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.
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
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ 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
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:
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
– river crab
~ 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.