Food vs. Art

The kaiseki ryori tradition descends from the spare meals eaten by Buddhist monks and, later, the selection of small dishes eaten during the tea ceremony. It has evolved into Japanese haute cuisine and consists of several courses of small dishes of seasonal fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables (never beef or pork) selected to complement each other, then perfectly prepared and arrayed on the table. Kaiseki ryori is considered a Japanese art form and like so many others – noh, kabuki, tea ceremony – can sometimes become ossified by ritual. The meal we were served in our room at Nissho-besso followed the classic kaiseki formula, six courses in all and, since this was Kyoto, was heavy on the local staples of vegetables and tofu. It included a lot of flavors we’d never encountered before, unusual juxtapositions of ingredients that made us occasionally slow down and savor. But overall it seemed less like a meal than a museum piece, a bit too precious and fussy to be appreciated as real food. Not a big wow factor.

For the record, we have had a couple of extremely wow-inducing kaiseki meals at ryokan. The most recent was dinner at Notoya Ryokan, in the Taisho-era onsen resort of Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. It was mid-December and the meal was built around local game and river fish. It followed the kaiseki pattern but the flavors seemed fresher and more interesting than those in our Kyoto kaiseki experience, the meal overall, more relaxed. Part of this was owing to the delightful personality of the woman who served us: she mothered us from the moment we walked in until we left two days later and explained everything about the food she presented us with. But it occurs to me that the little ryokan in the hills of Yamagata, a region not especially known for haute cuisine, was freer to experiment and to focus on flavor and hospitality since it didn’t have to bear the burden of all that Kyoto culinary tradition.

But don’t worry: we didn’t starve in Kyoto. Breakfast the next morning at the Nissho-besso was delightful: tofu stew and fresh vegetables, several kinds of pickled vegetables, dried fish. We also made several wonderful discoveries over the next few days, from simple meals in local izakaya to our first obanzai ryori meals. And we haven’t given up on kaiseki. Someday I really would like to try one of those lavish $500 meals overlooking a Kyoto garden. But that’s a few meals from now.

For information about Notoya Ryokan, click here.



Grandma Julia said…
I was in Japan some twenty years ago. Reading your blog brought back some fond memories. Thanks
Nicholas Vroman said…
Thanks for your comment, Julia, and for your lovely blog. It was a pleasure to read. I like your spirit and can't wait to read more. You have a darling grandchild, too!


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