28 December 20 0 9 islands.

Masterpiece Dinner
In Japan, a traditional 14-course feast is like a work of art
By J oe yogerst
i’ve been served plenty of meals i didn’t want to munch on because the
dish was so wonderfully arranged. But never before have i come across a plate of food that
should be in a museum rather than poised before my mouth. Perched on a gold lacquered dish are
three red pods handcrafted from hozuki cherry pods, each one like a tiny gift box with a mouth-
watering surprise inside — a silvery sleek portion of a freshwater fsh called ayu, bright-green
pickled sea cucumber and a slice of Japanese mountain peach, with three gingko beans on the side.

attention to
detail makes
this Japanese
feast look and
taste exquisite.
My appetizer is one of thousands of
unique and often rare dishes that com-
prise kaiseki, little known outside Japan
but undoubtedly the island nation’s
most sumptuous feast. With 14 dishes
interspersed with small talk and sips of
premium sake, a typical kaiseki dinner
takes two or three hours to complete
— assuming that you can actually get
yourself to consume the edible art-
work. The artist in my case is Yoshihiro
Murata, one of Japan’s most renowned
kaiseki chefs and the creator of a magi-
cal eatery called Kyoto Kikunoi hid-
den in the hills above Kyoto’s historic
Gion district. Very hidden. several
times i have to f lag down bystand-
ers to fnd it (there is no English sign).
and when i fnally arrive, the ancient
building reminds me of a traditional
Japanese home rather than a posh eatery.
My second challenge is overcoming
the sticker shock: a 14-course dinner
at Kikunoi runs about $250 per person;
my eight-course lunch will cost around
half that. is there a meal worth that
much? i’m about to fnd out.
stepping out of my shoes at the
front door, i am handed a pair of slip-
pers by a hostess clad in a pea-green silk
kimono. she leads the way up a fight
of narrow wooden stairs to the second
foor and leaves me in a private tatami
suite in which there is not a single piece
of furniture. i’m taking this meal on
the foor. The silence is broken by the
appearance of a geisha-like waitress with
green tea, a chilled towel and an exqui-
site teaser: mint jelly with a garnish of
tiny Japanese maple leaves on a gold plate
decorated with a bamboo motif.
despite its popularity in Japan,
kaiseki is rarely found elsewhere because
of a painstaking reliance on fresh ingre-
dients, many of which i came across
during a stroll through the sprawling
nishiki ichiba food market in central
Kyoto on my way to lunch at Kikunoi.
ingredients change according to
the seasons, and many of them come
straight from Japanese farms, forests
and coves. Most of the courses are either
vegetable- or seafood-based, although in
modern times some of the more cutting-
edge chefs (like Murata) venture into
carnivorous territory. like browsing a
museum or gallery that rotates its mas-
terpieces, one of the marvelous things
about kaiseki is that you can come back
tomorrow for something completely dif-
ferent. not a single course is repeated.
My waitress sinks to her knees, bows
low and announces the formal start
of the meal. after pouring a cup of
sake, she removes the cover on my frst
course — the cleverly crafted tomatoes
— which set the summer-hued theme
for the feast. and so it fows from there
through seven more courses, all of them
different in favor and appearance, with
names i can barely pronounce and like
nothing i have ever before tasted. as i
tenderly devour my shiizakana hotpot —
boiled eggs, roasted eggplant and fsh
seasoned with mitsuba (Japanese wild
parsley) and sansho (pepper powder) —
i wonder about the ancient monks who
supposedly created this feast.
Kaiseki originated during medieval
times as a humble repast to accompany
the Japanese tea ceremony. The name
means “stone in the bosom” and derives
from the tradition of Zen monks plac-
ing hot stones in their robes to ward
off hunger. no irony is lost in the fact
that kaiseki slowly but surely evolved
from unassuming alms food into a lav-
ish spread enjoyed by shoguns, samurai
and the wealthiest merchants.
What would those monks say about
kaiseki’s transformation into such a
famboyant meal? Would they, like i’m
doing, simply lose themselves in this
amazing world of favors?
not only are there a set number
of courses, but they must be served in
a certain order to achieve the desired
effect — something approaching rap-
ture in the awestruck eater — an ele-
gantly choreographed dance through
dishes that are alternatively hot and
cold, sweet and sour, vaguely famil-
iar and incredibly exotic. Yet within
these long-established courses, chefs
experiment with favors, colors, textures
and arrangements. Murata’s forte is cre-
ating never-before-seen dishes within
the framework of tradition.
Each dish moves me in a slightly
different way. a chilled ichijiku (boiled
fg) in white miso really is something
to savor on a hot summer day, while the
sumptuous mukozuke seafood course —
thinly sliced onaga (red snapper) and
hamo (conger eel) sashimi served on a
lotus leaf with sour ume (plum) sauce
and wasabi mustard — makes me long
for the sea. not the Japanese coast-
line of today, but the ideal-
ized shore of old woodblock
prints, whitecaps breaking on
a beach beneath Mount Fuji.
That’s the beauty of kaiseki, the
reason for all the fuss. it’s a journey
through space and time rather than
some ordinary meal. The dishes beg
my contemplation in the same way that
i might ponder a Zen garden.
i slanDs. coM/
Samurai and shoguns once favored kaiseki.
today, fnd it in posh tokyo eateries.
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