and did we really want to eat it? We only found a few places with food we recognized – a tempura shop by a Tokyo temple which was sublime, a conveyor belt sushi joint which was fun, an izakayi where the food was good and the customers all shouted at one another and the waitresses, and a Ramen noodle place. I would have loved to be at your buffet!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I agree eating there can be confusing. What threw us at times was the tendency for restaurants to only serve one style of food, so we had to both agree on what we fancied eating that evening! We did go to a great izakayi in Asakusa one evening, where you get more variety. But we did find some super places – a tiny burger joint in Takayama run by a local couple with a passion for Johnny Cash and using the local wonderful hida beef stands out, as does a brilliant little udon noodle place in Tokyo 🙂

  • Tracey

    The Japanese sure do know how to lay a table! I have fond memories of similar meals….only I didn’t photograph them beautifully like you did! Nice post.

  • maristravels

    We’ve discussed Japanese food on another site so you’ll know I’m not a fan, but your pictures look great. I remember the presentation of the food so well, the anticipation and then the let down – for me! And, also for me, going to bed hungry. But I wanted to comment on the fact that you also visited Kamikochi National Park. We spent 5 days there – https://travels-with-my-camera.blog/2016/07/15/walking-in-the-japanese-alps/ and I thought it one of the lovliest places I’d been. My two younger male travelling companions did some of the advanced hikes (16 miles and more per day) and a couple of guided cycling tours, while I pottered and strolled more leisurely in the area. We stayed at The Imperial where, fortunately, there was an excellent Western menu as well as a Japanese one so food was never a problem.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes – it was your post about those beautiful menus that partly inspired me to share my experiences 🙂 Unfortunately the menus here were simply presented in a printed list. I guess I should confess that although I liked quite a lot of these dishes they didn’t really fill me up, so I can empathise with you going to bed hungry.

      I loved Kamikochi but unfortunately we only had two nights here and we arrived just as a typhoon hit Japan so we had to stay indoors for much of our first afternoon, and the next day it rained all day. We didn’t see the mountains until the morning of our departure! I have a post about that rain drafted ready to share for this weekend’s Sunday Stills, which you might like to see. Meanwhile I’m off to check out your impressions of Kamikochi – thanks for the link 🙂

  • margaret21

    About 15 years ago, we received Japanese teenagers as part of a school exchange taking place at my daughter’s high school (sadly, the trip back to Japan fell through that year for various reasons). These children could not have afforded to pay their way here – the trip was a reward for working well. The photos of homes they showed us revealed chickens running through bare earth kitchens etc. But they took it upon themselves to cook for us one evening and somehow we managed to source most of the things on their shopping list. It was a revelation. It took them hours (mainly dealing with a weird western kitchen I think), but we were presented with a fascinating buffet featuring foods none of us had ever experienced before. Lots of seaweed and uncooked fish which the British teenagers were resistant to, in interesting marinades. We learnt to say 甘い “Umai!” (“It’s delicious!”)

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That sounds like a fascinating experience – although what a shame that the return visit didn’t come off! But never mind British teenagers – some of the adults in our group were also reluctant to try the sashimi! I love it though 🙂

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Oh Sarah, I REALLY enjoy your posts! What a spread is right! This would be a great way to try a little bit of everything without being rude if you didn’t care for something……someone else would. I have never been to Japan, but hubby has…….I need just one last trip around the world! Thanks for sharing your post this week! Cady

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